Washington DC: a cultural pilgrimage of the US capital

United States Supreme Court

As a relatively young nation, the United States is often criticised for having a lack of historical monuments when compared to a country like England or China for example. However, the culture of the States is not merely capitalistic. Cast your mind beyond Disney World’s Castle and be prepared to encounter American palaces in their own right; the place to begin is the place hand-picked by the eponymous president, Washington DC.

 

Lincoln Memorial and National Mall

In Washington DC, the federal state, you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to landmarks, statues and monuments to visit.  It’s what I like to call the Florence of North America because there is an artistic masterpiece in every direction. With every turn of the head, you’re greeted by a contemporary wonder of the world, whether it be a building or the likeness of a famous president. A classic place to begin your cultural pilgrimage would be the ubiquitously admired Lincoln Memorial.

Lincoln Memorial

When a sculpture is built in the Neoclassical style, it is done so to evoke the solemnity, grace and erudition of the Ancient Greeks; no where is this more fitting than with the Lincoln Memorial.

As a paragon of modern rather than classic Greek democracy, Lincoln liberated America from a slave-driven economy, therefore it is perfectly fitting for him to be captured in this manner. At an imposing 19 foot, the statue of the 16th president is also inscribed with the words of the Gettysburg Address.

From this starting point, you can wander down to the National Mall towards the United States “Capitol” and reflect on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, made here in 1963 to a crowd of 250,000 people.

 

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Washington DC is home to some of America’s best art galleries and museums as well as many of its most iconic landmarks. Unlike some American cities, Washington DC is also served by an efficient subway system that reaches most districts of the city and facilitates your passage from one point of the cultural pilgrimage to the next.  However, in case you’d like to truly take in the sights when on the move, DC was named America’s fourth most bike-friendly city by Bicycling.com.

American art is not merely Andy Warhol and Grant Wood – it has a vibrant past, producing some of the greatest history paintings of the eighteenth and nineteenth Century. One of the great French Impressionists, Berthe Morisot, was in fact an American.

Claiming to house “the nation’s first collection of American art”, the American Art Museum exhibits work from the colonial era to the modern day and stands as a further Neoclassical landmark – complete with columns and portico – in Washington’s downtown cultural district.

American Art Museum

From Roy Lichtenstein to Edward Hopper, twentieth-century titans of American art sit alongside older masterpieces and even new commissions.

Highlights include Isamu Noguchi’s ‘Grey Sun’ and John Singleton Copley’s ‘Mrs. George Watson’ as well as sculpture and the collection of New Deal art (the largest in the world). Furthermore,  the Renwick Gallery which displays the Museum’s decorative arts pieces is conveniently located just a few paces from The Whitehouse. You could easily consume an entire day when taking in the American Art Museum’s extensive collection and of course,  pay homage to a contemporary ‘Americanism’ by taking a ‘coffee break’ in the stunning Courtyard Café.

 

Smithsonian National Space and Air Museum

Even for those with merely a passing interest – or even a full-blown disinterest – in all things that fly, the Smithsonian National Space and Air Museum remains a fascinating insight into the history of human flight, the Space Race and provides an enlightening explanation of just how aircraft manages to stay aflight.

Smithsonian National Space and Air Museum

As well as housing the world’s largest collection of aviation and space artefacts, the Museum stages exhibitions on the Apollo moon landings and offers the chance to ‘Meet an Astronaut’ in regular talks and workshops.

Considering the unparalleled historical significance of some of the pieces on display (the 1903 Wright Brothers plan is housed here), a visit to the Smithsonian National Space and Air Museum is well worth a visit, especially with its free admission policy.

 

The National Zoo

Part of the Smithsonian Institute of museum and research facilities, the National Zoo is far from being a sub-par animal sanctuary. It in fact covers 153 acres of national park and is home to 2000 animals including their famous mascots, the giant pandas, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang.

National Zoo

In short, the National Zoo is everything a zoo should be – it really seems to bring to life the pages of a children’s book. Beside its roaring tigers and cavorting orangutans, there are  plenty of opportunities to watch the sea lions being fed and to peer at a deceptively peaceful crocodile through a glass screen, all in the centre of America’s capital. The National Zoo is also keen to help its younger visitors learn about conservation and scientific exploration, staging a number of interactive exhibitions throughout the year therefore it’s most definitely a must on one’s cultural pilgrimage of DC for those with families.

 

With this introduction to Washington DC, I invite you to liberate yourself from the limited view of American Culture as presented in the modern mass media. America is more than just a dichotomy of Manhattan and the Deep South that television and film would have us believe. DC is indeed the ultimate destination for those wishing to immerse themselves in the majesty of American Culture and understand why the States has been the number one global superpower for centuries to date.