8/06/2009

50 Great Things to do in Washington DC [part 2 of 5]


[part 2 of 5]  Here they are ... 10 more great things to do, counting down on our way to 50!

11.  International Affairs. The business of our government is arguably two-fold: interfering with the lives of ordinary Americans, and interfering with the lives of everyone else in the world. Orginizations devoted to the latter include embassies representing pretty much every country in the world, the diplomatic reception rooms at State Dept, the headquarters of Voice of America, and the Organization of American States. If you want to rub shoulders with foreign nationals, a restaurant/bar called MCCXXIII reputedly caters to the embassy crowd. Oh, and don't forget to get your wonk on at the World Bank bookstore.

12. Water, Water Everywhere. Though it looks landlocked on your basic US map, D.C. is in fact bordered by two rivers: the Potomac to the southwest and the Anacostia to the southeast. This is an especially handy thing to remember on hot summer days. Ways to cool off on the water: Visit Great Falls Park, which features a series of gorgeous waterfalls; take a Paddleboat ride on the Tidal Basin; take a canoe or kayak out on the Potomac, or take a canal boat down the C&O Canal .

13.  See a Show. D.C. isn't exactly New York City, but it isn't Puxatawny either. Theaters hosting Broadway-run shows include the Kennedy Center, Fords Theater (yes, the one where Lincoln was shot - leave exra time to visit the museum), National Theater, and the Shakespeare Theater. Other quality "just off broadway" theaters include Studio Theater, Arena Stage, and Woolly Mammoth Theater. Check out Ticketplace for cut-rate same-day tickets. Or, for something a little different, don't overlook theaters associated with the major universities in the area, to include Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University. Just want to take in a movie? The American Film Institute (AFI) Silver Theater and Cultural Center screens a constant string of classics, or check out the Mary Pickford Theater at the Library of Congress, which shows films of historic and cultural significance. Perhaps, after all, you're just in the mood for a good laugh? Doesn't get better than the Capitol Steps, an improv group that specializes in political satire; or check out Shear Madness at the Kennedy Center, a farce that's been running continuously for 20+ years (much like our government, some would say). We've got opera fans covered too: check out performances by the Wasington National Opera, Opera Comerata, Bel Cantanti, the Wolftrap Opera Company, the American Opera Theater, or the Washington Savoyards, to list just a few.

14. Take in a Concert. Hard to imagine a city that boasts the variety of music available in this town. Most folks outside of DC probably don't even realize each branch of the military service sponsors a variety of superb musical groups (symphonic, band, jazz and more), but they perform here 2-3 times a week during the summer. Venues that host major rock/pop concerts include Verizon Center (fka MCI Center), DAR Constitution Hall, Jiffy Lube Live (fka Nissan Pavilion), Wolftrap, and RFK Stadium ... or for a more intimate concert-going experience try Millenium Stage at the Kennedy Center (daily and FREE!), the Music Center at Strathmore, the Birchmere, Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University, or the Carter Barron Amphitheater (at Rock Creek Park). During the summer, it's hard to turn sideways without hitting musicians performing at any of the literally hundreds of outdoor venues in the DC area, to include the Sylvan Theater (Washington Monument), Farrugut Park, the Capitol Riverfront, the Carter Barron Amphitheater (Rock Creek Park), the National Zoo, or even the steps of the Capitol building. Or if you like your music really intimate, visit any one of the 50 or so clubs that host live music of every imaginable genre: for a current list, check the City Paper or the Weekend section of the Washington Post. Want orchestra? We've got a bunch of them, to include the Capital City Symphony, the Baltimore City Orchestra, and - of course - the granddaddy of them all, the National Symphony Orchestra.

15. Eat. While not a foodie destination, DC offers restaurants for pretty much every taste. And when I say every taste, I mean pretty much every ethnic food you can imagine (literally, everything from Albanian to Zambian), catering to DC's huge population of immigrants from every corner of the world. The "best" restaurants tend to vary from year to year, so you may wish to consult Washingtonian Magazine's most recent 100 Top Restaurants list. But if you want to see how traditional DC "power lunching" is done, your best choices are the Palm (has served every pres since Nixon), Old Ebbitt's Grill, the Oval Room, the Bombay Club, Cafe Milano, The Monocle, or Johnny's Half Shell. Recent "hot" foodie destinations include Cake Love, which is featured on cable TV, and Ben's Chili Bowl, where Barack Obama likes to take foreign dignitaries for a jolt of Americana. There are even outfits that offer food tours of DC - how about that?

16. Tipple. Wine is everywhere in DC, but it's not indiginous. You can learn about it at the Washington Wine Academy; or, if you're willing to venture into Virginia, you can visit any one of 70+ actual wineries. But if you don't want to venture out of DC, I recommend you stick to beer. Start at the Brickskeller, listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as "the bar with the largest selection of commercially available beers." Then move on to Da's Rfd Washington, which has an only slightly less impressive inventory of suds. Or, if you're on the wagon, check out how Coca Cola is bottled at the Alexandria bottling plant.

17. Shop 'Til You Drop. Warning: DC is NOT a shopping town! When people in DC need designer duds, they go to NYC just like everyone else.  The closest we have to "shopping districts" are neighborhoods like Georgetown, Penn Quarter, Dupont Circle, or Old Towne Alexandria that offer a variety of funky shops, galleries, and boutiques. For national chains, check out the Fashion Center Mall at Pentagon City, or bid on art/antiques at Weschler's Auctionhouse. But if you're in it mostly for entertainment value, be sure to check out Union Station and Eastern Market, which house bunches of eclectic stores, some no larger than a booth, offering all sorts of foods, crafts, and novelties. For fresh seafood, don't skip the Maine Avenue Fish Market. Or if you're looking for bargains, head directly for the Georgetown Flea Market.

18. Stroll. Washington is a great walking city. Innumerable companies offer themed walking tours: African-American heritage tour, most haunted houses tour, Ghosts of Georgetown tour, embassy tour, U Street tour (DC's version of Harlem), Lincoln assassination tour, secrets and symbols tour (inspired by Dan Brown's Lost Symbol), and more. Memorials by Moonlight is a favorite of mine, since you get to the monuments at their most dramatic AND you beat the heat. Or strike out on your own and hike the Capitol Crescent trail, or the C&O Canal towpath.

19. Go Underground. Take the road less travelled and check out DC's subterranean attractions. If you like history, consider taking an archeology tour of the city. Mount St. Sepulcre and the National Cathedral have catacombs which are sometimes open to visitors. The biggest consumer of underground real estate is definitely the city's subway system, called Metro: expensive, but a great way to get around the city. What most folks don't know is that Congress has it's own transport system, a little mini-subway connecting the House and Senate buildings to the Capitol. (Reduces the risk of running into constituents accidentally!) Opening soon: an underground visitors center at the Washington Monument ... a compromise designed to ensure that the National Mall remains unblemished by unsightly tourist buildings. You used to be able to tour a tomb-like space below the Washington Monument - which contained stalactites, stagmites, and truly cool 1800s graffiti left by workmen at the site - but this has now been closed to visitors. (Damn 9/11!) No doubt there's also a bunch of bunkers, air raid shelters, and other emergency-type facilities to house our government officials in time of war, but pretty sure you'll get shot if you try exploring those.

20. Get ethnic. Being the capitol city of one of the world's most dominant countries has it's advantages! Many countries have established "cultural centers" in DC, which offer lectures, exhibits and other outreach programs. Among these are Mexican Cultural Institute, the Goethe Institut, and the Alliance Francaise de Washington. While DC doesn't have a lot of ethnic neighborhoods per sey (our Chinatown has been pretty much consumed by the Verizon Center, for instance), we do have neighborhoods like Adam's Morgan, Georgetown, and Logan Circle that host a huge variety of ethnic restaurants, stores, groceries, and galleries.

Stay tuned ...10 more ideas in my next post!

8/05/2009

50 Great Things to See and Do in Washington D.C. [part 1 of 5]


[PART 1 of 5.]  For all it's flaws, I'd still pit D.C. against any international metropolis in competition for "most stuff to do per square acre."  I've lived here all my life and haven't exactly been a slouch when it comes to getting out and about, but will never manage to see everything.  Have listed the obvious attractions, but am hoping what folks find of value are the off-the-beaten-track experiences and adventures included in the list. Do you really want your vacation pictures to look absolutely identical to everyone else's vacation pix? 

I could include more info about each of these attractions, but I'm not going to.  This isn't meant to be a travel guide, just a list of suggestions.  So if you want to know more about any of these sites, google them!
  1. Visit a Museum.  Figured I'd start with the obvious, if only to get it out of the way. The Smithsonian incorporates many of the A-list museums in D.C., to include the Air and Space Museum (also the Udvar-Hazy annex in Chantilly, VA), the Natural History Museum, the American History Museum, the Museum of the Amercan Indian, Smithsonian Castle, and the Arts and Industries Building.  But don't get so swept up in the wonder that is the Smithsonian that you miss National Geographic's Explorer's Hall, the International Spy Museum, the Newseum, or the deeply affecting Holocaust Museum
  2. Cool museums you've never heard of.  Or ... you can skip the A-list museums and have a completely satisfying time at any of the following lesser-known but entirely worthy institutions, to include the National Postal Museum, the National Textile Museum, the National Building Museum, The US Patent & Trademark Office Museum, the National Firearms Museum (located at NRA HQ), the National Museum of Health and Medicine, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Department of the Interior Museum, the National Museum of Crime and Punishment, the National Museum of the U.S. Navy, the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum, the Black Fashion Museum, the Anacostia Museum (administered by the Smithsonian), the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, or (not kidding) the National Bonsai Museum.  Sadly, it appears the Squished Penny Museum has closed, with no plans to reopen.  :-(
  3. Natural beauty.  D.C. may be known for its imposing (albeit somewhat architecturally redundant) government buildings, but there's a startling amount of lovely scenery to be found for those willing to look.  Attractions include the National Arboreteum, the U.S. Botanical Garden, Rock Creek Park, Meridian Hill Park, the Tidal Basin (especially when the cherry blossoms are blooming), the butterfly/orchid garden at the Arts and Industries building, the George Washington Parkway (beautiful scenic overlooks of the Potomac River), Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, the Mount Vernon bike trail, and the Huntley Meadows wetland area. 
  4. Visit Critters. Plenty of indiginous wildlife in D.C. - especially squirrels, pigeons, and lobbyists. But if you are interested in something a little more exotic, check out the National Zoo in Woodly Park, the National Aquarium at Baltimore's Inner Harbor, or the much more modest National Aquarium in DC.
  5. Got Art?  Paris may enjoy an edge in this category, but D.C. doesn't need to hang its head in embarassment either.  The city hosts dozens of small galleries as well as major attractions to include the National Gallery of Art,  the National Museum of American Art, the National Portrait Gallery, the Renwick Gallery, the Hirshorn Museum, the Corcoran Gallery, the National Museum of African Art, the Sackler Gallery, the Freer Gallery, and the Kreeger Museum.  Learn how to create art at the Corcoran College of Art or Design; see art being made at the DC Arts Center or the  Torpedo Factory in historical Alexandria; or, if you want to see how the experts go about saving and restoring our greatest works of art, check out the Lunder Conservation Center, where staff from the Smithsonian and other institutions work their magic.
  6. If You Build It, They Will Come.  Washington D.C. hasn't got the architectural splendor of many capital cities - thank the founding fathers for our obsession with the classical style - but there are still attractions worthy of note, to include streets lined with beautiful row houses (especially Massachusetts Avenue), dazzling Union Station, the Octagon House, the Heurich House (a castle in the renaissance/roccoco style), the Old Stone House (the only pre-Revolutionary War structure still standing in DC), Dulles Airport (famous for its huge unsupported concrete ceiling), and the National Building Museum. Or, for something completely different, enjoy the Old Executive Building, widely revered as an example of architecture gone horribly wrong.
  7. Dead Presidents.  Go on a dead president's scavenger hunt: bet you'll find statues or monuments to most of them if you're dogged. Among the most well-known tributes are the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson memorial, the Washington monument (there's another statue of him in Washington Circle), LBJ Memorial Grove, Roosevelt Island (Teddy), the FDR Memorial (Franklin), the Taft Memorial Carillon, the Grant memorial, the George Mason memorial, the statue of Andrew Jackson at Layfayette Square, the James Garfield statue, the JFK Eternal Flame, and the James Buchanan monument.  And that's just the better-known ones ...!
  8. Suddenly sculpture. One thing D.C. does with gusto is sculpture. Check out the National Sculpture Garden, the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the lovable Einstein sculpture in front of the National Academy of Science (the head is disproportionately large to make him seem more lovable), and don't miss the "The Awakening" - aka, the big arm bursting out of the ground - at Haines Point. (Not to be confused with the Cardiff Giant - see "Wierd Washington".)  Or, have some fun touring sculptural tributes to people you've never heard of:  D.C. is the home of sculptures immmoralizing Francis Asbury, Albert Pike, Jane Delano, Bernardo de Galvaz, Taras Shevchenko, Samuel Hahnemann, and Samuel Gompers, among others.  Who are these people, and why are there statues of them in our nation's capitol?
  9. Your Government in Action.  Thanks to 9/11, you'll need to ask your representative for tickets, but tours of the U.S. Capitol Building are still available. You can also tour the Old Executive Building, which houses our representatives' offices.  Watching our Congress in action can be a kick, but I find watching the U.S. Supreme Court much more fascinating. As of this writing, it's still possible to que at the front door and be admitted to a small gallery from which you can hear the justices gentily grilling visibly nervous attorneys.
  10. Making Money. You can make money the hard way, through industry and hard work.  Or you can do it the way our government does it: by printing it out by the ton!  The Bureau of Printing and Engraving offers wonderful tours that allow you to watch money literally being made.  Sadly, the tours are very well supervised, so abandon now any fantasies you may be having of have of slipping a little something into your pocket while no one's looking.
Look for 10 more ideas in my next blog entry!

8/02/2009

11 Fun Things to See and Do in Williamsburg With Kids

Back in the day I spent a fair amount of time in Williamsburg, Virginia, the recreated colonial town and HUGE tourist attraction.  (I graduated from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg and worked at the Kings' Arms Tavern as a "serving wench" for a couple of years).  Every year I used to watch as hundreds of teachers bored thousands of students to near-distraction stopping outside each building to talk about its history and function. Here's a selection of activities and sites that I think a teen/preteens might find more intriguing:
  1. Governor's Palace.  Definitely take the tour through the Governor's Palace and gape at the pretentious display of "decorative weapons," the purpose of which was to cow us poor colonials into submission. This tour also provides a good overview of Williamsburg history from founding to independence. While you're there, take a brisk walk through the formal "grounds" and check out the stables, carriages, ice house, vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and ornamental duck pond -- all very British, so that the English governors wouldn't pine for home.
  2. Capital Building.  Take the tour through the Capital building and learn more about Williamsburg's role in formenting civil disobedience and independence for the colonies. (Warning: the Capital can be somewhat underwhelming to view without benefit of a tour.)
  3. Bruton Parish. Walk through the graveyard at Bruton Parish Church and admire the gruesome grave art, heavy on skulls, crossed bones, angels and urns. Compete to see who can find the oldest grave, or take rubbings of some of the ancient inscriptions or artwork. (FYI, you'll have to bring your own supplies if you want to do rubbings.) This is a wonderfully creepy thing to do right around dusk ...!
  4. Other Colonial Destinations.  Other locations likely to be of interest to older kids: the armory, the goal (jail), the blacksmiths' shop, the printers shop, and the general store. The map they issue you at the Visitor's Center will show you where these are located.
  5. Chownings Tavern.  Stop by Chownings Tavern for lunch and play a round of The Most Royal Game of Goose, a colonial board game that the waiterstaff are pleased to provide upon request (they will explain the rules too). Or simply ask for a colonial deck of cards and play war as you sip apple cider from pewter tankards over your plank table.  (It's pronounced Choo-nings, by the way!)
  6. Colonial Muster. Check the schedule and try not to miss the colonial muster on the green behind the courthouse. Authentically dressed militiamen demonstrate marching and other maneuvers, accompanied by a fife and drum band. (The schedule may list other interesting seasonal and weekly events too, some of which may be well worth checking out.)
  7. College of William and Mary. Walk around the campus of William and Mary, taking in the historical buildings and especially the Wren Building, designed by Christopher Wren himself. Explore the downstairs rooms, and especially Wren Chapel, which retains a true "colonial" ambiance and is still used today for services, weddings and college debates. Your middle schoolers/high schoolers may be becoming curious about colleges - W&M is a small, academically oriented institution with tons of history and a beautiful campus. (It was founded in 1694, making it the oldest chartered college in the US; 8 U.S. presidents graduated from W&M.) So go ahead and peak into some of the academic buildings too ...!
  8. Jamestown. Drive another 5mls and take in the archeological excavation at Jamestown (your Patriot's Pass Williamsburg ticket should get you admitted here too). Fascinating opportunity to see archeology in action. Or, if your kids are more into reenactment than reality, take in the "restored Jamestown fort," built back when it was believed that the actual Jamestown site had been engulfed by the James River. Here they can learn more about what it was like to live in an armed fortification, living in constant fear of attack, starvation and disease.
  9. Fossil Hunting on the James River. Stop at a beach along the James River and look for fossils. The river passes through the highly fossiliferous Yorktown Formation in this area, so it is not uncommon to find fossilized seashell remains litering the river banks.
  10. Wythe's Candy Store. Stop by Wyeth's Candy Store in Merchant's Square (at the base of Duke of Gloucester Street) for freshly dipped caramel apples or chocolate covered rice crispy squares on a stick ... guaranteed to rot your teeth out!
  11. Ghost Tours! If you can stay a little late, sign up for an after-dark "ghost tour". See the town as the colonials would have experienced it ... by lantern-light! These tours are actually a very good way to learn more about everyday life in Williamsburg ... how folks *really* lived day to day back in colonial days, and they are especially fun & spooky at this time of year, when dead leaves skitter across the cobbled streets at every gust of wind. Just be sure to go with a private company -- don't get suckered into the so-called "ghost tour" sponsored by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which is watered down so much that it wouldn't even interest a toddler, much less a pre-teen.
Note that there are also a bunch of big theme parks in the Williamsburg area (Busch Gardens, Water Adventure World, Great Wolf Lodge) - not to mention tons of discount shopping - but have tried to confine my list to activities that are more in the spirit of a "colonial" family experience.

8/01/2009

Top 10 Reasons to Visit New Orleans

Forget New York City, forget Hollywood; forget Nashville, San Francisco, or Washington D.C.  In honor of the big Saints victory in the Superbowl, here are the top 10 reasons New Orleans is the absolute coolest city in the United States.
  1. The music.  New Orleans isn't just the home of jazz, it's the wellspring of jazz ... not to mention blues, brass and zydeco.  In a fashion almost parasitic, the music feeds off of the lives and experiences of the city's people.  Forget the booze: just stand anywhere on Bourbon Street and let yourself become intoxicated by the music wafting from the open doorways of half a dozen bars.
  2. The cuisine.  Make no mistake - New Orleans may have a laid-back attitude about most everything else, but they take their food very seriously.  They've figured out that the chickory in the cafe au late perfectly balances the sugary sweetness of a beignet.  That seafood is meant to be enjoyed every meal of the day. That everything tastes better with a rich, buttery sauce. That, no, you don't have to eat your vegetables. And that there's simply no such thing as "too hot."
  3. The architecture. Part sophisticated European city, part sleepy southern town, part gaudy Caribbean port, the  major architectural influences on New Orleans haven't so much fused as figured out how to coexist.  Gorgeous creole townhouses with lacey trimwork and ornate iron balconies exist aside ancient wooden claphouse structures with sagging shutters and doors that stay open year round - not so much because the city never sleeps (though it doesn't), but because their frames have become so warped they simply don't close any more. And yet New Orleans not only makes this cacaphony work, but makes it appear somehow genteel, rather like an aged but still upright and fiercely elegant dowager.
  4. The attitude. "The Big Easy" isn't just a nickname; in New Orleans, it's a lifestyle. Maybe it's having successfully withstood centuries of hurricanes, yellow fever, pirates and multiple invasions. Maybe it's the fact that 7 different flags have flown over the city in the course of its long history. Or maybe it's just growing up knowing that you're living below sea level and, therefore, everything you have could be wiped off the earth at any time. ...Whatever the cause, there is a "live for the moment" attitude in New Orleans that you just don't find in any other city.
  5. The parties. No city knows how to party like New Orleans. Sure, Mardi Gras gets all the attention, but the Mardi Gras spirit infuses this city year-round. In the French Quarter of New Orleans, the bars never close, the music never stops, dancing in the streets is not only expected but encouraged, and strings of plastic beads never go out of style. 
  6. The ghosts.  New Orleans is called the most haunted city in America and even in broad daylight, it's apparent why. The whole city seems to exist in a timeless space between past and present.  And at night ... well, just try walking through a New Orleans neighborhood and tell me which scares you more: being attacked by a mugger, or being accosted by the sallow shade of an old yellow fever vicitim.  (Anne Rice lives in New Orleans ... enough said?)
  7. The Mississippi.  It's vast. It's murky.  Much of the time it manages to look like a busy interstate at rush hour.  But it connects the busy, relatively modern seaport of New Orleans to the city's antebellum roots, and its placid surface does little to conceal the enormous and terrifying forces that the river's inadequate levees strain to keep contained.  
  8. The bayous.  Sprawling cypress trees, their roots protruding from the water like vestigal limbs. Spanish moss eerily wafting in invisible breezes.  Fish and nutria slicing through the water beneath your boat. That telltale "V" of water indicating the passage of something much larger - something huge and green, with lots of teeth.  Much like the city itself, New Orlean's bayous are ancient, majestic and more than just a little bit unsettling.
  9. The Voodoo. Think of New Orleans as the Vatican of voodoo.  The city isn't just home to voodoo - it is saturated by voodoo, from the haunting drumbeats of the local music, to the african god figures sold in most of the local gift stores, to the gris-gris bags hanging around the necks of many of the inhabitants.  Marie Laveau, arguably the most famous voodoo priestess, practiced in New Orleans, and she is buried in one of the city's fabulously creepy cemeteries (see next entry). If any city will make you believe in zombies, New Orleans will.
  10. Death. When I die I want to go out the way they do it in New Orleans: with music, singing, dancing, and a parade through the streets. The people of New Orleans seem intuitively to understand that funerals need to be a celebration of life, not a celebration of death.  Maybe that's because no city embraces death quite so nonchalently as New Orleans. The city is riddled with cemeteries in which the dead inhabit beehive-type above-ground crypts, resembling nothing so much as little apartment houses of the dead.  It's as if, even in death, the inhabitants of this astonishing city can't bring themselves entirely to leave, but remain eternally in New Orleans' thrall.