Reader’s note: Considering that this trip happened in 2014, and the post is three years old, some information regarding monuments, and tourist information in my descriptions may be outdated. Please refer to links provided for updated information in case you’re planning a trip to the nation’s capital.
My shift is typically Monday through Friday, 6:30AM – 2:30PM; this vacation had been planned out months in advance, and details were meticulously worked out by my friend Kat and I. When plans were finalized, we had a hotel booked for Saturday through Wednesday. We’d been confirmed for tours at the White House, the Capitol, the Supreme Court (SCOTUS), and we planned on visiting several museums.
In order to maximize time, we decided to drive into Washington (DC) overnight to allow us to get some sightseeing done before our room would be available. Check-in for this particular hotel we’re staying is around 2PM, and we weren’t able to get an early check-in due to them being completely sold out. We agreed that we would launch at midnight on Friday; from my apartment to the train station came out around seven hours.
In the time before this day, I made it a point to make sure to put a deposit on my EZ-Pass, cash two checks that would eventually serve as gas money, and make sure I had my reserved tours printed for ease of access. Given that some my plans ran over due to some tardy appointments, I didn’t get home until much before 6:30PM. Since we would be driving into the overnight, and the body is geared to want to sleep at night, I wanted to catch a nap; the result was a two-hour nap, and took a shower. As we agreed, she arrived at my apartment by midnight, and after gassing up, we headed out.
I got behind the wheel with approximately two hours of sleep in me. I took a shower to keep me awake a little bit longer, and even with 4-5 hours of conversation while en-route. By hour number five, I was feeling how tired I was. We were crossing into Delaware as my body was trying to put me to sleep, prompting us to stop at the Delaware Welcome Center. This was more of a restroom, stretch legs, and quick snack stop.
With a third win in us, and despite traffic building up as we approached DC, we arrived at the Greenbelt Metro station, where we would leave my car while we saw some monuments, until our reservation was ready.
Much like New York City or Boston, DC’s design is more amenable to public transportation or walking to get places. Unless you have a solid reason to drive through DC, I would recommend doing what many do, and taking the Metro. While on the subway from Greenbelt to what would be our first monument, we had a technical glitch.
Being that she and I were both on iPhones and had iCloud accounts, I researched to see if she and I could use an online calendar to collaborate and create an itinerary. After doing the research, it turned out that if I sent her an invite to this specific calendar that I’d created, she’d be able to see it and make changes where necessary. After sharing, she went through with a map of DC and plotted out the order in which we’d see the monument and on which days. The glitch we ran into was that all the changes she made, somehow never propagated to the calendar. After checking both my iPhond and iPad, I verified that the calendars were shared appropriately, which they were, we decided to deviate from the written itinerary.
Even though we were tired from the drive, we still had to kill some time before our hotel would be ready for us. We also needed to do as much as we could with the day so that we’d be able to sleep at night for the duration of the week. Fortunately, many of the memorials in DC are out in the open, making them both free, and easily accessible. This also kept us moving and more likely that we would stay awake.
Though tired, we determined that our first stop would be the Navy Memorial. After disembarking at the Greenbelt line, we came up from the station looking for a building. Google claimed that we were at the memorial despite our surroundings telling us otherwise. We both looked around us like confused tourists trying to figure out what we were missing.
It wasn’t until I was staring at the ground for several minutes that I realized that we were standing on it. While it’s difficult to get a picture of it unless you’re in the air, the ground doubles as a picture of the globe that our Navy protects.
At a minimum, we knew that we wanted to see the Washington Monument (WM), the World War II Memorial (WWII), Lincoln Memorial (LM), and the Korean War Memorial (KWM). As we looked them up on Google, the recommendation was to do them in that order. We knew that if we kept moving that it would aid in keeping us awake, even if neither of us were at 100%. It was also highly convenient that they were all within a short walking distance of each other.
It must have been approaching 10AM as we neared the WM. Next to the LM, the WM is one of the easier to spot from a distance given it’s a tall, thin tower. As you approach it, it seems like it would take hours give the visual perspective on approach. To make it easy for tourists, there is a walkway that brings you up to the base of the monument. As we approached the base, the perimeter is lined with American flags. A cursory view of our surroundings showed a long line – it was possible to get a tour of the monument. When we asked about joining the extensive line of people, it turned out that tours went in small groups, and that we were looking at a few hour’s wait. Since there wasn’t much else to see, we moved onto the WWII.
It is easy to underestimate the size of the WWII by looking at a map. You can spend close to an hour walking around it, reading the various inscriptions, and taking pictures. While I was taking various pictures of plaques, I noticed a pattern of older tourists with red shirts and a distinct logo that depicted an honor flight network. It all came together when I saw that these older gentlemen were part of the Honor Flight Network who make regular trips to the monuments of DC reminisce about their time in WWII. This group came from Buffalo, NY; just before Kat and I headed from the LM, I stopped to take a picture of the gathering. On a side note: My grandfather was within this generation and served during WWII; I couldn’t help but wonder why more of these men aren’t invited into schools to share their stories with students as part of history classes.
Even those who have never toured DC recognize the Lincoln Memorial since many news talk shows, political TV shows, and movies feature views of it, both during the day, and at night. Scenic photographers have made a side living out of selling their photographic angle of both the monument and the view from the Reflecting Pool.
Walking through the main entrance area of the monument’s museum boasts a massive sculpture of our former president who delivered the historic Emancipation Proclamation. Covering large real estate on opposite sides of the foyer’s walls is the text of the Gettysburg Address.
Tourists can also enter the museum to see the texts of, and hear the audio from his presidential speeches. For such a massive structure, the inner museum featured a dozen rooms at most. As we looked at time, despite our feet starting to hurt from the walking, we were making decent time for two people whose journey started twelve hours prior, and running on more than fifteen hours awake.
Our last outdoor memorial for this day would be the KWM. The memorial features both a mural of names of soldiers who gave their lives during the Korean War. There is also a depiction of soldiers patrolling a mockup area of terrain in Korea. Those that take the time to read through the names on the mural could be there more than an hour, but overall, it would take the average tourist about a half-hour to see everything.
In the digital age, Googling up any memorial will bring you a plethora of pictures, but if only to see our nation’s history first-hand, it’s recommended to see it in-person
It was approaching the middle of the afternoon, and neither of us had eaten since the Delaware Rest Area. Mind you, we also hadn’t been to our hotel room to check in and unpack our bags. We were beyond the point of tired and wanted to head back to the hotel room, and Google showed us that the Foggy Bottom station was the closest to us, albeit a twenty-minute walk. We didn’t have a timetable for when the train would be approaching, so we just walked a regular pace despite exhaustion.
We had a wait at the station, but not a long one. While there wasn’t much seating when we boarded at Foggy Bottom, there was nearly an hour ride back to Greenbelt. If you factor our the power nap before Kat’s arrival, I was past 24 hours awake, and it showed; cognitive reasoning was fading, my ability to recall information was iffy at best, and my body just wanted sleep. Kat was in similar shape considering she worked overnights at this point.
Between the hour getting to Greenbelt, returning to my car, driving a half-hour to the hotel to park, checking into our rooms, it was approaching dinner time. The only logical choice for us was to dine at the hotel. Even amid our state of exhaustion, we discussed how tomorrow might go and checked the calendar to make sure our timetables had been properly synched.
Day 2 – Smithsonian: Air/Space, Castle, and American History Part I.
It’s safe to say that Sunday was considered the second full day of the trip even though we were up more than 24 hours. I think I slept until 7AM, giving me about 10 hours. Thankfully, my feet were nowhere near as sore as they were yesterday. I suppose a hot shower helped as well. Today’s goals were floors 3, 2, and 1 in the Newseum, the Air & Space (A&S) Museum, and the American History Museum (AHM).
For those not familiar, the Smithsonian Institute (SI) has a number of museums located in DC. The A&S is a large collection of artifacts from all various space missions that have been launched, going back to the day that the parts for these shuttles were created. They also have Earth exhibits, astronomy exhibits, exhibits that involved military operations and vehicles used in space, outfits worn by the astronauts, stories of other nations’ space programs, some history of NASA, in addition to various exhibits that depict flight – both civilian and military. Even if I posted all the pictures I took during the time we were there, it wouldn’t do the exhibits’ justice. The SI has done a great job bringing it all into one building.
When preparing a trip, I recommend dedicating one full day to the museum. It took Kat and I almost 6-7 hours to tour the whole thing, and that’s not including exploring everything in-depth. If you’re in the majority, you probably use your phone to take pictures. I took close to 250 pictures as I went.
If you actually sat by and listened to the videos that feature at some of the exhibits, and you fully engage with all exhibits, you could easily make an eight hour day of it. We’d seen 85% of the museum, our feet were hurting from all the walking (despite taking breaks as we went), and there were some exhibits that didn’t appeal to us, so after approximately 6.5 hours, we exited and headed for “The Castle,” which turns out to be the main building for the Smithsonian series.
Aside of a large model of DC, two rooms with artifacts, and a well-maintained garden, this was mostly a visitor’s center. There were two galleries that could have been explored, but neither of us were into their content.
We still had some time remaining before we were both going to declare ourselves exhausted, so we headed for the AHM.
You’ll notice I titled this “Part I.” This is mainly because we thought we’d be able to make it all the way through. We did a little more than 45%, but given that we still had to walk back to the Metro, and we were both exhausted from walking around the A&S, we decided to head back and finish the next day.
One of the perks of staying at the Holiday Inn here was convenient access to the shuttle that takes us to the Greenbelt Station. Kat took the smart and proactive step of calling the hotel and requesting a pickup at the station. We arrived at Greenbelt ten minutes after that call was placed, and we waited in about the same spot that we were dropped off when we left. It was likely twenty minutes later that we saw the shuttle pull up to the curb by us. We boarded and headed back to the hotel room.
You might be thinking to yourself, “There must be some deeper meaning to this story.” Very good, young Padawan.
After taking us on a rough tour of the city of Greenbelt, the driver brought us back to the Holiday Inn, but the wrong property. It hadn’t occurred to either of us until we entered the lobby that the check-in area wasn’t the same; it was too late, the driver had already departed. We were both irritated to say the least, but we needed to sort it out, so I explained to the front desk clerks that we’d been dropped off at the wrong hotel. The clerk made a phone call to the property that we were staying with, and they claimed they’d sent a driver out, but promised to send another out to get us. After a little bit of investigative work, and some idle conversation, it turned out that the Holiday Inn properties are labeled with the address of the property they came from, and we ended up on the wrong bus. In our defense, there was no indication or forewarning of those addresses being on the shuttle; after all, who would check for an address? The average tourist would see a shuttle bus with the markings of the hotel they were staying with, and just get on, as it should be.
Regardless, 45 minutes after that mixup, we were returned back to the property we checked in with. I had grabbed a business card from the property that we were diverted to, as I had a suspicion that any future trips to DC, or even that area, would not be with the property that we were reserved with.
While we had returned safely, the miscommunication and the mixup was easily avoided, so Kat made it a point to have a chat with them, and they were good enough to give us a free meal, and I think a discounted stay in the future. Either way, we wrapped up by finalizing our plans for the Capitol and Supreme Court, and decided to make it a tentative plan to finish out the AHS afterward.
Day 3 – The Capitol, SCOTUS, and AHS Part II
The day started as the previous ones have awoke early, and caught some local news. I decided to make a half-assed attempt at charging my cellphone by heading to my car and calling my dad to play catch up back home. The charge hit around 38% when Kat wanted to get an earlier start, so I finished the call and headed up to meet up with her.
Given the time frame it took us to hail the shuttle to Greenbelt, we decided it might be smarter to call ahead. It still took them about twenty minutes, but eventually we had a driver. Almost thirty minutes later, we were in DC, and about a 15-20 minute walk from the Capitol.
We’d considered stopping on the way for some food, but I was getting anxious that we would miss our tour, so we just kept trucking.
I would say we arrived at the Visitor’s Center about thirty minutes before our tour was scheduled to begin. It turned out that the line to get in was fairly long, but was sent through security in groups of fourteen. There was also Capitol Police around to remind us to discard or ditch any prohibited items; the main ones they were worried about were food and beverages. Going through security reminded me that I should have left my keys at the hotel room, but one thing I rarely leave home without, is my keys.
As Kat and I entered the main area where the tours were convening, I couldn’t help but notice “In God We Trust” etched into one of the walls. I ended up snapping a picture of it, because I know that some friends of mine would appreciate knowing that the word ‘God’ is not banned from government property.
Approaching the tour lines was interesting; evidently, Kat and I were among the few that had reservations and remembered to bring our confirmation printout. The check-in staff were rather helpful and accommodating, cordially assisting us in figuring out where we needed to be.
While waiting in line for the orientation, we ended up in conversation with a couple from Alaska who was describing the winters, as it’s stereotypical to assume that Alaska winters are brutal. Their biggest complaint is the dim amount of light over the course of 24 hours. We also had a couple from Minnesota who described their recent White House tour that they’d acquired as a result of knowing a few people on the inside. The way they described the rooms they’d seen and the places they were allowed to access, it wasn’t your standard-issue tour.
The orientation film was thirteen minutes of a recap of Civics 101 and Introduction to American History that everyone should have learned in high school. There was one point during the movie that listed the preponderance of laws that have been passed by Congress over time.
Once the movie was done, we were then linked up with our tour guides. In the year 2014, the Capitol Tours are done with a cheesy headset from the late nineties whose distance was limited to fifteen feet. Considering there were about 20 of us in the group and the walking was single-file, you can imagine how much dialogue was likely lost.
Despite some antiquated technology, the tour went rather smooth. I give credit to our tour guide who did inject some humor into the dialogue, and it seemed clear that she not only was very passionate about her job, but she had some knowledge of American History beyond what her job calls for.
We visited the Rotunda, the main hall, and The Crypt, which I thought was underwhelming. I had also anticipated seeing the House and Senate Chambers, or even getting to enter the Congressional Floor, but those had to be arranged through the constituent’s Congressperson. They could have eliminated the civics lesson at the beginning and probably added more substance to the tour.
After exiting the tour and the Capitol, we discovered that the SCOTUS was literally across the street. Our tour had ended around 11:30AM and our reservation for SCOTUS wasn’t until 1:30PM. We’d contemplating finding food prior to entering, but we decided to see what the Court had. If you read enough news articles from when SCOTUS announces its decisions, you’ll already have a good idea what the building looks like.
Going in, you encounter another security checkpoint and you’re greeted by the main hall which features exhibits and historical information about the Court. My confirmation email told us to be there around 1:45PM, otherwise we wouldn’t be let in. When we asked about checking in, apparently, all you do is show up in line. It was roughly 12:20PM at this point, and the next lecture started within 5 minutes; according to the SCOTUS officer, it was all the same material so we decided to bump our tour up an hour.
We lined up with the rest and were asked to patiently wait until they were ready for us. I took a few shots of the hall we were in, which mostly contained busts and large portraits of past justices that have been on the Court. Just shy of 12:30PM, we were welcomed into the Court itself. Photography wasn’t allowed, so I had no pictures to bring home. The lecture consisted mostly of a Civics 102 lesson of the third branch of government and its history. We also learned about the attorney’s process of becoming an attorney that can argue at the SCOTUS level.
Thirty minutes later, the lecture concluded and we exited the courtroom itself. I’ll admit that the lecture was underwhelming, but I suppose in retrospect, it was a short lecture designed to give the general public a working understanding of the history of the judicial branch. Given how large the building appears on the outside, I thought there would be a tour of the SCOTUS like there was of The Capitol, but after having walked around the building, there wasn’t much to guide people through.
The exhibits they had featured mostly the history of the creation of the judicial branch, how the Constitution came to being, and renderings of the courtrooms the way they were pre-SCOTUS building, and current-day. There was a simple but thorough exhibit to Sandra Day O’Connor. The Court also had a thirty minute video in which the justices themselves take you through their day and the motions of how they operate.
One of the reasons that Political Science has interested me so much is the inner workings of our branches of government, more than the politics that result from the decisions each branch makes. Hearing it from the point of view of each of the justices made me appreciate their job that much more, even if I don’t agree with the opinions that this court has delivered in the last few years. It is also interesting to note that sometimes justices don’t always agree with their colleagues, and that’s why if you’re truly a fan of knowing how the justices each take a different approach to their opinion, read theirs in a court case.
Regardless of my criticism, it was still nice to see the highest court in the land.
Since the tour had been bumped up an hour, and we still hadn’t finished the AHS, we decided to head over there. The exhibits we had remaining included the founding of our country, slavery and its abolition, the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, a visual depiction of the ‘sit-in’ that sparked the Civil Rights movement, which ultimately led to the passage of the legislation by its name.
There was a flag exhibit (the only one in which photography is not allowed) that shows the history of our flag, our National Anthem, and we had the opportunity to see how the flag looks as it’s currently being restored in a cleanroom-state. There was also an exhibit dedicated to the history of presidents, their lives, and the history of voting.
Looking at our devices, it was becoming apparent as to how tired we’d become, we still had to get back to the hotel, and I wanted to download my pictures to my laptop. We also determined that we only had a few places left to visit: The White House, The National Archives, and Arlington Cemetery. If we could get all of that done in one day, we’d just crash the next night, and return to the northeast on Wednesday.
Day 4 – The White House, National Archives, and Arlington National Cemetery
It is a good thing I’ve been consistently waking up around 6AM, otherwise I’d probably be off my schedule for returning to work. We both had to be up in time to catch the 7AM shuttle in time for our train into DC, for our tour of the White House.
We boarded the shuttle sometime around 7:15AM and ultimately arrived at the McPherson train stop just shy of 8AM. Since our tour was schedule for 8:30AM on-paper, Kat and I hoofed it up the street.
After getting a glimpse of the White House, I found Secret Service, and they had us backtrack and take an alternate side-street, and assured us that we would not be late for our tour. Keep in mind that the paperwork even says to be fifteen minutes early to allow time to get through security. It was fairly close to 8:20AM when we arrived at what we determined to be the line leading to the tour. Kat and I started openly deliberating whether we were in the correct line when a National Parks Service officer overheard us and informed us that it wasn’t imperative that we be in the 8:30AM line as it’s all self-guided. They just schedule it that way to ensure that when you check-in, that you are confirmed for the tour itself.
She invited us to check out the White House Visitors Center and come back for 9:30AM.
The Visitor’s Center was as beautiful as the officer described it. It featured some history of the White House, descriptions of the rooms within, and included a model of the White House on a pedestal. They also ran a video that depicted the presidency from the point of view of several past presidents, and some quotes from Barack Obama. The wives of these presidents also shared their experiences living in the White House and what it was like for them having to leave at the end of their husbands’ term.
After the short video, we left the Visitors Center and headed back to the line, only to discover that since we had an 8:30AM tour, we could just head through the line to the first checkpoint.
The first checkpoint was a Secret Service agent who just checked your name and confirmation number against the list they had.
The second checkpoint further up was another agent who essentially did the same thing, but things became wonky when he was looking for our names on the 9:30AM tour, but once they figured out who we were and that we were confirmed for the tour, we were welcomed through. It was then that I saw the list of all the prohibited items, which weren’t unusual for a building in DC. The only abnormal ones were ‘no cellphones’ and ‘no photography or videography,’ but the email confirmation I received detailed precisely what was not allowed.
Next step was the metal detector which was nothing more elaborate than going through TSA, only without taking off your shoes or belt.
We continued on the path up through the entrance to the East Wing. You basically enter in through what I would characterize as a welcoming area featuring portraits of former presidents. As detailed in the email from my staffer, there were Secret Service officers posted in each room to ensure (a) that everyone was following the rules, and (b) answer any questions about any room on the tour.
The tour is self-guided, in that there’s nobody there to take you through each room, but the tour is structured and designed to keep you moving along. If you were an architecture junkie, history major, or you start inquiring about every detail in every room, you could probably stay on the tour for almost an hour. I think Kat and I took about 35 minutes maximum. I did occasionally see protection details sweeping the rooms we were walking through, and it was clear that they were just doing regular detail.
I will say that for the flak that Secret Service gets for how vigilant and serious they have to be, this team was very responsive, cordial, and accommodating with questions and information. Of course, this may be one of many teams that simply serve as part of tours, and then return to ‘normal duty’ once the tours have concluded for the day. There were some rooms that were roped off to the public and we were still unable to view them, short of poking your head in. To wrap it up, there was no photography allowed, so Kat and I just moved briskly through the rooms.
After exiting, we decided to head for the National Archives, the building that houses all of our founding documents, and even some historical legislation through the years. Again, this building prohibited photography, but the real treat of the building was seeing our founding documents as they’ve continued to age over 200 years. Due to the condition and age of the parchments, the area where they sat was under dim light and the room was chilly. There were two armed guards overseeing things, mainly to ensure that nobody took pictures of anything. Other exhibits included seeing text of landmark legislation that’d been passed over time, a brief historical rundown of how our nation came to be, and a look at how the Bill of Rights evolved from the Articles of Confederation.
Our final stop of the day would have been to Arlington Cemetery to both walk through it, and to see the Changing of the Guard, but our feet were aching, and we were both exhausted. For most, seeing the Changing of the Guard comes with the privilege of the visit. While there are plenty of videos uploads of the ceremony, seeing it in-person makes it that much better.
Since it was our last night at the hotel, we decided to cash in our free meal from the Shuttle Bus Snafu.
Day 5 – Return to Massachusetts
Kat and I had agreed the previous night to depart for Massachusetts around 6AM. This would return us to my parents’ house around 1PM, that way she would miss any afternoon or evening traffic in New Hampshire. Learning from my previous driving experience, starting the return in the early hours seemed to work out well.
Going down to DC, I took I-95 for the majority of the drive once I passed Connecticut. That exposed me to New York City traffic, which at the time we were driving was negligible, and it reminded just how busy the New Jersey Turnpike can be. The return trip was a bit more complicated, and we had rain for the first few hours.
This brings me to a pro-tip: if you are the user of an EZ-Pass transponder, you know that there’s a manual account replenishment, where you can opt to make deposits of any size, and the balance never expires. There’s also an option where you can have the funds EFT from your checking account, or charged to your credit card when your account reaches a certain threshold. Consider using the automatic account replenishment option.
Ever since I had began using the program under its predecessor, FASTLane, I enrolled in manual replenishment for two reasons: (a) I was having a hard time entrusting my credit card to the DOT’s servers, and (b) I don’t always go through frequent uses of tollbooths. I admit that my distrust of the DOTs servers is a bit juvenile, and is highly illogical given that there hundreds of thousands of personal and business accounts out there that have their credit cards or checking accounts set for automatic refill, and they’ve likely never had a problem.
I tell you that because I was sitting at the Delaware Welcome Center when I realized that I had not been proactive in adding more funds to my EZ-PASS given that I would be going through some tollbooths, and crossing a bridge in New York with the potential to charge a toll of over $10. It turns out that their Terms of Service state that you are only allowed to make two phone payments in a given year, though you are allowed to make as many deposits within a branch as you want. With the automatic payment method, my credit card would be charged to replenish my account when it gets low, regardless of time and day. If you are vigilant and proactive, and you keep track of your statements, you can always see how much you have remaining in your account, that way you can keep note when you see messages indicating that you have a low balance, that your card will be soon charged, or funds EFTd from checking.
I also had to make a call to my dad to have him recap which highways I needed to take to get around New York City. I knew I needed to cross the Tappan Zee Bridge, but could not remember for the life of me how to get to that point. After that conversation, we were underway, with the exception of steady rain from Glen Burnie to just before I-287 in Jersey. For much of this vacation, I had been using the Apple Maps app to do navigation, but it has this tendency to want me to do it its way, versus giving me options. When we merged with I-287 on the Jersey Turnpike, we exited and proceeded to head north. The Maps app didn’t like that and tried to compel me to do an about-face and return to the turnpike. At least four screwed up turns later, I had to stop and ask directions. It turned out I needed to get on the Garden State Parkway and follow it into New York, and meet up with I-287. In short, this is both what my dad advised me to do, and what I had begun to do when I got off the Jersey Turnpike. Ultimately, we entered the Garden State Parkway going north, and followed it all the way north until “Welcome to New York.”
Among the exits that greet you are the one for I-87/I-287 toward the Tappan Zee Bridge. Once crossing, I-287 turned into the New York Thruway, which turned into CT-15/Merritt Parkway, which from there gets me back. Ultimately, with the traffic screw-ups and stops along the way, we returned to my parents’ place at 2PM.