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White House Area Walk
Seeing everything this neighborhood has to offer could easily occupy the greater part of a day, or more, so prioritize and be prepared for lots of walking. This walk takes you past the core area around the White House and then offers two ways to continue exploring the neighborhood—either checking out the monuments on the National Mall and Tidal Basin or the government buildings west of the White House. In good weather the monuments are particularly enticing, but there are interesting tours of some of the government buildings as well. Many sites require advance reservations and few are kid-friendly, but history and art buffs shouldn't miss these hidden gems.
Whether you choose to focus your time on monuments or government buildings, it's easy to wind up at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for an evening performance. Along the Potomac River, the Kennedy Center is both a memorial to the late president and a bustling cultural center with six theaters for the performance of music, dance, opera, and dramatic arts. Time your visit well, and you could catch one of the free concerts at 6 pm daily.
Core White House Area
Arriving at either the Farragut West or McPherson Square Metro stop, you quickly reach the trees and flower beds of Lafayette Square, an intimate oasis amid Downtown Washington. The park was named for the Marquis de Lafayette, the young French nobleman who came to America to fight in the Revolution. His statue is in the southeast corner of the park. In the center, the large statue of Andrew Jackson is the second equestrian statue made in America.
St. John's Episcopal Church has sat across from the park since 1816. Every president since Madison has visited the church, and many have worshipped here regularly. The Decatur House just west of the square was the first private residence on Lafayette Square, and now houses a museum that shows the living quarters as they were in the Federal period and in the Victorian era.
Looking south, the White House, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, is straight ahead across the park. Tops on every first-timer's D.C. to-do list should be a visit to this most famous home. Plan ahead: you must make arrangements for admission months in advance with your member of Congress or embassy. For more information, stop at the White House Visitor Center, in the Department of Commerce building on Pennsylvania Avenue between 14th and 15th streets NW.
The White House is flanked by two imposing buildings you can view but not enter. To the east, the Treasury Building is the largest Greek Revival edifice in Washington. Robert Mills, the architect responsible for the Washington Monument and the Patent Office (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum), designed the grand colonnade that stretches down 15th Street. The building's southern facade has a statue of Alexander Hamilton, the department's first secretary. To the west, the granite edifice that looks like a wedding cake is the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, styled after the Louvre. Built as a headquarters of the State, War, and Navy departments, it now houses offices for the vice president and other members of the executive branch. The building was the site of both the first presidential press conference in 1950 and the first televised press conference five years later.
As you go past the Executive Office Building, note the green canopy marking the entrance to Blair House opposite, the residence used by heads of state visiting Washington. Farther along, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibits American crafts and decorative arts.
Seventeenth Street leads you down to the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The Beaux-Arts building houses an impressive collection of American, European, and contemporary art, photography, and decorative arts. One block west, at 18th Street, the Octagon Museum is actually a six-, not eight-sided building. The galleries have changing exhibits on architecture, city planning, and Washington history and design.
You could detour here to the left, cut across the Ellipse and see the White House and its perfect south lawn and vegetable garden from the other side. On the southern end stand a weather-beaten gatehouse that once stood on Capitol Hill and the Boy Scouts Memorial. By the southeast corner of the White House lawn, the Tecumseh Sherman Monument depicts the Civil War general mounted on his steed, surrounded by four sentries.
Otherwise, farther down 17th Street, a tour of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) headquarters lets you peek into a few of the 32 period rooms—each decorated in a style unique to one state and one time period—and the Beaux-Arts auditorium now used as a genealogy library. The museum on the first floor hosts changing exhibitions.
Continuing south on 17th Street, the headquarters of the Organization of American States, which is made up of nations from North, South, and Central America, contains a patio adorned with a pre-Columbian-style fountain and lush tropical plants. This tiny rain forest is a good place to rest when Washington's summer heat is at its most oppressive.
For a different view of the city without waiting in line, don't miss the view from the roof of the Kennedy Center. There's also a café and restaurant there.
A Monumental Stroll
At this point you probably want to make the choice between monuments and government buildings. If you choose the former, carefully cross the speeding highway that is Constitution Avenue and reach the peace and tranquillity of the National Mall, home of D.C.'s monuments and memorials. Heading east, you can't miss the Washington Monument. The elegant obelisk built in memory of George Washington dominates the skyline. If you want to go to the top, go early to the nearby visitor center to reserve free timed tickets.
To the west, see the World War II Memorial and continue along the Reflecting Pool, with the imposing Lincoln Memorial dominating the view ahead of you. On either side are the Korean War and Vietnam Veterans Memorials and Constitution Gardens. If you can, make time to visit the Tidal Basin, home to the Roosevelt and Jefferson memorials, and the Martin Luther King Jr memorial, scheduled to open in August 2011. Each spring the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin burst into pink-and-white blooms, and the city celebrates the beauty of this gift from Japan with a two-week Cherry Blossom Festival.
If you forgo the monuments, take Constitution Avenue to the west instead. The headquarters of many government departments and national organizations reside along the blocks between E Street and Constitution Avenue west of the Ellipse. Several offer tours or exhibits for the public, but always check whether advance reservations are required, and bring photo ID.
Virginia Avenue takes you up past the Department of the Interior, which contains a museum with exhibits based on the work of its branches, such as the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and U.S. Geological Survey. Turn left on C Street to the Federal Reserve Building, which displays special art exhibitions that are only worth visiting if you're fascinated with the subject or want to see the inside of the Fed; reserve in advance. Set back from the Fed, you'll find the National Academy of Sciences. It offers two galleries of science-related art. Robert Berks's sculpture of Albert Einstein outside the building has broader appeal and a shady resting spot; the creator of the theory of relativity looks—dare we say?—cuddly.
You must reserve a tour at the State Department three months in advance, but it's worth the effort. A docent takes you to the top floor's Department of State's Diplomatic Reception Rooms —usually reserved for heads of state and special honorees, and the great halls and gathering spaces are furnished with American antiques and art.
Away from the White House and federal buildings, northern Foggy Bottom is the home of George Washington University. The university has no separate campus, but occupies many of the modern buildings and 19th-century houses between 19th and 24th streets south of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Near the Kennedy Center along the water, the Watergate made history on the night of June 17, 1972, but the apartment-office complex doesn't look so scandalous in person. Famous—and infamous—residents have included Attorney General John Mitchell and presidential secretary Rose Mary Woods of Nixon White House fame, as well as such D.C. insiders as Jacob Javits, Alan Cranston, Bob and Elizabeth Dole, Monica Lewinsky, and Condoleezza Rice. You'll also find shops and restaurants here.
If looking at the Potomac makes you yearn to get closer, the Thompson's Boat Center, at the end of Virginia Avenue, rents canoes and kayaks in the warmer months. Bike rentals are also available.
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