Washington D.C.: Overview

[Note the dates in this post. This is a trip report from a trip long ago. Most of this post and perhaps a slight majority of the later posts were written soon after the trip. The remaining 40% of the text was filled in years later from my notes.]

A friend of mine got married on June 9th 2007 in Northern Virginia, not far from where I grew up. I decided to use the wedding as an excuse to explore Washington D.C. Although I was raised in the vicinity, I haven't often been there since elementary school. I figured it deserved another look. I stayed in the D.C. area on this trip from June 7th through June 14th.

I suppose I should summarize my impressions of Washington.

D.C. provides an intellectual and cultural smorgasbord through its many government offices and innumerable free, quality museums. Having already visited many of the most famous attractions (the Capitol, the White House, and museums such as the Natural History Museum, the American History Museum, and the Air and Space Museum), I presumed I'd be able to explore the rest of what I was interested in and some of D.C.'s distinctive neighborhoods on a five day trip. I soon learned I was very wrong. Although I managed to see many attractions, I could easily spend weeks if not a few months exploring D.C. It's got enough cultural attractions to rival New York City.

D.C. feels different from many other cities. Partially it's because the skyline is clean -- D.C.'s regulations force all buildings to be short (i.e., no skyscrapers). Partially it's the tons of marble used in building many institutions. Partially it's the presence of quiet, uncrowded streets, often with single family houses, mere blocks from major sites, such as the streets three blocks east of the Capitol.

The metro system feels like a good version of those in most cities. It's clean and generally efficient; one doesn't have to look at the schedule and plan around it.

I'd forgotten how temperamental the weather could be, changing from blue skies to rain within two hours and returning to blue skies two hours later. As long as one is prepared, this variability is not a problem. Indeed, it can even be a blessing, reducing the temperature to a more comfortable amount for a few hours. Each day during this trip was usually in the 80s and humid. Because of this, after day two I avoided the peak unpleasantness by planning major walking excursions only in the late afternoon or evening.

While reading guide books, I observed the city is constantly under construction and renovation. Union Station fell into disrepair to the point of having its roof leak, causing chunks of plaster to fall from the ceiling, until it was renovated in the 1980s. (It looks great now.) The Botanic Garden was closed in 1997 for renovations due to, as one guide book called it, "general dilapidation," reopening in 2001. The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, colocated in the Old Patent Office building, recently reopened after a six-year renovation. The National Museum of American History is currently closed for renovation. Meanwhile, several new museums and other sites opened in the last few years. Amusingly, the guide books I borrowed from the library, all published in different years within the last four years, all said the Capitol Visitors Center, being built underneath the capitol, would open the following year.

My home region, Northern Virginia, is as lush and green as I remember it, with many two-lane roads winding through forests. (Well, at least areas that look like forests. There can't be large forests so close to D.C.) The trees are tall. The highways, however, vary in pleasantness; many have tall, ugly, sound-blocking walls.

Incidentally, all the national museums searched our bags upon entry. Once inside, some (but not all), let us keep our bags with us.

I'll conclude with an interesting thing I learned: I was surprised to read that the metro system was built mostly in the 1970s and 1980s (see Washington Metro Area Transit Authority: Metro History (PDF) and George Mason University's Center of History and New Media: Building the Washington Metro). This is surprising because most cities' subway systems were built before cities became too developed, before property rights and people density make it difficult to build without running into lots of opposition. By the way, though both web sites have interesting tales about Metro's history, GMU's online exhibit also explains the architectural design of the stations and the construction techniques for the lines, among other things. For instance, I learned that the yellow line's Potomac crossing is a tunnel that was built above ground, floated to the right place, then sunk.

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