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story.lead_photo.caption Karen Martin

No matter what your opinion is of our representatives who govern the country from our U.S. capital, there's no denying that Washington, D.C., is a fine getaway destination.

This is especially true for those of us in central Arkansas, thanks to a nonstop flight from Little Rock to Reagan National Airport. From there, it's a short ride on the Metro to just about anywhere you'd want to go.

Our recent visit here in mid-October was weird in that nothing--absolutely nothing--went wrong. Anyone who travels knows how rare that is.

It helps that I know the district well, thanks to having been on loan to USA Today for four months back when Gannett owned the Arkansas Gazette. It was like quitting your job and moving away without quitting your job and moving away--staying on the company dime in a tidy studio apartment in Foggy Bottom near George Washington University, walking to and from the newsroom (it was in Arlington then; now it's much farther out in McLean), and spending all my free time in the National Gallery of Art when not walking the streets around Georgetown, Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, Shaw-Cardozo, Woodley Park (where I usually stop at the National Zoo to catch a glimpse of the panda), Eastern Market, Union Station, and beyond.

Experience taught me early on to stay on the letter streets (like M Street, P Street) and the number streets (like 11th Street, 14th Street). Stay off the state streets and avenues, which are mostly diagonals, as they will surely get you lost if you don't know what you're doing.

Knowing where you're going doesn't mean you need to go to the same places each time you visit. I head to the District at least once every two years, and try to make a point of not getting into a routine.

Other than the need to spend as much time as possible in the National Gallery of Art, new directions during this visit began with staying in a downtown tourist-class hotel instead of somewhere in Dupont Circle. There was no coffee maker in the room, but Starbucks, Peet's, and McDonald's McCafe were steps away.

Other outings led to the National Portrait Gallery to view the Obama portraits and the National Museum of the American Indian for a fascinating look at Americans, which highlights the ways in which American Indian images, names, products and stories--from Chief Wahoo to motorcycles to episodes of Seinfeld and South Park--infuse our country's history and contemporary life. Another discovery: the to-die-for delicious chile-loaded Mexican hot chocolate at its Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe.

Having previously visited the magnificent National Museum of African American History and Culture, I instead headed to North Capitol and L Street for a one-hour tour of NPR headquarters. A personable communications staff member escorted our group of about 20 through the LEED-certified building (a couple of blocks away from a Walmart Supercenter) and explained how the 1,200 employees there (and those in 17 bureaus around the world) get the news to listeners on a non-stop basis.

Despite the different delivery system, I was happy to see that NPR's newsroom looks remarkably similar to that of our newspaper, right down to messy stacks of papers and printouts and framed photos of dogs and kids on desks and a last remaining slice of crumbling homemade banana bread up for grabs on a paper towel in the NPR music department. Nobody ever wants to take the last piece.

Union Station is a glamorous train depot, with a full-blown shopping mall as well as departures to all sorts of Amtrak destinations. The allure of train travel mixed with the blasting reality of digital store advertising makes for a fascinating cultural experience.

A short Metro trip into Virginia took me to Old Town Alexandria. I'd heard about its rich history, cobblestone streets, and 18th-century townhouses, but never bothered to visit as I figured it would feel Disneyfied. Wrong. The length of King Street leading to the waterfront is lined with charming shops and restaurants (a few of them chains, but not many), plenty of dog-walkers, and enough plaques to instill a sense of how meaningful the area is to the early days of our country.

Neighborhoods evolve here as well as elsewhere, and I was happy to observe the upward tilt of the southeastern part of the city. This was once an area that I stayed away from after dark. Not any more--it's alive and well with spruced-up townhouses, block after block of restaurants and locally owned shops, and people of all shapes and sizes ambling along the tidy sidewalks. It helps that Navy Yard, on the Anacostia River, is home to the Washington Nationals ball park along with an energetic entertainment district.

The closest I came to making a bad decision was trying to visit the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of American History on a sunny autumn Saturday. Apparently everyone else in the city, including zillions of kids, decided to do the same that day. After a quick glance at the Natural History's Hope Diamond and the American History's nearly 200-year-old Star-Spangled Banner, we bolted for the open spaces of the National Mall.

Can't get away without heading west to pay homage to the Washington Monument (recently reopened after a 37-month renovation project) and to Abe Lincoln, whose statue rests with weary grandeur in his elegant, hard-earned marble monument.

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.

Editorial on 11/24/2019

Print Headline: Getting away to the country's core


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