Most visitors heading to Washington for Barack Obama's swearing-in will see the new president in the same way as their compatriots at home—on a television screen. But just as being here for the inauguration gives a taste of the country's political future, it can also give an introduction to the presidential past.
After a two-year, $85 million renovation, the National Museum of American History reopened in November. George Washington's mess kit, Caroline Harrison's 1889 inaugural gown, and a banner celebrating Thomas Jefferson's victory in 1800 are all here, but many visitors will head straight for the new, permanent display of the flag that inspired the "Star-Spangled Banner"—or, to be precise, for the Disney World-like line required to see it. Particularly presidential collections include "First Ladies at the Smithsonian," reopening December 19 with its 14 dresses, and "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden," displaying more than 900 objects related to the White House's past occupants.
Just in time for the inauguration, the museum is launching an exhibit on Abraham Lincoln's life, including everything from his trademark stovepipe hat to the wedge he used to split wood in 1830s Illinois. There will also be a display of 10 rare documents that are usually held in the library in Springfield, Ill., including a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.
In fact, Lincoln is all over the District for the inauguration, and not just because his phrase "a new birth of freedom" is the inauguration's theme. February also marks the bicentennial of his birth. The National Portrait Gallery charts Lincoln's evolution from youthful congressman to worn-out president in "One Life: The Mask of Lincoln" through the new medium of the day—photography. Starting March 8, the Smithsonian's American Art Museum is running an exhibit on Lincoln's second inaugural ball, which took place in its building; on January 31, the museum hosts a re-creation of the ball's dances by the Victorian Dance Ensemble. And guided tours of Lincoln's Cottage, his beloved country home where he was just the day before his assassination, are available year-round. (Buying a ticket in advance is strongly recommended).
For those who have a car, there's also the option to visit Manassas Battlefield Park, 30 miles to the west of the District, where the first major battle of the Civil War took place in 1861. Walking tours are available, and a museum offers displays of Civil War uniforms, weapons, and other gear.
Opportunities to learn about leaders other than Lincoln also abound. The National Portrait Gallery's exhibit "Presidents in Waiting" offers up the 14 men who served as vice presidents before moving into the position at the top. The museum's permanent exhibit, "America's Presidents", is the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House. And at the National Museum of the American Indian, an exhibit focusing on the involvement of six Indian chiefs in Theodore Roosevelt's 1905 inaugural parade unveils January 14.
For visitors who'd rather learn how presidents lived than parse their facial expressions, D.C. offers more presidential residences than just the White House. The Octagon Museum, the nation's oldest museum of architecture and design, housed James and Dolley Madison after the White House was burned in 1814. As the White House was being rebuilt, James Monroe lived at the Monroe House; he hosted his inaugural ball there. The Woodrow Wilson House Museum was home to the World War I president after he left office and today holds a collection of his furniture, books, and art.
Other presidents' homes can only be glimpsed from the outside. Most famously, these include the sumptuous homes of John F. Kennedy, who had seven separate residences in the Georgetown neighborhood. Several other presidents also favored northwest D.C.: Ulysses S. Grant lived at 3238 R Street NW, Calvin Coolidge resided in the Patterson House at 15 Dupont Circle, and Herbert Hoover lived at 3240 S Street NW (now, incongruously, the Embassy of Myanmar).
For those willing to venture 16 miles beyond the District, there's the presidential home to end all others. Mount Vernon offers not only George Washington's mansion, but the estate's slave quarters, a working farm, and 45 acres of grounds.
As well as seeing how presidents lived, visitors can eat how they ate. In Alexandria, Va., Gadsby's Tavern, which dates to 1770, has played host to Washington, Jefferson, John Adams, Madison, and Monroe. Back in the District, Old Ebbitt Grill, established in 1856, claims to be Washington's first known saloon. Grant, Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, and Warren Harding all drank at the bar, and William McKinley is even thought to have stayed in the saloon's boarding rooms while serving in Congress. At Martin's Tavern in Georgetown, guests can patronize the same 1930s saloon that claims to have served every president from Harry Truman on. (Lucky visitors might run into Madeleine Albright). They can even sit in the booth where John Kennedy proposed to Jackie.
But Obama's inauguration is historic for reasons beyond simply becoming the next president, and that's what a visit to some of the area's African-American history sites can underline. The home of Frederick Douglass, former slave, civil rights activist, and author, is open for tours; advance reservations are recommended. A downtown exhibit by the National Lincoln Monument Association focuses on the first national event held by African-Americansa 1865 celebration of Lincoln after his death. And the Anacostia Community Museum is a Smithsonian-run museum of African-American history, while the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum on U Street is devoted to black participation in the Civil War.
The U Street corridor, dubbed the "Black Broadway" in the 1920s and 1930s, is interesting for more than its museums. Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Miles Davis frequently performed in the area; one of the clubs they played at, now called the Bohemian Cavern, still offers jazz performances. Jazz remains alive and well at other clubs, too, like Utopia, Twins Jazz, and Café Nema. Visitors to U Street can also make like Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday is the day before Inauguration Day, and eat at Ben's Chili Bowl. An energetic joint despite its 50 years of age, Ben's closes at 4 a.m. on weekends.