Visiting Washington DC
Washington DC may offer more great tourist destinations than any other city in America. Everywhere you turn is a fantastic museum, an incredible monument or historic building. As a photographer, I loved the fact that I could shoot photos in the museums and around the city. Even when viewing sensitive items like the Constitution, I could take photos as long as I didn't use a flash. In June 2009 we took two 16-year old boys to Washington DC. We spent a total of eight days on our vacation. I was concerned that our Xbox-addicted teens would get bored in Washington DC, but that wasn't much of a problem at all. This turned out to be a great place for a vacation for all of us.
I have provided a trip report on this visit to help you plan for your own Washington DC vacation.
Preparing for the Washington DC Vacation
Our Itinerary - If you've read my Italy trip reports, you know that I am a firm believer in establishing a structured itinerary for much of my trip. I did that for Washington DC and it worked out very well. The vacation had its ups and downs, some things were awesome and others weren't as good as we expected, but overall it was a tremendous trip. I was concerned that the boys would get bored but for the most part they were completely engaged, especially in the military exhibits or activities.
I set a pretty aggressive schedule for the trip, and were able to do almost all of it. Each day we scheduled half the day with prearranged attractions at specific times. For the other half of each day we plugged in tourist sites that didn't require reservations that were close to the ones we had reservations for. That gave us all the flexibility we needed to deal with weather issues but still allowed us to lock in the places that tend to sell out.
How well did this work? Well, in eight days we hit 23 tourist attractions, monuments, memorials and government buildings. (You can find the list of attractions below on this page.)
It gets even busier than that. Our trip included a day where we drove up to Gettysburg National Military Park, stayed overnight in Gettysburg, and then drove back the next day. So we actually made it to 23 sites, plus flying to and from Washington DC, in more like 6 days. In spite of this, we really didn't feel rushed except for one day - we tried to fit Mount Vernon and Arlington Cemetery into one day and that didn't work. Otherwise, we felt like we had enough time to enjoy the places we went.
Note: When arranging your itinerary, be sure to check the attractions' websites a week or two before the trip for chances. For example, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History has extended summer hours until 7:30 p.m. - BUT, they sometimes cancel the extended hours when they're hosting a special event as you can see here. Don't be caught off-guard.
Click here to see how our itinerary was set up. Note: This is an Excel spreadsheet.
Researching the Washington DC Vacation - As always, we devoted a lot of time to researching the trip. We read a variety of tour guides that were the most helpful resources we found. The books include:
- Frommer's Washington DC 2009
- The Real George Washington - Parry, Allison, Skousen, Published by National Center of Constitutional Studies
- Fodor's Washington DC 2009
- Insight Guides - Washington DC (published by Discovery Channel)
- Eyewitness Travel Washington DC - DK - traveldk.com
- Washington DC for Dummies 4th Edition
We were surprised to discover that there are very few good travel DVDs for Washington DC. We found several through our library, but they appeared to be made 40 years ago and were very poor quality. The National Geographic DVD Arlington Cemetery was excellent. The National Geographic DVD The Real George Washington was horrible - anything they could do to belittle Washington, they did it. Please do not buy or rent this DVD unless you just hate America or want to diminish one of our greatest forefathers with distortions, lies and half-truths.
We used several websites to research our trip. Most of them consisted of the websites for the various museums. I won't list them all out here - you can find them easily by searching on the museum's name.
Tourist Attractions in Washington DC:
What We Missed - We did miss a couple things on our list of places to see. We didn't get into the Friday night Marine band / silent rifle drill, White House tour or the Bureau of Printing and Engraving because we waited too long to request reservations. We went to Arlington Cemetery on Wednesday evening to see the Marine Parade at the Marine Memorial, but that got rained out. And we decided not to do the Army Band Concert on the Steps at the Capitol Building because my wife had blisters on her feet and we were all pretty tired.
We saw but did not go in:
- White House - Couldn't get reservations
- Supreme Court - Wasn't high enough on our priorities to go inside
- Jefferson Memorial - Too isolated. Wanted to go but we ran out of steam before we got out there.
- USAF Memorial - Drove past it a few times. I would have liked to go but we didn't have time.
- Pentagon - Same as USAF Memorial.
Other than those exceptions, we hit everything on our list!
As for what we did get to see . . .
US Capitol Tour - This activity is one we booked in advance, which is pretty much mandatory. You request reservations through the office of your congressman or senator and their staff sends you the free ticket vouchers. When you get to the Capitol, you go through security, then present the vouchers to the information desk and get your tickets. Everyone in your time slot (and there are probably a couple hundred) queues up to start the tour.
Perhaps I was expecting too much, but this tour was a bit of a let down for me. The tour started with a 20-minute movie (which was pretty good), then everyone broke into groups of 20-30. Our group was led up to the Capitol Rotunda, where we got a long explanation on every statue and painting there, including the artwork inside the dome. There were many, many groups in the Rotunda and the noise in there was overwhelming. If you have trouble hearing, stay close to your guide or he/she will be drowned out for you. Your group stays in one spot while in the Rotunda so unfortunately you don't get a chance for a close-up look at all the artwork. After that we moved to the Old Senate Chamber and saw a bunch more statues in there. Again, lots of groups and lots of noise. We returned to the Rotunda and then went downstairs to another room and saw a few more statues. After that, our tour was done.
Don't get me wrong. It was neat to see the Capitol, and the Rotunda is absolutely beautiful. I love sculptures and I enjoyed seeing many of them, particularly statues of Lincoln, Washington, Reagan, Jefferson, Robert E. Lee and Texans Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin. Our guide was very knowledgeable, personable and enthusiastic - he REALLY knew his stuff. It wasn't a long tour so it didn't wear you out. We were allowed to take pictures, which is always important to me.
You can enhance your experience by requesting chamber passes from your representative - for 15 minutes you can go into the visitor gallery of the House or the Senate and watch them spend your grandchildren's money. We decided not to do that - maybe the tour would have been more impactful if we had.
On the down side, the security limitations are somewhat absurd. You can't bring a shoulder bag in larger than a small notebook computer case, so plan to leave much of your camera equipment at the hotel. To their credit, the security people tried to work with visitors who weren't complying with the size requirements. One moron came waltzing up with a massive rolling suitcase, and they couldn't do much to help him, however. LOL I've already talked about the limitations of the tour, and the noise from all the groups - those detracted from the tour. Also, don't get too far from the tour or a security person will fuss at you. My wife walked across the Old Senate Chamber to get a photo and a guard sniped at her to return to her guide. If we must stay with the guide, that's fine; in that case, however, the group should at least walk around each room so you can get a closer look at each statue or painting.
They'll tell you in advance but you can't bring in drinks or food. They have water fountains near the bathrooms in case you get thirsty. Use the bathroom before you do your tour. I don't think they have facilities once you get started.
Clearly, Capitol Tour is worth doing - I mean, it's the Capitol, for crying out loud. Just temper your expectations and do the gallery visit.
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History - This museum was lots of fun! I didn't think it would appeal to me, but all of us enjoyed this place. Everywhere you turn there are stuffed critters to look at, including a massive blue whale hanging overhead. I liked the dinosaur exhibit quite a bit too. My wife sprung for the butterfly exhibit and had a ball walking through a room full of butterflies flitting all around. We oohed and ahhhed appropriately at the Hope Diamond and found the mummy and early man displays fascinating. Photography is allowed so you can go nuts with your camera too. All in all, we enjoyed spending a few hours at this museum. It kept the teen-agers happily occupied the full time.
Smithsonian Museum of American History - I love history, so I was straining at the leash to get into this museum. We all loved the military history gallery. The displays from all the wars were fantastic. In particular, the Hanoi Hilton and helicopter displays were very moving. We spent quite a bit of time in this gallery, as well as in the Lincoln and the Presidents exhibitions. For the most part, that was all that the museum offered us. We saw all the things you hear about every time someone talks about this museum: Ruby slippers, Archie Bunker's chair, Oscar the Grouch, Mohammed Ali's boxing gloves. Those were about the only notable things in the other exhibits. The Entertainment gallery was really small; the musical instruments section was comprised mostly of violins - almost no brass or woodwind instruments. The boys walked through that area and looked at us like, "Is that it?" The first floor wasn't interesting at all. Things like the evolution of the vacuum cleaner and the history of the steam engine just weren't something we wanted to see. The boys got bored by the end of our time here. We should have looked at the map and gone only to the galleries of interest to us.
On the plus side, photography was allowed almost everywhere and seeing the Star Spangled Banner that inspired our national anthem was a special moment for an old veteran like me, even though it was about the only think in the museum you can't photograph. We also appreciated the extended summer hours!
Smithsonian Air and Space Museum - Another great museum we all liked. I enjoyed seeing the famous old planes, like the Wright Brothers flyer and the Spirit of St. Louis. My wife and the boys loved the newer jets. We made fools of ourselves in front of the thermal camera display, but everyone else did too so that was OK. The museum itself was very manageable in size. You'd think a building full of aircraft would be huge but this one was not too big at all, and we had no trouble walking through every gallery of the museum. Of course, many of their aircraft are showcased at a second building, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
If you take younger kids to the Air and Space Museum, your favorite exhibition may be "How Things Fly." This gallery has lots of hands on activities designed just for kids. We walked through the exhibition and you could tell the kids just loved it. Plan to spend a half hour in this room with your kids as you budget your time.
The food court at the Air and Space Museum is probably worth missing. Their menu is a selection of things from McDonalds and a few other restaurants. We ordered McDonald food and it came out pretty bad.
We didn't try out the simulator, but we did go to the IMAX Fighter Pilot movie. This wasn't worth the money to us. Kind of a mushy, politically correct fluff film about a military training exercise. We should have spent the time on a simulator ride or the planetarium.
White House Visitor Center - This is located a block or so away from the White House. We didn't have it on our agenda but we had a little time while we were in that area so we went in. The center is basically one large room with exhibits lining the walls. The obligatory gift shop spans one wall. I found virtually nothing of interest at the visitor center. My wife literally doesn't remember even going there, so obviously it had little effect on her. It does offer a nice place to use the restrooms, sit down and get out of the heat, however. If you have younger kids, they have some tables set up where the kids can do puzzles and other activities. If your kids are getting tired of walking around, looking at things, you might want to stop by here and let them have a little fun. Otherwise, I can't think of much reason to go here.
Smithsonian Castle - My wife went into the castle. She thought it was pretty cool - they have recreated the pile of loot the villain puts together in the movie Night at the Museum 2. She and one of the boys had fun looking at the loot and seeing how many of the things they had seen in the various museums. They also saw Smithson's crypt. They didn't do the tour and didn't spend a lot of time in this building - from what she said she felt she saw all she needed to see there.
International Spy Museum - We put this one on our itinerary for the boys. We figured that even if they got bored looking at stuffed animals and musty museum displays elsewhere, they certainly would enjoy seeing all the cool spy-vs.-spy stuff. We also bought tickets for Operation Spy, an interactive role playing adventure. My plan was to send the boys to Operation Spy. My wife wanted to do it too, but only if I did it. I didn't want to, but finally conceded and got a ticket for myself as well.
Operation Spy was a blast. It's really well set up. The employees do a great job of trying to make it realistic and the sets they have for the adventure are extremely well done. They make you think as you go through the adventure, and it's very easy to slip into the role and make it seem very real. They limit the adventure to ages 12 and up and that's a good idea. Kids under 12 wouldn't understand all the steps in the adventure. Our 16 year olds LOVED it.
After we finished Operation Spy we toured the museum. All in all it was an OK museum, especially if you're someone who likes to read spy novels. No photography is allowed in the museum. That sucks but I think it's because of copyright restrictions for a lot of the material on display.
If I had to do it all over again, I might just get the Operation Spy tickets and skip the museum, especially since the tickets aren't free (like other museums). We all ran out of interest before we ran of spy museum exhibits. They pack a lot of stuff into a relatively small space.
Holocaust Museum - We were at the Holocaust Museum only two days before the shooting that killed the security guard there. (We also were in Washington DC only a week before the metro train crash - I think we were bad luck for the city.) This is another place where we made our reservations well in advance. I don't know if the place was sold out when we got there, but there were a LOT of people in there.
The museum is a bit confusing when you first arrive. You're not sure whether to go downstairs or upstairs, and the main area is a noisy sea of people (lots of middle school and high school kids).
If you go downstairs, there is a movie theater there that runs short movies on the Holocaust. We sat through one and found it to be definitely worth watching. After that we went upstairs and figured out where we were supposed to go for our timed tickets.
When our time finally came, we took an elevator to the top and made our way through the exhibits back down to the main floor. I've read a great deal about World War II and the Holocaust so there was very little on display that I wasn't aware of. That said, some of the displays had a definite emotional impact. I'm sure every person is hit by a different thing - for me, seeing the uniforms the Jews wore in the concentration camps jolted me. The pile of shoes didn't hit me as hard as the massive diorama showing the gas chamber at Auschwitz, and the explicit videos of executions had less effect than did the eye glasses and other personal effects from victims. Like I say, I'm sure it's different for each person. I will say this though; if you can walk through that rail car and not come out at least a little haunted, you have no soul. THAT was powerful.
One thing they did at the Holocaust Museum that I thought was smart. Some of the videos on display are very graphic and very disturbing. These videos are shown on monitors that are lying on the floor behind a wall. You have to look down over the wall to see them. The wall is tall enough to keep shorter people (i.e., younger kids) from seeing them. That's a good idea, although I have to question why any parent would bring a younger child in to that museum.
I'm not sure how our boys felt about this museum. They didn't say a lot but they didn't seem like they'd been affected by the museum. Of course, when you ask them about it you get the typical teen-age "I dunno." If I had to guess I'd say they didn't really think much of the Holocaust Museum. In retrospect, we probably should have left this one off the itinerary, especially with the boys there. A school field trip? Maybe. A family vacation . . . probably not so much.
No photography is allowed in the exhibitions.
Navy Memorial - My wife and the JROTC boy went into the Navy Memorial (an underground museum) while the other boy and I cooled our heels in the plaza above. They seemed to enjoy the memorial but almost got locked in to a retirement ceremony being held there. LOL This memorial is right across the street from the back side of the National Archives. If you get to the archives early and want to kill a little time, this might be a very good and convenient place to do it. According to my wife, it's a very small museum and doesn't take long to go through. All types of photography are allowed.
National Archives - The National Archives isn't the easiest place to visit. The lines are long and they let too many people in to the document viewing area at once, so it's a bit of a mob scene. The room where the documents are displayed are necessarily very dark. That makes photography a major challenge. You can take pictures but you can't use a flash, so expect to be shooting at your highest ISO.
It was all worth it, though. To see the Constitution, the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence . . . what a powerful moment that was to a flag-waving history fan like me. My wife liked it too, although the crowding hordes bothered her quite a bit. Our teenage boys didn't grasp the significance of what they were seeing and they were bored. Hopefully they'll appreciate it later.
While we were there, a couple families put everyone through hell by bringing their infants and toddlers along. The kids screamed in the room where the Constitution was on display, which is essentially a big echo chamber, and the parents didn't take the kids out of the room. The pain was excruciating. If you have young kids or babies, please have some consideration for the rest of the visitors. Little kids will get nothing out of the National Archives, will get bored quickly, won't like the crowds, and will probably throw a fit. If at all possible, don't take the little ones in here. If you can't avoid doing that, at least be considerate of everyone else and if your child starts screaming, please take them out of the room.
Fords Theater / Peterson House - This was an excellent addition to our itinerary. We made advance reservations for Fords Theater and were glad we did.
As with other tourist sites, arriving early won't help you. They won't let you in early. (If you do get there early, there is a Hard Rock Café nearby to sell you some adequate, overpriced food.) When we first entered, they took us directly into the audience area of the theater. A park ranger came out on stage and talked for about 15 minutes. She did a great job, telling the story of the theater's history and the night of April 14, 1865 when Abraham Lincoln was shot. We had plenty of time to look around the theater as she talked, and we stuck around for a little while afterwards to take lots of pictures. We went up into the balcony for a different view and more photos. All types of photography are allowed in Fords Theater.
The theater has been beautifully restored and they have the box set up like it was that fateful night in 1865. The theater is still being used for plays; I bet it would be great to watch a play in that venue.
Don't lose your ticket to Ford's Theater or you won't be able to get into the Peterson House, where Lincoln died. You can use your ticket from Ford's Theater to go into the Peterson House any time the same day. This is a quickie tour, only three rooms, but it's definitely worth doing.
Library of Congress - This wasn't on our itinerary, but we had some time after leaving the Capitol so we stopped by.
There just wasn't a lot to see at the Library of Congress. The common area of the building (entrance, lobby, second floor space circling the lobby) is very pretty if you're interested in architecture, and you can take all types of pictures there. There wasn't a lot else in the common area to draw our interest, however. The Guttenberg Bible is worth seeing. That's really all there is to see. We were told that we couldn't see the big library room (the found room with concentric circles of desks that you see on all the movies and TV shows) unless we were on a tour. We snuck in at the tail end of a tour to see the room, but no one was allowed to take pictures in there.
Going here was pretty much a waste of time for us.
Old Post Office Pavilion Tower - My wife thought the views from the top of the tower were as good as those from the Washington Monument, and it was less crowded. Mesh encloses the top of the tower, making it less than desirable for photography, however. The first floor of the building has a bunch of really crummy food places. We ate dinner here one evening and it was a chore finding food that even looked appetizing.
Don't go out of your way to visit the Old Post Office Pavilion Tower unless you want that view - which you can get at the Washington Monument.
Arlington Cemetery (wreath laying and changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington House, Kennedy grave, Tomb of Unknown Confederate Soldier, Challenger and Columbia Memorials, USS Maine Memorial) - What a powerful place. The fields of tombstones are overwhelming. One of our boys is in JROTC, and visiting Arlington Cemetery was a sobering experience for him. The tomb guards in particular had a big effect on him. I think he really appreciated the time we spent there. Our other boy also enjoyed going to Arlington although it wasn't as meaningful for him. There were a couple areas he wanted to see - the Tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldiers, the Challenger Memorial, for example - and he liked seeing those.
We drove to the cemetery in the rental car we took to Gettysburg. This worked fine for us; traffic wasn't bad (this was a Sunday) there was plenty of parking close to the visitor center. Otherwise, we could have taken the Metro Blue Line and gotten off at the Arlington Cemetery station. Transportation to and from Arlington Cemetery is pretty easy, regardless how you do it. I can't vouch for traffic in that area on weekdays, however.
We made the mistake of getting to Arlington Cemetery later in the afternoon. By the time we parked, walked into the visitor center, purchased our tickets for the tour mobile, waited for the next shuttle and got on it, we had very little time to ride around the cemetery before the shuttles stopped. The shuttle rides end 30 minutes prior to the cemetery's closing, and shuttles stop at only four locations in the cemetery. The Arlington House was closed as well so we didn't get to go inside. Given how spread out things are, the Tour Mobile is almost a necessity. When you plan your trip, go to Arlington Cemetery first and schedule other activities afterwards so you can get the most value for your Tour Mobile ticket. Here is more Tour Mobile information.
Be sure to use the bathrooms and drink some water before you go out of the visitor's center. I'm assuming you can take a water bottle with you but otherwise they don't permit food or drink in the cemetery.
The tomb guards were incredible. We sat through two guard changes and two wreath-laying ceremonies. From a photographic standpoint, this was a very good idea. For the first guard change, I videotaped and took pictures from the top of the steps. For the second change and the wreath ceremonies, I was at ground level, off to the side where the guards enter and leave the space. All types of photography are allowed. I was struck by how silent and respectful the crowd was for the entire time. There is something intensely sobering and powerful about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. The amazing devotion and commitment of the tomb guards and the gravity of a memorial for soldiers who not only gave their lives but their very identities all seem to subdue visitors with a reverent quiet.
While we were at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, a girl dropped her cell phone and it bounced into the restricted space between the tomb guard and the public area. The tomb guard actually shot her for this. Okay, he didn't shoot her, I'm just kidding. Fortunately, she was smart enough NOT to try and retrieve it herself. An off-duty tomb guard came over, picked up the camera, carried it out of the restricted space, then came around from behind to give it back to the girl. Be sure to stay out of the restricted space - and keep your kids out of there - at all costs. Remember there is a zealous soldier with a rifle and bayonet who is defending that space. I don't know what he'd do but I guarantee it won't be nice.
I would encourage you to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the morning or early afternoon. We were there later in the day and the shadows interfered with the shots. Before you go, be sure to watch National Geographic's DVD on Arlington Cemetery. It shows what the guards have to go through to earn that Tomb Guard badge, and it makes you appreciate the experience all the more.
I was disappointed with the attitudes of the park rangers we met at Arlington. It seemed that most of them were like all too many mall cops; you give them a badge and a patch on their shoulder and they develop "I've got a stick up my ass" syndrome. One ranger told my wife she'd have to run to see the Kennedy gravesites because it was closing in (by his watch) 10 seconds. Then, when I came walking up 30 seconds later, he was a wise-ass and wouldn't let me in. Other conversations with park rangers at Arlington were similarly as pleasant. There just seemed to be a general attitude that they were there to look down on you and tell you what not to do rather than help you do what you want and are supposed to do.
On the other hand, the security guards in front of the cemetery gates were very nice. I walked out and asked them for directions to the U.S. Marine Memorial and they couldn't have been more helpful.
Don't worry about the cocky park rangers. You have to go to Arlington Cemetery if you're anywhere near Washington DC. Arlington Cemetery is an emotional farm, of sorts. It is made of endless fields where courage, honor and patriotism have been planted in perfect rows, nourished with the blood of thousands of fallen soldiers and millions of tears from their families. What you harvest from these fields is what you choose to take with you from your experience.
US Marine Memorial (Iwo Jima statue) - Many people think this memorial is part of Arlington Cemetery, but it's not. It's located just outside the cemetery, rather oddly placed in a small park in a fairly residential area. It's just a bit of a juxtaposition, walking into this relatively nondescript park by a bunch of apartments and houses and seeing this massive, powerful monument right there.
We drove to this memorial from Arlington Cemetery and were able to find parking easily along one of the bordering roads. (Again, this was on a Sunday - I don't know what it's like on weekdays.) I also don't know how you'd get to it without a car . . . probably a bit of a hike from a Metro station, or maybe it's on a bus route.
What a powerful memorial this is. The dramatic figures raising the massive US flag . . . it's awe-inspiring. I hope you find your way to this memorial on your trip. It's worth the effort, not just to drive by but to stop and take it all in.
Mount Vernon - We left Gettysburg early on Sunday morning so we could drive to Mount Vernon. After Mount Vernon, we went to Arlington Cemetery. This was the only day of our trip where we over-scheduled things. We should have spent more time at Mount Vernon, and should have arrived at the cemetery much earlier in the day.
Mount Vernon was packed when we got there. We managed to find a parking spot in one of the remote lots and hiked in to the visitor center. The visitor center is very nice - we watched a movie on Washington's life that was extremely well produced. If you like the movie, you can buy the DVD of it from the gift shop there in the visitor center; don't buy it thinking that you get an extended version of the movie or more information on the DVD, however. Somehow my wife got the impression there was more in the DVD than just the same movie we watched at the visitor center and we were disappointed by that.
Unfortunately, we didn't have time to go through the visitor center's museum. We had to hustle to get to the meeting point for the National Treasure 2 Tour we had made reservations for.
Allow me to save you some time and money. Don't bother with the National Treasure 2 Tour. They manage to fit 15 minutes of information about the movie into an hour-plus tour. As part of the tour you walk down to the shore of the Potomac (which you can do without being in the tour). That's not so bad. Walking back UP from the shore is a workout for old codgers like us - they do have a little shuttle that will haul you up the hill if you'd like to wait for it. Save the money and time and skip this one.
As we climbed back up the hill we stopped at the mausoleum for George and Martha Washington, which was a neat experience. Such an austere resting place for such a great man and his wife. We continued up the hill and passed gardens and farm animals, maintained in commemoration of Washington's first love - farming. That returned us to Mount Vernon itself.
Sadly, this is where our time at Mount Vernon ended. We'd spent all that time on the National Treasure 2 Tour, and didn't have any time left to go inside the mansion. There was a long, long line to get in to the building and we didn't have time to wait through the line and then tour the building, not if we wanted to go to Arlington Cemetery as well.
Our teen boys were not entertained by Mount Vernon; I think it would have been a LOT more interesting for them if we'd had time to go inside the house. Bear in mind as well that this was at the end of our vacation and the boys had been in a lot of museums already.
Learn from our misfortune here. Leave plenty of time for Mount Vernon and its visitor center museum, and avoid the movie tour. You'll appreciate having more time to look around the property and enjoy the view of the Potomac from the back side of the house. The movie in the visitor center is worth budgeting time for as well.
All types of photography are allowed outside of the mansion. No photography is allowed inside the mansion. I am not sure what photography is allowed in the museum.
The National Mall and Memorial Parks - We set aside one day to hike around the National Mall and memorial parks areas between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. We walked a full circuit from the Washington Monument over to the World War II and Declaration of Independence Signers Memorials, up to the Viet Nam and Lincoln Memorials. Then back along the other side of the reflecting pool to the Korean War, World War I memorials and back to the Washington Monument. It was worth the several miles walked and the time we gave to visit these places. I think a full day is about right to walk this route - we covered several miles. Here's where we went.
- Washington Monument - Definitely worth the time to go to the top. This is one of those places you want to get reservations for in advance. I guess you can show up in the morning and get tickets, but we found it much easier to do our reservations in advance. The day we were there, all tickets for the day had been given out well before noon. If you do make online reservations, make sure you go to the ticket area and exchange your receipt for actual tickets before getting in line. The park rangers get really fussy with you if you try to enter with the receipt. All types of photography are permitted, but pay attention to the limits on the size of the bags you can take in.
- Korean War Memorial - Also a good memorial. The soldier statues are very dramatic.
- Viet Nam War Memorial - Nothing needs to be said about this one.
- Declaration of Independence Signers Memorial - Off the beaten path, one of our boys wanted to see this memorial. I sent him over there with my camera and he took the pictures you'll find on this site.
- Lincoln Memorial - Awe-inspiring. My favorite memorial. If you have trouble with stairs, they have an elevator from ground level that takes you from the gift shop up to the memorial itself.
- World War I Memorial - Largely forgotten, this is tucked into the woods near the Korean War Memorial. That's too bad. World War I veterans were every bit as heroic as those of other wars.
- World War II Memorial - Large, somewhat disjointed but worth spending time here. I can't believe it took so long to get this memorial done.
By the time we'd visited all these memorials, we didn't have the steam to trek out to the Jefferson Memorial. I'm sorry we missed that one, but even the boys were out of fuel by this point. Washington DC needs to come up with some form of transportation to the Jefferson and FDR Memorials - they're so isolated compared to the other monuments. We spoke with a guy working at the World War II Memorial and he said they get a lot of elderly tourists who just can't walk that kind of distance.
Random Observations on Washington DC
Check Bag Size Restrictions - This is an important tip - PAY ATTENTION TO SIZE RESTRICTIONS FOR BAGS AT ALL TOURIST SPOTS IN WASHINGTON DC. For places like the Capitol Building, if your camera bag is too big you will be turned away. The park rangers at the Washington Monument can be fussy about this as well, I've been told. They don't have lockers where you can store your stuff. You can find this information on the websites for the various attractions.
Our Hotel - We purchased our airfare through Yahoo Travel but got the hotel room as a prepayment deal through Embassy Suites' website, and got about the best total price we could find for the quality of hotel and flight times we wanted. There were many, many options for hotels. We finally elected to go with Embassy Suites - Crystal City, in Arlington Virginia. The Embassy Suites offered the following advantages:
- Free breakfast - not a dry, nasty muffin and watery juice, but a full breakfast with eggs made to order, bacon and sausage, etc. By eating a big (free) breakfast we found we could minimize our lunch purchases and save money.
- Internet access - we didn't read the website close enough. The rooms have Internet access . . . but you have to pay an outrageous fee every day to use it. We hauled our notebook along on the trip and then didn't use it because we didn't want to get bankrupted by the charges. Booo. They do have a small room by the pool with three computers you can use for free. We ended up checking our emails there.
- Shuttle service - Embassy Suites offered a free shuttle to/from the airport, as well as to a metro station and a few other places. We ended up using the shuttle a lot and it was a leg-saver. They even took us to the car rental place and picked us up from there. Good stuff.
- Free drinks every night at the manager's reception - We didn't think we'd be back to the hotel in time to hit the daily manager's reception, but we actually made use of this a few times. My favorite brand of beer is free, and they had those on tap every evening.
- Pool and hot tub - We used this almost every night. Our legs HURT after all that walking and the hot tub felt great. The boys ended up in the pool, one more than the other. There were about eight billion unruly kids in the hotel while we were there, and they swarmed the pool to the point where the lifeguard wouldn't let anyone else in for awhile. Yes, the pool had a life guard, a foreign exchange college student from the Ukraine who actually took her job very seriously. You parents with younger kids would appreciate that. The girl also wore her swimsuit very well. Our teen boys appreciated that.
We got a two-room suite that was spacious and very comfortable. The boys shared the fold-out bed in the living room and we had the king-sized bed in the bedroom. On the first day the boys squalled for a bit about sharing the bed, but they were so tired every night from all the walking that they went to sleep with very little fussing. It had a refrigerator and a microwave. We made good use of those. We picked up sodas and food from the drug store at Crystal City Mall and avoided the expensive drinks from the hotel machines and really outrageous food service menu.
We thought the employees were all very helpful and friendly. They represented Embassy Suites very well.
We had one problem with the hotel, and it was a big one. On Friday evening we got back to our room and found a disposable flash light sitting on the table. This should have been an indicator that we were in trouble. We also found a note that said the hotel would be shutting down most of their electrical systems THAT NIGHT from 11:00 until 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. the next morning for "routine maintenance." Okay, my first question was, why did they wait until the last minute to tell us? Next question - if this was routine maintenance, it had to have been scheduled for some time . . . why weren't we told about this when we booked our reservations?
11:30 rolls around and off goes our power. No clock, TV, fridge or air conditioning. My wife heard another guest complaining to an employee that their child had diabetes and needed to keep their insulin cold. They were told to pack the insulin in ice from the ice machines. One member of our family has medical equipment that needs power - no luck there either. We raised the issue to a security guard, who got on his cell phone and called a supervisor. There was nothing they could do but move us to another hotel. So at 11:30 we're going to pack up, wake up two sleeping kids, drag them down five flights of stairs and go out to find another hotel?
The situation was completely unacceptable. We didn't pay to stay in a costly hotel with stone-age accommodations. I don't think we were unreasonable to assume that our air conditioning, microwave, fridge and TVs would actually have electricity to power them.
We have written a letter of complaint to the hotel and asked to be reimbursed for that night. If we are reimbursed we will update this review accordingly.
It's a shame - other than this situation, we really liked the hotel in spite of the confiscatory rates for Internet access in your room. But we can't recommend a place that communicates poorly and leaves their guests high and dry with little warning. If they make it right, we'll change our recommendation.
Metro - We don't have much of a rail system in Dallas / Fort Worth. They have DART in Dallas and something else in Fort Worth - we almost never use them as our cities are too spread out to make rail systems feasible for most people. For that reason we were completely ignorant about the Metro system in Washington DC and frankly we were a bit nervous about going without a rental car and relying on the subway.
The Metro's website wasn't much help. They've got tickets and passes and different prices for different times of day and longer and shorter rides. Trying to understand the system from their website was a lost cause. We found a podcast online that tried to explain the Metro; that wasn't much help easier. They talked about how easy the Metro is, then launched into 15 minutes of tickets and passes and different prices for different times of day and longer and shorter rides. Sensing a pattern here?
I finally found our solution in a travel guide that mentioned a one week unlimited pass. THAT was the simple solution I was looking for.
After flying into DC, we shuttled to our hotel checked in, and then walked to the Crystal City mall. Inside was a Metro Store where we could purchase these golden unlimited pass tickets. Golden they were - I think they cost around $40 each for a week. They were worth it though. For about the cost of a car rental for a week we had free run of the Metro. No looking for parking, no gas, no parking fees that everyone charges. If you want SIMPLE go with the unlimited travel pass.
Note: You can't get these passes at all metro stops, and the Metro website is comparably incoherent when it comes to finding places to buy these passes. You can order the passes in advance and have them mailed to you, or you can call the Metro's customer service number on their website and they can steer you to a place close to where you'll be located. Your week doesn't start until your first train ride, so there's no problem with purchasing the passes in advance.
We spent a lot of time on the Metro, and that was a godsend. It is remarkably clean, efficient, safe and well-organized. That allowed us to stay in Arlington VA and commute in to the city, avoiding all the insane roads, parking, etc. in Washington.
For you subway newbies, here's a brief summary of how you'll use the Metro with the unlimited pass.
There are five different "lines" of Metro trains. The lines are designated Red, Blue, Yellow, Green and Orange. With your unlimited pass you can ride any of these lines, transfer from one to the other, whatever you like. Note that many of the stations are serviced by more than one color. For example, the Smithsonian Station is serviced by Blue and Orange trains.
Each line travels in two directions. The directions are designated by the end destination for that direction. For example, the Blue line runs from Franconia-Springfield to Largo Town Center. So, depending on which way you want to go you'll get on the Blue Line - Franconia-Springfield or the Blue Line - Largo Town Center. How do you know which way to go? Well, you look on one of the maps that are all over the place, see where you are, then see where you want to go.
Now you're ready to hit the train. You go down the escalator from street level to the underground. Be sure to stand to the right because sure as hell, some moron will come waltzing down the escalator, in such a hurry that he or she can't just ride it down. That extra seven seconds they save will have a life-changing impact, I'm sure. Get off the escalator and follow the crowd to the turnstiles. Insert your pass into the slot on a turnstile. It will either go in and kick back out, or it will go in and pop out the top. Once you get your pass back, pass through the turnstile. Now look for lists of train stops on the pillars. You will see two sets of tracks. The signs on the pillars will tell you which train will be on which track. Find the list that shows the station you want to go to, then head over to the track where that pillar sign points you to.
In a few minutes your train will arrive. Look overhead to see LED signs that tell you how long you have to wait for the next train. Very helpful and accurate, those signs. As a train approaches, you'll see the red floor lamps along the edge of the walkway start to flicker. The train will roll in to a stop, the doors open and people get off, and then you get on.
A few helpful tips about getting on the trains. First, don't stand close to the edge of the walkway. You'll see a bumpy surface on the ground along the edge - don't stand on that bumpy surface or locals will fuss at you. Next, try to get on near the front of the train. You will find that those cars are typically less crowded than the cars in the middle or back of the train. Next, let people get off before you get on. Next, don't dawdle. The doors don't stay open for long. Finally, do NOT eat or drink on the train. Apparently you can get a fine for doing so.
Stay on the train until you reach your desired station. They announce each stop over the intercom but more often than not you can't hear or understand them. As you come in to each station, look out at the station walls. The station name is typically printed there so you can track where you are. What happens if you miss your station? No problem - you've got an unlimited pass. Just get off at the next station, wait a couple minutes and catch a metro coming back the opposite direction.
When you get to your station, exit the train. Follow the mass of people, typically up an escalator, and to the turnstiles. You have to insert your pass again to exit the station. Then you're up the escalator (standing to the right as self-important people push their way up the left side).
That's all there is to it. The trickiest part is reading the signs on the pillars and making sure you get on the train heading the right direction.
Timed Tickets to Tourist Attractions - In most cases, if you have timed tickets, don't bother trying to get in line early. If your ticket is for 2:00, don't show up at 1:30 and expect to get in right away. Maybe 1:50 or 1:55, but not before then. They tend to stick to the ticket times very closely at most attractions.
Pocket Maps - We found pocket maps to be very helpful as we navigated the city. We picked up some freebie maps at the White House Museum and they helped us quite a bit.
Pentagon City Mall - Holy cow, this mall is huge! Four stories of stores. My wife thought she'd died and gone to heaven. Conveniently located at the Pentagon City Metro Stop, we used this mall a lot. Our hotel's shuttle would take us between the hotel and the mall, which beat walking to the hotel . . . especially after hiking several miles in the city. Lots of good choices for food places here.
Crystal City Mall - Very small in comparison to Pentagon City Mall. We used this one occasionally for getting sodas, food for the room, etc.
I'm glad we took:
- Mini backpacks - My wife found a couple 12" backpacks at Walmart for about $10 each for the boys to use on the trip. You can see the mini backpack next to a regular school backpack in the picture to your right. I was a bit skeptical at first - I didn't think the boys would use them. But they did. They were small enough so the boys could wear them for long periods without them becoming too heavy and they passed even the most strict security limitations. But they were big enough to carry the few things (water bottle, wallet, Sony PSP or Ipod) that the guys wanted to have with them. These turned out to be a smart choice.
- Ipods, Sony PSP and Nintendo DS - You might be inclined to tell your kids to leave these things at home. Our guys used these things in the hotel as they rested during the evenings, on the plane, in the car - and we had no trouble getting them to put away the toys when it came time to do things.
- Water bottles - You can keep buying bottle water for $3 a bottle, or you can take your own bottle and refill it as needed. I preferred to save the money and take a bottle with me. We had a fridge in our hotel room, and my wife went so far as to freeze a bottle of water and take it with her every day. She had cold water for most of the day by doing so.
Our Cameras - Most of my comments on our photographic equipment can be found on the What Camera Equipment Do We Use? page.
Camera Bags and Other Photographic Equipment - Normally I use the Lowepro Slingbag 300 Camera Bag. Unfortunately, some Washington DC places won't allow this bag through security as it's too big. This trip I had to haul two bags with us - my Slingbag 300 and my wife's slightly smaller Slingbag 200. In places with tight security I used the 200. In other places I wanted the larger bag because it could carry more lenses. My wife used a smaller shoulder bag for her camera. See the What Camera Equipment Do We Use? page for more discussion on the Slingbag camera bags. Also see this page for my comments on lenses, flash units, media cards and tripods.
Gettysburg - About three weeks before our trip, I got the crazy idea to take one day from the vacation for a trip to Gettysburg. I knew virtually nothing about the Civil War or Gettysburg, but I love history and thought it might be a cool place to go. Looking on the maps, I realized it was less than 90 minutes' drive from Washington DC, a piece of cake. My wife was not entirely pleased with my suggestion to throw a day trip into our already planned itinerary. Then I pointed out that I'd seen on TV that Gettysburg was supposed to have all kinds of ghosts and immediately she was on board. The history didn't interest her but the ghost stories appealed to her sense of adventure.
We went on a blitz to research Gettysburg. We found several videos and books at the library. We downloaded several podcasts from civilwartraveler.com that provided a tremendous amount of information. We even bought the movie "Gettysburg" from Wal-Mart and watched that. The more we researched, the more excited we got about our side trip. By the time we left, I understood the battle of Gettysburg in great detail, how it happened, what took place there, what was the relevance of places like Devil's Den or Little Round Top or the Wheatfield. We were ready to visit Gettysburg National Military Park.
So how was Gettysburg? In a word, awesome. But you'll have to read the Gettysburg trip report for more information.
Washington DC Travel Photographs
After you've read the trip report, be sure to check out the Washington DC Travel Photos to see all the great tourist sites and get excited about your trip!
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