Playing Tourist at Home: A Local Does DC

The other week when I was suggesting things to do while waiting to travel, exploring your hometown was a big suggestion. Stacy is really living out that idea while she waits to leave for her round the world trip:

“There’s so much to do in this town,” we’ve all said at one point, “but I never get around to it.”

Much like Steph, I’m a 20-something professional marking time in Washington, D.C., until I leave on my Round-the-World adventure. Watching young German backpackers traipse through our nation’s capital used to fill me with envy for their vagabond status. But then it occurred to me: they endured a transatlantic flight to see the stuff I pass each day on my way to work. Maybe they’re on to something…

So after four years living in the District, I picked up a copy of the Lonely Planet Washington, DC City Guide and vowed to work my way through it, cover to cover. With roughly 100 days until Departure Day, I figure I can do some damage.

First Stop: Where else? The National Mall

Naturally, my tourist adventure begins at that landing strip of historical and cultural phantasmagoria, the National Mall. I forego my usual wake-up time of 2:00 pm for a more ambitious hour, and begin the day in earnest.

9:30 Wake up. The District of Columbia has issued a heat index alert. Perfect. Weather is comparable to parts of the Australian Outback. I bust out the 75 SPF.

10:20 Leave apartment with bag of essentials: wallet, phone, sunglasses, guidebook. Will be following the National Walking Tour from the Lonely Planet guidebook, attempting to traverse the Mall from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Hydration will be key.

10:45 Realize upon arrival I’ve forgotten the most important weapon in any tourist’s arsenal: the digital camera. So far sucking as a tourist. Pass a colorful cast of extras on the Mall: yuppies playing team sports, tourist families braving the oppressive heat, Falun Gong members meditating to recorded music, persistent evangelicals handing out pamphlets, and the ubiquitous Boy Scouts who have evidently invaded. Judging by their numbers, resistance will be futile.

11:12 Reach my first station: the Capitol grounds. Unlike the tourists posing for pictures around me, I look up at the world’s center of democracy and know that everything taking place in this building is actually conceived and executed by my 20-something staffer friends. The gray-haired politicians are mere figureheads who show up at committee meetings and sign documents – that is, of course, when they’re not engaging in illicit sexual acts. Not a bad gig now that I think of it.

11:42 I pop into the West Building of the National Gallery of Art. Upon asking an employee where to find the famous Calder mobile, he points up. I stretch my neck back, and sure enough, there it is floating above me, elegant shapes of primary color gently turning with the current of air conditioning. I’m not a modern art aficionado, but that is neat.

Just as impressive is the elevator with square footage rivaling my studio apartment. It feels like stepping into the air hatch of a space ship. Finding myself alone in the vast expanse, I giddily perform a high kick to utilize the space. Ultimately regret it, as I now must walk the remainder of the Mall on a strained groin.

1:02 As I pass through the underground walkway connecting the two art buildings, the Cascade Café comes into view, and I immediately regress to my childhood when my parents dutifully dragged me past works of art and historical exhibits only to find the highlight of my day was the food court. It appears little has changed.

1:22 As the “East Building Highlights” brochure proved helpful, I grab the West Building equivalent, aptly titled, “Less Than an Hour?,” and go to town. I start at the top of the list with Ginevra de‘Benci – the only DaVinci painting in the western hemisphere, the museum staff will be quick to tell you. I approach just as a tour guide begins her spiel, saying it was an engagement portrait. Ginevra, I can’t help but notice, does not look pleased with her impending nuptials. On the contrary, she wears the expression of a woman whose life is over. Something an artist like DaVinci would hardly have overlooked. In the presence of this masterpiece, I feel like I’ve met a celebrity.

3:30 Having scoured the West Building, I feel about as cultured as I’m ever going to be and make my exit. I pull out my umbrella and to use as a parasol. When you’re pigmentally challenged like me, you do what you gotta do.

After a quick stroll through the Sculpture Garden, I join the other weary travelers resting around the center fountain. I find a shady spot to sip a giant plastic cup of the café’s signature sangria. (I am on staycation, after all.) A guard blows his whistle, commanding one young man to get “Out of the sculpture! OUT!” Can you blame the kid? I mean, really. Every last sculpture looks like a jungle gym…

4:25 Thoroughly buzzed on sangria, I hire a bicycle chariot to the Museum of the American Indian. As I always say, support your local rickshaw industry.

If you’ve never gone to the Museum of the American Indian while tipsy, I highly recommend it. There are enough nooks, crannies, and flashy multimedia exhibits to keep you thoroughly entertained. But will you learn anything if you’re half-drunk on sangria? you may ask. The answer being, “No, not much,” but nothing beats watching that orientation film on a slightly altered mind. And I am entranced by the Bolivian gentleman explaining how back home they make boats out of reeds for fishing on Lake Titicaca. Boats from reeds, I tell you!

As the day wears on and the merciless sun travels from one end of the Mall to the other, the families grow more haggard, the children crankier. One tot struggles to repeatedly beat his sister with a souvenir, barely summoning the required energy. I don’t blame any of them. It has been a long day. And I’m accustomed to walking as a primary mode of transportation. I can only imagine how suburban folks who are used to driving their cars from couch to kitchen manage such total immersion in pedestrian culture. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder how any family of five manages to cover the Smithsonian’s many museums in one vacation, as I’ve just spent a whole day and only completed two or three.

I suddenly admire their ambition and tenacity, and I decide to do my town the same justice. Even if it means joining the ranks of the very tourists I once ridiculed – the very people who don ponchos, fanny packs, and ill-fitting tank tops as they inexplicably photograph seemingly mundane landmarks like restaurant signs and escalators and conspire to bring my morning commute to a halt by clogging every available Metro turn-style – I will do it. I will join them.

Because at the end of each long day, as fatigued as we are, both tourists and locals alike find themselves asking the same question of Washington, D.C.:

“So, what’s next?”

You can follow Stacy’s wanderings – both local and international – at her travel blog

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13 thoughts on “Playing Tourist at Home: A Local Does DC”

  1. I wanted to do this in London. And I never did. And now London’s not my home any more. A great post…

    And, god, I never understand how people can spend vacations chewing down museum after museum after museum.

    Well, spend, yes. Enjoy, no. Such a route march…

    1. A good reminder to appreciate where you are, while you’re there! and London is just fantastic too- whether you are a museum buff or not!

  2. LOL, I enjoyed the phrase “pigmentally challenged”. I’ve been using translucent to describe my skin tone.

    I concur that buzzed museum-going is pretty entertaining. She missed the gelato bar in the food court between the 2 wings of the National Gallery. How can you not love a museum with a gelato bar???

  3. I’ve been doing this quite a bit in & around Chicago! I found a book (can’t recall name) of towns worth seeing in Illinois and nearby Wisconsin & Michigan. Have to say, I’ve learned more about my city & surrounding Midwest in the last year than I knew ever knew about (and I’ve lived here my entire life!). And a Lonely Planet guide sounds like the next best thing to pick up. Great post!

  4. I love the idea of making the most of your time in your home town. I’ve started using the phrase ‘proximity travel’ : to make the most out of your time while still in your home town to see the local sights. I’m definitely going to pick up a London travel guide and see what it suggests!

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