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Pandas and Historical Adventures in Washington D.C.

Time flies, I’m behind on writing about my recent trips! Back in November, when was already in Washington D.C. for the LISA15 conference (which I wrote about here), I decided to take some time to see the sights and visit with my friend Danita who came down for the weekend from Philadelphia.

It was great meeting up with her, we stayed at The George hotel on Capitol Hill, which was just a brisk walk away from The National Mall where all the Smithsonian Museums are. But first, there was the National Zoo!

I’d been to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo before as a youth, and on this trip I actually went here multiple times since the LISA15 hotel was less than a mile away. I had a drizzle-filled adventure on Tuesday when I got in, where I walked the whole zoo. That’s the day when I took most of my photos, including all the lions! Unfortunately I only got a quick glimpse of a panda right before it went inside to escape the rain, so I went back on Friday during a conference lunch break. The Friday trip gave me a chance to see a sleeping panda. Danita arrived Friday evening, so on Saturday morning we decided to go back together for one last glimpse, and that’s when I saw a very awake panda! I took a bunch of pictures of the panda eating, walking, playing with a toy. Lots of fun.

More photos from the zoo here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pleia2/albums/72157661018394046

After swinging by our hotel to drop off our bags, Saturday continued with a visit to the National Museum of the American Indian. It’s one of the few Smithsonian museums I hadn’t been to, so I was really excited to see it. I had also recently read an article about The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire exhibit that I really wanted to see.

We took the advice of a friend and many guide books and first had lunch in the museum cafe. They had a wonderful assortment of native american dishes spanning both continents – a far cry from most museum food! The permanent exhibits are worth the visit, but I also really enjoyed the Inka exhibit. We made it in time for one of their complimentary afternoon tours of the exhibit, where our tour guide Jay walked us through Inka history and geography throughout the incredible roads they created and were recently made a world heritage site.

The rest of the afternoon was spent over at the Air and Space Museum. A classic, but one I barely remembered, so it was nice to go back. While I was there I also peeked in on the Art of the Airport Tower exhibit and picked up the book. I also picked up a new appreciation for airport towers and on subsequent flights (over Thanksgiving) have made a point to check them out upon landing. Our evening was spent at an Irish pub behind our hotel, where I had a whiskey and hard cider cocktail (it’s not “mixing” if they mix it for you!).

Sunday morning we were up bright and early to go to Ford’s Theatre. The theater itself is a nice one, and they still have plays in it, but of course the major draw is getting to see the presidential box where President Lincoln was shot. After exploring the theater and seeing the box, you go downstairs where they have a surprisingly thorough museum for the basement space it’s in, walking through Lincoln’s presidency with various artifacts, videos and stories.

Ford’s Theatre, presidential box

After the theater, the museum continues across the street at the Petersen House (a boarding house) where he actually died. You first see the downstairs rooms, where all the furniture was sadly unoriginal (contemporary and near contemporary collectors took pieces after his death) and the room where he died, along with a recreation of the bedspread and wallpaper painstakingly created from the only known photo taken at the time (see this article for the photo). Then you take an elevator up several floors to another museum that gives you an immersive and dark tour of the days following Lincoln’s death, including his funerary procession and a large section devoted to the hunt for his assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

As we walked through the gift shops at the conclusion of our tour I was forced to admit to my companion that Lincoln is not one of my favorite presidents. When reflecting on the powers our current presidents use in times of conflict, it’s frightening to think of them going as far as Lincoln did to preserve the union. Many argue that the ends justified the means, but I’m sure it was a terrifying time to be someone who didn’t agree with the government, regardless of north/south allegiance.

Speaking of our founding fathers, our next trip was a visit to the National Archives Museum where the Declaration of Independence, Constitution of the United States, and Bill of Rights are all housed. Before getting to the trio (known together as the Charters of Freedom) we explored the rest of the museum, which was surprisingly large! Even in the time we spent there, we only scratched the surface of what the various American-themed displays showed, and I’d like to go back and resume the adventure some time. We were also surprised to learn about their Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History exhibit, which provided a glimpse into how alcohol and laws around it influenced the history of America, as well as our habits around consumption. Fascinating stuff. When we finally made it to the Rotunda to see the Charters of Freedom, the main draw of the museum, it was clear we picked the right day, there was no wait to get in and we only had to wait behind a person or two in order to see each of them.

The National Archive, D.C.

After grabbing some lunch we made our way over to the National Museum of Natural History. Another one of my favorites, the museum is full of taxidermied animals and nature-focused exhibits spanning the globe. Their dinosaur/fossil section was sadly closed for major renovation, but they did create a temporary dino hall where a got my selfie with a tyrannosaurus rex. Awesome. Our evening concluded with some pizza and movies back at the hotel before Danita had to drive back home. I spent my final night in DC at the hotel.

My flight on Monday wasn’t until 3PM, so after getting a bit of work done in the morning I packed up and headed to a place that about a half dozen friends recommended when I mentioned I’d be going to the Air and Space Museum in downtown DC: The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. A relatively new (opened in 2003) addition to the Smithsonian collection, it’s huge series of hangers with dozens of planes, helicopters and space vehicles of all kinds. It’s also the final resting place of the Space Shuttle Discovery, which looms large over the other space exhibits in the hanger. The museum also notably has an Air France Concorde, an SR-71 Blackbird and historical planes through the years, and I love old bi-planes. Since I had a flight to catch, I only had a couple hours to enjoy the museum and this is one you could spend an entire day in. It’s really convenient to Dulles Airport, where I was flying out of. I was able to stash my luggage (just carry-on size) in one of the lockers at the museum and then take a local bus that runs a circuit from the Metro to the Museum and then the Airport – easy! And only cost a couple bucks. Highly recommend swinging by before a flight or upon arrival, I certainly will make plans to go again.

And with that, my DC trip came to a close. My travels home were a bit of an adventure, with a late departure out of Dulles and then storms upon arrival in Dallas. The storms were so bad that they shut down the air train, and with only a short time to make my connection I dashed across the airport on foot. Exhausted and sweaty I made it to the gate in time, only to then sit on the plane with the doors closed for nearly 3 hours as the storms caused more delays, and ultimately made us have to go back to the gate to refuel so we could take a longer route home. I did finally make it home though, if a few hours later than I had planned. Fortunately I had scored complimentary upgrades on both flights, so as stressful and long as it was, there was at least that much comfort.