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Entries in Welcome to Washington (17)

Wednesday
Apr212010

DC Like a Local Around Town

Well, naturally we think we're awesome, but it's nice to see that others are picking up on the idea that DC Like a Local is a great source of information for those that wish to get more out of their visit to Washington, DC. Recently, we've had a couple of organizations add us to their feed, and I'd like to thank them.

The first is Travel Onion, a site that aggregates blogs and other web content about various cities, to help you (and often I), the helpless wanderer, to get your bearings. So far, they cover five cities, with Washington, DC being one of them. We're pleased to say that we were one of the blogs chosen and we look forward to seeing Travel Onion grow and expand. Be sure to check out their DC page for your research; they have a good cross section of blogs for you to get a sense of what's going on in the city. I especially recommend Free in DC, which, as the name implies, gives you a run down of free events in the DC area.

Also, Destination DC has launched a social media page, and we've been included as a source for general DC info, which of course we are, but we're pleased to have been picked. For those of you who don't know, Destination DC is a non-profit marketing organization with the objective of marketing DC as a tourist destination (and for conventions, but we don't really care too much about that). You know, so all you tourists don't blow your cash in Vegas when you could be in the Nation's Capital. It's not a bad mash up of information about hotels, deals, and other information from a more general perspective than mine. Another good place to do some travel research.

And finally, it's dawned on me in the midst of all this shameless self promotion, that I've neglected to properly plug the other blog I write for, The Hill is Home. The Hill is Home is a hyper-local blog focusing on the Capitol Hill community, not to be confused with that big, white, wind tunnel that dominates the western end of the Hill. While it's admittedly more focused on a more granular level than you'll probably be interested in (do you really care if University High's charter application was rejected?), tune in to the Hill is Home if you'd like to get a better feel for DC's most awesome neighborhood. Or if you just can't get enough of my scintillating viewpoints.

It's not just my opinion, the contributers of The Hill is Home will be proving our dominance in the only sport that matters this evening: skeeball. If you're free tonight, the DC Blogger Skeeball Tournement will be at the H Street Country Club in Northeast DC. $5 at the door will get you great food and drink specials, a free round of mini golf, and a chance to win a bunch of great prizes. Sadly, I'll be missing it showing young 'uns around town, but it promises to be a good time, even if you have no dog in the fight.

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.

Monday
Oct052009

Knocking out the Monuments

I know, I know. I'm full of advice on off the beaten path treasures, quirky little museums, and other idiosyncratic items. I'd rather spend the day hanging out on Capitol Hill, wandering around Dupont Circle, or eating in Adams Morgan.

But that's not why you are here. You came to visit Washington, DC. That means the stuff on the back of the money. And I don't blame you, if you go back home and tell everyone you went to the nation's capital and did not see the Lincoln Memorial, they're going smile, and nod, and then politely say "that's nice". But then they're going to remark to each other when you leave the room "they went all that way and didn't see old Abe?" So to save you that unfortunate social awkwardness, let me share with you my standard walking tour of the major DC Memorials:


View Bathrooms of the National Mall in a larger map

But wait! Isn't that just your "Bathrooms of the National Mall" map? Are you honestly just passing that off as a tour of the monuments? Are you the laziest guy in the known world, or just the greater DC area?

Yes, yes, and yes. But, in my defense, you don't really need a map to find the Washington Monument, and you just might happen to need a bathroom as we stroll about. So for the next four days, we're going to examine in greater detail the four Presidential Memorials on the Mall. And we're going to follow the same route as the "bathroom" tour. I'll share with you tips and techniques for getting the most out of each of them, some great stories behind them, and maybe prepare you for a few urban legends you are likely to hear about them.

So find your most obscene T-shirt, your largest fold out map (doesn't have to be DC), some widely inappropriate footwear, and let's go be tourists!

Wednesday
Sep302009

The Best Time to Come to DC

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...

Tuesday
Sep082009

The Haunting of Washington

As we all recover from our Labor Day festivities, it's time to gear up for our next great holiday: Columbus Day! Where we can do such traditional Columbus Day festivities as, er, um, what? Other than a day off of school, and for some of you, work, what do people do on Columbus Day? It's not a rhetorical question, people, I want the answer. I'd really like to know, does anyone have any fond memories of Columbus Day? You know, a Columbus Day parade? A party? Rounding up non-believers and converting them to Christianity at the point of the sword before enslaving them?

OK, so Columbus Day is kind of a bust, except for that day off work, which you probably aren't getting paid for anyway. Let's instead focus on the greatest of all fall holidays, Halloween.

Fall in general, and Halloween in particular, are excellent times to visit Washington, DC. The weather is a nice break from the oppressive heat of the summer, without the damp, cold "wintry mix" that will come soon enough. Better yet, the tourists are gone! As a visitor yourself, this is something to celebrate. No crowds around the block at the Archives. No hordes of people standing on the left on the Metro. And best yet, no droves of eight graders shepherded around town by a grim faced guide, bound and determined to resist the urge to choke with his bare hands the next kid who whines "why can't we take the bus".

But I digress. Perhaps in gratitude of getting our city back, DC puts on quite a good show for Halloween. I'll talk more as we get closer about specific events different organizations are hosting, and as always, if you are coming this time of year, feel free to email me with any questions about things to do. But for now, let me share with you my plans for the coming holiday.

Last year, when the idea for this blog had yet to be born, several of my fellow guides and I started leading ghost tours. We researched and discovered many haunted tales of supernatural happenings in and around Dupont Circle and shared them with many residents of our fair city as well as visitors, both temporal and spiritual, from beyond. This year, we're looking to do the same, as well as add some exciting new tales of death and it's aftermath in the vicinity of Eastern Market on Capitol Hill. We've had a lot of fun doing it, and are excited to be adding the second tour.

If you will indulge me with the practical a minute. Tours will be held every Friday and Saturday night at 7:45 pm throughout the month of October. We will meet at the fountain at Dupont Circle or the Eastern Market Metro at that time. If space is available, walk-ups will be allowed, but I encourage interested people to book ahead of time at GhostToursDC.com to reserve spots. Tickets cost $15.

And finally, while Capitol Hill and the Dupont area are the only tours as of yet with regularly scheduled times, we also offer tours of Georgetown, Lafayette Park near the White House, and the vicinity of the Capitol by appointment, as well as our regular ones, of course. If you are interested in these, or have any questions in general, feel free to contact me at info@ghosttoursdc.com.