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.
In yesterday's post, I mentioned that Michelle Obama was scheduled to appear at the Library of Congress for a Read Across America event sponsored by the National Education Association. Sadly, they had to cancel due to the snow.
I hope they reschedule. All kidding aside, the Obamas are regularly out and about in Washington, so the chance for your average tourist to see the President have gone up from "negligible" to "slim".
Morning all. As my daughter has decided to expand my workday by several hours on the front end, I took advantage of it and set up a Facebook page for DC Like a Local. You know, so I could substitute Facebook fans for validation I might not get in real life. I don't quite know how to send folks a link to it, but if you're on Facebook, search the websites for "DC Like a Local". If some of you savvy Facebookers out there want to send me advice on what to do with it feel free.
For now, I'm going to get more coffee. I'm a little loopy with the lack of sleep and what not. Hey! a unicorn....
UPDATE: Thanks to GBK Gwyneth for helping me with the link.
I've long felt that the Library of Congress is Washington, DC's best American history museum, although the recently improved National Museum of American History is coming on strong. The main building, named after Thomas Jefferson, is an incredible example of Italian Renaissance architecture and has some of the best crafted exhibits in Washington, blending the historical artifacts and interpretation with the interactive displays that are apparently required by law now. And their temporary Lincoln exhibit is top notch; even I like it. But as Amanda M asked, how is it for kids?
Well, like the lawyers say, it depends. Ok, that's a cop out, so let's hit a brief selection of highlights if you happen with your young ones.
First off, even if the kids are too young to get much out of the exhibits per se, the building itself is fun to explore. The Great Hall is breathtaking and even young children can enjoy trying to spot hidden details in the ornate designs. The tunnels between the Capitol Visitor's Center, Jefferson Building, and the other library buildings help feed a sense of adventure. While entirely open to the public, it feels like you're getting away with something as you go underground from one building to the next. It's like a big game of Clue. Also, I recommend the courtyards if you need to relax on nice days. For young kids; who have been told to pay attention, stop fidgeting, and not touch anything; it's nice to let them run around a bit. You have to go down to the cellar level to get to them and it takes a bit of exploring to find the entrance, but another great thing about the Library of Congress is that the staff is almost, if not quite universally, friendly and helpful.
Which touches upon the Library of Congress's greatest strength; the people who work there. Yeah, everyone always says that, but it's kind of true here. Unlike just about all the other museums, monuments, displays, etc. in Washington, the exhibits here are secondary to the Library's primary mission. Which, perversely, may actually make them more customer friendly than the rest. The docents you take the tour with, the folks walking the halls, and the people having lunch in the cafeteria are all librarians and those who support librarians. They're proud of what they do and are looking to show it off a bit. They're not burned out and tired of dealing with tourists. Show a little interest and you could be in for a ride.
WARNING: The above may backfire with docent led tours and kids. I've had a docent explain where every single bit of stone in the Great Hall came from. Kids, particular younger ones, may not find this fascinating.
A particularly kid friendly touch is the passport system; part of the Library's excellent web presence at MyLOC.gov. While I often rail against "infotainment", the interactive displays throughout the exhibit halls do an excellent job of enhancing the experience, not substituting for it. My four year old is just starting to get a handle on it, and the middle school tours enjoy it. Heck, I find it useful myself. Basically, as you go in, you get a free "passport" and you can put them in most of the touchscreen displays. When you get home, register it, and it remembers what displays you looked at and can bring up more info on them. If you're from out of town, a lot of things you may have done on your visit to DC can blend together; this is a great way to follow through on your visit and stay engaged.
Depending on when you're coming, the LoC has a lot of kid-friendly events, so check their calender. I even understand Michelle Obama is to be there today.
Last, but certainly not least, for parents of young kids is the high quality of the bathrooms in the Jefferson Building. I imagine the only people laughing now are those who have never taken a child out of the house during potty training. In a city where I am often dashing from bathroom to bathroom, the Library of Congress is an oasis. There's also lots of quiet nooks and crannies if you're looking for a quiet place to nurse a child.