WASHINGTON, D.C. - It seems like every time I go to a museum in Washington, D.C., I have an epiphany.
At the Air and Space Museum, it was the fact that Dayton, Ohio's Wright State University was named after the flying brothers who called the city home.
At the Portrait Gallery, I learned that the Liberty Bell cracked when tolling the death of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall in 1835.
And at the National Gallery of Art, I discovered that my parents were wrong to make my siblings and I wash our crayon scribbles off the wall. They were modern art.
Maybe it makes me a nerd, but I always think a vacation is more successful when I've learned something new. That's one of the reasons I like traveling to Washington, D.C. so much - not only is it fun, but when I get home, I have more useless trivia with which to amaze my friends.
While there are many things to do in any city, the main draw of the District of Columbia must be its monuments and museums.
There are 19 Smithsonian museums, and I took in the National Portrait Gallery on this trip. The American History Museum, a perennial favorite, is closed until 2008 for renovations. I also visited the National Gallery of Art.
The Portrait Gallery was particularly fascinating and informative. I expected the gallery to be a series of pictures of people whose names I wouldn't recall from high school history classes, but was pleasantly surprised to see that it was so much more than that.
A series of rooms devoted to the nation's presidents held two life masks of Abraham Lincoln and portraits showing our Founding Fathers - and the more recent ones - with wrinkles and all. Brief biographies hit the high and low points of presidential terms and were written in a way that made me eager to go on to the next person.
In addition to the photographs, busts and paintings of inventors, actors and politicians, I saw the first Singer sewing machine, a copy of "Common Sense" by Thomas Paine, an original phonograph by Thomas Edison and Poor Richard's Almanack. Friends who also went through the gallery said an exhibit of portraits culled from a national contest was not to be missed.
My trip to the National Gallery of Art brought me face-to-face with Andy Warhol's famous Campbell's Soup cans, the art of Roy Lichtenstein, Monet's water lilies and pieces by Renoir and Picasso.
A wing devoted to modern art had both interesting pieces and the absurd, and I am still trying to decide which category - including a piece that apparently featured a stuffed bald eagle and a pillow - most of the works I saw belong in. But I was just as impressed by the architecture, on the other side of the building, which featured rising columns and open rooms in addition to central fountains. There, it was not unusual to see museum patrons relaxing with a book in hand, or taking a nap.
My favorite monument has long been the Lincoln Memorial, but I skipped it on this trip to spend more time at some others I hadn't visited. The Washington Monument has finally lost its scaffolding, which it still had more than two years ago on my last visit to D.C. Although I didn't go up, I did spend some time inside the Jefferson Memorial, at Iwo Jima and at the World War II Memorial.
Although the fountains weren't on when I visited the World War II Memorial, its theater atmosphere and reliefs reminiscent of the Korean War Veterans Memorial made for a quiet place to reflect on that war and today's. The memorial is on the National Mall, between Lincoln and Jefferson, and near the Washington Monument.
There are also plenty of cultural activities offered in D.C. Through June, the District is hosting a Shakespeare festival that features many of the bard's plays in addition to innovative takes on his work.
The "Supreme Court Hears the Trial of Hamlet," as officiated by Justice Anthony Kennedy, looked like a fascinating way to spend an evening and I greatly enjoyed Firebelly Productions' "Twelfth Night," which runs through early March.
Of course, no trip is complete without a few good meals. I enjoyed eating at
The Diner in Adams Morgan and a restaurant called Busboys and Poets, which has an attached bookstore and features live music.
Washington is easily navigable by bus, Metro or taxi - a zoned system means there are no meters - but having a car can prove difficult if you're not an assertive driver or fond of parallel parking. Decks are available in the city, but they're expensive.
It is, however, easy to walk around the city - streets are mostly in a grid system and monuments, museums and architecture make any stroll interesting. Areas like Dupont Circle are good for people-watching and throughout the city, markers narrate a lot of the District's history. If you take the time to stop and read them, chances are you'll end any trip to D.C. with a few fun facts of your own.
•National Gallery of Art:
•The Marine Corps War Memorial
•World War II Memorial:
•Korean War Veterans Memorial:
•Busboys and Poets: