Washington, D.C., makes us proud to be Americans. From our nation’s majestic Capitol Building, to the amazing museums, to the lushly landscaped streets, the city is regal.
George Washington selected the location back in 1800, when the federal government consisted of a mere 131 employees. Designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the bold new capital was reminiscent of his native Paris, France. The ceremonial spaces and grand avenues are arranged in an easy-to-navigate grid system. The buildings in the District of Columbia encompass entire city blocks. No skyscrapers are allowed so that the view of the Capitol and national monuments remains unobstructed.
The city that gave us the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is indeed wheelchair accessible. I maneuvered through the capital in my power wheelchair and every street had a curb cut. We drove our wheelchair-accessible van and were pleasantly surprised to find that vehicles displaying out-of-state disability tags can park for free in metered parking spaces, and for double the normal time allotted on the meter. The trick to finding a parking spot is to arrive early or visit on a holiday.
The city’s official tourism site, Destination DC (202-789-7000), is the best resource for planning your trip. Request a free 108-page visitor guide that’s updated twice a year. The digest-size guide is packed with information on attractions, dining and accommodations. If you use a wheelchair, order the 2007-2008 Washington DC Access Guide for $5.00 by visiting disabilityguide.org or calling (301) 528-8664.
When to travel
Washington is a popular travel destination year-round. Hotel rates are typically the highest in the spring (March-May) and fall (September-October). If you’re trying to stretch your travel dollars, visit in late summer or winter. Even during peak season, hotel rates are usually lower on weekends, although if a convention is in town, it may be difficult to find accommodations. Log onto dcconvention.com for a calendar.
Consider visiting during a holiday. We’ve traveled there during the Christmas holidays and Memorial Day weekend. On both visits, the hotel rates were lower and the attractions not as crowded compared to other times of the year. However, before leaving your hotel, call to confirm that restaurants and museums are open. Many change their hours or close for the holidays. Ask the hotel concierge to assist in finding restaurants and making reservations.
If your visit coincides with a holiday, it’s a good idea to have a planned itinerary.
During our Christmas trip, we attended services at the church across the street from the White House. Known as “The Church of the Presidents,” St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square, is a small structure built in 1815. The wooden floors creaked under the weight of my 200-pound wheelchair. Pew 54 is reserved for the president. Multiple services are held throughout the day, and seating is limited.
On Christmas Day, downtown was deserted and it was almost impossible to find a restaurant open for business. We had purchased tickets in advance of our trip and enjoyed seeing “Les Misérables” at the National Theatre. The historic playhouse was built in 1835, yet every level has wheelchair seating. On certain nights, a limited number of half-price Special Patron Tickets (SPT) are available for people with disabilities and one companion. For more information, check the National Theatre Web site or call (202) 628-6161.
Many special events are scheduled during the holidays. On our Memorial Day weekend visit, the city conducted a parade, free musical concerts and a fireworks display. Thousands of people attended the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Free for All outdoor performance of “Hamlet.” Check the local newspaper or visitor’s center for a list of seasonal offerings.
If you’re traveling with children, click on the Washington link at gocitykids.com. The Web site has a wonderful calendar of events that allows you to select the dates you’re visiting and find age-appropriate activities for every member of the family.
Where to stay
The Washington, D.C., area has more than 600 hotels. We stayed at the Fairmont, a luxury hotel in a quiet, residential area adjacent to Georgetown. Each evening, a pianist performed live music on the grand piano in the lobby. Jim and I spent one afternoon sipping coffee and admiring the blooming hydrangeas in the courtyard garden. Built in 1985, the hotel is wheelchair accessible and our deluxe guestroom had a comfortable 400 square feet. The Fairmont was one of nearly 30 hotels featured on the Destination DC Web site (see contact info above) which had special package rates starting at $99 per night.
Where to eat
Foodies will love Washington. This international city offers every cuisine imaginable. Feeling a little homesick, we dined at Acadiana Restaurant (acadianarestaurant.com, (202) 408-8848) where we had bowls of smoked chicken and andouille sausage gumbo, a trio of meat pies and jambalaya risotto. The split-level restaurant had an elevator that accommodates wheelchair users. Acadiana is one of the 200 dining establishments which participates in the annual Washington, D.C., Restaurant Week. During the weeklong event in August, restaurants offer three-course meals at lunch for $20.08 and dinner for $35.08. For more information, visit washington.org/restaurantwk/ or call Destination DC.
What to do: The power scene
Tours of the White House and Capitol require advance reservations. Contact your congressional representative as early as six months before your trip to make arrangements. Same-day tours of the Capitol are possible — if you arrive early and wait in line. Some portions of the buildings are not wheelchair accessible, and I was escorted through halls and on elevators that the typical tourist doesn’t use (only one family member was allowed to accompany me). As I was rolling into an elevator, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger passed me in the hall.
|The Washington Monument at sunset|
|The Boeing Hanger at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum|
|Berlin Wall montage at the Newseum|
Monuments and memorials
Famous Americans and events are honored throughout the city. No visit to Washington is complete without a visit to the National Mall and Memorial Parks, which are
open 24 hours a day. Park rangers are available to answer questions from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Icons within the Mall include: Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, WWII Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The mall is a frequent gathering place for concerts, rallies, festivals and picnics.
The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is on seven-and-a-half acres. Dedicated in 1997, the memorial is easily accessible for people with disabilities. Originally, the memorial did not include any renderings of the president in his wheelchair. (FDR did not wish to be portrayed in his wheelchair.) In 2001, a statue of FDR in his wheelchair was placed at the entrance of the memorial in response to petitions from people with and without disabilities who asked to see the president’s disability recognized.
Washington is home to more than a dozen Smithsonian Institution museums. Some of our family favorites include: the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of Natural History, National Portrait Gallery, the National Zoological Park and the Smithsonian American Art Museum and its Renwick Gallery.
Admission to Smithsonian museums is free. Loaner wheelchairs are available on a first-come basis. The museums are huge and you’ll want to spend hours exploring. All museums have Web sites where you can find out detailed visitor information and learn about the exhibits. (si.edu/museums or call 202-633-1000).
The best strategy is to arrive as soon as the museums open. Go even earlier, so you can find the accessible entrance. When you’re ready for a break or need a cup of coffee, dine at the museum. For example, native foods are served at the National Museum of the American Indian Mitsitam Café. The restaurant’s wall of windows looks out on a native habitat and water features. Smithsonian Institution gift shops are a delight and have items you won’t find elsewhere. We usually save shopping for the end of the day to avoid carrying packages through the museum.
Opened in April 2008, the Newseum museum is fronted by a 74-foothigh marble engraving of the First Amendment. Its 14 exhibit galleries present five centuries of news history with hands-on exhibits. Not to be missed is the Comcast 9/11 Gallery devoted to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Visitors see how the media in New York, Pennsylvania, the Pentagon and around the world responded to one of the major news stories of the century. The Berlin Wall gallery examines the role of the media in the 30-year history of the wall. The NBC News Interactive Newsroom is a 7,000-square-foot space where visitors can sit at an anchor desk and deliver the news. The Newseum is fully accessible. Elevators stop on eachfloor and can be taken from either side of the building. Wheelchairs and scooters are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Admission is $20 for adults (13 to 64), $18 for seniors (65 and older), and $13 for youth (7 to 12). Children 6 and younger are free. For more information, visit newseum.org or call (888) 639-7386.
Events in the Nation's Capitol
St. Patrick’s Day Parade
National Cherry Blossom Festival
43rd Annual Smithsonian Kite Festival
White House Easter Egg Roll
Washington International Film Festival
National Memorial Day Celebration & Parade
DC Caribbean Carnival
National Capital Barbecue Battle
Independence Day celebration
Smithsonian Folk Life Festival
Capital Fringe Festival
National Christmas Tree Lighting & Pageant of Peace