During my first visit to Washington D.C. fifteen years ago, the first thing I wanted to see was Fonzi’s jacket. And I found it, in the Smithsonian Museum of American History beside Archie Bunker’s chair near the ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz (a popular draw). This year, however, my visit revealed a sad truth: the jacket is no longer on display, likely because kids today ask, “Who’s Fonzi?” Yet the chair remains. Kermit the frog has been added – no complaint there.
The pop culture display is one small part of this massive museum that focuses on all things American, and half of it is closed for renovations until 2014.
It’s also one of nineteen Smithsonian Institute museums in the U.S. nation’s capital – which is a hefty but possible one-day car trip from Southern Ontario. But when you get there, D.C. is a bonanza of history, sites, and pristine public parks, like ‘The Mall’ stretching between the icon Washington Monument and the inspiring Lincoln Memorial. (This year construction of the African American Museum mars the visuals of The Mall, but it’s still accessible.)
Other Smithsonians worth visiting, especially for families, are the National Museum of Natural History, National Museum of Air and Space and the National Zoo. The first is home to 126 million artifacts including the African Bush Elephant greeting visitors since the 1950s, more dinosaurs than you can shake a bone at and, one of my faves, the Hope Diamond. The Air and Space museum is a closer to the White House (on The Mall, not the one near the airport). Significant planes, like the Spirit of St. Louis, hang above your head and you can walk through an actual Skylab orbital workshop or sit in a cockpit of an early commercial jet. Little ones can get hands-on with flight concepts in the ‘How Things Fly’ exhibit.
The National Zoo is worth an entire day and one of my favourite zoos. In the well-designed facility surrounded by city activity you can get close to African elephants when they’re in the indoor enclosure, and the big draw is the new Giant Panda exhibit recreating panda habitat with waterfall, steam and cave hideouts for lazy bears to lounge. Parking is free behind the zoo.
In fact, everything mentioned is free (but expect over-priced cafeterias and gift stores). Part of the Smithsonian mandate is that all are free to the public. Street parking is free on the weekends in D.C., and hotel rates drop significantly this time too, once lobbyists go home. Make sure you stay on the west side – avoid the east, especially the sketchy south east. A weekend stay on the right side of town becomes an extremely economical cultural adventure.