Sightseeing in DC

A number of factors conspired to make my visit to DC a rather lazy one. As usual, summer US temperatures were well above my comfort zone, climbing into the 30s by the weekend. But outdoor wanderings were rendered even more perilous by smoke from Canadian wildfires. Despite being a good 500 miles away, a spot check on arrival revealed these had pushed the air quality index in the capital to 276 – very unhealthy, and approaching hazardous for everyone.

Fortunately I had lined up an indoor activity for each day. Whilst DC has a fantastic range of museums and other tourist sites which can be visited for free, most require booking – sometimes months in advance! A tour of the White House turns out to require embassy assistance, but I had managed to get tickets for the Library of Congress and the US Capitol, plus the International Spy Museum.

Lincoln Memorial

On my first morning, however, neither temperatures nor smog seemed excessive, so I made my way down to the National Mall to see two American icons: the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument. Sadly whilst the air was breathable it did not lend itself to photography – and nor did the crowds that had already formed by 8am! The memorial seems to be along the flight path for DCA airport, whilst the monument was constantly circled by a US Park Police helicopter. Linking the two was therefore not quite the peaceful waterside stroll I had imagined, and disappointed I cut short my explorations in favour of a leisurely brunch back at the hotel.

Great Hall, Library of Congress

My afternoon visit to the Library of Congress much improved my mood – I think this was my favourite attraction in DC. The lavish interior feels religious, but instead of a deity this temple is dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. Ironically as a tourist you cannot actually access any of the books – save for a Gutenberg bible on display in the great hall – so on any future visit I will try to arrange reading room access. But I was happy enough to explore the architectural treat of the visitor areas, which can be done at your own pace via an online audio tour.

US Capitol

The experience is – understandably – rather more managed at the US Capitol, somewhere high on my list to see after enjoying the Utah and Idaho state capitols last summer. Breezing through security far faster than advertised, I was able to trade my ticket for an earlier time slot and joined hundreds of visitors in a cinema-sized auditorium. Here we began with a fifteen minute film extolling the virtues of the American system of government – if only reality lived up to the ideals promoted!

For the rest of the tour we were assigned to guides, although groups were large enough that we needed radio headsets to hear them! Whilst having an expert on hand to answer questions was great, having to keep pace with the pack was a bit frustrating: I’d rather have had more photography time in the rotunda than visiting the National Statuary Hall, which was hard to appreciate amongst a crowd.

US Army Band

That evening I intended to give the Mall another shot, but arrived to the Lincoln Memorial to find it even busier than yesterday. By dumb luck I had stumbled upon “From Sea to Shining Sea”, a free performance by the US Army Band. I later learnt that this required tickets, but nobody stopped me as I settled in on the memorial steps to enjoy the sunset to music.

International Spy Museum

I couldn’t resist pairing the National Cryptologic Museum with the International Spy Museum, but for some reason I was expecting the latter to be a bit amateurish or cheesy. I could not have been more wrong – this is a seriously polished attraction. On arrival you are given a mission briefing narrated by no less than Morgan Freeman, then assigned a secret identity for various activities throughout the museum. They’re entirely optional, but this almost 40 year old enjoyed them 🙂 Not having been climbing all week, I was also glad to ace a hang test that I watched many younger and fitter people fail!

The place is vast, covering all kinds of espionage topics: I spent 2.5 hours looking around, and could easily have added another hour reading in even greater detail (I skipped a lot of code-breaking content as it was familiar from the NCM). Perhaps not an obvious choice for a first visit to DC over, say, the Smithsonian, but I definitely recommend it.