WASHINGTON, D.C. — Estimates are that as many as 2 million visitors will be in Washington, D.C., for the inauguration of Barack Obama, and everyone here is bracing for transportation problems and cellphone-coverage meltdowns. If you’re planning to be in the nation’s capital for the historic occasion, you might want to avoid the normally crowded tourist spots on the National Mall.
We’re offering an inside-the-Beltway look at some historic hidden gems that are worth visiting and are sure to be less crowded. They include colonial towns with modern art and shopping, a visit to the first president’s house, a world-class art museum, and a tour of the home where another president from Illinois used to get away from it all. You should give them a whirl no matter when you plan to visit.
Mount Vernon, Va.
You won’t get in the White House during inauguration week, but George Washington’s Mount Vernon home is a terrific substitute. Tour the mansion, slave quarters and gardens, but be sure to leave plenty of time for the new Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center with interactive galleries and films galore. Visitors can take the oath of office in an inaugural gallery, see the nation’s first inaugural buttons and gaze on the finest collection of presidential china outside the White House — on loan until Jan. 21 from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The highlight of the center is a Disney-esque commander-in-chief show depicting Revolutionary War battles at Boston, Trenton and Yorktown. To celebrate Washington’s 250th wedding anniversary, the museum has trotted out Martha’s fragile wedding slippers for the first time in 30 years.
For more info and to print a coupon for 20 percent off adult admission, visit http://visit.mountvernon.org.
President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldier’s Home
On Friday, we will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, so the Lincoln Memorial and special Lincoln exhibit at the National Museum of American History are sure to be packed. Steal away instead to President Lincoln’s Cottage on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home on a hilltop in northwest Washington. The Lincolns lived in the gothic revival house from June to November, spending a fourth of his presidency there. Lincoln rode or took a carriage the three miles to the White House each day and asked soldiers for accounts of the Civil War. More than 5,000 soldiers were buried at the National Cemetery adjacent to the Soldiers’ Home during the Civil War, and fighting came within miles of the house, but the Lincoln family avoided chaos. The restored cottage opened to the public for the first time in February 2008. After a short film at a visitor’s center, small groups tour the cottage and hear “historical voices” in each room as a guide explores themes of war, freedom and democracy.
For more info, call 1-800-514-3849 or visit www.lincolncottage.org. Reservations are recommended.
Georgetown will be shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists, so cross the Potomac to charming Alexandria, Va., where the first five presidents all spent time. Tour Christ Church, where George Washington attended services, and Gadsby’s Tavern, where Thomas Jefferson held his inaugural dinner, then eat in the Colonial-era tavern. For more modern tastes, Alexandria is also full of small boutiques and restaurants — Restaurant Eve has a national reputation for cutting-edge fare. From Saturday to Jan. 25, a number of Alexandria restaurants are offering a $35 three-course meal. To explore one of the area’s best art scenes, Torpedo Factory Art Center has 82 artist spaces, six galleries and an archeology museum. Attend An American Musical Landscape Inaugural Ball at the George Washington Masonic Memorial, where guests will mingle with famous presidents and first ladies (or at least costumed re-enactors), attend a White House-style press conference, and listen to singers and musicians perform well-loved American songs. At $57 a ticket, it’s a steal compared with the hundreds you’d shell out for popular (and most likely sold out) inaugural balls across the river.
Old Town Alexandria, http://visitalexandriava.com; Christ Church, www.historicchristchurch.org/; Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, http://oha.alexandriava.gov/gadsby/; Restaurant Eve, www.restauranteve.com/; Torpedo Factory Art Center, www.torpedofactory.org; An American Musical Landscape Inaugural Ball, www.musicallandscapes.com.
The Phillips Collection, Dupont Circle
National Gallery of Art is glorious but will be overflowing with tourists. Escape to the Phillips Collection, nestled in D.C.’s fun and funky Dupont Circle neighborhood, where you’ll feel like you’re seeing great art in a friend’s mansion. Steel heir Duncan Phillips founded the museum in his home and purchased Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party in 1923. The intimate museum features works by Van Gogh, Degas and Cezanne. Inauguration exhibits include Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series” and “The Eight: Rebels for American Art” with paintings by Maurice Prendergast, John Sloan, Ernest Lawson and others. After touring the museum, walk a few blocks to the lovely Asian-style teahouse Teaism, www.teaism.com. Grab your oolong and ginger scones and walk upstairs to sip in peace.
For more info, visit www.phillipscollection.org. January visitors who say “inauguration” when purchasing tickets receive two-for-one admission.
The National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall is the most visited museum in the world, and that won’t change during inauguration week. Take a detour to the museum’s newer annex, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, just beside Dulles Airport in Virginia. The center opened in 2003 and displays thousands of aviation and space artifacts that couldn’t fit in the main museum on the Mall. It includes enormous hangers with hundreds of spacecraft, rockets, planes, helicopters and satellites. The most infamous plane on exhibit is the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. The center also has an Imax theater, currently showing Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag.
For more info, visit www.nasm.si.edu/museum/udvarhazy.
The weather report: Washington, D.C., is the political and geographical dividing line between North and South, which means January can be 15 degrees and snowy or 70 degrees and sunny. Long-term averages for Jan. 18 are a low of 27 degrees and a high of 42. Along with inauguration ball gowns, pack layers and be sure to bring a hat, gloves and warm coat.
Before you go: Visit these Web sites as a primer for the inauguration and the city before you get here. Inauguration Central, http://voices.washingtonpost.com/inauguration-central/, is a Washington Post site with maps, tips, blogs, events, etc.
Inauguration Day 2009, www.inauguration.dc.gov/index.asp, is the official Washington, D.C., site and offers transportation information, closures and events.