USA Trip Part 1: Washington, DC

Since my post last week was on such a depressing topic, I thought it was time to lighten the mood and finally catch up on my trip posts that I have been intending to write. This trip to the U.S. was a first for me, because it was the first time I played tour-guide/tourist in my own country.  For the past year, I have been mostly on Willem’s turf, so it was fun to take Willem out of his comfort zone for once!

We left Haarlem early in the morning, and took the bus from a stop near our house to Schiphol.  Leaving Haarlem, I was very excited, but also sad because I knew it might be one of the last times I would see our lovely little apartment on the Grote Markt.

Passport, Flight, Ticket, Plane

Ready to go!

We flew United on the way over, which was my first experience flying an American-based airline transatlantically. It was not an experience I wish to repeat.  Usually I love flying…but 9+ hours on a plane with a 3-inch screen and no movies on demand?!?  Too bad I am too poor for airline loyalty.

We arrived in our first stop of the trip, Washington, DC at about 2pm. Miraculously, we made it through customs and immigration in record time. Our bags, on the other hand, did not.  We sat there for almost 45 minutes after we got through immigration waiting for the bumbling bag-men of United to get our luggage onto the carousel. Considering I had crammed my entire Dutch life into three bags, I was anxious to get my hands on them again. Luckily, they all made it safely onto U.S. soil.

Once we were out of the airport, we took the bus straight to the hotel to drop off all of our bags. Walking into the outside air was a shock.  I had forgotten how hot and muggy Virginia is in August. Oh, sweat and humidity, I did not miss you!  We were tired after an entire day of traveling, but we decided to immediately go out and do a little sightseeing before the jetlag caught up to us. Our hotel was less than a ten minute walk to the White House, so we set out with that as our goal in mind.

We made a loop around the center of DC, walking past the White House, the Capitol Building, and the Washington Monument.  Our pictures didn’t turn out the best because the skies had turned an ominous shade of gray in between our arrival at the airport that afternoon and our walk around the city.

The White House

The White House

The White House- the famous side

The White House- the famous side

Ignore how terrible we look after that plane ride!

Ignore how terrible we look after that plane ride!

Ominous thunderclouds behind the Capitol Building

Ominous thunderclouds behind the Capitol Building

We decided to walk back towards the hotel, but the clouds did not wait for us to get inside before the downpour began.  Of course my trusty umbrella was still safely stowed away in the dark recesses of one of my bags back at the hotel (I thought the Netherlands was supposed to be the rainy place!), so we got absolutely soaked through.   I don’t know if a violent summertime thunderstorm is supposed to be a good omen or a bad one, but it was certainly a welcome of some sort.

After going to sleep early that night, we woke up early on our second day in the U.S.  We got breakfast along the way (and promptly had to scarf it down when I remembered that it is illegal to have food or drink on the DC metro—seriously! Ignore at your own risk).   Our first destination of the day was the Library of Congress.

Library of Congress, Washington DC

Library of Congress

If you are a book nerd like I am, the Library of Congress is some sort of heaven. It is the oldest federal cultural institution in the U.S. and one of the two largest libraries in the world (the other being the British Library in London).  It has over 32 million books in 470 languages in its catalogue!  We got there shortly after it opened at 9am.  We decided not to wait for one of the free tours, and took a self-guided one instead. The building itself was beautiful.

Library of Congress, Washington DC

A terribly bad quality photo of me playing tour guide

Library of Congress, Washington DC

The Great Hall

Library of Congress, Washington DC

The Great Hall

Walking into the Great Hall reminded me of some of the grand European cathedrals I have visited.  Souring ceilings, marble columns, rich paintings, and delicate gold filigree adorning every surface—it is truly a cathedral of learning.  The highlight of our tour was, of course, the famous main reading room, featured in many movies. It is as gorgeous in person as you could ever have imagined.

Library of Congress, Washington DC

Main Reading Room

I also enjoyed seeing Thomas Jefferson’s original library, which is located in a side wing of the building.

Library of Congress, Washington DC

Original books from Thomas Jefferson’s library

Since I went to UVA (founded by Jefferson himself) I am obsessed with anything to do with TJ. I didn’t know until our visit that the majority of the core collection of the Library of Congress comes from Jefferson’s personal book collection.  After much of the original collection was destroyed when the library was burned by the British during the War of 1812, Jefferson gave his entire collection of books (6,487 books—a VAST collection in the early 19th century) to replace the ones that were lost. His collection included many books of historical importance, including hundreds of books written in their original languages.

When we got out of the Library of Congress, we walked the short distance to the U.S. Capitol building.  We didn’t go inside, but we walked around the perimeter of the building, to see the view from both sides.

Willem at the U.S. Capitol

Willem at the U.S. Capitol

U.S. Capitol Buliding

U.S. Capitol Buliding

From the south side of the building, we walked onwards down the National Mall.  “The Mall” is a big, grassy area that spans the distance between the steps of the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial.  The entire distance is 1.9 miles (3 km) long!

Aerial view of the National Mall (click picture for source)

On both sides of the mall are various federal government agency buildings and museums.  Of these, the Smithsonian museums are by far the most well-known.

All of the Smithsonian museums are incredible, and they are also FREE, but it is impossible to see them all in one day.  You could spend a lifetime exploring all of the different museums here. We didn’t have forever, so we had to pick one—and, since Willem still hasn’t left his childhood dinosaur obsession behind, we chose the Natural History Museum (home to a legendary dinosaur display).

Dinosaur

For all your dinosaur fantasies

Elephant in the lobby of the Museum of Natural History

If you can only see one museum in DC, I would recommend this one. It is amazing that the place is free, because it is a high-quality museum.  We spent almost two hours wandering the exhibits, and we still didn’t see everything.  The best part about the museum being free though is that you don’t feel like you have to force yourself to suffer through an entire day in the museum just because you spent so much money on the entrance fee. We saw what we wanted, and then moved on.

At the middle of the mall is the Washington Monument. I would have loved to go up to the top, as was possible a few years ago, but currently the monument is completely closed and covered in scaffolding. It sustained structural damage during the earthquake in 2011, and is still being repaired. If it ever re-opens, going to the top of it is definitely on my DC bucket list.

This is what the monument SHOULD have looked like…

By this point we were tired of walking- the distance from the White House to the Capitol to the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial may look quite doable because you can see the landmarks everywhere, but do not be deceived: you will walk a lot in Washington.  One of the symptoms of walking so much in DC is that you will ALWAYS BE HUNGRY. We decided it was about time to find somewhere to grab lunch.  If you’ve ever been to DC, you will find out very quickly that there is a severe lack of lunch spots near the Mall (unless your idea of haute cuisine is an overpriced hot dog stand), so we got back on the metro and went to Chinatown to stuff ourselves with cheap, delicious Chinese food.

At lunch we brainstormed about what we wanted to do for the rest of the day.  During our past trips, one of the most enjoyable things Willem and I have done is to find a local sporting event to attend.  We decided to ask around and see if any of the DC sports teams happened to be playing that night.  A really kind woman we talked to told us that we could get $5 tickets to the Nationals game (DC’s Major League Baseball team) that evening if we got there at least an hour before the game started. We thought, “What the heck?”…so out of the blue we ended up on our way to Nationals Park to see an MLB game.

Entering the stadium

Entering the stadium

The stadium was really easy to get to on the metro, and it wasn’t crowded at all since we arrived super early to get the cheap tickets.  Washington was set to play Miami, a team neither Willem nor I knew anything about, but it didn’t matter. We were still excited. It was Willem’s first baseball game ever! I’m not the biggest baseball fan in the world, but it was still a perfect chance to see a truly American pastime.  How much more American can you get on your first trip to the U.S.A.?

DSCN8871

Nationals Park

DSCN8873

Nationals Park

A night at the ballgame

And even better? The Nationals scored two home runs, and Washington won! Willem was impressed with the relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere in the stadium.  In the Netherlands sporting events are more likely to end up with streakers, drunken fights, and police in riot gear than a hand-holding rendition of “Take me out to the ball game” followed by children running the bases.

Our choice to go to the ball game meant that we didn’t end up getting to see all of the monuments and historical sites we had originally planned to see that in DC that day, but honestly, we had a much better time at the game.  The monuments will be there another day. But our experience at the ball game was much more memorable. And our feet certainly thanked us.