Travel: The ‘other’ Washington

The Washington Monument

Many locals are familiar with the phrase  “the ‘other’ Vancouver,” where people arrive at Sea-Tac Airport, pick up their rental cars, feed in their destination and proceed to drive away in the wrong direction.  At the national level, the title of  this photo essay refers to the distinction between our own Evergreen State and our nation’s capital city. My wife and I recently added yet another visit there, a city that we have easily visited more times than the total of any other domestic cities during the five-plus decades of our relationship — with San Francisco and Portland being distant also-rans.

The foundation of this lasting interest is that we were both living in D.C. in the late 1960s and shortly after we meet, cemented our relationship by the exchanging of vows on Oct. 26, 1968. The seeming haste was not due to what one might infer, but was partly due to the school policy at Georgetown medical school that ran my last year fully from May to May — as we basically functioned as unpaid interns.  However, you could add a week to your limited vacation breaks, if you got married. That may have been due to Georgetown being a Catholic institution. Anyway, in the 55 years since, we have regularly returned to what I’ve been enjoined to call the “scene of the sublime — not crime” in most Octobers.

The old portion of Georgetown University as seen from the Key Bridge.

During the years that our oldest son lived in Arlington, Virginia we also visited at other times of the year. Fellow grandparents will understand that the year our first grandchild (finally) arrived, we went to D.C. five times. Nevertheless, these personal incentives only bolster our underlying affection for visiting the city. Many of our U.S. cities have wonderful natural and human attributes, but based on our own limited experience of international travel, D.C.  is the only domestic city worthy of being on the world’s stage. Its panoply of museums, monuments and government buildings are largely arranged by the wise original street plans of L’Enfant.

The National Gallery of Art and several other art museums have managed to scrape up a remarkable amount of Old World art, and the American-derived art can well hold its own. No other city has an institution with the scope and depth of the Smithsonian, nor anything comparable to our National Mall. As for natural wonders, you have the Potomac River and its tidal basins, along with the cityscape-escaping realm of Rock Creek Park. My years of living there was amidst the two-century-old buildings of Georgetown University. At the same time, my wife was working at the Library of Congress, an under-visited gem of a building that can match many of the notable classic buildings in Europe.

Landscaped public walkway near the original Smithsonian buildings.

On this visit, we traveled before our actual anniversary date because of the special gift of being able to stay at a condo in Rosslyn, Virginia, looming over the Iwo Jima statue at its base, and with a balcony view centered across the river to the Lincoln Memorial and the entire National Mall, but with a sweep from the National Cathedral all the way south to literally be able to see the planes touch down at Washington National Airport. Up to a few years ago, we would regularly walk more than 10 miles around the National Mall or in other locales like Dupont Circle and Georgetown. In a lack of foresight, that latter neighborhood opted out of having a Metro station to the later regret of restaurants and shops. But let us share some less-known options. From Rosslyn one can claim a connection to Georgetown University and ride its shuttle over the Key Bridge to the campus. Also one of the inexpensive D.C. Circulator routes will take you through Georgetown and on to Dupont Circle. As for Metro trains and buses, D.C. and San Francisco are the only two U.S. cities that allow use of mobile phones to pay for travel.  One can also use ride-hailing options, or the HopOn buses, but do yourself a favor and don’t drive and add the stress of traffic and parking. Ultimately, you still will do the “last mile” on foot unless you are capable of using bikes, scooters or Segways. At our age, our foot mileage has dipped below 10 miles.

It’s easy to return on every visit to your favorite sites — mine being the Botanical Garden, and my wife’s the Impressionist gallery at the National Gallery of Art. But this visit we also reserved a timed entry at the newer National Museum of African American History, whose remarkable design and exhibits have filled a gap in cultural coverage along the mall. We did also get to the Hirschhorn museum and to the National Portrait Gallery and the private Phillips Collection —  well worth its admission charge. But I’m convinced the best part of visiting D.C. is found outside of buildings, through visiting the innumerable statues, memorials and viewing the classic building exteriors. The largest memorial of all is the Arlington National Cemetery, which we experienced in a very different way this year by not going to the core, but walking past the Iwo Jima statue and the Netherlands carillon into a quiet side gate and walking along the arrays of grave markers on rolling hills amidst the fall colors of the trees.

National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Iwo Jima statue.
Arlington National Cemetery.
Reflection pool at Korean War memorial.
Washington niche at the World War II memorial.
The Custis-Lee mansion.
Abraham Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial.

On our last day, we even forewent public transportation and walked along the cemetery periphery and across the bridge spanning a surprisingly wide Potomac. Behind us on the hill over the cemetery lay Robert E Lee’s house, and ahead was the memorial to his contemporary antagonist, the truly elected and beloved U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. Certainly a metaphor of our current national divisions.

After visiting the scaffolded Lincoln Memorial (as always in D.C., somewhere you visit will be undergoing renovation), we remained outside and walked on and paused at the Korean, World War II and Vietnam memorials, noting the addition of a Vietnam women’s military statue, apparently inspired from the religious pietas of virgin and child. We then moved off the mall to the White House. At a service at the church we were married at, we had already been reminded of the tragic conflict in Gaza, so it was no surprise to come upon a series of demonstrations encircling the nation’s central peoples’ residence. The demonstrators were mostly young, many Jewish, and seemingly seeking to avoid the need for adding more war memorials to D.C.  After coming upon this worldly reality (and 20,000 steps/eight miles accumulated), we were spent and glad to board at Metro Center and ride back to Rosslyn.

Vietnam War memorial.
Vietnam Women’s Memorial.
D.C. demonstration.

Demonstrations are also a regular part of visiting D.C., and a very worthwhile reminder that our democracy is not hardwired into operating without attentiveness. Still, such stark reminders as these live enactments and war memorials and, of course, the graves themselves are not necessarily negative sightings and are certainly softened by the profusion of beautiful plantings, food trucks and, above all, the free lifetime supply of access to the contents of  our “nation’s attic”  — the Smithsonian museums. So take advantage of what your tax dollars and a multitude of donors have laid out for you and choose to go in the correct direction to the “other” Washington.

— Story and photos by Kevin O’Keeffe

Author Kevin O’Keeffe lives in Edmonds

  1. What a great description of so many places of interest in D.C It is truly a place that holds
    a special place in all our hearts! Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Very interesting to get this up-to-date look at historic and other tourist sites in our Nation’s Capital. Decades ago, I was a young Army Sergeant working in the Pentagon and living in Alexandria, VA. For three years, I played tour guide for family and friends, most of them first-time visitors who needed to be shown around. It was a great experience, helping me absorb more of the city’s rich history than I would have just doing my job. Kevin’s excellent piece reminds me how long it’s been since I was last there~ past time for another visit!

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