If a nation's potential for greatness can be reflected in its capital city, then the United States' potential is great indeed. Not because the government buildings that encircle Washington DC's National Mall are stunning architectural achievements, but because they are open to the citizens of this democracy. Not because DC is home to the world's largest museum complex, the Smithsonian Institution, but because its museums are free to all people. And not because DC is the capital city of the richest, arguably most powerful, country in the world, but because it carefully guards that most precious of documents, the Constitution, an original copy of which is available to view (for free) at the National Archives in a sealed glass vault.
But the real protection of the Constitution sits with the three houses of government on the banks of the Potomac, and this is where U.S. citizens gather to honor, protest, observe, or just plain experience democracy in action.
And there is a lot to experience: just take the National Mall anchored by the Lincoln Memorial on one end and the Capitol Building on another, a two-mile stretch that serves as this city's great avenue in the best European tradition. Or consider the city's fabulous parks and gardens, many of them historic sites in their own right, developed by some of the nation's most prominent citizens. Or the Tidal Basin's famed cherry trees – more than 3,700 of them – gifts from the nation of Japan. Then there's the National Gallery of Art established in 1937 by a joint resolution of Congress and which now houses one of the finest collections of Western painting and sculpture in the world.
But while tradition and history are big in Washington, so are progressive ideas, and sometimes the two clash, as in 1963 when Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial and then led 250,000 people to the Capitol Building for the March on Washington.
Yet the nation's capital is not all about politics. DC is also a vibrant community, its distinctive neighborhoods each contributing to the mix, its older urban areas undergoing renovation with new spaces designed to recreate more workable communities. DC is filled with residents, small businesses, artists, educators, and community leaders who don't play on the national political scene or the streets of Georgetown, but work quietly across the city's four quadrants to contribute to their communities. A visit to the U Street Corridor, the Anacostia Waterfront, or the Penn Quarter reveals a city hard at work revitalizing its once-decaying urban areas, now retail and nightlife hotspots in a city already humming after dark. Its outdoor public spaces and parks continue to expand to meet the city's ever-growing population, and the rails to trails program adds mileage to area biking and hiking trails almost daily.
There is now more to see and do in DC than ever before. Don't stop with the memorials, museums, or National Mall. This is a city in growth mode, poised to please, inspire, and intrigue you.