Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Washington, DC

If your kids are like mine, they likely came home this week telling you that in the days leading up to MLK Jr. Day on January 16 they’ll be learning about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a parent, I’m thrilled that my first-grade daughter will be learning about Dr. King in school. As a teacher, I’m looking for more opportunities to help her make a connection with Dr. King and the historical events he was pivotal in achieving.

As an English teacher (one semester away from finishing my Masters in Education), I have this theory that all English teachers have one particular area of literature they love more than others. For me, that is African American literature. In honor of Black History Month coming up in February, I’m going to be posting an experiential learning guide I have created that honors the voices of some of my favorite African American writers and then offers suggestions of places to visit in the DC/Northern Virginia region that directly tie to those authors. This project was initially done for a course in my Masters program but the work was so interesting and fulfilling to me that I’m going to build upon it and publish it here to share it with as many people as possible.

That being said, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of my favorite writers featured in this publication, and as the only one who has his own national holiday, he earns a bump-out feature of his own. I’d like to share with you some ways to get your kids involved in actively learning about and celebrating the life of this great man on January 16. We are particularly lucky living in this area to have access to so many places that directly relate to Dr. King and can really bring his voice to life for ourselves and our kids. I plan to do this with my own kids as I attempt to introduce them to one of our greatest American figures.

Featured writings:

Everyone knows King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech- or, at least, they know of the snippet in which he declares he has a dream. Try reading the piece in full with your kids, out loud, and then watch a video of King himself delivering this speech at the March on Washington. When I teach my students rhetorical analysis, I love including audio/visual clips when at all possible. So much is conveyed in tone, facial expression, and mannerisms that doesn’t always carry through in writing (or gets distorted or lost during read-alouds because of the different mannerisms or speech patterns of whoever is reading). There is something very powerful about hearing a writer read their own writing as they intended it to be heard and received. King in particular is a gifted orator whose words on the page are powerful but become epic when heard in his own voice.

Although “I Have a Dream” is perhaps King’s best-known piece of writing, he is the author of others that (if I’m being honest) I actually prefer. One of my favorite pieces of writing of all time is King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” which was written when he was jailed in Birmingham following the 1963 Birmingham protests. In Bearing the Cross, a Pulitzer-Prize winning account of King’s Civil Rights career, it’s revealed how personally stressful King found his stints in jail. Being jailed was a not-uncommon occurrence for King in the mid-60s as protests cropped up across the South in which he would either lead or take part. As often as he was jailed, King found each instance emotionally fraught and mentally taxing. During his five-day stint in Birmingham, he released  nervous energy by penning “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” To read his moving words and measured and rational rhetoric, one would never know the great duress he was under at the time. It bears one of the most elegant and haunting closing paragraphs of all time:

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

-Martin Luther King, Jr.; Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963

It is no secret that we are currently living in a world and society which is troubled and bears the silent rumblings of discord and misunderstanding across groups. I read King’s words from time to time to remind myself of his optimism and vision. I ask my students to consider our present day circumstances and to ruminate on whether we have yet reached the “not too distant tomorrow” in which King envisioned love and brotherhood. Their responses are often surprising in their depth and intellect and sensitivity. I love to hear what they think. Ask your kids the same question. (Ask yourself the same question.)

The final piece of King literature I’d like you to read is King’s haunting and eerily prescient “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered the night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. One again, King’s delivery of this speech is mandatory viewing, as his emotional state really comes through via spoken word. If you don’t have 43 minutes to spare, please do at least spend two minutes to watch the final words of his speech, when he really ramps up and appears to be on the verge of tears.

It really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land.

I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

He would be shot dead the following day at his Memphis hotel. I promise you, it is impossible to watch him deliver these words and not feel the impact. What thoughts lie behind them? What fears were he nurturing?

Where to visit:

Once you’ve acquainted yourself with the man and his words, you have the option of visiting many places in this area to deepen the connection. Here are my suggestions:

Starting with the most obvious, a stop at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Monument is a must. As it’s part of the National Park Service system, it’s free and open to the public 24 hours a day, year-round. Kids can get a Junior Ranger Booklet to complete for a badge (I’ve written here about the wonderful Junior Ranger program and highly recommend it for kids).

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From there, visit the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech as part of the March on Washington, a coordinated protest aimed at pressuring government to pursue legislation that would ensure equality in the workforce for African Americans, creating more/better job opportunities for them and securing the right to equal pay.

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Of note is exactly why the march culminated with King’s speech being delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The March on Washington took place in 1963- the centennial of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The location was a specific rebuke against the fact that much of what the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence promised had not been delivered to African Americans- or as King put it, “it is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.””

And just where did King write this era-defining speech? Right here in Washington, DC at The Willard Intercontinental, where he was staying as a guest. In the lobby of The Willard, King and his advisers made the final revisions and edits to this speech just before he delivered it at the March. Pop into the hotel and show your kids where history was made.

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The Civil Rights display at Library of Congress

Before entering the room where Thomas Jefferson’s book collection is housed and displayed, the Library of Congress has erected a wonderfully informative walk-through presentation about the Civil Rights movement and its pinnacle in 1964 of achieving the passing of the Civil Rights Act, which guaranteed equal treatment of African Americans under the law and prohibited discrimination, voter suppression, and other forms of injustice faced by African Americans through the period following the Emancipation Proclamation and Jim Crow.

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The display shows the work of many of King’s contemporaries in the movement and the work that led to getting the legislation signed and passed by President Johnson. King’s speech is featured as well as a picture of he and other Civil Right leaders with President Kennedy at the White House following the March on Washington. For anyone who’d like a deeper look into the movement and the Civil Rights Act, this display is a must-see.

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note: the Library of Congress website says this exhibition was only on display until January 2, 2016- however, I was just there in mid December, when I took these pictures, and it was up.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Access to this new museum is still mostly limited to highly coveted timed passes (which will go up soon for April) but there are a limited number of same-day passes available each morning at the museum. If you’re able to grab those, do! If you can’t manage a visit in time for MLK, Jr. day, try your best to get in at a later date and make the visit nonetheless. I was lucky enough to get timed passes last September just weeks after the opening date and it was one of my favorite experiences of the year. I consider this museum to be a work of genius- never has the design of any building so informed the experience within.

Starting in the bottom floor of the museum, one begins in the dark days of slavery. Appropriately, this part of the museum is dark, light-less and feels stifling and hot. Moving up through the second and third floors you pass through the Civil War, Emancipation, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights era, and finally you burst into the light-filled center atrium feeling as though you’re gasping for air. The fourth, fifth and sixth floors (the above ground corona) are paeans to achievement in culture. Reaching the top, one feels the heights that have been reached, made all the more poignant when considering the depths in which progress began. The museum’s tagline is “A People’s Journey.” Never has a journey felt so personally rewarding.

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In this far back corner of the top-most floor of the NMAAHC I looked out through the bronze lattice-work that ensconces the building and stood face to face with the Capitol building. How I wished all those who had gone before could stand in that same spot to see the view. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared that he had been to the mountaintop. He undoubtedly had. But I wish he had been there for this mountaintop as well.

Other events and activities:

Washington, DC

Dr. King preschool storytime at the MLK branch of the DC Library.
King mural discussion at the MLK branch of the DC Library
Martin Luther King, Jr. parade, Anacostia (January 16, 2017, 11 am)

Northern Virginia

25th Annual Martin Luther King March and Celebration– beginning with prayer at 10:15 at the Leesburg Courthouse, the march honoring King will then proceed to the former Douglass School.
Loudoun Chorale presents “Lift Every Voice” a festival of choirs and inspirational speakers in honor of Dr. King. Leesburg Community Church (January 15, 2017, 4-6 pm)

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National Postal Museum + Union Station

Where: 2 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Washington, DC
When: Open daily, 10 am- 5:30 pm

It’s winter, which means it’s museum season. When the weather is cold and wet and we can’t take a weekend of sitting inside the house, we head to a museum. Or we watch bad tv, but when we want to feel like good parents, we head to a museum. In fact, winter is pretty much the only time we visit DC’s museums, preferring to spend our time outdoors in the summer months. The winter of 2014 when we were blasted by the Polar Vortex was a bonanza museum season for us.

Now that we’re in our fifth year as Virginians, we’ve made our way to most of the major museums several times over. But somehow, one museum has escaped my attention all this time- the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. For whatever reason (I’m guessing because it is not located on the National Mall/Independence/Constitution Ave and is instead situated next to Union Station), it flies well under the radar compared to its more well-known brethren. This is very good for you. This means when you visit, the museum will be darn near empty, and you will have as much time as you like to pore over displays and linger at interactive exhibits. My selfish inner-preschooler, my id, appreciates this. I want the computers and touch screens all to myself.

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The Postal Museum is crazy easy to get to. If you’re driving, parking is available right next door at Union Station. If you’re using Metro, ride and get off at Union Station. Using the station as a cut through, you pop out right on First St. directly in front of the museum entrance. Unlike many other facets of anything to do with the U.S. Postal Service, this is completely painless. No offense to the USPS. Love you guys, don’t stop my mail.

There are two levels to the museum- the second floor level, where you will enter, and the lower level. I will conservatively guess that if you were free to explore to your heart’s content with no time constraints, you could easily spend a full 3 hours poking around the museum. It is stuffed to the gills with neat stuff, hands- on things to do, and every exhibit is interesting in its own right.

My favorite exhibit was the Connect With U.S. Stamps exhibit, part of the larger William H. Gross Stamp Gallery. Maybe you don’t find stamps particularly interesting, but I beg to differ. They’re like little pieces of art. Though I am not technically a philatelist (look it up) I sometimes steal a stamp from a book I like particularly much and stick in my day planner as a keepsake. I did that just recently with the Gift of Friendship stamps commemorating the relationship between Japan and Washington, DC and the 100th anniversary of Japan’s gift of dogwood trees to DC in 1915. (The famous Cherry Blossom trees were gifted in 1912.)

GiftsOfFriendshipSource: USPS

I also like to think that by using a certain stamp, I am sending a coded message to my mail recipients. Fun people and cool mail get pretty stamps that I take time to pick out at the counter at the post office. The bank who holds my mortgage gets flag Forever stamps. Take that.

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The stamp gallery tells the story of some of the most famous and collectible stamps in history- most notably the Inverted Jenny, a 1918 stamp featuring a picture of an upside down plane, one of which sold at auction in 2007 for $977,500. It was originally worth 24 cents of postage. The rarest and most famous stamp in the world, the Guiana One Cent Magenta, is also on display through 2017.

Among the interactive exhibits in this gallery is a computer station where you can flip through different categories of stamps and “collect” 10 to begin your digital stamp collection, which you then email yourself right from the machine.

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Here’s a screenshot of our collection, which includes a wide variety of stamps that are relevant to our interests:

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Flowers and Robert E. Lee for me, birds for my bird-loving 6 year old, and TV/movie characters for my toddler. A very well rounded group.

The next station is a bit more tactile, with baskets full of discarded stamps that you are welcome to sift through, picking out the six you like best and sticking them in an envelope to take home for your “real” stamp collection.

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I’m a fan of neat coincidences so I’ll share this with you: during the break I read a book about India’s Partition and the creation of Pakistan (Midnight’s Furies by Nisid Hajari- it was great, you should probably read it). The key player in many of these events was Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. I had just finished this book right before our trip to the Postal Museum and guess what was on top of the pile in the basket of stamps I went through? A stamp featuring the face of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, “Father of Pakistan.” WEIRD, RIGHT. (Naturally, I stuck it in my envelope.)

After awhile I came to notice that I had no clue what my children were doing so I stopped digging through stamp baskets and walked over to where they were, which was a machine that allowed you to create your own stamp. Manipulating the computer via touchscreen buttons, my 2 year old, all on her own, snapped a picture of herself and then added her preferred embellishments to it, the result of which was a stamp born of her very own imagination and whims. In the magical world in which her toddler mind resides, she is the ruler, and this is the stamp that commemorates her:

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I literally burst out laughing when I saw it, and then I emailed it to myself from the computer. For the rest of the day I would check my email and open it just to laugh at it again. The elephants get me every time.

At this point in the museum you have already started a digital stamp collection, started a real stamp collection, made your own stamp, learned the history of famous stamps, seen a piece of mail sent from the Titanic before it sank and a mailbox from Ground Zero. And you’re still in the first room. (If you’d like to plan your visit a bit better, check out this link on the Postal Museum’s website of “Awesome Things to See” to make sure you hit everything- we didn’t do this and I never saw, for instance, Amelia Earhart’s flight suit.)

Making your way across the second floor to the bank of escalators that go down to the first level, there’s a table where you can write and send a postcard.

Downstairs on the first level this is going on:

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There’s displays about the history of the Pony Express and Stagecoach mail, the role of the U.S. Postal Inspectors, a semi truck and a train (both used to transport mail) and a gallery of secret-containing postcards from the well-known website PostSecret. And as you can plainly see from this photo, there’s almost nobody there and you’ve got plenty of room to spread out and take it all in.

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As if the displays and exhibits themselves weren’t so well-curated and engrossing, the museum itself is gorgeous. Decorated in the same Beaux-Arts style as Union Station next door (both Union Station and the City Post Office Building, the building that is now the Postal Museum, were designed by the same person), the museum has soaring ceilings, arched windows, gently curving marble staircases, elaborate ceilings, old fashioned metal and glass P.O. Boxes. It is interesting enough on its own as an architectural subject even before you factor in all the cool postal stuff. It is a seriously well done museum (par for the course for Smithsonian) that manages to appeal to adults and children in equal measure.

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The post office building opened in 1914 and was used as a post office until 1986. It underwent several different renovations during that time (including an absolutely abominable redesign in the 1950s that included FLUORESCENT LIGHTING and paneled ceilings- it’s awful, you must look for yourself) but has since been restored to its former glory. I could have spent a good hour alone simply staring at the architecture and design of the building itself.

As a bonus, the museum website is stuffed with goodies that enhance your visit. Was your child inspired to learn more about stamp collecting and beginning their own stamp collection after your visit? The website has an entire page that contains resources you can use to point your child in the right direction. The activities page has mail-related games and activities you can use to reinforce what you saw and learned about while at the museum.

Make a day of it:

When you’re done at the Postal Museum, head back over to Union Station and wander around for awhile. We were there at the tail-end of Christmas break and many of the Christmas decorations were still up, including the model train display (awesome) and the gigantic 32-foot tall Norwegian Christmas tree outside:

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Take in some more of that glorious Beaux-Arts architecture:

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The arches at Union Station, designed in 1903 by Daniel H. Burnham, represent the train station’s fundamental function of being a gateway to other places. (Also, the large clock in the main atrium has a III where the IV should be; although this a mistake the first time around, the clock was faithfully restored to retain the flaw.) Union Station opened in 1907

While at Union Station there’s many different restaurants to grab lunch at (we chose relative newcomer Shake Shack) before you head back to the garage to grab your car or make your way to the Metro.

If you’re looking to spend a few meaningful and enriching hours on a drab, cold, wet winter day, there’s almost no better place to go than the National Postal Museum, which will most likely be blissfully empty and will keep you and your kids entertained for as long as you can stay. I think you’ll find a post office was never so fun.

Weekending: Pittsburgh Edition

Full confession: my husband and I are the reason marketers exist. We are THE target people marketers are trying to reach when they come up with new products or commercials because we believe all the claims and immediately make plans to procure that thing. In this way, we are American to the core. Somewhere in a marketing handbook is a picture of the two of us eating some new concoction from Taco Bell, smiling and high fiving; the caption says “These are your targets.”

This is how we came to plan a weekend trip to Pittsburgh. The very night we returned from our beach vacation we were lying in bed watching tv when a commercial came on, attempting to sell Pittsburgh. At first we thought “Pffffft, nice try, nobody’s going to Pittsburgh.” Then came all the fantastical images of green spaces, gorgeous buildings,fun activities, beautiful scenery. And by the end we thought, WE’VE GOT TO GO TO PITTSBURGH!!

I didn’t grow up in this part of the country; I had no idea what Pittsburgh was like but in my head, I associated Pittsburgh with giant industrial smoke stacks belching black smoke into the air, rusty railroad trestles, hard looking people worn down by years in the coal mine, millions of Steelers flags everywhere. I imagined a decaying and decrepit Rust Belt city, where it was gritty, ugly, and most likely cold almost all of the time. Never in my life had I ever considered Pittsburgh a “must see” destination based on this very flawed personal projection I had of the city.

Pittsburgh is, I am here to tell you, absolutely nothing like that. It is the most beautiful city you never knew was beautiful. I fell in love with it. It is now my goal to compel everyone I know (especially those who live in this area, just 250 miles away) to take a trip there and experience Pittsburgh. I am an enthusiastic Pittsburgh fan now. I want you ALL to go to Pittsburgh!

Here’s what you might not know about Pittsburgh:

-It’s just 250 miles away from Northern Virginia, which makes it a great destination for a weekend trip. The drive itself is scenic and pleasant. The bulk of your travel time will be spent in the state of Maryland, with short legs in Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania itself. This drive theoretically can take only 4-5 hours; it took our family over 6 but that’s because we ran into traffic each time and took longer stops so our youngest could better tolerate the car. Coming through Maryland on I-68 you’ll cut through Sideling Hill, where the mountain was cleaved in two to reveal the layers of earth inside. A pedestrian overpass connects the eastbound rest stop to the westbound so that everyone can access the overlook built into the side of the mountain. This was one of our stops coming home and it was well worth the 20 minutes it took to walk to the top of the overlook and to get a picture of a mountain chopped in half from a bridge straddling the interstate. You’re not going to do that every day.

-Pittsburgh is a city built on rivers. Three rivers run through Pittsburgh- the Allegheny, the Ohio, and the Monongahela. All of these rivers necessitate bridges- lots and lots of bridges.There are 446 bridges in Pittsburgh and each one is slightly differently designed. In a stroke of brilliance, Pittsburgh painted the largest bridges in the downtown area a buttery lemon yellow and they arc across the river like rays of sunshine. Yellow bridges. What a whimsical idea.

Entering the city of Pittsburgh via car means going through the Fort Pitt tunnel, bored into the mountain beneath Mount Washington. When you exit this tunnel you shoot out onto the top level of the double-decker yellow Fort Pitt Bridge, crossing the Monongehala river. In a simple way, it reminded me of when Dorothy walks out of her tornado-ravaged black-and-white Kansas house into the bright and colorful world of Oz. You’re in a dark tunnel one minute and the next you’re hurtling across the water on a yellow bridge, with other yellow bridges criss-crossing the water all around you. It is the most spectacular entrance into a city I have ever experienced. On a bright sunny day, the beauty of it will take your breath away.

-The city is full of richly detailed Gothic Revival architecture:

Here in the Virginia/DC area, we’re surrounded by a lot of Greek Revival and Federal style buildings, which are absolutely stunning in their own ways, but there’s something special about the Gothic architecture all over Pittsburgh. It lends the city a refined, authoritarian air. In addition to the impressive architecture, Pittsburgh is just clean. It’s the cleanest major city you’ll ever visit. There’s flowers everywhere! Planted in small plots, hanging in baskets from lampposts. Parking is plentiful, easily accessible, and inexpensive. Pittsburgh bears the nickname the “Paris of Appalachia,” which at first sounds pretty humorous and made- up but in all actuality bears believing. WELCOME TO THE PARIS OF APPALACHIA!

-Pittsburgh is incredibly family friendly. With just two days at our disposal, we were in no way able to see and do everything there is Pittsburgh. The good news: that means we’re for sure going to take a trip back next summer. Pittsburgh is the perfect family-friendly destination because there’s so much to do that is enjoyable for kids AND adults.

Our five year old is deep in the throes of an obsession with birds this summer. When we were doing some research into what there was to do in Pittsburgh, we saw that the National Aviary is located there and this solidified our decision to visit. What better place could there to be to visit for a little girl who loves all things bird? The National Aviary was our first stop on Saturday morning and it was SUCH a great experience. The penguin exhibit alone is worth the visit- there’s different viewing areas all around the habitat- an outdoor area, and inside, a glass-walled view of the enclosure where you can see the penguins playing on rocks and jumping into the water to swim.

In addition to the penguin habitat (called Penguin Point) are different “environment” rooms which house the birds who live in those environments. There’s the Rain Forest, featuring all manner of parrots; the Wetlands, with flamingos, scarlet ibis, and spoonbills, and an outdoor habitat where two gigantic Condors live. We saw eagles, toucans, and even a two-toed sloth at the Aviary. Most of the birds roam free in these rooms, flying right beside you or walking up on the path alongside, giving you a close-up view you just can’t get at most zoos.

After a brief trip back to our hotel so the toddler could take a much-needed nap, we went back into the city Saturday afternoon for more Pittsburgh exploration. We ended up in an area known as Schenley Park, near the University of Pittsburgh campus, where we planned to visit Phipps Conservatory. Get ready:

That is real life. That is a building that exists. It’s just sitting there in Pittsburgh, waiting for you to come marvel at it.

Phipps Conservatory is the greatest botanical garden you will ever see in your life. Fact. (Opinion, but let’s call it fact. This is my website, I’ll do what I want.) Do you remember as a child watching in awe as the kids who found the Golden Tickets first entered the room in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory where every single thing was edible candy? That’s Phipps Conservatory for adults. Your brain cannot properly process all the beauty your eyes are absorbing. ALL OF THESE THINGS are real, and they are all here in this one building? I don’t think I can hide my bias; this was my favorite thing we did in Pittsburgh. It is an achievement in design. There is an entire room dedicated to ferns. And another to palms, another to cacti, another to Japanese style gardening. There’s a Butterfly Forest and a jungle. Throughout the garden rooms are scattered pieces of Dale Chihuly’s famous glass sculptures, which at times camouflage themselves so effectually as plants and flowers that it takes you a moment to recognize them.

There is an orchid room, filled to brim with different species of orchids. It smells like heaven.

This would be Australia.

Upon entrance to the Conservatory, kids are given -you guessed it- a scavenger hunt, which keeps them engaged and alert throughout the tour, carefully studying the plants around them to make sure they don’t miss anything on the list.

Just behind the Conservatory grounds we discovered a great little playground called Anderson Playground where we let our girls run around for awhile.

Schenley Park borders the Carnegie Mellon campus complex and the University of Pittsburgh campus. Right in the middle of all this is Schenley Plaza, a large grassy field that lies in the shadow of the 535 foot tall Cathedral of Learning.

Schenley Plaza is filled with college students doing things like lying in the grass on a blanket reading a book- the sort of thing everyone imagines they’ll do as college students except nobody other than the Pitt kids actually do seem to do it. I could not relate to them. Later I saw some rundown row houses near the campus with red Solo cups and empty cartons of Miller Lite on the porch and I thought “Now that looks like college.”

We spent a good chunk of time at Schenley Plaza, visiting Dippy the Diplodocus outside of Carnegie Hall of Music, rolling around in the grass, and grabbing a pre-dinner “snack” of Liege waffles topped with delicious treats from Waffallonia. If you’re asking yourself what a Liege waffle is, let me break it down for you. It’s a thick, doughy batter that’s studded with special sugar crystals that caramelize and melt when placed on the heat of the waffle iron. It’s sugary and rich and maybe the most perfect waffle you’ll ever eat. This is no Eggo.

My waffle with Speculoos cookie butter and sliced bananas. My husband got his own waffle because I balked at sharing. I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that.

Our final stop on Saturday was the famous Duquesne Incline. I’m going to be 100% honest with you and tell you that although the view is absolutely worth the ride, the Duquesne Incline operation is run pretty poorly and it might be a stressful endeavor. Here’s some handy tips to keep in mind if you’re attempting the Duquesne Incline:

-They do not accept cards. Not only do they not accept cards, they only accept EXACT CHANGE for your fare. This means you need to check out the pricing ahead of time, figure up exactly what your family’s total is going to be based on how many people you’ve got going, what their ages are, etc. and bring THAT amount of cash. There is a cash-changing machine in the building but it gives you back only $1 coins, no bills. There is not even a register; you dump your money into an iron and glass piggy bank of sorts and then are handed a ticket from a surly employee behind a glass window.

-The room in which you board the incline is cramped and tight and the employees are going to yell at you frequently about things they find completely obvious but that to first time visitors are not intuitive at all. They behave exactly like people who spend all day wrangling tourists. The Duquese Incline website is written in Comic Sans font and the whole enterprise runs precisely how you’d think a company who advertises themselves in Comic Sans would- old fashioned, inefficient, and not at all with the times. Duquesne Incline has been in operation since 1877 and let’s just say it’s still 1877 on the incline.

But the VIEW:

You will take every abuse and slight the Duquesne Incline throws at you just to glimpse this view of the city from the top of Mount Washington. From this vantage point you can see the glorious yellow bridges, PNC Park, Carnegie Science center, riverboats tooling up the Monongehala, the confluence of the Alleghany and Monongehala rivers, the imposing Gothic architecture of PPG Place, and Point State Park Fountain. Oh, Pittsburgh. What a gem.

There were so many things I would have loved to squeeze in on this trip, but faced with the necessity of prioritizing, we chose the Carnegie Museum of Natural History for our Sunday morning activity, with a quick detour to check out the inside of the Cathedral of Learning, right across the street.

Outside the museum is a funny looking structure called a Lozziwurm:

Lozziwurms are play structures that are frequently installed on Swiss playgrounds to encourage imagination and exploration in children, but this Lozziwurm is the first installed in the US. We arrived at the museum 10 minutes before its noon opening time and my kids (and husband…) spent those 10 minutes clambering around inside the Lozziwurm, climbing and sliding and poking their heads through the cutouts to say hi. The Lozziwurm was Lozzafun. SORRY, DON’T HATE ME FOR THAT.

Displays inside the Carnegie include an exhibit of Ancient Egypt, featuring a real sarcophagus, an exhibit on Polar inhabitants featuring a fake igloo, a hall of gems and minerals, a hall of impressive pieces of architecture, and DINOSAURS.

There was also a quiet third floor room called Animal Secrets which was full of interactive exhibits that children were invited to play in which showed the inner workings of animals and their homes. There was a hollow tree with holes for toy acorns, a bald eagle nest, and a cave. This was a great spot for kids to let loose and run free and play.

My one real regret from our trip is that we didn’t get to eat at any “real” Pittsburgh restaurants. I have a blanket policy that if we go somewhere new we don’t eat at chains or anywhere we can eat when we’re at home. However, I also have a blanket policy that if our toddler’s behavior is out of bounds, we’re not subjecting restaurants to her. She was completely unfit for public consumption Saturday evening, so instead of eating at some legit Pittsburgh place for dinner, we retreated to the safety of the hotel, put the toddler to bed and then my husband and I huddled over a sad takeout order from a sports bar and grill across the street from our hotel. It was pretty pathetic, but the reality is that parents who attempt outings with young children are subjected to pretty pathetic situations from time to time so I’m sure you can relate.

We were sad to leave Pittsburgh and are already looking forward to our next trip there. Next time we hope to hit the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, take in a Pirates game at PNC Park, ride on a Duck Tour, visit the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium, and eat a sandwich stuffed with french fries at Primanti Bros. 

If you’re looking for a fun new weekend trip destination for your family, I can’t suggest Pittsburgh highly enough. With an easy, scenic drive, relatively close location, and a city jam-packed with beautiful sites and fun activities, Pittsburgh is somewhere every family should visit if they have the chance. It feels like a secret place that nobody ever tells you about and exploring it gives you the impression you’re discovering a hidden treasure. The city’s slogan is “Mighty. Beautiful.” It is that, indeed. You simply must go.

National Firearms Museum

Where: 11250 Waples Mill Rd., Fairfax, VA.
When: Daily from 9:30- 5 pm

In the words of Nick Jonas, am I crazy, have I lost ya? Hear me out. I am well aware of the fact that gun culture is rather unpopular in this area, and that this might not be considered a “must-see” destination for many people, particularly because of its location within the NRA Headquarters. However. As my dad taught me growing up, sometimes things are worth seeing and experiencing even if you think you might not enjoy them. I approach life this way as an adult: every interesting thing I can see, I should, even if it is not interesting in particularly positive ways- it’s still a learning experience either way. It’s worth seeing if only to learn something new. Just think- somewhere, there is someone who is positively dying to one day visit the National Firearms Museum– and we can turn off I-66 whenever we feel like it and pop right in.

Also, it’s free. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

That being said, I couldn’t help but notice as we pulled into the parking lot that all of the flags flying in front of the building were proudly flying at full staff- even as nearly all other flags in the area (even the ones at my neighborhood entrance) are lowered to half staff due to the rash of shooting deaths that have plagued our country lately. I know this is the NRA and they aren’t ones to back down from their beliefs, but even so- 9 dead in Charleston, 5 dead in Chattanooga, and 2 dead in Lafayette in the last five weeks, all at the hands of murderers wielding guns? It does strike me as a bit, hmm- tone deaf to not lower the flags in deference to those lives lost.

Nevertheless. I still want you to proceed with optimism. THERE IS COOL STUFF TO BE SEEN WITHIN.

Onto the guns. A good way to approach these guns is to view them simply as tangible pieces of history, and works of art. Some of these guns were clearly designed by skilled and talented craftsmen. Some are just curiously entertaining, like this Vampire Hunter, which is a silver-plated revolver carried in a coffin-shaped case that holds holy water, a mirror, a wooden stake, and silver bullets shaped like vampire heads.

Let’s ask ourselves some questions: who commissioned this? Did they believe vampires were a real threat they needed to mitigate, or is this a case of “too much money and crazy”? Who knows! Use your mind grapes and see what you come up with.

There’s also this rifle, known as the Mayflower Gun, because it was brought over on the Mayflower by pilgrim settler John Alden, making it one of the first guns to enter the New World here in America.

Additionally, there are firearms that were used in nearly every American war, from the War of 1812 to Desert Storm and everything in between. There was also the shotgun that was designed for and belonged to Hermann Goring, Nazi leader who was tried at Nuremberg and sentenced to death for his crimes during WWII.

Kids will be especially interested in the Steampunk Guns section, which features fantastical weapons dreamed up and designed to encompass the characteristics of the Victorian Era mixed with a little inspiration from science fiction and Old Westerns. There’s also a leopard wearing goggles posed in front of a telescope which I admit is confusing but just go with it.

For movie buffs there’s an entire room dedicated to displaying weapons used in well known movies, from Reservoir Dogs to No County for Old Men to Beverly Hills Cop.

The highlight of the museum for me wasn’t any gun at all, but an imposing set of ivory tusks that framed a fireplace in the Robert E. Petersen Gallery.

Come a little closer:

These tusks, from top to bottom and all around, are carved with bas relief engravings featuring depictions of animals, hunters and gatherers, and woodland scenes. They are tremendous.

Curiously, there was absolutely no information or literature presented about these tusks anywhere in the gallery, nor could I find mention of them in the Gallery Map brochure I later found crumpled on our kitchen island. I needed to know more about them so I called the NRA Museum to see if I could find someone who could answer a few questions. I was directed to speak with a curator who informed me they were elephant tusks that had been carved in Africa and were part of the personal collection of Robert Petersen. (Insert the The More You Know star.)

The museum took us perhaps 45 minutes to get through, but a dedicated person could (literally) spend hours there. Computer databases list the information of every single gun on display and there are A LOT of guns on display. Because we are living in a material world and I am a material girl, I wondered aloud to my husband what the sum total of the value of every piece in that museum was and we could not begin to hazard a realistic guess so we just said “probably a billion dollars.” The museum is incredibly well put together- detailed displays and vignettes, mahogany cases, thoughtfully arranged and designed exhibits. I urge you to consider giving this museum a chance, even if you think you might not enjoy it- I believe everyone can find something of interest here.