Friday, October 26, 2007

DC’s B-list attractions

Welcome to the first installment of a new travel column entitled The Roaming Roan, which will spotlight interesting overnight and day trips near Lexington. The column’s title plays upon the name of one of General Robert E. Lee’s “otherCivil War horses. Unfortunately, Traveller was already taken by a transportation system that does not actually travel.

In the spirit of the horse who never became Lee’s first choice mount, this inaugural TRR focuses on second tier attractions for a follow-up visit to Washington, DC.

You have seen the monuments and museums on The Mall. You probably visited the Capitol, the National Archives, and Arlington Cemetery. Touring these sights is surely a patriotic duty, but what about your return visit? In my five years of living in and near DC, I often treated my visiting family and friends to these three lesser-known must-see sights.

Most people intend to visit the Library of Congress, only to scratch it off when they run out of time. Ashamedly, I had visited our nation’s capital a dozen times before I finally walked inside the most magnificent room in the entire city, the Great Hall of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building.

Don’t be dismayed by the basement appearance as you come through the ground level entrance. Security concerns have closed the formal entrance to the first floor. Ask when the next guided tour begins and peruse the interesting exhibits while waiting.

Prepare to be awestruck when you climb to the Main Hall. The marble staircases, soaring painted arches, and mosaic ceiling pay tribute to mankind’s greatest thinkers and writers. The room forms a pseudo-temple in praise of knowledge.

Of course, internationally, the Library is known for its collection, not its architecture. Be sure to see the Gutenburg Bible, one of three copies in existence of the first book printed with movable metal type. The Visitors’ Gallery on the Third Floor provides an aerial view of the beautiful Reading Room and its collection. Keep in mind that this is a small portion of what is housed in the other buildings of the Library.

Two blocks west, on the other side of the Capitol building, is the U.S. Botanic Garden. In decades past, the Garden was often left off of tourist maps and could be found empty except for those seeking an air-conditioned retreat from the crowds. After a recent renovation and now that the line for Capitol tours passes nearby, this forgotten gem has recently become extremely popular.

In the gigantic greenhouse of the Conservatory, you will find a room for almost every climate on earth housing nearly 10,000 plant species. The jungle in the main conservatory is so tall that 24-feet high catwalks offer views of the branches of the trees while lower paths meander through plants and streams.

The Garden’s impressive array of flowers is capped by the world-renowned collection of orchids. The sweet scent of a blooming room can make one forget they are actually in the middle of our sprawling capital city.

The third of our bridesmaid attractions, the C&O Canal, is the most overlooked. If you have ever visited Georgetown to shop, eat, or drink in Georgetown, you have driven over the Canal quite frequently. You probably have never noticed the people dressed in 19th Century clothing guiding the mule-drawn canal boats into the locks less than a block from Barney's and Kate Spade.

The 184-mile long Canal begins in Georgetown and runs parallel and between M and K Streets. At the Georgetown Visitor Center run by the National Park Service, you can go back in time by embarking on an hour-long ride on a replica canal boat. The park ranger in period costume details the lifestyle of canalers as you pass along the old towpath and through a historic lift lock.

Inserted in the middle of your next shopping trip, the canal boats will offer an informative respite from the hectic life literally around the corner. This is one experience that leaves visitors amazed by the diversity of a day in Georgetown.

Next time you visit Washington, be sure to include these or another intriguing attraction that does not traditionally top out every tourist’s list. I guarantee that you will experience more than simply avoiding the crowds.
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The Library of Congress;; 101 Independence Ave, SE; (202) 707-8000; 10 AM - 5:30 PM Mon - Sat; Free to the public; Hour-long tours offered multiple times daily. (Photo credit: Max Lyons,

U.S. Botanic Garden;; 245 First St., SW; (202) 225-8333; 10 AM - 5 PM everyday; Free to the public. (Photo Credit: G. Alexander,

C&O Canal National Historical Park;; 1057 Thomas Jefferson St. NW, Georgetown; (202) 653-5190; Canal boat rides ($7) Wed - Sun; Call visitor center for times. (Photo credit: Scott T. Smith,


Cody said...

Nice list! I'll have to visit some of those sites before we move to Washington.

Erin said...

Noticed this link on your family blog and decided to check it out. Right before we moved we did the C&O Canal. Jim and I really enjoyed it and now highly recommend it. Plus it gives you the change to roam around Georgetown.

Erin said...

Noticed this blog via your family site. Thanks for the heads up on the Gardens...I thought I had seen pretty much all of DC. I will say Jim and I did the C&O Canal before moving and really enjoyed it. Plus it gives you a change to spend some time in historic Georgetown.

Charise said...

I love these extra ideas! I can't wait to try them.
Thanks for your time in writing them up. Well done!