Like a lot of people, Washington DC was always on my list of places to visit and I just never made it happen. That recently changed after I was able to sneak in a three day visit to the nation’s capital. I thought I’d share some things I observed and share a few tips for a great first visit to DC.
First Rule: Don’t Be Intimidated
Washington DC is one of a handful of cities that is instantly recognized world wide. That can be a bit overwhelming for the average traveler but a few notes and careful planning will make your visit a breeze.
The good news is that most everything you’ll want to see is within walking distance. That’s a big deal. There’s no reason to have a car or use taxi service when visiting DC. You can get almost everywhere on foot and with the use of the metro train system.
Using Metro Is A Piece Of Cake
Before my trip, a couple of friends mentioned that using the public transit system in DC was confusing and complicated. That stressed me out as I arrived. Good news is – they were wrong. It’s easy. In fact, it’s a piece of cake.
Once you know you’re going to visit – log onto the Metro website and order a pre-paid fare card. This cuts down on time standing in lines or worrying about fare prices every time you want to use the system. (Plus you don’t look like a tourist. Ha!) They’ll mail the card to you.
Once you place your card on the scanner, the turnstile screen will tell you how much money you have left in your account. For a three day trip, I invested $30 on my card and wound up with about $4.00 left as I left for home. I believe the fare is $1.00 cheaper per ride if you have a card as opposed to if you buy a ticket each time.
At first, the confusing part will be to find the metro train you need to get to your destination. Again, this is way easier than it appears. Find your destination on the map. For example, let’s say you’re going to the Smithsonian. Find “Smithsonian” on the map. It will be located on one of the six colored routes. Some busy stops are actually accessible by more than one route. Once you find the color of your route, look ahead to the name of the very last stop listed on that route – and that name is what will be spelled out in lights on the approaching train you’ll need to board. Be careful to know which direction you’re heading as well or you might travel in the exact opposite direction you want to go. There are electronic signs overheard that tell you how many minutes away your train is.
Again – this appears to be overwhelming. It isn’t. If you find yourself confused – just ask one of the attendants or even other passengers. The Metro employees were all very friendly and eager to help. Most likely, you’ll wind up using the same route to get around depending on where you’re staying. I used the Blue train route 90 percent of my trip.
Just FYI – If you’re going to The White House or any of the monuments – the McPherson Square stop is probably your best bet. There’s a Smithsonian stop which is self explanatory and also not far from the mall. Capitol South will drop you off right near the Capital Building which is also near The Supreme Court and congressional office buildings.
Don’t Stay In DC
If you have money to burn – knock yourself out and get a hotel in Washington DC. For the rest of us, keeping a visit to DC affordable is important. Washington DC is easily accessible by several nearby cities – mainly in Virginia. We happened to stay in Alexandria which wound up being about a 15 minute metro train ride to the heart of DC. Once again public transportation in the entire area is a well oiled machine which will save you money on a car rental, taxi fares, etc. I can’t speak for other cities in Virginia, but Alexandria also had a local trolly that would take you from the Metro station there along King Street to your hotel or at least close by to where you might be staying.
So, What Do You Want To see?
The big question is always what to see and do in a town that has enough options to keep you busy for a month. The good news is that you can really get a good taste of Washington DC if you have two or three days to spend exploring.
The Washington Mall area – which basically stretches from the Washington Monument down to the Lincoln Memorial is an easy walk that will take you about an hour if you just walk along the sidewalk and don’t stop. If you plan to explore the monuments and take photos, etc – it will take you a little longer.
There are also stops that are not directly on the mall route, but the big ones like the the Lincoln Memorial, WW2 memorial, Vietnam memorial, etc are all in this walkable area.
Most people want to see the Smithsonian museums but it’s impossible to see all of them in one trip. I spent one whole day just getting a taste of them. I took about an hour to explore the American History Museum, Natural History Museum, Air & Space Museum and the National Art Gallery. All of them were free – and most of them were crowded. According to the DC Convention & Visitors Center, the best time to visit DC is in mid-November if you simply want to avoid big crowds. You’ll still fight with local school groups on field trips – but you’ll miss other tourists.
The National Archives is a must – you’ll see interesting documents including the Bill Of Rights, Constitution and Declaration of Independence. (The jury is out on if these are the real documents, by the way – we weren’t totally convinced they were the originals as they told us.)
Planning is also key or you’ll be overwhelmed and will likely walk more than you have to. Give yourself enough time at each stop but don’t over schedule your self or you’ll regret it quickly. I learned the hard way on day one that you walk A LOT. My feet were killing me after day one in the city and I quickly realized I made the wrong choice of shoes for the trip. BUY COMFORTABLE SHOES!!!
The White House, Capitol, & Supreme Court
One of the big draws in DC is visiting one or all of the three branches of federal government. There are a few things you can do to make this a special experience instead of being herded around like cattle with everyone else.
First of all, The White House does offer tours but they fill up fast and waiting to the last minute is not an option. Call your Senator’s office and tell them you want to visit. Every Senator’s office is different. One of the Senator’s in my state of Missouri was no help at all. The other Senator had a staff that was incredibly kind. They will send a request to the secret service on your behalf and you’ll provide your security information – social security number, place you were born, things like that. After a background check – if there is space available on the date you request, you’ll get a letter with a confirmation.
The White House tour is not very long, you walk through the East wing on your own and before you know it – it’s over. You’ll see a couple rooms – all of which are roped off. One cool thing is that you’ll find yourself standing in the same hallway you often see on television when the President walks down the hall to make a speech. President Obama had just made a speech to the nation the evening before my tour. It was amusing seeing the famous red carpet rolled up and roped off for tourists. You’ll also see the state dining room and library. You won’t see anything close to where the President or his staff works or his living quarters. We did catch a glimpse of the Obama’s dog on the south lawn. I’d love to tell you that was exciting – but, it wasn’t. The Secret Service guys were all very friendly. Despite not seeing all that much – it’s still pretty cool to stand there and remind yourself you’re actually inside the friggin White House.
As you can see below – the one photo opportunity you do have on the tour is as you exit, which is ironically out the front door. There are no photographs allowed inside The White House – mainly to keep people moving along.
Touring the Capitol building is also something you should arrange with your Senator or representative. Reason being that you’ll get a much more intimate tour and won’t be rushed or part of a giant group. For example, I wound up being the only person on the tour with my Senator’s office – so I was able to get an awesome experience. I noticed that the people that just showed up to the visitors center were not having as great an experience. Do yourself a favor and plan ahead – arrange a tour through your member of congress.
Lastly, The Supreme Court was one of my favorite stops of the whole trip. It’s pretty cool sitting in the actual court room where so many high profile cases have been decided. You can sit in on an actual hearing if you time it right but that’s very difficult as the demand is so high. Your best bet is to plan on sitting through a 30 minute lecture which will take place in the court room. You will listen to an interesting bit of history, some fun facts about where people sit during proceedings and why and some info about the building. As someone that can’t sit still for long – I will tell you that I really enjoyed the lecture and soaking in the experience.
Eating In DC
If you’re hoping to find lots of fast food places and corner bars to drop into between visits – you are sorely mistaken. One of the Smithsonian museums has a McDonald’s attached and there are concession stands in a few different places along the sidewalk of the national mall. It’s not great food, it’s expensive and you’ll regret not eating before you left the hotel. Take advantage of breakfast at the hotel, try to pack a small snack to get you through the midday hunger pains and suck it up until dinner time when you’re back near your hotel.
Also keep in mind – if you bring stuff along, every single museum and place of interest has a security check point. You will have to wait to have your bag inspected at every single museum which will really eat into your time. Keep that in mind. If you can manage to just explore with a cell phone and wallet – you’ll enjoy your trip much more than someone that is carrying a bag. You also can’t bring a bag into some places – The White House is one of them. There’s no place to check it either, so you’ll be turned away.
Last But Not Least…
For me, Washington DC was most impressive for how open it was. For all of the bad stories we hear about DC (mainly political stuff) – I found the government institutions to be friendly and welcoming. I also found the people I encountered along the way to be very friendly and I loved how easy it was to get from one place to another on foot.
So take some time to map out your trip and bring your comfortable shoes! You’ll have a blast exploring the area.