I was a young teenager in the early 1970s when I joined my family exploring the sights of Washington D.C. It wasn't our first time in the city, but I remember this trip in particular because my dad, not one to care much about the rich and famous, got downright giddy when walking around Capitol Hill he spotted Mo Udall, the liberal Democratic Congressman from Arizona (who later ran for president). Dad reacted to the tall, Lincoln-esque politician as if he had seen Mick Jagger, and even though he didn't say much beyond a "Hello, Congressman," Dad talked about the meeting for months.
To many visitors, D.C. is another world -- one where politicians are like rock stars and where even the most cynical citizens feel patriotic at the sight of the Capitol Building lit up at night. Washington is also a place where history happens before your eyes. You can see the White House from the outside (or inside if you request a tour in advance). You can visit the Senate and House chambers to see government in action. You can stand where Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. You can visit dozens of monuments dedicated to the people and events who shaped this country.
But history and politics aren't the only attractions on the menu in D.C. You could spend your entire visit just exploring the 19 museums of the Smithsonian, all free of charge, or wandering through the city's unique neighborhoods -- like Adams Morgan with its ethnic eateries, posh Georgetown with its historic rowhouses, or 14th and U streets, where you can escape the conservative suits of the Hill and explore hip boutiques (a relatively new phenomenon in a city not known for hip). And don't forget the city's green spaces; join the local joggers and dog-walkers along the National Mall, or visit in early spring to see the fluffy pink blooms of the glorious cherry trees along the Tidal Basin, a gift from Japan in 1912.
With so much to see, advance planning is a must. If you want to visit the House or Senate in action, it's best to contact your Congressperson before your trip to get passes to visit the chambers. Same goes for the White House (requests can be made up to three months in advance). You can beat the lines at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and International Spy Museum, but only if you order tickets before you leave home.
Washington is not a difficult city to navigate, once you know the lay of the land. The District of Columbia is 68 square miles, but most government attractions and many of the Smithsonian museums are within an easy walk of the National Mall. The city has four quadrants -- Northwest, Southwest, Northeast and Southeast -- and you'll notice addresses designated accordingly (NW, SW and so forth). The U.S. Capitol marks the center where they meet. Numbered streets run north/south, lettered streets run east/west and avenues (which are named for U.S. states) run diagonally. The color-coded Metro is easy to navigate.
--written by Fran Golden