Washington, D.C., Insider Travel Planning Tips

Insider info from our local expert on where to go and what to see on your next trip to D.C.

For many tourists, a visit to Washington, D.C., is viewed as a kind of pilgrimage to pay homage to United States history and revel in the glory of our nation. It helps that the tourist area is nothing short of gorgeous with its grand monuments surrounded by wide stretches of green grass and its famous elegant cherry blossom trees. Embraced by the dramatic Potomac River, Washington is a city unlike any other.   

As a former New Yorker, my transformation into a Washingtonian is nothing short of miraculous. While I’ll admit it was D.C.’s beauty that initially wooed me, what helped me fall in love with this area is that it is truly an international mélange. People who live and visit Washington seem to come from every corner of the earth, and they thankfully retain their individuality. While this may be America’s capital, it is most importantly a world capital. Beyond the monuments is an area rich in diversity in both natural and cultural attractions. To focus on the major tourist attractions without exploring all the area has to offer is to miss out on a true American experience.

Washington Musts

A great trip to Washington, D.C., includes a combination of traditional tourist sites, a walk through some of Washington’s diverse neighborhoods and, if time permits, an excursion outside the city to enjoy the spectacular natural attractions in nearby Maryland and/or Virginia.

While doing your research, visit the Washington Convention and Tourism site (www.washington.org) for a comprehensive listing of upcoming events and to request a free visitor's guide.

The first step in exploring the area is to ditch the car and use Washington’s underground public transportation system, Metro (www.wmata.com). For my two young kids, ages 3 and 5, the Metro ride is considered the best part of any excursion. The system is easy to understand with clean and quiet trains and stations that are clearly marked with signage and maps throughout. Folding maps are available in the stations. Purchase tickets at one of the self-service ticket kiosks. Up to two children, aged 4 and younger, ride free with each full-fare paying adult. Children 5 and older pay adult fares. Depending upon your plans for the day or the week, a Metro day or weekly pass can be a good deal.

For visitors with children, most popular Metro stations are stroller-friendly and offer elevators. If traveling with a stroller, use the handicap turnstile, and retrieve your ticket before you go through the turnstile. Also check the Metro Web site to make sure the elevators at your desired stops are working as they often are under repair. Older kids will delight in the towering escalators that make you feel as if you are descending to the earth’s core.

Metro tips: Don’t blow your cover as a native! Remember to retrieve your ticket after you go through the turnstile, and don’t lose it. You’ll also need the ticket to leave the station. And if you decide to stand still to enjoy the ride, please don’t be an “escalump”: Keep to the right to avoid nasty looks from otherwise patient Washingtonians.

Capitol Hill

If your plans include a visit to the U.S. Capitol, also get to know its surrounding neighborhood, which is rich with historic sites and museums, not to mention diverse shopping and dining opportunities. We often take the kids to visit “The Hill,” the stomping ground for Washington’s power crowd and a popular residential neighborhood for the gay community, as well as young families. Try to time your visit to this area so that you can enjoy lunch or end your day with a cocktail among Washington’s movers and shakers. Paradoxically, we also find the restaurants to be especially kid-friendly. However, venture any further than the well-trodden and well-lit streets surrounding the Capitol, and you will enter into sometimes dangerous territory. This is not an area to explore casually after dark.

U Street/Shaw

Explore African-American history in the city’s neighborhood known as the center of black history and culture. U Street was once referred to as Washington’s Black Broadway where great entertainers performed for elegantly dressed black Washingtonians. A well-marked, self-guided tour through the area provides a fascinating look at the neighborhood’s history. Visit the Cultural Tourism of D.C. Web site, www.dcheritage.org, for information about all of the historic sites and neighborhoods in the city. You can also create your own itinerary according to your interests. One of the best self-guided tours is the organization’s African-American Heritage Trail and database with more than 200 African-American historic sites in the city. Either create your own tour online or visit the site to order a free walking tour booklet.

Dupont Circle

This enclave at the juncture of Massachusetts and Connecticut Avenues is a nice excursion to experience the city’s cultural diversity. Exit the Dupont Circle Metro station to encounter the sounds of an old tune from The Who played on an even older guitar and know that you’ve entered an eclectic neighborhood with a personality all its own. Shopping, dining and gallery hopping is a day well spent here.

Pastoral Georgetown

Not accessible by Metro, Georgetown is definitely worth the trip, but we avoid it on the weekends as the crowds on the narrow sidewalks can be stifling. While the shopping on Wisconsin and M Sts can be rewarding, try to tear yourself away to enjoy the beautiful escapes Georgetown offers. Georgetown Metro Connection is a shuttle that connects you to the neighborhood from stops throughout the city. Fare is only $1 unless you remember to grab a receipt from the Metro stop, then it’s only 35 cents.

Beyond the Capital

Boat Ride from Georgetown to Alexandria, Va.
Potomac Riverboat Company: www.potomacriverboatco.com, tel. 703-684-0580 or Toll Free 877-511-2628.

For me, the very mention of a boat ride in any other city screams “tourist trap” and sends me running for the nearest dicey neighborhood for a more “authentic experience.” However, chugging alongside the monuments from your view on the Potomac River can be the best way to travel from Georgetown to Alexandria, Va., another beautiful historic neighborhood with great shopping, restaurants and horrendous traffic. Spend the afternoon in Alexandria, enjoy an early dinner at one of the many bistros or pubs, then return along the Potomac to a spectacular view of the city at night.

Destinations: Washington

Themes: Family Travel, Historical Vacations

Activities: Museums, Sightseeing