My family took the opportunity to visit Washington, D.C. during a recent school break. A couple of months before our trip, we started planning by contacting U.S. Rep. Phil Roe’s local office. A staff member in D.C. immediately sent us all the appropriate paperwork and information to process our requests to visit the Capitol and the White House.
In the days before 9/11, this level of planning was not necessary — you could just show up, go through metal detectors and enter the Capitol Building. You might even pass a member of Congress in the hall. (On a trip in the early 1990s, I called home on a pay phone — yes, a pay phone — inside the capitol and Sen. Ted Kennedy walked right by. I almost asked him to say hello to my mother.) Sadly, this is not the world we live in anymore.
Security clearance to enter the capitol was processed within a couple of days, but permission to visit the White House does not arrive until a week or two before the requested dates. Even for those of us with a clean record, there are no guarantees — events, heightened security, terror alerts and schedule changes can affect plans right up until the last minute.
Once you arrive in the area, nearly all attractions, museums and monuments are easily accessible from the Metro train, our transportation of choice. The system is easy to navigate and trains are clean, safe and affordable. (Locals are overwhelmingly friendly and helpful in offering directions if you get confused.)
We began our D.C. adventure with a visit to Ford’s Theater, where President Abraham Lincoln was shot. While the flag-draped presidential box is closed, it is clearly visible and a visitor can walk the steps Lincoln walked and visualize the path taken by John Wilkes Booth. After Lincoln was shot, he was carried across the street to Petersen House, where he died hours later and the house is part of the tour of Ford’s Theater. Walking through the room where Lincoln breathed his last was haunting and emotional.
Taking in landmark buildings along the way, we then made our way to the National Mall, where we visited the Washington Memorial (it’s closed indefinitely for repairs, but still important to see), the stunning World War II Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. The Vietnam War Memorial, with its thousands of names etched on the walls, remains the most visually powerful memorial. The reward for a long walk to the Jefferson Memorial was a beautiful panoramic photo opportunity. The next day was our visit inside the Capitol Building, with a tour showcasing the highlights of its breathtaking art and architecture.
The Smithsonian Institution includes more than a dozen museums in the D.C. area plus the National Zoo. It would be impossible to take in all of them in one trip, but we fit in the American History, Natural History and Air and Space museums and the National Portrait Gallery. (Bonus: free admission for everyone, every day. You can even bring in your own bottled water. Most other sites are also free or very inexpensive to visit.)
One morning’s journey was the short drive to Mount Vernon, Virginia, the home of George Washington. A beautiful estate on the Potomac River, it’s also where the general died and is buried. Later that day, we visited Arlington National Cemetery, where thousands of veterans have been laid to rest. The changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider is moving and powerful, a stunning display of military precision carried out amid total silence from the observers gathered around. Arlington also holds the burial site of Presidents John F. Kennedy and William Howard Taft, as well as the home of Robert E. Lee with its expansive view of the D.C. landscape across the river.
We were lucky to be able to visit the White House, a process (after our pre-screening) that included several security checkpoints and heavily armed Secret Service agents throughout. It was well worth the extra trouble to see inside the historic, beautiful house. History emanated throughout the storied rooms of the East Wing. A particularly friendly Secret Service agent invited our youngest daughter to go behind the rope in the State Dining Room, where she stood in front of the ornate fireplace and Lincoln portrait for a photo. (He then awarded her a special Secret Service pin, which she wore proudly for days after … definitely a favorite memory!)
A visit to the Pentagon is not complete without a stop at the 9/11 memorial on the southwest side. The International Spy Museum was a fun spot for the kids, offering a fascinating history of espionage for the adults. We also squeezed in a visit to the U.S. Supreme Court building and the Library of Congress, which was truly awe-inspiring.
We averaged about 7 miles of walking a day for five days in our nation’s capital and fit in as many sites as we could. It was worth every step to see history come alive and be reminded of the incredible privileges we enjoy in being Americans and being able to step into the center of our government. It’s something every American should strive to do.
Rebecca Horvath of Johnson City is a wife, mother and community volunteer. She can be reached at [email protected]