Washington DC: it may surprise you

Date Posted: 31/05/2012

Pictured: The Washington Monument from the World War Two Memorial on the National Mall.

There’s a good chance you’ve never thought of organising a group holiday to Washington DC. Rob Yandell found out what we’re missing – it’s too good for politicians.

As I gazed down the Washington Mall towards the Lincoln Memorial, I turned to see the dome of the imposing Capitol Building two miles away. No skyscrapers and an abundance of open park space was not what I expected from a city that can be enjoyed from every angle.

The leader of the free world might live in that big white house, but the frantic pace I’m familiar with when visiting big US cities was missing. Washington D.C is no backwater, but you don’t need to jostle for position when taking a stroll, or put up with the constant sound of car horns being pounded by impatient drivers.

America is somewhere exciting to visit as a group. Many group travel organisers opt for New York City or Boston as their first long haul adventure. Isn’t it funny how we forget about the nation’s capital?

Images of Washington are beamed into our lives almost daily, as news reporters and analysts discuss the latest political developments. Perhaps there is a stigma or perception that it’s a city more suited to congressmen than tourists. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Getting around is easy and the city is very walkable. There is so much to do that my four nights there left me wanting more.

Finding everything via an open-top bus tour is a straightforward and enjoyable introduction to the city. You’ll see the Big Bus Tours which offer a hop-on, hop-off service with a choice of 24 or 48-hour tickets and four routes. It’s a good way of getting to Arlington Cemetery which is a short drive out of the city centre. There is a visitor centre and you can pay your respects at the gravesite of John F. Kennedy.

Alternatively, see the city by bike on one of the excellent tours from Bike n Roll. For a small group it’s a lot of fun and means you can get some exercise too. There are different tour lengths with various distances covered. From easy to moderate, you can choose a level that’s right for the people in your group. Not only can you ‘bike the sites’ around the National Mall and Capitol Hill, but there is an option to explore charming Alexandria across the river. You can even do something new and opt for a segway instead of a bike, plus Bike n Roll is happy to custom your tour if you want to go off menu.

Having turned up at the Capitol Building on my first morning in DC I looked at my ticket to realise I was a day early. The building across the street caught my eye and suddenly I realised I had stumbled upon the Library of Congress. I went inside and within no time at all took a brilliant free one-hour guided tour. Granted, if you take a group you may wait a little longer but do make sure you visit. There were some fascinating stories and the main reading room is a sight to behold. Highlights include a Gutenberg Bible, a replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Library, and a map said to be the first printed reference to the word ‘America’.

Groups that enjoy history are well catered for in DC. The moving Vietnam and Korean War Memorials are thought-provoking, and the National World War Two Memorial is a peaceful space on the National Mall and a good place to pause as you explore the sights.

There are lots of excellent museums in Washington with 17 Smithsonian Museums and Galleries to explore. All are free and open daily. If you get a chance, it’s best to decide in advance what you want to see and then pick your top two. It will take anywhere from two hours to a half day to get through one museum. I spent time in the Natural History Museum but preferred the National Museum of American History. Seeing the very first American flag and the iconic black hat which was worn by Abraham Lincoln the night he was shot was remarkable. Speaking of which, you can also tour the Ford Theatre where Lincoln was shot, which has its own museum.

The new kid on the block and a museum that does charge is the critically acclaimed Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue.

As a magazine editor myself, I found it engrossing. From Pulitzer Prize Photographs, to new media and newspapers from the American Civil War; the museum explores how the press and media have reported and commented on the most significant world events throughout history. Not only are the places, people and landmarks themselves interesting, but the way in which news coverage has changed is fascinating.

Newseum will interest all ages and is easy to navigate. Start at the top and get great views before moving through each level. A chunk of the Berlin Wall (including watch tower) and the atenna from the top of the World Trade Center are just two of the moving exhibits on show. This is a world-class museum for the 21st century and is an essential visit.

There is so much to do that I encourage you to dive a little deeper and see for yourself. There is shopping on Capitol Hill, in Georgetown (my favourite) and Dupont Circle.

Georgetown is only a short drive from the city centre but seems worlds apart. This quaint historic neighbourhood grew up some 40 years before DC and offers laid back charm with fine boutique and big name shopping, coupled with lovely restaurants and bars. I recommend paying a visit to Martin’s Tavern where you can sit at one of the booths frequented by presidents from Truman to Bush.

Top three sights

1. The White House: If you’re staying central it’s probably an easy walk to see the president’s backyard. Photos of the front and back are obligatory for any tourist but tours are hard to come by. You won’t be able to organise something through a tour operator and your best chance is to contact the British Embassy in DC in plenty of time before your group visit. Then cross your fingers.

2. The Capitol Building: The famous white domed building is home to Congress and you can take the tour. But as non-US residents you will need to pre-book via the website and keeping everyone together is difficult depending on your size and the time of your group visit. But there is also an excellent museum to wander around before and/or after your tour.

3. The Lincoln Memorial: It’s a simple yet grand monument honouring the 16th president of the United States and, like many of DC’s buildings, there’s a Romanesque influence to its architecture. A large statue of Lincoln sits between two of his most famous speeches on each wall: the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. The memorial is located at one end of the National Mall and you can gaze all the way back, past the Washington Monument to the Capitol Building. The best time to enjoy the surroundings is early in the morning when the sun rises and your fellow tourists are still sleeping.

Washington Essentials

Eat: With Washington having more Ethiopian restaurants than anywhere else in the US, sample spicy stews in the U Street Corridor known as ‘Little Ethiopia’. In fact, food is so big in DC you can organise a group with DC Metro Food Tours and explore the city’s neighbourhoods, the food and its people.

Go: The most popular time of year to visit is when the famous cherry blossom trees are in bloom. Nature is unpredictable, but if you travel to DC at the beginning of April you’re likely to see some stunning colour.

Factfile

Time difference: GMT +5hrs
Flight time: 7 – 7.5 hrs approx
Currency: US Dollar £1 = $1.55
Red tape: You must make sure you have a current Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) if travelling on the Visa Waiver Program.

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