Washington DC for First-Timers, a Flexible Approach

Photo by Pedro Szekely

A creative touring plan for newcomers to the US capital city

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This your first time in Washington DC? Chances are you’re clutching a list of must-dos suggested by well-meaning friends and family members who have been to the capital and know the score:

Don’t miss the First Ladies Exhibit at the National Museum of American History! Capitol tours! The Lincoln Memorial! The zoo’s pandas!

How to do it all?  And how do you allow space and time for your own experience in a place where it can be easier to just follow the crowds?

This itinerary for first-timers proposes a creative strategy and a flexible schedule that should help. If you have the time and interest, follow the entire 11-step program to assemble a complete itinerary, or eliminate steps as desired or required. (Don’t like shopping? Drop #7. Visiting on a frigid day in winter? Ditch #6.)

1. The Mall

National Mall Memorials, all nine major ones, can always be viewed.  Consider touring early in the morning, in the evening, or by moonlight. Or go by tour bus, bike, boat or Segway.  Although the Washington Monument is closed because of much needed elevator repairs, enjoy admiring the towering obelisk from the lawn.

2. Landmarks in Washington DC

Reservations are required to tour the U.S. Capitol and the White House. That’s a good thing, because it allows for better planning and eliminates waiting in line.  For Capitol tours and for White House tours,  contact your senator or representative months in advance. You can also book a Capitol tour online, but do as far in advance as possible. Limited tickets for same-day tours may be available at the visitor information desk.   White House tours run 7:30 am to 11:30 am Tuesday to Thursday and 7:30 am to 1:30 pm Friday and Saturday.

3. The Court

If you’re in DC on a day that the Supreme Court is arguing a case (the oral argument calendar appears on the Court’s website), you should try to attend. Supreme Court sessions are not televised and you can’t reserve a seat. You have to go in person and wait in line, and that adds to the excitement. Note the place sitters. These people make money holding a place in line for others, typically VIPs.

4. Festivals in Washington DC

Name an interest, food trucks, math, cherry blossoms, jazz, whatever. You can be sure that a festival exists to celebrate it in the capital. There’s always some-such fun going on. Join in. See the Washington DC Basics section for resources leading you to one.

5. Sidewalk Cafés

Sit and watch a bit of Washington’s world go by, varying by neighborhood. Head to PAUL in the Penn Quarter for views of downtown-meets-tourist crowd, to Agora in Dupont Circle for a mashup of LGBT, artsy and embassy types, to Whaley’s in Yards Park, among DC’s newest waterfront parks, and to Fiola Mare in Georgetown where the seafood is as wonderful as the Potomac River views.

6. The Smithsonian Museums

DC has 19 Smithsonian museums and a zoo in D.C.  Choose just two for now, or be overwhelmed. To see the National Museum of African American History and Culture,  D.C’s newest Smithsonian facility, book free timed tickets online. Other good picks:  the National Museum of Natural History and its jewels, butterflies and ocean exhibits as well as the National Zoo with its pandas.

7. Shops

If shopping’s your thing, Georgetown, Eastern Market and CityCenterDC are your places. Don’t forget the Smithsonian Museum’s shops. These have interesting items along with traditional souvenirs.

8. Restaurants

Follow your own tastes but also try to make room for local favorite foods: Ben’s Chili Bowl’s famous half-smoke, the best-in-the-city crabcake at Hank’s Oyster Bar, the palak chaat at Rasika  and sister restaurant Rasika West End, and the  toasted milkshake at Good Stuff Eatery. For splurges, reserve a table at the District’s Michelin-starred dining rooms. These include  Masseria, Italian cuisine, Blue Duck Tavern, American fare, and Fiola, pastas and Italian-inspired seafood.

9. Nightlife

Options are awesome and endless. Bar-hop on 14th St., listen to jazz at Blues Alley, enjoy top-notch Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, or ballet or a Broadway show at the Kennedy Center or savor free entertainment at museums and special spots around town. Check out concerts at the Anthem, an anchor of  the Wharf District, D.C.’s newest waterfront dining and entertainment area, one that, as its name suggests, comes with water views.

10. Non-Smithsonian Museum

Indulge your passions.  Art lovers should head to both buildings of the  National Gallery of Art. History aficionados can learn the stories behind the news at the  Newseum  and about genocide in W.W. II at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.  Kids enjoy the special experiences (book ahead) at the International Spy Museum.

11. Getting Around Washington DC

Walk. Around the White House, down the Mall, along Embassy Row, through Dupont Circle or in Rock Creek Park, and capture your own sense of the city that follows you home.

— With Candyce H. Stapen

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