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Capital Gains in Washington DC

If you avoid talking politics, you'll find Washington DC is packed with history, art, and eclectic architecture, plus a melange of international taste treats to experience.

Washington DC often provides a dramatic backdrop for political news stories, but there’s so much more to the US capital. The city’s famous national monuments, museums, and eclectic neighbourhood districts make this a destination for all ages, abilities, and interests.

Stretching the greenback

After a couple of years of travel restrictions, the desire to travel for most of us is at an all-time high. At the same time, the increasing cost of living means that many of us are looking for ways to make our travel budget stretch further. Washington DC is the answer.

Offering more free activities than any other destination I’ve visited, my biggest challenge was figuring out how many I could squeeze into my five-day stay.

Out and about in Washington DC

Mild sunny days in May, and easy-to-navigate streets, proved the perfect conditions for my exploration of Washington DC’s National Mall. If you have the time to walk or wheel the Mall, you’ll find the level pathways connect the major sites, making it easy to visit the Washington Monument, Martin Luther King Junior, Korean War, and Lincoln Memorials all at your own pace.

By day, I explored them by foot, and at night, I hopped on an accessible Old Town Trolley Tour for the Monuments Moonlight Tour. The commentary provided facts and figures about the sites and their significance. Washington DC’s monuments are even more impressive when illuminated. The view at sunset from the Lincoln Memorial, across the pool of reflection to the Washington Monument (the tallest structure in DC), is one of the city’s best.

Ramp and lift access are available at the Lincoln Memorial to avoid the sizeable staircase.

Wheelchair lift extended from the Old Town Trolley vehicle in Washington DC
Washington DC’s accessible Old Town Trolley is a great way to get around the major monuments.

Nearby, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) Memorial uses elements of stone, water, and landscaping to tell the story of FDR’s presidency. What makes the memorial extra special is the tactile models of the sculptures and audio description provided, allowing blind and visually-impaired visitors to trace the history of the president through touch.

After a taste of American political history, it was time to stop and smell the roses at the United States Botanic Garden. The list of inclusive facilities is nearly as exhaustive as the selection of plants. Perhaps an exaggeration, but it’s seriously impressive! It begins before guests arrive with a list of accessible facilities online to plan your trip, including a sensory tip sheet to help better prepare visitors with sensory needs. On arrival, sensory bags are free to borrow from the Conservatory lobby, with items including noise-reducing headphones, weighted lap blankets, and a selection of fidgets to help ease sensory stimulation. For visitors who are colour blind, the Garden offers special glasses for loan; they’re engineered to give those with colour blindness the ability to see more of the broad spectrum of bright colours of the plants and flowers on site. Audio description is available via your mobile phone, Braille guides are provided on request, and wheelchair accessible pathways allow guests with a mobility restriction to access the extensive gardens.

A sign indicating the accessible route at United States Botanic Garden in Washington DC
The accessibility of the United States Botanic Garden is truly impressive.

While some of these accessibility features are unique to the United States Botanic Garden, as I toured many of Washington DC’s attractions, I discovered that access and inclusion are top of mind everywhere.

Museum musings

It’s almost guaranteed that you’ll leave Washington DC smarter than when you arrived, with each of the city’s museums (including 17 Smithsonian museums and galleries) filled with interactive learning opportunities and informative displays.

Though free, many museums require visitors to make a booking online to control visitor numbers and crowding. As I visited on Memorial Day weekend, I wasn’t lucky enough to score a ticket to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum (apparently one of the hottest tickets in town). Instead, I visited the National Museum of American History, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, National Museum of the American Indian, and the Rubell Museum. I found that each offered excellent accessible facilities.

I’ve always firmly believed that I have the calibre to become a spy. I’m curious by nature, I have excellent observation skills, and I can (occasionally) outwit my family. Compelling credentials, right? It goes without saying, then, that I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit the International Spy Museum. I lined up with other eager visitors to be given a spy identity, and they put me through my paces. I was given tasks to complete along the way, and I had the chance to hear recorded stories with real spies, check out their gadgets, and interact with a range of exhibits that reveal a lot about human observation.

After completing my set tasks, I received a mission debrief, including feedback on my spy skills. I don’t like to brag, but I’m apparently a ‘tech ops whiz’ and my mind is ‘like a steel trap’! Mind you, I received a high score for my disguise, and I don’t think I’d be fooling anyone that was after me.

Photograph of screen at International Spy Museum showing Julie in disguise and the background reference image
I’m not sure this ‘disguise’ is fooling anyone, but my international spy dreams remain intact!

The Spy Museum is one of the few Washington DC museums that attracts an entry fee, but as you can see from my experience, it’s well worth it. The museum offers amazing accessibility, with comprehensive information available online to plan your visit. For visitors who are blind, there is the option of booking a complimentary 90-minute staff-led audio-described museum exhibition tour with tactile opportunities. This is available on request, and free with the admission price, through the Spy Museum website.

On my final day in Washington DC, I realised I’d saved one of the best museums for last. Walking in under the Speaking Willow Tree signalled that I was in for a treat at Planet Word, a museum dedicated to language. The museum takes an interactive, inventive, and captivating approach to celebrating language in all its forms, from our first words as a baby to sign language and the use of words in song lyrics and advertising. My favourite exhibition was the dimly lit Library, where books come to life with audio and digital projections. Planet Word is a must-do for any visitor to Washington DC.

Dining in Washington DC

Dining in Washington DC is a delight. As a city with incredible cultural diversity, there’s no shortage of choice – but Mozzeria Pizza was top of my list for my visit. The restaurant is located in DC’s H district, owned and operated by staff who are Deaf or have a hearing impairment. Ahead of my visit, my daughter taught me how to sign hello, thank you, and finger spell my own name, but that was the extent of my ASL (American Sign Language). Communication was no barrier though, with staff well-versed in guiding hearing customers through ordering their meal using a variety of methods, including a small magic board. Staff are proud to be busting the community’s preconceived ideas about the capabilities of Deaf people.

Six people in staff uniforms with their arms around each other and smiling at Mozzeria Pizza in Washington DC
The team at Mozzeria Pizza welcome diners of all abilities.

Christin White, operations and culinary manager at Mozzeria Pizza, chatted with me by typing questions and answers into our phones.

“We are bringing together Deaf and hearing to show that we Deaf people can work just like you,” Christin said. “As well as providing the chance for Deaf people to work in the restaurant industry because they tend to be rejected by other companies just because they cannot hear.”

Christin showed me the various facilities that allow staff to work and customers to communicate. Mozzeria restaurant has also been designed to be wheelchair accessible with step-free entry, good circulation space, and an accessible bathroom. Being immersed in a non-hearing world at Mozzeria Pizza left me with a full belly and a warm heart, thanks to the welcoming staff keen to share more about Deaf culture. Find out more on their website.

For travellers short on time, the first signing Starbucks is located not far from Mozzeria Pizza, perfect for grabbing a drink or snack on the go. Murals created by Deaf artists decorate the walls in the store, and unique Starbucks signing mugs and drink cups are available for purchase. Starbucks is accessible with step-free access.

The Wharf District is a fun and vibrant entertainment and dining precinct overlooking the Pontomac River. There’s a buzz to the area which sees everyone from couples on romantic dates to families and friends using it as a spot to catch up. My visit included dinner at Hell’s Kitchen and a ferry ride to Georgetown.

Hell’s Kitchen, where the formidable Gordon Ramsey is imposing (even if it’s just a larger-than-life portrait on the wall), offers diners water views and high quality cuisine. There was no need for Ramsey-style yelling on my part, as the lobster tail risotto was cooked to perfection. The menu caters well to gluten-free, vegetarian, and dairy-free customers. Lift access is available between the two levels of the restaurant and an accessible bathroom is provided.

Portrait of Gordon Ramsey with black angel wings on the wall at Hell's Kitchen in Washington DC
The larger-than-life portraits of Gordon Ramsey in Hell’s Kitchen are somewhat imposing.

Don’t tell Gordon, but after indulging in Hell’s Kitchen’s delicious sticky toffee pudding, I caught a water taxi with City Experiences to Georgetown, to pick up cupcakes from the famous Georgetown Cupcake. I made sure I walked and shopped up a storm to justify double-dipping on dessert.

More information

Choosing Washington DC for your next US holiday will not only give you great value, but also extensive accessible and inclusive sightseeing opportunities. For more inspiration, visit www.washington.org.

This article first appeared in Travel Without Limits. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

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