Our second full day of adventures in DC was slightly more subdued, only because our feet were truly beginning to hurt.
After breakfast in the hotel, we headed out to the Smithsonian again. The Smithsonian is free to enter, and is one of the best things to do in DC. Here’s some quick facts on the Smithsonian and how it came to be, courtesy of Wikipedia:
The Smithsonian Institution (/smɪθˈsoʊniən/ smith-soe-nee-ən), established in 1846 “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” is a group of museums and research centers administered by the Government of the United States.
British scientist James Smithson (d. 1829) left most of his wealth to his nephew Henry James Hungerford. When Hungerford died childless in 1835, the estate passed “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men”, in accordance with Smithson’s will.
Though the Smithsonian’s first Secretary, Joseph Henry, wanted the Institution to be a center for scientific research, it also became the depository for various Washington and U.S. government collections. The United States Exploring Expedition by the U.S. Navy circumnavigated the globe between 1838 and 1842. The voyage amassed thousands of animal specimens, an herbarium of 50,000 plant specimens, and diverse shells and minerals, tropical birds, jars of seawater, and ethnographic artifacts from the South Pacific Ocean. These specimens and artifacts became part of the Smithsonian collections, as did those collected by several military and civilian surveys of the American West, including the Mexican Boundary Survey and Pacific Railroad Surveys, which assembled many Native American artifacts and natural history specimens.
The Smithsonian Institution Building (also known as “The Castle”) was completed in 1855 to house an art gallery, a library, a chemical laboratory, lecture halls, museum galleries, and offices. During this time the Smithsonian was a learning institution concerned mainly with enhancing science and less interested in being a museum. Under the second secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird, the Smithsonian turned into a full-fledged museum, mostly through the acquisition of 60 boxcars worth of displays from the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The income from the exhibition of these artifacts allowed for the construction of the National Museum, which is now known as the Arts and Industries Building. This structure was opened in 1881 to provide the Smithsonian with its first proper facility for public display of the growing collections.
The Institution grew slowly until 1964 when Sidney Dillon Ripley became secretary. Ripley managed to expand the institution by eight museums and upped admission from 10.8 million to 30 million people a year. This period included the greatest and most rapid growth for the Smithsonian, and it continued until Ripley’s resignation in 1984. Since the completion of the Arts and Industries Building, the Smithsonian has expanded to twenty separate museums with roughly 137 million objects in their collections, including works of art, natural specimens, and cultural artifacts. The Smithsonian museums are visited by over 25 million people every year.
When the Detroit philanthropist Charles Lang Freer donated his private collection to the Smithsonian and funds to build the museum to hold it (which was named the Freer Gallery), it was among the Smithsonian’s first major donations from a private individual. The gallery opened in 1923.
So, that was a lot of info, but it was also relevant, because we started out our day by visiting the Smithsonian Castle. It was the original Smithsonian building, and today it serves as a visitor information centre, as well as a museum about the history of the Smithsonian. It’s a beautiful old building, and completely different from architecture of the surrounding buildings. It’s very old timey Britain-esque in a way that most buildings in that part of DC are not.
The Freer Gallery was under renovation while we were there, but we were able to visit the underground portion of the attached Sackler Gallery, which contained an incredible exhibition on artisans in Afghanistan. Through an organization called Turquoise Mountain, the work of these artisans was highlighted as part of a project to rebuild the Murad Khani district of Old Kabul.
I’m pretty sure that we could have seen more art, but I was conscious of time, knowing that we wanted to still explore the entire National Gallery of Art.
Of course, before going to the National Gallery, we made a quick stop for a guided tour of the National Museum of American History. This is where you’ll see things like the famous movie props, the dresses of first ladies, and the first star spangled banner. It’s a lot to take in, so we enjoyed an abridged tour provided by one of the museum’s guides. Next, we had lunch in the sculpture garden beside the National Gallery of Art. For the next leg of our journey, sustenance was required. (A note on lunch: I’d read online that the best place to eat was the cafeteria at the National Museum of the American Indian. This is definitely true. Lunch there was far better than the lunch beside the sculpture garden, though the latter had a better ambiance).
And next up was the National Gallery of Art.
Having been through the lower level, we were faced only with tackling the extensive collection of the main floor. I’ve been to a lot of art galleries, and I love art galleries, and so I was beyond thrilled to explore this collection. It’s possibly one of the most concentrated collections of iconic artwork that you could see. It took effort, and our feet were killing us, but we were able to see the entire collection in a matter of hours.
And oh, what a collection. We saw art by Da Vinci, Titian, Vermeer, Fragonard, Rembrandt, Turner, Constable, Manet, Cezanne, van Gogh, Monet, and Matisse. And not the secondary stuff and early career sketches, but the actual career-defining great works. If you’re looking to see a collection that will take you through the evolution of western art over the past 200 years, this is the museum for you. But seriously, wear comfy shoes.
As we walked out of the Gallery, we saw the East Building. I knew that it was some kind of modern art building, but it far surpassed my expectations. The East Building is less of a traditional gallery, and more of an actual work of art itself. From what we could tell, the building is an open, modern space, which provides event and exhibition spaces for the gallery. Within this open events-oriented space, you’ll find a variety of modern sculptures and installations. We took very few pictures because it was impossible to capture the feeling of lightness and calm that came over us in the space. If you’re in DC, drop in for a visit. It’s unbeatable.
After a day of museums, we went back to the hotel to get cleaned up for dinner. We then cabbed across town to the historic neighbourhood of Georgetown, en route to Filomena Ristorante. When travelling, I try to aim for choices more unique or creative than simply ‘italian food’, but Wikitravel promised this would be well worth the visit, so I added it to our list. Besides, sometimes carb-heavy comfort food is just what you need while on vacation.
I cannot stress enough how much we enjoyed our dinner here. It’s a supposed favourite of the Clintons, so I figured it would be good, and I was so pleased by just how good it was. It’s a basement restaurant, and when you walk down the stairs, on your right hand side (at street level) you can see a kitchen full of women making pasta from scratch. The atmosphere and service were excellent, as were the food and the wine. My dad’s comment was that he’d go back to DC specifically to eat there. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it certainly was worth returning to if the occasion arises.
After dinner & dessert (and coffee… and sambuca…) we walked along the waterfront, and then cabbed to the Lincoln Memorial. We walked all along the Vietnam Memorial, the Reflecting Pool, over to the WWII Memorial.
From there my parents cabbed home, while Kevin and I opted to walk. DC is a gorgeous city, and it was great to see the same sights again under a different light (though we did all notice some burnt out lights along the Mall and on the Lincoln Memorial). My feet were killing me (have I mentioned that yet?!), but we got up early to drive back to Canada, so I had plenty of time to recover.
All in all, we had an amazing trip to DC, and the drive itself was excellent. I know for sure that Kevin and I will be back again soon, as there’s much more to see.
Photos are below, and are once again in reverse order: