White House South Lawn
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Every spring and fall, the White House South Lawn is open for a weekend for visitors to stroll about.

The White House Garden Tour has been a tradition since 1972, but many visitors to the nation’s capital are unaware. I was one of the clueless fortunates who coincidentally timed my April visit to Washington, D.C. for Garden Tour weekend.

It was like being invited to the First Backyard. I relished my good fortune as I strolled about on the running track installed by President Clinton so he didn’t interrupt Washington traffic with his morning jogs. He also installed a putting green. I gazed at the handprints of the Bush daughters in the Children’s Garden donated by Lyndon Johnson. We ambled by the tennis court installed by Teddy Roosevelt. George H. W. Bush played doubles with Pete Sampras here, and President Obama has added a basketball court.

Hovering in the background is the shadow of the building you’ve seen pictures of since you were a schoolchild – a constant reminder of the presence of power. We walked by the Rose Garden, where I’d seen various presidents make appearances on TV. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the president working inside the window.

We admired the adjoining Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, beautifully landscaped with daffodils, tulips and hyacinths. Several trees on the South Lawn were planted by former presidents, but the big hit now seems to be the Michelle Obama vegetable garden.

The tour is open and free to the public. To get in, you must first pick up a ticket at the nearby Visitors Center. They begin handing them out the day of the tour on a first come, first served basis about 8 a.m.

There’s a list of prohibited items, including food and drink. After being screened at the East Gate, you enter the East Wing interior of the White House. Don’t expect to see the Oval Office or the living quarters of the First Family. We saw the room where FDR made his fireside chats, perused the State Dining Room, the Red Room and the Blue Room.

When you come to a place like the White House, your mind swirls with bits of information and imagery picked up in assorted books, history classes and TV broadcasts (“I just know I saw that room on CNN!”). It can be a bit overwhelming. The building is such an iconic fixture in our collective memory and imagination that doesn’t really hit you until you go there.

The White House is, of course, just one of the many highlights of a trip to Washington, D.C. The Mall in D.C. is to me one of the most fascinating and stimulating places in the world. One can easily spend a week here exploring the museums. The Smithsonian oversees 19 of them. My favorites are the American History Museum and the Air & Space Museum.

The former is a repository of the nation’s artifacts – like an attic containing treasures passed down through the generations. I spent nearly a full day here studying and admiring the exhibits. I particularly enjoyed taking a picture of Dorothy’s red ruby slippers for my sister who was a huge fan of the Wizard of Oz (and was about to get married).

The Air & Space Museum is the most visited museum in the world. Such exhibits as the 1903 Wright flyer, Charles Lindburgh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo 11 module and a moon rock (yes, you can touch it) enthrall and educate. The 22 galleries of exhibits, flight simulators and an IMAX theater make a visit here a truly memorable experience.

We also visited several memorials and monuments, and admired such documents as the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives. I stood in silent contemplation at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, viewing the names of the soldiers who gave their lives.

The Library of Congress was fascinating, but we vetoed a visit to the Capitol building after noticing the line. I had been there before and, anyway, there’s something about Congress these days that makes my stomach queasy.

The White House was unquestionably my most memorable highlight, and I wisely saved it for last.

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Derek Ray July 8, 2011 @ 11:32 a.m.

I should add that the cherry blossoms were in bloom during this trip adding a wonderful aura of color, beauty and seasonal regeneration. They are particularly striking in the area around the Tidal Basin and Jefferson Memorial. 3,000 cherry trees were a gift from the Japanese in 1912 and the National Cherry Blossom is celebrated each year when they emerge. Their soft, pink and white petals come into bloom for about two weeks in early spring, although the exact dates vary from year to year depending on the weather. You can research the predicted dates online but the average date is April 4th. This makes early April, in my opinion, the best time of year to visit the nation's capital.



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