Big City Tales

Strategy is Key to Visiting the Smithsonian Institution

July 31, 2018
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As the world’s largest museum, education and research complex, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, includes 17 local museums and galleries, numerous public gardens, and a zoo. The museums are primarily (and conveniently!) located along the National Mall and collectively contain over 150 million artifacts celebrating history, science, art and culture. There’s clearly a lot to see so having a strategy in place is key to making the most of visiting this much lauded and celebrated American treasure. A good place to start is at the Smithsonian Institution Building, referred to as ‘The Castle’.

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The Castle

In addition to housing administrative offices, the Castle is the primary visitor center and provides a full overview of the Smithsonian, including background information about James Smithson, the institute’s founding donor, and highlights from each of the individual museum permanent collections. Even for those planning an extended stay in DC, chances are that seeing all facets of the Smithsonian is not realistic so spending time wandering around the Castle’s mini-exhibits is advisable, as well as consulting with staff to find out if there are any current special exhibitions. Visitors are also welcome to explore the Castle’s unique 19th century architecture and interior design before heading out to other venues.

An interesting tidbit about James Smithson is that he was a British scientist who never actually visited the United States during his lifetime. Faced with the prospect of possibly having no living heirs to pass along his fortune to, in his will Smithson bequeathed his estate to the country with the express instructions “to found in Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” So, thanks to the foresight of a Brit, the “nation’s attic” came to be in 1846 and has amazed and delighted visitors ever since with its vast and eclectic holdings.

American History Museum

For obvious reasons, one of the most popular Smithsonian museums is the National Museum of American History that explores the origins of the country dating back to colonial times. As no trip to the nation’s capital would be complete without a quick history lesson, this museum should be at the top of your “Smithsonian must see” list.

Among the many exhibits visitors can learn about the creation of the U.S. Constitution and read its text, review the main events and figures of the Civil War and other battles fought in the name of national freedom, revel in the glory of the flag and national anthem, admire first lady inauguration gowns, and enjoy some pop culture in the form of various film and television artifacts.

Founding Fathers to Civil War

From the War of Independence to the Wars of Expansion and the Civil War, America’s early existence was marked by some intense military conflicts that served to define its borders and carve out its collective values. The Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibit contains a plethora of incredible and significant artifacts such as George Washington’s uniform, battlefield relics from Gettysburg, and the chairs that Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant used during the Civil War surrender ceremony.

Star-Spangled Banner

Patriotism abounds in the Star-Spangled Banner exhibit that tells the story of how the iconic red, white and blue color scheme of the American flag came to be, and also delves into the inspiration behind the words of the country’s national anthem, penned by Francis Scott Key.

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The First Ladies

It’s not just the work of the founding fathers on display at the American History Museum, the inaugural fashions of the first ladies are also showcased. Michelle Obama’s gown and shoes from 2009 feature prominently in the exhibit along with those donned by Martha Washington, Jacqueline Kennedy, Nancy Reagan and others. The First Ladies exhibit also highlights the important work undertaken by many of these enterprising wives in support of their respective husbands’ administrations.

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The Joy of Cooking a la Julia Child

Before the rise of the Food Network and proliferation of TV chef personalities like Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Rachael Ray, Ina Garten and others, Julia Child ruled the small screen for 40 years and dazzled audiences with her command of French cuisine. From crepes to souffles, bouillabaisse to boeuf bourguignon, Julia welcomed viewers directly into her home kitchen based in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she and her guests cooked and laughed in equal measure. Julia definitely made cooking fun and her trademark send-off of ‘Bon Appetit!‘ is fittingly part of the entryway into the Julia Child’s Kitchen exhibit that features her copper pan collection and other kitchenware.


The WOW Factor in Washington, DC

January 20, 2012
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The statue that stands strong and proud atop the U.S. Capitol Building is fittingly called Freedom.

The founding fathers of the United States were true visionaries and after achieving independence from British rule they set their sights on building a capital city befitting of this proud new nation.  The ultimate goal was to send a strong and powerful message to all foreign countries that America was a force to be reckoned with by virtue of the massive and impressive structures constructed throughout the nation’s capital, from the U.S. Capitol Building to the White House and everything in between.   Drawing inspiration from the great capital cities across the pond, the original architects/planners of Washington, DC adopted a “best of the best” approach in their plans and it served them well.  Some 200+ years since its introduction on the world stage, the city still evokes a sense of wonder, power and visual delight at every turn, and has definitely maintained and added to its WOW factor!

The reflecting ponds in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the west end of the National Mall.

A stoic, solemn and sombre Abraham Lincoln is symbolic of his leadership style and personal demeanor.

Memorials, The National Mall and Museums

Whether paying homage to past presidents or war veterans, there are plenty of memorial sites to visit in and around DC.  Located at the far west end of the famous National Mall is the stately Lincoln Memorial with its vaulted ceilings and sturdy columns that are the perfect backdrop for the marble statue of the stoic “Honest Abe” deep in thought as he sits and looks out over the landscape of the Mall and its reflecting ponds toward the U.S. Capitol building.   In Abe’s sight line is the towering Washington Memorial that is akin to the Egyptian-styled obelisks found in both Paris, France and Buenos Aires, Argentina and is a tribute to the first U.S. president, George Washington.  In between these two impressive memorials are others of equal repute: the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial and the World War II Memorial.   Along the banks of the Potomac River is the gigantic and grand rotunda of the Jefferson Memorial with the Declaration of Independence etched into the walls behind a statue of Thomas Jefferson standing tall and looming larger than life.  To the west of this area lies a winding green space that stretches many miles and features a number of cascading waterfalls, rock gardens and statues of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and his wife, Eleanor.   FDR was the longest-serving U.S. president and the design of this memorial is symbolic of both the many years he spent in office and the many years he spent at the Warm Springs Spa in Georgia where he sought water therapy treatment for his polio affliction.

A side view of the Jefferson Memorial, the statue silhouette is Mr. Jefferson himself.

The reflection of the Washington Memorial glistens in the calm waters of the Potomac River.

One of many cascading waterfall features along the path at the FDR Memorial.

As if the memorials weren’t enough to look at along the Mall, the Smithsonian Institute and its associated museums, including the American Museum of History, along with the National Gallery of Art and the National Gallery Sculpture Garden provide many more thousands of treats for the eyes to behold.  The American Museum of History houses treasures such as Julia Child’s kitchen, the inauguration attire worn by many first ladies, and extensive exhibits of America at War.  For its part, the National Gallery has an impressive collection of art from around the world and showcases some of America’s finest artistic contributions over the centuries, including a Modern Art wing.   Away from the Mall, the National Portrait Gallery and Museum of American Art are worth a visit and, for the sports fans out there, can easily be paired up with taking in a hockey or basketball game at the Verizon Center located just a few blocks away.  The Newseum along Pennsylvania Avenue will appeal to the news hounds out there who are still partial to seeing the news in print.  In fact, over 80 front pages from newspapers around the world are posted on a daily basis in the Today’s Front Pages gallery area that is partially visible from the street level.

Julia Child's collection of copper pans on display in the American Museum of History.

All roads lead to the U.S. Capitol Building…including Pennsylvania Avenue

As you drive into DC off of the interstate, the U.S. Capitol Building dominates the skyline and with every passing mile as you draw nearer to this iconic structure, it is clear that the forefathers of America created a lasting legacy in this large, legendary and not in the least lugubrious building.  If ever there was a building dripping with proverbial power that immediately captures your attention and makes you want to see more, this is it!   Designed in the neoclassical style, the sheer size and sprawl of the Capitol is awesome in itself, but it is the intricate details of the cascading, multi-tiered 100 foot diameter dome and the soaring Freedom statue that sits atop it that garner the most oohs and aahs.  The Capitol flanks the most eastern end of the Mall and off towards 3rd Street is where the suits meet to have their power lunches and extended after hours fun in a host of trendy and tasteful restaurants.

A stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue looking east toward the U.S. Capitol building.

The Canadian Embassy is located along the famous Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) and Mount Vernon

A trip to DC would not be complete without crossing the Arlington Memorial Bridge into Virginia and visiting the burial site of many of the nation’s leading political figures, war heroes and veterans, as well as George and Martha Washington’s “home away from home”, the pretty, peaceful and picturesque Mount Vernon country estate.  Just a sidebar here that traffic is atrocious in Virginia and if you can avoid travelling on inner city and town roads that become quite bottle-necked and grid-locked during peak rush hours then do yourself a favour and stick to the expressways.  That said, both of these tourist attractions can still be fit into one day even if you find yourself in a traffic jam, but be advised to plan ahead and allow ample time to stroll through the 600+ acres at ANC and be sure to make your way to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and visit the Eternal Flame constructed in honour of President John F. Kennedy and his family members.   The grounds and country estate home at Mount Vernon offer up a slice of what life was like for the Washington family, and the view of the Potomac River from the back lawn is incredible.  It’s clear that George and Martha had their very own little piece — or should I say, BIG piece — of paradise on earth and it’s no wonder that they preferred the country over city life!

The front view of Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington's country home in Virginia.

The back view from Mount Vernon overlooking the crystal clear blue waters of the Potomac River.

The White House

When George and Martha had to leave their cozy and idyllic abode in the Virginia countryside for the political squalor in DC, the White House awaited them as it has for every president and first lady since.   Although it is now heavily guarded and barricaded from the street level, it is nonetheless still visible from afar and you can get a good sense of the expansive grounds and what the view is like from the West Wing.

The stately White House in all its perfection and glory!

The Kennedy Center, Georgetown and Foggy Bottom

Overlooking the Potomac, the Kennedy Center is the home of cultural arts and entertainment offering opera, orchestra and theater productions.  Heading west from the Kennedy Center are the trendy and popular districts of Georgetown and Foggy Bottom where students, lobbyists, pundits and all movers and shakers in general like to congregate for eating, shopping and people watching.

The Lincoln Memorial stands out as bright at night as it is during the day.

"Honest Abe" is deep in thought as he looks out toward the National Mall.

The Final Analysis

As capital cities go, Washington, DC is right up there with the likes of London, Paris, and Rome.  From its awe-inspiring architecture to its fine dining and cuisine, there’s something for everyone to enjoy in this fair city, which is very much alive and well and is a strong, vibrant testament to all that it means to live in “the land of the free and the home of the brave!”

The entrance of the Jefferson Memorial sparkles and shimmers in the morning sun.

Statues of FDR and his dog sit in front of a classic quote made at some point during his long presidency.

The Korean War Memorial shows soldiers trudging off to battle in a land forlorn.