Recently, Melanie E. wrote and asked:
Is it necessary to go through the "procedure" to get a self guided tour time to the National Archives for the last couple weeks of October? I'm hoping the lines are not long this time of year and that the National Archives will be a spot we can just drop in on anytime.The short answer is, of course, heck no. You might run into a few minutes of a line from time to time, but it'll be a pale shadow of what we see in the Spring and Summer. And while it certainly doesn't hurt to get a self-guided tour reservation, it's not something you will need to plan around, like a Washington Monument ticket.
All of which got me thinking: when is the best time to visit DC? I thought I'd write a long, thoughtful post discussing the pros and cons of each season (that's when the weather changes, for you California visitors), but really, I couldn't do it. Why? Because hands down, the best time to visit Washington is the Fall. I'm not even going to try to defend the others.
And it's not as if you should run out and cancel if you have a Spring trip planned. It's not a bad thing to come in the Spring, Summer, or Winter; it's just overwhelmingly better in the Fall. Certainly, some events make each season worth visiting for. Cherry Blossom Festival has a well earned reputation as a great time to visit DC. The Fourth of July and Smithsonian Folklife Festival are highlights of my summer. And I enjoy Christmas in DC as well. Even if it's no Rockefeller Center, the National Christmas Tree is worth seeing.
So why come in the Fall? Two reasons: crowds and weather. Not much of the first, and just the right amount of the second. As far as crowds go, you're going to run into a smattering of school groups, but it'll be nothing like the Spring. They will almost be quaint in comparison, a few eager beavers snapping there pics and oohing and ahhing in wonderment. I love giving fall tours with school kids. You can relax and spend time really exploring the city, not herding them like masses of cattle, pushing them to get in line in front of the other groups, all the while trampling small children and old people. And while the Summer sees a noticeable drop off in eighth grade field trippers, it's replaced with local day campers, as well as families visiting Washington. Totally understandable, the Summer is when kids are out of school and families can get time to travel. But it does little to lessen the crowds.
Summer is also difficult for another reason. DC is hot, humid, and miserable. Make no mistake, I love this city, I love living here, and I plan to do it for many decades to come. Except in the Summer, when I literally wilt into a puddle of my own sweat and tears. I am not a pretty sight come August.
Winter is not a bad time to visit Washington, and our winters are quite mild compared to many Northern cities. Snow is an occasion for celebration, and you only generally a few good snows a year. Unfortunately, what you do get is the dreaded "wintery mix", which is a dispiriting crappy combination of snow, rain, and slush that is neither picturesque, nor fun to play in. It is dangerous to drive in, and unpleasant to walk in. And, for an added bonus, it will tend to freeze on the sidewalks making a walk down the block a perilous journey. I'd take a good solid snowfall any day of the week.
So that leaves Fall, in all its golden glory. I've always loved the fall, so perhaps I was biased in its favor to begin with, but in DC it's a wonderful mix of less crowds and jeans and a sweatshirt weather. You can swing by the Washington Monument at ten and stand a decent shot at getting a ticket. Many attractions, like the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing no longer require advanced tickets. But, perhaps best of all, the Fall is when ghosts come out to play...