Psst! Did you hear the one about George Washington’s trowel?
That silver, masonic shovel (attention, Dan Brown fans!) was used to lay the cornerstone of the US Capitol, the Washington Monument and a bunch of other buildings in Washington, DC. Coincidence?
For the inside scoop on DC city secrets, who better to ask than a tour guide? Through the years, Michelle Heller, who works for the city’s oldest tour guide company, Guide Service of Washington, has led hundreds of tours of the nation’s capital. Check out these insider tips to enjoy Washington, DC, and its history, far from the crowds.
Nearly a dozen museums line the National Mall; many of them are also free. So, it’s tempting to devour the buffet of offerings in 1 day, only to crash from sensory overload by evening. Set aside half the day for museums, the other half for memorials, suggests Heller. In between, metro over to Eastern Market, DC’s oldest fresh food market, with an eclectic array of restaurants: French, Middle Eastern, Italian, among others. In the upscale waterfront neighborhood of Georgetown, pick up a chic Georgetown Cupcake T-shirt, then chow down at Mr. Smith’s or Old Glory, 2 locally-owned restaurants.
Skip the daytime crowds. Grab champagne and a friend, then hail a cab for the east side of the US Capitol, says Heller, who has led late-night limousine tours. Enjoy an intimate view of an illumined capitol dome, the largest cast-iron dome in the world. See the US Supreme Court across the courtyard, bathed in a soft marble nighttime glow. Feel the light of the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world, topped by the Torch of Learning. Cruising (and sipping) as you head west, marvel at the fountain at the National World War II Memorial, with water that dances off nearby lights, creating an illusion of “glittering gold,” says Heller. End with a quiet moment on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with the Washington Monument and capitol just beyond. “A magnificent view of the symbols of freedom,” says Heller.
Take in the Small Details
Breeze through DC’s monuments and memorials, and you may overlook the symbols woven into each, says Heller. At the Korean War Veterans Memorial, 19 soldiers -- multiplied by 2, with their reflection seen on an adjacent black granite wall -- represent the 38th parallel, the boundary between North and South Korea. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a cross next to a name represents an individual missing in action. Another stirring symbol, says Heller, is the 19 1/2-feet tall bronze Statue of Freedom, atop the US Capitol since December 1863. To this day, no statue in DC stands taller than Freedom. For the ultimate “wow” moment, step inside the Library of Congress -- an architectural marvel, with ornate murals and gold-plated lampposts, which impressively, was completed on time and under budget back in 1897.
Delve into Masonic Secrets
Now about those masons. The Lost Symbol may be fiction, but the intricate design of the nation’s capital still gets conspiracy theorists' tongues a wagging. Heller has more than a few details to share: In September 1793, George Washington walked down Pennsylvania Avenue adorned in full masonry regalia to lay the cornerstone of the US Capitol. Exactly 33 ethnological masks adorn the outside of the Library of Congress. “It took 7 years to build the capitol, 7 years to build the White House,” says Heller. Whether it's all coincidence, that's for you to decide.
Hungry for more DC city secrets? The biggest, says Heller, begins and ends at the Korean War Memorial. Walk down the pathway, and you’ll find 4 words emblazoned on the granite wall: Freedom is Not Free. “That’s the real secret,” says Heller, “that we have to work every day to maintain the freedoms we have here.”