After a morning at the Library of Congress, lunch beckoned. Along Independence Avenue, past the U.S. Capitol grounds and the glass Conservatory, a small gate invites alert pedestrians to the US Botanic Garden (the oldest botanic garden in North America), leading you gently to the Mitsitam Cafe, the best cafeteria on the National Mall, at the Museum of the American Indian.
At the outdoor garden, I love taking a stroll among the Mid-Atlantic native plants, always covered in butterflies, but the rose garden and the first-ladies fountain, with seating nooks under the umbrellas, are just as soothing, even on a blindingly sunny and humid July day.
I will remember these nooks and shaded tables by the Conservatory and in the nearby Bartholdi Park (conceived as an inspiration for urban gardeners around an intricate fountain by Auguste Bartholdi, the creator of the Statue of Liberty) for autumn–it would be a lovely stop to make to have lunch, if you were to bring one with you to your National Mall adventures, or just relax after a morning of walking by the Capitol. With so many native flowers, shrubs, and trees, these two small garden escapes are also a treasury of birds–beyond the pigeons and sparrows we usually see in the city. Here is a map to keep you oriented:
It was too hot to linger in the gardens for now, so I continued to the National Museum of the American Indian, one of the wonderful (free and excellent) Smithsonian museums on the Mall. The building itself is stunning, designed by Douglas Cardinal, a Blackfoot Indian, and a team of Native American architects and consultants–its organic flowing form and limestone facade both complement and compliment the serene oasis of trees, ponds, and brooks around it.
The landscape surrounding the museum is beautiful and meaningful, offering glimpses of four environments indigenous to our Chesapeake Bay region (including the waterlilies of the wetlands!). Donna House, a Navajo/Oneida ethnobiologist, wanted to honor local tribes through her design. Two wonderful free audio-guides–one highlighting the building’s architecture, and the other focusing on the plants–are available for download from the museum’s website (both are absolutely suitable for a 30-minute getaway at your desk): http://nmai.si.edu/visit/washington/architecture-landscape/audio-tours/
The museum is impressive, and there is so much to see. If this is your first time, begin on the fourth floor, devoted to the history and beliefs of Native Peoples in the Western Hemisphere, and make your way down. The Potomac Atrium on the ground floor, visible from all levels above, often holds performances and demonstrations by artists, dancers, and artisans from all over the two Americas–try to time your visit to see one of them.
Most of last week, the museum was host to its second annual festival celebrating the indigenous cultures of Peru, Kaypi Peru. Unfortunately, I missed dance performances scheduled that day, but got to enjoy the colorful marketplace with Peruvian artisans proudly showing off and selling their work.
Many of the sellers were from remote areas of Peru and did not speak English; the Museum staff and volunteers did an excellent job translating to and from multiple languages and helping the artists make connections to visitors from all over the United States and the world. The colors, textures, and faces were–beautiful, bright, warm, inviting.
It was hard to leave the festival, but my stomach was grumbling. Luckily, the Mitsitam Cafe–“Mitsitam” means “Let’s eat” in the language of the Delaware and Piscataway People–is just a short walk away from the Atrium.
When the museum is busy, it always looks like there is a long line, but people are actually lining up for the first food station inside the cafe, some not realizing that they don’t have to line up there, and others wishing to get french fries and burgers (a waste, if you ask me, there are so many more interesting options here). So, when you arrive, go on in and explore the different stations, each providing food inspired by indigenous dishes of a different region: Northern Woodland, Mesoamerica, South America, Northwest Coast, and Great Plains. The menu changes seasonally, and staff are friendly and can help you make your selection.
It is easy to go overboard–and all the choices can get expensive. To save and still treat yourself, try the “Plate Full of Colors” special: choose any 4 side dishes from any station (apart from the tapas in the South America kiosk) for $14.
The food is fresh, delicious, and interesting.
Satiated, I headed outside, to children playing by the water, people talking and taking in the serenity of the museum grounds before heading to a protest by the U.S. Capitol, and beautiful Paso horses and alpacas making friends with the tourists.