When the National Museum of the American Indian opened last month, visitors were greeted with a 23-foot-long electronic sign that flashed "welcome" in more than 100 Native languages.
It was the latest in a series of inviting changes in the nation's capital — a city that was once as famous for its crime rate and slums as for its cultural institutions and high-powered politicians. Despite its long history as a tourist destination, downtown Washington was avoided by many visitors and residents after dark. The Washington Post said D.C. had come to stand for "Deserted City."
But a downtown renaissance — coupled with new attractions and museums in the city and beyond — has revitalized the area. Stylish restaurants, nightclubs, theaters and brew pubs are drawing crowds to the capital at night. And during the day, visitors can choose from a host of new activities as well as see the sights that have drawn tourists for generations.
The Museum of the American Indian, the first museum to open on the National Mall since 1987, is the most imposing of the new offerings — a $219-million homage to the Western Hemisphere's Native peoples. But other additions to the city and environs also have brought freshness and vitality.
In the Penn Quarter neighborhood just north of the Mall, district workers and tourists dine on tapas at trendy restaurants such as Jaleo, glimpse the dark fury of "Macbeth" at the Shakespeare Theatre and test their espionage skills at the International Spy Museum.
On the Mall, tourists swarm the National World War II Memorial night and day, despite criticism preceding and following its opening in spring.
Outside the city near Washington Dulles International Airport, visitors stand awestruck in front of the Space Shuttle Enterprise and other historic aircraft at the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center, named after its main benefactor. It's a mammoth addition to the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.
I visited the nation's capital twice in the last six months to sample its flourishing cultural scene and tour some of its new museums and attractions. Guided by a friend who spends his days as a button-down D.C. civil servant, I saw vibrant night life, from hip ethnic clubs and restaurants to clubby old-line watering holes.
I visited lively neighborhoods such as Penn Quarter, Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle — hot real estate markets where condos, lofts and row houses come with million-dollar-plus price tags. And I walked miles at night through tourist areas and bustling neighborhoods without worrying about becoming a crime statistic.
That's not to say the District is crime-free. It's still among the nation's most violent cities. But in recent years it has increased police presence on the streets and now has more officers per capita than any other large U.S. city. They're out and visible. And there are enough people on the street to encourage strollers and discourage thugs.
Although the night life was entertaining, nothing can top D.C.'s world-class museums. I didn't waste any time during the day, when most Smithsonian Institution facilities are open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and free.
Oddly enough, the man who started it all, James Smithson, never visited the United States. He was a British scientist who bequeathed $500,000 to the U.S. in 1829 to establish an institution "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge." The Smithsonian — with 18 museums and the National Zoo — eventually became the largest such complex in the world, drawing 24 million visitors last year.
American Indian museum
The newest of the Smithsonian's jewels was my first stop: the National Museum of the American Indian. It is unlike any other Smithsonian facility, from its sweeping design to its eclectic collections. There are no Doric columns on the outside; no timelines or other standard historical fare on the inside. The museum is "of the people," with hundreds of tribes solicited for input.
The honey-colored limestone building, designed to look like an outcropping of weathered bedrock, stands out from its neighbors on the Mall. So do the crops — corn, beans and squash — planted outside. The museum occupies the last space available on the Mall and faces east, the direction of the rising sun and the nearby Capitol.
As I walked around the dramatic structure, it started to rain and I hurried inside, moving through a circular rotunda that soars 120 feet to a huge sky-lighted dome described as "the sun of the building's universe."
Symbols seemed to be everywhere.
The open dome pays homage to the smoke holes of Native dwellings; the interior spaces of the museum — most circular — speak of Native gatherings or storytelling sessions; the curved exterior walls recall the wind-shaped rock formations of the Southwest.
I moved on to the fourth floor, where the tour began with a multimedia presentation in a domed theater. Images of the Western Hemisphere's Native peoples — from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego in South America — were projected onto a screen and the circular ceiling. Videotaped snippets of conversation helped make the museum's message clear: "We do not claim the land," said a Hopi. "We are only here working with the elements."
A member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation drew laughs from the crowd: "About three generations back, when the chiefs went to Washington, they'd take their peace pipes and war bonnets. When I go to Washington now, I take a briefcase and a couple of lawyers."
Outside the theater, I entered an exhibit called "Our Universes," where I learned how the sun, moon and stars shape daily lives in some communities. I paused in a niche where a bench beckoned and a video played magical creation stories of bears and foxes, stars and hunters. One story told of a red fox that stole a bag of stars and sprinkled them throughout the universe to form the constellations. Around the edges of the main gallery were individual presentations by eight tribes, each presenting its own perspective.
I found the same pattern in the museum's other main exhibits: "Our Lives" and "Our People," where Native communities told their own stories. In all, 24 groups were represented, including such diverse communities as Montreal's Mohawk ironworkers, who helped build the World Trade Center in New York, and San Diego County's Kumeyaay, who run the Golden Acorn Casino in Campo, Calif. Some of the stories were fascinating; others, baffling. I had to keep reminding myself that I shouldn't expect continuity.
"Consider history as a collection of subjective tellings by different authors with different points of view," a museum guidebook advised.
Later, one of the curators, Gerald McMaster, a member of the Plains Cree/Siksika Nation, helped clear up some of the confusion. The museum offers Native people the opportunity to present their version of history, something they've been denied in the past, he said. They shaped the content, look and feel of every exhibit. "They're the authorities," McMaster said. "It's important to give them a chance to speak from their perspective."
They now have a beautiful forum. And indications are that they'll have a large audience. Four million visitors are expected annually, said museum Director W. Richard West Jr., who is Southern Cheyenne. That means visitors should make plans. Advance passes are available for $1.75 online at http://www.americanindian.si.edu or by calling (866) 400-6624. A limited number of free same-day, timed passes is available at 10 a.m. daily on a first-come, first-served basis at the museum's east entrance.
World War II Memorial
After the museum closed, I walked west past the awesome line of Smithsonian museums to the Washington Monument. I was able to walk only into the vicinity of the 555-foot obelisk. It closed Sept. 7 for additional security enhancements around the base and will reopen in the spring.
A three-mile scenic loop begins at the monument, circling the Lincoln Memorial to the west and the Jefferson Memorial to the south. It passes several tributes, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (partly closed for repairs) and the Vietnam Women's Memorial, the haunting Korean War Veterans Memorial and the graceful Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, where visitors walk through a series of open-air, landscaped rooms that recall FDR's four terms as president.
I stopped at the newest addition, the long-overdue World War II Memorial, which was dedicated May 29. The "Greatest Generation" had to wait 60 years to be honored here, despite the soldiers' sacrifices — 400,000 Americans died in the war; 16 million served. The memorial was roundly criticized while it was being built: Mall preservationists thought it would clutter the view; architecture critics called it a "bureaucrat's idea of classical grandeur."
"It doesn't matter what they said," I overheard a tour guide tell a group. "People love it."
The monument, constructed between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, has a low profile: rectangular pillars, fountains and pools dedicated to the men and women who served. It is a touching tribute by day and a striking scene by night, when its fountains and pools dance in light.
I like the monuments best at night. All are well lighted, and park rangers are available from 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. daily. If walking the loop doesn't seem appealing, try Tourmobile, a hop-on, hop-off narrated shuttle service approved by the National Park Service, (888) 868-7707, http://www.tourmobile.com .
Air and Space museum
My next stop was 28 miles away in Chantilly, Va., at the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center, a giant addition to the National Air and Space Museum that opened in December. Ten stories tall and the length of three football fields, the facility displays the museum's largest — and some of its most famous — acquisitions.
I stopped and stared as I entered, wowed by the suspended planes that appeared to leap out of the cavernous space in front of me, some banking steeply, others in odd dives.
Within a few minutes, I was standing on a catwalk, looking down into the cockpit of the B-29 Superfortress, the Enola Gay. Other visitors were jostling, trying to get a good look too. But I hardly noticed; I'd entered a time warp and been transported to Aug. 6, 1945, when the plane dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
It wasn't my only illusion: I screamed across the Atlantic on the Concorde; sat at the controls of the Space Shuttle Enterprise; did barrel rolls across the sky with aerobatics genius Art Scholl.
The museum displays 82 aircraft and more than 100 large space artifacts such as missiles, rockets and satellites. On Nov. 1 the space hangar — holding the Space Shuttle Enterprise, Gemini VI and a Mercury capsule — will be fully accessible to the public. For now visitors can see the shuttle only from a distance.
Despite the center's inconvenient distance from downtown, it's a fun place to see and easily worth the time. Entry is free, but there's a $12 parking fee. An easy way to visit is to take a shuttle from the Air and Space Museum on the Mall. The trip costs $7 round trip and leaves several times daily.
Another five-star stop on my D.C. itinerary was the International Spy Museum downtown. This interactive museum draws visitors deep into the world of espionage. It's a high-tech museum with state-of-the-art audiovisual effects, animated lighting and lots to see and learn.
Like other visitors, I was told to choose a cover identity when I entered and to memorize the characteristics of my new persona. At the end of the tour, I was tested to see how well I'd fare as a secret agent. I flunked. But I had lots of fun in between. I went to Spy School, learned about microdots and invisible ink and crawled through ductwork to watch visitors below.
I met some of the famous spies of history — George Washington and Ben Franklin were masters — and was reintroduced to film and TV agents such as Maxwell Smart, Austin Powers, and the stars of "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."
The International Spy Museum is not a Smithsonian, which means you'll need to buy tickets — $13 for adults — to get in. It's worth it.
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From LAX, Alaska offers nonstop service to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, and US Airways, America West, American, Northwest, Continental, ATA and Delta offer connecting service (change of plane).
To Washington Dulles, nonstops are available on United, American and America West. Delta, Northwest, US Airways, Frontier and Continental offer connecting service. To both airports, restricted round-trip fares begin at $198.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hotel Monaco, 700 F St. N.W.; (800) 649-1202, http://www.hotelmonaco.com . This 184-room Kimpton boutique hotel is in the lively Penn Quarter neighborhood. Fun options: tall rooms for tall guests (with oversized beds), complimentary companion goldfish for guests. Doubles from $269.
The Hay-Adams, 800 16th St. N.W.; (800) 853-6807, http://www.hayadams.com . The 145-room hotel (20 of them suites) is luxurious without being stuffy; many of its guest rooms have marble fireplaces and intricate plaster ceilings. Doubles from $269.
Hotel Helix, 1430 Rhode Island Ave. N.W.; (866) 508-0658, http://www.hotelhelix.com . This whimsically decorated hotel in the Logan Circle neighborhood has a Pop Art and a '70s theme. There's a Ding Dongs and YooHoos party every afternoon. Doubles from $159.
WHERE TO EAT
Jaleo, 480 7th St. N.W.; (202) 628-7949, http://www.jaleo.com . Feast on tapas or main dishes at this popular Penn Quarter pioneer. Tapas from $4.50.
Zaytinya, 701 9th St. N.W.; (202) 638-0800, http://www.zaytinya.com . This Mediterranean restaurant is another hot ticket in Penn Quarter. Dine on Greek, Turkish or Lebanese "small plates." From $4.50.
Old Ebbitt Grill, 675 15th St. N.W.; (202) 347-4800, http://www.ebbitt.com . Established in 1856, this clubby grill, known for its oyster bar, is steps from the White House. Noisy but fun. Entrees from $12.95.
National Museum of the American Indian, 4th Street and Independence Avenue Southwest.; (202) 633-1000, http://www.nmai.si.edu . 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily except Christmas. Free.
Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center, National Air and Space Museum, 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway, Chantilly, Va.; (202) 357-2700, www .nasm.si.edu/museum/udvarhazy. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Christmas. Free; $12 parking. For shuttle information: (202) 633-1000.
International Spy Museum, 800 F St. N.W.; (202) 393-7798, http://www.spymuseum.org . 10 a.m.-8 p.m. daily, but hours may change. Tickets $13 adults, $12 seniors, $10 children 5-11.