See the Best of Washington D.C. with Tips from Two Experts
Mexico native Christian Martinez knows more about American history than you do, but then that’s his job. Martinez, who is set to take his citizenship exam this spring, moved to Washington, D.C., in 2005 in pursuit of the American dream. He first worked as bartender, and then a bar manager, but, by 2007 was giving tours of his adopted city. In 2009, he became part-owner of Congressional Tours. It’s this métier, he says, that instilled his passion for this country.
“My work made me American,” Martinez says. “Everyone needs to know their history, and I’ve got a great appreciation for this country because of what I do.” This zest translates into dynamic tours that cultivate an intimate appreciation for America’s capital and surrounding areas.
Guide Bill Wadsworth (Wadsworth Limousine and Tours), agrees. Wadsworth’s tours incorporate his refined knowledge of art and architecture and their influence on America’s history. Wadsworth, a D.C. native, attributes his curiosity about his hometown to a childhood spent playing with his siblings at the Smithsonian, where their mother worked in the natural history building. As an adult, he worked for the Washington Star paper for almost 14 years, which delivered “a great window to the city and its life.”
“The world comes to you when you live in Washington, D.C.,” he says. Wadsworth has been showing D.C. to the world for 25 years now. The challenge with a destination as diverse and significant as D.C. is staying focused. “Most people come without realizing the scale,” says Wadsworth. “There is so much to see here that you could get lost.” Allow for surprises, but don’t overload yourself. So, where to go (beyond the obvious) when in the nation’s capital? Read on.
Christian Martinez’s Must-Sees:
George Washington’s Mount Vernon: The grounds and mansion of George Washington’s farm have been restored to what they were in 1799, the last year Washington resided there. As soon as you walk through the front gate, you feel it too—you’re back in the 18th century. Watch blacksmiths forge nails in their shop.
Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA: With 25 to 35 funerals per day, Arlington might be the world’s busiest cemetery. The final resting place for those who served the United States of America, including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the cemetery is among the most beautiful properties in the city (as macabre as it sounds). Catch the changing of the honor guard and John F. Kennedy’s gravesite, selected for its superlative view of the entire Washington, D.C., skyline.
Pentagon Memorial: An elegant and simple memorial honors the 184 people who perished when hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “This was such a significant moment in history,” says Martinez. “Youngsters don’t always realize there were four planes kidnapped that day; we tend to remember the twin towers.”
United States Supreme Court: The courtroom is open on a first-come, first-served basis when oral arguments are in session (October until late June/early July). This extraordinary access is not available in many parts of the world, says Martinez. “When you see the actual courtroom and the chairs of the nine justices, you understand justice in a new and different way.”
Bill Wadsworth’s Highlights:
National Gallery of Art: Forget, for a moment, that this building houses one of the greatest art collections in the world, including Ginevra de’ Benci, the only Leonardo da Vinci portrait in North America. “The gallery is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world,” says Wadsworth. It was a gift of Andrew Mellon, Secretary of Treasury during the Great Depression.
Library of Congress: The library was built in 1897 and features “the greatest neoclassical interior in the country,” says Wadsworth. “This building sums up America’s confidence as it moved into the 20th century. There’s little difference between the most beautiful opera houses in Europe and the Library of Congress,” says Wadsworth.
U.S. Capitol: “In addition to acting as an incredible repository for American painting, the Capitol is the very core of our experiment in democracy,” says Wadsworth. Indeed, for almost 200 years, the Senate and the House of Representatives have met here. The top of the Capitol is the second-largest cast-iron dome in the world.
Washington National Cathedral: The nation’s church is the sixth-largest cathedral in the world and the last Gothic cathedral ever built. Construction spanned almost a century (1907-1998), and was conducted medieval style, which means there were never more than 40 people working at a time.