Befitting for America’s capital city, Washington DC has an impressive array of world-renowned museums, galleries and botanical gardens – all within a short walking distance of each other. But with so many to choose from, here’s our correspondent’s roundup of the unmissables
Mandarin Oriental, Washington DC is a gracious urban resort so well situated that guests can reach the Jefferson Memorial by way of a nearby footbridge to the Tidal Basin. Just out the front doors, there’s also a wealth of the most diverse museums in the nation’s capital, many of which belong to the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s biggest museum complex. From the serenity of the Freer Gallery to the excitement of the National Air and Space Museum, several of the collections are not to be missed.
As tranquil as Mandarin Oriental, the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries are only a seven-minute walk from the hotel. An inseparable set of two museums, they show paintings, sculpture and decorative arts from China, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, the ancient Near East and the Islamic world. An underground passageway connects the Italian Renaissance-style Freer and the geometrically contemporary Sackler, an almost entirely subterranean space.
The Freer Gallery’s Peacock Room, painted by Whistler
At the Sackler, rotating international exhibits enhance the permanent collection of contemporary Asian art. Look out for Monkeys Grasping for the Moon, by Chinese artist Xu Bing, a whimsical laminated wooden sculpture suspended above a pool in the atrium. Among the objects at the Freer are nearly 200 alluring Japanese screens dating from the 15th to 19th centuries, and the gallery’s jades and bronzes are considered to be some of the greatest examples of Chinese art outside of China. The Freer is also well known for American-born artist James McNeill Whistler’s Asian, ceramic-filled Peacock Room. Painted by Whistler in 1876, the space was once his main patron’s dining room in London. The artist’s painting, Princess from the Land of Porcelain, towers above the fireplace. On the third Thursday afternoon of each month, the shutters are opened to let in natural light. But when the weather is inviting, the Freer’s elegantly landscaped courtyard beckons.
The Capitol Building seen from the US Botanic Garden
A few minutes’ walk from the serene Freer takes you to another world entirely. The National Air and Space Museum, taking turns with the Louvre in Paris, is the most or second most visited museum in the world. This spectacular museum houses the largest collection of historic air- and spacecraft on the planet. People rush to see the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer, the Apollo 11 Command Module, Columbia, and the lunar rock. Especially at weekends, it’s wise to arrive at the opening hour of 10am to secure movie tickets for an Imax show, a planetarium presentation; and to have a go in the flight simulator. For those too small for flight simulators, the How Things Fly gallery was designed for a young audience and is extremely interactive. Pioneers of Flight has been refreshed in the recent past, but the newest permanent exhibit, Time and Navigation, will enthrall those who wonder how their GPS works or what it might be like to share the road with robotic cars. If you are there on a Wednesday at noon, catch a gallery talk by one of the museum’s curators. And for unusual gifts to bring home, it has the largest gift shop of all the Smithsonians, with well-chosen items for children of all ages. The freeze-dried ice cream there is a firm favourite.
Head towards the US Capitol building and you will find the US Botanic Garden, where you can reset to relaxation and contemplation mode. In hot weather, the garden provides a cool, shady escape. Or when the cold winds blow, you can find respite from the elements in the humidity of the ‘Jungle’, a tropical rainforest room in a conservatory, which reaches a domed high point of around 28 metres.
The National Air and Space Museum is the most visited museum in the world
Established in 1820, the garden is one of the oldest in the country – which isn’t surprising as it was George Washington’s idea. With an inventory of about 65,000 plants, including 5,000 orchids as well as historic and endangered species, it covers all the bases in its mission: aesthetics, culture, economics, therapeutic uses and ecology. The aforementioned conservatory, built in 1933, has a central courtyard, exhibition spaces and 10 glass-ceiling garden rooms, with climates and vegetation from a diverse range of places, from the desert to Hawaii and the tropics to the subtropics. Don’t miss the Jurassic landscape, which features plant types that have survived for millions of years, before heading outside to the children’s garden.
An exhibition hall in the National Air and Space Museum
The National Museum of the American Indian, also home to the Mitsitam Cafe
Allow time for the organic National Garden, part of the Botanic Garden, on Capitol Hill. There are butterfly and rose gardens, and it showcases the Mid-Atlantic’s great horticultural diversity. Across Independence Avenue at First Street is another open space with residential inspirations. Its centrepiece is the Bartholdi Fountain created by French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi, who later designed the Statue of Liberty. All peace and Zen, there are no gift shops or eateries here, but a close dining option is the universally praised Mitsitam Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian at Fourth and Independence, just a block away in the direction of the National Air and Space Museum.
Directly across the National Mall from the National Air and Space Museum is the neoclassical National Gallery of Art, which might have been called something else had its founder and benefactor Andrew Mellon not discouraged using his name so that other potential philanthropists would be more motivated to give. And give they have: every piece in the collection, spanning from the Renaissance to the modern day, has been directly donated or purchased with their funds.
Masterpieces by Raphael, Monet and Picasso join the only Leonardo da Vinci in the Americas, Ginevra de’ Benci. A more unusual must-see is American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial, depicting Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, one of the first African American units to fight for the Union in the Civil War. The huge bas-relief is considered one of the nation’s greatest sculptures and memorials of the 19th century. In a 1997 Washington Post article, art critic Paul Richard describes it as ‘a sort of sculpted hymn to sacrificial courage and interracial decency’.
The IM Pei-designed East Building of the National Gallery of Art
Note that the gallery’s modern art sanctuary, IM Pei’s the East Building, is undergoing a three-year renovation, scheduled to reopen in 2017. For winter visits, the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden ice rink, open from mid-November through to mid-March, is a fun diversion.
On Pennsylvania Avenue, behind the National Gallery of Art, is a museum that demands a long visit: it would take all day to explore the seven floors of the fantastic Newseum, which is devoted to news and journalism, so plan at least three hours to do it justice. A satisfying lunch at the Wolfgang Puck food court makes it easy to extend that time, which is guaranteed to fly. Among the highlights of the Newseum are a section of the Berlin Wall, Pulitzer Prize-winning photography, 80 newspaper front pages from around the country and the world (chosen from hundreds each day), and a spellbinding film of 9/11 through the eyes of photographers and reporters at work during those 24 hours.
In the NBC News Interactive Newsroom, test your reporting or photography skills – on deadline. In another interactive gallery, visitors can address ethical dilemmas, such as staging photos and using anonymous sources. Before you visit, check out the Newseum’s Knight TV studio schedule for live broadcasts or lectures. Fans of Anchorman, the cult 2004 comedy film about a Channel 4 news team, will appreciate the eponymous installation, featuring props, costumes and footage.
For a breath of fresh air, head to Newseum’s long terrace where there are views of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Inaugural parade route. If you want a guided visit, 90-minute tours can be booked. Or for an additional fee, private tours, led by the museum’s exhibition, broadcasting and technology staff, can be arranged for before or after opening and closing times.
Walk about four long blocks towards the Washington Monument end of the Mall and you will find the National Museum of American History. A major renovation a few years ago has much improved the light and layout of this museum, which, from the first light bulb to an important lunch counter, showcases the nation’s history and culture. There are more than three million items in the collection, including a huge 200-year-old Star-Spangled Banner, Julia Child’s kitchen, First Ladies’ dresses and the ruby slippers that Dorothy clicked together in The Wizard of Oz. Visitors will also find a section of Route 66 and founding director of the Red Cross Clara Barton’s ambulance, not to mention exhibits relating to America’s history of entertainment, such as a Seventies Kermit the Frog puppet and a Fifties Dumbo ride seat donated from Disneyland. Another fascinating exhibit, Within these Walls, reveals 200 years of history through the stories of five families that lived in an Ipswich, Massachusetts house, which was relocated to the museum.
For older children and teenagers, the National Museum’s ride simulators offer added entertainment. They can try their hand as a Grand Prix racer or a deep-sea diver exploring the Bermuda Triangle. There are also frequent performances by artists in the vast new atrium. Whichever museum you visit, before heading out, check their schedules for tours and special events, such as lectures, films, book signings and concerts. All of which make for a memorable day out.