Tag Archives: usa

USA 2019 – 16 National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington DC (2019-10-27) Photo Gallery | Travel Attractions 24 MAR 2021

There is such an incredible amount of things to see in Washington D.C. (even more so given my proclivity to all things historic, natural, and scientific) that it is near impossible to see everything unless you live there for at least a month. Thus, lists have to be made, and sights ordered in preference and importance, and this then is exactly what I had to sit down and do when first planning my three day stopover in the United States capital. As it stands, it is pretty easy to single out my biggest regret in terms of places NOT visited – the National Gallery of Art, one of the United States’ greatest art museums. That said, at least there is the small consolation prize of having walked through this institution’s playful Sculpture Garden – though I’m not sure if this makes me happy or just more sad at having missed out on visiting the real thing!

Sandwiched between the beautiful neoclassical West Building and the modern East Building of the National Gallery of Art complex, the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden is the most recent addition to the art museum, having opened its gates to the public in May 1999. It acts as an outdoor setting for exhibiting several pieces from the museum’s contemporary sculpture collection, and is anchored by a large central fountain which from December through to March is converted to an ice-skating rink.

Housing classic contemporary works like Roy Lichtenstein’s House I, Robert Indiana’s AMOR, and Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, the sculpture garden provides a small escape from the noise and the crowds plodding about the National Mall, where you can either amble through and discover work from names like Joan Miro, Tony Smith, Mark di Suvero, Barry Flanagan, and Roxy Paine (whose tall shiny Graft steals attention as you walk in), or simply sit down with a coffee and admire the view from a table at the artfully decorated outdoor Pavilion Cafe.

USA 2019 – 15 United States Botanic Garden in Washington DC (2019-10-27) Nature and Animal Attractions | Photo Gallery 23 MAR 2021

Situated on the grounds of the United States Capitol, near Garfield Circle, lies the oldest continually-operated botanic garden in the United States – the United States Botanic Garden. Established by the U.S. Congress in 1820, the botanic garden houses an incredible variety of both local and exotic plants, including specimens and seeds that can be dated back all the way to the South Seas exploration of the Wilkes Expedition.

The striking glass and aluminum curves of the gigantic Lord & Burnham greenhouse demands attention, and while you can enter the United States Botanic Garden through the imposing stone facade of the the main conservatory, a lot of people end up in the botanic garden by following the green (and associated tranquility) of the National Garden, which lies on the Botanic Garden’s west border. In addition to the odd sculpture or two that finds itself exhibited in this space, this outside garden includes a regional garden of plants native to the Atlantic Coastal Plain and Piedmont, a rose garden, a butterfly garden, and the First Ladies Water Garden, a water garden in memory of the First Ladies of the United States.

Then there is the Conservatory itself. Housed in the stunning, aforementioned greenhouse, the Conservatory is divided into separate rooms, each simulating a different habitat. Rooms included in this list are The Garden Court, Rare and Endangered Plants, Plant Exploration, Orchid House, Medicinal Plants, Desert, Hawaii, Garden Primeval, Plant Adaptation, Jungle (which is by far the largest room, featuring an elevated catwalk to walk above the jungle canopy), Children’s Garden, and Southern Exposure. The end result is a wide array of many small collections of interesting plants, and I have to be honest, I did break out in a broad smile when I stumbled across the small collection of our local fynbos on display.

The United States Botanic Garden is a wondrous space. Compact enough that it doesn’t take too long to wander through, but filled with so much colour and with such varied plant species (with the odd sculpture and mural thrown in) that you can’t but help meander through with a peaceful mind and even broader smile on your face. Easy to recommend if you are looking for a little break from exploring all that history that is housed along the National Mall!

USA 2019 – 14 Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC (2019-10-27) Historic Attractions | Photo Gallery 21 MAR 2021

There’s nothing more disappointing than finding your most eagerly anticipated tourist sight or experience covered in scaffolding and men at work signs. This then is exactly what awaited me as I, who suffers from a life long love and admiration for all things aeronautical, shuffled across the National Mall to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, having just spent the last couple of hours wandering through the halls of the incredible National Museum of American History. Clearly then the grey skies, dripping trees, and puddles of fresh rain water on the concrete perfectly suited that very moment when I turned the corner and discovered my eagerly awaited unicorn under all the cranes, scaffolding, and hard hat signs.

Of course, just because massive swathes of its space is closed for renovation, it doesn’t mean that the museum has entirely shut up shop, and so I joined the throng of excited visitors, cleared through security, and stepped into the impressive Milestones of Flight entrance hall, decked out with an incredible array of historical aircraft, including gems like the Spirit of St Louis, the Bell X-1, SpaceShipOne, and even the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia!

From there I wandered through the interactive, kid-focused How Things Fly exhibit, followed by a jaw-dropping walk about the Space Race floor that is devoted to all things rockets, including the infamous German V-2 rocket. Next to that was a hall dedicated to exploring the universe, examining solar systems and the instruments that we have developed to better study it, and across the passage, the Moving Beyond Earth immersive exhibition that places you “in orbit” as part of the shuttle and space-station era – allowing you to explore recent human spaceflight and future possibilities.

At the time of my visit, the only halls open on the second floor included one looking at the origin of powered flight through the lens of the Wright Brothers and their 1903 Wright Flyer, and another that focuses on Time and Navigation, detailing how revolutions in timekeeping over the years have influenced how we find our way. Hello GPS!

And unfortunately that was that. With about half of its floor space lost to the ongoing renovations, and almost the entirety of its collection of planes now stored at the museum’s secondary Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in nearby Virginia, this particular museum experience, while as incredibly interesting and engaging as what it was, just didn’t have what I was really looking forward to seeing the most: airplanes! (Spoiler alert though – the very last thing that I did manage to do on this particular USA 2019 business trip as I waited for my plane to depart from Dulles International Airport, was catch a bus to a certain spot in Virginia…)

USA 2019 – 13 Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington DC (2019-10-27) Historic Attractions | Photo Gallery 20 MAR 2021

My third day in Washington D.C. started out with grey clouds and a sprinkling of rain. Early breakfast at the hotel done, and underground Metro successfully navigated, I walked across the National Mall and up the stairs to stand in front of the solemn stone monolithic building that houses the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Of course it was at this point that the heavens truly opened and I stood in the rain, soaking up what felt to be just about every single raindrop that fell on that soggy morning. When the doors were finally flung open and we made it past security, there I was, a truly drowned rat that just so happened to have the most massive of silly grins on its face.

Originally opened in 1964 under the banner of Museum of History and Technology, the year 1980 saw the museum adopt its new moniker of National Museum of American History, a much stronger representation of its mission to collect, care for, study, and interpret objects that reflect the history and experience of the American people. Having undergone a couple of renovations since the early 2000’s, the National Museum of American History is a behemoth of a museum to visit. Spread over three exhibition floors, each with its own wings and lined with artifact walls, the museum is packed with a mesmerizing number and variety of displays, items of interest, and exhibitions, stretching wildly across the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific, and military history.

For those interested in conquest and power, the third floor focuses on the military history of the United States, as well as the American Presidency, and even an exhibition regarding the First Ladies of America (I can’t really explain that last one). On the other side of the hall, sport, music and culture gets a nod, and for my particular visit there even stood a temporary exhibit of classic American quilts. The second floor is pinned by the original Star Spangled Banner Flag, and features rotating exhibits that consider American ideals, such as who people are who make up the United States of America, how did they live, where did they come from, and what it took to ensure voting rights for all.

The first floor is focused on exhibits revolving around transportation and technology, detailing America’s modes of transportation over the years, inventors and inventions, science in terms of robots and America’s future, and even a recreation of Julia Child’s famous kitchen whilst looking at the impact of Food Technology as a whole. The final lower level of the museum features a number of smaller exhibits including one showing the impact of American commerce on the world stage, and believe it or not, a Gallery of Numismatics, i.e. the study or collection of currency.

As you may then guess, it takes literal hours to walk through this fascinating museum and its ode to all things American, and thus the chance of absorbing every little detail is virtually zero. That said, as you may be able to tell just from the size of the photo gallery featured down below, this little nugget of information was surely nowhere near good enough to stop me from trying my best to do so!

Besides, who can say no to any museum that counts and so confidently displays a blindingly neon lit Batman Forever Batmobile so prominently as part of its collection!?

USA 2019 – 12 Wiseguy Pizza in Chinatown, Washington DC (2019-10-26) Food and Drink | Photo Gallery 19 MAR 2021

After a very long day out on my feet, having walked through and taken in the Smithsonian National Zoo, the Union Station, the United States Capitol, and the beautiful Library of Congress, it was time to head back to the Hampton Inn on the edge of Chinatown and rustle up some supper before sitting down and resting my feet for the next day’s just as epic sightseeing adventures.

Similar to the previous evening where I had tucked into the simple but delicious oven fired fare of Fuel Pizza and Wings over at the Capitol One Arena area, I once again had am insatiable hankering for American style pizza. Unlike my experience of Japanese cities at night, I honestly didn’t feel particularly comfortable or safe walking around Washington D.C. by myself in the evenings, but having located Wiseguy Pizza just down the road from the hotel via Google Maps, I pushed aside these misgivings and ventured out on a dusky mission to get some grub into my stomach.

And just as well that I did. Old world, authentic New York style pizza fired in old school deck ovens at 287°C, featuring and incredibly varied array of toppings and of course that delightfully stringy cheese that the Americans use on their pies. Pizza and cheesecake aside, the little eatery has classic music accompanying the relatively vintage feeling decor, with everything working together to craft a very cozy and warm spot to visit.

USA 2019 – 11 Browsing in the Library of Congress in Washington DC (2019-10-26) Historic Attractions | Photo Gallery 18 MAR 2021

Standing as the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States, and billed as one of the largest libraries in the world, the Library of Congress, with its collection of millions of books, recordings, photographs, newspapers, maps, and manuscripts, is the main research arm of the U.S. Congress and the home of the U.S. Copyright Office. In addition to that, thanks to the incredible history, architecture and art held within, the Library of Congress also just so happens to make for an incredible visitor and tourist experience!

Originally housed within the U.S. Capitol building itself, the ever expanding need for space for both the Capitol functions and that of the library itself, means that the Library of Congress needed to move and itself expand quite often, leading to the current state of affairs that has the de facto national library of the United States stretched across three buildings on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. as well as a conservation center in Culpeper, Virginia. The Library states that its collection is universal, and as such is not limited by subject, format, or national boundary, meaning that it includes research materials from across the world, covering more than 450 languages!

I got to visit the unmissable Library of Congress’ main Thomas Jefferson Building, the oldest of the three Capitol Hill buildings, having been opened to the public (following eleven years of construction) in 1897. Recognized almost immediately on opening as a National Monument, the Jefferson Building contains some of the richest public interiors in the United States, and is a compendium of the work of classically trained American sculptors and painters of the “American Renaissance” period. Mind you, the incredibly majestic, Italian Renaissance styled exterior is just as eye catching, especially given the wonderfully detailed The Court of Neptune Fountain bronze sculpture collection that fronts the building.

I walked to the Library of Congress via the underground tunnel that connects the US Capitol to the library, and on arrival in the building I was treated to the most incredible visual experience. Classic colour, patterns, art, and design wherever you look, from the patterned marble floors right up to the vaulted ceilings. The historic art murals are incredible to look at and move between, with so much to spot around you that you literally don’t know where to even begin looking!

The alcoves of the main hall of the library are packed with incredibly interesting displays and exhibitions of various parts of American literary history, and down the quieter halls you will find even more displays, like the one on comic book art that I stumbled upon at the end of my wanderings. Looking down on the incredible main reading room is an absolute visual treat, and it is no wonder then that there are probably more tourists taking pictures than scholars carrying out research!

USA 2019 – 10 The United States Capitol in Washington DC (2019-10-26) Historic Attractions | Photo Gallery 11 MAR 2021

Recently I have been playing a LOT of The Division 2 on my aging Xbox One, which sees you running around and restoring order to a devastated and factionally overrun Washington DC, following a deadly global biological attack. So far I’ve really enjoyed running around this virtual version of Washington DC, marveling at all the replicated big buildings and landmarks which I myself gleefully took in during my visit back in 2019 – which then immediately reminded me that I REALLY should get around to posting all those photos from the trip to this now alive again blog. So next up, my visit to the historic United States Capitol at the top of Capitol Hill.

The United States Capitol, often called The Capitol or the Capitol Building, is the meeting place of the US Congress and thus the legislative seat for the US federal government. It all began in September 1793 when George Washington laid the US Capitol cornerstone at the southeast corner of its foundation, and over the next few years construction slowly progressed on the competition winning design of Dr. William Thornton (an amateur architect) which saw a central shallow domed rotunda placed between the Senate (north) and the House (south) wings. Work progressed painfully slowly under a number of different architects, with the Senate wing only completed in 1800 and the House wing even later in 1811! Unfortunately the War of 1812 saw the British almost immediately set fire to the Capitol in 1814, but luckily a rainstorm prevented the complete destruction of this iconic building, and by 1826 the Capitol was rebuilt and finally considered complete!

Well more or less. The United States of America kept expanding in size as it gobbled up new states left, right and center, and as such the building kept needing to be enlarged. Between 1850 and 1868 the first of these enlargements was completed, and over time various functions like the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court were all moved out to their own buildings in order to deal with this ever expanding need for space. 1958 to 1962 saw yet another extension on the east central front of the Capitol, and finally 2001 to 2008 saw the completion of the impressive Capitol Visitor Center. The latter of course is what I then found myself queuing in front of on a drizzly overcast day, eagerly awaiting my turn to make it through security and sign on for one of the constant guided tours happening all around the room.

The visitor center gives you a good taste of what is to come, filled on all sides with state donated sculptures and statues of famous American politicians and heroes, as well as a close up look at the famous Statue of Freedom which adorns the top of the Capitol’s even more famous dome. Given the constant swirling mass of people walking through the US Capitol, tours are all conducted with audio pieces that are tuned in to your guide’s mic, making the tour one of the easier ones to follow given you aren’t having to strain to hear everything being said.

The tour (which does not include visiting the Senate and House Galleries – these require separate passes) starts off in the Crypt, the underground center of the Capitol whose 40 Doric columns of brown stone and groined sandstone arches support the floor of the Rotunda above. At its center sits embedded in the floor a star which denotes the point from which the streets of the original four quadrants that make up Washington DC are laid out and numbered, as well as 13 statues from the National Statuary Hall Collection to represent the 13 colonies that made up the original United States. A replica Magna Carta is also on display.

Next on the tour is the Rotunda, the large, cast-iron domed circular room located in the center of the Capitol. Following the general neoclassical style which dictates the architecture of the building itself, the impressive Rotunda is intended to recall the Pantheon, featuring curved sandstone walls, fluted Doric pilasters, and an array of incredible historical paintings depicting important scenes from both the revolutionary period as well as the age of exploration. The incredible fresco painted above on the inside of the dome is complemented by an incredible frescoed frieze that traces America’s history from Columbus to the discovery of gold in California to the birth of aviation. Finally, to cap this spectacle off, the space itself is surrounded by detailed statues and busts of many of the former presidents of the United States.

The final part of the tour then takes you to the National Statuary Hall, once the main hall of the House which is now the main exhibition space for the impressive National Statuary Hall Collection. Built in the shape of an ancient amphitheater, the hall is one of the earliest examples of Greek revival architecture in America. Encased with a massive perimeter of Breccia marble columns, the chamber is filled with all manner of statues donated by individual States, depicting a wide swathe of famous American politicians and heroes.

The tour then ends back in the Capitol Visitor Center, from where you are free to now browse the museum shop, grab a bite to eat from the official restaurant, or if you are a tourist like me, immediately waltz down through the long underground tunnel that leads you straight into the heart of the Library of Congress building across the grounds from the Capitol.

USA 2019 – 09 The Metro and Union Station in Washington DC (2019-10-26) Photo Gallery | Travel Attractions 23 FEB 2021

We obviously don’t really have any true underground rapid transit metro subway here in South Africa (unless you count the 15 km long underground stretch of the Gautrain network as one), meaning then that my first interaction with the Washington Metro and its now six lines, 91 stations, and 188 km of route, really did bring out a good and proper smile from me. What can I say, I enjoy experiencing transport engineering.

Engineering aside, an added bonus is definitely that many of the older Metro stations, designed by Chicago architect Harry Weese, are an absolute visual delight to behold, a perfect example of late 20th century modern architecture with aspects of Brutalist design (thanks to the heavy use of exposed concrete and repetitive design motifs) mixed in with Washington’s de facto neoclassical architectural style through the stations’ imposing overarching coffered ceiling vaults. (Additionally, in an effort to lighten up these rather grey and stoic spaces, the metro stations themselves all tend to feature different art on the mezzanine levels above the fare machines, generally visible as you move to exit any station). It must be said that the stations have a pretty good signage system, seem to run pretty much on schedule, and pleasingly proved super easy to use – even for someone as navigationally challenged as myself!

One of the jewels of the system is the massive Washington Union Station, a major train station, transportation hub, and leisure destination all rolled into one. Opened in 1907, the incredibly busy Union Station is an intermodal facility, home to Amtrak and its rail network as well as servicing the MARC and VRE commuter rail services, the Washington Metro (which is how I ended up there), the DC Streetcar, intercity bus lines, and the local Metrobus busses. It is worth noting that it was only in 1988 that a headhouse wing was added and the original station renovated for use as a shopping mall, thus giving the station its current and very distinctive form. So, given its prime location as an intersection of so many travel options it is no wonder then that Union Station ranks as one of the United States’ busiest rail facilities and shopping destinations – with over 40 million visitors per year!

Due to Union Station’s proximity to the United States Capitol (just five blocks away), architects Daniel H. Burnham and Pierce Anderson worked hard to make this station a massive grandiose architectural triumph, incorporating an incredible array of neoclassical and Beaux-Arts style influenced elements to bring their vision to life – from the triumphal arch entrance, the 26 interior centurions looking down upon you, the six colossal exterior statues by Louis St. Gaudens (modeled on the Dacian prisoners of the Arch of Constantine), to the great vaulted spaces such as those of the Baths of Diocletian, as well as of course the inclusion of expensive materials such as marble, gold leaf, and white granite in the finishing.

Fronted by the Columbus Circle plaza and its impressive fountain, the Washington Union Station with all its architecture, commerce, and people truly is a spectacle to behold – even if done while sitting down and munching on something as mundane as a food court Johnny Rockets burger. Sigh, stupid South African Rand to the US Dollar exchange rate!

USA 2019 – 08 Pandas at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC (2019-10-26) Nature and Animal Attractions | Photo Gallery 22 FEB 2021

So having spent the previous afternoon happily exploring the area around the national mall, taking in architecture, statues and so, so many memorials, I changed the pace a little the next morning and headed out northwest via Washington D.C.’s relatively pretty subway stations, exiting at Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan and then taking the short uphill stroll to stop in front of the concrete lion guarded entrance of the National Zoological Park, aka the Smithsonian National Zoo.

Located at the sprawling Rock Creek Park, the National Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the United States, having been founded all the way back in 1889. Covering an area of 66 ha, this zoo is even larger than the immense San Diego Zoo (40 ha) which I visited back in 2016, and is home to around 2700 or so animals, spread over 390 different species – a fifth of which are on either the globally endangered or threatened species list. (And yes, because this is part of the Smithsonian Institution, entrance to the zoo is completely free.)

So as you might imagine then, with that amount of space and animals at its disposal, the National Zoo demands a fair bit of your time to take a stroll through. The zoo experience is made up of a whole heap of interconnected themed spaces that you can move between, including the various trails like the Asia Trail, Elephant Trails, the American Trail, Amazonia, and Lion and Tiger Hill, as well as big standalone exhibits like the Giant Panda Habitat, the Great Ape House, Think Tank, Cheetah Conservation Station, Gibbon Ridge, the Reptile Discovery Center, the Bird House, Lemur Island and the Small Mammal House. There’s also the children specific attraction The Kids’ Farm – useful if just seeing all these wonderfully exotic creatures isn’t quite enough to hold their attention for the full day!

Discounting the African species which we have enough of back home, the National Zoo definitely held a couple of personal animal highlights for me – like the incredibly floofy Giant Panda, the goofy looking Sloth Bear, and the stoic, powerful American Bison. The Orangutans were delightful (the “O Line” crossing is wonderful to behold), Arapaimas incredibly unusual in shape and size, and of course, just as they did for us back in Kyoto, the adorable Red Pandas totally stole the show.

In addition to all the exotic (for me) animals on display, given that Washington D.C. was starting to move into Autumn territory at the time of my visit, the incredible mass of trees that also call the zoo home were all starting to undergo their colour transformation – leading to an even greater visual experience for me seeing as this isn’t a spectacle that I ever get to witness back home in the Mediterranean climate profile that is Cape Town. (In other words, I took a LOT of time wandering about the zoo with a very big goofy grin on my face.)

The weather was nice and cool, the clouds meant that it wasn’t a sweaty affair, and a little cloudburst served to inject a little extra entertainment into the proceedings. And of course I took photos. Lots and lots of photos…