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Great ideas in the District of Columbia

I’ve always thought that the National Parks Service was one of the greatest ideas to come out of America (you know, besides ‘All men are created equal,’ ‘I have a dream,’ ‘Tear down this wall,’ and all of the other inspirational stuff). But during my daylong visit to the National Mall in Washington, I decided that the Smithsonian Institution ranks right up there with the best cultural achievements of our country.

I’ll be spending the next few days exporing Manassas and the Prince William County area of Northern Virginia. Today, though, I rode the train into Washington for a quick look at the Smithsonian and other attractions around the National Mall. Though I visited some of these places as a middle-school student years ago, returning as an adult gave me a new appreciation for just how great these museums are, and what a point of pride they should be for all Americans.

I began with a visit to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. This museum holds millions of items from our past, ranging from antique arms and armor to steam locomotives, famous musical instruments, and a host of things in between. One of the most famous is the large American flag that inspired Frances Scott Key to write ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ during the war of 1812. I was captivated by a wing with various exhibitions on America’s presidents, which included artifacts from the White House, video interviews wiith former presidents, a gallery of first ladies’ ball gowns and a special section on Abraham Lincoln, complete with one of his famous top hats.

Next, I took a stroll down the mall to the National Museum of the American Indian, the newest of the Smithsonian museums in Washington. This institution does an amazing job of telling the stories of America’s diverse native peoles, from the northeastern woodlands to the desert Southwest and the icey fjords of Alaska. The artifacts and informational panels were chosen by the individual tribes and groups they represent, and the exhibits give a fascinating job of describing the past and present triumphs and struggles of indigenous people in America.

In addition to the museums, I also took time to enjoy the National Mall, spread out between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol.  On the grounds of the capitol complex, I happened upon the National Botanic Garden, an attraction that I wasn’t aware of. A quick trip inside revealed hundreds of plants from all parts of the world, inside a conservatory that proved a welcome relief from the bustling Mall and capitol just outside.

You could spend a week in D.C. without running out of things to do. But even a daylong trip was enough to remind me of just a few of the things I love about this country.


Julia Child’s kitchen on display in at the National museum of American History.


An original Kermit the Frog puppet, on display in the pop culture gallery at the National Museum of American History.


Abraham Lincoln’s top hat.


This colorful mask on display at the National Museum of the American Indian was used in tribal ceremonies in the Southwest.


One of many exotic plants cultivated at the National Botanic Garden.


Another rare flower fromthe National Botanic Garden.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.