The ins and outs, quirks and curiosities of a city can take years to learn. If that doesn’t quite fit into your time frame, you’re in luck. With these tips, you’ll manage your trip to Washington, D.C., like a pro.
1. Avoid driving. Legend has it that French engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant designed Washington’s streets to confuse and frustrate enemy troops who might attack the city. Anyone attempting to navigate this city will understand why the legend persists. The city is divided into the four quadrants of a compass – NW, NE, SE, SW. The U.S. Capitol sits at the center of the quadrants, even though it is not at the center of the city, so Northwest is the largest area. The boundaries of each quadrant are North Capitol Street, South Capitol Street, East Capitol and the National Mall. That’s where the street addresses start and become numbers and the letters of the alphabet. The lettered streets run east and west and numbered streets run north and south. To add to this directional befuddlement, the city also has many diagonal avenues (most of which are named after states) that run through a series of white-knuckle-inducing traffic circles. And beware the freeway ramps that appear out of nowhere and may take you across a bridge to Virginia before you know it.
2. Mind your Metro manners. The D.C. transit system prides itself on being one of the cleanest and most orderly in the country. A few simple dos and don’ts will help you navigate the Metro with ease. When on the escalator, do stand to the right and walk to the left, letting those in a hurry pass by. Don’t eat or drink on the Metro. Do stand aside and take a moment to figure out where you are going. The direction a Metro train is going is determined by its final destination. For example, an Orange train heading west will say, “Orange Line to Vienna.” There are large, clear maps in each station, so you should be able to figure it all out. Don’t stop in the entry of the Metro car, but move completely into the car. Also, note our underground rail system is called the Metro, don’t refer to it as the subway.
3. Consider fall. Visitors flock to Washington between April and August. The city can be unbearably hot and humid in the summer, which makes trekking around to all those outside monuments a sweltering affair. Remember, D.C. is lovely all year round – especially in the fall.
4. Visit your Congressperson. Call ahead for a visit with your local representative. Congressional offices can often offer special services and tips for visitors.
5. Eat your way around the world. Washington is a true melting pot with residents from around the world, which is reflected on the menus at area restaurants. Forget the chain restaurants you probably have at home. Instead, make like Columbus and discover the city’s global palette. Local favorites include Mexican tapas at Oyamel, Indian at Rasika, Ethiopian at Etete, Italian at Dino and Belgian at Brasserie Beck.
6. Plan ahead. You can simply walk into many of Washington’s attractions without tickets or reservations, but some of the biggies require a little advance preparation. Visitors interested in taking the self-guided tour of the White House must be part of a group of ten or more and request the tour through their member of Congress. You can submit a request up to six months in advance, but you won’t learn the date and time of your tour until about a month in advance. Guided tours of the U.S. Capitol are available from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Free tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis at the Capitol Guide Service Kiosk beginning at 9 a.m. You must use your tickets when you pick them up. The same-day, free tickets to the Washington Monument can be difficult to get. For $1.50, you can make advance reservations through recreation.gov.
7. Pack your running shoes or bicycle. With over 200 miles of trails in Washington, jogging and biking are popular activities. Runners interested in taking in the monuments and looping around the Mall should aim for an early morning jog, as the area gets crowded later in the day. Or head to Rock Creek Park, an 1,800-acre maze of beautiful, well-marked trails, stretching 11 miles from the Lincoln Memorial to beyond the Maryland border. A paved path runs from the Kennedy Center through the park. You can also pick up trails near Dupont Circle and the National Zoo.
8. Go celebrity spotting. L.A. and New York have movie stars and models. In D.C. the power players are the politicos. Keep your eyes peeled and you might spot a few Washington celebrities. Classic power spots include The Palm and Off the Record, the bar in The Hay-Adams Hotel. For a power breakfast, visit Bistro Bis on the Hill or the Four Seasons in Georgetown. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi regularly frequents The Source. Senator Harry Reid is a regular at Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is partial to Bombay Club, near the White House.
9. Tune into the music scene. Jazz legend Duke Ellington was born and raised in Washington and a thriving musical tradition continues with plenty of hot spots to hear live music, particularly along the U Street corridor where Ellington used to play. Bohemian Caverns hosted everyone from Coltrane to Calloway and the subterranean supper club still features jazz bands. Down the street is The Black Cat, whose founders include Foo Fighter Dave Grohl. Modest Mouse, the White Stripes and Jeff Buckley are just a few of the names who have performed at this hipster club. Across town, in Georgetown there’s Blues Alley, the country’s oldest continuing supper club. Check out the schedule in advance as big name acts sell out quickly.
10. Put your wallet away. Many of D.C.’s sights are free – the Smithsonian museums, the Washington National Cathedral, National Geographic Society, Library of Congress and so many more. But those aren’t the only freebies to be found. Every day, the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage hosts a free performance at 6 p.m. The United States Navy Band performs free concerts throughout the area (check navyband.navy.mil/sched.shtml for the schedule). Tryst Coffeehouse in the lively Adams Morgan neighborhood hosts free jazz nights Monday through Wednesday nights (and free Wi-Fi during the week). Put your bargain hunter hat on and you’ll find there are plenty of free ways to explore the capital.