The US capital for thrifty travellers
If the abundance of empty seats on my plane is anything to go by, Washington DC is not the most popular choice of holiday destination, for Brits anyway. While it may not make your list of must-see cities, if you find yourself on the US east coast with a spare day or two and have a fondness for history and culture, it’s definitely worth a visit. Not least because many of its impressive sights are FREE, making it an ideal stop for the thrifty traveller.
You may want to hurry – who knows what the border policy will be like if you-know-who is elected…
Here are 7 tips for visiting the US capital
1. The National Mall
The National Mall will seem immediately familiar to anyone who has watched any US-set political thriller, or indeed the news. On the western side big Abe Lincoln looks serenely across the reflecting pool towards the Washington Monument (the one that looks like an ancient Egyptian spaceship), and the Capitol beyond.
The National Mall actually represents several sights, so it’s a little unfair to count this as one thing. It is here that you’ll find impressive national monuments and a range of museums (all free, largely thanks to Mr Smithson!). You could easily spend a couple of days exploring just this area.
If you have just one day, I would suggest tackling the monuments first (on the western side of the Mall) as museums only open at 10am. Plus, you’re more likely to skip them through fatigue if you leave them ’til last, unless you return at night to view them in their illuminated and shadowy glory.
If you start early (I found myself there at 8am) you can enjoy the sights without people photobombing your pictures. (This is the only place where I’ve seen tour groups endearingly wear matching souvenir T shirts). Also, if you’re keen to climb the Washington Monument for elevated views of the capital / Capitol you’re more likely to secure tickets by turning up early doors – by 9am the (mainly American) tour groups were out in force.
Before heading up the steps to the Lincoln Memorial, head south to take in the Korean War Veterans Memorial‘s haunting battlefield sculpture. Then cross the road to get to the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, on the edge of the Tidal Basin. They’re both easy to miss but worth seeing. Watching people of all ethnicities take pictures of Dr King’s giant stone likeness was a reminder that progress has been made, despite the rise of Trumpism and the continuing struggles against prejudice.
Once you’ve finished with the monuments (I’ve not listed them all by the way), you may want to take a de-tour off the Mall and head up 17th St NW to have a peek at the White House (see point 2) before hitting the museums.
The choice of museums is overwhelming, even for the most avid information collector, so the key is to plan. Perhaps focus on what you wouldn’t find in your home country and be disciplined, choosing specific exhibits.
I managed three: the National Museum of American History, spending most of my time in the objects room; covered a fair amount of the National Air and Space Museum – I was unfortunately too tired to fully appreciate its excellent collection, some of which you can step into and touch. Lastly was the National Gallery of Art, where I single-mindedly tackled only the American artists, as my feet were sending me death threats. The stunningly housed National Museum of African American History and Culture will be opening soon, which I would have liked to see, along with the National Museum of the American Indian but was unable to. Again, this list is not exhaustive…
If you would like to see the tomb of the man responsible for all this free knowledge (of course you do!), James Smithson‘s tomb can be found near the entrance of the pleasingly elaborate Smithsonian Castle. You can also grab a coffee here, though the interior cafe doesn’t live up to the exterior’s promise. If you do visit, check out their small collection, especially the taxidermied animals sitting languidly above the exhibition cabinets.
Obvious tip: wear comfortable shoes for your Mall day. You will walk A LOT.
Less obvious tip: think about taking some snacks or a packed lunch – there aren’t that many places to eat on the Mall, apart from the refreshment booths by the museums which have fairly limited options. There are a few street vans around (selling mainly hot dogs) and a McDonalds by the Air and Space Museum. If none of those sound appealing, the cafe at the American Indian museum is supposed to be quite good…
Bonus tip: the Smithsonian museums all offer free wifi!
2. The White House
If you’re short of time, you can probably skip this, as it’s essentially just a big white mansion, which you can only see through the railings. Or, like me, from across the road as the (not so) Secret Service cleared the thoroughfare for someone important to enter or exit the building (the Friendly Snipers* did, however, wave as they scrutinised us through their binoculars from the White House roof).
You may be able to arrange a tour through your embassy, but you will need to contact them about three months in advance. If you’re not that organised, head to the White House Visitor Centre where you can take a virtual tour and view various artefacts for FREE.
*Good band name, which I am now copyrighting…
3. The Capitol and The Supreme Court
Once you’ve had your fill of museums, you can use your final energy reserves to take in The Capitol, the domed centre of power, on the eastern edge of The National Mall. Obviously if you’re keen, skip a museum or two and head here, or you’ll arrive too late for the Visitor Centre (like me). Head round the other side to get an unobstructed view of the impressive building. It was very quiet by the time I arrived (around 6pm). Once you’re on this side, head north a few yards and you’ll see The Supreme Court across the road, where you may find a few law students taking their graduation pictures on its steps.
On the north west side of DC, Georgetown is worth a stroll but note that some of its sights, such as Dumbarton Oaks Gardens and Tudor Place are closed on Mondays (which I discovered the hard way). Also, Dumbarton Oaks Museum is closed for renovation until the end of 2016.
If you want to escape the city Dumbarton Oaks Park makes a fine picnic spot. However, don’t be fooled by the apparent exit paths shown on Google maps. I ended up going in circles trying to get out, sick of the trees and trails which had earlier seemed delightful (I have since recovered: trees are amazing). Embassy Row is not worth the effort of visiting, unless you have a penchant for large diplomatic buildings. Instead, you may prefer to meander down Wisconsin Avenue NW, with detours into interesting side streets, until you reach Georgetown Waterfront Park, where you can take a boat tour on the Potomac River. There are a few restaurants on the waterfront. I was fortunate enough to be treated to brunch at Farmers, Fishers, Bakers, whose $30 brunch buffet was enough to fuel me for the whole day (think French toast, tacos, fried chicken, pulled pork, eggs, pastries and everything in between). If you end up browsing shops on M Street, don’t forget to stop by the incongruous (and free) Old Stone House, which also has a pleasant garden.
Tip: Access free wifi and relax in comfy armchairs in Georgetown Neighbourhood Library on R St NW.
5. Dollar bus rides
The Circulator bus is a good way to get about the city, for just $1 per ride. Routes include Union Station to Georgetown.
6. Happy Hour
DC has many great places to eat and a variety of world cuisines. A good way to avail of good food at a reasonable price is to make use of happy hour, which in reality lasts about two or three hours, from around 5pm. Most bars and restaurants offer special menus at discount prices at this time, though you may have to dine at the bar rather than a table.
I had tasty world tapas at Palette 22, Shirlington (even braving octopus), a bar-restaurant filled with art and, on occasions, working artists. Then more tasty tapas, but of the Peruvian-Chinese-Japanese fusion variety at China Chilcano in Chinatown, including the alarmingly animated but appropriately named Dancing Yucca.
7. Day trips
DC’s location as a gateway to both the northern and southern states means there are plenty of day trip options, including Annapolis, Baltimore, Chespeake Bay, Shenandoah National Park and Gettysburg. I ended up in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where I spent an unreasonable amount of time browsing antique stores (and purchased some vintage jewellery for a much better price than similar items in NYC, by the way). To my shame I did not take in the history of the area as well as I could have (well, not at all because of my second hand store addiction) but I’m assured it is steeped in significance…
Tip: Mount Vernon is a popular choice for visitors to DC. I must confess I did not make it to President Washington’s home, but apparently it’s one of the most visited attractions in the whole of the US, so make of that what you will.
So in summary, DC offers great food, culture, natural beauty, and much of it is free. Well, for now anyway. Catch it while you can!