Free Time Travel in Washington’s National Gallery of Art

Washington National Gallery of Art
The steps up to the National Gallery of Art.

Washington is the city of museums and art galleries.

The majority of my visit to the US capital consisted of admiring paintings, sculptures and monuments. And all of it was either entirely free or at a fairly cheap price. Washington is a huge city and not the most enjoyable for a simple stroll but the destinations are usually worth it. The streets are wide and each city block seems to go on forever but the older buildings in the downtown area are beautiful and imposing.

My first impression of DC however was not exactly positive. My friend and I had just gotten off the train from Georgia and weighed down with bags we waited in a ridiculously long line up for a taxi. With hotel booking papers in hand we looked like the stereotypical first time tourists. A man approached us and offered to take us to our hotel for fifty bucks.

He must have singled us out as easy targets because I saw him doing the same thing later to some backpackers. Having seen enough of this sort of thing in Ukraine I figured he was conning us and sure enough when we finally got a taxi to take us to our hotel we ended up paying less than half the price he had tried to stick us with. My advice for first time visitors to DC — stick it out in the line-up, you’ll save money.

White House in Washington, DC
The back of the White House seen from afar.

Our hotel was close to The National Mall where most of the major museums and sights are conveniently laid out in a symmetrical pattern between Capitol Hill and the Lincoln Memorial. To get there we had to pass The White House but our first glimpse of it ended up being from afar. Apparently, that day there was some sort of security risk and the police had cordoned off a perimeter of a two city blocks around the entire area. Welcome to the USA, eh?

Not discouraged by our first experiences in Washington we decided to go check out the National Art Gallery. This gallery is essentially a free miniature version of the Louvre. It houses paintings and sculptures from across the world and spans all of history. The building itself is a beautiful neo-Roman structure with small indoor gardens in the East and West wing courtyards.

The National Gallery of Art is split into two buildings and we methodically made our way through every room of the West Building which houses the majority of the permanent collection. Over the course of our stay in Washington, my friend and I came back to the National Gallery of Art three times until we felt satisfied we had explored everything.

Girl with Water Lilies by Herbert Adams in the Garden Cafe at the National Gallery of Art
Girl with Water Lilies by Herbert Adams in the Garden Cafe at the National Gallery of Art.

We saw Rodin’s expressive sculptures and Degas’ numerous reiterations of the ballerina statue. Starting in the Byzantine era we moved past angels with rainbow coloured wings into the Renaissance era where we found one of Da Vinci’s solemn portraits. In the Baroque era we squinted into the shadowed faces of Rembrandt’s paintings and admired the soft intimacy of Vermeer’s domestic scenes.

Between the centuries we took a break to have lunch in the gallery’s Garden Café which is nestled in the lower levels of the museum. The buffet was serving Russian inspired dishes such as stroganoff and borscht in honour of one of their special exhibits. It was all mouth-watering delicious!

Continuing in our travels through Romanticism and Realism we arrived at my favorite era — Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. I couldn’t get enough of it and if I lived in Washington I would probably be there every other day. All my favorite painters were gathered together in one place, from Renoir to Cezanne, Van Gogh to Monet — it was in my opinion the best section of the museum.

I couldn’t believe that the quality and breadth of the collection at the National Gallery of Art was completely free. When travelling, I never leave a city without having visited at least one art gallery and I would have to say that in Washington this is the one not to miss!

Leave a Reply