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Top Five Cities For You and Your Kids: Washington, D.C.
The advantages of off-season travel are many -- smaller crowds and better deals, to name the obvious two. When considering a family trip to Washington, D.C., it's crowd size that matters -- summertime in D.C. makes Disney World look sparse. A fall/winter visit to our nation's capital gives you the run of the town, a full slate of museum exhibits and cultural events and surprisingly mild weather thanks to the city's coastal, mid-Atlantic location. During a recent Thanksgiving weekend visit, our days and nights looked something like this...
We arrive at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, a grande dame at the northern end of Washington, D.C. The lobby is brightly lit by glistening chandeliers that hover over a series of seating areas anchored by sink-into-me couches in shades of red, green or gold. Steven sinks into one while I cruise around the lobby and read up on the Omni's history: the Beatles took over a wing, Frank Sinatra sang and Bill Clinton played sax here, though not all at once. Thanks to a recent $80 million renovation, any vestiges of the Beatles' visit have no doubt been removed and the entire place is fresh and inviting. Steven is presented with an OmniKids backpack filled with kid-friendly treats and we deposit it, along with our bags, in a spacious room.
First stop is the National Zoo, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution and, as a result, free of charge, as are most of the city's museums. We head for the Asia Trail, the zoo's newest exhibit area and home to the famed giant pandas. The paths along the Asia Trail are beautifully landscaped and there is bamboo everywhere. There are also countless signs reading "Stay Off The Rocks" and kids, of course, are climbing every single rock. Steven finds the giant pandas a bit boring (as do we) and is far more amused by the fishing cats, a smallish big cat that uses its short, flattened tail like a rudder when it swims (and fishes). Further along the trail we encounter red pandas, Asian otters, clouded leopards and sloth bears, the latter, predictably, sound asleep. We work our way back down the Asia Trail and head out of the zoo and over to the Washington National Cathedral, a grand, Gothic structure which is celebrating its centennial in 2007. This interfaith house of worship is the second largest cathedral in the U.S. and the sixth largest in the world and manages to keep a sense of whimsy alongside its many gargoyles and flying buttresses. The Space Window contains a moon rock presented by the astronauts of Apollo XI while Darth Vader's scowling mug is sculpted into the highest reaches of the northwest tower (no joke -- bring binoculars for the best view). Steven and I admire the cathedral's many stained glass windows and light a candle in thanks for our many blessings.
Back at the hotel, we ready ourselves for Thanksgiving Dinner at Robert's, the Omni's modern, elegant dining room. A buffet is set up at various stations at one end of the room and its tantalizing aromas marry beautifully with a pianist seated nearby. We feast on moist turkey breast, a butter croissant stuffing, sweet potatoes, three-cheese mashed potatoes, pumpkin duck ravioli, Brussels sprouts, a green bean casserole and a sweet corn and lobster bisque. Not to be outdone, Fen serves himself a companion plate from the gastronomically complete salad bar. Somehow, we save room for dessert and revel in the flavors of the coffee cheesecake, though the purist in Steven prefers the pumpkin pie. Our post-prandial treat is a walk around the Omni's garden, which we've been admiring from our window table. It is the most delightful dinner in recent memory and yet the Omni tries to top it by leaving a plump brownie and ice-cold milk at our door. Steven declares the goods his and adds one more thing to his "I'm so thankful" list.
A tour of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing has been recommended by a friend so we make it our first stop of the day. Despite the solemn name, I'm convinced these folks have a sense of humor -- their URL after all, is moneyfactory.gov. Our tour of the money factory begins with a ten-minute film on how money is made. We are then passed off to a tour guide but not before being reminded that if anyone in our group touches the ceilings, we will all be booted out of the building. I know I'm safe since my kid is not quite four feet tall. We learn that the new 5's will be purple and green, making the color of money finally cool. Our poker-faced guide further informs us that paper money isn't actually paper, it's fabric -- 25% linen and 75% cotton and 100% wash 'n wear. The printers who actually make the money take on a ten-year apprenticeship before they even touch a machine, making the making of money one very specialized craft. Dollar bills are 55% of the production run and the largest bill ever printed was a $100,000 bill, of which only fourteen were ever printed and none used. It was Woodrow Wilson who graced the $100K note but we learn no more about the lack of circulation surrounding his denomination. Steven spends much of the tour waving across the thick glass at the various printing press operators, most of them happy to return his kindness with a wave or a wink or by pretending to hand over a stack of crisp bills. A nearby sign reads "So close, and yet so far."
Exiting the money factory, we look for the Washington Monument as a pointer to our next stop, the Lincoln Memorial. The fifty flags surrounding the Monument are fluttering in a stiff breeze, making the vista even more breathtaking. We make a left at the Monument and continue down the National Mall, pausing for a few moments at the World War II Memorial, one of the city's newer memorials and a solemn, fitting tribute to the men and women who fought in that epic battle. Continuing alongside the Reflecting Pool, we finally make our way up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Our sixteenth president looks vaguely at ease, surprising when you consider how much the ravages of the Civil War weighed on this man. Steven is struck by the size of Honest Abe, even though he's sitting in a chair. I read the Gettysburg Address out loud while Steven rolls around on the marble floor. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is next, a short walk away from the Lincoln Memorial. The endless list of names inscribed in black granite stuns me, even though this is my third or fourth visit to this memorial. I'm not sure that Steven grasps the magnitude of it all, though it is a great opening to talk about the horror and futility of war and why diplomacy and restraint are so important.
"You mean they need to use their words, Mom?" asks Steven.
Hunger calling, we head to the Old Ebbitt Grill for lunch. This power lunch spot plays host to captains, kings and an assortment of Washington politicos, though it's also filled with tourist-like civilians on this Friday-after-Thanksgiving. We're escorted to a table in the Corner Bar, also known as the "duck room" thanks to its wood paneling, claret jugs and countless decoys.
"If Dick Cheney walks in, I'm ducking" grins Fen.
A half-dozen oysters are the perfect starter and are followed by a creamy New England clam chowder (me) and a spicy black bean and chorizo soup (Fen). My crab cakes, the house specialty, absolutely sparkle and are perched atop a sweet potato-chipotle gratin. Fen's trout Parmesan is lightly breaded and napped in a flavorful hollandaise. Steven loves his hot dog and we all discreetly fight over his heaping side of fries. Not wanting the meal to end, we order dessert, with my chocolate brownie cappuccino, a hulking slab of chocolate drenched in espresso and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, the big winner. I wax eloquent to our waitress, who is quick to inform me that the Old Ebbitt Grill is the fifth-highest-grossing restaurant in the United States. It's easy to see why.
We catch a cab to the U.S. Capitol, where we have signed up for a two-hour tour given by the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. The Society is a private organization with a public purpose, namely to produce a guidebook of the Capitol. Yet another benefit of membership is the opportunity to participate in any prearranged tour, space permitting. Our guide, Steve Livengood, exhibits a dry wit that is a perfect counterpoint to the grandeur of the building he so loves. We learn that the architect Pierre L'Enfant envisioned this city-on-a-hill, with the Capitol as its crowning symbol. This location was also the ideal vantage point for the largest parade ever held down Pennsylvania Avenue, which took place right after the Civil War. Every soldier, sailor and marine engaged in the conflict marched in a parade that lasted for two days. The building itself was constructed over decades yet looks like a cohesive whole, a testament to the many architects involved in the project. Atop the building stands "Freedom," a goddess triumphant in war and peace. At 19' 6" tall, she is the tallest statue in the district and no other statue may exceed her height. The Rotunda, at the heart of the building, is the setting for occasions both festive (the awarding of Congressional Medals) and somber (Presidents lying in state). Steve walks us through the various paintings in the Rotunda and is especially eloquent about the oil depicting Washington's attempt to resign his commission after the Revolutionary War. Washington didn't want to be king, we're told, a quality which ironically compelled his countrymen to refer to him as "the God-like Washington." Steve then points us skyward to a fresco showing Washington being escorted to heaven by fifteen maidens! Had to be all Washington could do to keep his feet on the ground. Our next stop is Statuary Hall, where every state in the union is allow to place a statue or two of a favorite son or daughter. My Steve, Steven, goads Fen into a game of hide and seek and it seems that no one is bothered by their take on the statues' worth. We visit a few more grand rooms and end up in the Brumidi corridor, where the floor tiles alone are made of Minton China. While I'm not sure how much attention was paid to the tour by my two men, it's clear to me later in the evening that the seat of government has made an impression on my son as he peppers me with questions about this most important, and symbolic, of buildings.
We check into the Hotel Monaco, part of the boutique Kimpton Hotels group, for the second half of our Washington visit. The hotel's "I Spy" package guarantees that we will get into the International Spy Museum without a wait. This is reason enough for Steven to want to stay here but he quickly warms up to the Monaco's fanciful lobby, awash in blue velvet couches and candy-striped chairs. Fen and I help ourselves to a cup of coffee at one end of the room while Steven ogles the Christmas decorations at the other end. Spy tickets in hand, we head out.
A scant block away, the International Spy Museum is one of the hottest tickets in town. It's not clear that young kids are the target audience here, since the museum is filled with sophisticated displays accompanied by erudite text. We happily assume the role of "interpreter" for our six-year-old and inform him that the U.S. budget on spying is a secret but it's estimated at $30 billion.
"Okay, Mom, but when are we going to get to the spy store?" replies Steven.
I try to keep my budding operative in the here and now and shepherd him up an elevator to the third floor, where we enter the "Covers and Legends" zone. Here, we all choose an identity for the duration of our visit. I settle on "Greta Schmidt," a 33-year-old chemist from Germany. Fen assumes the guise of "Gary Wozniak" and I tell Steven he will be "John Campbell," the name that looks easiest to remember. We report to the next zone, where our identities are checked by an official-looking lady holding a large three-ring binder.
"What is your identity?" the lady asks Steven.
"Steven! S-T-E-V-E-N," replies my son. The lady chuckles and lets him in.
"And your identity, Ma'am?"
"Um, uh, astronomer," I reply.
The lady eyes me closely. "Did you mean 'chemist?'"
"Yes! Astronomical chemist."
I make it in. Fen answers the lady's questions without a hitch and we are all soon into the heart of the Spy Museum, a collection of display cases, videos and interactive exhibits that have to make this one of the more high-tech museums in the city. We see spy cameras and (electronic) bugs and photos of an Eastern European spy wrapped around a car engine in his attempt to make a mad dash across the border. Steven crawls through a makeshift air duct with about a dozen other intrepid kids and returns to ogle an umbrella that shoots a poison dart. We spend well over an hour in gewgaw heaven before waving goodbye to photos of Mata Hari and heading for the spy store. Fen and Steven go back and forth while they decide what gadget will be best for Steven and I soon realize that it's all about what will be best for BOTH of my spies. They settle on a laser trip wire kit which we immediately take back to the Monaco to "check out."
Our room at the Monaco is a study in cozy modernity. The geometric headboard is paired with the softest butter yellow duvet while the wing chairs are napped in jewel tones. Fen and Steven quickly suss out the best angles in the room and set up a three-point trip wire system which will activate every time a "spy" walks by. I am invariably the spy and continually set the system off as I unpack our bags. I am skewered mercilessly by my two operatives and call a lunch break to save my tattered reputation.
We settle on a long walk to Union Station since Steven was a train nut before morphing into a spy. The century-old building, still in use as an Amtrak hub, is one of the finest examples of Beaux-Arts architecture in the U.S. The station's gilded halls have been transformed into a shopping/dining mecca and we quickly find a place to eat. Duly sated, we take the Metro over to the National Building Museum, another grand concourse replete with massive marble columns along its perimeter. Fen, Steven and a gaggle of kids quickly set about building an "arch" out of soft blocks and are surprised at the challenge it presents. Success achieved, my boys move on to the "Building Zone," an architectural proving ground for kids. Our last stop of the day is the U.S. Navy Memorial and Naval Heritage Center, which screens educational and adventurous films for budding seamen. We grip the edge of our seats for "Sea Air Land," a movie about Navy Seals, and then walk back to the Monaco, happy to be on terra firma.
Dinner on this evening is at ESPNZone, a playground for kids of all ages. We snag a table in the Screening Room, which has one very large large-screen TV surrounded by twelve smaller screens. Our table has a nifty switch which allows you to get an audio feed from any of the twelve small screens, all showing different sporting events. Steven surprises us by selecting the rodeo show and we chow down on succulent ribs and chicken while keeping up with bucking broncs. Post-meal, we repair to the downstairs Game Arena, a 10,000-square-foot fun zone where a Sports Card gets you plays on a variety of games. Steven and Fen pong between air hockey, jet skis and simulated roller coasters. The adrenaline rush is enough to put my youngster up and over the top and we soon pad back to the Monaco, ready for sleep.
Steven straps on his new Kimpton Kids backpack, bursting with kid-friendly things, as we get ready to explore some more. The National Museum of the American Indian is the newest museum on the National Mall and arguably the best. Aficionados of Air and Space may shout "no way!" but the proof is in the (Indian) pudding. Opened in 2004, the cream-colored building is a stunning piece of architecture and calls to mind wind, water and communion with the natural world. Inside, the level of interactivity is perfect for kids and the subject matter especially intriguing to those studying Native Americans in school. Steven is charmed by the Interactive Learning Center and its computer stations that allow you to send electronic postcards to friends back home. My young son also can't seem to take his eyes off an amazing makeshift fishing vehicle used by the Metis people of Canada. Easy-to-grasp videos are playing everywhere and pair beautifully with touch-screen terminals sporting a nifty magnifying-glass feature, the better to examine Native American bead work and other crafts up close. After almost two hours, we are starving and head down to the museum's cafe for lunch.
Mitsitam Cafe is no ordinary museum cafe. Translating to "Let's eat!" the cafeteria-style setup is broken down by tribal zones e.g. Northern Woodlands, Meso America and Great Plains and offers a mouth-watering array of native foods. Steven settles on buffalo chili paired with honey-drenched fry bread while I go for the stuffed green peppers and a side of corn pone with a dreamy wild mushroom sauce. I ladle some of my mushroom sauce on Fen's shredded buffalo sandwich and create a memorable meal for him. The cafe's glass walls look outside and in, with the interior view directly into one of the two excellent museum stores. We peruse the many excellent children's books post-lunch before taking the Metro to our next, and next to last, adventure of the trip.
Bike and Roll DC provides bike rentals as well as bicycle tours of the city center. We sign up for the "Bike the Sites" tour and have the great good fortune of landing Matt, a bright, energetic and idealistic graduate of the University of Virginia, as our tour guide. I am quickly reminded why it is so important to invest in a guided tour: the level of information, as well as the locals' perspective, are priceless. We pedal up to the Washington Monument first, Steven filled with glee at being on a tag-along wheel attached to Fen's bike. The view from here, once again, is arresting and perhaps even more so in the late afternoon light. We drop down the hill and cruise by the memorials we had visited days earlier, hearing bits and pieces of trivia that add a new depth to what we're seeing. It turns out that the architect Maya Lin had first submitted the drawing for the future Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a class project at Yale -- and her professor gave her a B! At the Albert Einstein Memorial, we take turns standing at a certain spot in front of the Einsteinian bronze and speak to it, hearing our words reflected back to us as if in stereo. It may not be E=MC2 but it's pretty cool. Matt also informs us that Bob Dylan and Joan Baez played at Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, something my rock-and-roll husband knew nothing about. Our last two stops prove to be the most surprising, and special. The FDR Memorial, arrayed over 7 1/2 acres snug against the Potomac River, is a valentine to this wartime President who endured great personal (polio) and professional (WWII) hardship during his four terms in office. We leave with a new-found appreciation for the man and his plan. At the Jefferson Memorial, the 19-foot-tall bronze statue of our third President gleams as the day's last shards of light filter through the temple's columns. It is a beautiful moment that's not lost on any of us. We pedal back at dusk and smile and laugh all the way back to our hotel.
The National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden Ice Rink is open from November to March so we decide to make it the last stop of our holiday weekend. We arrive at the 10 a.m. opening and are the first ones on the rink. The fountain that anchors the Sculpture Garden during the summer months has been topped by a sheet of ice for the benefit of winter revelers. We circle the rink to the strains of the Beatles, a Christmas-caroling Elvis and Argentinean sax man Gato Barbieri and are soon joined by other skaters. It all feels like a latter-day Currier and Ives print and I couldn't be happier with the ending to our fun-filled weekend. As I glance over at Fen and Steven, I'm sure they agree.
Omni Shoreham Hotel, 2500 Calvert Street, N.W. (202) 234-0700 omnihotels.com. Doubles from $206; package rates and Internet specials available. The Figure 8 Escape Package treats winter guests to luxury accommodations, hot chocolate and cookies delivered to your room and an outing to the National Gallery for both culture and ice skating. Robert's is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. Over 200,000 lights adorn the garden, trees and lobby of the hotel during the holiday season; Santa will be receiving visitors in the lobby every evening till Christmas.
National Zoo, 3001 Connecticut Avenue, N.W. nationalzoo.si.edu. Admission is free; open every day of the year except December 25.
Washington National Cathedral, intersection of Massachusetts and Wisconsin Avenues, N.W. cathedral.org. The cathedral is open daily; consult the web site for tour times, if desired.
Bureau of Engraving and Printing, 14th and C Streets, S.W. moneyfactory.gov. Free tour tickets available on a first-come, first-served basis; line up no later than 8:30 a.m. for morning tours.
The Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, World War II Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Memorial are located along the National Mall and open daily; there is no charge.
Old Ebbitt Grill, 675 15th Street, N.W. (202) 347-4800 ebbitt.com. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Mon-Fri; brunch and dinner Sat-Sun. Reservations essential.
U.S. Capitol Historical Society, 200 Maryland Avenue, N.E. (202) 544-8244 uschs.org. Consult the web site for membership details. Complimentary tours available to members on a space-available basis for previously-scheduled tours; call well ahead to reserve.
Hotel Monaco, 700 F Street, N.W. (202) 628-7177 monaco-dc.com. Doubles start at $219. "I Spy" package includes accommodations and tickets to the International Spy Museum; other packages and promotions available. The hotel offers a hosted nightly wine reception and is pet-friendly.
International Spy Museum, 800 F Street, N.W. (202) EYE-SPY-U spymuseum.org. Open daily except New Year's Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Check the web site for occasional early closing hours. "I Spy" package (see previous paragraph) includes tickets to the museum; tickets available for purchase for pre-selected tour times (if applicable).
Union Station, 50 Massachusetts Avenue, N.E. (202) 289-1908 unionstationdc.com. Open daily with over 100 places to eat, drink and shop.
National Building Museum, 401 F Street, N.W. (202) 272-2448 nbm.org. Open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. On rare occasions, the museum may close for a special event. Admission is free.
U.S. Navy Memorial and Naval Heritage Center, 701 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. (202) 737-2300 lonesailor.org. The outdoor Memorial is open daily; the indoor Naval Heritage Center is open Tues-Sat. Call the Naval Heritage Center for movie screening times. Admission to both is free.
ESPNZone, 555 12th Street, N.W. (202) 783-3776 espnzone.com. Restaurant and Game Arena open seven days; reserve for the restaurant's priority seating by phone or online.
National Museum of the American Indian, 470 L'Enfant Plaza, S.W. (202) 633-1000 nmai.si.edu. Open daily except December 25. Admission is free.
Bike and Roll DC, 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. (The Old Post Office Pavilion, Rear Plaza) (202) 842-BIKE bikeandroll.com. Regularly-scheduled family tours, as well as custom and private tours (flexible start times), available; bike rentals and gear also available. Reserve well ahead.
National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden Ice Rink, enter at 9th Street between Constitution Avenue and Madison Drive. Call the Pavilion Cafe at (202) 289-3360 for up-to-date information or check the Gallery's web site at nga.gov. The rink is open seven days (morning through evening) November-March. Skate rentals as well as two-hour skating sessions available (rates posted at the rink and online).
Metro is the moniker for Washington D.C.'s excellent rapid transit system. Request a compact map at any station or at your hotel. The system is clean, inexpensive, on time and comprehensive.
Elaine Sosa Labalme is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA . When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and six-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.