As winter ends, the signs of spring begin. In early April, cherry blossoms bloom, a brief period of beauty brought to those towns lucky enough to be home to these trees. In Japan, the cherry blossom is one of the national symbols, and the brief blooming period of these trees is a symbol for the impermanence of life. In 1912, a gift of 3,500 cherry blossom trees was given by Japan to the United States of America to symbolize the friendship between the two nations. Many of the trees were planted in Washington, D.C. Cherry blossom season in our nation’s capital is a time when tourists flock to see these trees in full bloom, witnessing a landscape covered in pink and white (via
My wife was in Washington for a conference, and so I was able to drive down to join her and explore the city, taking in many historic sites along the way. During the past weekend, I saw a quirky mansion, a museum of American history, a car show, one of the greatest libraries in the world, a homestead of one of our founding fathers, ancient artifacts, and a hangar full of historic planes. Along the way I also ate some amazing meals and of course… saw the cherry blossoms in full bloom.
Without further ado, let’s begin:
Located almost 230 miles south of New York City, our nation’s capital lies on the banks of the Potomac River. Created as an independent entity by the U.S. Constitution, Washington was established on land donated by Virginia and Maryland.
My wife arrived on a beautiful day and was able to walk down to the Potomac River and capture some of the cherry blossoms.
As I sat at my desk at work, my phone kept buzzing with images of the beautiful landscape of D.C.
You couldn’t have asked for a nicer day, and my wife’s photographs came out great!
Perhaps my favorite photo – the cherry blossoms at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.
By the time I drove to D.C., however, the blue skies were a distant memory, and clouds began to roll in.
When I arrived, blue skies had become gray and sunshine was replaced with a seemingly endless rain. The U.S. Capitol, though, was as impressive as ever in person.
Despite the rain, the cherry blossoms were still beautiful. Several grow in the lawn around the Supreme Court building.
Something of note: in many places around D.C., the new handicapped logo is being used. Designed a few years ago to replace the original symbol that was designed in 1968, the new logo represents the wheelchair rider as more active, in charge of his/her own direction. Where to Visit
The Library of Congress
My first tourist stop was the Library of Congress. Established in 1800, it is the research arm of Congress, and is also the largest library in the world… with over 168 billion items in its collection (via the Library of Congress website).
After passing through a security checkpoint, I was admitted to the Jefferson Building, one of the four buildings of the library. The Great Hall is the centerpiece of the building. I had visited here years ago with my Mom, but I had forgotten how jaw-droppingly gorgeous the building was.
The ceiling of the Great Hall was worth a photo itself.
The centerpiece of the Great Hall is a display holding a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, one of the earliest books printed on a press with movable type. Of the 21 surviving full copies of this important work, I’ve managed to see two – this one and one at Harvard University.
Wandering through the library, I came to this – the collection of the books of President Thomas Jefferson. When the British burned Washington D.C. during the War of 1812, the Capitol Building and its library were destroyed. After the war, Thomas Jefferson sold his nearly 7,000 books to Congress in order to re-create the library.
“I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.” – Thomas Jefferson (via Wikipedia).
One of the library’s temporary exhibits is on baseball and the American experience. As a fan of the movie A League of Their Own (“There’s no crying in baseball!”), I really enjoyed this display on the history of women’s involvement in the sport.
There was also another exhibit on exploration of the Americas, chronicling the contact between Native Americans and European explorers. These vases and decorative items are from the Mayan people, who controlled much of what is now Central America for over 2,000 years.
The centerpiece of the library is the Reading Room. While primarily for Congressional research, the room is open to the general public if you apply for an access card.
The Library of Congress is open Monday through Saturday from 8:30 am – 4:30 pm (it is closed on Sunday). There is no charge to enter, but as with most of the other federal buildings in Washington D.C., expect to spend at least 10 minutes in line waiting to go through security checkpoints.
2019 Washington Auto Show
Upon arriving in D.C., my wife noticed that the Washington Auto Show was underway. She let me know and I IMMEDIATELY made plans to attend!!
Far larger than the Baltimore Auto Show I attended two months ago, this event is so large it takes up three floors in the Convention Center.
The third floor held an exhibit of classic and exotic cars, including this Lamborghini Countach, the car that was on a poster in every boy’s bedroom wall in the 1980’s.
The ART-of-Motion exhibit features cars being painted by artists, turning them into unique works of art. This Nissan Altima was being covered in cherry blossoms by artist Matt Long.
Rather than only displaying their artwork after it is completed, the artists paint the cars right in front of you.
State Farm sponsored a collection of classic Cadillacs, which was fantastic.
Toyota showed off their newest sports car, the 2020 Supra. At $50,000, it certainly isn’t cheap, but if it drives half as well as it looks, it will be a terrific car.
Speaking of gorgeous, I finally was able to see the new Acura NSX in person. To quote the movie Wayne’s World, “It will be mine. Oh yes, it will be mine.” At least, maybe I can afford the Hot Wheels version…
While a bit less sporty (and far less pricy) than the NSX, Acura’s new RDX sport utility vehicle continues to impress me…
…as does the new Honda Passport.
I’ve been dismissive of the new Honda Accord, but I finally gave myself some time to explore it more thoroughly, and I found myself starting to like it. I’m still unsure about the exterior design, but the cabin was comfortable, roomy, and all the controls were intuitively placed for easy access.
Several manufacturers, including Land Rover, had set up fake obstacle courses to demonstrate their vehicles’ off-road capabilities.
The most insane obstacle course was the one set up by Jeep, which included a 30-degree climb and descent, a 35-degree sideways lean, a series of large blocks simulating driving over rocks, and driving up and down a staircase. Needless to say, I signed up to try this out. Twice.
I was curious to see what my wife’s Grand Cherokee is capable of, so I jumped in a 2019 version… and it didn’t disappoint. It handled this 30-degree hill climb with ease.
I could have sworn the Jeep was going to tip over on this 35-degree sideways ramp… but it held on well.
The Washington Auto Show runs from April 5 until April 14, 2019 in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Admission is reasonable, with a ticket for adults costing $12, a ticket for a child ages 6-12 is $5, and children ages 5 and under can enter for free. There are also a range of discounts available on the Auto Show website, so it pays to check online before you go. If you’re looking for a fun way to pass a few hours and dream about your car of the future, the Auto Show is for you!
Smithsonian Museum of American History
My next stop was a museum that is near and dear to my heart – the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
While my time in D.C. was limited, I knew I had chosen well after stepping inside the National History Museum… the first exhibit was the Batmobile from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman.
The American History museum focuses on the inventions and people that helped to create and sustain our nation. For instance, this Fordson tractor helped to move farmers away from horse-drawn equipment. In 1923, almost 3/4 of all tractors purchased were from Fordson.
The collection moves from the earliest of American history to today, such as this original Apple Macintosh computer. There is something deeply saddening about seeing a computer from one’s childhood in a museum.
An exhibit on the first floor explores American business and innovation. This McDonald’s sign from the 1970s represented the American fast food company’s expansion to Japan in 1971.
While there are many aspects to the museum, I chose to focus on transportation (of course!). This locomotive, the John Bull, was built in 1831. It was one of the first locomotives in the United States. It was originally purchased by the United New Jersey Railroad and Canal Company to run between the cities of Camden and Amboy.
The car pictured is a 1903 Winton. It was the first automobile to to drive across the United States. It was piloted by H. Nelson Jackson and Sewall K. Crocker. When the car broke down, they would send a telegraph to the Winton factory and then wait for new parts to be shipped. Talk about patience!
The Ford Model T was the first mass-produced car in the United States. This 1926 model is part of a display on early 20th century garages. The car sits on a “Turn-Auto” which allowed mechanics to flip the car over to work on its chassis.
“Hold that Tiger!” The Tucker 48 was the car that was designed to revolutionize the automobile. Among the innovations were a center-mounted headlight that would rotate as the driver turned the steering wheel, a perimeter frame and roll bar for safety in an accident, disc brakes, fuel injection, and a torque converter transmission. Almost all of those features (aside from the headlight) are common in cars today. “Hold that tiger!” is a nod to a swing band song featured in the 1988 movie Tucker: The Man and His Dream, one of my favorite childhood films.
Moving forward a few decades, the museum also features a 1977 Honda Civic. Brought to market at a time when most American manufacturers were producing problem-plagued, gas guzzling vehicles, this little Honda gave owners a reliable car that was fuel efficient. It helped open the American market for Japanese vehicles.
The museum is focused on all forms of transportation, not just cars. This exhibit contains the entire engine room of the Oak, a U.S. Coast Guard ship.
The steam locomotive Jupiter was built in Philadelphia in 1876. Built for 36-inch width train tracks, it became obsolete in 1883 when the nation adopted 56.5 inch gauge tracks across the nation. It was sold to Guatemala, where it served for 60 years hauling bananas across the country.
The Number 1401 Steam Locomotive. It served in the southern United States from the 1920’s until the 1950’s. Its most notable achievement was one of sorrow – it pulled President Franklin Roosevelt’s funeral train in 1945.
Speaking of Presidents, the museum houses an excellent exhibit on leaders of the United States. This carriage once carried President Ulysses S. Grant to his inauguration.
One of the most somber exhibits… this hat was worn by President Abraham Lincoln to the Ford Theater on the night of his assassination.
“His master’s voice…” This stained glass window was once part of the RCA factory in Philadelphia.
“We’re off to see the wizard!” These ruby-red slippers were worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.
The National Museum of American History is open from 10:00 am until 5:30 pm every day except for Christmas Day. The Museum is free to visit, although as with other sites around Washington D.C., expect to spend several minutes waiting in line for security. One must-see item not pictured here is the American flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 that inspired Francis Scott Key to write The Star Spangled Banner. The flag is kept in a climate- and light-controlled room to prevent further deterioration, so photography is strictly forbidden. No trip to this museum is complete, however, without seeing this 30 x 34 foot flag.
The National Geographic Museum
Meeting up with my wife after her conference ended, we walked to the National Geographic Museum. The museum is the educational wing of the National Geographic Society, founded 1888, whose iconic yellow-framed magazines have inspired the imagination of anyone seeking to explore the globe.
“Queens of Egypt” is a special exhibit currently in the museum from now until September of 2019. The exhibit focuses on the women of power in ancient Egypt. This is a statue of the goddess Mut, the mother goddess.
This statue of two Egyptian women was sculpted between 1480 – 1390 BC…. over three thousand years ago.
A segment of the Judicial Papyrus of Turin. This three thousand year old scroll details the conspiracy and assassination of Pharaoh Ramses III. The scroll records the trial of the conspirators, which led to a sentence of death for those involved.
The centerpiece of the exhibit are artifacts from the tomb of Neferatri, Queen of Egypt, who died in 1255 BC. These small statues are called Shabtis. Egyptians believed that in the afterlife, these statues would come to life and serve the deceased.
These women’s sandals are from the tomb of Nefertari. On the display next to the sandals (not pictured) are two mummified legs, most likely those of Neferatri. The sandals are in fairly good condition for being over 3,200 years old.
The detail and intricacy of these gold necklaces from ancient Egypt was impressive.
There were several wooden mummy coffins, all in excellent condition.
This was perhaps the most ornate coffin case I saw.
The Book of the Dead is filled with spells intended to assist the deceased on their journey to the afterlife. I was impressed with how well-preserved this 3,100-year old scroll was.
This exhibit let you spell words in hieroglyphics. Of course, I had a little fun with it!!
Exiting the exhibit, we toured a smaller display that housed many of the iconic National Geographic magazine covers of the past 100 years.
There was also a display on the equipment used by National Geographic explorers. This camera was the victim of a bear attack. The photographer survived the attack, the Nikon did not.
As we exited, my wife spotted this on the ceiling- a three dimensional map of the land between Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. Given our recent trip to Nevada, we spent some time checking this out.
The National Geographic Museum is open from Monday through Sunday from 10:00 am until 6:00 pm. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for students/military personnel/seniors, and free for children ages 4 and under. While small, the museum is well worth the money to explore, especially for the current Queens of Egypt exhibit.
The Mansion on O Street
Named as one of the five top historic venues to explore by Smithsonian Magazine, the Mansion on O Street is one of the strangest, coolest, and most unique places we have ever visited.
A luxury hotel and museum, the Mansion was originally built in the 1890s by Edward Clark, an architect who designed the dome of the U.S. Capitol Building. It was purchased in 1980 and converted into a hotel, and then was re-opened as a museum in 1998. The most unique feature of the Mansion? Every single item you see inside of it… furniture, paintings, artwork, musical instruments, computers, etc, etc, etc… is for sale.
Guests over the years have included artists, musician, politicians, and ambassadors. One of the most beloved guests was Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks, who stayed at the Mansion after being beaten by an assailant in her Detroit home in 1994. She was a frequent guest, and this was her room.
The Mansion holds over 80 guitars, all of which are from famous musicians. The white guitar in the center was signed by all surviving members of Led Zeppelin. The guitar that is second from the left was signed by Bob Dylan, and the red-white-blue guitar was signed by Willie Nelson. On the day we visited, a woman asked how much the white guitar would cost. The reply? $25,000.
The house has 70 secret doors throughout the building, leading to other rooms and passages. The guide told us that if you find 2 doors, you’re doing well. We managed to find 4, including this one in a book case.
Among the items I really dug was this “mouth” chair from the Rolling Stones.
Almost every room has a copy of Four Blind Mice by James Patterson, which has a scene set at the Mansion.
Can you imagine taking a bath amidst all of this? The Mansion is still a functioning hotel, and all of the rooms are for rent.
This Tiffany stained glass window, original to the building, is more valuable than the house itself. For comparison, the house is the size of five townhomes in downtown D.C.
We were about to leave, when I saw something that made me catch my breath… Janis Joplin’s guitar.
Before visiting the Mansion on O Street, Roadside America was the strangest place I had ever seen. The Mansion has taken the #1 spot on my list of oddities, however. It is one of the coolest places I have come across. I’ll be honest, the website is a bit of a mess, so trying to find prices and hours is a bit of a challenge, but the basic tour costs $30 per person. Whichever tour package you choose, budget at least two hours to explore the museum and mansion. Have fun!!
Approximately ten miles south of Washington is Mount Vernon, home of President George Washington.
After a leisurely half hour drive through Alexandria and the Virginia countryside along the Potomac River, we arrived in Mount Vernon.
Upon arrival, the first stop is the Ford Education Center. Parking is free, but visitors must buy a ticket to enter Mount Vernon.
The Education Center allows visitors to learn about the life of George Washington before touring the grounds. This stained glass window tells the story of the reading of the Declaration of Independence.
Tours of Washington’s mansion are timed, and we had to wait almost two hours for our tour. We took our time strolling the grounds, enjoying the sites, including the the working farm. Washington was, first and foremost, a farmer. Animals are still tended on the grounds, and crops are planted in the same seedbeds that he established over 200 years ago.
There is no escaping the fact that Washington was a slaveholder. Although his views on slavery evolved over the course of his life, his estate was dependent upon slave labor. 5 Washington family members lived with 17 hired white servants and 317 enslaved people.
Washington’s slaves were buried in a mass grave on the property with no markings. The museum tackles head-on the difficult history of Washington’s relationship to slavery.
Washington left specific instructions for the design and construction of his tomb, where he, his wife, and his family members would be interred.
George Washington’s remains lay on the right, and Martha’s on the left. Other members of the family are interred behind the black door in the back.
While ambling the grounds, we took a path through the woods down to the Potomac River. Fishing on the river was a significant source of income for Washington and a way to feed the members of his estate. Boats depart for a 45-minute sightseeing cruise from the wharf.
In his younger years, George Washington would travel Virginia in a riding chair like this one. It cost far less than a wagon, and maneuvered the rocky and rutted roads far easier. The riding chair is exactly as it sounds… a chair attached to a two-wheeled cart.
Later in life, Washington would more likely be found riding in a coach such as this one.
In the forge, we saw two blacksmiths at work. Most of the ironwork for the upkeep of the property is still done by blacksmiths here.
The Spinning House, where most of the textiles for the estate were made, was equally fascinating.
The Greenhouse was built in 1787. The building grew plants year-round. The wings, built a few years later, were the slaves’ quarters.
The quarters for the enslaved workers on the estate. These are the men’s bunks.
At the end of the property line, on a cliff above the Potomac was the ice house, where ice would be kept cool for use year round. Slaves would cut ice out of the frozen Potomac in the winter, and bring it up the cliff to the ice house… a challenging task, indeed.
While I examined the ice house, my wife told me to look out toward the river, where two ospreys had made a nest.
Perhaps one of the coolest moments of the trip!
Our tour about to begin, we headed toward the mansion. Unfortunately, photographs are not allowed inside of the mansion, so you will have to visit to see it for yourself! Almost everything in the house is original to when George Washington lived there.
The one exception to the “no photographs” rule was the kitchen. It was here that Washington’s meals were prepared.
Located in Mount Vernon, Virginia, the estate is open to tour 9:00 am – 5:00 pm every day. Tickets for adults are $20, youth ages 6-11 are $12, children 5 and under can enter for free, and senior citizens enter for $19. It pays to reserve your admission online, though, as there is a discount for purchasing your ticket via the website. While it may seem pricy, the museum accepts no federal grants or tax money, relying solely on donations, admission, dining, and souvenirs. Mount Vernon is a meaningful way to connect with the earliest history of this nation, and to explore the full lives of one of the Founding Fathers, examining the brilliance, and also the difficulties of his life.
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
On the drive home, we stopped by one of my favorite places in the Washington D.C. area… the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
The Udvar-Hazy Center is an extension to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Located at Dulles Airport in Chantilly, Virginia, the museum houses numerous historical airplanes. The large silver bomber in the foreground is the Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic weapon on Japan in World War II.
I had visited the Center several years ago with friends and had long wanted to return. The large white plane in the background is the Concorde, the first supersonic passenger jet.
Our first stop was the observation tower, which rises 155 feet above the ground to give you a 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside. Dulles International Airport can be seen in the distance. Perhaps the coolest feature of the observation tower- As you watch the planes land, you can listen to live communication between incoming jets and the airport’s control tower.
The museum has exhibits from the very beginning of flight. This Farman Sport, built in 1922, is the last surviving example.
This Junkers Ju-52, a German passenger plane from the 1930s, remains one of the most successful European commercial airliners. It could carry 17 passengers. During wartime, these planes were used by Germany to transport soldiers.
The Boeing 307 Stratoliner, built in 1938, was the first airliner with a pressurized passenger cabin, allowing it to fly above the clouds, bypassing bad weather. This one was flown by Pan Am Airways.
One of the best fighters of WWII was this Japanese plane, the Kawanishi Shiden Kai. An equal of any American plane, it was produced too late in the war to make any noticeable impact on the war’s outcome.
One of the most unique planes from WWII… the Japanese M6A. It was designed to be launched from submarine aircraft carriers, allowing the Japanese to theoretically sneak attack any target in the world. This is the only surviving example in the world.
Speaking of World War II… this Sikorsky JRS-1 seaplane was a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. It was sent out, unarmed, to look for the Japanese fleet after the attack.
The museum was filled with unique airplanes, such as this Dornier Do 355, a WWII plane from Germany. It was the fastest piston-engined plane during the war. As with many other planes in the museum, this is the only surviving example.
Truly a revolutionary plane, the Messerschmidt Me-163 was rocket-powered, designed to intercept attacking bombers at high speed. As with many of the inventions of the Nazi war machine, it was better in theory than it was in actual performance.
The Enola Gay, a B-29 Superfortress bomber. It was the first airplane to deploy an atomic weapon when it dropped the “Little Boy” bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Although estimates vary, the single atomic bomb killed somewhere between 129,000-226,000 people. It’s a sobering fact, and one that invites larger questions about the ethics of war.
There were plenty of more modern aircraft as well, such as this Korean War-era Soviet MiG-15, which was a formidable adversary to American fighters and bombers.
Cue the hero music… the F-14 Tomcat. This US Navy fighter jet, star of the movie Top Gun, is the iconic US fighter plane of the late 20th century. This jet saw combat action in the late 1980’s, downing a Libyan MiG fighter over the Mediterranean.
And the Navy’s newest jet, the F-35 Lightning II. There are three versions: the F-35A is designed to take off from land and will be used by the Air Force, the F-35C will be launched from US Navy aircraft carriers, and this F-35B, to be flown by the US Marines, is designed to take off and land vertically, eliminating the need for a runway.
The space hangar holds the history of US space exploration. The centerpiece is the space shuttle Discovery. It flew to space 39 times, the most of any space shuttle.
Evidence of the Discovery’s use… scorch marks on the heat-resistant tiles that protect the shuttle from the extreme heat of re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. The shuttle is covered by almost 25,000 of these tiles.
The SR-71 Blackbird was a US spy plane that would fly at speeds exceeding Mach 3 to survey enemy positions. The jet holds the record for the fastest manned flight speed.
Approximately a forty minute drive from downtown Washington D.C., the Udvar-Hazy Center is well worth the trip! It is open every day (except Christmas Day) from 10:00 am – 5:30 pm, and is free, although there is a $15 per vehicle parking charge.
Where to Eat
If you’re looking for fast food that is healthy and fresh, I would highly recommend Rice Bar, a Korean bibimbap and noodle soup restaurant.
Although the signature dish is bibimbap (Korean for “mixed rice,” which is made with rice, vegetables, meat, and an egg), I chose a noodle soup for a cold and rainy day. It was absolutely delicious! Chicken + Whiskey
My wife saw good reviews online for Chicken + Whiskey, a South American restaurant that has a special secret…
Although no signage directs you to it, if you walk to the back of the restaurant and open the freezer door, you enter a speakeasy bar specializing in whiskey. We enjoyed a fun happy hour before heading back to the restaurant for dinner.
We split a half chicken dinner with sides of arroz chaufa, cucumber olive salad, guacamole, and chips. It was one of the best roast chickens I’ve ever had. Firefly
Firefly is an American comfort food restaurant in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. On a gorgeous and sunny April day, we sat by an open window and enjoyed a delicious meal with the best seat in the house!
My wife ordered the BLTE (bacon-lettuce-tomato-eggs) sandwich on gluten-free bread, with a side of fries. I ordered the grass-fed beef burger. Were either meal healthy? No, absolutely not. Were they delicious? Yes. Yes. Yes. Los Tios Grill
If you’re looking for good Mexican food in Arlington, Virginia, I would highly recommend Los Tios Grill. It was one of the best Mexican meals I’ve had on the East Coast.
My wife ordered tamales, while I chose the (still sizzling when it came to our table) fajitas. I consider myself very hard to please when it comes to Mexican food, and this meal was simply terrific. Wrapping Up
At the end of a long drive, the Accord had passed the 127,000 mile barrier. It was the ideal car for driving in a crowded city – small enough to maneuver the sometimes narrow sidestreets, powerful enough to keep up with traffic, and big enough to soak up the bumps and potholes that are inevitable in a big city in the snow belt.
The weekend took us through five states and we drove nearly 500 miles. Washington D.C. has so much to offer, so many great sites to see, historic places to visit, and delicious food to try, that we felt like we had barely scratched the surface. We already started discussing what new places to explore the next time we venture to our nation’s capital.
Thanks for coming along on this rather lengthy journey down the open road ahead… I hope you enjoyed it!
‘Til next time.