If you are looking for a trip that won’t take too long, will take your mind off how much you’ve spent on holiday gifts, exposes you to fresh air and beautiful plants, and enraptures your little ones, then a jaunt to DC for the seasonal train display at the National Botanical Gardens is the perfect idea for you!
What is it?
The United States Botanical Gardens are an absolute national treasure. With the exception of special events (such as the once-in-a-lifetime-bloom of the stinkiest flower ever), a visit to the Botanical Gardens is usually quiet, uncrowded and relaxed. I love to go there after a run or bike ride around the mall just to breathe in the warm, humid, clean plant air.
Every season brings something new to both the outdoor gardens (which surround the Conservatory on all sides and include small hidden coves, large fountains, a quaint stream, pergolas and walkways and even Berthhold Park, a little jewel of green just a block off the National Mall) and to the collections inside.
The museum is well organized, small and tidy, so its is easy to maneuver and discover. Collections are divided into distinct gardens; each room is well worth slowing down in so you can explore each specimen not only for its own beauty but also to learn about plant contributions to medicine, cookery and the environment.
Where Is It?
Located at the end of the National Mall opposite the Washington Monument, just across the lawn from the Capital.
100 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20001
(202) 226-8333, USBG Website
What To Do
Although every season holds something special in store, Winter brings beautiful decorative holiday lights, an enormous fir Christmas tree (one of the biggest in DC, in fact), the annual train display and live music on Tuesdays at 6 PM.
Every year, artists create houses–to just say houses is an amazing understatement–from natural objects like willow, gourds, acorns, etc. The theme of the display varies from year to year. In 2012 (I think–we’ve been so many times it all starts to get hazy) artists recreated Presidential homes. 2013 featured scenes from a World Fair, like the Eiffel Tower, a roller coaster and the Space Needle. Last year the theme was pirates, mermaids and other sea creatures. This year the theme is Pollination Station.
One bite of every THREE you take requires a pollinator. Sadly (and SCARY) pollinators are rapidly disappearing, so this display is a gentle and creative reminder about how small things like bees, hummingbirds, moths, bats and more can make a big difference, and of how we should be mindful of nature around us.
What You Need to Know:
- Entry is located on the East side of the building, just past the main entry doors. On the weekends, a line begins to form around 9:30. It usually moves at a steady rate.
- Public Transportation is super convenient. The easiest way by Metrorail is by taking either the Orange, Blue, or Silver line to the Federal Center SW station. Exit the station, walk north (left) along Third Street SW for two blocks, cross Independence Avenue and continue one more block to Maryland Avenue. Look toward the Capitol and you will see the glass dome of the Conservatory. The Conservatory entrance is on Maryland Avenue.Metrobuses #32, 34 and 36 stop behind the Conservatory at Independence Avenue and First Street SW.The National Mall route of the DC Circulator bus stops on 3rd St SW by the Capitol Reflecting Pool, in front of the Conservatory.
- Parking: 2 hour street parking is available near the building. Garages are open closer to C and D Streets and 695/395 freeway exits. If you arrive during the week, parking can be sketchy. On weekends, there is a ton of space before 11 AM and on winter days.
- Hours: 10am-6pm
- Cost: This event is totally free.
- Note that the wind blows off the Tidal Basin and straight up the mall, making that wait damn cold. Bundle up and bring a shoulder bag for storing jackets, etc.
- Bathrooms are located on the Independence Avenue side at the far end of the conservatory.
- There is no cafe, HOWEVER, I highly recommend a visit to Mitsitam Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian. Tons of really good food, raining from burgers and chicken tenders (YECK) to chili, blue corn tortillas, NDN tacos, salmon and much, much more.
- The train display is popular and can be crowded. Nevertheless, take your time to discover each and every detail. The 2015 display includes huge bees, beautiful butterflies, intricate fairy homes hidden in tiny boxes, a waterfall and of course, several trains.
- Exit the train display, down the short steps and into the Conservatory to explore primordial forests, rare plants of Hawaii, cactuses, orchids and in the main atrium a forest of tropical palm.
- Take the stairs or elevator up to the catwalk so you can get a beautiful glimpse of the plant life below as you stroll past the large waving leaves of gigantic trees.
- Be sure to stop at the welcome desk to get an exploration backpack for the kids and to ask where the cacao tree and vanilla plant and if the strangler fig host is real.
- End at the Christmas tree. You can get a Pollination Station plant hunt brochure at the front desk or in line. Hunt for different plants inside the conservatory, learn more about how they pollinate, and get a stamp.