There’s something fairly surreal about sitting at a roof top bar and seeing the Capitol building in one direction and planes turning into land behind the Washington monument on the other.
I mean, I’ve seen all these places countless times in films and on tv, usually an alien invasion’s involved (I’m looking at you Independence Day) but sitting in DC sharing a bottle of red wine was a bit of a pinch me moment.
We’d stepped out of the train station earlier in the evening to be greeted by the site of Capitol Hill and quite a few tents outside the train station.
I can’t write about our trip without talking about homelessness, and that first view of DC showed just how stark the disparity of wealth is in America, it hits you in the face when you see a village of tents in front of the building where laws are made.
We’d already seen some tragic sites on our trip, I saw someone shooting up next to Macy’s in New York, he was screaming in agony. We’d seen dozens of homeless people sat in a line under a bridge in Philly outside an empty hall that had lights on and toilets inside. I’d lost count of the number of people we’d seen who really were at rock bottom, quite a few were veterans.
I see the same in England’s cities; I’m not saying anywhere has solved homelessness but what felt odd here was that no one seemed to acknowledge it much. The only thing I’d seen was a sign telling the DC tent village that they’d soon be moved on, that the rules had been relaxed during the pandemic but now it was time to pack up.
I don’t proclaim to be an expert, I don’t know what support is available, I don’t even have a single answer or suggestion, it was just something I’d noticed as we made our way around and it was jarring.
I’m not sure where to start with DC, I found our entire stay surreal, that’s not to say I didn’t like it, that’s not the case at all. Everywhere you look there’s a landmark, there’s a nod to something historical, you can link famous (or infamous) events. And yet, to me, it felt like the most chilled city in the world.
Our schedule in DC was once tight, but with a bit of smart thinking you can cover large swathes of the city in no time at all…..on hire bikes.
Now, stay with me on this, going by bike will, save your feet, if not your legs; is effective and fast and fun.
Pretty much every single city that you visit these days has some kind of bike/electric scooter hire programme, DC is no different.
Basically, you download an app, pay $8 for a 24-hour pass. That pass allows you to have unlimited 45-minute rides during that day. if you go over 45 minutes there’s a charge of $0.05 per minute.
It works well, in theory. You need to be aware that some of the bike stops in busy tourist areas are quite often full, so finding somewhere to swap your bike can be challenging. The app won’t let you by multiple passes so each of your party will need to download to get a bike out. In all honesty I wouldn’t normally find that a problem -even if I do hate having to download an app for virtually everything these days – but on this trip, we only had one phone with a US data package….tethering drains phone batteries and this WILL become a slight/major problem later.
Looking back, the electric scooters may have been a better option as the Philly sun had followed us to DC. We were cycling around in the middle of an early heatwave where records were being broken, we were very hot and sweaty. The bloke selling water yelling “don’t let dehydration ruin your vacation”, was making a valid point.
Bikes at the ready, we headed out around the Capitol building and the surrounding parks. Monday to Friday between 9am and 3pm the visitor centre is open, and you can get tours, but you need to be organised and reserve it well in advance. Tours include the Crypt, Rotunda, and National Statutory Hall.
We decided to make our way up to Union district market for lunch; 1.7 miles away from the centre. You’ll likely here the music as you turn the corner towards it, it’s filled with food stalls, outdoor seating areas, and a rooftop bar if you really want to soak up the sun. In short, it’s somewhere you should make a point of visiting while in DC, give yourself time to have a proper look around and enjoy the relaxed atmosphere.
We spent our afternoon, on our bikes, cycling the National Mall.
What a place it is. It’s hard to know where to start with the National Mall. There’s inspiring monuments, moving memorials and museums at every turn. You’ll be bombarded with flashes of history, be able to picture where the AIDS quilt was laid out, you’ll hear Dr Martin Luther King Jr deliver his ‘I have a dream’ speech and remember the many thousands who’ve marched for their rights. It feels special.
Here’s my highlights
Lincoln Memorial and reflecting pool.
I had never appreciated how huge the Lincoln memorial is.
Tens of thousands make the trip every year. I loved hearing parents giving their kids (and me) history lessons.
If crowds allow, stand at the top of the steps and look across the reflecting pool towards the Washington memorial.
Martin Luther King Jr Memorial.
I loved the quotes that are engraved into the huge stones around the memorial, all of them worth reading.
The memorial sits close to the water of the tidal basin. It’s a beautiful, spend time to take it all in, think about his legacy and the ongoing fight for equality.
A short distance away is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial.
Set in gardens, there are five ‘rooms’ and takes you through the three full terms of his presidency, it details the great depression and the second world war. The fourth room reflects on his death – a few months into his fourth term of office.
The prologue room was added later and shows a sculpture of FDR in his wheelchair after he by and large lost the use of his legs having been diagnosed with Polio.
There’s also a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt and fact fans – it’s the only statue of a first lady in a presidential memorial.
Thomas Jefferson Memorial
From there, cycle across the bridge to the Jefferson memorial.
Again, the huge Pantheon sits close to the water on the tidal basin close to the cherry blossoms, with views across to the Washington monument and the MLK memorial. Inside, in the centre stands Jefferson at 19 ½ feet, in his hand, the declaration of independence.
By this point, you’ll have seen the Washington monument at every conceivable angle. I mean it’s a 555-foot marble obelisk.
Stand at the base of it and look up, it’s pretty dizzying, then again it does have the title of world’s tallest stone structure.
The WWII Memorial
The symmetry and symbolism at the WWII memorial are stunning.
Again, I loved the various use of quotes and the fountain in the centre of it.
The field of gold stars will stay with you, each one represents 100 Americans killed in the war, there are 4,000 under the banner “Here We Mark the Price of Freedom.” 56 columns surround the field of stars acting as a guard of honour.
The White House
Got to be done hasn’t it.
You wouldn’t visit London and not see Buckingham Palace; you wouldn’t visit DC without seeing the White House. It’s sat there and housed Presidents since 1800. Obviously expect it to be busy as people come to get a glimpse of one of the most famous buildings in the world.
There’s plenty more to see around the National Mall, I’d really recommend doing some research and thinking about what your must stops are when you head out. I’d recommend doing it bike, don’t attempt to walk it all unless you’re really ambitious. If you don’t fancy burning calories by cycling, there are plenty of organised tours on offer.
After all that cycling, we decamped to bar, just in time before, a huge storm blew in.
We visited Shelley’s back room – probably not for everyone on account of it being a cigar parlour. Don’t let that put you, I liked how dark it was inside, I like the smell of cigars and I liked the lack of pretention. We had a really good few hours and got talking to one of the regulars; he wanted to know about the UK and asked us all sorts of questions, he was a gem and handed over two of cigars for us, wishing us well for the rest our trip, it’s these random moments, speaking to random people that I love while travelling.
If you’ve stuck with this post, this long, WELL DONE. I have one last anecdote before I sign off.
We decided to cycle back to our hotel, it was slightly out of the way. Now remember how I mentioned tethering phones really drains battery life….well, you’ve guessed it, after a full day out, using google maps to get about, we were left phoneless on our ride home…..
Cue cycling around DC without a clue where we were going, asking countless people for directions. It was in no way stressful at all.
Eventually, a couple of fantastic security guards managed to point us in the direction – great news!
The bad news, when we got to the bike station nearest our hotel…..it was bloody full.
I honestly thought I’d be cycling around DC trying to offload a bike for the rest of my days. So, we headed back to the same security guards who kindly looked online to find a bike station with spaces, they were my heroes.
Moral of the story – always have a charging pack, always pay attention to the route you walk first thing in the morning.
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm