USA East Coast by Train: Washington, D.C.
see other cities: Boston -- New York -- Philadelphia
Three Days in Washington, D.C.
Day One: Capitol Building, Library of Congress, American History Museum, Major monuments, Arlington Cemetery, Pentagon Mall.
Day Two: Smithsonian Castle, Air and Space Museum, National Gallery, Downtown, Natural History Museum, Dupont Circle
Day Three: Holocaust Museum, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, more museums, Georgetown.
Washington is the biggest free show in the world! Nowhere else on the planet can you find so much high-quality, vacation value for so little money. Museums and monuments are lined up from one end of Washington to the other, and you don’t have to pay a dime to enter most of them. This is a gift from our government, and from James Smithson, the English benefactor who donated a small fortune back in 1836 to establish what has become the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum complex. It all adds up to a great holiday, plus you can learn about history, art, and our government while having fun.
The Amtrak train ride from Philadelphia takes about two hours and delivers you into the heart of Washington at Union Station. Not just a train station, this is another grandiose building that offers much more than you could ever imagine, such as a modern mall with 125 shops and a food court with 50 places to eat. This is an excellent place for your lunch break.
When it opened in 1907, this was the world’s largest train station and covered more ground than any other building in the country. It was modeled after the ancient Roman Baths of Diocletian, interpreted in the neoclassical Beaux-Arts style by the brilliant Chicago architect, Daniel Burnham, whose famous statement, “make no little plans,” is carved into the building. The Statue of Liberty placed horizontally could fit inside the vast 96-foot high barrel-vaulted atrium.
It was terribly run down and by 1980 it was closed and nearly demolished, but it was completely renovated in the late 1980’s. It still functions as a very busy train station with 23.5 million annual visitors, making this the most-visited attraction in town. Of course this is a convenient transportation hub, with a stop on the Metro transit system downstairs, good bus service, and taxis right out front.
Washington's museums are among the highlilghts of the visit, and come in all sizes and types, ranging from the extremely popular Air and Space Museum, with more visitors than any other in the world, to the esoteric, like the underground Sackler. They appeal to all ages, making this a perfect family destination. No matter what your education level or degree of passion for art and science, you will respond to the wonderful presentations on display in this parade of museums. Perhaps most appealing to the visitor are the significant national monuments to our great leaders like Jefferson, Lincoln and Washington himself. You can learn a lot about the fascinating history of America in your visit.
There is so much to see here you could easily spend an entire week and then some, but the major sights can be covered in three days with the action plan presented here. The attractions are described in a logical sequence that leads you efficiently from one place to the next, but of course everyone has his or her own priorities, so feel free to re-arrange the itinerary to suit your personal preferences. Keep in mind the general principle of covering sights you are most interested in first before you run out of time and energy.
DAY ONE: Capitol, one museum, and major monuments.
The U.S. Capitol is the most important and beautiful building in the country, so it makes a good starting point. You do want to make every effort to visit inside -- but this can be a challenge. The best strategy is go to the official websitefor help in getting tickets. https://www.visitthecapitol.gov/plan-visit/book-tour-capitol
Capitol tours normally begin in the Rotunda, the vast hall at the very center with the huge dome towering almost 200 feet overhead. This chamber has no regular government function but is the scene of many important ceremonial occasions including funerals, receptions and celebrations. All around you and above in the dome are magnificent paintings that tell the story of our nation’s birth and development. The murals were painted by Constantino Brumidi, a brilliant artist who immigrated from Italy in 1852, bringing along the great tradition of wall murals that reaches from ancient Rome through the Renaissance of Michelangelo. His work includes many corridors and rooms throughout the building, but the masterpiece is “The Apotheosis of Washington” high in the dome. Encircling the Rotunda is his final work, a 300-foot-long mural depicting 400 years of our nation’s history, from Columbus to the Wright Brothers. Several large paintings in the Rotunda by other noted American painters tell more of our nation’s story.
The next room is the Old House Chamber, which is now Statuary Hall containing 38 statues representing different states, including our own King Kamehameha -- an exact copy of the statue standing in downtown Honolulu. The rest of the state statues are scattered about the building, along with many other fascinating art works. The Old Senate Chamber was also home to the Supreme Court from 1860 to 1935, and like much of the building was restored for the Bicentennial to its original grandeur. Both chambers now used by Congress are not open to the public unless a session is going on, but even then you need a special ticket provided by your Congressman. The tour will bring you through a few other parts of the building and you should be finished in 30 minutes.
Behind the Capitol on the east side is another beautiful building, the Library of Congress, with the largest collection of books in the world. There are 105 million items in here that would take you 14,000 years to read, but you don’t need to stay that long. This is a quick stop to have a look at the Great Hall and the Main Reading Room, two of the most impressive interiors in town. The domed ceiling of this Italian Renaissance-style building is 160 feet high. Special exhibits are usually offered in the side galleries. Named after Thomas Jefferson, who helped get the library started, this building is often overlooked but very easy to visit, so drop in.
The Supreme Court is next door, housed in what looks like an ancient Greek temple, with a big rise of stairs you would have to climb if you want to get closer, so just have a look from the sidewalk and keep on going. If you wish to visit inside, however, you could watch the half-hour movie shown continuously and, if the court is in session you could actually listen to oral arguments. There are two lines out front -- one for those who want to hear the entire one-hour argument, another speed line for those happy to listen for just three minutes. Check on the schedule with the guards, and if the court is not in session, you could listen to a lecture about the court given on the half-hour all day.
A good way to get around and see the city's impressive sights at your own pace is on the Old Town Trolley. This is a private bus that provides frequent service on a 90-minute circle route covering all the main destinations. You can hop off and spend as much time as you like in a place, then catch the next bus coming through. Yes, you do have to pay for some things, like a bus ride, in this bargain vacationland, but when you get to each attraction on this route there is no admission charge. Tours depart hourly from 10:00am – 4:00pm. You can hop on anywhere along the route, but the official first stop is in front of the FNI Building on E St. NW.
This trolley bus tour is worthwhile, even though you really only need it for about 4 of the 25 stops on the route -- Union Station, the Jefferson and FDR Memorials and Arlington National Cemetery. All the other places can be reached on foot without too much effort, unless you have trouble walking. You could use this as a panoramic tour and stay on board for the complete 90-minute circuit that will take you past all the stops while listening to the narration of your driver, and then make a second round, hopping off at the places you want to visit. However, that takes time, nearly half of which is consumed at the stops waiting for people to get on and off. Better to just use the service to get to those specific remote locations.
The trolley bus will take you on the prime route past the major museums of The Mall, and on to all the important monuments. Because there are so many museums to see, it is a good idea to break them up over several days so you are not attempting to cover too much in one day. If you do one big museum today, then several more tomorrow, you can then complete the major museums on your third day.
American History Museum
The National Museum of American History is why the Smithsonian is called “the nation’s attic.” One can view the mementos of our country here, ranging from the flag that inspired “The Star Spangled Banner” to Fonzie’s leather jacket. This is probably the most interesting museum for many visitors, so be sure to spend some quality time enjoying it.
As the museum brochure says, the “collections document our national heritage in technology, industrial development, military history, transportation, textiles, costume, domestic life, sport, the arts, and community life. Ancient coins, racing cars, inaugural gowns of America's first ladies, musical instruments, weaponry, farm machinery, the lap desk Thomas Jefferson used while drafting the Declaration of Independence, and much more form a vast and fascinating mosaic of American life.”
It might sound overwhelming but the museum does a masterful job of displaying items in a very entertaining way. The Smithsonian pioneered the concept of creating historic environments you walk right into, so you are not just looking at things in glass cases, you’re strolling along a village street from the 1890s looking in shop windows. Of course they also have lots of display cases, filled with amazing things, and there are several interactive exhibits for “hands on” learning about history and science, great for kids as well as adults. You can also see Archie Bunker’s chair, the red slippers from the Wizard of Oz, Ford’s Model T, Edison’s light bulb, and many more of the 17 million museum items.
Catch the trolley bus at the stop in front of the museum and continue around the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial, an excellent start for your appreciation of the city’s great memorial monuments. This grand homage to our third president is shaped like the Pantheon, an ancient Roman temple to the gods, in tribute to this great leader’s interest in classical architecture and philosophy.
A heroic bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson stands 19 feet tall in the center of the open atrium, surrounded by some of his most famous writings, including excerpts from his Declaration of Independence which stated for the first time that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We know that Jefferson was one of our most important Founding Fathers, but he was so much more -- perhaps the most well-rounded person in our nation’s history: Architect, inventor, archaeologist, founder of the University of Virginia, Secretary of State, scientist, farmer, educator, naturalist, ambassador, explorer. He spent his own money lavishly in pursuit of happiness and was often broke, but that was just one more sign of his lust for life.
The memorial’s dignity is further enhanced by its magnificent setting overlooking the calm waters of the Tidal Basin, with the White House and Washington Monument visible in the distance, and surrounded by cherry blossom trees. The building’s lower level has a detailed exhibit covering many of Jefferson’s notable achievements, featuring lots of pictures, multimedia and more excerpts from his writings.
When you have absorbed this experience, walk to the trolley bus stop in front and wait about five minutes for the next tram to come rolling along. You only need to ride one stop, and then you can cover the next three memorials by walking from one to the next. If you are lucky enough to be there in April when the cherry trees are blooming, consider walking the entire way -- through those pretty pink clouds of fragrant blossoms.
Dedicated in 1997, this is an outdoor gallery of rough pink granite stone walls, ponds and waterfalls arranged in four plazas that represent Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s four terms in office, and of his earlier service as Secretary of the Navy. A great man who created the “New Deal” for social justice, leading us out of the Depression and through World War II, Roosevelt humbly insisted there be no memorial created for him. An engraved boulder near the Archives was the only FDR reminder until this vast memorial, covering 8 acres, was finally built.
There is an excellent orientation exhibit in the information building featuring many photos, memorabilia and news clippings from his era, as well as a bookstore and restroom facilities. Strolling through the memorial from one outdoor room to the next, you experience an environment of total immersion in this man’s career, for the 12-foot high walls block out all other distractions but the trees and sky. Many of his famous words are carved in stone, and numerous bronze statues, including the controversial new addition of FDR in his wheelchair, make this history come alive.
You could ride the trolley bus over to the Lincoln Memorial, but it is much better to walk the half-mile along the scenic Tidal Basin through the park which leads to the often overlooked, but moving, Korean War Veterans Memorial. Nineteen bronze statues of soldiers on patrol create a realistic vision of the dramatic tensions of battle. From here it is just a few minutes walk to the Lincoln Memorial, one of the top-tens of Washington.
“…government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” These stirring words from the Gettysburg Address remind us of the vision of this leader who saved our country in its darkest moments. The 36 columns around the building represent the 36 states standing together at the time of his death.
We all carry a token of his memorial with us on the backside of every penny, but to see it in person is an awesome experience. The massive brooding statue of the Great Emancipator by Daniel Chester French is one of the great icons of America. This moving site, which resembles the ancient Greek Parthenon, has been the setting for numerous rallies, including Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. One of the best views of the National Mall and Capitol is from the front steps.
VIETNAM VETERANS MEMORIAL
The most controversial of all when it was dedicated in 1982, this tragic black marble slash in the ground, engraved with the names of 60,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War, dramatically symbolizes the tragedy of that divisive chapter in our recent past. The stark minimalism of Maya Lin’s revolutionary design focuses your attention on the war’s issues and evokes a flood of feelings, whether you were directly involved or not. It speaks a universal language of mourning that cries out for us to not let another Vietnam happen again. Despite some initial opposition, this has become one of the most moving memorials, especially since it refers to a painful situation that most visitors lived through. We need these stark reminders to help guide us into a better future.
The most appropriate follow-up to that cluster of war-related memorials is Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac River, one stop on the trolley bus. If you are getting around on your own, the Metro can bring you right here. More than a sightseeing attraction, this is the final resting place for 250,000 American men and women, including the Kennedys, the Unknown Soldier, General John Pershing, Justice Thurgood Marshall, and this writer’s parents. It covers a vast area, but you can take a serene walk to JFK’s eternal flame and back in 30 minutes and be on your way. The visitor information center can provide a map to the grave of anyone you know who is buried here.
By this time it is late in the day and you have probably run out of time. The museums close at 5:30pm, so this is a good time to hit the mall -- not The National Mall, but a shopping mall at Pentagon City called The Fashion Centre. The mall is just two stops away from Arlington on the Metro, and stays open until 9:30pm. It is probably the best shopping center in the area, featuring 160 stores in a four-level enclosed atrium that feels like a futuristic self-contained village, complete with a nice food court where you can have an inexpensive dinner. When you are finished, the Metro in the bottom level can zip you back into town in ten minutes.
DAY TWO: More of the Smithsonian Institution and Dupont Circle.
The Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum complex in the world, with a dozen museums on or near the National Mall and 140 million items in its collection. You cannot see it all, but cover as much as your energy allows. The Smithsonian Museums are all open the same hours, 10:00am-5:30pm, except the Air and Space Museum, which opens at 9:00am from May 24 through September 2 -- so during the summer start there when it opens.
The Smithsonian Castle is open from 8:30am until 5:30pm year-round and has a useful visitor information center that helps plan your visit, including a 30-minute video that shows highlights of all the museums. This is the best place to start in the non-summer months. The Castle used to be the entire museum when the Smithsonian was established in 1846, with the display areas, lecture halls, laboratories, administration and even some living quarters all under one roof. This red sandstone building was designed to look like a Norman fortress with Gothic and Byzantine features, and behind it you can walk through the pretty Haupt Garden, landscaped with seasonal flowers, various trees and Victorian garden furniture to sit on while admiring the central fountain.
AIR AND SPACE
The Air & Space Museum is the most visited museum in the world, so it makes an exciting place to begin your museum marathon. Star attractions here are the Wright Brothers’ plane, the Apollo 11 command module, the Lunar Lander, Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis and IMAX movies, but there is much more to see. It maintains the largest collection of historic air and spacecraft in the world. It is also operates a center for research into the history, science, and technology of aviation and space flight. The museum has thousands of artifacts on display covering the Space Age from many perspectives, with full size rockets, satellites, astronaut suits, and a piece of the moon you can touch. But as their brochure describes it, the experience involves more than mere objects. “There is a sense of history relived, horizons expanded, optimism rekindled, pride reborn, wonder renewed.”
Change the pace and enter the elegant realm of fine art by walking straight across the Mall to the National Gallery of Art, a world-renowned collection of American and European paintings, sculptures and graphics. Not part of the Smithsonian, even though it is on the Mall next to the others, this magnificent museum was founded by Andrew Mellon who paid for the construction and supplied most of the art but humbly requested his name be kept off the building. The Federal Government and private contributions now support it, so admission is free, open daily from 10:00am-5:00pm. It is divided into two adjacent buildings: the original designed by John Russell Pope and opened in 1940, holding the main European works, from the Middle Ages to the present; and the modern collection in the East Wing, opened in 1978, designed by I. M. Pei in a radical style that first introduced sharply acute knife-edge angles into modern architecture.
After New York’s Metropolitan, this is America’s most important art museum, with an encyclopedic collection that covers all the important areas of Western art, including the only Leonardo da Vinci in the Western Hemisphere, many fine Impressionists, the Italian Renaissance and Dutch Masters, Gothic, 20th century and more in 3,000 paintings and 2,000 statues. The East Building has a vast atrium with a huge Calder mobile and Miro tapestry, and with exhibition galleries showing Picasso, Matisse, Jackson Pollack, Kandinsky, Georgia O’Keefe and many of the other great moderns. The Gallery’s excellent web site at www.nga.gov offers a virtual tour of the collection. A very nice cafeteria in the lower level connects the two buildings and provides a great place for lunch.
When you emerge into the fresh air, you might take a stroll through th National Sculpture Garden next door to look at 17 major statues, and in the winter, you could ice skate on the outdoor rink. The National Archives is open daily from 10:00am until 5:30pm (7:00pm Spring and Summer). It is free to step inside, where you can see the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and Constitution. Across Pennsylvania Avenue you will spot the Navy Memorial, a large fountain in front of a modern semi-circular building complex, with a casual sidewalk café across from it.
NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM
Next, walk a few blocks along The Mall to the National Museum of Natural History, which has the largest permanent exhibition in the world of anthropological, biological, and geological exhibits relating to the United States, and many other displays about the far-flung corners of the planet. Dinosaurs, diamonds, bugs, fossils, American Indians, diorama displays of mammals, meteorites and birds are all on display, with much, much more, including a nice collection of ancient Hawaiian artifacts. The museum’s mission is to display the “treasures of nature and of humankind,” which they do with gusto. This is another of the great museums of the world, so you will be happy spending a few hours exploring its many rooms.
From here you can walk three blocks over to the White House and take a picture of the classic front view from the Ellipse, but due to security measures public tours of the building have been cancelled. The White House Visitor Center is open daily at 1430 Pennsylvania Avenue, from 7:30am-4:00pm, and they do have some interesting exhibits about the president’s home and related matters. The opulent Willard Hotel, across the street from the Visitor Center, is also worth visiting, just to feast your eyes on the beautiful lobby.
The Metro Center transit station is just two blocks over, so walk along G Street to 12th Street where you can’t miss Hecht, the largest free-standing downtown department store built in America in the past 50 years. You are now in the heart of the city with busy streets all around. If you want more of the downtown experience, do some meandering. To pursue some history, continue along 10th Street to Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was shot, and the Petersen House across the street where he died. Both are operated by the National Park Service and are open free to the public, with Rangers on duty to tell you about it. The lower level of Ford’s Theater has an informative exhibit with historic displays, and you can enter the auditorium if one of the frequent matinees is not in progress. The Petersen House has been preserved as it was on the day Lincoln died, five days after the end of the Civil War.
When you have seen enough of downtown, enter the Metro Center station for a direct train to Dupont Circle. This is the final destination for your second day, and you do want to arrive by mid-afternoon, in time to visit of couple of the historic homes and one special museum. Emerging from the metro station right on the busy traffic circle, you will see a lovely park in the middle and busy commercial streets radiating all around, but save this for later so you can first get to places that close early.
Walk along Massachusetts Avenue heading northwest, passing the Blaine Mansion on your left, the area’s oldest surviving mansion, built in 1881 with an odd mix of Gothic, Victorian and Renaissance styles, and now used for private offices. Continue to Q Street and drop into the Anderson House for a quick look at how the upper crust lived at the beginning of the 20th century. It has a collection of Revolutionary artifacts and decorative arts from Asia, but the main attraction is the opulent interior of this grand old mansion, open from 1:00-4:00pm, Tuesday through Saturday, free admission. But the main reason to come down this block is the private art museum across the street.
America’s first museum of modern art has an exquisite collection of European and American paintings from the Impressionists through the 1950s. Among the many fine works on display is a personal favorite painting, Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” his masterpiece filled with the joy of life, friends and food all gathered together in a perfect composition. There are also changing special exhibits and frequent lecture programs. Classical Concerts by a solo performer, or duet, are offered Sunday afternoons at 5:00pm, September through May, no additional charge.
“Embassy Row” is the section around Massachusetts Avenue that continues from here for a mile beyond Sheridan Circle, and you can sample this grandeur in the next few blocks, passing delegations from India, Morocco, Sudan, Greece, Colombia, Mali, Indonesia (open to the public) and Ireland, along with many other beautiful large private homes. This is a very desirable residential neighborhood, which makes for a relaxing walk past expensive houses with well-tended gardens and giant trees towering everywhere. This cosmopolitan neighborhood features grand rows of 19th century townhouses along the side streets that demonstrate how urban housing can be both efficient and attractive. You’ll notice many fine examples of Beaux Arts, Gothic, Romanesque and Queen Anne homes.
Stroll over to the intersection of S Street and Connecticut Avenue to begin your browse down to Dupont Circle, along the most interesting couple of blocks in this neighborhood. You will be passing interesting restaurants, cafes, unique shops, newsstands and galleries along the way, so take your time and spend the rest of the evening here and in the various side streets within a block of Dupont Circle. The small round park in the center is a place to observe locals at ease -- picnicking office workers, sunbathers, mothers with strollers, bicycle messengers, chess players and various passersby. Have a rest on one of the benches, soothed by greenery and pretty trees with a fountain in the middle by Daniel Chester French, sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial and many other important American works.
Probably the finest restaurant here is Obelisk, a gourmet paradise two blocks west on P Street, noted for an exciting northern Italian cuisine and cozy charming interior, ranked by Zagat among the top five restaurants in D.C. You have many other excellent dining choices in Dupont Circle.
When the sun goes down and you have finished touring you don’t need to hang it up and go to bed if you feel like some action. Washington’s nightlife includes major theatrical productions and music events in several huge auditoriums, especially at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, a large complex with several auditoriums offering regular performances of ballet, symphony and opera. It is one of the leading cultural institutions of the country and is the official memorial to our 34th president. You can also enjoy fine entertainment in smaller intimate playhouses with a more casual ambience, such as Ford’s Theater or the Arena Stage, as well as jazz and comedy in various nightspots around town.
DAY THREE Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Holocaust Museum, Freer, Sackler, Hirshhorn, and Georgetown.
If you would like to see where all of America’s paper money is printed, over $450 million a day, visit the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, one of the more popular attractions in Washington. No free samples. Security is tight and there are no interactive displays, but the tour is still fun. You can see a $1 million stack of $10 bills, or see how much your height is worth in $100 bills.
Admission is free, but this is one of the toughest tickets in town. All tour visitors must present a valid photo ID at the ticket booth located on Raoul Wallenberg Place (formerly 15th Street) to pick up tickets. Same day tickets only. The Ticket Booth opens at 8:00am and the building opens at 9:00am. Lines form early and tickets go quickly, so be there by 7:30am if you want a good chance to get in.
Next door, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has been open for ten years but still has the popularity of a brand new attraction, so it can be difficult to get in but definitely worthwhile. This is a truly depressing story about the extermination of 11 million Jews by the Nazis, but is told in such a compelling way with amazing presentation techniques that it makes for a very moving experience. It is best to line up outside about 30 minutes before the 10:00am opening so that you will be assured of getting right in. Go straight to the elevators and up to the top floor where the self-guided exhibit begins, then slowly walk down through three levels of chronological displays, covering the Nazi invasions, the exterminations, and the final chapter.
It is very important to be among the first to enter the museum so that you can appreciate this dramatic history in quiet contemplation, because the galleries quickly fill up with crowds of people that may seriously interfere with your viewing and absorption of the material. When you have finished the tour, be sure to have a long look at the Wall of Remembrance on the lower level, featuring more than 3,000 tiles painted by American schoolchildren in memory of the victims. For those who want to spend more time, there is a one-hour movie and various video presentations that could keep you here all morning, but more attractions are waiting for you on The Mall.
Another extremely popular landmark that is difficult to get into because of the long lines is the Washington Monument, the designated monument to George W. (the first). It was the world’s tallest structure at 555 feet 5 inches when completed in 1885, and is still the world’s highest freestanding masonry structure. Ancient Egyptian obelisks inspired the shape. The big attraction is the elevator ride to the top for a spectacular panoramic view from the city’s highest point.
Hours of operation are from 9:00 AM to 4:45 PM, seven days a week. In order to enter the Washington Monument, tickets are require . Check their website for latest ticket and entry requirements.
FINAL AFTERNOON: More Museums.
If you are interested in Asian art, walk across the Mall to the Freer and Sackler Galleries, open from 10:00am – 5:30pm daily. This is a much quieter experience than the other museums because they are less known and their subject matter is less popular with the masses of visitors, so you might have some rooms all to yourself. You could skim the highlights in one hour, but make sure you find the Freer’s “Peacock Room” and absorb the intricate design created by James McNeill Whistler. Other highlights included Japanese screens, Hindu and Buddhist sculpture, Chinese porcelain, bronzes and jades, some as old as 4,000 years, and Islamic art. The underground Sackler Gallery is connected to the Freer by a tunnel, and continues the primarily Asian themes, including cultures from the shores of the Mediterranean to Japan and from ancient times to the present.
There is one major goal left for your visit: Georgetown. The metro does not go all the way there, but you can ride the train from L’Enfant directly to Foggy Bottom station and catch a shuttle bus or walk. There are many nice restaurants in Georgetown, but while you are in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood, you might consider having dinner at Kinkead’s or Primi Piatti, two of the most popular places in town. If you walk the half-mile along M Street into Georgetown, you will pass several cozy little French restaurants that are also very nice.
Georgetown is one of America’s oldest neighborhoods, first settled as a tobacco port over 300 years ago, and officially chartered in 1751, before Washington was ever dreamed of. Much of this original Colonial atmosphere survives today in the form of graceful, old ivy-covered brick homes on quiet tree-lined roads. An architectural feast unfolds as you stroll the brick sidewalks in this old-fashioned, expensive neighborhood. As you enter on M Street you will pass the Old Stone House, reputedly the oldest dwelling in Washington, built in 1765 and open to the public as a museum of colonial life.
A lovely walk takes you along the tree-lined banks of the historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, easily reached by turning left from M Street onto 30th Street. This is the only tow-path canal left from America’s 4,000 mile system, and is well-maintained by the National Park Service. You could also take a mule-drawn boat tour, escorted by guides in historic costumes.
As you meander through the side streets, savor the exquisite variety of architectural styles that distinguish Georgetown’s charming homes, including Georgian mansions, Federal and Classical Revival houses, and late Victorian Queen Anne and Romanesque townhouses.
The two busy commercial streets, Wisconsin and M, are jumping with trendy modern shops and numerous dining possibilities, such as Au Pied de Cochon, a hole-in-the-wall French place at 1335 Wisconsin Avenue, or Paolo’s for excellent Italian a few doors down. Georgetown is both an historic area and a shopoholic’s dream, with boutiques, national brand stores, and a Victorian-style shopping mall. This variety makes a visit to Georgetown a rewarding part of your Washington experience, and a great place to end your tour.
Before leaving, it is worth considering a brief summary of Washington's history. After great national debate about the site for our young republic’s capital, George Washington personally selected this location in 1790, not only because it was near his home in Mt. Vernon, 16 miles away, but as a compromise to unite the North and South. Hosting the capital would provide major economic benefits, so both sides furiously competed for it. The decision to pick this area on the Potomac was a result of complicated negotiations between northern interests, who wanted to create a national bank to take on the states’ debts, advocated by Alexander Hamilton, versus southerners, represented by Thomas Jefferson, who did not want to pay any debts of the northern states.
Two overriding issues of keeping the new nation together, and Federal control versus state’s rights were involved here, brokered in part by James Madison. The deal was made: Southern states would accept the national bank in return for moving the capital from Philadelphia to its present position. There was still enormous turmoil over exactly where to put the capital, and that final decision was turned over to Washington, who then remained firmly in control of many development decisions for the next ten years as the city plan was created and built.
The area on the Potomac had been empty swampland but was transformed by the master plan of Pierre L’Enfant into a magnificent city, with broad avenues slicing angles through a rectangular street grid that still functions nicely today. In honor of our nation’s first president, the city was named “Washington” in 1791, the urban center of the hundred square mile “Territory of Columbia,” later renamed the “District of Columbia” and reduced in size in the 19th century. In 1800 the government officially moved from Philadelphia and opened for business in Washington. Over the last two centuries this city has evolved into the largest collection of neo-classical buildings in America, with pillars, domes, statues, monuments, and plazas that resemble a modern version of ancient Greece and Rome. It is truly a monumental world capital.