Let’s Go to the (National) Mall: 24 Hours in Washington DC

Washington D.C. typically requires a long weekend to visit properly. However, when given a time constraint, it’s helpful to have a plan in place. Luckily, most of my trips to D.C. occur over a short period, giving me a maximum of about 24 hours to fit as much as I can into the day. So, if you’re looking for a classic walk through D.C., here’s what I recommend:

19424494_10209769113404660_4999474512496128198_nCapitol Building: If you have enough time, start the day with a guided tour of the United States Capitol Building, but be sure to book ahead. D.C. in the early hours is wonderful, especially before the crowds hit the major sites, and since this building functions as both a tourist attraction and government hub it’s best to make this your first stop. Many Congressional offices offer their own guided tour, so you can either book through your Representative, Senator, or on your own. You can find more information through the U.S. Capitol Building’s visitor center.

Memorials: The highlight of any visit to Washington D.C. Whether you are new to the history of America, or a seasoned fun-fact nerd, it’s essential to take some time to visit these iconic memorials. And for us urban hikers, this is the ideal city walk, complete with shaded parks, water features, and plenty of stairs. In total the loop is about five miles if you start at the Capitol Building and head west towards the Washington Monument. The full loop includes stops at the World War II Memorial, walking along the Reflecting Pool to the Vietnam Memorial, up to the Lincoln Memorial, over to the Korean War Memorial and across the street (be careful of cars, this is a busy crossing!) to the MLK, FDR and Jefferson Memorials, all bordering the Tidal Basin.

14612520_10207714447639300_4832467180119069638_o

Quiet mornings on the National Mall. 

This loop is by far one of my favorites to do either first thing in the morning, or at sunset when the crowds are low. Most of the monuments are open 24/7 (minus the gift shops), so you can enjoy them at your leisure.

 

14591684_10209769165605965_8097505636856818681_n

Look Up: The National Museum of African American History and Culture has stunning detail outside the building.

Museums: The other highlight of this area is of course the array of museums lining the National Mall. I tend to visit DC in the summer months when by 10 a.m. the sun has already warmed the city sidewalks to unbearable temperatures, which makes walking during the daytime difficult. So, a perfect escape from the heat is to pop into any one of these museums (all National museums are free), where you can learn more about America’s history from the comfort of an air-conditioned space. While it’s nearly impossible to see everything in a day, here’s some of our favorites:

 

  • National Gallery of Art. An underground corridor connects the more traditional West Building to the modern East Building, with highlights from Van Gogh, Degas, David, Vermeer, and Da Vinci. It’s a wonderful museum for art history lovers, as well as for architecture fans looking to explore the space.
  • National Air and Space Museum. This one is perfect for travelers with kids (or kids at heart!). Here you can explore the wonders of aviation and space travel, and see how this has evolved over the years and helped us learn more about the world outside our own.
  • National Museum of American History. Explore Julia Child’s kitchen, U.S. President memorabilia, First Lady dresses and more in this museum dedicated to the life and innovation of Americans. If you want to feel proud of all we’ve accomplished, this is the place to go.
  • National Museum of African American History and Culture. Opened in September 2016, this is the newest museum added to the National Mall. Getting tickets is difficult the day of (unless you arrive and wait in line), so we recommend booking tickets ahead of time. If you can’t get in, we at least suggest taking some time to observe the detail on the building (it is one of the most intricate and beautiful).

Around the Corner: If you haven’t gotten your share of museums yet, you can stray a few blocks outside the National Mall to tour some of the *other* museums in the country. There seems to be theme to each, but here are our favorites:

  • National Archives Museum. The main attraction here is of course the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. You’ll have to wait in line to get up there since they only allow a certain number of people in each day, but if historical documents are your thing then this is worth the visit.
  • United States Holocaust Museum. I’ve visited this museum many times, and each time I am brought to tears. A well-curated museum, you are transported through the history of the Holocaust, from the start of World War II through the aftermath. You will read stories about survivors, heroes, and those lost, and leave with a reminder of why we must never let something like this happen again. Be sure to take a moment of silence in the room of shoes as well.
  • Newseum. Another favorite for me, this museum chronicles the history of journalism, with special exhibits for different beats, as well as permanent exhibits about 9/11 news coverage, photo galleries, and the outdoor terrace overlooking Washing D.C. (ok not exactly an exhibit, but on a nice day this is a great view!).

Honorable Mention: Arlington Cemetery: Just across the Potomac is the Arlington Cemetery, which welcomes tourists during the day to pay respects at the final resting place of many of America’s military men and women, as well as John F. Kennedy and his family. If you have family buried here, use the cemetery’s website to locate a grave, or reach out to their customer service for help. And remember, this is a burial ground, so be respectful when walking through.

D.C. Mornings

img_2489

I’m a morning person. Wait, maybe I’m not being specific enough—I’m an OBNOXIOUS morning person. It’s a personality trait that, after many failed attempts to convince myself in past relationships that dating a night owl wouldn’t cause arguments in our future, has proven to be the one identifier I’ll never be able to quit. It’s also the one identifier I refuse to quit.

See, the thing is, I love getting up early. There’s a magical energy that exists between those few hours between sunrise and when the rest of the world starts to stir—it’s when I feel most creative, most adventurous, and it’s the time when I can really let myself be. It’s when I am most productive, spitting out page after page of writing, compared to the abysmal content I’ve created during that 3 p.m. workday lull when it takes all of my energy just to answer an email.

When I travel, it seems almost insane for me to sleep in, even if the day’s agenda includes lying on a beach all afternoon. I blame this trait on my father—as kids, he would always be up with the sun, caffeinated and ready to go by the time my sisters and I were just opening our eyes. As an adult, I have taken on that role, stepping out to wander the new city I’m visiting while my travel partners sleep.

On a recent trip to Washington D.C., I purposely factored in my sleeping habits to take advantage of the short time I had there. The trip was work related, so the bulk of my time was spent in and out of meetings, but the restless voice inside my head was calling. How could I, someone who adores government and American history, travel to D.C. and not visit at least one monument?

For any traveler, it’s important to take advantage of every free moment you have. I should mention that in this case, there is a distinct difference between vacations, which are meant for relaxation, versus traveling, which is meant for absorbing the sights and sounds of your destination. Both are equally rejuvenating. So for me, like many past trips, I took a close look at my schedule and planned a block of time between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m. to wander central D.C. before catching my plane (A Note: Travel light if you plan to follow my suggestions. Because of my timeline, I was stuck carrying a backpack and purse with laptop for the duration of my adventure).

Washington D.C., at 7 a.m., before rush hour really kicks in and the school field trips start to overload the National Mall, is a peaceful time to walk. You have the chance to enjoy the history of this city without kids trying to catch Pokemon off of Thomas Jefferson’s head (is Pokemon Go still relevant?). You can her your own thoughts. You can see the sculptures that line the capital as they were intended—unobstructed by the massive crowds of tourists that will take over later in the day. It’s the quiet that makes these mornings so rewarding.

img_2503

Dr. Martin Luter King Jr. monument in Washington D.C.

Prior to this particular trip, the capital had unveiled its newest monument, dedicated to civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I had made a point to visit the monument first because it was something new that I wanted to see, but even more so because I needed a reminder of the good in this world. In just a few short days, we will see the conclusion of one of America’s most vicious elections, which has created such a terrible divide across the country, and has encouraged such low brow comments that any hope of a unified outcome seems impossible. I needed a reminder of the fights our past leaders endured, and that through their lessons, we too can work to create a better tomorrow.

I think every American needs to take a trip to this monument. It’s a reminder of the equality of humankind, no matter your race, religion, gender, status, etc., and how important it is to choose love and acceptance over hate and divide. Our country is great because of the opportunities we offer—we’ve forgotten that melting pot analogy that welcomes people from all over the world to come and make a new life. It’s why so many people want to come here, to try his or her hand at creating a better future. America is not a story of haves and have nots, but a story of opportunity for all.

img_2497

D.C.’s memorial to MLK is lined with his most famous quotes about equality, love and kindness. It’s a reminder to today’s generation about what unity really means.