Notes from Touring Washington, DC

We just finished up 4-1/2 days in Washington, DC, and I wanted to share some thoughts of various attractions.  Unlike with Disney World, I am not a Washington expert, so others are welcome to comment with their thoughts.

Hotels: Right now, hotels are offering screaming deals.  I have become a Hotwire aficionado, in large part because I discovered this site which helps one break the secrecy at Hotwire and figure out in advance, with a fair bit of certainty, exactly what hotel for which one is signing up.  As a result, I got a $165 rate at the Willard, right next to the White House, which was less than my sister paid for a Residence Inn out at Dupont Circle.  And unlike many hotels who sometimes put Hotwire customers in the worst rooms, we got a huge room, really a suite.  And there is no better location for being a tourist in Washington than the Willard.

Restaurants: We had really bad luck with restaurants for dinner.  There are plenty of chains for predictable meals, but we tried several local favorites and were disappointed each time, even after checking them out at TripAdvisor (another favorite site of mine).  I don't know if this was bad luck or a statement on Washington dining.  We did have a good meal in Georgetown, where there are lots of choices.  It looked like there were some nice places with cafe-style outdoor dining on Wisconsin Ave near the center of Georgetown, but I can't remember any of their names.  We had ice cream in Georgetown at Thomas Sweets, a family favorite we knew because it is an institution at Princeton.

Lunches, on the other hand, were a pleasant surprise.  Both the National Gallery and the Natural History Museum had very nice cafes with lots of dining choices, good salad bars, etc.  We liked these better than the all-McDonald's fair at the Air and Space Museum.

Never, ever eat breakfast in a fancy hotel, unless you are very wealthy.  We tried the outdoor cafe one day at the Willard and ended up with the classic 5-star 4 croissant $100 breakfast.  We quickly found a bakery a block away by the Filene's Basement that was just fine for breakfast.

Transport: At the Willard, we were walking distance from nearly everything we wanted.  The Washington subway system is very good and cheap, and we used it several times (after all, my tax money pays for it so I might as well).  Cabs seem cheap but beware -- they add $1.50 for each extra person beyond one and some amount for each bag in the trunk.  We took the cab to National Airport when we got pinched for time (the subway goes right there) and found that we had an $11 charge before the wheels even started to roll.  Fortunately, National was so close the final bill was less than $25.  Cabs are therefore better for long trips than short ones.

Memorials: We walked around the Washington monument but did not go up  (we were way too late in the day to get tickets).  For various reasons related to the elevation and the buildings on the mall, the area at the base of the monument is windy as heck, even if the rest of DC is calm, so it is a nice place to relax with a good view on a hot day.  The Lincoln Memorial is far better seen at night than during the day.  The memorial is powerful, but the view from it at night is awesome.

The Vietnam War Memorial is simply awesome.  I have never yet found a war memorial that is more moving.  Unlike many memorials, it is truly dedicated to the individuals who fought and died.  In contrast, the WWII memorial is, to my mind, a complete loss as a memorial.  While dramatic architecturally and in a great location, it produces zero emotion.  It has monuments to states and places, not people.

Air and Space Museum: Always a winner.  I have never met a person who didn't enjoy it.  But expect crowds to be high -- this is by far the most popular spot on the mall.   The IMAX shows get most of the attention but I found the planetarium shows to actually be more interesting (though visually less stunning).

National Gallery: I struggle with large art galleries.  My favorites are places like the Frick in New York, which are easily digestible.  I floundered in the Louvre -- there is just too much.  I found the National Gallery to be a nice size -- large enough to have some great pieces, but small enough that one can get through several different eras in a single visit.  My wife likes the French impressionists, while I like the earlier Dutch, and there was good stuff for both of us to see.  I thought the modern art collection in the annex was pretty mediocre.  There is a fabulous huge Calder in the atrium, however, that is worth a quick peak inside.

Natural History Museum: This one is tough.  Either you have to see it for 5 minutes or 5 hours.  One can jam through and see the Hope diamond and the squid and a few other attractions, or one can really take time to learn from the exhibits, in which case one needs to be prepared to stay quite a while.  To the latter goal, I prefer the new reorganization of the Natural History museum in New York -- I think it is more logical and really helps one understand the evolution and relationship of species better.

Museum of American History: This museum has changed several times, looking to find its niche.  I think it used to be more of a technology museum.  I actually loved the old museum, full of old steam engines and machinery, but I think my kids liked the new version better, which is aimed more at being a history museum (there is still a technology portion, with some good machinery, cars, and trains, but it is smaller).  The military history section is good, and fills a niche that really hasn't existed before in this country, though it falls far short of, say, the Imperial War Museum in London.  My wife always likes to check out the first lady gowns.

International Spy Museum: I was kind of skeptical of this, thinking it might be like a Madame Tussuad's or some-such.  But this museum was fabulous.  It had great exhibits, and was very well organized.  Had the single best combination of any museum we went to of cool exhibits combined with teaching.  The kids loved it too, as there were some good kids activities and lots of interactive things.  In addition to the museum, we also did an interactive experience with a group of 12 folks for about an hour.  This was a simulated spy mission, complete with eavesdropping, breaking in and searching an office, interrogation, etc.  Maybe a bit campy for adults, it is very well done and the kids loved it.  Like Disney but much more interactive.  Note that both the museum and the experience require advanced reservations.

White House: Probably my biggest disappointment of the week.  Note that currently, the only way you can get a tour is through your Congressman -- you have to contact his or her office and get them to schedule you a time, and you have to submit some personal information in advance for security checks.  Having gone through this, I thought we might actually get, you know, a tour.  But instead all we got was the right to join an endless, really slow-moving line that allowed us to see about three rooms with no tour guide or interpretation.  Kids like being able to say they had been there, but that was about the only value.

Capitol: One can sign up for a public tour, in which case you will, from my observation, stand in some huge lines.  If you want to bypass this, and you are talking to your Congressperson already for the White House tour, see if you can get a staff-led private tour.  One of John Shadegg's aids showed about eight of us through the capital and into the House gallery.  She did a very good job (thanks Congressman Shadegg!) and we skipped most of the lines.  By the way, I did indeed see our new billion dollar visitor center.  It was enormously disappointing.  The public spaces were huge, but mostly filled with queues (apparently most of the space was appropriated by Congress for their own use as offices and meeting rooms).  We saw a film in a nice theater, but the propaganda meter was turned up pretty high  (They kept calling the capitol the "temple of liberty."  Really?  Someone must have forgotten to tell Congress).

Archives: You gotta go see the big documents.  The Bill of Rights, a copy of Magna Carta, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence are all there (though the Declaration has really faded).  If we have a "temple of liberty" in Washington, this is more rightly it.  Or maybe it is more rightly called the reliquary of liberty.  There can be a line, but this changes a lot through the day.  If it looks like a long wait, come back in a few hours and the line may be gone.  Also, they have opened up new galleries that are usually totally uncrowded with a lot of other cool documents.  I could have spent all day here but my family dragged me out.

Botanical Gardens: The surprise of the trip.  We tripped over this place by accident, as it seems to have few visitors.  I never even knew it existed, which is odd as it is cleverly hidden right on the mall next to the capitol.  The big glass conservatory has 8 or 9 zones with different plants from desert to tropical.  This is an outstanding place to decompress, and surprisingly my kids even liked it.  If you go, don't forget to go up the stairs to the catwalk in the jungle canopy, which includes a pretty unique view of the capitol building.

Places we missed but wanted to go:  Jefferson Memorial, Hershorn Gallery, Corcoran Gallery, Air and Space Museum Annex (near Dulles).

Many people seem to like the FBI tour, but I just couldn't stand the thought.

  • Bill

    I like the national arboretum.

  • silvermine

    I grew up outside dc. Heck of a place for family field trips. :) you must go back to see the jefferson memorial. It is the absolute best one.

  • Jonathan

    Another place to visit if you come back is the Udvar-Hazy Center (http://www.nasm.si.edu/UdvarHazy/), part of the Air & Space Museum, but located out by Dulles Airport. Exhibits include: Space Shuttle Enterprise, Concorde, SR-71, X-35, etc.

  • http://farsouthofi-10.blogspot.com/ joe

    Thanks for the link to the hotwire forums I think that will help a lot.

    we went to DC way back in august 2001 and we got a cheap deal on the watergate hotel combined with a flight on travelocity. the watergate
    was nice, it's run by sofitel and they have a great breakfast buffet but super expensive. Too bad about the white house tour, we got in to see
    more rooms, but it took getting in line at 4 in the morning to get tickets and it wasn't worth that much effort.

    it was weird but after washington we went to new york the following week. we didn't see the pentagon in DC or get out on the roof of the WTC,
    and two weeks later they were hit by planes, which led to a change in vacation policy; don't say we'll see it next time, go see everything.

  • http://neubranderinc.com/blog Nobrainer

    I second Jonathan's comment.

  • craigkl

    Agree with Silvermine about the Jefferson Memorial. The inscription on the frieze, "The tree of liberty must from time to time be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants," is enough to give you goosebumps. Best seen at cherry blossom time.

    Not a recommendation for haute cuisine, but the Congressional cafeterias are a great place to eat cheap. Subsidized, of course, but as you observe about the subway, might as well take advantage of it if you are being taxed for it. A long time since I've been there, but for period styling the Longworth House Office Bldg cafeteria would be my favorite. I wonder if the Longworth still has the manually operated elevators, a real testimonial to Congress's commitment to efficiency and elimination of waste.

  • ben

    Welcome back Coyote. Can't tell you how please I was to see new entries from Coyote on my reader this morning.

  • http://thegameiam.livejournal.com David

    Welcome back. Next time you're coming to DC, look me up, and I'll happily give you some more suggestions of the hidden places.

    I completely agree with the Udvar-Hazy Center suggestion, and another good one is the Library of Congress reading room: beautiful enlightenment-era artwork, and a Gutenberg Bible to boot!

  • http://lazax.com/blog Laza

    We were in DC about a year ago. I was amazed at the amount of taxpayer's money being spent there. Many government buildings were being renovated. Driving North on Wisconsin Ave, we saw such opulence that I thought existed only in Hollywood movies (for example, look at Fannie Mae castle on Google street view).

  • drew

    Jefferson and FDR memorials at night are my favorites. Fewer tourists, and the spotlighting at the FDR are excellent. Just don't think about FDR and his policies and it's fun!

  • Eric

    I'm glad to hear that intern-led tours are still available! Two summers ago, I worked as an intern for one of Minnesota's senators, and I really enjoyed giving tours of the Capitol. We were told that the new Capitol Visitor Center would probably elimate Congressional staff-led tours in favor of the "professional" tours offered by the cranky Capitol tour guides.

  • Vladtheimp

    Coyote,

    Having worked there for years, and involved in the construction of the Visitor Center and the renovation of the Botanic Garden Conservatory, you are spot on. The Visitor Center was plagued by micromanagement of Congressional Members, Committees,GAO and especially staffers who wielded unbelievable power with or without the knowledge of their Members, and by unconscionable grasping for space.

    The B.G. Conservatory is a must see, but it was also the subject of large amounts of bureaucratic meddling, and a $22 million dollar project was the subject of protracted contractor claims for an amount in excess of the original contract price. That's how the contracting game is played by the big guys with Congressional clout who focus on federal construction.

    Shame you missed the Thomas Jefferson building of the Library of Congress - its Reading Room and artwork scattered throughout the building are treasures and not to be missed if you visit DC again.

  • anonymous

    A few comments from one who works inside the Beltway and works downtown:

    (1) Yes, most restaurants in DC itself either suck or are ok but cost too much for the quality. There are exceptions. Use http://www.washingtonian.com's guides (top 100 overall and top 100 cheap eats).

    (2) Udvar Hazy is much, much better than the main Air & Space. You can stand a few feet from a real SR-71 blackbird. What else can I say?

    (3) The Old Post Office building is pretty neat -- and there's little/no line to go to the top of the tower for the 2nd best view in town. That's just north of the mall.

  • Craig

    "I thought the modern art collection in the annex was pretty mediocre."

    That can be said about any modern art collection.

  • http://jeffreyellis.org/blog/ Jeffrey Ellis

    I've been to the International Spy Museum too and agree it's well worth the time.

  • http://johnsterling.wordpress.com John Sterling

    Udvar-Hazy is a wicked awesome museum. However be sure to get the nomenclature corect. It's properly known as the "STEVEN F." Udvar-Hazy Center, which is helpful because the first name and middle initial distinguish it from all of those other "dime a dozen" Udvar-Hazy attractions choking every street corner.

  • Eric Hammer

    My wife and I visited DC a month ago, and found that Priceline can get you really good rates on rooms if you are not particular to where you stay. We ended up paying 50$ a night for a place just off Capitol Hill (I think it was called the Capitol Hill Suites). It was just a smallish room for 2 people, but was very nicely furnished and was really pleasant. Granted, it was two blocks from there to the Capitol which means it was about a half mile from the Smithsonian, and all the restaurants were on the other side of the Mall (except for a really nice little Thai place nearby) but we found it to be a great place to stay.

    Oddly though, we didn't like the Air and Space Museum, but spent about 8 hours over two days in the Natural History Museum. Of course my wife likes animals more than people, but still, the A&SM seemed sort of dull for how many people we had to shoulder through. The Botanical Gardens were a surprising treat as well.

  • Steve-O

    I know it's not "DC," but my reaction to Arlington was similar to your reaction to the Vietnam War Memorial. Combined with Montecello, it was worth the trip.

  • http://rashynullplanet.com/blog/ Matt

    Some of your impressions of DC remind me of a vacation I took to Missouri a couple months ago.

    I visited St. Louis and after touring the museum attached to the arch, I left more convinced than ever that the arch is symbolic not as the gateway to the west, but as the gateway to the swindling and genocide of native Americans.

  • Jon

    Just make sure when you ride the metro that you:

    1. stand on the right on the escalators and walk on the left.

    2. move to the middle of the metro and don't lean against the doors... the whole train shuts down if you break a door.