by John Ellis
Tourist season has begun, and DC area residents are wondering if trading the cold for the fanny-packed masses sporting brightly colored t-shirts is worth it. If you doubt the locals’ feelings towards tourists, next time you see my eleven year old daughter, call her a tourist and prepare to have your head bitten off. It’s not that locals don’t empathize with tourists; most of us, before moving here, visited DC. It’s that tourists often don’t do themselves any favors in the eyes of the locals.
DC is an incredibly busy city without tourists, and tourists impede on our daily lives. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; the things that make this city a great place to live and work draw tourists. Locals realize that we can’t have it both ways. However, we do wish that tourists would be more intentional about how they interact with our city. Since tourist season is right around the corner, I would like to offer some helpful tips to those of you who are planning on visiting DC in the near future.
Plan Your Visit
This should go without saying, but, unfortunately, “planning your visit” has a different definition in your mid-western living room than it does in DC. No matter how organized you are; no matter how efficient you believe yourself to be; no matter how committed you think you are to seeing the sites, it’s impossible to see everything that DC has to offer in a week. Your itinerary’s hull is going to be ripped to shreds by the gigantic DC iceberg.
I suggest paying for a travel company to plan your itinerary, but since most of you aren’t going to do that, below you’ll find some helpful suggestions, broken up into DC highpoints, to help you maximize your time in DC.
For starters, sit down with your family and decide before hand what you want to see. Prioritize that list, and then cut several of things. And, this is important, during your time here, plan at least one day to rest your incredibly tired feet in your hotel’s pool. Trust me. Seriously, trust me.
This includes the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, MLK Memorial, FDR Memorial, and the various war memorials. The monuments are great, and even though I have been to all of them dozens of times, I still receive a thrill from seeing the monuments. The monuments are a must on your itinerary. Plan to spend a day visiting and enjoying them. If you don’t want to pack a lunch, don’t buy food inside the National Mall. Just outside the Mall, on Constitution Avenue, you can find food trucks that sell hot dogs for cheaper than the food in the park.
Two years ago, DC introduced a bus line called the Circulator. For only a dollar per two hours, you can ride the red bus around the National Mall and hop off and hop on at each monument. This will save you time as well as wear and tear on your feet. To make it easy, pick up the Circulator at Union Station. To help make it even easier, here is a link to the website – memorize it, utilize it.
Take note that the tickets to the top of the Washington Monument are free, but need to be reserved. And, during the tourist season, tickets are usually “sold-out” a month or more in advance. In other words, do not wait until the last minute to reserve your tickets. If, for some reason, you ignore my advice, the National Park Service does hold back a few tickets per day that are first come, first serve. That means that you’ll need to be at the Washington Monument early to get tickets that could be for timeslots up to six hours later. Take my advice; reserve your tickets early so that you don’t have to worry about waiting in line for tickets that will throw your carefully planned itinerary into chaos. (edit – the Washington Monument is closed until 2019 for repairs. You can still take a picture of yourself pretending to hold it between your fingers, but you won’t be able to go to the top.)
The United States Capitol:
Like the Washington Monument, tickets to tour the Capitol are free. However, if you’re visiting DC during the height of the tourist season, do NOT get your tickets through the US Capitol Visitor Center. Instead, book a tour through the office of your Congressperson or Senator. During the tourist season, the official tours are so packed, that the tours don’t go to the old Senate chambers or the old Supreme Court chambers. I’m not promising you that the intern your Congressperson or Senator assigned to take you through the Capitol will take you to see everything, but, with them, you at least have a chance.
Schedule your Capitol tour for the morning. And, this is important; you cannot take any food or drink inside the building – that includes water. After you tour the Capitol, eat lunch at We the Pizza on Pennsylvania Avenue or Sandwiches by Philip on 440 1st Street. After lunch, visit the Supreme Court and The Library of Congress – both are right across the street from the Capitol. For literary buffs – the Folgers Shakespeare Theatre is behind The Library of Congress. Also, Frederick Douglas’ house is only a couple of blocks from the Capitol, but it’s only open at random hours. Good luck finding out when those hours are, though.
The White House:
Don’t go on the tour; it’s not worth the hassle. Unless, of course, you know someone who can give you an actual tour (your Senator whom you’ve only corresponded with via email does not count). However, take heart, on the day you visit the Monuments, you can head west-ish from the Washington Monument and take pictures of the White House from the South Lawn side of the building.
Mount Vernon is a must, and it’s a whole day. Keep in mind, it’s privately owned, so it’s not free. You’ll need to buy tickets; but it’s worth every penny. Since it’s privately owned, the food court is pretty good and, more importantly, fairly inexpensive. On the way back to your hotel, spend the evening in Alexandria’s Old Town (King Street, specifically). There are many excellent restaurants, boutique shops, and historical sites, including the church that George Washington attended whenever he was in Alexandria.
The Smithsonian Museums:
Visiting the Smithsonian Museums is probably the trickiest and holds the potential for the greatest disappointment in DC. There is too much to see spread across too many museums to be able to take it all in during a week, or even longer. Whenever I take my kids, I first ask them which museum they want to visit and then we decide on three exhibits to visit inside that museum. Tourists do not have that luxury. Understanding that you will want to see as much of the Smithsonian Museums as possible, you’ll need a game plan.
As a family, go to the Smithsonian website and decide which museums and exhibits you want to see. That’s important, not just which museums you want to see, but also which exhibits. If you’re not careful, you’ll spend the better part of a whole day inside one museum, and leave yourself very little time to visit the others. Below, I’ve listed the different museums and given some tips.
- Smithsonian American Art Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Freer Gallery of Art, Hirshhorn Museum, Renwick Gallery, Archives of American Art, and National Gallery of Art (the NGA isn’t a Smithsonian, but it’s free and it’s located on the Mall). – Parents, there are some great exhibits scattered throughout these museums. Fighting with your kids about visiting them or not is a battle that I can’t help you with. But, as you can see from the list, visiting all of them would eat up most of your time in DC. Personally, I recommend the National Gallery of Art and the National Portrait Gallery. Besides its many wonderful exhibits, the National Gallery of Art is housed in one of the most beautiful buildings in DC.
A word of warning about the National Portrait Gallery, the first floor contains rooms for rotating exhibits. On one visit, our kids ran into a gallery before us; that gallery contained an exhibit of nude photographs. So, that was fun.
- Natural History Museum – The NHM is the second most visited museum in the world; it gets packed with people during the day! Go early. And by early, I mean no later than 9:45 to make sure that you’re near the front of the line for when the doors open at 10:00. Your family is going to have to decide which exhibits to visit, but I highly recommend the Orkin Insect Zoo. As soon as the doors open, make a beeline for the Insect Zoo – there is a tarantula feeding not long after the museum opens.
- American History Museum – This is my favorite Smithsonian. It’s right next door to the Natural History Museum. I would recommend spending the morning in the NHM and visiting the AHM after lunch. You’ll have to wait in line, but that’s the price of admission, and it’s not as long as the line at the Natural History Museum – hence my suggested order. You’ll want to see the Star Spangled Banner exhibit. During the rest of your time in the AHM, don’t miss the America on the Move exhibit.
- Air and Space Museum – After spending some time in the American History Museum, walk across the Mall to the Air and Space Museum. Undoubtedly, your kids will want to go to this one. It’s an ok museum, but I don’t think that it lives up to its hype; I wouldn’t block off a large chunk of time for the Air and Space Museum. There is a cool kid’s section, though. There is also another wing near Dulles Airport called the Udvar-Hazy that houses a Space Shuttle and an SR-71. The Udvar-Hazy is better, but it’s a thirty minute drive (without traffic) from the city. If you do decide to drive out there, I suggest incorporating it into the “rest your feet day.” Get there when it opens and then go back to your hotel after lunch and chill out.
- American Indian Museum – Right next door to the Air and Space Museum, the American Indian Museum has only one exhibit that will appeal to most people – the children’s room. My kids love that room. For the record, I’m not saying that the museum’s other exhibits aren’t worth seeing (they are), but for the sake of time, this is a museum to fully enjoy during your second DC visit.
- Postal Museum – The Postal Museum is a hidden treasure in DC. The exhibits are fun and informative, and the museum has the extra benefit of being a very manageable size. However, it’s located by Union Station – not beside the other Smithsonian Museums. If you are planning on picking up the circulator at Union Station for your Monuments’ tour, you may want to consider spending an hour in the Postal Museum on either end of the day. If you visit the Postal Museum at the end of the day, you can have dinner in Union Station afterwards – think a mall food court. Or, better, The Dubliner, my favorite Irish restaurant in the area, is basically across the street from the Postal Museum.
- National Museum of African-American History and Culture – My family and I have yet to visit the newest Smithsonian (we have tickets for April). But, I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews about it. Good luck getting tickets (free, but timed), though; unless, that is, you’re not visiting DC until sometime in 2018.
Note – most of the Smithsonian Museums open at 10:00 and close at 5:30. Several of them have extended summer hours, though.
The National Archives
Everyone who comes to DC wants to see this, and that’s the problem. During tourist season, the entrance line usually stretches around the block. And, then, when you do finally get inside, you’ll have to wait in another long line to enter the Hall of Documents. In my opinion, if there is a long line outside, it’s not worth it. But, then again, I’ve been multiple times, so you may not want to listen to me.
If you do go, I recommend shoehorning the visit into your Smithsonian day. In fact, depending on how long you’re here and what your family wants to see, you may want to set aside two days to see the Smithsonian Museums. If so, definitely visit the National Archives on one of those days. It’s across the street from the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden (which, side note, is a great place to eat a bag lunch, or a hot dog from a food truck).
If The National Archives is at or near the top of your list of places-to-visit, you may want to start there, and then cross the street to the American History Museum (do NOT visit the Natural History Museum if you can’t get there first thing in the morning – if you do, your family’s time in the museum will devolve into an argument due to the stress caused by the incredible amount of pushy, smelly people).
The National Zoo
The National Zoo is a Smithsonian, but I’ve included it in its own section because it’s out of the way of other tourist things, except the National Cathedral. When visiting, keep in mind that the zoo is not in a circle; it’s on a hill that’s fairly steep at points. Depending on which end of the zoo you enter, make a beeline down the hill to the Amazon House or the Kid’s Farm (if you drive, you may end up parking at the bottom of the zoo anyway). Resist the urge to stop at look at animals on the way down. You’ll want to conserve as much energy as possible for the hike back up the hill. Trust me on this; the first few times I went, I made the mistake of stopping and enjoying the zoo on the way down. That meant that by the time we were done with the zoo, we were hot and tired and with a long, hot climb back to the top.
Go early – get there around 9:00. The earlier you get there, the shorter the line to see the Pandas. And pack a lunch; the food in the zoo is terrible and expensive. At 11:00, you’ll need to choose between the sea lion show and watching the orangutans climbing the towers. In order to help you make up your mind – the sea lions never disappoint. The orangutans, however, sometimes just sit there and stare at you.
If you choose to go to the Zoo, you may want to consider stopping off at the National Cathedral afterwards. There is a minimal entrance fee ($11 per adult and $7 for ages 5-17), but it’s worth it. The National Cathedral has a cool scavenger hunt for the kids. Across the street and down a few blocks, are some good restaurants where you can eat dinner.
Arlington National Cemetery
If the Arlington National Cemetery isn’t near the top of your list, correct that mistake. Again, and you may be picking up on a theme here, go early. While there, visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, of course, and prepare to be affected by the solemnity of the changing of the guard. After the ceremony is over, head up the hill a bit; some of the most interesting graves and monuments are right behind the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’s amphitheater.
While in the cemetery, tour the Arlington House, visit the Women in Military Service Memorial, and take the time to explore parts of the cemetery off of the main paths. And take water; it will be hot and you will be walking up and down hills. For lunch, head over to Pentagon City where there are plenty of restaurants (use the GPS on your phone). Because, after lunch, you’re going to want to visit the Pentagon. If you have time, stop by the Air Force Memorial which overlooks the Pentagon. You can’t miss it; it’s the three spires sticking up in the air.
FYI – the Marine Memorial (more commonly called the Iwo Jima Memorial) is on the other side of the cemetery from the Pentagon. And, when you’re at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, you will be a quarter of a mile from where I used to live (about a mile and a half from where I currently live).
The Holocaust Museum
Passes are required for entrance into the museum during peak season; you can reserve those passes for free online. If you have small children, you may want to skip this museum until your kids are older. However, there is a kids section that’s separate from the main part of the museum.
The Kennedy Center
365 days a year, there is a free concert on the Millennium Stage. The concerts are first come, first serve, and begin at 6:00, lasting an hour. Check the Kennedy Center’s website to see which concert(s) your family finds most interesting. Take the Metro to the Foggy Bottom station; at the top of the station escalator, you’ll find a Kennedy Center shuttle that is free. For your remaining evenings, check the websites for the various military bands; all of them play multiple free concerts throughout the summer. The President’s Own Marine Band plays a free concert on the steps of the US Capitol every Wednesday evening during the summer months.
The Museum of the Bible
Opening this fall (2017), the Museum of the Bible is high on my list of things to see and do that I have yet to see and do in DC. I encourage you to click the above link and consider making the trek to DC in order to visit this exciting new museum.
The above list is not complete, by any stretch of the imagination. I didn’t mention the National Arboretum, the Claude Moore Colonial Farm, or Georgetown, to name three. The above list, I believe, reflects the sights that the majority of tourists want to see.
DC Has City Traffic
No matter how much you steel yourself for DC traffic, you will be unprepared. However, I can help. Ignore everything that you learned in Driver’s Ed; defensive driving will get you and several other people killed. DC drivers do not have time to be polite, and we assume that the other drivers are competent and paying attention. In other words, we don’t surrender our right-of-way. And, here in the DMV, we understand how to navigate four-way stop signs.
The first rule of thumb is to know where you are going. Having GPS on your phone makes this much easier. The streets of DC are unforgiving if you get turned around; there are precious few (no) parking lots to pull into in order to regroup. Even those who have lived here for years occasionally get burned by DC streets. Since motorcades, marches, and marathons are liable to close streets, drivers in DC run the risk, on any given day, of having to take a different route than they had planned. Pro-tip – avoid the traffic circles (yes, that’s plural) in Dupont Circle. If you’re not prepared for the amount of traffic weaving in and out of the multiple access points to the two traffic circles (one circle inside the other circle), you’ll weep while your kids mock you from the backseat.
Knowing where you are going is important, because indecision while driving may result in your fiery death. It didn’t take long after moving here for me to learn the importance of keeping a wary eye on cars with out of state tags, especially near exits and turns near points of interest. There have been many times when I’ve had to slam on my brakes and/or swerve to avoid running into a car full of gawking tourists who are either excited to see a monument so close to their car or who have just realized that their exit or turn is next and they’re in the wrong lane.
Being in the wrong lane will happen, partly because DC was designed before there were cars. Roads, including entrance and exit ramps, are where they could fit; not necessarily where they make the most sense. And, to that end, merge lanes, as you’re used to them back home, are almost non-existent in the DC area. This is why aggressive driving in DC saves lives.
You’re going to have to make your own hole in traffic; the vast majority of us are not letting you in or over. Unless, of course, you’re entering into bumper-to-bumper traffic that is moving slowly. At that point, the two lanes merging become a zipper. However, there are times when bumper-to-bumper traffic is moving in excess of sixty miles per hour. If you need to change lanes, be decisive and do it. Indecision will land you in the hospital.
Keep in mind; while you’re driving around DC, most of the traffic lights are not above the intersection, but beside it. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll run a red light and kill a pedestrian. This is a big no-no, because pedestrian right-of-way is important in DC.
Two last things: don’t be afraid to use your horn. We in DC know that cars have horns for a reason; it’s our main way to communicate with other drivers. And, for the love of everyone’s sanity, learn how to parallel park before you get here.
Obey Local Etiquette
This, of course, implies that you know local etiquette. And the most important piece of etiquette that all DC area residents want tourists to know is to STAND ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE ESCALATORS. The left side is for those who are in a hurry and are walking up or down the escalators. The right side is for standing. Are we clear?
In fact, staying to the right is a good idea when walking on the sidewalks. Your family does not need to walk beside each other, blocking the sidewalk. All of the people moving and pushing past you very quickly are not trying to be rude; they’re trying to get to work or an important meeting. The tourist families hogging the sidewalk are the ones being rude.
And speaking of standing and walking, if you’re taking the Metro, do not attempt to board until the people inside exit. Again, you board the Metro only after the people inside the train exit the car. The same rule applies for elevators. Only so many people can fit through a door at once. Those exiting, go first; those entering, go second.
If you use the Metro, wait until at least 9:00. During rush hour, many of the cars are crammed full of sleepy, cranky residents going to work. Trying to shoehorn your family into a car adds unwanted stress for everyone; DC residents have enough stress already. You’ll notice that most of the people around here are far skinnier than the people where you’re from. That’s because almost everyone jogs a lot in order to relieve stress. Don’t make them have to run a few extra miles because you couldn’t wait an extra hour to see the Lincoln Memorial. If you do use the Metro during rush hour, hold onto your kids. The teeming crowd that looks like one person moving in unison will engulf small children.
When walking around our city, everywhere you turn, there is going to be something that will make you want to take a picture. That’s fine. Take all the pictures you want. But, while doing so, keep in mind that many of the people around you have somewhere to be. Don’t hold up people on their way to work or a meeting because you want to line up the photo to make it look like you’re holding the Washington Monument between two fingers. Position yourself so as not to impede walking traffic, or allow people to walk through your “photo shoot.” Lest you think I’m being picky, this is actually a problem for locals here in DC. Many tourists think that they have the right to block the entire sidewalk in order to take a picture. They don’t; and many locals, like myself, will keep walking and ignore the angry protestations from the tourists that we’re ruining their picture. There’s room on the sidewalks for all of us.
Not everyone wearing a suit in DC is a Senator. In fact, unless you have an appointment to meet with your Senator, you will most likely not see a Senator while in DC. Congressional interns, on the other hand, are to DC what mosquitoes are to the swamps of southern Georgia. In other words, while walking around our city, don’t stop people and ask them if they’re famous. They’re most likely not, and you’ve probably just made them late and ruined their day.
After moving here, I began telling people that San Francisco and Greenville, SC are more alike than are San Francisco and DC. This is because, compared to the rest of the country, DC is a foreign place. Enjoy your time here, but please keep in mind that your actions affect people. And think about where you are, having a negative effect on someone in DC could negatively affect the entire country. Being a tourist in DC comes with a huge responsibility.
 Or even a month, for that matter.
 I’ll be happy to do it for a small fee.
 I stress “highpoints.” Mentioning everything that there is to offer in this city would require a book – for example, outside of this footnote, I will not mention places like Fort Washington, Roosevelt Island, or the Marine Museum at Quantico.
 Friends who have lived here for longer than I have say the same thing.
 The Amazon House has animals roaming freely in it, including a sloth. I have yet to find the sloth.
 Except people from Maryland. If you see a car with a Maryland tag, avoid it at all cost.