Forget Trump, DC has plenty to offer visitors
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As I rode a bicycle by the front entrance to the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, I felt a little shocked. As a news junkie, I have seen the building on TV or online nearly every day, but was taken aback about how much smaller the White House looks in person and how small the White House lawn was. I had imagined a much larger lawn separating it from the street. After a couple of fence-jumping incidents, the sidewalk in front of the fence is barricaded with 24-hour guards but you can still get a good look at the White House from the street that is open only to pedestrians and cyclists.
Washington, D.C. also feels like a city that should be bigger than it is. Despite having a seemingly endless number of museums, embassies, monuments, and countless nonprofit and for-profit organizations aimed at influencing the government, the city's center is compact and very walkable. You can easily walk from the city's original gayborhood around Dupont Circle to the White House and the National Mall in less than 30 minutes. But the city goes well beyond the tourist areas, covering 68 square miles, larger than San Francisco but smaller than Oakland.
One of the newest and most popular attractions, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, opened two years ago on the National Mall near the Washington Monument, which, by the way, is still closed for maintenance work. The $540 million museum received about half of its funding from private sources, including $21 million from Oprah Winfrey. A special exhibit chronicling Winfrey's career and the phenomenal success of her 25 years as a talk show host opened in June and will run through June 2019. But if you are a Winfrey fan and can't visit before then, fear not, a Winfrey exhibit is part of the museum's permanent collection. The museum also includes a theater named after the talk show queen turned media mogul. Check out the museum's website for information on how to get free tickets for timed entry to the museum. Tickets were sold out for the days I was in the city but I was able to get one of the walkup tickets that are given out at 1 p.m. if the museum has the space. I arrived a half hour early but even people who came well after me were able to get tickets. Don't expect a walk-up ticket it you are visiting on a weekend or during a busy time in the city.
The American History Museum is just off the National Mall and a block from the African American Museum. Like most of Washington's museums, entry is free and this is a museum that you can usually get into without much of a line. The museum's most famous exhibit is the giant flag that flew during the War of 1812 and inspired the "Star-Spangled Banner." LGBT rights are touched upon in the museum in exhibits on the struggles for civil rights.
The Holocaust Museum is near the National Mall, just a short walk from the African American and American History museums. The museum opened in 2001 and also has timed entry for its main exhibit space. The museum recounts that gay men, and to a lesser extent, gay women, were targeted by Nazi Germany, and were forced to wear a pink triangle, which, along with the Greek Lambda sign, became an iconic symbol for gay rights before the late Gilbert Baker co-created the first rainbow flag in San Francisco in 1978.
Washington has a museum dedicated to journalism. The Newseum also contains a good dose of history. While there are a number of exhibits that include LGBT issues as part of news coverage, the Newseum plans a special exhibit next year, the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. "Rise Up: Stonewall and the LGBTQ Rights Movement" will open March 8 and will run through January 5, 2020. Among the museum's more famous exhibits are a section of the Berlin Wall and an East Berlin watchtower, a twisted antenna that once stood on the top of a World Trade Center Building, and the Montana cabin where Unabomber Ted Kaczynski lived. Admission to the museum is $24.95 and well worth the cost. Museums that charge admission usually don't have long lines to get in like the free museums.
In the middle of the Smithsonian museums is the original ornate building known as the Castle. Nearby you will find branches of the Smithsonian dedicated to art, natural sciences, and aviation. A separate museum looks at Native American art and culture.
Closer to downtown, the International Spy Museum is a fascinating and entertaining look at the world of espionage. Washington, D.C. may be the spy capital of the world and the museum showcases some of the old declassified equipment that once played a vital role in the nation's security. On display are tiny weapons, as well as surveillance equipment that helped keep the country safe through the Cold War. The museum is run by a nonprofit, not a governmental agency, and relies on admission fees ($24.99) and donations for its existence.
The National Archives is just three blocks from the spy museum. The archive is a free history museum with exhibits chronicling the birth of the country through the election of President Donald Trump. But its main attraction is the original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The documents are faded and barely readable.
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is near the Smithsonian Castle. It is a free and must-see museum of modern art. One of its best-known pieces is outside the museum — a 1992 Dodge Spirit crushed under the weight of a nine-ton volcanic boulder. Most people who take a photo of it from the street will see the neon sign "Silence=Death" hanging in the inside of the museum but facing toward the street. The ACT UP logo was made in 1987 and is courtesy of New Museum, New York and the William Olander Memorial Fund. Olander was an art curator who died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 38.
A great way to see the highlights of the city without getting lost is on a guided tour. I took the DC Old Time Trolley Tours Monuments by Moonlight tour, which included stops at the monument for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the adjacent memorial for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The other tour stops include Abraham Lincoln's memorial on the National Mall as well as the Iwo Jima memorial. During the day, I took the company's DC Ducks amphibious tour that includes a cruise on the Potomac River and a cool vantage point under the flight path of Reagan International Airport (DCA). Both tours are an excellent option for first-time visitors to the city to get a lay of the land.
The Dupont Circle area still has the largest number of gay bars and nightclubs in Washington. Mainstays include JR's, which has been going strong for three decades. Showtune Mondays always draws a crowd on what otherwise would be a quiet night. And Showtunes returns on Friday nights from 5 to 9.
The nearby 17th Street strip includes Cobalt, with the Level One restaurant on the first floor known for bottomless drag brunches and Sunday burger specials. Cobalt's top floor is the laid-back lounge bar 30 Degrees.
The U Street corridor includes the popular Nellie's Sports Bar. Drag bingo Tuesdays is one of its most popular nights. And weekends are always hopping with its drag brunch at 10:30 a.m. on Saturdays and 1 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $41.91 and can be purchased in advance online. The all-you-can-eat feast includes a free drink and drag show. The Dirty Goose is across the street from Nellie's and is known for its half-priced drinks weekdays from 5 to 9 p.m.
The Green Lantern is a favorite in the downtown area just off Thomas Circle. Shirtless men drink free on Thursday nights from 10 to 11 and if you take off your pants you can drink free until midnight. Fridays are free pizza night from 7 to 9 and you don't have to take off anything.
Speaking of taking it off, Washington, D.C. has one of the few bars in the country with fully nude strippers. Ziegfeld's/Secrets is in Southwest D.C., just two blocks from Nationals Park baseball stadium, which helped revitalize the area when it opened in 2012. It also forced the closure of Ziegfeld's/Secrets and several of other gay businesses in 2009. But the bar was able to relocate nearby. Secrets, which is upstairs, is the stripper bar and open Thursday-Saturday nights. Ziegfeld's is downstairs and is the drag bar open Friday and Saturday nights.
The DC Eagle boasts Washington's largest LGBT dance floor. It's a little off the beaten path, on the east of the Anacostia River, east of downtown. Popular nights at the leather/bear bar include Karaoke Wednesdays and Team Spirit Thursdays, where you can drink for free between 9:30 and 10:30 p.m. if you wear a DC team or league shirt, or drink free from 11:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. if you lose the shirt.
Where to stay
There are no exclusively gay hotels in Washington, but some are more gay-popular than others. If you want to rack up your Marriott points the gay-welcoming chain is a good option. On a trip last month, I had the pleasure of staying at the Washington Marriott Georgetown, with newly renovated rooms and a few minutes walking distance to the Dupont Circle area. For variety, I also spent a couple of nights at the Renaissance Washington, D.C. Downtown Hotel. That hotel is right around the corner from the city's Chinatown that includes the little-known historic site at the Wok and Roll restaurant, the spot where John Wilkes Booth plotted the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The hotel is also a short walk away from the Green Lantern bar.
Washington's official city tourism site has a list of upcoming deals offered by D.C. area hotels including the gay popular Dupont Circle Hotel and a wide variety of Kimpton Hotels. For a complete list, visit https://washington.org/visit-dc/unique-hotel-packages-washington-dc.
Getting there and getting around
If you get tired of walking, Washington also has a good subway system and bike sharing program known as Capital Bikeshare. I bought a three-day pass for $17 that entitled me to an unlimited number of 30-minute bike rides for 72 hours. I had a mixed experience with it, often finding docking stations with no bikes left, and on a couple of occasions being unable to leave the bike because all the docking stations were filled. But when I could get a bike, I found it easy to get around. You can also download an app for the system that will show you whether a docking station has any bikes left or has room left to park a bike. Many of the city streets have dedicated bike lanes
D.C.'s subway system is similar to BART. The fare is dependent on your destination. Unlike BART you have to have a plastic card to ride, but you can buy one at any of the stations for $2. The Metro charges a little more to ride during the peak morning and afternoon commute hours.
One of the best-kept secrets in travel to Washington is the Baltimore airport. American Airlines wouldn't let me use the basic 25,000 frequent flier miles to go to Dulles, D.C.'s largest airport, or Reagan International, on my travel dates. But I was able to redeem those miles to go to Thurgood Marshall/Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI). The train from BWI to Union Station in the heart of Washington took only 40 minutes with a $7 one-way fare, which is shorter than it takes BART to go from downtown San Francisco to Oakland International. It's also about $3 cheaper. A free shuttle bus runs between the train station and the terminals. The Baltimore airport is also less crowded, with food concessions that accurately boast that the prices are equal to what you would find at the same restaurant outside the airport.
For more information, visit the city's official LGBT site: https://washington.org/lgbtq.
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