Don’t Miss It! A Guide to Washington, DC for Inauguration Visitors
This year’s inaugural celebration is expected to be the largest in history. The swearing-in ceremony, parade, and inaugural balls will be the big draws, but there’s lots more to see and do.
Near the Mall
The $621-million United States Capitol Visitor Center (First and E. Capitol sts., NE; 202-226-8000; visitthecapitol.com) is one of Washington’s newest attractions. It features models of the Capitol building (including a touchable, 11-foot version of the dome), live video of House and Senate proceedings, and exhibitions. The visitor center will be closed Inauguration Day.
Barack Obama’s inaugural theme, “a new birth of freedom,” comes from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The speech is inscribed on the south wall of the Lincoln Memorial, which was the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. You can listen to a new National Park Service audio guide to the memorial by calling 202-747-3420 on your cell phone; it includes talks on the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s life, and myths of the memorial.
From there, you can walk to other sights including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (on the Mall between 21st and 22nd sts., NW) and the World War II Memorial (at the opposite end of the Reflecting Pool from the Lincoln Memorial).
The Smithsonian is celebrating Lincoln’s 200th birthday with exhibits at several museums. Starting January 16, the newly reopened National Museum of American History (14th St. and Constitution Ave., NW; 202-633-1000; americanhistory.si.edu) is displaying rare documents and artifacts from Lincoln’s presidency, including a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation and the top hat Lincoln wore the night he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre. The museum also has permanent exhibits on the American presidency, the first ladies, and the Star-Spangled Banner.
Other Lincoln exhibits include “The Honor of Your Company Is Requested: President Lincoln’s Inaugural Ball” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Eighth and F sts., NW; 202-633-7970; americanart.si.edu), which displays artifacts such as an invitation and a menu from the 1865 celebration, and “One Life: The Mask of Lincoln” at the National Portrait Gallery (Eighth and F sts., NW; 202-633-8300; npg.si.edu), with more than 30 images of the President. At the portrait gallery, also look for the permanent collection of presidential portraits and a special exhibit on vice presidents (opening January 20).
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is hosting the exhibit “Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956–1968” at the S. Dillon Ripley Center (1100 Jefferson Dr., SW; 202-633-1000; si.edu/ripley). It includes nearly 200 images from the Freedom Rides of 1961, the Selma-to-Montgomery march of 1965, and other civil-rights events.
At the Corcoran Gallery of Art (500 17th St., NW; 202-639-1700; corcoran.org), the President-elect’s portrait is one of many photographs in “Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power,” closing January 25. Obama’s picture hangs opposite Karl Rove’s; other subjects include Ronald Reagan, Jackie Kennedy, Malcolm X, and a young Ralph Nader. Tickets (adults $14, seniors and military $12, students $10, under age seven free) can be bought through Ticketmaster.com.
Located on the inaugural parade route, the Newseum (555 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-292-6100; newseum.org) will be open January 20 from 10 to 10 and will show highlights from the parade and swearing-in ceremony in its theater. There also will be displays with newspaper front pages announcing Obama’s November 4 victory and a photo exhibit, “First Dogs: American Presidents and Their Pets.” Tickets are $20 for ages 19 to 64, $18 over age 64, $13 for ages 7 to 18, free under age 7.
The National Archives (700 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-357-5000; archives.gov) has an inauguration exhibit January 12 through 25 that includes the first printed draft of the Constitution with George Washington’s handwritten notes. Elsewhere in the archives, you can see the original Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, and more. On Inauguration Day, the swearing-in ceremony and parade will be shown live in the archives theater starting at 11:30 am. Seats are first come, first served.
U Street Area
Once a center of black culture rivaling Harlem, DC’s U Street corridor was the stomping grounds of Marvin Gaye and Duke Ellington. After decades of neglect, it’s again one of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods and should be especially lively during the inauguration.
The landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl (1213 U St., NW; 202-667-0909; benschilibowl.com) has been around for 50 years and was the only neighborhood restaurant to stay open during the 1968 riots, which began a few blocks away. During inauguration week, expect long lines and jubilation, especially late at night—the best time to indulge in a chili half-smoke and cheese fries.
Next door, the Lincoln Theatre (1215 U St., NW; thelincolntheatre.org) opened in 1922 as a movie house and vaudeville theater and became a cultural center with performances by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and other greats. Free tours are offered on weekdays, but it may be hard to get in during inauguration week; call the theater at 202-328-6000.
The Lincoln Theatre is one of 14 stops on the Greater U Street Heritage Trail, a walking tour of historic sites. Other nearby spots on the trail include the African American Civil War Memorial and Howard University. You can download a map of the trail online at culturaltourismdc.org or ask for one at Ben’s. While in the neighborhood, look for the Duke Ellington mural (1200 U St., NW) by local artist G. Byron Peck and the new Barack Obama mural (2007 14th St., NW) by Shepard Fairey.
On January 17, the Shakespeare Theatre Company is hosting a free inaugural concert at Sidney Harman Hall (610 F St., NW; 202-547-1122; shakespearetheatre.org) in downtown DC. Brass of the Potomac, composed of 30 military musicians, will play patriotic songs. The performance starts at noon, but arrive early to get a seat.
On January 19 at Washington National Cathedral (Massachusetts and Wisconsin aves., NW; 202-537-2159; cathedral.org), Martin Luther King Jr. will be commemorated from 2 to 4 pm with the reading of letters from local students to President-elect Obama as well as musical performances by Bomani Armah, Chris August, and others. Admission is free; no tickets required.
Through January 25, the Woodrow Wilson House (2340 S St., NW; 202-387-4062; woodrowwilsonhouse.org) is featuring the exhibit “The Presidential Dish,” including a re-creation of the White House China Room and more than 150 pieces of presidential china. Tickets ($7.50 adults, $6.50 seniors, $3 students, under age seven free) can be purchased on the museum’s Web site.
Want to escape the throngs? Head to a quiet part of Northwest DC for a tour of President Lincoln’s Cottage (Rock Creek Church Rd. and Upshur St., NW; 202-829-0436; lincolncottage.org), which was restored and opened to the public in 2008. Tours begin on the hour from 10 to 3 Monday through Saturday and noon to 3 Sunday. Buy tickets ($12 adults, $5 ages 6 to 12) in advance on the Web site or by calling 800-514-3849. For same-day ticket purchases, call 202-829-0436 ext. 31231 to check availability.
Another good way to get away from the masses: Take a walk in Rock Creek Park (nps.gov/rocr). The 2,000-acre forested park runs through the center of DC and into suburban Maryland. It has lots of trails for running and biking and was a favorite haunt of Teddy Roosevelt.