Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Fabulous spring break in Washington DC

Today's post isn't going to be about anything specific, but a more personal type of blog post. We just finished up spring break in Fairfax County and had a fabulous time staying home and enjoying the local sites downtown. Some friends came to visit which made the week off even more fun.

Many people travel from afar to see Washington in the spring, so the streets were crowded and lines were long, but we covered a lot of the Mall areas. Earlier my daughter and I hopped the Metro to see the almost to peak cherry blossoms and once our friends arrived, we took on many parts of the city.

Friday was a busy day, first we visited the Supreme Court. I'd visited inside once before, but never sat in on a tour in the actual court. It was a very interesting experience to sit in the highest court in the land and listen to the Q & A session we'd attended. 

Courtroom Washington DC
Photos are not allowed inside the courtroom, but you can catch a glimpse in this photo
After this, we popped in next door to the Library of Congress and spent quite a bit of time here (I have a couple of blog posts I want to write about in the future about the LOC). 

LOC research room
Main research room at the Library of Congress

From the LOC we headed down towards the cherry blossoms as they were peaking at this point. Saw the pre-sunset views which were stunning! 

After that, we walked through the Mall and saw the Washington, WWII and Lincoln Memorials as the sun was just about to set. Another gorgeous view!

Lincoln Memorial on National Mall
Sunset over Lincoln Memorial March 2016
Fortunately, on Saturday traffic wasn't too bad getting downtown. We parked at Union Station and started off the afternoon with a Capitol tour. The restoration is still ongoing, but it was nice to see the top of the dome back to its shiny white. The inside is still full of scaffold, but our guide said this should be coming down late summer or early fall. Since we were right at the tunnel, we popped back over at the LOC for another quick visit.

Afterwards, we walked down to the National Archives. As expected, there was a long line, but it moved quickly which was great. We didn't stay long. I really like visiting the Archives, but I wish on busy days they'd set up a better viewing system in the Rotunda. The officer asked everyone to be kind to one another during his presentation prior to entering, but clearly a few people weren't paying attention. 

At other times of year their system works, but not so much on spring break. My family was shoved out of the queue to see the Declaration of Independence by two tweens and a mother who demanded she needed to "stay with her girls". She pulled the same card a few minutes later to get further ahead of people. One of my friends was actually cussed at by a man who was standing in front of one of the documents with his child in a stroller with his back to it, totally blocking anyone else from seeing the document. Not the best experience there on this trip.

After that we made the trek back up to Union Station where we grabbed a bite to eat and then got on our moonlight bus tour. Now THAT was fabulous. It was the second time I'd done this and, while the one we did last year was good, this one was fantastic. More on this in a future blog post. We had booked our tour with Old Town Trolley and Mike was our guide. Great stuff! 

Iwo Jima Memorial
Marine Corps War Memorial (also referred to as the Iwo Jima Memorial)
On Sunday we visited the National Zoo to see the pandas and a few other exhibits. Little Bei Bei was out, but not the other pandas. The little one was sound asleep. I couldn't get a good view of him, but a family member did.

National Zoo Bei Bei sleeping
Photo Credit: DL
After a couple of hours at the zoo we headed over to Pennsylvania Avenue to see the White House and the Old Executive Building. Monday, the last day of break for Fairfax County, was back to the American History Museum, but alas, that line was still so long and didn't appear to be moving very quickly, so the kidlet and I headed back down to the cherry blossoms for one last peek before these beauties were done for the year. 

I'd been on or near the Tidal Basin several times this week and I'm really glad we went on Monday. It was the best viewing day of all. The wind made it a bit "snowy", just gorgeous.
cherry blossoms at Tidal Basin, Washington DC
Gorgeous cherry blossoms showing on March 28, 2016

Cherry blossoms in Washington DC

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Cherry blossoms in bloom around Tidal Basin

Yesterday we took a ride downtown to visit one of the museums and, of course, go check on the status of the cherry blossom trees surrounding the Tidal Basin.

What a beautiful day. The cherry blossoms weren't quite in peak yet, but I'd estimate it was at about 50 percent. Anyone considering going to see them I'd recommend going in the next few days. The weather is currently beautiful and the showing should be fabulous! (Although one wrinkle might be some morning rain on Friday).

Here are a few photos I took on Tues., March 22, 2016.

Looking at the Washington Monument from across the Tidal Basin.

Military aircraft flying over the water. You can see some of the trees are in bloom and others are on the cusp.

Blossoms posing for a pic. You can see still lots of buds yet to open

Many of the trees surrounding the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial were in bloom (most are off to the left of this photo)

I am not 100 percent sure, but I believe the one most prominent in bloom here is the tree which is the first each year to bloom.

United States Air Force Memorial

Monday, March 14, 2016

Everything you wanted to know about the National Cherry Blossom Festival

Each year Washington D.C. hosts the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival. The festival lasts a few weeks and is one of Washington D.C.'s most popular spring events. Every year millions of visitors flock to the Capital City to see the blossoms. The festival usually begins around the end of March and continues for two weeks. Although in previous years, dates and length of the festival have sometimes varied.

History of the National Cherry Blossom Festival

The event is one that offers a tribute to the commemoration of 3,000 cherry trees gifted to the United states from Toyko's Mayor Yukio Ozaki in 1912. This exquisite gift offered just after the turn of the 20th century was given as a way to honor the ongoing friendship between the U.S. and Japan. Today's annual festival serves as a memento and celebration to the continued alliance and closeness between the two nations.

About the festival

Visitors to the city can admire and take pictures of the pink blossoms scattered along the Potomac River and throughout the grassy areas around the perimeter of the National Mall. The sight of the thousands of blossoms is nothing short of extraordinary and the striking view of these budding flowers on the trees is breathtakingly beautiful. As you walk through the Tidal Basin, there is often a pink blanket of petals on the water that is beautiful too.

During the course of the festival there are daily events, performances and activities presented; the daily schedule includes fun for the whole family (for the kids there are usually crafts too). Each year the festival features a parade on one weekend, and the following weekend the festival concludes with a display of fireworks.

The cherry blossom festival is an event that has developed into a top tourist attraction as millions of people a year come to see these amazing blossoms. If you do plan to visit Washington D.C. during the weeks of the Cherry Blossom Festival, you should be aware, there is usually a big crowd and you should plan accordingly.

Planning your trip

Being it is a busy time to visit, due to the crowds, you'll want to book your accommodations and any tours ahead of time to ensure you get the reservations you want. Additionally, since so many people are in town, the museums tend to be packed more than usual (and usual is pretty crowded on weekends for the more popular museums!). As you plan your itinerary, you may want to plan some of your attraction visits for earlier in the day before it gets too crowded and you spend most of your day in lines.

Getting around Washington D.C.

During the Cherry Blossom Festival, parking may be difficult and the Metro is typically packed during the festival weeks. The trains often have standing room only, but the good news is the Metro moves swiftly and is almost always on schedule; they seem to plan well for big events such as the National Cherry Blossom Festival, adding extended hours, etc.

If you drive into Washington D.C., while chances are parking is slim pickings, if any at all, near the festival area, you may be able to find parking over at Union Station (which will cost you). This is a hike from the Cherry Blossom festivities, but a short Metro trip from Union Station (take the Red Line to the Orange Line and get off at the Smithsonian Station) will get you down within walking distance to the Cherry Blossom Festival. Or you can check out Panda Parking to see what's available - haven't used it yet, but this is a service I'm looking to try out in the near future.

The locals tend to avoid the weekend festivities and head into D.C. on the weekdays to appreciate the cherry blossoms. If you are staying in Maryland or Northern Virginia, you may want to consider weekdays as a possible option if you don't like the heavy crowds. I have been doing this myself the last few years - it's still pretty busy, but not as hectic as it is on the weekends. Last year I went down later in the afternoon on a weekday and caught the sun beginning to set over the Tidal Basin as I completed my walk around.

The annual National Cherry Blossom Festival is a great event. If you happen to be in the area, or even if you live in the DC Metro area, the blossoms are worthy of a visit at least once. For more information on the Cherry Blossom Festival, you can visit the official website for more information.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Photos on Friday: 3 great places to see spring blooms in Northern Virginia

Today's Photos on Friday is going to be more of a post than photos - but I wanted to get this one out ASAP since signs of spring have started to appear in Northern Virginia. 

The crocus popped up in my yard two weeks ago, daffodils are starting to be seen around town and the hyacinth are getting bigger every day, this morning I saw my first glimpse of a bloom in my own garden.

If you love to look at beautiful spring blooms, there are several great places in Northern Virginia to see them. Here are three of them.

1. Burnside Farms

Every year Burnside Farms hosts its annual "Holland in Haymarket" festival. The big attraction is the farm's beautiful tulip plantings, but there are some other beauties too. Expect to see daffodils and irises too if you time it right. 

Want to see more from this festival: Photos from 2015. (As an aside, some of the tulips we picked had bulbs, so we planted them. Looks like they are coming up this year).

To keep tabs on this one, check out the farm's official page with updates on when the festival will get going. Great stuff, truly, if this is your sort of day out.


If you're not familiar with Oatlands, it is a historic property located in Leesburg, Virginia. Originally built in the early 1800s by a member of the well-known Carter family, the gardens are a lovely place to visit in the spring and summer. 

I've been here a number of times, but only once in the spring. It's on my "wish list" for this year though. This peonies photo was taken in May 2010.

[Interested in this historic site? More detailed reading and photos about Oatlands in this post

Mount Vernon

I've written about Mount Vernon quite a bit as there is always something happening at this historic site. The gardens are always lovely.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Interesting facts about the Stone House at Manassas Battlefield

One of the most recognizable landmarks at the Manassas Battlefield National Park is the Stone House. The house stands on the fields where the Union and Confederate armies clashed, not once, but twice during the Civil War. It lived through both the First and Second Manassas battles.

Today the home stands as a gateway of sorts to the past. Run by the U.S. National Park Service (NPS), visitors to the battlefield can visit the Stone House and learn more about its pivotal role during the mid-1800s.

Over the years the Stone House has served many capacities since it was initially built. After the Civil War was over, it was eventually restored back to a private residence and served as such for many decades.

In the late 1940s the U.S. government took ownership of the Stone House and the properties surrounding it, creating a national park. In the 1960s The Stone House was restored to its earlier appearance. 

From what I’ve learned through tours of the home, the exterior of the house is pretty intact to the original structure and much of the interior is original too with restorations made. Everything has been brought back to the way the house would have looked during the 19th century.

Other interesting facts about the Stone House:

  • The house was built in 1848.
  • Over the centuries the structure served as a rest stop, farmhouse, tavern and, ultimately, a Civil War field hospital (twice).
  • Henry P. Matthews and family owned the home at the time the Civil War broke out. The Matthews family sold their home and moved away in 1865.
  • The Confederates mostly retained control of the house during both battles.
  • On the second floor, two soldiers from the 5th New York Infantry carved their names into the floorboards. According to NPS, those etchings are still visible today.
  • In the years after the war, many different owners possessed Stone House.
  • There are cannonballs embedded in the exterior of Stone House. This was common to find during and after the war, however, the story goes a later owner of the Stone House placed cannonballs over damage that had been done during battle time. 

  • There are two primary floors and a basement. The first (main) floor is often open to visitors with a rare second-floor opening. The basement is not available for tours.
One of the fireplaces in the Stone House. Image taken by my family member, I am not sure what room this was in.

A family member of mine was there back in 2006 when it was opened for a day when a former resident was visiting. Being new to the area at that time and not realizing how rare of an opportunity this was, I was in another part of the park. Very disappointed I missed it!

Photo taken by my family member from the second floor
The property surrounding Stone House is also a popular destination for hikers. There are many trails throughout Manassas Battlefield Park. A few years back I got a good feel for what’s back there after we were following some horse trails that ended and we found ourselves lost in the woods for a bit. An interesting experience! 

Manassas Battlefield Park is open daily, year-round (except Thanksgiving and Christmas). Visitors can take both walking and driving tours. There are also frequent interpretive programs scheduled and a small museum inside the visitors’ center with several Civil War artifacts. 

[ Related reading: Photos on Friday - Manassas National Battlefield Park ]

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Blossom Kite Festival to take place on April 2, 2016

It's finally here - well almost. The National Cherry Blossom Festival is all set to start on March 20, 2016 and run until April 17, 2016. Opening ceremonies are scheduled for March 26.

A fun day during the festival is the annual Blossom Kite Festival. This year it's scheduled for April 2, 2016 from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The event is free to attend and/or participate - fun for all ages. Throughout the day they'll be kite making, competitions, displays, challenges, battles and awards. For a more complete list of the day's kite events, see the full schedule (rain date is April 3). The fun all takes place at the Washington Monument.

While the National Cherry Blossom Festival has been running for years, this is the 6th year for the kite festival. I've never participated in the kite festival, but have wandered in to watch in previous years. It looks like a great time. Participants can bring their own kites or make one at an activity station (while supplies last).

In terms of the cherry blossoms, I was downtown about a week ago but there was nothing yet visible far as I could tell. 

However, based on the signs of spring we're seeing here to the east of the District in Fairfax, I suspect the chances are good we'll see peak blossoms during the festival this year.

(A quick check to NPS's bloom watch page just confirmed it - I've been checking it frequently over the past few weeks. NPS is predicting the peak to be between March 31 and April 3 - perfect timing to see both the kites and the blossoms!)

Monday, March 7, 2016

15 fun facts about the White House

The White House is one of the most recognized buildings in Washington, D.C. Home to the President of the United States and family, every year many people take a stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue to get a good look at this iconic landmark. The house is full of rich history.

The White House, Washington, D.C.

15 fun facts about the White House

1. Plans for the presidential house was put into motion in 1791 by George Washington. An architect by the name of James Hoban was chosen to design the home and its cornerstone was laid in 1792. President and Mrs. John Adams were the first to move into the home while it was still being built in 1800. Washington, while instrumental in the planning, was the only president to never live in the White House.

2. The White House is currently comprised of 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, and has six levels. Incorporated into the structure are a whopping 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases and 3 elevators. Overall, the building is 168 feet (51.2 meters) long and 85 feet, 6 inches (26.1 meters) wide. Square footage totals about 55,000 square feet.

3. The White House sits on 18 acres of land. 

White House views from atop the Washington Monument
This photo of the White House was taken from atop the Washington Monument

4. Burned by the British in 1814 during the War of 1812, the White House was severely damaged. Hoban was again selected to (re)build the presidential home. President Monroe moved into the house in 1817. 

5. The South Portico was built in 1824 and the North Portico in 1829.

6. President Theodore Roosevelt implemented some major renovations for the White House including the relocation of the presidential office into what is now known as the “West Wing”. Long-referred to as the “White House”, it was President Roosevelt who finally had this name officially dubbed. Prior to that time, it was often referred to as "President's House", "Executive Mansion", and "President's Palace".

7. President William Howard Taft added the Oval Office to the West Wing and expanded it. Fast-forward five decades and the home had severe structural weakness and President Harry S. Truman administered a major restoration. The exterior walls are still original, but the interior was redone.

White House view from Constitution Avenue

8. It takes 570 gallons of paint to cover the exterior of the White House. (Wonder how long that takes to complete?)

9. Did you know the White House has its own bowling lane, movie theatre, swimming pool, and tennis courts?

10. President Andrew Jackson was the first president to greet a professional baseball team at the White House. This meeting took place in 1865, four months after the Civil War ended. The teams meeting with the President were the Washington Nationals and Brooklyn Atlantics. 

11. The White House was upgraded in 1891 to include electricity. The installation was done by The Edison Company. Then-President and Mrs. Benjamin Harrison are said to have been fearful of using it. 

12. Today, the street in front of the White House is closed to traffic. Years ago cars and buses were able to drive by the president's home to sight-see, but this is no longer possible. To catch a glimpse of the front of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW is only accessible to the general public by foot traffic. This section was closed off for security reasons in 1995 during the Clinton Administration and was made a permanent closure during the Bush (George W.) administration after Sept. 11, 2001. You can catch a good view of the back of the White House if you're driving or walking along Constitution Avenue.

13. Pedestrians are still welcome to walk by the White House. However, in recent years additional barriers have been placed between the main fence surrounding the home and the street. These additional fences were added after a few breaches of security occurred when trespassers illegally entered or attempted to enter White House property. 

The usual position of the secondary barrier, however, I've seen other barriers also added at times.

14. It is common to see protesters and activists voicing their concerns in front of the White House (I've personally seen many. Some are organized rallies, or gatherings, others quietly or loudly carry signage. Still others march by, have their say, and move on). 

March against Monsanto activists in Washington DC
Crowd gathers for a rally to protest GMOs in front of the White House in 2013

15. Visitors are welcomed to visit the inside of the White House, however, there are restrictions in doing so and permission has to be given. The only times the White House has been closed to the public was during wartime and then again in 2013 during the time surrounding the U.S. government shutdown. To learn how to make arrangements and to read tour information, visit the official White House web page for specifics.

Hope you enjoyed these fun facts! Thanks for visiting and, if you’re interested, please check out other landmark fun facts and information about this historic city, homes, festivals and other things to see and do in Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia. You can use the search box to the right of this post. 

White House, January 2013
This photo was taken just before President Obama started his second term. Here the White House is set up for the upcoming inauguration.