The Car-less Tourist’s Guide to Washington, D.C.: The Top 15 Must-See’s
20 April, 2012
Washington, D.C., is one of those cities – like Boston – where you don’t need a car to get around. In fact, if you brought a car along on your trip here, you would be greatly hampered…motor vehicle traffic, crazy driving, parking spaces that are hard to find, a gifting of your bank account when you are lucky enough to find parking space….’nuff said. Leave the car at home, and be prepared to walk and take Metro. Ladies and gentlemen, today is your lucky day, because straight from the mouth of a veteran Washingtonian, here is your royal guide to visiting and living it up in the nation’s capital: Washington, D.C.!
1. Start your trip with a visit to the Hillwood Museum, one of Washington’s best-kept secrets. In fact, it was not originally a museum. It was the estate of the late American millionaire and socialite, Marjorie Merriweather Post, and was converted into a museum to showcase her admirable collection of mostly French and Russian art and her spectacular gardens. If the sun is shining outside and the weather is beautiful, arrive early (by 10 am) and begin with a tour of the gardens. It will take you most of the rest of the day, because you’ll never want to leave. Unless you call ahead for a reservation at the café, be sure to pack a light lunch, which you can then have while basking in the sun and enjoying the sensational vistas in one of the many gardens around the estate. If the weather is not so good or rainy, begin your tour with the mansion. Be sure to start off with the 15-minute video shown regularly near the registration area. Then take your time to soak up the richness of Merriweather Post’s vast art collection with detailed close-up study of the intricacies and opulence of the handiwork. The audio-guide, provided at the registration desk, will offer valuable expertise on the worth and history of each piece. In this scenario, make sure to eat a substantive breakfast before you arrive at 10 am, as you may be so engrossed in the study of the mansion that you may not want to tear yourself away for a lunch break. (Metro Red Line: Van Ness/L1 or L2 bus to Tilden St. Follow the directions on the museum website.)
2. A month or two before you leave on vacation, schedule a tour of the Capitol. You will be glad of having done so, as the tour schedule is always booked a couple months into the future. Having done so, attend the Capitol visitor’s center for a tour of the stomping grounds of the most powerful government in the world. (Metro Blue Line: Federal Center.)
3. Continue your visit to Washington, D.C., with a walk from the Capitol, past the Capitol reflecting pool, down the National Mall (a strip of lawn connecting the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, and not an actual shopping mall), right up to the Tidal Basin and finally, the Lincoln Memorial. Take a camera. Once you reach the Lincoln Memorial, you will find refuge on the great limestone steps of the memorial, from which the Capitol is visible in the distance and where acapella groups and random music ensembles often perform.
4. On your jaunt from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, take some time to explore the myriad Smithsonian museums that line the National Mall. My personal favorites are the Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of American History.
5. Also during your walk on the National Mall, be sure to stop at the Washington Monument for a visit to the viewing platform at its peak. Advanced tickets, distributed at a nearby booth about an hour before each tour-led visit, are required but free.
6. Rain or shine, visit the National Zoo at the Adams Morgan/Woodley Park–Zoo metro station (Red Line). The giant pandas (Mama, Papa, and Baby Bear) are the resident celebrities of Washington, DC. For lunch or dinner, explore the international offerings of the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in D.C., as far as food is concerned.
7. Walk north on 15th Street or take the Metro Green Line to the U Street/Cardozo stop and explore the historic U Street neighborhood by night. Begin with dinner at Ben’s Chilli Bowl, a D.C. institution and also, famously, a pit stop for half-smokes whenever Bill Cosby is in town. Continue on to any of U Street’s night clubs or jazz clubs for some dance action or all that jazz. The Clarendon neighborhood (Metro Orange Line to Clarendon) also has an active night life, if you are craving the bar scene. Alternatively, there’s no place like Dupont Circle on a Saturday night; it’s got restaurants, bars, night clubs, (even three strip clubs), and a movie theatre all inconspicuously crammed between austere-looking office buildings and 5-star hotels. Live and discover.
8. Early on Saturday morning, hasten to Eastern Market on the Metro Blue Line (Eastern Market stop) for a Bluebucks (blueberry-buckwheat) pancake at the old supermarket. You’ll recognize it by the line that stretches half-way around the building. But it’s worth every minute of the wait. After brunch, linger on the grounds and explore the many arts and crafts assembled by traders from the tri-state area.
9. Plan B on a Saturday morning would be to visit the Farmer’s Market (spring, summer, fall only) in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood: Metro to Columbia Heights (Green Line), and walk to Park and 16th, or for an easier/more direct route, take the #42 bus from Dupont Circle to the very last stop. (The bus station is right in front of the market.) This is one of the best farmer’s markets in town, for all your fruit vegetable, fresh bread, flower, diary, meat, etc, etc needs. Spend a little time exploring the young, diverse, “small town” neighborhood of Mount Pleasant, while you’re there.
10. If the urge to go shopping strikes, I recommend the Friendship Heights neighborhood (upscale–home to the likes of Cartier, Neiman Marcus, and Versace; Metro Red Line to Friendship Heights, Western Ave. exit), the Prince George’s Plaza Mall (Green Line to PG Plaza; follow the crowd), the Pentagon City Mall (Blue Line to Pentagon City, exit on the left), or Metro Center (home to favorites such as American Apparel, H&M, Filene’s Basement, and Macy’s; Blue or Orange Line to Metro Center).
11. Hike Rock Creek Park (L1 or L2 bus in the direction of Friendship Heights station; alight at McKinley St. and climb uphill; there’s another entrance around Cleveland Park [Metro Red Line: Cleveland Park], but I’ve never been able to find it. Wear good shoes and pack a light lunch.
12. Visit the exciting neighborhood of Silver Spring (it’s in Maryland, but in D.C., you really won’t be able to tell the difference; Metro Red Line to Silver Spring). Catch a movie at the American Film Institute (AFI) cinema, browse the Border’s bookstore if you’re in the mood, and stop for a meal at any of a couple dozen international restaurants. My personal favorite is Lebanese Taverna. If you’re there on a Saturday night, Austin Grill (a rodeo, American cuisine affair) has live music, as do a number of other places. During the day and night, Silver Spring offers a lot in the way of shopping, eating, music, and film entertainment.
13. If you come in April, check with the White House Visitor’s Center on the Ellipse (lawn directly behind the White House south grounds), to see if free tickets for White House Garden tours are being issued (it happens only two weekends a year – in mid-April and mid-September). Nothing says “I’ve been to D.C.” like a picture of you in front of the West Wing or the White House rotunda.
14. If you have a loved one that served in the U.S. military and is buried in Washington, you may wish to pay a visit to the Arlington Memorial Cemetery (Metro Blue Line to Arlington Cemetery).
15. End your trip at the Hillwood Museum. If you started with the grounds when you first arrived, start with the mansion this time, or vise versa. It’s the perfect, regenerative end to an action-packed visit to Washington, D.C.
Thank you for coming! Please be sure to walk on the left and stand on the right on Metro escalators, next time around! (Just kidding.) (No, not really.) Ha ha, what can I say? That’s the Washingtonian way.