These days the city is all marble, monuments and museums, so it can be hard to imagine that it was once the site of a swamp crawling with vermin, mosquitoes and all sorts of undesirable wildlife. And that was before the politicians and lawyers moved in. Here is where American history has been made and written – and this guide will take you to uncover some of the most important stories and battles that shaped America as a nation.
This tour is narrated by Sam Sanders.
This is where American history has been made and written, and where some of the bloodiest Civil War battles were fought – battles that determined the future of the nation. Here is where millions have marched in political rallies, where presidents have made and broken promises, and where some of the most treasured American art and artefacts are stored. Just up the river is the former hotel where Richard Nixon broke the law and in the downtown area is the theatre where Abraham Lincoln sat down to watch a production of Our American Cousin but didn’t survive to see the end.
So we’ve established it’s an important city, but its real heart and soul – and therefore the heart and soul of the nation – can be found in a relatively small stretch of land, between the Potomac River on the west, and a small hill towards the east, which is where we’ll be exploring today.
One of the most exclusive addresses in the world – 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This 132-room mansion sits on 18 acres of prime DC real estate and every president since John Adams has lived here. In fact, George Washington is the only president who never got the chance, as it was yet to be built during his stint in power – although he did have the privilege of choosing the site for it.
Next up on the agenda is one of the most common queries about this iconic building: why is the White House white? Well, many people assume it was painted white after the British set it and many other public buildings on fire during an attack in 1814. The then-President James Madison wasn’t in the White House at the time, but his wife Dolley was and she’s remembered for risking her life to save a full-length portrait of George Washington from the burning flames. That day, smoke from the fires could be seen as far away as Baltimore, but thanks to a stroke of luck, Washington’s buildings were saved when a well-timed thunderstorm brought torrential rain, quickly dousing the flames. The next president, James Monroe supposedly painted it white to cover the burn marks. It’s a great story, but alas the reality is a touch more mundane.
The truth is that when it was first built, the White House was covered with a lime-based whitewash to protect the sandstone walls from weather damage. These days, a whopping 570 gallons of white paint are required to cover the exterior and keep it looking fresh.
To unearth even more of the White House secrets head to the AnyTour app for the full tour, free with your iMBARC membership.
The National Mall, which also goes by the nickname of ‘America’s front yard’ was designed by French-born architect and civil engineer, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who drew up plans for the Mall in the late 18th century, taking inspiration from the grand imperial capitals of Europe.
Today, it links the three branches of government: the president, the Supreme Court and Congress. Because of the political power concentrated here, it has seen – and continues to host – major rallies. The largest rally of them all was the Million Man March in October 1995, which, while it was still some way short of its title, managed to attract around 800,000 protestors, all hoping to draw attention to the economic and social issues facing America’s black communities.
Then there are the monuments to presidents and fallen soldiers, as well as an impressive collection of Smithsonian Institute Museums.
Not familiar with the Smithsonian Institute? Listen to the full tour for the story of how this great museum collection came to be, as well as more on the National Mall via the AnyTour app.
The Washington Monument, dedicated to the first President of the United States, George Washington. Washington isn’t the only US president to be honoured with a memorial here, but his edifice is probably the simplest. While the other presidents have lifelike statues and elaborate designs, Washington’s imposing structure bears no reference whatsoever to his likeness. The earliest designs for the monument did envisage a statue of the great man but it was the proposal for this obelisk that won out in the end.
Despite or perhaps because of its simplicity, this monument has become one of the country’s most iconic landmarks, and at 555 feet in height, it still holds the title of the world’s tallest stone structure. Let us tell you a little about its history. Construction began on the monument back in 1848, but it was suspended between 1854 and 1879 because of lack of funds and the small matter of the Civil War. Finally, in 1888 it was opened to the public and for just one year, it held the title of the world’s tallest man-made structure, until Gustave Eiffel’s famous Parisian tower trumped it.
There are a lot of memorials in the National Mall, but the World War II Memorial has courted the most controversy. To learn more about these memorials as well as The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Martin Luther King Junior Memorial and the FDR Memorial please head to the AnyTour app for the full tour.
It spans nearly four acres, which is about the size of two city blocks. This museum is home to a staggering 125 million artefacts, more than 41 times the number of artefacts at the National Museum of American History. To help you visualise those 125 million artefacts, imagine that this museum was constructed in 1777, the time of the American Revolution. From that year, one new artefact would have to be deposited every minute until right now to total 125 million!
One thing you will definitely want to see is the Hope Diamond – it’s one of the museum’s most legendary pieces. The world’s largest blue diamond, the Hope Diamond is said to have been first mined in India in the 17th century.
Another highlight is the Sant Ocean Hall, the museum’s largest exhibit. The Ocean Hall explores the relationship between the ocean and the daily lives of communities all over the world. Images of swimming fish are projected onto the walls of the hall’s second level, making it feel like you’re walking underwater as you view the exhibits. Also, be sure to save time for the Hall of Human Origins, which examines what it really means to be human. There’s a morphing station that will show you what you would have looked like as an early human. Don’t tell me you’re not even a little bit curious.
To get a full run-through of arguably one of the world’s greatest museums, including which US President contributed largely to their mammal collection, and the legend of the Hope Diamond curse, listen to the full tour on the AnyTour app.
The gallery was founded in 1941 through a donation by former US Secretary of Treasury Andrew W. Mellon. Mellon donated 141 European art pieces, and the gallery has expanded dramatically since then. This gallery is home to more than 109,000 paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures and prints. Only a small percentage of the gallery’s massive permanent collection can be displayed at one time.
One of the most important pieces in the West Building is Leonardo da Vinci’s painting ‘Ginevra de’ Benci’. It’s believed that the painting was commissioned to celebrate Ginevra de’ Benci’s marriage to Luigi Niccolini. The West Building also includes a section devoted to American artists, including portraits by Gilbert Stuart, who painted all of the first six American presidents.
You might want to save some time for the National Gallery Sculpture Garden, located just across 7th Street. This massive outdoor space includes 17 sculptures by well-known artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Ellsworth Kelly, along with a fountain spurting from a central pool. In the summer, this space hosts live music concerts – and in the winter, the pool is transformed into an ice skating rink.
To discover why US Secretary of Treasury Andrew W. Mellon decided to donate so many pieces to this gallery, and which US President was assassinated on this very site download the AnyTour app for the full version of the tour.
The US Botanic Garden was established to celebrate the incredible beauty and diversity of the world’s plant life. However, for many visitors, the garden simply acts as a place to slow down from sightseeing and quite literally stop and smell the flowers.
First opened to the public in 1820, the US Botanic Garden is America’s oldest botanic garden. Today, it houses more than 26,000 plants collected from all around the world, including carnivorous plants, cacti, bromeliads, and even historic specimens dating back to the garden’s founding collection. And in case you’re wondering, yes: carnivorous plants do exist. You can see them for yourself here, though don’t get too close…
Interestingly, the garden is one of America’s storehouses for plants seized by Customs and Border Agents. In other words, the wide variety of plants on display is in part contributed by illegal plant smugglers from whom they have been confiscated.
The garden’s conservatory component is enclosed, creating the appropriate environments for a number of different tropical plant species. All of the conservatory’s rooms are individually climate controlled, with the temperature in the ‘Jungle’ room hot and humid, for example, yet dry and warm in the ‘Desert’ room. An elaborately-designed computer system monitors outside weather, automatically controlling misting, shade, and heat to maintain perfect humidity and temperatures throughout the day and night. The conservatory is a particularly pleasant escape during the cold winter months due to the warmer temperatures inside. Some highlights include the ‘Jungle’ exhibit, filled with palms, ferns, and vines, which features a canopy walkway, allowing visitors to look down at the jungle plants from above, providing a view of the tops of the taller plants and trees. Be sure to have a peek at the ‘Medicinal Plants’ exhibit, which showcases all the ways plants can be used to cure diseases. This exhibit includes a Chinese tree that inhibits the growth of certain cancer-associated cells.
To explore even more of the US Botanic Gardens beauty download the AnyTour app for the full version of the tour.
The Capitol, the very embodiment of the land of the free. Well, actually, not quite. When construction on this mighty building began in 1793, it relied on slave labour. It is also rumoured that the foundations entomb an unfortunate workman. The story goes that when the foundations were being laid, a workman, perhaps a slave, had sought a quiet spot for a quick nap. He must have been very well concealed because the foundations were laid around him, entombing him forever. It seems the poor soul is still trying to get out, as pounding and scratching are often heard from within the walls.
The House of Representatives and the Senate have met here for more than two centuries – and the building was specifically designed for this purpose. Washington laid the cornerstone in 1793, although the building has evolved from its original design. It had to – with more states added to the Union, there was a need for more space for their representatives.
There was also the little matter of the British nearly burning the place down in 1814. The building was only saved thanks to a well-timed storm that quenched the flames but it still required significant rebuilding. By the mid 19th century, the ‘powers that be’ felt that the original dome looked a little too puny, not to mention it was a major fire hazard, so they added the enormous cast-iron one that you see today.
To uncover the deeper, darker meaning of the Capitol Building, plus more ghost stories and the name of who stands atop the dome, make sure to listen to the full tour via the AnyTour app.
Welcome to The Library of Congress, perhaps the most stunning building in Washington. It also happens to be the largest library in the entire world. This place houses more than 155 million items, including books, recordings, photographs, maps, sheet music, newspapers… even comic books. Here you will find the largest collection of rare books in North America and the most significant collection of 15th-century tomes in the West. As the name aptly suggests, the library was founded to hold books for the use of Congress, but its extensive collection also benefits students, teachers, journalists, and researchers in almost every field. Anyone over the age of 16 can use the library’s collection, although, unsurprisingly, there’s no borrowing of books here.
The library is actually composed of three different buildings, but the Thomas Jefferson Building, which was constructed in 1897, is the oldest and the most ornate. Perhaps the ‘Court of Neptune’ fountain at the base of the front steps looks vaguely familiar? It was actually inspired by Rome’s famous Trevi Fountain, and you can see the similarities in the way its three main figures are grouped in front of architectural niches. New York sculptor Roland Hinton Perry was just a nipper at 28 years old when he finished this fountain in 1898.
You can actually see the books Jefferson originally donated in the library’s second floor Southwest Gallery and Pavilion. Also found here is a rare Gutenberg Bible, one of only three perfect Gutenberg Bibles left anywhere in the world. Interestingly, the library possesses a three-volume set of this Bible, but it carefully rotates which volume is on display at any time in order to minimise the wear and tear on these old books. As the first books printed in Western Europe using a mechanical printing press, Gutenberg Bibles represent a major turning point in history, which helped to carry the world into the Renaissance. Up until this point, books had to be meticulously written by hand, which meant that only limited copies were available.
Get completely lost in the largest library the world has to offer, plus discover why the oldest building holds Jefferson’s name on the full audio tour.
Rather imposing, isn’t it? But also beautiful – far more so than most visitors expect. It’s composed of marble, mainly sourced from the states of Vermont, Georgia, and Alabama, although the 24 columns inside came from Italy. The whole building was designed by Cass Gilbert, the man who also went on to design New York’s well-known Woolworth building.
The Supreme Court is composed of the Chief Justice and eight associate justices who decide whether the actions of the President, Congress, the states and the lower courts adhere to the principles of the Constitution. As you walk along the hallway towards the courtroom, you’ll see the busts of all the former Chief Justices. Justices are appointed for life, but they can choose to retire or even be impeached if their integrity is questioned. In 1804, Samuel Chase became the only Supreme Court justice to ever be impeached, accused of showing partisan bias during several court proceedings. He was, however, later acquitted of these charges by the US Senate and returned to the bench.
Here is some Supreme Court trivia for you – some say that the true ‘highest court in the land’ is not the Supreme Court itself, but the basketball court located on the building’s fifth floor. Situated three floors above the actual courtroom on the second floor, the area was used as storage space before being converted into a gym in the 1940s. Signs throughout the Supreme Court building politely request that players do not play basketball during days when the court is in session, lest their noisy game disrupts the proceedings below. Unfortunately, the gym is not open to the public, so you won’t have a chance to see your favourite justices shooting hoops. But it’s still amusing to imagine.
There is so much more to hear, whether you’re wandering the streets of Washington following the guide, or simply listening in from the comfort of your home. Hear about the multiple right and wrongs undertaken by people in office, enjoy the tales of woe and heartache inside the White House’s walls and make sure to delve into the rich and deep history that Washington DC has to offer with a magnitude of Memorials, Museums and more.
As a member of iMBARC you can enjoy this audio tour plus all the guides on the AnyTour app for free. So take a self-guided tour on your next holiday, explore your own city, or enjoy a little escapism from your sofa.
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