Entering the geographic perimeter of the nation’s capital requires most visitors to cross over the Potomac River, the very same body of water that when crossed by President George Washington in 1976, ignited the American Revolution. There’s historic significance in just about every street, body of water and piece of architecture in Washington D.C., where equal parts political actors and tourists occupy the city center.
Three airports bring passengers into the fray: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DAC), Dulles International Airport (IAD) and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI). While DAC is technically the closest commercial port of entry, the difference of 20 minutes shouldn’t deter visitors from using the other two locations. As one might expect of the city where legislation permitting public transit nationwide was passed, the Metrorail and bus system through and around D.C. are highly used, and highly effective. The U.S. Census Bureau reports about 400,000 people utilize the bus and rail every day, making it one of the most well-trafficked systems in the country. It’s clean, convenient and fairly easy to navigate.
From the city center, which operates on a grid of numbered and lettered streets, visitors can access an endless number of historic sites, museums and parks. Whether it’s one of the many Smithsonian museums, the National Portrait Gallery or Arlington Cemetery, entry is free, however a timed entry reservation made online may be required during peak season. Navigating between the Washington Monument, The White House and the Lincoln Memorial is possible on foot for those worried about their daily step count, but the city’s bike share program offers 30-minute free rides or visitors can test their balance on an app-based electric scooter by Bird or Lyft.
Protestors and activists are a regular installment in the alley between the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Capitol buildings. As a mother-daughter pair takes a selfie outside the high court, an elderly woman approaches them and asks, “Is this your first time seeing it in person?” The duo shares that it is indeed their inaugural visit, to which the woman replies, “See on the right what the man is holding? A book, that represents the law. See what she’s holding on the left? Scales, representing justice. Which is more important? Justice.” The woman stalks off, leaving the mother and daughter to ponder her words. Whether you agree with her assessment, she was right about the nature of the sculptures. The work of sculptor James Earle Fraser, the female figure on the left is the Contemplation of Justice, while the right-seated male figure is referred to as the Guardian or Authority of Law.
Interactions like these are commonplace across the city. As men in suits eat their lunches on a park bench, they can be overheard talking about a new bill introduced on the senate floor. A couple standing in line for ice cream cones discusses Roe v. Wade while an older man passing by speaks into his phone, “I guess we’ll see if we can get the votes.” For residents of the metropolitan area, politics rule. Between the vast number of jobs tied to politics and the literal passage of laws that takes place in this 68-square-mile area, there’s no shortage of topics to discuss and debate. “D.C. is like Hollywood. except our celebrities are politicians,” says Caleigh Bourgeois, a 30-year-old resident. “John Kerry shops at my grocery store.”
When the workday winds down and the dinner hour draws near, businessmen and women jetty out of the centuries old historic office buildings to find a place to eat. At the intersection of O and 9th streets, injera — a traditional fermented bread — is served alongside the Ethiopian cuisine of Chercher. Several blocks away at the intersection of G and 6th streets, Absolute Thai serves fresh spring rolls with peanut sauce near the arch that leads to Chinatown. And Mediterranean dishes like zaalouk, which features eggplant and tomatoes; sucuk man’oushe, a flatbread with julienned Turkish beef sausage and runny egg yolk; and the fluffy egg and veggie dish called menemen can be found at ala. The diversity of people in the United States is, perhaps, nowhere more apparent on the plate than it is in D.C.
On the other side of the Potomac River, visitors pay their respects to the American servicemen and women laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. More than 14,000 people are buried at this historic site with about 27 to 30 new funerals being held each week. Along with the typical influx of surviving family members and strangers, alike, the cemetery is visited upon each Memorial Day by our country’s president for a ceremonial wreath laying on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Groups of school children are led along the paved path across the grounds as they’re told by their tour guide that the property has enough space to continue accommodating new burials through 2050.
Those lucky enough to time their visit just right can catch a glimpse of the iconic cherry blossoms that dot the streets of this political playground. As early as the start of March through April, the spectacle of red and white flowers attracts thousands of camera-slinging tourists. Not unlike the transition of power that happens with each voting cycle, the flowers make their exit, demarcating the start of a new season. With each turn through the city comes a new site to see and another piece of history to explore. And because D.C. is a living record of the nation’s story, it doesn’t stop transforming and, day after day, month after month, season after season, continues to shape the way visitors experience this city.