The capital of a country says much about the nation. It is the actual and symbolic seat of power of the government. The capital is also the showcase to the world of the nation’s prestige, history, and culture. All capitals share in common the burden of being the ambassador of their country.
We have been to almost a dozen other national capitals in our travels. They all have been very interesting and informative experiences. London is wonderful. It is rich in history and full of things to see and do. I still clearly remember turning a corner and seeing Big Ben for the first time reigning over parliament. We were awestruck. Paris, in my eyes, is one of the most beautiful capitals on the planet. It is rightfully dubbed the “garden city.” Who does not recognize the iconic Eiffel Tower? Despite being ravaged by years of war, Berlin holds much of its former power and presence. The new dome on the Reichstag is a triumphant symbol of re-birth. The wall is down and the city once more united. The National Theater in San Jose is an architectural gem in the city. Democracy Plaza in the middle of San Jose shows the commitment of Costa Rica to its people. The Central Market is always busy with colorful vendors selling wares from all over. Each capital city has some unique feature that reflects the nation.
Washington D.C. is no exception. It is recognized the world around as the capital of the United States of America. When you stand in the Mall looking at the capital building, there is no doubt that you are in the heart of a great nation. The city radiates power and pride. It also showcases American history, culture, and achievement for the world to see. You may call it arrogance or narcissism, but Washington, D.C. is impressive to behold. It is like no other capital anywhere.
Unlike most other capital cities that evolved over time to become the center of their nations, Washington was purposefully designed from the beginning to be the seat of government of the United States. The basic city plan was designed by the famous French architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant in 1791. President George Washington personally selected the site of his nation’s new capital along the Potomac River. He envisioned a majestic city that would be a beacon for democracy for all to see.
Today the city does not disappoint. For visitors, the city offers more than you can see in a packed week of vacation. Even more, most sites are free. The famous Smithsonian Museums, all the monuments including the capital, the National Zoo, the National Aquarium, and more have always been open without charge to the public as a gesture of good will. So, for families, Washington is an economical trip too.
The Smithsonian Museums are considered America’s attic. The house an irreplaceable collection of original historic artifacts from America’s past. All items are the real deal. For example, you can see the Apollo 11 capsule, a real space shuttle, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the Hope Diamond, the original copy of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, George Washington’s wig, and much more. In fact, less than 2% of the collection is ever on display at one time. Since it is continually being rotated, each time you visit is a unique experience.
Taking our boys to see Washington D.C. for the first time was a truly moving experience. The look on our 15 year old face when he saw the Washington Monument was priceless. He was more excited to see it than Big Ben. Our 11 year old was giddy with excitement to see the National Zoo, but even more thrilled with the Natural History Museum. Each of us had our favorite site.
For me, the monuments still give me goose-bumps. Looking at the enormous white marble statue of Abraham Lincoln as I stand on the very same steps that Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, waters my eyes. The history is emotionally over-whelming. I have been there several times before and still read the entire Gettysburg Address inscribed on the wall inside. I recounted the story of the Battle of Gettysburg to our sons so they too understood the enormous importance of the battle and the significance of Lincoln’s speech. They will far better understand now when they study that era of American history in school.
For James Bond fans, there is the International Spy Museum (there is a charge for it). It has an impressive collection of real spy gadgets from the CIA to the KGB. Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated, is still operating both as a theater and museum. You can actually see the private balcony and chair where he and his wife were sitting that fateful evening in 1865.
Aside from the museums and monuments, Washington has great restaurants and night life. You can wonder down to the George Town area in the evening and be sure to find some excitement. There are also miles of walking and biking trails. The walk along the Potomac River past the Jefferson Memorial is particularly nice. You can walk all the way to Arlington National Cemetery past the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier if you want. You can even kayak the river.
Outside Washington, is the carefully preserved estate of George Washington, Mount Vernon. You can tour his private residency and get an in depth glimpse into the life of the father of our nation. If you become saturated with history, you can unwind at Six Flags Amusement Park (I am sure that George Washington did not go there though.). For a more sedate thrill, you can hike in Great Falls National Park and see the water falls up river on the Potomac.
Washington D.C. does a superb job as the ambassador for the Unites States. It is an amazing city with much to offer everyone. I think that every American should make the pilgrimage to our capital at least once in their life. As much as you can call me bias, I think it stands out as the capital of capitals.