Coming to Washington, DC, or any other city for that matter, can be quite daunting. You know all of these famous landmarks from TV, movies, books, the back of your money, etc. You've heard about 1600 Pennsylvania Ave and Capitol Hill from grade school on. You know you "should" see the White House, the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, the Smithsonian, and so on, and so on. Where do you start?
As Jean W. asks:
"what are your recommendations for an introductory type of tour just to get our bearings when we first arrive? I hate bus tours, so I hope there is some kind of alternative. We won't have a car, and although we will do lots of walking, I'm looking for a way that we can cover more territory in a few hours and just see where everything is."
Truth be told, some of those bus tours might not be a bad way to get your bearings, but they're not my cup of tea either. Their chief advantage is that they cover a lot of ground fast. Maybe in a another post, I'll go over the pros and cons of each of them, but for now, let's leave the realm of motorized transport behind and look at some more human scale approaches.
There's lots of ways to prepare before you arrive. You're reading my blog, so you're smarter than the average bear. Obviously, a guide book is a good start, but a guide book no more gives you the flavor of a city than a telephone book tells you what your new neighborhood will be like. I like to watch movies and TV shows set in DC to at least recognize some of the street scenes. I'll go into this topic more at a later date, but for right now, I like The West Wing if you are a politics nerd (hey, we're people too) and "National Treasure" (eitherof them) if you are not. The web is also an obvious place to find more info, but that would clearly be the subject of another post, or book. And, perhaps most importantly, I find it impossible to "get" a place if I haven't looked at least a half dozen maps. Google Maps is the biggest single innovation in travel for me in the last decade.
But lets say you, unlike our good friend Jean W. from above, haven't done your homework and you are stepping out from your hotel with your bright new copy in Fodors in one hand and a song in your heart. Where to start? Some suggestions:
1. Head to the Old Post Office at 11th and Pennsylvania, NW (Federal Triangle Metro stop). Take a map, your guide book, and a list of everything you'd like to do. The OPO should be your headquarters for exploring downtown and the Mall. It's centrally located to most of the high density sights, has food and bathrooms, and, like all good bases, controls the high ground. The tower, with an observation deck at 270 feet, is a great place to chart out a path, calibrate your eyes for distance between buildings, and generally get the lay of the land. Sure it's not as tall as the Washington Monument, but there's (almost always) no line, no tiny windows to peer from, and the Park Rangers, freed from the crush of tourists, can be great sources in information.
2. If the Tower is closed for weather, and it sometimes is, or you just don't like heights, the OPO has some other ways to check out the city without burning out your legs. Just outside, is Segs in the City, one of the various Segway tour operators that everyone mocks as they zip by. Then they sit and rub their legs because they've walked too far. I don't particularly have any bias for Segs in the City over their competitors, except for the location. And, of course, the clever name. They all seem to compete on price and I have yet to hear that one is much better (or worse) than the others.
3. Hey, I said I was going to leave motorized transport out of this, didn't I? Fair enough, bike tours are also an excellent way to see DC. Bike the Sights has the advantage of being at the Old Post Office as well and I see them throughout the city. Additionally, the National Park Service offers free tours every Saturday and Sunday at 1pm starting at the Jefferson Memorial (check for dates). You need to provide your own bike and helmet, but you can rent them at the Old Post Office.
4. And finally, there really is no better way to feel the texture of a city than walking. Options for these are, of course, quite varied but lets at least touch on a few.
a. Hire a guide: If you wish, you can always hire a tour guide for you or your family. This is, obviously, the most personalized option and any half way decent guide can develop a tour for whatever you are interested in. And a big added value to a personal guide is that they can recommend things to do, best ways to see things, restaurants, etc. You know, the stuff I'm trying to do here. There's usually a four hour minimum and rates start at around $35 an hour and go up from there. Getting hold of us is tricky though; most of my private jobs come from word of mouth. But here's a couple of guides I recommend; they often manage not to drool on themselves.
b. Pre-scheduled walking tours. Many organizations, both public and private, offer walking tours of Washington, DC. There are far too many to list here, but Cultural Tourism DC puts out a weekly listing that can be useful. And I strongly recommend Washington Walks, a company that, as the name implies, puts together walking tours of DC. I've taken several, and they're quite good.
c. Do it yourself. If you wish to do it at your own pace, this is a good option. The aforementioned Cultural Tourism DC has put together several walking tours of DC neighborhoods that are well marked with informative sign posts. Several neighborhoods are covered, to include Capitol Hill, Downtown, U Street and others. And for planning your own walking tour, I recommend the City Walks: Washington, D.C.cards, as well as the kids version. They're useful and easy to carry without screaming TOURIST.
So thanks again to Jean W. for the question and good luck on your trip to DC. There is obviously more to talk about in planning a trip here but our time is limited today.