Discussion continues to swirl around the Constitutionality of Washington, DC's nearly 100 year old tour guide licenseing program. The Institute of Justice's Robert McNamara laid out their position againt licenses in last week's Washington Post's All Opinion's Are Local column, and the Guild of Professional Tour Guide's President Jim Heegeman rebutted in this week's (WaPo Tag Fail: listed under "crime"). Both gentlemen further discussed the issue in person on the Kojo Nnamdi Show. The Washington Post aparently clipped and pasted the Institute of Justice's press releases in writing this Op-Ed, which must have taken as much as thirty minutes to research and write. John Kelly calls the Institute's lawsuit "ridiculously apocalyptic in its descriptions of the dangers of D.C.'s regs, raising the specter of taxi drivers being thrown in jail for pointing out the Washington Monument."
Entries in Union Station (8)
Penn Quarter Living details a bit of the bait and switch of the National Aquarium here in DC. The title says it all: “Don’t Go For the Fish.” I agree, I’ve seen pet shops with more intriguing displays. Although the history of the Aquarium is pretty interesting.
A Maryland based firm has been tasked with the $30.7 million dollar contract to rebuild the Reflecting Memorial. Besides the fact that the Pool is slowly sinking into the muck that is West Potomac Park, the Reflecting Pool is plagued with numerous longstanding problems. Chief among them, the lack of circulation of the potable water in the Pool causes some truly impressive and disgusting algae blooms every year. A National Park Service spokesman did take the time to caution that the Pool will not become a swimming pool simply because it will get a new filtration system. Which is sad. (Hometown Annapolis via GGW)
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.
I'm a firm believer in holding the Thanksgiving line, as we struggle in the annual war of attrition that is the fight to keep Christmas sane. There is a well reasoned argument to be made to fall back to the Halloween line, and cede Thanksgiving to the forces of darkness, but I'm sticking to Thanksgiving. I'm no stranger to quixotic battles, and I refuse to start my Christmas celebrations before I've had my full of turkey.
But I suppose those that are making plans to come here for the holidays probably should plan ahead a bit. Plane tickets have to be purchased, hotels booked, Congressmen bribed, and so on. So I'll compromise somewhat and throw you a small bone, with the strict understanding that nothing in this post authorises anything, not even a single piece of tinsel, to go up before 12:01 am this Friday. And frankly, I'd prefer you wait until December 1st.
Obviously, the best known Christmas icon in DC is the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse. The current tree is a Colorado Blue Spruce and was planted in its present location in 1978. It was fifteen years old at the time and transplanted from the home of a family in York, Pennsylvania where it had been a Mother's Day present some years before. However, the ceremony itself (with other trees) dates back to 1923, when Calvin Coolidge lit the first National Christmas Tree, illuminated by 2,500 electric bulbs. The ceremony has gone through many iterations as different trees and locations were tried out, and perhaps most famously remained unlit by order of President Carter during the Iran Hostage Crisis.
The Tree will be lit again this year on December 3rd, and if you came across this site looking for a way to attend, it's too late this year. However, it will be webcast live and broadcast on Friday the 4th for the first time ever on PBS. Nothing says Christmas like huddling with your family around a computer and watching the President flip a switch. Frankly, since 9-11 the ceremony has gone into the "too much trouble for what you see" category for me (see also Inaugurations and Easter Egg Rolls), but once the crowds have left, grab some hot chocolate and take a stroll down to the Ellipse. It's worth a visit.
But the National Christmas Tree is not the only show in town. I often have visitors who looked at me puzzled and say "I thought the tree came from my state?". Unless they're from Pennsylvania they are mistaken, but it's an easy slip up to make. For in addition to the National Christmas Tree, we have a few other options in town:
- Capitol Christmas Tree: Unwilling to be shown up, the legislative branch has had their own Christmas Tree on the West Front of the Capitol since 1964. Not a permanent tree, it comes from a different National Forest every year, courtesy of the US Forest Service. In 1999, the tree was quietly renamed the Capitol Holiday Tree, which even my agnostic leanings find foolish. It was safely renamed the Capitol Christmas Tree in 2004. If you're going to attend a lighting ceremony, I'd recommend this one over the National Tree; as it still remains some semblance of the holiday spirit. This year's tree is an 85 foot blue spruce from Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in Arizona, and will be lit on December 8th.
- White House Christmas Tree: I list this, not because you have any chance in seeing it, but because this is another tree often confused with the National Christmas Tree. By far the oldest traditional tree, it has been a part of White House Christmases since the mid-1800s. Jackie Kennedy started the tradition of a themed tree, with a "Nutcracker Christmas" 1961, and it continues to this day. This year, the first for the Obamas, the tree was selected from Sunback's farm in West Virginia, which has also supplied two trees for the Reagans and one for the Carters. And no, neither the White House nor President Obama have banned religious ornaments from the tree. I missed this month's newsletter, but I believe the godless atheists have decided to wait to the second term before taking over the country via Christmas.
- Norwegian Christmas Tree: My personal favorite, simply because I can gaze at indoors. And it has a cool model train set. For the thirteenth year in a row, our close friends at the Norwegian Embassy set up a Christmas Tree in the Great Hall of Union Station (presumably they have permission to do so). The tree will be lit on the third, just like the National Tree. Be sure to come out for the bazaar the weekend afterwards, they usually have some clever gift ideas. Although I'd be wary of the Norwegian cookbook my wife got me a few years; most of the recipes seemed to involve destroying a perfectly good fish in unique ways.
So I hope that will keep you early Christmas lovers at bay. I'll share a few more upcoming events with you as the holidays approach, but that'll have to do for now. If you have ideas of your own or events you want our visitors to know about, feel free to leave a link in the comments, either here or on our Facebook site.
Now, I'm off to get a turkey.
We'll as mentioned, our good friends at the Capitol Historical Society are doing another run at combining two of my favorite interests: beer and history. This time they explore the Senate Side of the Hill.
From the USCHS:
Watering Holes of Washington: Capitol Hill History Pub Tour (Senate Side)
Thursday, October 22
Join fellow history buffs for a tour of Capitol Hill Watering Holes and free beverages spiced with history.
The United States Capitol Historical Society will take you on a guided tour relaying stories about local pubs, neighborhoods, and the folks who have lived and worked here. Your historical guide will be the Society’s famous Chief Guide, Steve Livengood, who has been crawling through Hill pubs and giving tours of the Capitol since 1964.
Learn about a famous politician who required his staff to share a cheap basement hotel room and what is exactly occupying the space where they once took their meals, which odd facilities were replaced by the Labor Department building, what was torn down for the parking lot across from Union Station and which famous architect designed the Capitol City Brewing Co. building.
Ages 21 and up only. Come join us and see The Monocle mix up a “politically correct” martini. Sample The Dubliner’s and The Capitol City Brewing Company’s unique ales. Three drinks, raffle prizes, fascinating history, and good fun included in tour price. Additional drinks can be purchased. Space is limited.
$25 Members/$30 Non Members
To purchase your ticket by credit card please call (202) 543-8919 x13 or x20.
There's some more info about day of pricing and such they sent me, but I'm not going to bother passing that on, as the chances of space on the tour still being available then is slim to none. After all, they're already two tickets down once I heard about it...