Thursday, August 9, 2012

Just in Case You Want Some Tips on DC

Just returning from my latest fairly local adventure.  My family wanted to see Washington DC, a place that I have been to many times, but hadn't visited in almost 20 years.  So, while we were down there checking out the old and the new, I came across some really good information.
My first tip:  Take the subway.  I cannot stress how awful it is to park a car in downtown DC.  It was awful years ago, and it hasn't gotten any better.  Drive to DC.  It's way better than flying and you will need your car for other things.  However, you have to learn how to use the metro in DC.  They have a pricing system like nothing I've ever seen on a subway system.  The thing is priced like a train, but runs like a subway.  Here's the thing.  There are different prices for each trip, dependent on distance.  There can also be an exit fare, which made no sense to me.  There are also more expensive times, such as rush hours.  Because of this system, there are ticket machines inside the turnstiles in case you don't have the money on your ticket to exit the subway.  It's weird, and if anyone in DC reads this, think about that.  So, your best bet is to spend $35 and get a week pass.  This gives you the freedom to go wherever you want to for a week.  For my money, definitely a deal.
Tip #2:  Smithsonian Museums.  You need to make sure that you have transportation, because one of the most loved museums of the Smithsonian has put most of its best stuff in Virginia.  That's right, the Air and Space Museum isn't the fun it used to be, because the Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center has all the best stuff, and it's in Chantilly, Virginia.  The space shuttle, the Concorde, and the Enola Gay, as well as numerous other historic air vessels are located there.  You can't take the subway, so you need to drive, and watch out because they hit you with a $15 parking fee.  Be aware, you need to go there.  It's magnificent, and worth all the fuss.
Tip #3:  Be careful about making tour reservations for government buildings online.  I booked my tour of the Capitol Building online and when we got there, it wasn't valid.  There are many sites that say that they book tours, but only the government site really does it.  The problem here is that there are other sites claiming to be the government site.  The problem here is miniscule.  When we got to the Capitol Building, there was no problem getting on the very next tour anyway.  It's all a big hassle for nothing.  It damages the ideal of the whole tour, but that quickly passes when you see the magnificence that is the Capitol Building.  The only catch is, if you want to go into the galleries, you must go across the street to the congressional offices and get a pass from your local congressman.  It's easy and barely takes any time, and well worth the effort.
Tip #4:  Do the museums during the day and take on the rest of the town at night.
Any fool who's ever been to DC can tell you that the first thing they learned about the town was where the bad parts are, and most often they learned it the hard way.  So, once you know where the bad areas are, you can avoid them and enjoy nightlife in the city.  If you don't already know, don't go to the northeast section after dark.  One of my favorite things to do is go to the monuments at night--take a walk on the mall.  It's beautiful and perfectly safe.  The Lincoln Memorial is open late and is very photogenic.  
Another one of my favorite spots at night is Chinatown.  I know that in most cities, Chinatown has a somewhat sketchy reputation, but in DC it's a lot of fun and the food is spectacular.  It's easy to find with its own well decorated subway station, and the food is more than just Chinese.  This visit we went to a great hole in the wall restaurant with Burmese food.  It was great.
Here was my favorite nighttime thing to do in DC.  In the summer, which unfortunately is about done for this year, they have movies on the mall.  HBO comes out and sets up free movies right in front of the Smithsonian Castle.  We watched Psycho right on the mall, picnic style.  It was just like being in a small town, but we were in DC.  I can't say enough good things about this program and I hope they keep it forever.
Tip#5:  Don't miss the Old Post Office Pavilion.  This place is old and falling out of favor, but you can still go up in the tower and have some of the best views in town.  It's the only place that you can get an upper level view of DC that's public and it's free.
Tip #6:  Where to eat?  Well, this can be a conundrum.  I spent a whole lot of time trying to find good places that weren't too high priced.  What did I discover?  They aren't on the internet.  My best advice is to ask the people who work at your hotel.  Other advice is as follows:
Eat in Chinatown.
Don't try food courts.
Give up on the waterfront areas.
Don't go to a chain restaurant.
Find a kitchy neighborhood and pick out a restaurant.
Eat at a food truck.
We went to Dupont Circle.  This is an awful place to drive and the metro station tends to close for irrational disasters, but the shopping and the food is great.  They have all kinds of exotic fare, seeing as they are the beginning of Embassy Row.  It's one of my best recommendations.
Tip #7:  Take time to do the unusual.  There's a place called the Hillwood Estate.  This was my unusual event for this trip.  It's way out in the northwest end of the city in a residential neighborhood with no embassies.  It's, for the city, in the middle of nowhere.  It was a great break from all the national buildings and it broke up the trip for us.  We did have to pay to get in, which the Smithsonians do not charge, but it was well worth it.  A hidden gem.  It has the largest collection of Russian artifacts outside of Russia.  I expected to see Faberge Eggs and Kolkova, but what I didn't expect was all of the original portraits of the Tsars.  It was amazing and so were the gardens.  Well worth getting off the beaten path in DC.
My last tip:  Although I recommend getting off the beaten path a little bit, watch out for the tourist traps.  We went to the highly publicized International Spy Museum.  What a trap.  It was foolish, cramped and full of annoying people.  The most entertaining part of the whole place was the replica of a Bond car.  Not worth the time at all.  So, if you've heard about them on TV, or if they have a hyped up website, they probably aren't worth the exorbitant price that you will pay to visit them.
So, to wrap it up, take the subway, make sure you have a car, avoid tourist traps (which can include some tours), ask about restaurants, don't worry about scheduling tours of the Capitol Building, and catch a movie in the park.  Utilize those Smithsonians, don't be afraid to go out at night, and wear sensible shoes.  The walking is so famous that there are souvenirs that say "I walked my feet off in DC". 



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