The stars aligned…
I’d been working on the Miles/Destination DC team for over a year—coordinating advertising assets for DC Official Visitor Guides; reviewing fascinating See and Do listings; placing banner ads on Washington.org for Smithsonian museums, restaurants and arts events I longed to experience; and collaborating with ePublishing to create tantalizing e-newsletters featuring captivating festivals and theater performances. But I had only visited the city once—many years ago as a teenager, and my daughter, who recently registered to vote, had never been there. A trip was in order.
It was time to explore the world I’d experienced on paper and online in the flesh. It was time to use the travel tools my Miles team designed to maximize the experience of four days in DC! The charm: District-based friends offered to host us (thank you, Matthew and Crystal). The fun: planning the vacation.
From Inspiration to Planning
I let my fingers do the walking to https://washington.org/visitors-guide. I used the digital version of the Guide, but also ordered a print copy to mark up and bring on the trip; it’s a perfect pocketbook size. I knew when I ordered the Guide it would come with a Visitors Map to help with logistics, but I also relied heavily on the wealth of information and links on Washington.org. With our accommodations set, travel planning was as easy as 1, 2, 3!
Decision 1: When to Visit
We looked for an event or experience to anchor the trip and the timing and narrowed them down to four possibilities, one for each season.
1. A Capitol Fourth. Why not visit the nation’s capital on the most patriotic of holidays? This celebration spectacular features the National Symphony Orchestra and fireworks over the National Mall.
2. DC Ghost Tours. Georgetown is one of DC’s oldest neighborhoods, and what could make Halloween time spookier than seeing the steps from the Exorcist or hearing historical stories of conspiracies, duals and assassinations in “Tragedy Square” (as Lafayette Park is known)?
3. Lighting of the National Christmas Tree. We’d viewed this treasured event on television so many times—to see it on the Obelisk would create the memory of a lifetime! There are other great reasons to visit DC in December, like ice skating (weather permitting) in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden Ice Skating Rink and Christmas shopping at the Downtown Holiday Market.
4. National Cherry Blossom Festival. In 2019, the festival spanned from March 20 to April 13, with many special activities throughout such as the Kite Festival, Parade and Petalpalooza. The blossoms can peak anytime during this period.
We succumbed to the lure of cherry blossoms and the magic of springtime. Apparently, we’re not the only visitors that make this choice: Of the 24.7 million visitors to Washington DC in 2018, the majority visited in the spring.
Decision 2: Booking Attractions & Activities
For the next step in the travel-planning funnel we scoured the DC Official Visitors Map. We identified must-see attractions and began grouping them together by location. On the two days our friends worked, we would use public transport and target the two ends of the National Mall. On the weekend the four of us would tour together and hit outlier destinations. For instance, on Saturday we planned to visit the Smithsonian National Zoo and the National Cathedral in the NW quadrant of DC. Sunday was a potpourri of Georgetown, the National Geographic Museum and Shear Madness, a comedy theater production at The Kennedy Center.
We didn’t forget about the great restaurants. The Visitors Guide has pages of tempting options! We totally enjoyed Baked by Yael both before and after our trip to the Zoo. It’s right across the street and has a strong local following. We planned to sample the famous bagels for breakfast and couldn’t resist stopping back for cherry blossom and panda cake pops for an after-zoo treat. We also found dining in the Smithsonian Museums to be convenient and a time saver. We particularly enjoyed the fry bread and corn totopos at Mitsitam Cafe in the National Museum of the American Indian.
Decision 3: Walk-Friendly Footwear and Transportation
What looks close on the map can translate into miles on the hoof. Lesson learned: Pack SUPER comfortable walking shoes for a DC adventure! The distance from the Capitol steps to the Lincoln Memorial is nearly two miles. When you’re not walking between buildings, you’re walking through museums, around monuments and in attractions.
Public transit in DC has an outstanding reputation. The Metrorial and Metrobus system did not disappoint. The Visitors Map contains a full metro system map that was very helpful in planning our route and also handy to reference on the go.
The DC Circulator bus in the Metro was free during our visit and picked up and dropped off passengers at popular Mall locations. It saved a lot of wear and tear by allowing us to sit back and rest our feet rather than walk, say, to the Lincoln Memorial, which anchors the west end of the Mall. The Tidal Basin views from the Circulator were spectacular as well!
Things to Know Before You Go
Once we used the Visitors Guide and Washington.org to identify activities, we clicked through to the websites for full details. We were surprised how many tours can be arranged that will add insights and convenience to a visit. Here are a few we enjoyed (and some we learned about too late while waiting in line for general admission).
- Congressional Tours of the Capitol. Book a tour through the office of your Representative or Senator several weeks in advance to arrange a tour of the Capitol building.
- Bureau of Printing & Engraving. Go early the morning of your visit for tickets to tour at a specific time during the day. Tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis at the ticket booth which opens at 8 a.m.
- National Archives. Once a day, Monday through Friday at 9:45 a.m., the Archives hosts a guided tour and reservations can be made in advance.
- Holocaust Museum. Tickets are needed from March 1 to August 31 to visit the Museum’s permanent exhibition; advance tickets are available online. Same-day tickets can be requested online or at the museum beginning at 9:45 a.m.
- Supreme Court. 30-minute courtroom lectures are available Monday through Friday on a first- come, first-served basis. Check the website for times and details.
Even the best travel planner cannot predict some variables, like construction projects and the whims of mother nature. One sight we earmarked to visit was the Washington Monument. The Guide said it was slated to re-open in spring 2019 after renovations. Unfortunately, complications (like the government shutdown) delayed the project. Friends had raved about the view of the Mall from the top of the Washington Monument, but we’ll have to save that stunning panorama for another visit.
On the flip side, we got lucky with the peak timing of cherry blossoms and spring flowers. The National Zoo, National Cathedral grounds and Georgetown were abloom with tulips, daffodils, helleborus and other sentinels of spring. Our final DC day was spent in the Tidal Basin surrounds, under the arching branches of cherry trees, the living gift of friendship from the People of Japan that originated over 100 years ago. Under a canopy of pink, a gentle breeze spun a confetti of petals. In the shadow of the Jefferson Memorial, we imbibed the beauty and goodwill of the melting pot of cultures that infuse this great nation.