Having just come back from a holiday to Jordan and a trek through the Middle Eastern Desert, I thought it was far too liberal for me there, so I felt the need to journey somewhere that was more politically tumultuous.
I have been travelling to America since my early teens and as an adult my yearly road trips have been something I have come to see with a mixture of excitement and the occasional flush of terror. Having previously journeyed alone through Death Valley, spent the night in a haunted hospital in Arizona and visited an abandoned mine up a mountain I’m someone who likes to fly in the face of fear.
Having said that, the thought of going to Washington DC with not only my Tunisian name but also a passport filled with Arabic stamps, I felt sure I would be pulled up by the TSA as soon as I stepped foot on American soil. I have come across issues in the past although a smile and a lot of patience is all I have needed. Few events in recent times have created such a divide as the election of Donald Trump to America’s highest office. There is no way you can go to DC and not hear the opinion of every taxi driver or tour guide. The nation is divided so what does that mean for Washington DC as a tourist destination?
My trip was hosted by Destination DC and Lime Management who kindly organised business class flights with British Airways. Arriving pampered and refreshed, I landed at Dulles International Airport with a group of fellow travel agents, I not only sailed through immigration, but we were greeted warmly as we passed through to arrivals.
On arrival we were whisked through to the Kimpton Donovan Hotel passing by the works underway to extend the silver line train all the way to Dulles making the transfer by train a possibility. Dinner and an early night were in order before taking a couple of days to explore the city.
Taking the Metro in Washington is easy and self-explanatory, with wide platforms and huge train carriages, it was a little different to sniffing armpits in the depths of the Piccadilly Line! We made our way toward the National Mall where we collected our rental bikes and cycled around the main sites on two wheels. I haven’t ridden since I was 16 and we rented bikes on a day out in Versailles, but I thought I would give it a go. Turns out it’s not like riding a bike and I was rubbish at it. Spurred on by my fellow agents I pushed on and wobbled my way over to the Lincoln Memorial dinging my bell furiously. This was the monument I most wanted to see, and Lincoln towered over me flanked by the carved words of his haunting Gettysburg address and his second inaugural address.
Out front you can literally stand in the same spot when Martin Luther King Jnr delivered his “I have a Dream” speech. Getting back on our bikes we were moments away from the memorial to M.L.K Jnr which was arguably one of the most inspiring things I saw whilst there. It initially caused an uproar that it was designed by a Chinese sculptor, but everyone was silent as they read some of his famous quotes written on the Monument itself.
Any war memorial is hard to visit and a visit to Memorial Park is enough to humble anyone. Everywhere you looked, young soldiers in full camouflage would be shaking hands with World War II vets, sat in wheelchairs proudly wearing caps stating their branch of the services and the war they had fought in. Veterans of the Korean and Vietnamese wars volunteer to talk to visitors and tell them more about the conflict. Even though the man selling bright red “Make America Great Again” caps was shifting a lot of stock, there was no skin colour, gender or race in Memorial Park, everyone bled the same shade of red.
Moving on, we were a more sombre group and so we decamped to a local beer festival to sample the fayre. In the afternoon, we headed to the uptown district of Georgetown where 18th Century Mansions can be found along cobbled walkways side by side with high end shopping and trendy eateries.
That evening we went to U Street, locally known as “Black Broadway”. This largely Victorian neighbourhood was built up swiftly by developers in response to the demand for housing following the Civil War. It rapidly became the countries largest urban community of African Americans. It was within this neighbourhood that African American businesses began to prosper, where the first bank, legal office and even Masonic Lodge was founded. In the early 1900’s through to the 60’s the area became a Mecca for public figures and musicians alike and now their images are shown in frescoes around U Street along with other influential more modern figures such as Barack and Michelle Obama, Prince and Bill Cosby (the last one has been repainted recently although I can’t think why). In its heyday the local clubs would host artists such as Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davies who grew up in the neighbourhood.
Following the Assassination of M.L.K in 1968 the area became a hotbed of social unrest with riots breaking out. Eventually the better off residents fled, and gangs took over. Nowadays the traditional “soul food” restaurants sit side by side with gentrified houses costing well over a million dollars. No visit to U street is complete without a visit to Ben’s Chilli Bowl, founded in 1958 it was one of the few businesses to survive the riots unscathed as police officers ate chilli alongside the activists they were there to suppress. We enjoyed soul food alongside the locals and in every instance, we were warmly greeted and treated to the best Chilli I have had in my life.
After a night exploring the clubs of U Street there were some bleary eyes in the morning (not mine thankfully) so we decamped for a massive breakfast on the waterfront followed by a trip to the Smithsonian.
This renowned museum is a collection of 19 museums, galleries, gardens and a zoo. It would take years to explore each exhibit, so we chose two of the most popular; the Air and Space Museum and the Natural History Museum.
I found both to be fun and interactive however you could see how the Air and Space Museum got the most interest, with its features on the Apollo missions, the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindberg and Emilia Earhart. There’s even the chance to experience life on an air craft carrier – not pleasant and I spent a season working in Bulgaria!
On our way back to the hotel we wandered by the White House to find it looks a little smaller than you imagine although with a hefty military and police presence. That evening as we sipped cocktails from the sky bar of the W Hotel, we watched as snipers took position to protect the President.
Our last main visit of the trip was also a sombre one as we headed on a tour of Arlington Cemetery where we were shocked to learn they have 27 – 30 interments each day and sure enough there were 3 taking place whilst we visited. Over 400,000 people have been buried there since the time of the civil war with 5,000 still unidentified. Burial in Arlington is generally limited to active, retired and former members of the armed forces, Medal of Honour recipients, high-ranking federal government officials and their dependents. John F Kennedy and the astronauts of the Challenger and Columbia Missions have memorials you can pay respects to.
You would be forgiven for not wanting to spend time at a cemetery on a weekend break but with flight times at just over 8 hours from Heathrow and with a wealth of activities for all ages and budgets, I would thoroughly recommend a weekend break to America’s Capital.
Contact me to arrange an exciting trip to Washington or why not extend and combine it with the Big Apple. Have a look at the trip I have put together.
Look forward to hearing from you