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Monday
Apr192010

Kicking Off Your Visit - Where to Start

Old Post Office from the Mall

Whenever I visit a city, I always like to know where to start. A good place to get information, ideally talk to knowledgeable locals, centrally located, and part of the fabric of the city I'm visiting. Without someone to show you the ropes, it's hard to know where to start. Recently, I fielded a question from a reader on that topic that might serve to help others. Afshan would like to know that if "there is a place from where he can get the map of all the attractions. Is there a place like "Welcome Center" that offers maps and guides?"

As in so many things in DC, this is a somewhat complicated question. The DC Chamber of Commerce used to operate at Visitor Information Center at the Reagan Building, but it's now closed. To be frank, I didn't think this was the greatest location and don't miss it to much, but it still confuses visitors as signs for it still exist and its website remains up. Additionally, the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID) operates a Washington Welcome Center on the corner of 10th and E NW across from Ford's Theater, which isn't bad, but I just don't find it terribly useful either. It's a great place to go if you're looking for a FBI t-shirt or a kitchy souvenir, but the place is normally overrun with 8th graders and the staff is too harried to answer questions.

So where do I think you should start your visit? Here are a few options:

1. Old Post Office: I've mentioned this before and it's where I try to start tours with out of town guests. The Old Post Office's tower is one of the best views of Washington, DC at a fraction of the hassle of the Washington Monument. While there's no place inside I'd recommend, I'd say start off at the Barnes and Nobles a few blocks north on 12th and E NW, swing by the local section on the first floor, and pick up a guidebook and map. Armed with this new info, head over to the OPO on 12th and Penn, take them up the tower, and spend as long as you like scouting out the city from the high ground. Often, there will be a National Park Service ranger up there to answer questions, and if it's not busy, he's probably grateful for the company.

2. White House Visitors Center: While this is a must see if you are that tiny proportion of DC visitors who actually expect to get in the White House, the Visitor's Center is worth going into even if you didn't get lucky with WH tickets. The reason: one of the best help desks in all of Washington. Off the 8th grade circuit (more or less), the staff at the Visitor's Center is full of information and often without people to share it. They can give you the Park Service's Washington, DC map, which is every bit as good as the the commercial available ones, and the Visitor's Center can give you the single most document in Washington, DC: a comprehensive list of the openings and closings of the majority of DC attractions (pdf). Print it up now, bookmark it, or just swing by the Visitor's Center to get a fresh copy.

3. Union Station: Built to serve as a ceremonial gateway to the nation's capital, with a stunning vista of the Capitol Building, you end up looking at the ass end of Christopher Columbus as you exit Union Station. Which is a bit apropos. Union Station should be a one stop shop for people coming to see Washington, DC. It's accessible to intercity travelers via Amtrak and Bolt Bus, to regional visitors via Virginia and Maryland commuter lines (VRE and MARC), to local transit users via Metro Rail and Bus and the Circulator, to drivers with an on-site parking garage, to pedestrians, and even to bicyclists with a shiny new bike station. And it features access to various tour buses to take an intro tour of the city (more on that to come). But if you're looking to talk to people to pick up advice, be prepared: everyone at Union Station is either too busy catching their train, trying to sell you something, or simply tourists more befuddled than you (they didn't even know enough to check out this blog). So if your entry to DC is Union Station, great! Stroll through the building, swing by the Barnes and Nobles to get a guidebook, and go check out the rest of DC. Union Station is adequate as a visitors center, and has huge potential. But it's not there yet.

So, to recap, these are the top three best places to start your DC visit, in my humble opinion, and in roughly that order. If you've got places you like to send visitors as they arrive, throw them in the comments.

Reader Comments (2)

NPS link is dead.

July 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThe Good Doctor

Thanks! It's fixed now, but sadly this won't be the last time it goes down. It's just a static copy of the flyer, not an actively updated page. But thanks for helping me stay on top of it.

July 26, 2010 | Registered CommenterTim Krepp

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