Washington, D.C., in a weekend

 
LA Times | Travel
 

Of all American cities, Washington, D.C., may be the easiest to see on the run. Weekend warriors (or anyone else with limited time) are helped by the fact that the nation's capital is designed as an aesthetic geometric grid. The mile-long open Mall also serves as the country's premier cultural re...


By Marshall S. Berdan // 05.04.09
 

Of all American cities, Washington, D.C., may be the easiest to see on the run. Weekend warriors (or anyone else with limited time) are helped by the fact that the nation's capital is designed as an aesthetic geometric grid. The mile-long open Mall also serves as the country's premier cultural repository - most of Washington's marquis attractions are in a relatively compact area that's generally free of government employees on weekends and holidays.

Making a quick touristic assault on Washington is even easier since so many of the major attractions are absolutely free (you've already paid for them via your taxes). As a result, there isn't any obligation to linger and see everything to feel like you're getting your money's worth. And with extended summertime hours (and in the case of all the outdoor memorials, no closing hours at all), there's no need to call it quits at 5 p.m.

BEFORE YOU GO

Any efficient weekend in Washington depends heavily upon preparation. If possible, secure tickets before you go, especially to the Capitol (visitthecapitol.org), White House (whitehouse.gov) and Washington Monument (nps.gov/wamo) - the first two preferably through your members of Congress.

Study the map and plan your itinerary, starting at one metro stop and working your way linearly to avoid backtracking. Account for opening hours (top attractions such as the Capitol and White House aren't open on Sundays). Have backup plans, since free admission invites crowds and long lines.

Visit the most popular destinations (e.g., the National Air and Space Museum) first thing in the morning, saving the open-air monuments (Lincoln, Jefferson, Vietnam, Korea, World War II and FDR) for the cool of the evening when they are less crowded and are bathed in evocative lights.

EATING ON THE RUN

Nothing bogs down an active day more than an immovable feast. Crucial to keeping you moving is a flexible meal plan. Don't have your heart (or stomach) set on any particular eatery. Head instead for one of the handful of atmospheric neighborhoods - especially Dupont Circle, Adams-Morgan, Georgetown, Chinatown and the Waterfront - that offer lots of choices. Be advised: There is a shortage of places to eat on the Mall itself.

10 THINGS TO DO

A month is not enough time to see all that Washington has to offer, so the secret of a successful sneak attack is to hit a limited but rewarding mix of established icons, personal favorites and novelties. Some suggestions:

1. The Mall

You can't not see the Mall - you just can't see all of it. Thanks to new extended summertime hours at many major sites (most of the Smithsonian museums are open until 7:30 p.m.), you'll be able to see more of it. Among the difficult choices: The National Air & Space Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and national museums devoted to American history, African art, the American Indian and natural history (si.edu).

2. The Newseum

Washington's hottest relatively new attraction is the much improved Newseum ($20 adults, $12 ages 6-18; 888-639-7386, newseum.org), which bills itself as the world's most interactive museum. Devoted to public information, the museum is a big hit with kids as well as adults.

3. Arlington National Cemetery

While it involves a fair hike to get to the visitors center from the Metro stop and then again up to Arlington House (past the Kennedy grave sites), you don't have to wander too much farther to get the feel for this awesome and inspiring place. And you don't have to walk at all to take in the panoramic view of the city (703-607-8000, arlingtoncemetery.org).

4. Mr. Lincoln Returns to Town

The 44th president might be the biggest new personality in town, but the 16th is definitely the biggest old one, thanks to some 40 separate events and exhibits commemorating the bicentennial of his birth. Highlights include "An Extraordinary Life" at the National Museum of American History and "The Mask of Lincoln" at the National Portrait Gallery. And opened last year to the public for the first time is the Lincoln (Summer) Cottage. Located on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, it's well worth the trip, both tough to get to and a real schedule buster ($12 adults, $5 ages 6-12; lincolncottage.org).

5. Nationals Park

After a 34-year hiatus, the national pastime is back in the national capital. Best of all for Long Islanders, the new team is a National League East franchise, which means the Mets are frequent visitors. The Amazins' will be in town the weekend of June 5-7, again in late July and at the end of September. Ticket prices begin at $5 (202-675-6287, washingtonnationals.com).

6. The Kennedy Center

New Yorkers don't need to go to Washington to attend the theater, but D.C. is home to the most glamorous theater in the land - the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. You don't need a ticket to peek inside (though reasonably priced seats are available for all major performances). Every evening at 6 p.m., there's a free performance at the Millennium Stage (800-444-1324, kennedy-center.org).

7. Georgetown

Despite the thick crowds (mostly tourists) and high prices, Georgetown is still the most vibrant part of Washington from 6 p.m. until well after midnight. Even if you don't eat or buy anything, Georgetown is still a rewarding place to soak up lots of local atmosphere and attitude, especially now that the Waterfront has been finished, offering pleasant river views.

8. Catch a water taxi

It ain't cheap, but there's no better vantage point from which to take in the reflected splendor that is Washington at night than the river. The Potomac River Boat Company allows you to cruise between Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria, where you can wander the streets of this still-quaint old seaport before heading back ($13 one-way adults, 703-684-0850, potomacriverboatco.com).

9. The Franciscan Monastery

Commissioned by Pope Leo XIII in the 1890s, the Jerusalem Cross-shaped chapel was constructed to save Christians the ardor and expense of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. You can see life-size replicas of the Grottos of Bethlehem, Nazareth, Gethsemane and Lourdes, the Holy Sepulchre and a greatly scaled-down version of the Catacombs of Rome. Tours are free, though donations are encouraged (202-526-6800, myfranciscan.org).

10. Adams-Morgan

For an all-over-the-map night - including late-night fare and live entertainment, you can't beat the eclectic and highly compact funky neighborhood of Adams-Morgan. Cover charges - if they even exist - are minimal, and you can easily take in five or six completely different cultural experiences in a couple of hours without busting your budget (Intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road NW).

GETTING THERE:

BY CAR

Washington, D.C., is 230 miles from New York City via I-95.

BY AIR

Round-trip nonstop airfares from JFK to Reagan National (DCA) on either American or Delta begin at $117. There are six daily nonstop flights on Southwest from Islip to Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall (BWI), from which you can catch the MARC commuter train to Union Station. Round-trip fares begin at $98.

BY TRAIN

Round-trip Amtrak fares from Penn Station to Union Station begin at $144.

GETTING AROUND

Plan on walking a lot, especially in the vicinity of the Mall. For commuting from your hotel and those occasional longer side trips, consider getting a Metro (subway) pass - good for unlimited travel all day (though weekdays only after 9:30 a.m.) for only $7.80.

WHERE TO STAY

Obviously, the closer in you stay, the less time you have to spend commuting. Unfortunately, almost all downtown hotels cater primarily to the well-heeled business crowd, and offer only minimal weekend discounts. The best place to find deals is at the smaller hotels around Dupont Circle, near the new Convention Center, or the larger chains in the Crystal City part of Arlington, Va. (near Reagan National Airport.)

INFORMATION

Contact Destination D.C. at 202-789-7000 or washington.org.