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every resident of D.C. has a response prepared for the inevitable “I’ve got family coming in from out of town, what should they do?” and, after 15 years in the District, mine is pretty well thought out. an unfiltered look at visiting the nation’s capitol:
dear God, please fly into DCA if you can. they say D.C. has three airports, but one (Dulles) is as close to West Virginia as it is to the District, and the other (BWI) might as well be in Pennsylvania. getting into the city from Dulles or BWI is an ordeal after a long trip, and surprisingly expensive if you’re not willing to use public transportation. and let’s face it, after dealing with airports (and airport security) you’re going to decide — at the last minute, of course — to splurge on a taxi. if you can save $300 going into one of the other airports, sure, totally go for it. but if you only save $100? it might not be worth the effort.
also, for the uninitiated, the only acceptable title for the airport closest to Washington, D.C. is “National Airport.” it’s never “Reagan National Airport” and certainly never just “Reagan.” and, for what it’s worth, this has nothing to do with partisan politics. it ONLY has to do with home rule — the fact that Congress can impose its will on the city, telling them how to name their airports, is just as ludicrous for the District as it would be for you, wherever you live.
places to stay
there are no silver bullets, but obviously metro accessible is key. I would find places that look interesting to you, and then use the google maps or the metro trip planner to make sure your hotel is no more than a 15-20 minute Metro ride from Metro Center Station. if that’s the case, you’ll be pretty happy. much past twenty minutes of metro time, and I find your day starts getting pretty long because you don’t want to hoof it all the way back to the hotel just to go back out later in the day.
personally, I send people up the red line, between Dupont Circle and Cleveland Park stations. there are a ton of boutique hotels along this corridor (here’s a list from hotels.com) that give you good options, but also gets you into some of the best walking neighborhoods (Dupont Circle, Woodley Park, Cleveland Park, Adams Morgan) in DC.
also, it’s usually worth checking out some of the big (expensive) conference hotels, at least if you’re coming on a weekend. hotels that support business travelers through the week are often pretty empty on the weekend, and that can sometimes lead to good cheap, deals on nice rooms. Marriott Wardman Park/, Washington Hilton and Omni Shoreham come to mind and are all along that red line corridor I mentioned.
there are a metric ton of great restaurants in D.C. now, and any local can give you a list of ten places off the top of their head. generally, visitors eat breakfast at the hotel, and then are fine during the day (the museums all have some type of food court attached, with the best being Natural History and American Indian). so look for restaurants closer to your hotel — part of the reason i like to stay between duPont and Cleveland Park is all the great food within walking distance.
if you’re not willing/able to ask someone for specific restaurant advice close to where you’re staying, you can get a pretty good idea from online reservation app Open Table and from The Washingtonian.
the metro is great. it’s a 15 minute walk to something like 80% of the city, and pretty much everywhere you want to go. just, please God, stand to the right on escalators if you’re not actively walking up or down them. outside of that, I’d plan on walking and splurge on a taxi every now and again when the feet get tired. rental cars are completely wasted in DC, unless you want to go to some place distant (Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Air and Space’s Hazy Center, Mount Vernon) because there is no parking, and what parking exists is horribly expensive.
your feet will get tired. WEAR GOOD SHOES. seriously, not Tivas, not those silly jelly shoes kids love these days. your sense of scale will get all screwed up, because each museum is 3-4 blocks wide. so, walking two museums over is actually an 8 block walk which — given our wide avenues — would probably be a 12 block walk anywhere else. Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol is 2 miles, even though (again, because of scale) it looks less than half that. and, don’t be afraid to take cabs. happiness is inversely tied to the weakness of your shins, and that $9 cab ride is often a worthwhile investment.
timing out your day
in general, if D.C. is a lot like visiting an amusement park, like Disney — get up early, do something great in the morning, and come back to the hotel around lunch. take a nap, swim in the pool, read a book, or wander around the neighborhood to let the heat of the day pass when everyone is cranky and all the places are packed with other miserable tourists. then, once everyone is rested at at 3:30pm, go back out for an evening shift. have a later dinner, and go straight to bed. rinse, repeat. if you try and do everything between 11am and 4pm, you’re opening yourself up to have a pretty miserable trip during the summer.
if there is one mandatory “thing to do” I would say it’s the national zoo. it’s free. it’s incredibly beautiful. it’s on a hill (see note about good shoes, above). if people don’t have a wonderful time, it’s because they’ve screwed up one of these three rules. first, go first thing in the morning (8am to 11am), or after the heat of the day (4:00pm to 7:00pm). otherwise, you’ll be miserable, and you won’t see any large mammals because they’ll be hiding from the sun. second, if you’re going via metro, travel IN to Cleveland Park station, and LEAVE from Woodley Park station. (technically, the “zoo” stop is Woodley Park, but it’s a steep hill from Woodley up to the start of the zoo — it’s about the same walking distance from Cleveland Park station, but it’s all downhill.) finally, remember it’s ON A BIG HILL. unfortunately, you end at the bottom of the hill and then have to walk up the whole hill to get back out. fortunately, there is a shuttle bus at the bottom to take you back up to the top, but most people don’t know to look for it.
some of the museums have extended summer hours, which is a great idea because if you go during “peak” times, the museums can be a bit of an elbow-fest. I’d map out when you go to which museums based on the extended hours calendar and go to as many of them as you can between 3:30pm and 7:30pm. Air and Space, American History and Natural History are must for any schedule. I’d also add National Museum of the American Indian to the list. National Building Museum and National Postal Museum are worth the trip if the subject matter is interesting to the group.
there aren’t any bad art museums. National Gallery of Art gets the most play (lots of french impressionism that’s real easy to love) but several other art museums them are great, and overlooked. National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of American Art is big and wonderful. Hirshorn is very good, if you’re into modern. The Phillips Collection is great, but quirky and turns over pretty quickly (look into the exhibits before you make the trip). I’ve been to every Smithsonian museum out of the bunch, with the exception of the Anacostia Community Museum, and if you’re into the subject matter covered by the museum, you’ll have a great time at any of them.
here’s a slightly older run down of things to do with a focus on monuments but be sure to look into the Botanic Gardens and Library of Congress, too (there hard to categorize as monuments or museums, so I’ve stuffed them into this paragraph kind of randomly). Martin Luther King’s monument is new, so isn’t included in the post above, but well worth the trip and not too far from the Korean monument mentioned in the post. Vietnam is great, but the kids will need an explanation to be properly moved — Korean is interesting to kids of all ages and isn’t quite the same emotional lift for the young ones. all of them are even better at night. speaking of…
the mall at night
keep the kids up one night and wander around the mall after dark, or better yet take one of those bus tours even though I normally tell people to avoid them during the day (unless you’ve got people who aren’t great at walking). the whole mall area is 100x prettier at night than during the day, and it is WELL worth keeping kids up past their bedtimes. it’s also cooler, and emptier. If you can avoid going to the mall (outside of the museums) during the day, and just do it at night, that’s a great thing.
out of town / short-term rental cars
some of the bigger hotels will do short term car rentals, which might be interesting for a day or two. also, you don’t have to stay at the hotel to rent their cars, you can just walk in and grab one regardless — we do it ourselves when we need a rental. if you do get a car, the Udvar-Hazy annex of Air and Space is (literally) epic. it’s just a royal pain to get to if you don’t have a car. Mount Vernon is incredibly stuffy but equally awesome in an egg-headed history geek sort of way. depending on how long you’re staying, a day trip to Baltimore or even a one-night overnight (National Aquarium, Inner Harbor, B&O Railroad Museum) can be a heck of a lot of fun.
free summer entertainment
the Kennedy Center runs runs free summer shows and programs that’s worth every penny. it can be a bit remote depending on where you stay, but there are shuttles from Foggy Bottom metro. on the mall, they have the annual Folklife Festival, and during some special weekdays they project movies onto a big screen which are fun even if you’re not wild about the titles. there are a couple of other free shows and events, with Shakespeare theatre’s “free for all” as the most popular of the remaining options.
all the professional sports teams in DC are metro accessible, except for NFL football, which is such a pain in the bottom to get to I would just push that thought out of your head entirely. my favorites are D.C. United (soccer, tickets) and Washington Nationals (baseball, tickets) and it’s really pretty easy to get great tickets, often even day-of.
RFK stadium (soccer) looks like a hole, mainly because it just had it’s 50th birthday, but is one of the best places to watch soccer in America. get tickets down close on the bouncy side of the stadium. Nats Park is the exact opposite (it’s gorgeous and pristine) and has some of the best ballpark food known by man. also, if you’re into tennis, getting tickets to the Citi Open up in rock creek park can be pretty fun, too.
things to (maybe) avoid
there is nothing in DC that I wouldn’t do. that said, there are a couple of things I might avoid unless you’re REALLY jonesing to do it.
cultural tourism dc
I mentioned this before, in the “things to do post” above, but worth a reprise. the mall is, in fact, not D.C.’s best attribute — and possibly not even in the top 5. I’d think strongly about either staying (hotel) in a neighborhood or making a pointed effort to get into on or two of them on your own. for more information, check out the cultural tourism DC site — there are dozens of walking tours that you can take to get a much better flavor of the city. also, if you’re into photography at all, taking pictures of the other half of DC is a lot more fun.
public service announcement
you like don’t know this, but D.C. doesn’t have voting representation in Congress. we pay $5 billion in taxes (higher per capita than each of the 50 states) which Congress then appropriates back to us with all sorts of restrictions on how we can use our own money. we’re bigger than Wyoming or Vermont, but have less representation. we have a much smaller share of Federal land than Nevada (88%) or even California (50%), and raise less revenue than is our due because branches of the Federal Government don’t pay local taxes like any every other employer within our borders.
I mention this, because it will help explain all those “No Taxation Without Representation” license places you’ll see when you visit, but also because the biggest problem is you — well, your legislators. because we don’t have the right to voice, you are the only people who can start the process of giving us the rights that you, and ever other citizen in the free world, enjoy.
unfortunately, we’re stuck without the right to vote. and we need a couple good friends from out of town to put in a good word for us with their representatives, who control our fate.