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.