Day two dawned bright and early, as I’d set an alarm to make the most of our short trip. Our first goal was the National Cathedral, and I had originally planned to take a tour bus to the Cathedral, and then use the $30, good-for-two-day tickets to get us around the city for the rest of the weekend. But we decided this would be silly, as most things–other than the Cathedral–were walkable or metro-able, and knowing myself, I imagined being annoyed at having to wait for a tour bus to get to the next stop on my schedule. So instead we opted to spend the money on a taxi for the Cathedral and get around on our own for the rest of the weekend. Travel tip–that was a good idea. We ended up using cabs more often than we thought, but we still didn’t come anywhere near to spending the $60 plus tax we would have spent on the tour bus, and the tour busses stop running at 5pm. I was a bit concerned about getting back from the Cathedral, as it is in a very residential part of town, but this proved to be not even a little bit of a problem. The Cathedral itself was, hands-down, the highlight of our trip. I’ve never seen an actual cathedral before–I’ve never been to Europe–and ever since I read The Pillars of the Earth I’ve been quite fascinated with them, though that fascination was restricted to google image searches. The National Cathedral was maybe ten times bigger than I had imagined–I was literally awesome; it inspired awe. I was filled with awe. Awe was everywhere. We spent a good half hour outside, maybe more. The gardens were beautiful, and this was at the end of November; I will go back in nicer weather. After taking about fifty outside pictures, we went inside to take fifty more. The light was amazing. The height was amazing. The intricacy was amazing. It was amazing. On top of the sheer beauty of the the place, the guided tour we went on–guided tour two of I don’t know how many throughout the weekend–was the most interesting and the most well done. The docent was extremely intelligent, kind, and funny. I highly recommend this tour to anyone visiting the capitol. And the second best part–second only to the actual experience of the Cathedral itself–we walked out to Massachusetts Avenue fifty yards from the front door of the Cathedral, my husband put his arm out, and a cab magically appeared! So much for not being able to get back to the Mall.
We asked the cab driver to take us to the Capitol, and he dropped us as close as you can get to the entrance to the visitor’s center without breaking federal laws–any closer and he would have been parking on the Capitol lawn. We waited in what at first seemed to be a very long line, but moved rather quickly–and thank goodness, because it seemed a screaming baby was following us around the whole weekend; I think the line for the Capitol is where where that all started. We went into the somewhat underwhelming visitor’s center–though we both appreciated the plethora of restrooms–and went to the ticketing desk. I’d spent about twenty minutes filling out a tiny form on my iPhone the night before, reserving timed tickets for us which, it turned out, was all together unnecessary, as we were about forty minutes early for our reserved time and the very nice ticket officer gave us tickets for the next tour, starting that very second, so we didn’t have to wait. We then got to stand in line again–but this was just to wait for the tour to begin, and again passed quickly; as soon as they opened the doors to the orientation theatre we all filed in and the 13 minute movie began. The theatre had stadium seating–sit up as far as you can, as everyone exits not through the doors you entered from at the bottom, but through doors at the top. The whole process was quite efficient, and after the movie–it seems all tours in DC start with a short film, this one of great interest, as it made congressmen out to be some kind of hero, which my husband thought was VERY funny–we were led off into the Capitol itself.
The tour actually began in one of those long, roped off lines–the kind that you expect to end in the It’s A Small World ride. But the efficiency continued, as one tour guide took one row each off in a different direction to begin the tour. We got to see the Capitol rotunda, of Dan Brown nouveau-fame, the old Senate Chambers, and ‘the crypt’, which is simply a columned room that lies below the rotunda. There was one guy on the tour with us–or should I say one OTHER guy–who was clearly there because he’d read The Lost Symbol, and he continued to ask the tour guide very obviously from-the-novel questions about the Capitol’s ‘secrets’. I could tell the guide was getting tired of saying the same thing over and over again–some variation of ‘no, sir, that’s simply not true’–but it was very funny. It was like the ‘Why Dan Brown is Wrong Tour of the Capitol’. At the end we returned to where we started, checked out the tackiest gift shop in all of Washington (no, thank you, I would not like a Michelle Obama brass Christmas tree ornament), and made our way back out into a beautiful November afternoon.
We walked around the south side of the Capitol, pausing near the steps to take a picture; my husband mused that when he’d been there last–ages and ages ago on a class trip–you could walk right up the steps, there was that little security. This time the entire building was ‘guarded’ by a waist high movable metal fence. I don’t really see the point in this, or how it makes anything more secure, but we posed there to take each other’s picture anyway. At least it gave us something to lean upon. As we approached the Botanic Gardens we noticed a very long line, and sighed–surely they wouldn’t make us go through security to look at plants. Fortunately we discovered that the long line was for some sort of Christmas Train Kid’s event–we entered without a problem through the actual main doors. Now, perhaps I’m prejudiced because we visited Longwood Gardens this past summer, but the National Botanic Gardens were a huge disappointment. The one good picture I took is posted here; I imagine that had we visited in the spring or summer, at least the outside would have been something to see. The inside, however, was insanely crowded and even more than that, extremely underwhelming. To stand in what amounted to a line that formed around the entire arboretum just to look at a very large aloe plant and cross a tree trunk bridge–no thanks. We stayed for about twenty minutes and then narrowly escaped before being crushed to death by people trying to get past other people trying to take photos of orchids. We will not be going back.
On the heels of this disappointment came a bit of a treat, in the form of the cafeteria at the American Indian Museum. That’s right, I said cafeteria. We read in our guide book that Mitsam–the name of the cafeteria–was your best bet for museum dining, and the guide
book did not steer us wrong. It was, of course, set up cafeteria style, with different stations for different types of native cuisine, and every geographic area in the Americas was represented. You could have salmon dishes at the Pacific Northwest station, buffalo bbq at the plains indians area, rabbit and quail in the Northeast, yucca and quinoa in the South American section…the list literally goes on and on. I became overwhelmed–which was in no small part due to the fact that it was nearing 3:00 and I’d only had a bland scone all day, and even that was at eight in the morning–and eventually picked the line for South American food, as it seemed the most exotic. This presented an additional challenge, as I then had to pick something. Starving tourist tip–when in doubt, find someone who knows what they are doing and copy them. Which is what I did–I pointed to the woman’s plate in front of me, that had been expertly ordered might I add, and said ‘I’ll have whatever she’s having’. The man smiled at me and made up the plate of food pictured. It was very, very good, and not just because I was starving.
We planned to simply visit the museum for lunch, but we figured that while we were there we’d check it out. It is the newest of the Smithsonian museums (ironic, as it deals with the oldest aspect of our nation–only in America would we have a museum devoted to the flag and a fictional character’s fictional ruby slippers before a museum devoted to that nation’s first people) and even from outside it was visually appealing–a very organic looking structure standing in stark contrast with the roman columns of almost every other building in the area (and the angular glass and brick structure of the Air and Space Museum next door). So we checked it out, and were glad that we did. The upstairs contained a history of the different peoples as told through their different views of the
universe–it was extremely well put together, and very informative. Looking at the similarities and differences–there were many of both–between the different tribes was extremely thought provoking. One floor down we visited a modern art exhibit from a Native artist who makes art out of sports equipment. It sounds odd, but it was actually really neat–my husband LOVED it. Back down on the first floor, there were native dancers and a large sand mandala being made. All in all we were glad we went, and not just for the great food.
At this point we were understandably exhausted, yet we made one last stop at the Museum of Natural History. It was open late–until 7:30–for the holiday weekend, so we stopped in at five o’ clock simply because it was on our list of things to see. It used to be one of my favorites, back in the day when I spent my lunch breaks on the Mall, second only to the National Gallery. But the thing about Natural History is this–it never changes. Thus, everything was exactly the same as it had been over ten years ago when I’d been there last. Plus it was crawling with screaming children–we checked out the mammals room, the dinosaurs, and the oceans exhibit and got the hell out of there. I still do love the sculpture garden, and seeing it at dusk was lovely.
We walked home–I think by that point my theory was ‘how much more could my feet really hurt’–plus we wanted to pick up a bottle of wine. Thanks to a marvelous iPhone app called ManGo, we located a liquor store only a half of a block out of the way, which also resulted in locating a bar on that same corner–yes, we stopped at a bar AFTER stopping to pick up wine–and I had THE BEST SANGRIA EVER. The place is called McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood and is located at 9th and F St. NW. I found–only after googling it to give it a review–that this is actually a chain of related restaurants, all having something to do with seafood or steaks. I can’t speak to the quality of the food, but the sangria was to die for. It started with freshly squeezed–as in right there in front of me–orange juice, and it only got better from there. Had we passed it walking again that weekend, I would have had to stop for another.
We returned to the hotel only slightly buzzed from said sangria and got ready for dinner at Zaytinya, which was thankfully only about a block and a half from our hotel. Zaytinya specializes in middle eastern small plates, or mezze. We ordered several to share; we had goat cheese wrapped around sun dried tomatoes, rolled in black pepper and wrapped in grape leaves, a trio of spreads with warm pita bread that continued to arrive fresh at our table, and a selection of meat and seafood dishes that I can’t remember–aside from the veal cheeks in some sort of puree that I loved. I know there were scallops, and my husband had short ribs…and I had two drinks that were considered a house specialty that I cannot name, but I remember that A. they involved pomegranate and B. thinking ‘damn this is strong’, so that could have something to do with my not remembering the rest. The meal was very good–the drinks were even better, and we stumbled up the street and back to the hotel for the evening.