Are you visiting Washington DC for the first time? Get ready for an experience. It is one of the most beautiful cities anywhere, full of interesting architecture, wide open public spaces and it’s one of the most walking friendly places you’ll find. Because of height restrictions, there aren’t a lot of tall buildings, and it has remained fairly close to Thomas Jefferson’s vision of an American version of Paris. It is no accident that it was designed by French architect, Pierre L’Enfant. There are so many things to see and do you will need to do some advance planning. From the National Archives, to the Botanical Gardens, to the National Zoo, there is something for everybody in DC. Here are a few tips for making your visit a little better:
Arrival in Washington DC
If you’re driving, consider parking your car at a suburban train station and take the train in. Parking rates are much cheaper in those lots than daily rates at a hotel or garage in the city. Plus, unless you have excellent parking karma, you will waste hours looking for places to park every time you get behind the wheel. The best advice is to avoid driving as much as possible. Washington DC is served by JFK and Reagan National airports and transportation is easy from both. Or if you have just arrived on an international air charter you may prefer to land at one of the nearby private airports.
Getting around DC
DC has an excellent public transportation system and it is easy to get around without a car. Buses and taxis are plentiful and inexpensive, though nothing beats walking for seeing the sights best. Capital Bikeshare is a fun option, and it’s better than a stationary bike in a gym. A daily fee of $7 will get you all the 30 minute rides you want, with longer times costing a few dollars per half hour. You electronically unlock a bike from one of over 180 street locations and return it to another. Then when you’re ready, grab another bike and go again. These bikes are all over Europe and it is a welcome sight to see them in DC. Pedicabs are plentiful too, with a bicyclist pedaling you around town in a bicycle version of a rickshaw.
Washington DC museums and monuments
There is plenty to see and it’s impossible to see it all, so plan your time selectively. First, unless you already have tickets, forget about a White House tour. Your U.S. Representative will need to schedule that for you about six months in advance. And the Washington Monument is visible from virtually anywhere, so unless you want to climb its stairs 555 feet to the top, skip it. A good starting point is the National Mall which is surrounded by Smithsonian museums and the most famous monuments, with the Lincoln Memorial at one end and the Capitol Building at the other. The Capitol Building tour is outstanding and timed tour tickets are available from a kiosk near the front. Plus you’re likely to see a few familiar faces inside. If you only have time for one museum, make it the National Museum of American History. It is a literal microcosm of everything you know, and loads more that you’ve forgotten about things that have shaped our everyday lives. You’ll see a history of the first video games. And a scale replica of Julia Childs’ kitchen. And a fragment of Plymouth Rock. And a paved section of Route 66. And the ruby slippers from Oz. Hundreds more things will keep you entertained and inspired, so go if you can.
Dining in Washington DC
If you’re looking for an inexpensive place to eat, check out the Longworth Cafeteria in the Longworth House Office Building. Most tourists don’t know about it, but now you do. You’re likely to see congressional staffers and their bosses grabbing lunch here. No Michelin stars for the quality, but it actually is very good for a cafeteria. It is traditional fare, burgers, pizza, sandwiches, a salad bar and healthy options too. There’s an international food station and a BBQ station. Many things are sold by weight so it’s easy to customize your meal and eat well for the price of a Big Mac combo.
If you want something unusual, the Mitsitam Café is a creative example of upscale government café dining. Located in the National Museum of the American Indian, it features a very interesting menu with apps, salads, entrees & desserts, all based on foods and unique ingredients used by American Indians from different geographical regions. Think fry-bread grilled cheese sandwich, maple brined turkey, grilled buffalo with Concord grape glaze and wild rice with sassafras. It costs a little more for lunch, about $40 per person a la carte with two courses, a glass of wine and tip, but it is really good food you don’t get to experience every day.
One of the most fun places to eat is Ray’s Hell Burger, a place where you actually can. It’s a stone’s throw across the river in Arlington, accessible via the Rosslyn Metro Station. Owned and conceived by a man who’s not named Ray, it is a burger joint with a twist. In addition to standard toppings, you can also top your burger with seared foie gras with truffle oil, roasted bone marrow with persillade, roasted garlic and crispy shallots or cave aged real Irish cheddar. Ray’s has a good enough wine list, but encourages you to bring your own if you want to, and they’ll serve it with no corkage fee.
After dark – nightlife in DC
There’s plenty of nightlife in DC no matter what your preference. Georgetown offers a hopping singles scene, while Adams Morgan is home to more culturally mixed clubs. If you are a lover of jazz, get thee to Bohemian Gardens on the U Street corridor. It regularly hosts the country’s top jazz artists and it’s just a comfortable, classy joint. For drinks and snacks or just drinks, any hotel bar in the city is the place to be, but put P.O.V. Roof Terrace at the W Hotel on the list as a must visit, simply for it’s terrific nighttime views. But let’s face it – Washington DC is cocktail friendly and whether you are at the fanciest place in town or in just a neighborhood dive, a good time can be had.
Generally, spring and fall are the best times to visit Washington DC, largely because of the pleasant weather, the lack of crowds, and the amazing cherry blossom display in spring. For the winter season lovers, it’s good to know that hotel rates drop by half and museums have no waiting lines. Plus Washington DC is absolutely beautiful in the snow. Have you been to Washington DC? What are your favorite places?
While on the other side of the Potomac, escape to Gravelly Point, a plane-spotter’s dream. Picnic or lounge in the open grassy area where planes fly crazy low right over your head as they come in for a landing just 100 yards away at Reagan National Airport. If you have kids with you, this is the thing they’ll be telling their friends about when they get home. It’s known as one of the best places in the country for airplane-spotting.
This is a guest post by Ralph Warren. Top photo courtesy of Wikipedia. Bicycle photo courtesy of Ralph Warren. Mitsitam Café salad & POV Terrace photos courtesy of website. Marine One photo courtesy of Wikipedia.