Washington DC, it really is a classy city and incredibly accessible. It’s dynamic, hugely expensive, very busy, but full of lush parkland, amazing buildings and has the National Mall and the 40 or so museums that together make up the “Smithsonian”. Truth is Washington surprised and delighted us in equal measure.
How did we get there ?
By Amtraks “Acela Express” from Penn Station in midtown New York City. Amtrak’s trains, particularly this express variant, are very accessible, with low easy board ramps or ‘bridge plates’ and a wheelchair space in every non restaurant carriage or ‘car’ as they are often called. The accessible loo is huge by UK rail standards. The doors tho are manually operated and sometimes very tough for a power chair user with one arm ! But my salsa R1 had loads of room to manoeuvre and the rails etc were helpful. Here’s a tip tho….don’t go for a wee or more when the train is at top speed and rattling over tracks like a roller coaster. It can be scary and a little unstable ! Amtrak was great throughout our trip, the Red Cap service was a must, even with the high cost of tipping at around $3-$5 a bag. The Acela Express is a business and first class only train and it’s a bit pricey to be honest at around $150 for a single between Washington and NYC but these prices vary and there may be bargains to be had at low season rates.
Where did we stay ?
Mason & Rook on the gorgeous Rhode Island Avenue. About a 15 minute walk from the fully accessible DuPont Circle Metro station. A lovely and slightly boutique type of hotel. The accessible room was big, really comfortable, and had a large wet room bathroom with limited rails around the shower and loo areas and no fixed shower seating. The bed was massive and very high. The air con worked well ! Access was good around the hotel and the staff, especially Reggie the brilliant concierge, very welcoming. Watch out for the slightly sly addition of a “hotel fee” at the end of your stay, $20 a day meant to cover the ‘free’ coffee and glass of wine pre dinner period each night.
But we loved this hotel, the staff were great and the location really good amongst the tree lined avenues. Local restaurants were not that plentiful to be honest but “The Pig” was sensational tho you really have to love pork ! It was good for gluten free options and again the servers here were amazingly friendly and knowledgble about the menu.
Mason & Rook is not a budget hotel. But it’s priced at a level comparable to somewhere like a Staybridge Suites, or Hampton by Hilton.
What did we see and do ?
We had five full days, needed two weeks, at least ! We used Day 1 on a brilliant 90 minute trolley bus tour. Wheelchair accessible via a lift system that could be temperamental and was only on every other….ish….trolley. But the driver commentary was superb and it’s a great way to get your bearings albeit at around $35 each. We spent the afternoon in a surprising way, exploring the incredible “US Postal Service” museum, part of the Smithsonian and right next to the exciting and accessible Union Station.
Now, don’t laugh. But this postal museum is an absolute best kept secret kind of thing. The building is stunning. It’s all accessible. The museum is fascinating with a series of displays that honestly are really interesting and different. But right up there in the ‘wow’ category is the exhibit called “Post a secret” which is where people from all over America, indeed the world, have written secrets about their life on a postcard and sent it to an address in the States. It’s quite dark to be honest, there are heart breaking messages of despair that shake you. Then uplifting messages that shine a light on family life in a positive way and often highlight courage in the face of adversity. Honestly, you will spend an hour just here, slowly reading the exhibits cards picked from over a million sent…..and drag yourself away, moved, a bit disturbed, but caught up in the moment and buoyed up, all at the same time ! Oh and the toilets or restrooms are lovely, and didn’t prepare me at all for the horrors of restroom hell which I encountered throughout our trip – see the end of this missive !
The highlight of our trip to Washington was a visit to the Supreme Court. The building is magnificent. It’s all accessible. We got lucky and arrived when the court wasn’t sitting so we’re able to attend the free lecture in the court room itself. Given by a Court Intern, the lecture lasts around 40 mins and takes you thru this cherished part of the American legal system and Constitution. You get the chance to mark questions and you learn a lot in a short time. Fascinating and thought provoking. The Court is full of large format pictures of the men and women who shaped justice in the USA for hundreds of years. There is an interesting video presentation to watch and a number of exhibits that add detail to the story of how the court ended up in its magnificent home. The cafe is a delight by the way and yes the loo’s are lovely !
We visited the Air and Space museum which many had recommended but frankly found it a bit underwhelming and overcrowded in early June by literally thousands of USA school kids on end of term tours. The McDonalds on site is the only eatery and it is one of the largest in the world ! The IMAX presentations are interesting but don’t quite have the wow factor.
The Holocaust Museum is as you would expect, both daunting and provocative and of course very moving. Set in a simple red brick and concrete five stores building it takes a long time to view. You can take an ID Card on entry and it’s not till you get in the main museum area that you fully realize your carrying a card that describes the life, and death, of someone murdered by the Nazis during WW2. The museum is stunning in different ways and you really need to visit it to,understand why. It’s fully accessible.
We also visited the Capitol, enjoyed seeing the Senate floor from a loft viewing position and the architecture here is wonderful. The long marbled floor tunnel to the Library of Congress is I guess worth the walk. The library has some riveting exhibits but frankly when you allow hundreds and hundreds of school kids in all at once you do adversely impact everyone else’s experience. Go off season if you want to really see the Library properly. We spent half a day at Arlington Cemetery and it was worth the time.
The National Mall needs little introduction. It’s a jewel in Washington’s crown, amidst a few stunning jewels to be honest. We saw Mr Lincoln and yes you can get up the monument in a slightly shaky lift to within touching distance of the great man. We Touched the impressive Vietnam memorial wall. Wandered thru stunning parkland on our way up the mall and then somehow my wife managed seventeen more blocks to the White House in 92f ! I of course navigated all this in my power chair with ease ! The White House photo op was done but frankly it’s all a bit sterile, thanks mainly to the understandable but obtrusive security measures. But I did get to see where CJ Craig and Josh from my fave tv show ever, the West Wing, appeared out of the Oval Office and onto Pennsylvania Avenue !
What was the food like ?
Well, it’s the most expensive city to eat in we’ve ever been too. Surprisingly the centre of the city is not over blessed with restaurants. We had a gorgeous meal at ‘701’ right on Pennsylvania Avenue and broke records for the most expensive, but amazing, steak meal at ‘Ruth Chris’ on 9th Avenue, both fully accessible. But the ‘Pig’ restaurant near the hotel really was rather good too.
How was Getting around the city ?
The answer is “surprisingly easy”. Firstly the Metro is fully accessible and less busy than most except for the really peak times of 1700-1830 and the morning rush hour which seemed to be 0730-0900. My salsa R1 powerchair coped well with gap between the platform and the Metro trains, most of which were new, with live digital route signs onboard and station announcements. There is plenty of space and a blue badge style spot marked out on the floor for wheelchair users. It really was a joy to use. Buses are all accessible too tho we didn’t try this. Oh and the new UBER WAV (rear wheelchair ramped) taxi service worked well for us on the few times we used it. Note you need the Uber App and that means switching on roaming on your mobile and, it’s expensive ! Unlike the Uber fare which was very reasonable.
Our five key tips about Washington DC :
1. Go in April, its cooler and the cherry blossoms are out (check first !) and there are a lot fewer school tours !
2. Staying just outside the centre works well providing your near an accessible Metro station.
3. Visit the Supreme Court and the Postal Museum, you won’t be disappointed.
4. Eating out is very, very, expensive. Eat dinner away from the centre.
5. USA Restrooms are not great, integrated wider door wheelchair loos are not designated just for those who can’t use the narrower loos, which means you often end up waiting, and waiting, for the ‘big loo’ to become available. I found the male restrooms in many public places to be really messy, crowded, not always clean and often home to some without a home which was sad but on occasions a bit intimidating. Very surprising this, but in truth I can’t believe how aweful some of the restroom experiences were and recommend trying to time your ‘need to go now’ moment to when your in a posh Smithsonian with a better class of restroom !!
So, loved Washington DC, want to go back soon, and if there’s anything I can share about our trip there please shout out and email me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Next up will be reviews of our visits to New York City (Manhatten and Brooklyn) and Boston.
Cheers, Mark, Rustyman