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U.S. Capitol and White House tours

Monday, August 18th, 2008

I was told months before our trip to Washington, D.C. that tours of both the U.S. Capitol and the White House must be arranged at least four months in advance, and must be made through my Congressman’s office. I did as I was told: I contacted the office of Congressman Daniel Lipinksi and said we’d like tours of both facilities. The staff members I dealt with were helpful and friendly. Setting up the reservations was the easy part. Actually getting into the Capitol was not.

We were given a specific time and date for our tour, and Mom and I showed up at the Capitol way ahead of time. We were told by personnel on the Capitol grounds to go wait in a different area since we had advance reservations. Apparently, anyone can get a tour of the Capitol; advance reservations are not necessary. Visitors queue up in the morning, the ticket kiosk opens at 9:00am, and everyone in line gets a time-stamped ticket with instructions to return at a later time for a tour. Mom and I were waiting where we were told to wait and there were several other people from different parts of the country with advance reservations also waiting. Our tour was scheduled for 9:30am; at 10:15, we were still waiting outside in the hot sun, while visitors who’d just shown up that morning were being ushered into the building. I didn’t think much of it until a woman in our group started complaining about waiting for almost two hours. Her group’s reservation was for 8:30, and here it was almost 10:30 and no one had come out to greet us or even give us an idea on what was going on. This woman began complaining to employees of the private tour company and they called for a manager. When he arrived, the most vocal woman in the group expressed her displeasure with the fact that she’d been waiting for two hours while she had a supposed advance registration, while people who had shown up that morning were already let in. My question to the manager was, “What’s the purpose of an advance reservation anyway?” The question went unanswered. After several minutes of heated conversation, the manager allowed us to enter the Capitol with the next group of visitors for our tour. Fine. Great, we’re in.

I didn’t get upset until later on when I found out that we’d gotten the regular, no-frills tour of the Capitol. See, what the manager didn’t tell me is that with advance reservations through the Congressman’s office, visitors get a more in-depth, behind-the-scenes tour; those visitors get to see more of the Capitol than the general public who just showed up that morning. So we got the raw end of the deal.

What we did see of the Capitol was fascinating, though. The Rotunda is amazing; the Apotheosis of Washington is a true wonder to behold. And the frieze that encircles the entire cupola is just as incredible.

The White House tour is another story. Advance reservations are mandatory. There is no showing up the day of and expecting to get in. Don’t expect to be in there very long, though. The tour is self-guided and visitors never leave the ground floor. We didn’t get to see a whole lot – the Green Room, the Blue Room, the Red Room, etc. – but it was still neat. The White House is monstrous; I just wish we’d have been able to see more. We were in and out of there within thirty minutes.

Going to Washington, D.C. and not seeing the Capitol and, even more so, the White House, is like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower, in my opinion. I’m glad I did see both but I was still a bit disappointed.

Posted by Francesca

Washington D.C. museums, Smithsonian and otherwise

Sunday, August 10th, 2008

No matter how long your trip is to Washington, D.C., chances are you’re not going to have enough time to see everything. Mom and I were there for six full days and it left me planning a return trip to visit all the sites we missed this time. One reason for this is the myriad museums run by the Smithsonian Institution. It is the world’s largest museum complex and research organization, composed of 19 museums, 9 research centers, and the National Zoo. Along with the zoo, we managed to visit the National Museum of African Art; the National Museum of the American Indian; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; and the National Museum of Natural History. That equals four museums out of the total nineteen. We’d never make them all. My favorites from this lot are the African Art museum and the American Indian museum, which we visited twice.

On our trolley tour, the guide said that the cafeteria in the American Indian museum had some of the best food in the District, and that was reason enough for our second visit to the museum. From the museum’s website:
“Mitsitam” means “Let’s eat!” in the Native language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples. The museum’s Mitsitam Native Foods Café enhances the museum experience by providing visitors the opportunity to enjoy the indigenous cuisines of the Americas and to explore the history of Native foods. The café features Native foods found throughout the Western Hemisphere, including the Northern Woodlands, South America, the Northwest Coast, Meso America, and the Great Plains. Each food station depicts regional lifeways related to cooking techniques, ingredients, and flavors found in both traditional and contemporary dishes. While seated in the café, visitors can look out a wall of windows to view the Native habitat and water features of the museum’s landscaping.
I had roasted chicken with a mole/pineapple sauce and a cold salad of sweet and purple potatoes from the Meso America station; and cold corn and tomato soup from the Great Plains station, I think. At any rate, everything was absolutely delicious. A little pricey, but since admission is free to all the Smithsonian facilities, I didn’t mind spending a few extra dollars for the incredible food.

One of my other favorite museums, though not affiliated with Smithsonian, is the National Gallery of Art. Currently, there is a special exhibit featuring “Hidden Treasures” from the National Museum in Kabul, Afghanistan. There are over 200 artifacts on display that were unearthed in modern Afghanistan, and that range in date from 2200 BC to AD 200. It was absolutely fascinating.

Some of the big museums that we missed are the National Air and Space Museum (due to lack of interest on my part, although it is one of the most popular of the Smithsonian museums), and the National Museum of American History, because it is closed for renovation until late November of this year.

If planning a trip to Washington, D.C., and visiting the museums is a priority, be sure to call or check the websites ahead of time for closures and new exhibits.

Posted by Francesca