Exploring History and Politics in Washington, D.C.

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Washington D.C. offers an array of memorials, museums, and attractions to explore for those wanting to learn more about the history and workings of the United States. Many government offices are open to the public and available for tours, free of charge.

Prior to visiting, I strongly recommended that you contact your local congressman or senator to secure tour tickets to some of the Districts popular attractions including The White House and Capitol Building. Complimentary tour tickets to the White House should be requested a minimum of 21 days in advance. Tickets are available on a limited, first come, first serve basis. All persons over the age of 18 must provide photo identification. NOTE: The identification used to request the tickets must match the one presented for admission. The White House provides a list of items not allowed on the tour, including purses, backpacks, strollers and certain types of cameras. Be sure to check the list in advance as there are no lockers or places to store restricted items.

The Capitol Visitors Center provides exhibits and public tours of the Capitol Building. Some Congressional offices will assist their constituents in securing tour tickets, while others host staff-led tours. Both tours view relatively the same areas, the staff-led tours, however are more direct, avoiding lines and are generally private. Security screenings are conducted prior to entering the building. Ticketed guests visiting the House and Senate Chambers are subject to additional screenings and all electronic devices are held until the tour ends. On the day of our visit, the House Chamber was being rearranged for the upcoming session. Each Representative maintains their same desk and chair throughout the course of their term, but the position within the room can be altered based on seniority.

During the Capitol tour, guests view the original, four-man, Supreme Court Chamber. Today, however, the Supreme Court is in a separate building nearby. Visit online to learn more about the tours offered and to see a calendar of dates the Court is in session and hearing oral arguments.

The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world and serves as the research arm of Congress. Known as the United States library, it holds the largest collection of printed materials, including films, maps, photographs, sheet music, sound recordings and one of three existing Gutenberg Bibles. Free public tours are given daily, or guests may choose the self-guided option to wander at their leisure. The Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building is worth the tour alone. Considered “one of the most beautiful public buildings in America,” no doubt due to its marble floors and columns, mosaic tiles and stained glass windows. The general public is restricted from entering the Reading Room except for two dates, President’s Day (February) and Columbus Day (October). If your visit coincides with these dates, be sure to take advantage of this amazing opportunity.

Most visitors tour the National Archives to view the original Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and Bill of Rights on display in the Rotunda. But don’t miss the other exhibits within the Archives Museum highlighting moments in history, presidential addresses, radio and television interviews, even letters received by the presidents with some very humorous requests.  Over three billion records are kept within the archives providing the ultimate source for researching everything from military records to family histories.

Along the National Mall, beginning with the Washington Monument and spreading out toward The Lincoln Memorial, are additional monuments and memorials that mark historical events and heroes in United States history. Most of the monuments are open 24 hours a day and Park Rangers are available to answer questions 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Paid tours are available to explore these structures and hear details from knowledgeable guides. Free downloadable maps and walking tours are available online. Be advised, however, everything in D.C. is a little further apart than it appears on a map and to see all the monuments involves a great deal of walking.

Capital Bikeshare is a great option to cover the distance between the memorials. As a bike sharing service, users purchase a membership or short term agreement allowing for the usage of nearly 4,000 bicycles from 440 stations throughout Washington, D.C. and surrounding areas. Riders must be 16 years of age and can choose from a minimum of 30 minutes to a full 24-hour rental.

One of the best ways to view the monuments is at night. Seeing the monuments illuminated in the darkness creates a calmness that allows you to focus on the true meaning and purpose of the memorials. I was stunned to find that even the dark gabbro walls of the Vietnam Memorial were more moving with lights shining up from the bottom onto the names etched upon the walls. Even if you have explored the monuments in the daylight hours, be sure to visit the Lincoln Memorial after dark and sit upon the steps facing out toward the Washington Monument for a majestic view. The White House is likewise beautifully lit up at night.

Some question if now is the best time to visit the nation’s capital. Touring the buildings that house documents, artifacts and the political institutions that shaped our nation is an honor not granted in all countries. Exploring our political past helps understand the politics of today. So now, more than ever, is the perfect time to visit Washington.

Photo credits: J. Ingersoll

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