National Geographic Traveler columnist Christopher Elliott recently visited the Washington area with his family. His three-part series, Inside-Out With Kids, explores the D.C. region from different perspectives. Today, the outsider’s point of view.
You don’t know Washington until you’ve shared it with your family and a hundred thousand tourists all trying to squeeze into the monuments, the Capitol and the Smithsonian at precisely the same time during the hottest summer in a generation.
And folks, I know Washington.
We’d hoped to do what any self-respecting travel writers do when they come to town: connect with locals and see the city like a native. But our plans didn’t pan out — by some fluke, everyone we knew was out of town or on vacation — and so we found ourselves pondering a map of D.C. in our room at the Homewood Suites in Silver Spring on a blistering hot July morning.
Like any self-respecting tourist, we wanted to check out the big government attractions: The Capitol, White House and Supreme Court. As a matter of fact, our eight-year-old son was having a little trouble with understanding the differences between the three branches of government, so if nothing else, we thought that seeing them would help.
The White House, we discovered, was off limits. After 9/11, tours of the executive mansion are by appointment only, and we didn’t have one. What’s more, even a call to our congresswoman couldn’t get us on the list, although her staffers generously offered to show us around the Capitol. (Thanks, Suzanne!) We did, however, get to see the presidential motorcade speed past when we dropped by the visitors center. Oh, well.
The Capitol? Despite its new visitors center which features a slick film about the history of the legislative branch, E Pluribus Unum, the free tour of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate was something of a letdown. We weren’t allowed to the visitors gallery to see Congress in session — for that, we needed special passes — so we spent most of the morning admiring marble statues and almost being run over by crowds of Boy Scouts.
The U.S. Supreme Court turned out to be our surprise favorite branch of the government. It had the least visitors but it was by far the friendliest and most accessible. Want a tour? Step right into the chambers for an enlightening lecture about the high court. The exhibits were unpretentious and informative.
My kids were delighted to find out that they were qualified to serve on the court. Technically, there are no qualifications to serve on the court — you just have to be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. A woman at the court gift shop went out of her way to help my son Aren find a postcard. That sealed the deal for him. He didn’t want to become a Senator or President when he grew up, oh no. Supreme Court Justice will be fine, thanks. Wouldn’t surprise me at all if he decided to go to law school after seeing the court. I better get a real job.
I don’t want to give short schrift to the monuments and the Smithsonian, both of which would take the better part of the summer to fully explore. I can only offer impressions, since our outsider’s tour consisted of just a few days, at most, of dragging the children from place to place in desert-like heat.
We found that showing the kids Night at the Smithsonian wasn’t the best way to prepare them for their museum experience. You probably knew that already. These museums are not a movie, they’re not like a movie; more like an endurance race. A triathlon for the entire family, if you will.
The Air and Space Museum was wall-to-wall with tourists, and the Natural History Museum wasn’t much better. That’s not to say these museums aren’t impressive. They are, with their scale models of all the famous planes and capsules, and the gorgeous Hope Diamond. It’s just that there’s less of an opportunity to appreciate it when you’re part of a herd of visitors trudging through these great institutions.
We found that we liked D.C., but that the experience of being a tourist had less appeal. But we would return only a few days later. And this time, we would be insiders.
Photo: Christopher Elliott