Go World Travel is reader-supported and may earn a commission from purchases made through links in this piece.
I had wedged myself into a corner, squatting on my haunches and trying to avoid the crowds, while watching a troop of lowland gorillas behind the 3” thick glass-enclosed exhibit.
As I looked on, a simian female ambled over to my corner, gave me a cursory glance through the glass before sitting down beside me and proceeded to eat her leafy lunch unperturbed by my presence. It was an unexpected and thrilling moment.
The sprawling 163 acres of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, located in the heart of Washington, D.C., provides many opportunities to experience the world’s exotic creatures that you might not ever have the chance to see other than in a book.
The Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington D.C.
Founded in 1889, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute is located in Rock Creek Park in northwest Washington D.C.
Home to more than 2,100 animals representing almost 400 different species, the zoo is located entirely within the city limits of DC, but it may seem to be miles away as it provides a haven away from the bustling city.
Best Tips & Tools to Plan Your Trip
Like many zoos, you will find monkeys, seals, the great cats, and Zebras to name a few. However you will also find a true dinosaur, the Komodo dragon. You’ll also encounter my wife’s favorite, and based on the crowds, the favorite of many, the panda bears.
Giant pandas have lived at the National Zoo since Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing arrived in the United States in 1972 as a gift from China after President Nixon’s visit.
Their habitat has an indoor and outdoor area. Currently home to three pandas, on the day we visited they were found in their indoor habitat. Despite the crowds, we did enjoy some very good views of the pandas. But, be prepared for long lines and lingering fans crowding the viewing area.
On a day that was too nice to be stuck inside, the park was filled with generational families and chaperoned groups of matching-shirt-clad teenagers eagerly seeking the sights, sounds and views of the exotic.
Near the Panda exhibit, we discovered Elephant Trails, home to a herd of 5 Asian elephants. A quarter-mile path winds its way between the surrounding outdoor yards and pools allowing them to roam around. As we looked on in fascination at these truly huge leviathans, the immense tusked male dexterously used his trunk to retrieve treats from a puzzle-like container with ease.
As each new exhibit came into view, the countless, excited children and more than a few adults, discovered a new “favorite” animal.
Our First-Time Visit to Washington D.C.
Neither my wife nor I had ever experienced that right-of-passage, the 8th– Grade field trip to Washington D.C. We decided it was high time to rectify that inequity and made our way to the Nation’s capital over spring break. Maybe not the most opportune time for a couple of aging baby boomers, but if you’re going to embrace a childhood trip, might as well go when the area will be over-ran by newly minted teenagers.
Settling into the Grand Hyatt in downtown Washington D.C. for our base and its central location allowed us to walk to virtually all the sights we were seeking.
The White House and Capitol Building on Pennsylvania Avenue
Pennsylvania Avenue is sometimes referred to as America’s Main Street and may be the most famous street in America. The avenue runs for 6 miles inside of the District of Columbia. The one mile of Pennsylvania Avenue is far and away the most famed section of this ribbon of concrete.
The U.S. Capitol Building and the White House are both enduringly familiar at a distance, but up close they are incredible visages.
Taking tours of either building takes a great deal of pre-planning and a little luck. We failed at both. We were unable to procure tours of either. However, we discovered that both have wonderful visitor centers that are a must-visit.
The Iconic U.S. Capital
The U.S. Capitol is one of the most iconic and monumental buildings in Washington DC. Crowned by a magnificent white, cast-iron dome that overlooks the city, it is topped by the bronze Statue of Freedom.
Standing before the Capital where so much history, both good and bad, had occurred was mesmerizing and a little bit humbling.
The underground Capitol’s visitor center is located 18’ below street level beneath the Capitol. In the center’s Emancipation Hall, we were able to see the plaster model of the Statue of Freedom. Twenty-four statues were scattered throughout representing a diversity of individuals from various states of the Union. Two intriguing ones were King Kamehameha of Hawaii and Jack Swigert of Colorado.
Historical documents, relics and interactive displays provide a history to the Capitol’s major events. Among the artifacts are a letter from George Washington to the Continental Congress reporting the defeat of the British at Yorktown and Franklin Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech.
The White House
Gazing through the black wrought-iron fence at the most famous portico in the country, if not the world, with dozens of other would-be gate crashers was as close as we got to the venerable home to the Presidents.
Viewing the White House from even a half-a-block away gave us a brief but palpable breath-taking moment. This was the building whose image we’d seen a thousand times before. The building which had housed, what many have said, are the most powerful men in the world. It was both an awe-inspiring and humbling moment.
The White House Visitor Center sits kitty-corner from the White House in the Herbert Hoover Building. As we passed through the security checkpoint, emptying our pockets prior to entering the metal detector I could not help but feel we were being given a full taste of what it’s like to enter the White House. In truth, this is the same experience required for entry into any federal building. A sign of the times.
The history laid out before us was fascinating. A model of the White House provided an introductory timeline of White House history and when the additions of the East and West Wings were added.
A great deal of the personal lives of the presidents and their first ladies is revealed and, especially the impact that many of them had on the White House itself. Traditions, furnishings and protocols are brought to light.
We exited through the gift shop which incited Kathy into purchasing a genuine White House Christmas ornament. It seemed the patriotic thing to do.
Where to Eat in Washington D.C.
During our stay, with a little help from the hotel’s doorman, we were rewarded with an array of dinner choices.
The waters around Washington, D.C. offer quite the seafood bounty. The entire Chesapeake Bay area is famously known for all manner of crab dishes, whether fried, broiled or simply chilled lumps of crab meat. D.C. is no exception.
Before we left town, we sampled a great many shellfish dishes.
- At Old Ebbitt Grill, one of Washington’s landmark restaurants and a favorite of former presidents Grant, Cleveland, Harding and Theodore Roosevelt, we dined on jumbo crab cakes and blue catfish.
- The Hamilton served a wonderful cream of crab soup.
- At Clyde’s, we ate lump crabmeat salad that was so good we ordered it twice.
- Finally, for a change of pace, we discovered wood-fired, hand-crafted pizza at Ella’s.
- And Capitol City Brewery and their award-winning Capitol Kolsch beer provided a refreshing respite on a warm afternoon.
Good food was not a difficult find.
The National Cathedral, Washington D.C.
America does not have many truly impressive Gothic cathedrals, so the National Cathedral is one worth visiting.
Since 1907, it has been used for state funerals for three presidents, monthly emergency unity services during WWII, presidential prayer services and 9/11 memorial ceremonies. Half-hour tours are held throughout the day. Removed from the rest of D.C. It is a striking monolith the rises high above the roof-tops in a more residential area.
Stained-glass windows, gargoyles, Gothic spires and flying buttresses would have you believe that the Cathedral is ages old. But the grand church was actually constructed during the 20th century. Though overseen by the Episcopal Church, the house of worship welcomes people of all faiths to its impressive site on the highest point in DC.
Driving through the quiet neighborhoods, we were not quite prepared for the rising twin towers that soared above our heads as we came upon the Cathedral.
Stonemasons and builders began erecting the cathedral in 1907, completing it 83 years later in 1990.
Carved from Indiana limestone, the structure boasts a 30-story-tall central tower, an interior nine-bay nave and 215 stained glass windows.
Inside the National Cathedral
Upon entering, it was difficult to not feel small and insignificant. The grand vaulted ceiling reached far above our heads with its limestone ribs intertwining like so many fingers reminding me of the childhood rhyme done with your hands, “here is the church, here is the steeple…”
The interior view provided a dramatic and almost incomprehensible expression of grand architecture. Standing nearly one-tenth of a mile away at the other end of the nave, the High Alter draped in red, rose above the marble floor.
Providing a regal backdrop to the altar, 110 carved angels and saints surrounded the sculpture of Christ. As we moved slowly throughout, whispering sounds of awe, it was difficult to take it all in. I found myself pulling my eyes from one fascinating feature to the next unable to focus on any one item.
With a little exploration, we found the stairs to the cool depths of the cathedral’s lower level, where we discovered a group of five chapels known as the Crypt.
Exploring the Crypt
Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, her teacher and companion, are interred together in the Cathedral crypt just off the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea.
In addition, President Woodrow Wilson was buried in Bethlehem Chapel in the crypt of the Cathedral; his tomb was moved to the nave in 1956, the centenary of his birth.
Surrounded by gardens, this massive monument to worship provided a quiet and restorative respite from the hectic crowds of downtown.
Millions flock to Washington D.C. each year to see the iconic monuments of the National Mall and maybe with hopes of catching glimpses of the Cherry Blossoms.
We discovered that the Capital also offers a rich culture, food and sites beyond the National Mall.
If You Go:
- Smithsonian’s National Zoo
- White House Visitor Center
- U.S. Capitol Visitor Center
- Washington National Cathedral
Author Bio: Frank Hosek is an Illinois-based Director of Human Resources who revels in traveling with his wife, Kathy. He enjoys discovering new experiences, meeting the people that make those experiences enjoyable, and sharing their adventures. He is a freelance writer for newspapers, magazines and travel websites.