A Travellerspoint blog

Washington Open Top Bus Tour

A tour around a nation's monuments, museums and national cemetery

semi-overcast 28 °C
View 2013 Round the World Trip on FrancisRTW's travel map.

I wanted to see the US Capitol and White House while I was on the US East Coast so shortly before the end of my round the world trip I booked myself into a hotel for a few days in Washington and got myself a train ticket there on AMTRAK.

Arriving on my own in a strange city I started my stay with an open top bus tour to get my bearings; an approach I had also used earlier in my trip in Zurich and Sydney. The tour began from Washington's Union Station and soon after drove past the front of the US Capitol a short distance away for which I had a visit booked in a couple of days.

Washington's Union Railway Station

Washington's Union Railway Station


The US Capitol Building at the east end of the National Mall

The US Capitol Building at the east end of the National Mall

Washington is laid out with the Capitol Building atop Capitol Hill as its focal point and the 1.9 mile (3 kilometre) long open space of the National Mall stretching westwards to the needle like Washington Monument a little over half way along its length and then beyond to the Lincoln Memorial close to the Potomac River.

The view from the Capitol down the National Mall towards the Washington Monument

The view from the Capitol down the National Mall towards the Washington Monument

I'd heard of the Smithsonian Institute but never appreciated before that it was a collective term for the national museums of the USA. The 19 museums that make up the nucleus of the Institute line each side of top end of the National Mall, making it the largest museum campus in the world. I later managed to visit two of its most popular museums while I was in Washington - the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of Natural History.

The red-turreted Smithsonian Castle on Independence Avenue on the south side of the National Mall - headquarters of the Smithsonian Institute

The red-turreted Smithsonian Castle on Independence Avenue on the south side of the National Mall - headquarters of the Smithsonian Institute


The American Indian Museum on Independence Avenue

The American Indian Museum on Independence Avenue


The US Holocaust Memorial Museum on 14th Street

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum on 14th Street

About half way down the National Mall (where the White House faces onto it from the north) is the Washington Monument, the 555 feet (169 metre) high obelisk completed in 1884 in honour of George Washington the 1st US President. Unfortunately it was closed for repairs and covered in scaffolding while I was there having been damaged by the 2011 Virginia Earthquake and then Hurricane Irene later the same year.

The Washington Monument half way down the National Mall

The Washington Monument half way down the National Mall


View east up the National Mall to the Capitol Building from the Washington Monument

View east up the National Mall to the Capitol Building from the Washington Monument


The White House looking north from the National Mall

The White House looking north from the National Mall

A change of tour bus took us from the Washington Monument out to the Arlington National Cemetery just over the Potomac River where more than 400,000 military personnel from every US war since the American War of Independence right up until current day Afghanistan are buried. The cemetery was originally the home of Confederate Commander-in-Chief Robert E. Lee and was occupied by Union troops early in the Civil War in May 1861. In 1863 a village for freed and runaway slaves was created and then the following year for both practical and symbolic reasons it started being used as a military cemetery.

Memorial Avenue leading up to the Arlington National Cemetery

Memorial Avenue leading up to the Arlington National Cemetery


The entrance into Arlington National Cemetery

The entrance into Arlington National Cemetery


Wax model of a Honor Guard Bugler in the Visitors Center

Wax model of a Honor Guard Bugler in the Visitors Center


Rows of military graves at the Arlington National Cemetery

Rows of military graves at the Arlington National Cemetery

Deep in the heart of the cemetery with a terrific view over Washington are the Tombs of the Unknowns guarded by a honor guard from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment who also provide the ceremonial escort for the US President. None of the guards wear rank insignia so as not to outrank the unknowns and they perform a Changing of the Guard Ceremony by the tombs every half hour. There are four tombs; the original tomb from WWI with tombs from WWII, Korea and Vietnam in the plaza alongside it. The Vietnam Tomb is empty as modern DNA meant it was possible to identify who it was and return his remains to his family.

Looking up at the Tombs of the Unknowns

Looking up at the Tombs of the Unknowns


The Tombs of the Unknowns overlooking Washington

The Tombs of the Unknowns overlooking Washington


Changing the Guard Ceremony at the Tombs of the Unknowns

Changing the Guard Ceremony at the Tombs of the Unknowns

What I didn't appreciate beforehand is that all US military personnel who have seen active service and have been honourably discharged are eligible for burial at the cemetery if they so wish and this means it has on average seven burials per day. It took me a bit by surprise when I saw a Honor Band and Guard march past followed by a horse-drawn flag draped caisson and funeral cortege for one of these burials.

The Honor Guard leading a funeral cortege at Arlington National Cemetery

The Honor Guard leading a funeral cortege at Arlington National Cemetery


The horse-drawn caisson passes carrying an American flag-draped casket

The horse-drawn caisson passes carrying an American flag-draped casket

Arlington House itself was built in 1802 on high ground in the estate by Robert E. Lee's father-in-law George Washington Parke Custis (the step grandson of George Washington). The now restored house has a terrific view of Washington to its front with the wide boulevard of Memorial Drive and Arlington Memorial Bridge leading straight to the Lincoln Memorial.

Arlington House, the former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee

Arlington House, the former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee


The view over Washington from Arlington House

The view over Washington from Arlington House

On the hillside directly below the house is the grave and eternal flame of President John F. Kennedy who was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd 1963. His wife Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was buried alongside him 1994 and his younger brother Senator Robert F. Kennedy (assassinated in LA, California June 5th 1968) is buried in an adjacent grave plot.

The eternal flame by President John F. Kennedy's grave

The eternal flame by President John F. Kennedy's grave


Close up of President John F. Kennedy's gravestone

Close up of President John F. Kennedy's gravestone

The cemetery has lots of other memorials of interest including a pair of memorials behind the Tombs of the Unknowns Amphitheatre to the crews of the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttles lost in 1986 and 2003.

Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle Memorials either side of the 1979 Iran Mission Monument

Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle Memorials either side of the 1979 Iran Mission Monument

As we returned to the Washington we drove past the Pentagon, the headquarters of the US Ministry of Defence and the largest office building in the world. Unfortunately (but perhaps not surprisingly) we were not allowed to take any close up photographs!

The Pentagon

The Pentagon


Another view of the Pentagon

Another view of the Pentagon

Returning to the Washington Memorial I took the opportunity before getting back onto the main tour bus to have a look around the nearby Federal Bureau of Printing and Engraving. I had so far been unsuccessful in my attempts to see coins being minted at the US Mints in Denver and Philadelphia so when there was an opportunity to see US bank notes being printed instead I was keen to take it! Not surprisingly for security reasons we were not allowed to take photographs of the printing presses running although in the gift shop on the way out there was a case containing a million dollars and you could also measure your height in $100 bills (I'm $1,607,700 tall!).

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing on 14th Street

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing on 14th Street


Tour Entrance for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing

Tour Entrance for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing


$1,000,000 in $10 notes on display in the Bureau of Engraving and Printing

$1,000,000 in $10 notes on display in the Bureau of Engraving and Printing


How tall are you in $100 notes?

How tall are you in $100 notes?

I then got back on the main tour bus and we made our way around the numerous national memorials that pepper the lower section of the National Mall. Immediately behind the Washington Monument is the National World War II Memorial at the top end of the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

The National World War II Memorial with the Lincoln Memorial behind it at the other end of the Reflecting Pool

The National World War II Memorial with the Lincoln Memorial behind it at the other end of the Reflecting Pool

The neo-classical Lincoln Memorial dedicated in 1922 to honour the 16th US President anchors the west end of the National Mall. Inside the memorial is the famous 19 feet (5.8 metre) high statue of Abraham Lincoln with words of his 1863 Gettysburg Address and 1865 Second Inaugural Address engraved on two of its walls.

The memorial has been the site of many famous speeches with hundreds of thousands of people gathered around its Reflecting Pool, including African-American Civil Rights Movement leader Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 and anti-Vietnam War Protests in the late 1960s. It has also been used a backdrop in numerous films including Logan's Run (1976), Forest Gump (1994) and Planet of the Apes (2001) amongst many others.

The Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial


Lincoln's Statue inside his Memorial on the National Mall

Lincoln's Statue inside his Memorial on the National Mall


Looking back up the National Mall from the Lincoln Memorial

Looking back up the National Mall from the Lincoln Memorial

Just to the south of the Lincoln Memorial beside the Tidal Basin are the Martin Luther King Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial (32nd US President between 1933-1945) and picturesquely on the other side of the Basin the Thomas Jefferson Memorial (3rd US President between 1803-1809).

The Martin Luther King Memorial

The Martin Luther King Memorial


The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial


The Thomas Jefferson Memorial on the other side of the Tidal Basin

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial on the other side of the Tidal Basin

Amongst the other memorials nearby was the Korean War Veterans Memorial depicting a patrol of soldiers from the conflict and the Albert Einstein Memorial with him holding a manuscript engraved with the formulas of his three most important scientific advances (the theory of general relativity, the photoelectric effect and the equivalence of energy and matter).

Korean War Veterans Memorial

Korean War Veterans Memorial


The Albert Einstein Memorial

The Albert Einstein Memorial

In addition to a grid of north/south (numeric) and east/west (alphabetic) streets Washington also has diagonal avenues named after states and the final leg of our bus tour took us along Pennsylvania Avenue which is probably the most famous and busiest of them. This is where a lot of the federal government buildings such as the Internal Revenue, Department of Justice and FBI Headquarters are and is usually referred to as the Federal Triangle.

Pennsylvania Avenue

Pennsylvania Avenue


View from the bus on Pennsylvania Avenue - all roads lead to the Capitol

View from the bus on Pennsylvania Avenue - all roads lead to the Capitol


The J Edgar Hoover Building on Pennsylvania Avenue - headquarters of the FBI

The J Edgar Hoover Building on Pennsylvania Avenue - headquarters of the FBI

One of the final buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue before the Capitol is the Newseum which apparently contains loads of footage of major events over recent years and looks like something the media mogul baddie in the James Bond Film "Tomorrow Never Dies" would have dreamt up. It looked a fascinating place to visit with terrific reviews but unfortunately I didn't have time to fit it in.

The Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue

The Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue

Posted by FrancisRTW 02:00 Archived in USA Tagged trains museums tour washington videos solo war_memorials mints us_presidents us_east_coast film_locations

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents

Be the first to comment on this entry.

Comments on this blog entry are now closed to non-Travellerspoint members. You can still leave a comment if you are a member of Travellerspoint.

Enter your Travellerspoint login details below

( What's this? )

If you aren't a member of Travellerspoint yet, you can join for free.

Join Travellerspoint