Sightseeing in D.C. is far more than White House tours and visits to the Smithsonian.
Sometimes, with all of the political bickering and chicanery of Washington, D.C., it’s easy to forget that the nation’s capital is a gem of a town and located less than an hour away from Charm City. It’s also easy to overlook all of the non-marquee (and mostly free!) galleries, museums and parks of D.C.
Capitol Hill is the hub from which to indulge your thirst for refreshingly unsung hideaways in the federal enclave. Not only is it the playground of Congress, the Supreme Court is situated within the shadow of the rejuvenated dome of the U.S. Capitol. The court welcomes tourists on weekdays only. You can even catch oral arguments. However, no photography — still or video — is permitted. Tours run on the half-hour.
Tromping through the thickets of checks and balances will lead you to the Folger Shakespeare Library. This is the home of the world’s most extensive collection of material by the Bard of Avon. Scholars flock to its elegant reading rooms to plumb the depths of Shakespeare’s literary heart. Catch one of the docent-led tours, poetry readings and plays.
Centuries before email, there was this “fad” known as real mail that kept us in touch with each other. Alas, that era isn’t about to circle back. What remains in its wake is the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, directly north of the Capitol. Here, immortalizing an era goes way beyond displaying envelopes and stamps. Make it a point to take in the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery on the main level. It’s the planet’s largest gallery, harnessing more than 20,000 artifacts dedicated to philately.
Washington, Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s masterpiece of architecture, includes the western stretch of Constitution Avenue adjacent to the Washington Monument (yes, that other one.). In my book, the reigning A-list tenants are the Federal Reserve Board and the State Department. Don’t overlook the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. To find it, look for the exquisite bronze figure of Albert Einstein. It towers 12 feet and weighs in at nearly 4 tons!
The affluent Kalorama neighborhood is where former President Barack Obama has been rediscovering life as a private citizen. Moreover, it’s where Amazon czar Jeff Bezos plunked down $23 million on a house, a record number for a private residence in D.C. Although you are likely not welcome at either address, you can visit the Woodrow Wilson House. This bejeweled necklace in the thick of Embassy Row is the sole museum in town set aside for a former president. Inside, visitors soak up the narrative that recounts Wilson’s final years. The stairway features a grandfather clock, a replica of the 28th president’s favorite timepiece while in the White House.
Whenever the pressures of daily life threaten to overtake me, one of my go-to escapes is Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens. Close to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, this luscious, urban sanctuary along the Anacostia River is America’s only government-owned facility that focuses on the growth, care and feeding of water-loving blooms. The dreamy landscape unveils dozens of ponds awash with tropical and hardy water lilies, lotus and other aquatic life.
A leisurely stroll along Massachusetts Avenue NW will lead you to the Phillips Collection. The intimate surroundings trace their artistic roots from the private treasures of Duncan Phillips, the younger son of a Civil War soldier. During your walk-through, take a moment to step into the Laib Wax Room, where there’s approximately 440 pounds of beeswax. Measuring not much bigger than a phone booth, the surrealistic space is coated in beeswax and illuminated by one drab light bulb.
In this age of online shopping, every town should be required by law to have an independent bookstore that mirrors its cultural sensibilities. And D.C. has a humdinger — Politics and Prose on Connecticut Avenue. Founded in 1984, P&P has a reputation for bringing together the most famous authors/speakers and astute audiences, as well as for its knowledgeable staff and for being one of D.C.’s leading cultural centers.
At its core, Washington is a town that defies clear definition — a city without a state that belongs to all of us. Strange bedfellows notwithstanding, Baltimoreans have an easy path to all of the above. And so much more.
Tony Glaros is a Laurel-based freelance writer and a native of Washington, D.C.