Yesterday, I mentioned that after we watched the Space Shuttle Discovery fly over the National Mall, Larry and I went out for a lunch date. It was during that dead hour between breakfast and lunch, so we walked a bit (and started getting a little frustrated) while searching for a restaurant that was open.
We ended up on Pennsylvania Avenue, and buoyed by the fact that there was a huge patio full of outdoor seating and that it was just about to open for lunch service, we got a table at The Occidental. The Occidental is a Washington institution - it's been around for 100 years and is located in the historic Willard Hotel. Perhaps it is due to its central (read: touristy) location or perhaps it is because of its stodgy-sounding name, but Larry and I had never eaten at The Occidental before - despite the fact that it shows up on every Google search for restaurants in DC. We were missing out!
We had a delicious lunch and cocktails on the gorgeous patio and were halfway through the meal before we realized that our seats offered a fantastic view of the Washington Monument. This got us talking about how easy it is to become oblivious to the landmarks in your own city. I mean, had the Washington Monument been the Eiffel Tower, no doubt I would've been staring at it in awe throughout our entire lunch. But I grew up seeing the Washington Monument all the time and have to remind myself how amazing it is that I get to live near our nation's capital - a place full of history and landmarks.
As we admired the monument and watched tourists pour out of the hotel looking for brunch and boarding red double-decker tour buses, Larry and I both admitted that for a few minutes we felt like we were on vacation...in our own city. Just last week, when I was in New York, I was that tourist coming out of a hotel and searching for a brunch spot. So what if I've lived in the DC area my whole life - does that mean I should stop exploring my hometown? So what if the big camera around my neck made me appear to be a DC tourist - is there anything wrong with being a tourist in my own city?
As we walked along Pennsylvania Avenue and ate lunch at The Occidental, I snapped a few photos and relished those few minutes of I'm-on-vacation feeling. I tried to look at and appreciate my city through new eyes.
Throughout the years I've lived in the suburbs of DC I've gone through phases that ranged from regular sightseeing to nearly ignoring the city. As a kid, DC was where you went for field trips. Days spent in DC always seemed hot (who hasn't spent a day at the National Zoo when it was 95 degrees out? Ugh!), long, and tiring (children's attention spans can wear thin at museums). When I moved to Arlington and worked in DC after graduating from college, I finally experienced DC as an adult - and I loved it. I was an avid explorer of the DC restaurant and bar scene. I went to concerts, street festivals, and watched the fireworks over the monuments on the 4th of July. I went to museums on my own terms - both re-exploring the ones I visited as a child and checking out the ones I had missed. Then we bought our house and I started working in the suburbs and with the exception of going to hockey games at Verizon Center, I don't make it into the city as frequently anymore.
Yesterday served as such a great reminder that I need to be active about being a tourist in my own city. Yes, it's easy to complain about the traffic and humidity, but I live in a place where I can hop on the metro any day of the week with my Nikon around my neck and explore the nation's capital at my own pace. There is so much to see, so much that I still haven't seen. So many ways to look at what I have seen from a different perspective.
It also made me ponder my favorite DC landmarks and attractions. My ten favorite things:
THE NATIONAL ARBORETUM
The arboretum is gorgeous and is perhaps my favorite place in DC - maybe because it is so un-city like?
SCREEN ON THE GREEN
Watching movies on a mega screen while surrounded by the monuments on the National Mall is a truly spectacular experience.
WASHINGTON NATIONAL CATHEDRAL
While I'm typically a lover of modern architecture (and am not the slightest bit religious), the National Cathedral just might be my favorite building in DC. It feels sacred and reminds me of the old cathedrals in Europe. It amazes me that the sixth-largest cathedral in the world is in DC.
THE KENNEDY CENTER
I always feel fancy when I see a performance at the Kennedy Center. The view of the Potomac from the terrace is pretty great, too.
A CRUISE DOWN THE POTOMAC
I've mentioned before that DC never seems like a river city to me, despite the fact that the Potomac divides my home state from downtown. Perhaps this is because I don't have any rich friends with boats, so my view of the Potomac is usually from Memorial or Key Bridge instead of from the water. A few years ago we took one of those cruises from Georgetown to Alexandria and had the best time. I feared the trip would be overly touristy - but it was such a fun way to see DC from a different perspective.
THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART EAST WING
One of the few modern buildings in a city full of traditional architecture, and home to a great collection of modern art. I've always loved Pei's glass pyramids that serve as sculpture on the exterior plaza.
THEODORE ROOSEVELT ISLAND
A favorite spot for a quick hike with our dogs, Roosevelt Island offers another unique view of the city from the water. It is also home to what I believe might be the scariest statue in the country.
THE VIETNAM MEMORIAL
Such a sad and powerful place. The wall is so understated that you'd never be able to find it if you didn't know where it was. At the same time, the memorial quite effectively portrays the shocking amount of American lives lost during the Vietnam War. It means a lot to me - my uncle's name is on the wall. I'll never forget seeing the memorial as a child when my mom found her brother's name for the first time.
THE U.S. CAPITOL (AND THE CAPITOL CHRISTMAS TREE)
There's no denying the Capitol as a symbol of DC. I love it because you can spot the dome all lit up at night and glowing from just about anywhere in the city. The Capitol Christmas Tree is so much better than the National Christmas Tree (which is fugly in my opinion).
THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY & SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM
I visited this museum for the first time maybe 5-6 years ago - after the renovation was complete. I honestly thought that a portrait gallery would be the most boring type of museum - but it was fascinating. The modern art in the other half of the museum is also top notch.
It was harder than I thought to limit this list to ten (and my list would obviously be a lot longer if I included attractions in the suburbs). As a kid, my favorite sights were "the big pencil", the Air and Space Museum (especially the IMAX theater where I saw To Fly! on an elementary school field trip and thought it was the most amazing thing ever), the National Museum of Natural History (especially the big elephant in the lobby, the dinosaur skeletons, the Hope Diamond, and the rocks that glowed in the dark) and oddly enough, The Sackler Gallery.
I'm curious - fellow Washingtonians (both lifelong, new, and former residents of the city), what are your favorite spots in DC? Perhaps you have some favorite places that are off-the-beaten path (and I haven't visited?). If you're not a native, but have visited, what were the highlights of your trip? Never been? I'm curious to what's on your list of places to see in DC.
And who wants to explore with me? Take a photo safari of the sights? Check out the landmarks you're embarrassed to admit you've never visited? (For me it's the Newseum and the Holocaust Museum.) This spring and summer, I'll be the girl with the big camera around my neck embracing being a tourist in my own city.