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Travel: An art trail through Washington DC

From majestic monuments to stunning contemporary art, US capital Washington DC offers a wealth of treasures for art lovers

At the Capitol building in Washington DC, where the US government has formulated law since 1800, visitors can take a look inside the Old Supreme Court Chamber.
At the Capitol building in Washington DC, where the US government has formulated law since 1800, visitors can take a look inside the Old Supreme Court Chamber. (Sonia Nazareth)

There’s a four-km strip of parkland in Washington DC that is the defining highlight of any visit to this politically and culturally driven capital city of the US. At one end of the National Mall lies Capitol Hill, at the other the Lincoln Memorial. In between are some of America’s most iconic monuments and museums, all free to enter though with a timed entry.

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The Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum and research complex, includes a significant amount of real estate on the National Mall as well a host of musuems, research centres and galleries that cover everything from science and history to arts and travel. The National Air and Space Museum is popular with visitors keen to explore aviation and space. The Freer-Sackler Museum of Asian Art is a feast of Japanese silk scrolls, Chinese jades and all manner of Eastern treasures. Special mention must be made of the Peacock Room, an extravaganza of interior decoration with its jewel-like green-and-gold interiors and blue-and-white porcelain objects.

The Hirschhorn, the most abstract of these museum spaces, is perfect for lovers of contemporary painting, sculpture, photography and immersive installation. Outside in the sculpture garden is the whimsical Yayoi Kusama’s well-loved pumpkin, representing the Japanese artist’s world and a source of radiant energy. The unmissable National Museum of African-American History and Culture examines through clever storytelling and artifacts, such as the trumpet owned by Louis Armstrong, the African American experience and how it contributed to shaping a nation.

Don’t pack in too many museums and art institutions at once—that may be cliched advice but it is best heeded if you want to savour the experience. For a lunch (and mind) break, visit Mitsitam Native Foods Café in the National Museum of The American Indian for hearty, native American fare, including bison stew and corn bread, cedar-planked salmon, and buffalo burgers. The menu is filled with seasonal dishes that reflect the foods of regions like Mesoamerica and the Great Plains.

All along the 3.4km picturesque Tidal Basil Loop Trail by the Potomac river and see American elms, Japanese Yoshino cherry trees, squirrels, autumnal colours and iconic monuments in the distance. You’ll see locals walking their dogs, others airing their political views and coming together to defend causes. There is a cluster of memorials dedicated to veterans and soldiers who lost their lives in various wars.

The White House, a five-minute drive from the National Mall, requires too much arduous advance application to enter. To get as close as you can to the White House experience, visit the open-to-all White House Visitors’ Centre. Here you can see artifacts like the Roosevelt desk, and participate in a virtual tour of the White House. There’s also all manner of entertaining Presidential trivia on hand. Under a recreated soup bowl, for instance, I learn that President Garfield was believed to have his appetite revived in a period of crisis, by a hearty bowl of squirrel soup.

A ten-minute drive away is the Capitol building, where the US government has formulated law since 1800. I appreciate a look at the Old Supreme Court Chamber. As compelling is the 1865 canopy fresco The Apotheosis of George Washington painted by Constantino Brumidi, illustrating the raising of a person to the status of a God. In this case, it’s George Washington rising to the heavens. Ornamenting the building are reinterpretations of European neo-classical design.

I make a stop at the Library of Congress in the Thomas Jefferson building, the world’s largest library with a growing collection of over 32-million catalogued books and a fine example of gilded age architecture. Viewing highlights include the Great Hall, an opulent reading room and a Gutenberg bible.

Barbie Pond on Avenue Q is something of an Instagram sensation with Barbie and Ken dolls whose attire changes to reflect current affairs.
Barbie Pond on Avenue Q is something of an Instagram sensation with Barbie and Ken dolls whose attire changes to reflect current affairs. (Sonia Nazareth)

Outside the library, the city is laid out along gridded streets, peppered with elegant squares and ornamental circles. The more I stroll, the more I encounter parks and gardens that invite moments of contemplation. Georgetown, one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, invites such exploration. Upon cobbled streets sit brick-lined houses, charming cafes like Baked & Wired that specializes in coffee and cupcakes, and boutiques like Shop Made in DC, the first store dedicated to products made in DC such as cheerful cards and bespoke bags. From the Georgetown waterfront park, it’s a peaceful interlude to take a water taxi along the Potomac river.

Another image that illustrates for me the city’s relaxed side is Barbie Pond on Avenue Q. Something of an Instagram sensation, this quirky pond and fountain is dominated by Barbies and Kens of all types sticking out of the earth. As I learn from the locals, the regular changes in the attire and poses of the dolls, are an attempt to reflect national news and local festivals. It’s Halloween when I visit and the Barbies are decked in ghostly white masks, while eerie Kens hover by the sides. In the pond I see a reflection of the city that with its ideals and ideas, both lofty and playful, lift me out of the routineand into a more thoughtful realm.

Sonia Nazareth is a writer and an anthropologist based in Mumbai.

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