Celebrating the Dead in DC

Elaborate memorials to the dead are everywhere in DC. Virtually every building in the downtown core is either a government office or some sort of cenotaph. So when I say today was devoted to death, it wasn’t really as morbid as it sounds. Death is just what this town does best.

We started at Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was shot in 1865. I expected to just have a look inside the theatre and be on our way, but instead we were shuffled into a very impressive museum containing loads of historical artifacts — including the gun that fired the fatal shot. After half an hour of reading displays about the events leading up to the assassination, we were led into the theatre itself, where we saw the box Lincoln was actually sitting in when he was shot. The whole experience was much cooler than I thought it would be.

After the spy museum yesterday, we thought we’d try the equally highly rated National Crime and Punishment Museum today. It had a crime lab, the filming studio for America’s Most Wanted, and three floors of thematic exhibits on everything from medieval criminals to 20th century gangsters, serial killers and cyber hackers. We loved it, but I can see how it wouldn’t be for everybody. The first thing you see when you walk in the door is Ted Bundy’s car next to a plaque that explains how he used it to subdue his victims. The rest of the place is filled with similarly sordid artifacts and information.

The museum also offered some kick-ass interactive experiences: you could test your skills with a (fake) firearm, stand in a police lineup, evade the cops in a high-speed car chase or tunnel your way out of a prison cell. One whole floor is dedicated to an immersive CSI experience, where you observe a suspect escaping a crime scene, then collect and analyze the evidence to figure out what happened. It was really well done.

After lunch we hopped the metro to Arlington National Cemetery. I mainly wanted to see the Kennedy graves, but we also sought out the memorials to the Challenger and Columbia astronauts, and the tomb of the unknown soldier. So that rounded off our day of death.

With our sightseeing done, we relaxed in a couple different pubs and basically ate and drank continuously for the better part of three hours. Ah, vacation. If we can stay awake we might wander by the White House after dark to see it all lit up, but we have a really early flight tomorrow, so I dunno.

Home sweet home awaits…

The Best Things in Life are Free

One of the greatest things about DC is that a lot of its top attractions are free. And I’m not just talking about walking around looking at monuments. We toured the Library of Congress AND the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, and it didn’t cost us a dime. I love this town.

We ended up at the Library of Congress almost by accident. The plan was to hit the Air and Space Museum first thing, but as it didn’t open until 10 and we were up and about long before that, we decided to walk down to the Capitol building to look around. (Google Maps says we walked almost 8 km today, not including the four hours of walking we did inside museums. I’m not sure my feet will forgive me.) Behind the Capitol lies the library, so we decided to check that out.

And was I ever glad we did. In addition to the beautifully decorated great hall and reading room, the library had a special exhibit of a Gutenberg Bible and the first map ever created that shows America as a separate continent. It was a history buff’s dream.

When we finally made it to the Air and Space Museum, it was Chris’s turn to get excited. We saw the actual command module from Apollo 11, the mission that first landed a man on the moon. We saw the Spirit of St. Louis, the plane Lindbergh took on the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris. We touched a moon rock. We walked through a Skylab replica. We saw a full-size model of the Hubble telescope. We got an inside view of the cockpit of an Airbus. It was all amazing. I still can’t believe it was all free.

On the long walk back to the hotel, we decided to stop and see the International Spy Museum. It’s one of the few museums in the city that charges an admission fee, but it was totally worth it. The place covers the entire history of espionage with incredibly detailed thematic areas, exhibits and displays. Everyone has to choose and memorize a cover identity, then you get a special briefing about what to expect, then you go through some exhibits that test your spy skills, and so on. They even had a special exhibit on 50 years of Bond villains that was pretty cool, even for people like me who have never been fans of the movies. Awesome.

One more day in DC…

A Welcome Change of Pace: Washington, DC

A note in our hotel room warned that the nation’s capital has the worst traffic congestion in the U.S., but whoever wrote that note has clearly never been to New York. This place is awesome. We walked around the city for hours this afternoon and never once encountered the teeming mass of humanity that surrounded us at all times in NYC. People here actually heed traffic lights and walk signals. Imagine.

Our hotel is not far from the White House, so we started our sightseeing there. We’ve all seen it on TV and in the movies, but I was still surprised by how small the building really is. After that we wandered down to the Lincoln Memorial, not out of any historical interest, but because Chris remembered the reflecting pool from Forrest Gump and wanted to see where that was filmed. Nice.

And now to rest my aching feet…