Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What to consider when planning a vacation or long weekend to Washington DC

Washington, D.C. is one of the top travel destinations in the United States. Every year thousands of visitors come from all over the world to visit the U.S. Capital. The District contains excitement for visitors who seek to see famous places, learn more about U.S. history and see how the government works. Or perhaps tourists simply want to explore the landmarks which make Washington a truly distinctive city.

From a tourist perspective, one of the unique features of D.C. is many of the tourist attractions are free. This is not to say other amenities, such as accommodations and food, aren't pricey, but the majority of the attractions themselves are free for the public to explore.

Here are some of the best features to consider when planning a vacation or long weekend to the U.S. Capital:

National Mall

A trip to Washington isn't really complete without catching a glimpse of, or better yet seeing up close and personal, the monuments and memorials stationed in the National Mall and along the Tidal Basin. These landmarks are run by the National Park Service and are free to the public. 

Visitors who want to see the memorials on the National Mall should keep in mind if they want to go up inside the Washington Monument, tickets are required, so plan to reserve those early so you don't miss out, but these are free. 


One of the biggest tourist attractions in D.C. are the magnificent museums. Washington D.C. is home to the Smithsonian Museums, which are also free! The Smithsonian museums provide visitors with amazing exhibits and a wealth of information regarding history, culture, technology and most facets of society.

There are literally several museums in the vicinity of the National Mall including the Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History,the Museum of Natural History, Freer & Sackler Gallery, National Museum of the American Indian, National Museum of African Art and the National Portrait Gallery.

Dorothy's slippers, worn by Judy Garland during "The Wizard of Oz", are on display at the American History Museum
In addition there's also the National Zoo and several other museums. You can learn more about the many museums and research centers of the Smithsonian system on its website.


There are plenty of entertainment venues in Washington, D.C. For visitors who are yearning to see a classical concert, ball game, rock concert or a live performance of a play there's the Verizon Center, Nationals'Stadium, Redskins' Stadium, Kennedy Center for the Arts and Ford's Theatre; the latter also is a museum and has scheduled tours.

Nationals' Park

Capitol Building and White House Tours

Another highlight visitors can opt to do is tour the U.S.Capitol Building and White House. These two tours are open to the public, but special permission must be granted before a trip to D.C. These are scheduled only, and specific procedures must be followed in order to be permitted on a tour.  Visitors can visit the Capitol Building (these can also be booked online for a limited number of spaces or you can reserve through your Congressperson) and White House websites for more information on how to reserve a tour. 

White House all set up for President Obama's second inauguration

Northern Virginia

Visitors who are traveling from afar who may not get the chance to see the Washington D.C. Metro area again may want to consider venturing out a bit and exploring nearby Northern Virginia. Just across the Potomac are important and noteworthy landmarks such as Arlington Cemetery (and Arlington House which is on the cemetery grounds), Mount Vernon, Woodlawn Plantation and Gunston Hall, to name a few.

Mount Vernon
Old Town Alexandria, also located near D.C., is deeply rooted in early American history and there are many small museums to see inside this section of Alexandria. History and architectural buffs will enjoy what Old Town has to offer. There are many amazing things to see and do in Old Town, not to mention the charm of the city offers and a certain ambiance. For lunch or dinner, there are many charming and affordable restaurants in Old Town.

Another great feature for visitors to the District is the ability to travel by Metro. The Metro system goes to most of the aforementioned attractions and is relatively cheap in comparison to renting a car or using taxis. Visitors who choose to go Metro won't have to waste time with parking, which can be expensive and/or hard to get in the high traffic and populated areas.
Visitors to Washington, D.C. can choose to self-guide and tour the great attractions on their own, or can book an organized tour of the city. There are pros and cons to both, but it is important to note that organized tours are a bit on the pricey side, so if you're traveling on a budget, self-guided tours may be the better way to go.
DC is a great place to explore year-round, for a vacation or quick weekend getaway. After close to a decade of living here, it is still fun finding things to explore.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Photos on Friday: District of Columbia WWI Memorial

This weeks Photos on Friday takes a look at the District of Columbia WWI Memorial. Perhaps a lesser-known monument on the National Mall, for years it languished behind heavy shrubbery and was in desperate need of restoration. Today the memorial has had an overhaul and looks wonderful. It is also a popular place for weddings. I'll do a more detailed post about this memorial in the upcoming weeks.

Take a look at the before and after - 

The WWI memorial circa 2008

The monument as it looks today. Notice how the trees and other shrubs have been cleared out or cut back. You can't see it as much in this image, but the monument itself has also been nicely cleaned.
Wedding taking place at the District of Columbia Memorial last year

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Fall festivals in DC area: Corn Maze in The Plains

If you're visiting or live in the D.C. Metro area and are looking for a fun fall-themed family day out, you might want to consider checking out the Corn Maze at The Plains. I've been to this one a few times and every time there has been a good crowd. Not too crowded though where you can't enjoy the activities.

Each year the Corn Maze carries a different theme. Previous years' themes varied and have included "Witch Way Out",  "Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?", "Buy fresh Buy Local", and "Bat-titude", to name a few. The theme for 2014 is "Hooowl I Ever Get Out?!!! 

And this year, you might not want to get out if you attend on opening weekend. Staff will hide $1,500 in $50 and $100 bills in the maze.

Entering the corn maze in 2012
In addition to the corn maze, there are a lot of other activities going on, including fall-inspired slides, swings, mini-corn mazes for the little ones, an obstacle course and pumpkin chucking, which is always a hoot.  Another attraction are the hayrides running continuously throughout the day (expect to sit on real hay on this one, no pseudo-hay ride here..).

Playground at Corn Maze at the Plains

There is also a farmer's shop onsite which is always fun to poke around. And of course, there are lots of pumpkins, all shapes and sizes. I also stop at the farmer's market on the way out, which sits on the side of the road on the way out of the festival.

Located in The Plains, Va., about an hour away from the District, Corn Maze in The Plains brings many visitors out to this section of Northern Virginia. This annual event is now in its 15th year. This year's season's kickoff happens on Sept. 27 and Sept. 28.  (See their website for additional dates and hours)

The Corn Maze in The Plains is located at 4501 Old Tavern Rd. The Plains, Va.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Fun facts and history of the Torpedo Factory, Alexandria Va.

The Torpedo Factory Art Center is a building that has been restored, renovated and revitalized. Today the building has been totally revamped and is a hub for the artist community. The building is home to 82 artist studies, 6 art galleries, an art school, and the Alexandria Archeology Museum.

I wrote about visiting the Torpedo Factory Art Center back in June, however, wanted to delve a bit more into its history with this post. Before becoming a central location for the artist community to come together and showcase work, the building's history is an interesting one. The building's origins was rooted in the manufacturing of torpedoes and had originally been built at the end of World War I. Placed on the shore of the Potomac River in Alexandria, which undoubtedly was chosen for its prime location with direct access to the waterfront.

For many years the facility served as a center for manufacturing and maintaining torpedoes; it also served as a munitions storage area for a period of time. During World War II, the manufacturing of torpedoes resumed in full swing and the facility produced Mark XIV submarine torpedoes and Mark III aircraft torpedoes. Over the course of time more buildings were added and in all there were 11 buildings at the height of production.

At the end of World War II in June 1945 production of torpedoes ceased since the demand was no longer in place. The building sat stagnant until the U.S. government decided it was a good location for storage.

Over the years the Smithsonian institute stowed important artifacts, including dinosaur bones, and Congressional papers were also placed into storage at this site. Even the U.S. military housed important items which were placed in sealed vaults and stored at the facility for a time.

The building was sold in 1969 to the City of Alexandria and plans began to decide on a different use for the building. Finally, after some deliberation, it was decided the building would be renovated to become working studio space for local artists.

In 1974 the renovations and cleanup process began; there apparently was a lot of accumulated debris that had collected in the building for over 5 decades. Once the cleanup was complete, walls were constructed to create separation of the large space and individual studios could be built.

Later that year, in September, the plan was brought to fruition, the facility was re-opened which included open invitation to the public. There were still many renovations which needed to be done, such as reliable heat and air conditioning systems, and this didn't happen for many years.

It was in 1982-83 the building underwent its second renovation; this time it was a major one which including gutting the facility, installing the heating/cooling systems and an addition of a second floor.

The hard blood, sweat and tears of those dedicated to the project paid off. Today the former torpedo factory has become a dynamic artists' center and thriving art community; it is also a popular tourist stop. Each year visitors from near and far come and enjoy what the building has to offer.

The history of the Torpedo Factory Art Center is an interesting one and a neat place to stop by and visit if you're in Old Town. Its got such a pretty location too, right on the Potomac Riverfront.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Photos on Friday: Giant Pandas at the National Zoo

The Smithsonian National Zoo has a number of exhibits. One of its most popular ones is the Giant Panda habitat. Currently, there are 3 giant pandas at the zoo─mom Mei Xiang, dad Tian Tian and newest edition Bao Bao, born Aug. 2013 after a long process. (Their first baby, Tai Shan, born in 2005, left the zoo in 2010).  

The panda exhibit at the National Zoo is a lot of fun as you never know what you might see these beautiful animals doing. It's been a couple of years since I've visited, and now with new baby Bao Bao, I'm thinking it is time for another visit.