I came to Washington, DC., first as a teenager, insistent at the age of 15 that I would see it and understand on my own if my family would not otherwise take me. It was less than a four hour car ride away from where we were living then, but visiting was not on my father’s agenda. I made my own plans.
First, you should understand that just being in the capital is awe inspiring, if you love your country and have a deep appreciation for her story. The white gleam of the massive Capitol Building itself, perched on a hill, with the majestic, tall Washington Monument at the end of the Mall, are enough to take your breath. Then, of course, standing and looking at the White House, where so many presidents have lived, is a little surreal. Yes, it is an actual place. Yes, the president might well be in there at the moment (if it is a weekend, don't bet on it, but you can often see the drama of the presidential helicopters coming and going).
Having lived inside DC for 17 years before departing for the far burbs of Maryland, I would strongly suggest this to potential visitors who want to get the most from a trip here: read up a bit. Look at maps. Look at Google earth. Try to get oriented to the physical space but, also, brush up a little on what the government is and how it works. (You know, three branches, balance of power, etc.) It will help you to understand what you are seeing.
Remember this, too: DC is not one giant museum or tourist attraction. It is not an historical Disneyland. It is a living, working city. All of the buildings you pass or visit are places of work, except for the grand monuments and museums. If you see people in business suits rushing to get pass you in the corridors of the Capitol Building, for example, it is because they are there to work and need to get through the crowds as quickly as possible. They are not being rude, they are trying to do their jobs.
If you can afford to, stay in the city, not in the suburbs. The center core is what you have come to see, don't spend a hour each way getting to and from. If, on the other hand, you can find a good hotel a short ride away on the Metro, take it. Just remember that coming in during rush hour could be unpleasant, so maybe you want to get up a little later, have a late breakfast and hit the subway at ten or so. Stay where you can ride directly in without changing trains.
You can get a real good take on what the Washington bureaucrat looks like on the subways in the evenings. He, or she, looks tired, hassled and kind of worn down. The tie is loose around the neck, the belly often extends over the belt line and the eyes are sometimes glazed over. People are still heading home from work around here at 8, 9 and even 10 in the evening. The "rush hour" often isn't over at 8:30. The freeways are jammed by 5:30 in the morning, too. Law firms are often busy at midnight and most weekends. There is no such thing as ending the work day uniformly at five in the afternoon.
Do come to the District of Columbia, that strange non-state that was created by the Founders because the governor of Pennsylvania refused to call out the state militia to protect them during the Constitutional convention in Philadelphia. (They wanted a place they could control, instead of having to ask a governor for help.) This center of American democratic action, remember, has the same status in the U.S. Congress as the Pacific island of Guam: one representative, no vote. (If you are struck by the supreme irony of that fact that we fight to take democracy around the world, but don’t allow it in our own capital, well, so are the people who live here.)
I would recommend at least three days. Don't do the one day in and out routine, unless you can come back often. There is much to see, much to enjoy and learn. We ain't no one horse town any more with third class dinning. Spend an evening in Georgetown, Adams Morgan, China town or the Penn Quarter. There are real neighborhoods just blocks away from the official scene.
Washington, DC, is one of the first "purpose built" capitals in modern world history. It was built on a grand scale, intended to impress or even intimidate the leaders of Europe who might come here and look down their noses at America. It is noisier, more crowded and, right now, hotter than ever, but it has much to offer. It is a grand place.
Almost everyone who comes here to work and live comes because, really, they want to help add to our nation's story, to assist in some way in continuing and expanding our potential. If you allow yourself to put aside cynicism for awhile, you can see and feel those efforts in the city around you. If nothing else, you will come to understand the greatness of the vision of those who founded the U.S. and those who have peopled the government down through generations.
There is unending sadness at places like the Vietnam Memorial, and awestruck glory in the monuments to Lincoln and Jefferson. In the quiet of an evening, even in the busy summertime, you can have parts of these places to yourself. If you want a really special treat, get up at before dawn and go to the Lincoln memorial and watch the sun rise. Then, walk over to the Vietnam wall. In the space of half an hour, you will cover the markers for two of our most difficult national struggles and remember those who lived, and died, in those times. You will see that, whatever we have, it did not come easily. The WW II Memorial is walking distance close to the Wall, toward the Washington Monument.
Like the man said, you've got to see it for yourself, touch it and remember it. If you come, you will learn things that only you will know that can't be taught and probably can't be shared with others through mere words. But, you will know.
I have at least two friends whose names are on the Vietnam wall. Both were high school chums, one the younger brother of a good friend, the other a loner classmate probably few remember at this remove. The point is that everyone has something in the nation's capital, some point at which you or your family ties touch on the long story of America. It is worth seeing. I can't imagine, if the opportunity exists in time and cost, how one could be a full American citizen and not come to visit.
The Senators and Congressmen, presidents and Cabinet officers come and go. This is your city, your story, your country. The great democratic experiment that is the United States has resulted in a capital worthy of the name. People from around the world come here to see it, but only you, who are citizens and know its struggles and history, can feel its true power and meaning. What are you waiting for?
Doug Terry, 7.4.10