The swearing-in might be the main event, but the visitors descending on the capital today, looking to get their cultural and historical fix, will be what boosts the city’s tourism industry.
Whether visitors want to try one of the first family’s favorite restaurants, discover a sense of history or escape from the crowd to find a museum off the beaten path, Washington is the nation’s cultural capital this weekend for inauguration visitors.
The presidential swearing-in on Monday, after all, is only a brief moment in time. So, hundreds of thousands of visitors will be searching for what else to do in a city that has evolved even during the Barack Obama era.
Beyond the big-ticket balls, the best place to party may be in the capital’s neighborhoods, said historian Jane Freundel Levey of the group Cultural Tourism D.C. In the 19th century, she said, it was the citizens of Washington who put on the inaugural parties and paid for them. And the heavily Democratic city will be partying this time, too.
“Our neighborhoods are going to be great for restaurants and for nightlife, and people will be celebrating,” she said. “You know, Washingtonians do care a lot about what happens nationally, and we care a lot about who is president.”
Levey’s group has installed heritage trails in many neighborhoods over the years with sidewalk signs to illustrate and guide tours of sites linked to local and national history.
The U Street and H Street neighborhoods will likely be gathering places by day and night during the inauguration, Levey said. Visitors will find a more refined restaurant scene across the city and some new destinations that have sprung up over the last four years.
Here are a few pointers to guide the way:
Where to Eat
Restaurants across the city will brag that the president and first lady have dined in them. Tourism officials have put together an itinerary for visitors to “Play in President Obama’s Backyard” with some of their favorite dining spots.
Organic eatery Restaurant Nora, Blue Duck Tavern and BLT Steak have all been Obama picks for date nights. During the campaign, the president took supporters from battleground states to dinner in the hip H Street Northeast neighborhood.
On Thursday night, for Michelle Obama’s 49th birthday, the first couple dined with friends at Cafe Milano, an Italian restaurant in the upscale Georgetown neighborhood.
For a quicker meal, the president and first lady have been known to grab a burger at Chef Spike Mendelsohn’s Good Stuff Eatery on Capitol Hill or at Five Guys. The president’s favorite pizza is said to be the St. Louis-based District of Pi, which opened a spot in downtown Washington after he moved to the White House.
Where to Learn
The best place for a broad overview of the presidency and American history is probably the Smithsonian museums. The National Museum of American History has major exhibits on the American presidency, the first ladies and the nation’s founding.
Away from the National Mall, the National Portrait Gallery has portraits of the U.S. presidents from Washington to Obama in the building where President Abraham Lincoln held his second inaugural ball.
Since this inauguration comes 150 years after the Civil War, there are a series of special exhibits that reflect on that period. The Smithsonian’s “Changing America” gallery at the American history museum parallels the American society between the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the 1963 March on Washington for civil rights.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum has gathered some of the best artwork from the Civil War era. At the Library of Congress, curators are displaying firsthand accounts of the war through diaries, letters and Lincoln’s first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, which is on display for a limited time.
Many museums will be open for special hours on inauguration day. A few will open early for visitors to keep warm on the National Mall.
Where to Reflect
The newest memorial in Washington is the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. It’s sure to draw a big crowd as this year’s inauguration falls on the King holiday. The site opened to visitors in 2011 and features a towering statue of the slain civil rights leader, along with quotations from his speeches and sermons. National Park Service officials plan to erase one inscription at the memorial because it wasn’t historically accurate, but they postponed the work until after the inauguration.
The Lincoln and Jefferson memorials are among the most scenic for visitors and are sure to draw huge crowds. The Washington Monument, however, was closed to visitors after it was damaged in a 2011 earthquake. It will likely remain closed until 2014.
Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was assassinated, opened a new education center in 2012 with exhibits on Lincoln’s legacy.
Where to Escape
For a break from politics and presidents, the city has planned other attractions and festivals to accommodate the inauguration crowd.
From Friday through Sunday, the National Museum of the American Indian is hosting a multicultural festival with music, dance and storytelling from a variety of cultural traditions.
The National Gallery of Art is displaying Michelangelo’s masterpiece “David-Apollo,” on loan from Italy, as it did for Harry Truman’s inaugural reception in 1949.
The Kennedy Center is featuring a new ballet with “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” produced by the National Ballet of Canada and London’s Royal Ballet. At last check, tickets were still available, ranging from $45 to $150.
Washington also has historical sites away from the beaten path for visitors who want to get away from the crowds. President Lincoln’s Cottage was where the 16th president escaped for much of his time in Washington and where he drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s located in a residential neighborhood on the campus of the Old Soldiers Home and is open for visitors to walk in the footsteps of the Lincoln family.
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass also had a home in Washington on a hilltop overlooking the city. It’s operated now as a National Historic Site in the Anacostia neighborhood.
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Photo credit: In this April 4, 2012 file photo, people visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington. Jacquelyn Martin / AP Photo