As a local resident I can attest to the fact that we Washingtonians live, eat and breathe politics on a daily basis, even if we don’t realize it. Not everyone who lives in Washington DC is a political junky, but it’s hard to walk around town and not be confronted with examples of the American political process in action. To see the best of American politics though, there are a few key places everyone should visit.
A great place to start any political tour of Washington is at the iconic Union Station, located just a couple of blocks from the US Capitol and the National Mall. Like other gilded age train stations of the early 20th century, Union Station evokes thoughts of another era. Well before flying was even feasible, politicians and civil servants from around the country passed through the vaulted halls of Union Station to and from work. Today its proximity to Capitol Hill still guarantees frequent sightings of famous politicians, but more often than not it’s the central meeting point for millions of tourists every year.
Union Station transforms once every four years during inauguration festivities to host one of the many balls held around town to celebrate the swearing in of the new President. The past three inauguration committees have selected Union Station as the venue to host a total of nine inaugural events from 2001 to 2009. Walking through the main hall of the impressive building it’s easy to imagine some of the most important people in the world mingling as they welcome the new President.
Leaving the grandeur of the vaulted ceilings of Union Station, it’s only a short walk to the seat of government in the Unites States, the US Capitol. On any given day hundreds if not thousands of tourists descend upon the Capitol Building to see the work of government in progress. Luckily this is a much less arduous process since the newly remodeled Visitor Center opened a few years ago. Visitors can learn about the formation of the country and how the legislative process works before embarking on a tour of the building itself. Tours are free but it’s highly recommended to either join an organized tour or reserve tickets in advance.
If you visit while Congress is in session and would like to see the sometimes exciting, usually prosaic sessions in progress another pass will be necessary, which US citizens can reserve in advance from their Members of Congress. During Inauguration festivities, though, the US Capitol Building is ground zero for the main event: the swearing in of a new President. The ceremony itself occurs every four years on a special platform erected on the Capitol’s West Front. Mandated to occur on January 20thfollowing the election of a new President, the event can sometimes be a chilly affair, but that has never stopped thousands of people from descending on the Capitol and the National Mall to celebrate the new administration.
Perhaps the most popular destination for any visitor to Washington DC is the residence of the President and the First Family, the White House. This impressive mansion located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has been the official residence of the President since John Adams. The White House is also the end point for the lavish Inaugural Parade as the President and the First Lady travel down Pennsylvania Avenue from the US Capitol Building to the White House where they begin the process of governing the country.
Even though security has necessarily tightened in recent years, it’s still possible to visit the White House for a tour of the residence. The free tickets must be obtained in advance from your Member of Congress if you’re a US citizen or your embassy if you’re a foreign national. Tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis and it’s best to get them well in advance of your preferred visit date.
At the end of the mighty National Mall is one of Washington’s best-known memorials dedicated to one of the country’s best-loved Presidents, the Lincoln Memorial. Even though efforts to officially commemorate the 16th President of the United States had been underway since his assassination, it wasn’t under 1922 when work on the iconic Lincoln Memorial was completed. Not only is the site important for its dedication to Lincoln, but it has also been the site of many important American events including Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
It’s also usually involved in the Inauguration events, including most recently for the inauguration of President Obama. In 2009 the inauguration festivities for the President began at the Lincoln Memorial with a concert for the people that was also televised nationally. The event was reputed to be the most publicly accessible inaugural event in history and doubtless will be a feature of many more celebrations to come.
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National Building Museum
A final stop on the politics and inauguration path is an unlikely spot, but one that has been the site of many historical events. The National Building Museum, which is one of my favorite museums in Washington, is just a short metro ride from the National Mall yet many tourists don’t even realize that it exists. The Museum itself is dedicated to “architecture, design, engineering, construction, and urban planning” and hosts a variety of special exhibits detailing everything from the history of public transportation in the United States to building with LEGOs.
Even though the museum itself is somewhat new (1980) it is housed within a much older structure, what used to be the Pension Bureau Building. I wish we still built buildings like this because even though its mission wasn’t exciting, the structure features beautiful columns, friezes and even a Presidential seal set into the floor. This seal is especially important because just like Union Station, the museum is transformed during inauguration into one of the hottest tickets in town. The first inaugural ball held at the National Building Museum was for Grover Cleveland in 1885 and it’s a proud tradition that has continued through today.
Washington is a political town, but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring. These are just a few of the many exciting places to learn about the United States and even see government in action – what are some of yours?
Read more: Insider’s Guide to Washington DC
- Matt Long
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