Washington D.C. at leisure

The Washington Monument, Washington D.C.
The Washington Monument, Washington D.C.

Where do you stand with hop-on hop-off bus tours? Yay on the convenience of not having to take public transport or taxis to navigate between the important sites, and nay on being stuck in traffic? Unfortunately, once we “hop on”, we don’t easily “hop-off”. This held true when we once took a long mind-numbing long loop tour of Paris, not sure when to click pictures, or even if the tour-bus would be stationary enough for us to take the picture.

Now back to the topic at hand, in our first trip to Washington DC in the summer of 2008, where we had only one day to check off everything on a tourist’s must do list, and there were 5 people in our group, a hop on – hop off bus tour seemed like the easy way to get 5 people from point A to point B. We hopped off to see the Capitol from up-close, hopped off again to click and get clicked with the White House, and then we did not hop-off again until we reached the Georgetown neighborhood. There we took a short boat cruise on the Potomac river, and then hopped back on the bus. In short, we spent an inordinate amount of our precious one day on the bus, and all the interesting sights including the Arlington cemetery and the countless memorials of men in bronze statues, seemed to pass by in a blur.

So in a recent trip to DC (Thanksgiving, 2014), we did things a little (or a lot) differently. We had very few things on our to-see list and almost three days to see them. Added bonus – we took a train from New York into DC, and thus arrived more refreshed, than if we had taken a flight or a car.

The rotunda on the second level of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
The rotunda on the second level of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Our first stop, right after checking into the hotel, was the National Gallery of Art. The fact that you can freely take photos alone has taken this museum to the top of my favorite list! But there are a few other things going for it – the entrance is free, the cafeteria serves decent food, the museum has its own free and excellent downloadable app which precludes the need to rent an expensive audio guide, and last but not the least – a very impressive collection of Impressionist Art (the one kind of art that I understand and appreciate). I was in a state of total bliss after feasting on the works by Manet, Monet, Camille Pissarro, Renoir, Matisse, Cezanne, and the very distinctive pointillist strokes of Van Gogh. But Impressionist Art is only a very small portion of the Gallery’s art collection.  Apart from brilliant masterpieces by Raphael and Rembrandt, the Gallery also has on display the only painting by Leonardo Da Vinci in the Americas – Ginevra de Benci, painted in the same enigmatic style as the Mona Lisa but considerably more austere.

Here is a gallery of some of the paintings at the Gallery. Hover over the painting’s photo to see the painting’s name and its painter.

The next day we left downtown DC to visit the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I have a special fondness for all places of worship – not only do they display stunning architecture on the outside and magnificent art on the inside, but also they offer peace and quite and a form of respite to the mind, and this church was no exception. The fact that it was a very cold late November morning, and that the church is not within walking distance of other DC tourist attractions resulted in not too many tourists.

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington D.C.
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington D.C.

The Basilica is the largest Roman Catholic church in North America, and is one of the ten largest churches in the world. The blue tiles of the dome and the adjoining spire against the white facade are quite striking. The most striking feature inside the church is the beautiful mosaics extending into the ceiling. One of them, in gold, is very reminiscent of the church of St. Mark in Venice.

While getting to the church was easy (quick taxi ride from downtown DC), going back to our next destination, the National Botanical Gardens proved to be cumbersome. With no taxis in site, we had to use Uber to call a cab.

One practical tip for visitors to Washington DC – Destinations on the map may appear closer than they really are! The distance between different tourist attractions can be covered by foot, but be prepared to walk fairly long distances. And really bundle up if you are visiting in the winter months.

More to come on our days in DC.

I know that it’s an over-saturated tourist destination, but have you had any unforgettable experiences in Washington DC? Please do share here.

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