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DC’s cherry blossoms, museums, monuments, and charming Georgetown

By VICKY VELOSO-BARRERA, The Philippine STAR Published Apr 20, 2024 5:00 am

Since I’d neither been to Washington, DC nor taken a train in the US before, I booked Amtrak tickets from New York to this nation’s capital. What a wise decision that turned out to be.

Not only did the comfortable, three-and-a-half-hour journey take us through Philadelphia and Baltimore, we discovered that the Union Station in DC (District of Columbia) was a soaring neoclassical building designed by no less than Daniel Burnham.

This city planner was so famous that, aside from being part of the City Beautiful plan of DC, he was tasked to create a “Beautification Plan” for Manila and design the summer capital of Baguio where he is commemorated by Burnham Park.

The Capitol Building

We could only gawk at the ornate ceiling, columns, and statues of Roman legionnaires, 46 of them to represent the number of states of the union as of the time of the station’s opening in 1907.

But we needed to get moving so we reluctantly stepped out of the station to suddenly behold what is probably the most iconic of US landmarks—the domed Capitol building!

Capitol Hill neighborhood

We were based in Capitol Hill so a 10-minute walk down our street would bring the Capitol building into view, through sidewalks dotted with blossoming cherry trees, daffodils and tulips. 

Another 10 minutes and we would be at the majestic Supreme Court building, based on the form of a classical Roman temple. The Capitol building itself was right across the street. But my destination was the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress located right beside the Supreme Court.

Union Square Station in DC designed by Daniel Burnham

My purpose was to research on Claire Booth Luce and Mrs. Douglas MacArthur, both clients of my lola Marina. But I had been expecting a library with tables and shelves of books. I did not expect to find, based on the Library’s Beaux-Arts granite exterior, a masterpiece of Italian Renaissance design within—a magnificent domed reading room, elaborately decorated spaces with sculptures and paintings, columns and arches, vibrant colors and light, so much so that in all my travels to Europe, I have not seen a more beautiful building.

First Lady Melania Trump’s gown at the Smithsonian Museum of American History

I did not need to research here with my reader’s card because the archivists had emailed me boxes worth of files. But I did need to go to the library’s more austere Madison building next door for the prints and photographs division. When all our work there was done, it was time to explore the wide expanse of the National Mall where our primary interest lay with the different Smithsonian museums.

Italian Renaissance interiors of the US Library of Congress, the largest library in the world

There are 21 Smithsonian museums, all free to visitors, and we started off with the Museum of Natural History. There were dinosaurs and fossils galore as well as galleries devoted to mammals and to the sea. But we made a beeline for the gemstone gallery where the Hope Diamond can be viewed up close: a huge blue stone set in a necklace that supposedly brought misfortune to its different owners. In the end it was acquired by jeweler Harry Winston who donated it to the museum.

From the Museum of Natural History we walked to the White House because it was just down the road on Pennsylvania Avenue. While not super imposing, it was still very moving to see where the US President lives, works and entertains.

We learned that DC quickly shuts down at 5 p.m., even Downtown. It’s best not to be out when it starts to get dark and the streets are deserted.

The White House

We also did not find eating options conveniently located near our Capitol Hill Airbnb but there was a Whole Foods grocery nearby so I cooked our dinners every night. 

For lunch, our favorite spot was Pork Belly, the dive for delicious sandwiches and even more delicious cookies such as a cinnamon roll cookie with nuggets with cream cheese icing within it.

We visited the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art, which has two structures. The West building is neoclassical in design with a stunning domed lobby, tall black marble columns and the time we were there, masses of colorful azaleas around a fountain with a statue of Mercury.

Here we were treated to gallery after gallery of the masters, including the only Da Vinci in the Americas, Picasso, Monet, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and self-portraits of Gauguin and Van Gogh side by side. There were American artists John Singer Sargeant’s portraits and Church’s Niagara. The museum also had serene areas where one could sit and reflect amidst sculptures and plants.

Apollo 11’s landing capsule back on Earth

An underground walkway lit by a fun installation connects the West building with the East one. This modern, I.M. Pei-designed structure is a big departure from the neoclassical West building and is like an artwork itself, combining two large triangles with many open levels and walkways. It houses galleries with Warhol, Lichtenstein and, while we were there, an exhibit of Mark Rothko’s colorful works on paper. 

We also stepped briefly into the Smithsonian Botanical Gardens and walked through the outdoor Sculpture Garden. But two other museums were very memorable for me. One was the Museum of Air and Space, the most popular and so heavily visited that it requires timed entry passes. I was in love with the huge airplanes, the history of space travel, the landing capsules and uniforms of Armstrong and other astronauts. Just watching a video of historical and scientific events leading to the landing on the moon brought tears because I remember quite a bit of it, having been a young teen when that happened. 

Airplanes in the huge space of the Smithsonian Museum of Air and Space

Airplanes also make me think of both my dad and my grandfather Buenaventure Veloso, who was a vice president of Philippine Airlines when Benny Toda was president. The different kinds of airplanes have always fascinated me and my daughter was astounded to discover that I was such a nerd and science geek.

With only a week in DC, I am so glad we did not miss the Museum of American History for two reasons: the kitchen of my idol Julia Child (it’s small, like mine!) and the collection of gowns worn by the US First Ladies. We were particularly enamored of those worn by Jackie Kennedy and Melania Trump.

Jackie Kennedy’s gown for her husband’s inauguration

After days of libraries and museums, we were craving a more retail experience and that brought us to Tyson’s Corner in nearby Virginia. There is a fun, gigantic “regular” mall anchored by not just one department store but three—Bloomingdales, Macy’s and Nordstrom. If you are looking for deals on perfumes you need to check out all of them because the promos vary from place to place. In between were all the usual suspects—Sephora, which I have since become a big fan of; Venchi gelato; all the American fashion brands you’ve heard and not heard of. 

For the very upscale, across the street is Tyson’s Galleria, anchored by Neiman Marcus and home to the luxury brands in a beautiful atrium that allows you see to see the fashionable shops and stylish shoppers on every level.

A lot of people wear pink when they pose with the cherry blossoms

We capped our DC stay with Georgetown, which I must say is our favorite place in all of DC. Shops, cafes, and even surprisingly New York-level fashion boutiques line this charming grid of converted historic houses. There is a pretty canal nearby and you can walk to the waterfront where you can see the Kennedy Center for performing arts and other landmarks from the Potomac River. Do not visit Georgetown without queuing up for any cupcake flavor at Georgetown Cupcakes or fantastic lemon cookies at the Levain Bakery.

Washington, DC turned out to be a welcome surprise with its stunning monuments, great museums, and the delightful, endearing Georgetown. And as it grew on me so did the blossoming cherry trees and magnolias, which became pinker and lusher with every passing day. The Cherry Blossom Festival was slated to begin in a few days when we left, but there were already enough flowering trees to leave with the impression that in the spring, DC’s monuments float in a sea of pink.