Washington DC: Beyond the Famous Museums and Memorials

Politics. History. Controversy. War. Peace. Monuments. Museums.

Of course, I’m talking about our nation’s capital, Washington DC.  Home of the most powerful nation on earth, these are words we all associate with DC. But as locals know, there is so much more to DC than political posturing, patriotic speeches, and squabbles about health care, the economy, climate change and other life altering debates.

If you are visiting our nation’s capital, by all means, visit the Mall, the Museum of Natural Science, and The Air and Space Museum. Visit the Capitol and the White House. Don’t miss the majestic Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, or the many heart wrenching tributes to our veterans who fought and died for our freedom. When you are ready for a change of pace, here are some lesser-known, but worthwhile attractions, that are on the Mall or within walking distance.

Smashed Car Hirshhorn

One of the places I really enjoyed visiting was the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at 7th Street SW and Independence on the Mall. The unique circular museum opened to the public in 1974. In my dozen or so visits to DC, I had never visited the Hirschhorn before. But this time I did, and I was rewarded with some unique, interesting, whimsical artwork.

Before entering the building, a 360 degree walk around the exterior brings visitors through the Sculpture Gardens. Coming to the main entrance of the museum on Independence, visitors first notice a black 1992 Chrysler Spirit, somewhat awkwardly parked on the sidewalk. On top of the crushed vehicle is a 9-ton boulder of red asphalt with cartoonish eyes and a mouth. Titled by creator Jimmie Durham as “Still Life with Spirit and Xitle, 2007”, the piece depicts the boulder as the ancient destructive volcano Xitle interacting with the modern-day world, symbolized by the car

Sitting in the Corner Nude

Everyone has heard of Michelangelo’s nude David in Florence. Fewer people have seen the Untitled “Big Man” by Australian Ron Mueck, which is the antithesis of David. While the famous Roman nude figure in the Accademia is young, muscular, heroic, and handsome, Mueck’s sculpture on display in the Hirshhorn is an ungainly, large, overweight figure slumped in the corner, seemingly annoyed and brooding, perhaps bored with his existence. This larger than life sculpture will definitely grab your attention

The Quiet Solitude of the Isolated Franklin Roosevelt Memorial

The most isolated major monument in DC has got to be the beautiful, ethereal Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Far away from the mass of tourists on the Mall to the north, the FDR Memorial is located between the Martin Luther King Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial on the south side of the Tidal Basin. One of the newer monuments opened in 1997, the FDR Memorial is a wonderful chronicle of the period covering our longest sitting president. His four terms from 1933 –  1945, when he died in office, began with America in the depths of the Great Depression and ended with the country still enmeshed in World War II.

FDR Men in Bread Line

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s leadership and innovative programs to help struggling Americans through The Great Depression and America through WWII are legendary. The four outdoor rooms of this memorial each depict one of FDR’s terms in office. It seems fitting that the crowds are smaller, and the grounds are separated from the throngs of tourists. The heartfelt quotes carved in the granite, the splendor of the meandering waterfalls, and the ghostlike statues of FDR, his wife Eleanor, and destitute men waiting in a bread line seem to speak to us in their somber silence. Although a bit off the beaten path, the Franklin Roosevelt Memorial will awaken the slumbering memories of this paramount period in our nation’s history.

FDR Waterfalls

The People

Some of my most enjoyable moments were when I took a break from visiting museums, reading plaques, and taking photos. Those moments when I sat on a bench, or on a patch of grassy earth on the sprawling Mall, relaxed, and just watched. I watched a father attempting to corral his three small children as they scurried and giggled, playing at the base of the Washington Memorial. I saw an older man, wearing shorts and a military t-shirt, singing rock songs as he ran past the statue of Lincoln. Then I was entertained by a group of Indians dressed in white garb at the Jefferson Memorial, playing mystical music from their motherland, preparing for some sort of celebration.

Navy Cadet at the Vietnam Wall

As a former Navy Officer, I was proud to see a group of Naval Cadets from Annapolis, going for an early morning run. The cadets stopped and displayed reverence at each memorial before continuing on. These young men and women are stepping up and volunteering to continue our nation’s pledge to protect the liberties and freedoms we all enjoy. I saw one young man somberly viewing the names on the walls of the Vietnam Memorial, his reflection a foreboding reminder that he might someday join their ranks as one who gave his life for his country.

“Mr. Debonair,” said the homeless woman to me. “You don’t need any convincing. You know sometimes people have circumstances they can’t help. They need some assistance. I know you don’t need any convincing. Could you help a homeless person down on her luck?” As I walked down 15th Avenue from my hotel, this homeless woman approached me. I also saw numerous homeless people strewn about in Lafayette Park and other parts of the city, seemingly dead to the world. It was such a stark reminder that in our great nation, even with all of its riches and power, we still have too many who have too little.

The Smithsonian Castle – The Museum That Almost Never Was

The story of how what we now know as the Smithsonian complex of museums, 19 in all, is fascinating. A string of unlikely events resulted in establishing America’s best-known museums, and the benefactor wasn’t even American! James Smithson was a wealthy Scotsman, a supporter of the sciences and a proponent of the active collaboration between scientists around the world to further the expansion of ideas and applications.

Smithsonian Castle

In his will, Smithson named his nephew as his heir. But, if his nephew died and had no heirs, then his fortunes would be given to the United States government to start an institution to further the sciences. When Smithson’s nephew died six years after Smithson did, with no heirs, the Smithsonian was born. The Castle, as the red brick building is referred to, was the original site of the first museum, and has since mushroomed into 19 museums and galleries, including the National Zoo.

Fiesta DC Parade

Music blared from 9th street. A classy band dressed in all white strutted down the avenue, preceded by two beautiful young ladies holding a sign proclaiming their home country of Panama. Brightly colored dresses twirled as women danced traditional Panamanian numbers. Red and gold clad dancers from Bolivia added to the festival atmosphere. The Fiesta DC Parade, also known as the Latino Festival, is an annual event each fall, celebrating the people, cultures and music of Hispanics.

Bolivian Dancers

Founding Farmers Restaurant

If a restaurant has been the most booked restaurant on Yelp in the United States for the last five years, they must be doing something right.  I was intrigued to find out what this eatery was doing to make it so popular year in and year out. So, I made my first visit to Founding Farmers DC with anticipation and high hopes, yearning to learn their secrets.

What makes Founding Farmers special? It all starts with their philosophy of fresh ingredients from local sources: produce, meats, cheeses, dairy, and other ingredients. Dishes are made from scratch, and the freshness and flavor is readily apparent. There are three main locations for Founding Farmers in the area, and each one takes pride in providing the best from the local area.

Founding Farmers Salmon

The glazed cedar plank salmon with fresh sides of broccolini and whipped potatoes were delicious. Other menu entrees that earned kudos from our dinner group included the Yankee Pot Roast, Chicken and Waffles, Shrimp and Grits, and a flavorful Butternut Squash Ravioli. There are so many great items on the menu, it’s hard to choose. Founding Farmers also has a short list of great wines and beers to complement your meal.

Founding Farmers DC Sign

The Many Faces of DC

Washington, DC is such a great destination for visitors. Make a point to see the famous, well-known landmarks. Don’t leave without seeing the White House and the Capitol. Check out the wonderful famous museums and memorials. But also make time for the many other faces of DC. Set aside some time to wander through the streets, along the Tidal Basin, and through the Mall, keeping your eyes and ears open to the wonders surrounding you. You never know what you will see next

Scott Kendall is a freelance travel writer who has lived in The Woodlands, Texas for the last 25 years. He has travelled extensively throughout the US and has made several trips to Europe, spending much of that time in Germany and Italy. Outside of the continental US he has travelled to Guam, Alaska, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the Bahamas and Canada. Scott has been married to a wonderful woman, Julie, for almost 30 years, and is the proud father of two great sons....read more

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