A shout out to Plan Bs: The National Museum of African American History and Culture was a must-see. But I wasn’t getting in and neither were any other tourists heading to Washington, D.C. in mid-January. Ditto the Smithsonian. Maybe next time, National Portrait Gallery. The government shutdown could have been a letdown. But take some big-name attractions out of the equation and it turns out, Plan B is still pretty sweet. Here’s your chance to focus on some quieter collections and go a bit off the beaten (often circular) path. Check out these five destinations you’ll want to visit whether or not the Feds are open for business.
But first can we talk abut those streets? If you find yourself going around and around plazas and circles…wait, is that the same statue of a dude on horseback?…I’ll cop to that, too. According to the historians I choose to believe, the streets of D.C. were laid out in a purposefully perplexing way to flummox invaders. Mission accomplished. And a tip of the tricorn to Pierre Charles L’Enfant who laid the city out and rendered Google Maps useless more than 200 years before it was born.
#1 National Museum of Women in the Arts: What a diverse, vibrant collection at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The Renaissance Revival mansion feels like a jewel box and it houses the only major women’s art museum in the world. Which is kind of hard to believe. The exhibit in January featured Rodarte, a fashion label comprising two sisters from California who weave clothing out of dreams. And leather and silk and stringy bits. In the museum’s regular collection, you may recognize Amy Sherald’s work; she’s the Baltimore-based artist who painted Michelle Obama’s official portrait. The museum is at 1250 New York Ave NW.
#2 The Tabard Inn: The Tabard Inn and Restaurant at 1739 N St. NW is a cozy hideaway that invites tucking into. If a salon is a “gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host,” then we’ve got one here. Conversations flow in many languages, guests butt cheek-to-butt check on springless communal couches by the fireplace. It feels every bit the longest continuously running hotel in Washington. “Dante” the slack-tongued bulldog is your official greeter, footstool, crumb sucker-upper. No TVs in the rooms, scratch cooking in the dining room.
#3 The Phillips: Near Dupont Circle at 1600 21st St. NW, the Phillips Collection opened in 1921 as America’s first museum of modern art. It’s home to an enviable collection of more than 4,000 works from French impressionists, to, well, there was this booth made out of wax. The townhouse is a warren of small rooms which makes for intimate viewing (just me and this Stuart Davis in a nook here) and some interesting juxtapositions of work.
#4 Wander the Monuments: Shutdown or no, you can log thousands of steps walking between public monuments that are always open. Outdoors, walk a loop between the Vietnam Veterans, Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. Indoors, the Library of Congress was a sleeper hit. Architecturally packed with details like cherubs, mosaics, arches and carvings, the building is a lot of look. Browse Thomas Jefferson’s collection of more than 6,000 books, the foundation of this library. In yet another “oldest” I encountered, here’s the oldest federal cultural institution in the U.S. (Everything west of the Potomac is starting to feel really young at this point.) A tunnel under First St. takes you to the U.S. Capitol Building. At this point in the day, the 15-minute photo op under the Capitol’s dome felt like enough. But you can sign up for free tours at the Visitor’s Center or better yet, arrange a more personal tour in advance through the offices of your Senators.
#5 The Newseum: And now a moment of silence for the Newseum visit that never was. We ran out of time and now time is running out for the museum dedicated to free speech and a free press. The Newseum announced in January that it’s selling the primo real estate (555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW) to Johns Hopkins for more than $372 million. The operating costs were “unsustainable.” So do as I say not as I blog and go. You still have until the end of the year at this location off the Mall. Speaking truth to power has never been more necessary or dangerous work. A free press is still the cornerstone of democracy. Here’s hoping that message finds another home in Washington, D.C.