Imagine, if you will, a city filled with gleaming white, regal-looking buildings. A gleaming capital city…the palatial crown of this democracy. That is, of course, if you don’t turn your head a little to the left!
Washington DC is a city of contrasts. On one hand, it’s a picture perfect city that looks exactly like all those photos you see. On the other, it’s a city of vibrant neighborhoods that run in every possible extreme. Most tourists don’t venture beyond The Mall, and for the large part, neither did I. But I did take the opportunity to explore the neighborhood I CouchSurfed in (Capitol Hill).
Considering how little time I’ve previously spent in the capital of the U.S. (36 hours), my Labor Day weekend trip down to DC was mostly devoted to all those touristy sites. And I certainly packed them in! From a tour of the U.S. Capitol Building (which sadly shows you little of the Capitol itself) to the insanely beautiful Library of Congress and impressive National Archives, with its original copies of the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, I certainly got my fill of government sites!
But DC is also known for its free, world-class museums. Of course, there’s the Smithsonian Institution with its bric-a-brac style exhibits. I visited the Museum of American History (famed for it’s pop culture possessions of Dorothy’s “ruby slippers” and a version of Kermit the Frog), as well as the Air and Space Museum, and honestly, I was rather underwhelmed by both, as they seemed to be designed with children in mind. On the upside was the National Portrait Gallery and the fine dining experienced at the Museum of the American Indian!
Quite notable was the incredibly powerful (and also free) Holocaust Memorial Museum. This intense experience begins with a personal identity card and short story about a real Nazi victim and moves through three floors of fascinating information, highly disturbing images and eerie exhibits, like a walk through one of the actual boxcars that carried people to various Concentration Camps or, most memorably, a room completely filled with pairs of shoes.
But the highlight of the long weekend wasn’t Vietnam Veterans Memorial or Union Station (or even my wacky bus ride down to DC), but a free Labor Day concert put on by the National Symphony Orchestra on the West Lawn of the Capitol. As the sunset covered the Capitol in an orange glow, a fellow CouchSurfer and I made our way through the metal detectors (yes, those are big in DC these days) to take our seat near the top of the hill. Before us was the stage with the picturesque Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial in the background.
And sure, they had some fancy guests there, like the Administrator of NASA to introduce a piece from the film, “Apollo 13,” but the absolute best moment was at the very beginning, when they played the National Anthem and everyone turned around to face the Capitol. At that moment it was like, “oh…right…it’s right there…”
As my CouchSurfing host reminded me, it doesn’t matter what your opinion of the U.S. government is. Being here amongst these incredible structures is pretty awe inspiring. And in the words of a former CouchSurfing host of mine, I suddenly found myself to be full of national pride!