Since I first visited it in 2007, the National Cathedral has remained my favorite hidden DC attraction. Granted, it’s ridiculous to get to (you need at least one mode of transportation in addition to the Metro) but totally worth the trip. Unless you live in a town with a cathedral. And even if you do, really. Because ours has Woodrow Wilson buried in it.
Every person I’ve taken to the Cathedral has walked in a skeptic (sometimes literally) but has walked out with an appreciation for the soaring ceilings, the magnificent stained glass windows, the Darth Vader gargoyle, etc. Cathedral tours are given regularly (though no longer free), and special tours of places like the bell tower are given periodically. I scored a spot on one of these recently, and you GUYS.
I got to watch the Washington Ringing Society practice ringing the tower bells. Like something out of Victor freaking Hugo.
Though you can climb a number of spiral staircases to get to the top of the tower, we were able to ride a couple of teeny elevators (the kind with the door you have to pull closed). En route, we passed a storage area:
A collection of champagne bottles decades of New Year’s parties (held by the stone masons, not the religious staff) (probably):
And views. Views for days. Views for miles.
(Admittedly, now that I live in a high-rise that faces the District, these views are a teensy TEENSY bit less surprising.)
But back to the ringers. At the request of the neighbors, they are allowed to practice with unmuted bells on Tuesdays from 7 to 8:30 pm. (You never really think about the logistics of living near a Cathedral, do you? Like a business, it brings crowds, screws up parking, and makes a lot of noise.) Outside this time, they dampen the bells and use a computer program that sounds the notes in the ringing room without bothering anyone outside the Cathedral. Win-win.
We watched the bell ringing for a while. As a musician I found it doubly-impressive: not only do these people have to play giant bells…they have to play giant bells that don’t sound until a second after the rope is pulled. It’s unlike almost every other instrument (bagpipes sorta excepted). Cognitive dissonance.
And let me not forget the carillon bells, which can play actual songs and stuff. (The tower bells are called change bells, and ring too slowly to do any rhythm or lay down a funky beat.)