Zoolights 2023

2023 Washington DC Trip Part 1

posted in: Personal Essay, Photography, Travel | 0

During our winter break, Holly and I took a short trip to Washington, DC. We usually don’t travel at that time and, weather permitting, often treat it as a 2nd Staycation doing some fun things around Philadelphia.

However, in mid-November, I started feeling like I wanted and/or needed to go somewhere. With our winter break on the horizon, we had an obvious time for taking a trip.

I mentioned this feeling to Holly and, of course, our first thought was to head to California. Holly is originally from there, and I’ve spent quite a lot of time there over the years so we both feel a strong connection to the state.

Although we’re fortunate to work somewhere that gives us a week off between Christmas and New Year’s Day, that isn’t much time for a cross-country trip, especially since we wanted to have Christmas at home. Also, flying that week can be tricky because of the holidays and the weather.

Ruling out California, we looked toward doing something more modest and local and decided to take the train to Washington, DC.

It was a short trip. We left on Tuesday, December 26 and returned on Friday, December 29, which still gave us a long weekend buffer before needing to return to work.

One of the reasons DC appealed was that the last few times we had been there were times when Holly had a conference, and I tagged along. I got to do all the fun and touristy things while she attended conferences. We’ve been wanting to get back for a proper vacation so that Holly could enjoy the city more.

After a nice Christmas at home, we started the next day with a nice breakfast at The Breakfast Den.

We finished the packing we started on Christmas and walked to 30th Street Station, which was nicely decorated for Christmas.

Last March, we took the train to Pittsburgh and traveled Business Class for the first time and, not surprisingly, found it a much more pleasant way to travel than coach. On our way to DC, we leveled up again and took the Acela, which was even more pleasant. We were in the quite car which made traveling even more comfortable and relaxing. The ride was incredibly smooth (for a fast moving train) and quick. It took just an hour and a half from Philadelphia’s 30th Street station to Washington’s Union Station. That’s only about a half an hour quicker than the Northeast Regional, but it felt significantly quicker, possibly because of the fewer stops.

We arrived at Union Station a little after 2:00 pm. It was also decorated for Christmas.

The one complication during our trip was that the Metro Red Line was out of service due to maintenance work. I had seen something about that before we left, but it looked like it would be running again in time for our trip, but I misunderstood whatever info I found. The Red Line was not running or, at least, not running where and when we needed it to be. We ended up taking a few ride shares to get around which wasn’t a big deal for a short visit, but it would have gotten quite expensive if we were there for more than 2 full days.

Lacking the Metro, we took a cab from Union Station to our hotel.

We stayed at the Omni Shoreham. We stayed there twice before when Holly had conferences there. We both really liked our stays, and it was the first place we investigated when we started planning our trip. We expected it to be prohibitively expensive, but it turned out to be rather cheap, perhaps because it was the week between the holidays. It was pretty empty during our stay so they were probably glad anyone showed up.

We had stayed there around Christmas once before and loved how decorated it was. We hoped it would be likewise decorated this time around, and I’m happy to report it was.

One of the things we like about the Omni Shoreham is that it is a bit out of the way in Woodley Park, north and west of The Mall, The White House, and other tourist destinations, which means the immediate neighborhood is a little less busy and seems to cater more toward people who live there.

It’s also close to the Adams Morgan neighborhood which has a lot of good restaurants and shops. It’s also close to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park (aka the Zoo) which was convenient since we had tickets for Zoolights our first night.

But first, we needed to get checked in and settled in our room which we did by around 3:30 or so. Going to Zoolights was our only plan, but we had some time before dark and were hungry so we looked for a place to eat. I suggested Kramers, which is a bookstore that also has an all-day cafe, Afterwords. I was familiar with Kramers from when I was regularly going to a conference in the Dupont Circle area. I had visited the bookstore a handful of times but never found an opportunity to eat there.

It felt rewarding—or something—to finally get there for food and drink nearly 20 years after my last visit.

Not only did I enjoy the novelty of finally getting to the cafe part, but both Holly and I really enjoyed our late lunch along with a couple of local beers. We had an eclectic meal of caponata, broccolini, and Bavarian pretzel. The caponata was particularly good and quite unlike any caponata we’ve had before with its inclusion of cashews and ricotta.

After our meal, we browsed the bookstore. There really should be more places that are both bookstores and all-day cafes. It’s certainly a winning combination.

We then walked to the Zoo. Luckily, our tickets were just for that day and not for a specific time so it didn’t matter when we arrived. We had gone during our last DC trip. It was similar this time around, but there were enough different displays to not make it feel repetitive.

I kept my camera situation simple for this trip. In addition to using my Samsung Galaxy S9+ for incidental photos (like all the ones above), I brought my Nikon Z fc and just my 28mm f/2.8 lens. This combination served me well. The Z fc is a fairly small and light camera as is the lens. Carrying it around was easy and the images turned out well. Although there were a few times during our travels I wished I had other focal lengths, I found the 28mm to be sufficient.

Since we had a late lunch, we weren’t starving after our walk through the Zoo, but we wanted a little something for dinner. We went to Mama Ayesha’s, which we’ve been to before, and shared small plates of Hummus and Lebneh as well as an order of Mujadarah.

Another reason we like staying at the Omni is that Open City, a reliably good breakfast place, is right across the street. We went there on all 3 mornings.

We decided to start our first full day on the healthy side. I got an order of oatmeal and berries along with a lemon poppyseed muffin, and Holly got tofu tostadas. One nice touch is that they give you Animal Crackers along with their coffee.

It was supposed to rain that day. Luckily, there was barely a drizzle when we went to breakfast and what little rain there was stopped entirely by the time we took a Lyft to the United States Botanic Garden. Since it wasn’t yet raining, we first walked around the grounds and saw their train display.

Exploring the grounds first was a good choice because it started raining just as we headed indoors. I had seen their Christmas display on our last DC trip, but it was new to Holly. We wandered the conservatory which had a Christmas display in the Garden Court near the entrance. It also has various areas including a tropical forest, a primeval garden, and a room with medicinal plants, among other fascinating displays. It was very crowded, perhaps because it started raining and everyone migrated indoors so appreciating all the offerings was difficult as was taking photos.

After the Botanic Garden, we made our way through an increasingly heavy rain to the National Portrait Gallery. I had gone there by myself on our last trip. Holly was interested in going mostly to see Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of President Obama. On my previous visit, I got to see that portrait and Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michele Obama when they first were displayed. I actually did not know they were there when I wandered in so it was a pleasant surprise.

Neither of us are all that interested in the portraits of the more historical presidents. In addition to the Obama portrait, I also admire Elaine de Kooning’s portrait of John F. Kennedy and Chuck Close’s Bill Clinton.

I didn’t take pictures this visit, but here are my photos of the Obama and Clinton portraits from my last visit.

We hoped to see the Michele Obama portrait, but it was no longer near the Barack Obama portrait where it had been on my last visit. We looked around for it but couldn’t find it.

We decided to take a lunch break and went to Boqueria which turned out to be an excellent choice. Neither of us had been there before. I had scoped out the one in Dupont Circle which is near-ish to our hotel. When we were looking into lunch options near the Portrait Gallery, we saw there was another location close to there.

Although the museums and tourist sites were crowded, the rest of the city was pretty empty. All the politicians left town for the holiday. Boqueria had maybe only 5 or 6 busy tables in its large space. We had a comfortable high top near the bar and enjoyed sharing a few tapas and nursing some great wines. Since it wasn’t crowded and it was raining out, we were in no rush and loved our leisurely lunch. (Side note: shortly after we returned home, I learned that a Boqueria will be opening about 10 blocks from us. Good news for sure!)

While we were lingering at lunch, we looked up the Michelle Obama portrait and figured out where it is in the gallery so we went back to hunt it down. It isn’t in the portrait gallery but is the American Art galleries which gave us a reason to explore those galleries. We found the Michelle Obama portrait. Again, I didn’t take a photo this visit but had done so on my last visit.

Amy Sherald also painted a mural not too far from where we live.

I took photos of some of the other art in the American Art galleries but didn’t note anything about the artists or titles other than Marlin by Joan Mitchell and The Wave by Willem de Kooning, two artists that I’ve been interested in since reading Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women and seeing the excellent de Kooning and Soutine exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

After re-visiting the portrait gallery, we went back out into the rain to go to the National Gallery of Art West Building to see the Dorothea Lange: Seeing People exhibit. It was quite good but, again, very crowded and exceptionally warm which made fully enjoying it difficult.

We had a little trouble getting back to our hotel. There were a ton of people at the entrance of the National Gallery of Art, presumably waiting for rides. We walked across the street to the Canadian Embassy, which has a covered patio, to try to request a Lyft.

My phone wasn’t picking up our location. Holly tried as well and also had some problems. We walked back toward the Portrait Gallery just trying to find a place that might be easy for a Lyft driver to find. On the way, I restarted my phone and was able to request a ride. The first ride got canceled but I was quickly assigned another one. After wandering around in a heavy rain, we were very thankful when our driver pulled up.

We got back to our room, changed our clothes and generally tried to dry off. Luckily, the place we had in mind for dinner, Retro Bottega, is in Adams Morgan and not all that far from the Omni. The rain had eased up slightly so getting to dinner wasn’t as unpleasant as wandering around earlier in the day.

We hadn’t been to Retro Bottega before. Holly found it when researching nearby restaurants. It was quite a find. Since it was a rainy weeknight, it wasn’t crowded, and we got a couple of seats at the bar. The food was all excellent. The bartender was friendly and knowledgeable and seemed to appreciate that we asked questions about the wine and amari.

After our wonderful meal, we headed back to our room for a much needed night of sleep.

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