The Danish team hit the road on 23rd of November towards Washington, D.C. to soak in some American culture and history throughout the Thanksgiving break. From a tourist’s point of view, the capital is a ‘comfortable’ and convenient place to visit. The most iconic attractions are in one place or at least very close to each other, and you can do plenty of stuff for free that are fun, interesting and enriching at the same time.
Washington, D.C. is right along the Potomac River, and geographically it is located on two states, Maryland and Virginia. However, because of the exclusive jurisdiction of the Congress, the capital is considered independent of any states. Its name obviously comes from George Washington, who was the first president and one of the Founding Fathers of USA.
The city itself is relatively small, a bit more than 650,000 people are living there (if we exclude the metropolitan area). I didn’t know this prior to our arrival, so I must admit, I was surprised by its size and homely atmosphere. The whole place was absolutely not what I expected. I was prepared for traffic jams, crowd, noise and craziness, because most of the capitals that I have seen so far made me expect that. But what I got instead was peace and quiet, cleanliness, security and simplicity. And this last point shocked me the most: there was no highlife shown off, no extravaganza, no skyscrapers or anything else that particularly catches someone’s attention. It seemed like the most down-to-Earth city that I’ve ever been to, and I guess that’s why I loved it right from the moment we arrived.
Washington, D.C. became one of my favorite cities after the five eventful days that we spent on exploring the fun and free things that it has to offer. Being fun and being free are two main criteria for students, who prefer travelling on a budget as low as possible. So here are my top five places to experience in D.C. that won’t make you put yourself in expenses but they will definitely leave you with nice memories.
1. The National Mall
The National Mall is a symbolic setting of the nation, and at the same time a stage for national events and public gatherings. It is probably the most popular attraction, being an enormous complex including the Memorial Park, the Smithsonian Museums, the Capitol Building and other governmental institutions, placed right in the middle of the city. Its two most well-known monuments are: the Washington Monument, which is the world’s tallest obelisk and the Lincoln Memorial, which gave place to many famous speeches throughout the history.
When I was standing at Abraham Lincoln’s statue, facing the entire eastern part of the Mall, I literally got goosebumps just by the thought that 53 years ago Martin Luther King was standing at the exact same spot as I was and gave this famous speech, ‘I Have a Dream’. That was a moment that I want to remember for the rest of my life.
But beside all the historical moments that are unified in this park, visitors can also experience something more: the everyday life of locals. The park is a place where residents go out for a run or for a long walk, where children feed the ducks and couples go on dates. Every spot at the Mall is a gem and every view is picturesque. However, if you are searching for the best, I would suggest to climb the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial, and turn towards east. You can get almost a complete view. It is breathtaking.
It is on the eastern end of the National Mall. It is magnificent, but still simple. It stands out already from the distance like a superior power over the capital. It is the home of the Congress and the legislative branch, that make the big decisions that affect all of us. Beside its main functions, it is also a very popular tourist place and they offer short, but free tours inside the building. The tour starts with an approximately 15 minutes video about the history of the building, American politics and overall The United States. I was thankful for showing us this video, because honestly, I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about how politics work in this country.
The Capitol is as gorgeous from inside as it is from outside. We visited the Crypt (the intended burial place of George Washington), the National Statuary Hall (has a collection of statues donated by each of the fifty states) and the Capitol Rotunda (the central section of the building). After the tour, we could walk over to the Library of Congress through the underground tunnel. The National Archives and the Supreme Court are also extremely close by, which is very convenient for tourists, who want to walk less but want to see more. The Capitol and its surrounding area is simply a ‘must visit attraction’ for everyone.
I totally recommend this tour to anyone; not just because it is free, but well-organized, has a smooth flow and the guides give enough time for visitors to listen, look around and enjoy the impressive environment.
This neighborhood is probably the prettiest, most expensive and liveliest in this city. The most popular part of the area is Wisconsin Avenue, which is packed with pubs, bars, restaurants and stores.
Moreover, this is where one of the oldest buildings in D.C. can be found, called the Old Stone House (1.765). We made a huge mistake, when we headed to this street on Black Friday sometime in the afternoon. Simply moving around wasn’t a walk in the park, so we gave up very quickly. Instead we turned tail and decided to rather explore the little side-streets of this area. And I am so happy that we did so. Because this is where we discovered the real face of Georgetown.
The architecture, the colors of the houses and the colors of autumn, the entire atmosphere was eye-cherishing. The district has its own sophisticated but homely character, which makes you forget that you are in an actual city. So don’t choose Wisconsin Avenue to be your first stop in this neighborhood.
Rather let it be the last one. Just simply get lost in Georgetown, visit the harbor and enjoy the uniqueness of the place, without putting yourself in the temptation to unnecessarily spend a stack of cash.
This museum, as basically any other Smithsonian Museum is free. It opened in September, 2016, so it is pretty new, and visitors coming to D.C. show great interest in it. The purpose of this place is to document African American life, history and culture. The most interesting part of the museum covers three floors, and presents how African American reached freedom after more than 300 years of slavery. Even though this topic is very sad and sensitive, the exhibition found the golden mean to make it touching, informative and enjoyable in the same time.
I love those museums, where beside the dry historical facts, people can see real, tangible objects from the respective era. And this place was exactly like that: I saw handcuffs used in slave trade, posters used for ‘negro propaganda’, video recordings about protests etc. I saw the shock on other visitors’ faces while we were walking along the museum, the same expressions I recognize when I go to a Holocaust or World War museum. I think that this place really caught the essence of how to make a real impact on their visitors, which is, in my opinion, the most important thing a place like this can achieve. So, even if you are not particularly interested in African American culture, I think you should go, because you will be richer when you come out than you were when you entered this place.
Since the Pentagon is super secured and classified, ordinary people don’t really have the chance to get very close by. And of course, it is not a typical tourist attraction. But if you are truly determined to get a small slice of this mysterious place, you can find a way. The building is right across the river, but it is not easy to approach it on foot. We were lucky, because we had a rented car, so we just drove by the Pentagon and got a quick, but at least a closer glance. However, from Arlington National Cemetery (which is easily accessible), you can have a distant but pretty decent view of the Pentagon building.
The cemetery is on a hillside and from the top you can see a part of the National Mall and the massive-sized Pentagon. And if you are there anyway, walk around the cemetery, look for J.F. Kennedy’s gravesite and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and wait for the changing of the guard. The sea of the white headstones and monuments are eternal reminders of the heroes, who served their country and dedicated their lives for a bigger cause.
All in all, our stay in D.C. was exceptional and very eventful. Beside the fascinating places that I just listed above, we have visited plenty of other sites and experienced so much more. For example, we went to the National Zoo for the Light Festival (with the big hope to see Bei Bei, the panda baby, but unfortunately, he got sick due to bamboo overdose, and was not in the mood to appear in front of the visitors), we couchsurfed with mice (a situation that put us on an emotional rollercoaster) and had a non-traditional Thanksgiving dinner in Chinatown (with the worse service and the highest ‘suggested’ tip ever).
Anyways, the trip in the American capital was memorable on many levels. Washington, D.C. is a place that makes you feel that you are in a special environment through its supremacy. This is something that cannot be explained but rather just experienced …and if you experience it with the proper people, then you are going to have a blast in this city!