Earlier this week, I visited Washington, D. C. Again. And I had a wonderful time. With a few exceptions, I usually have a great time whenever I go to Washington. I’ve been on or making semi-regular trips to Washington, D. C. since grade school. The vast majority of them occurred with my family. A couple were for school or with friends, and a few were solo or duo trips. Even after I moved away from home, trips back almost always included a train or car ride down to Washington, specifically to the National Mall and the Smithsonian museums. The National Museum of American History, the National Museum of Natural History, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and the host of other lesser-known museums that make up what most people simply call “The Smithsonian.”
While portions of this tourist district haven’t changed in thirty years, the institutions and monuments that stand there have. New memorials have been erected, new events take place almost every day on that long, grassy area between the Capitol building and the Washington Monument, but most of all, the Smithsonian museums have become active. Yes, they’ve always been active centers bustling with people, but now they serve to promote active history rather than showcase dead things and objects behind glass. It’s an amazing transformation, and one that’s very heartening to witness. It also makes me very happy to see that, after all these years, this area continues to attract crowds by the millions.
I won’t sit here and pretend to be the “tourist’s tourist” when it comes to Washington, but over the years I have picked up a few ins and outs that could well serve anyone who’s never been and is planning to go. Oh, and if you’re wondering about the title of this post, I wasn’t being completely flippant in using the term “agoraphobic.” Large crowds make me nervous, anxious, and unhappy, and Washington, D. C. proper is full of them. Winter, spring, summer, or fall, the city is always, to some degree, crowded. With that in mind, here are a few tips for visiting Washington, D. C. for the agoraphobically-inclined, because everyone, the people-haters and the crowd-pleasers, must make the trip at least once in their lives.
1) Stay outside the city.
To be completely honest, I’ve never actually stayed in a hotel anywhere around Washington’s tourist area. But I don’t understand how anyone could! The ones surrounding the museums, for example, are always overflowing with people and traffic. (And traffic in D. C. is a total nightmare, always and forever.) There are hundreds of hotels in cities outside of Washington that are just as nice and aren’t constantly ebbing and (over)flowing with human beings. With this last trip, we stayed in Arlington, VA, which is just about as close to actual Washington, D. C., as I’d ever want to stay. But the hotel was nice, there was always room at breakfast, the parking garage was never completely filled, and the check-in/out lines weren’t millions of miles long. And as a bonus, it was very close to a Metro stop.
2) Learn and use the Metro system.
When you go to pick that hotel, you’re best bet is to choose one that within distance (walking or driving) of a Metro stop, because the subway is the absolute best way to get around the area. Unless you really like traffic…then have at! But for the rest of us who hate people yet enjoy life, stick to the Metro. Of all the public transportation systems that I’ve used, believe it or not, I’ve found Washington’s Metro to be one of the easiest to grasp. There are six lines, each color-coded, and each designated by their beginning and end stops. So once you get to your Metro stop, you need to know which way to go, but the system map is very simple. I will say though that the signage in each stops varies, so it can sometimes be a little confusing as to which platform you need to be on, especially at the larger stations. Still, in just one or two trips, you’ll be a Metro master! (And if you really want to avoid the crowds, stay at a hotel that’s close to the one of end stops, because you’re usually guaranteed a seat, at least going into the city.)
3) Sight-see in the early mornings.
No matter the season, the National Mall is at its prettiest early in the morning. I really can’t stress enough that if you want to get THE best pictures of the famous monuments and buildings without hundreds of people in the way, you have to start early, while everyone else is fiddling around with breakfast, children, or sleeping in. Plus, at seven or eight in the morning, the walk from the Capitol building to the Lincoln Memorial is remarkably serene. Sure, you’ll be up with a few early birds, but not many. And you can stop and gander at things at your leisure rather than on the timetables of bus groups, impatient families, and guided tours.
4) Head to the museums at opening, or closing.
With a couple exceptions, the Smithsonian museums are open from 10am to 5:30 pm. Though you’ll have to hustle through early crowds at 10am, if you can manage it, you’ll be much more able to stroll through exhibits without being hampered by everyone else in the world. If you want to catch the really famous sites, like the Hope Diamond, the Spirit of St. Louis, or Dorothy’s ruby slippers, go to those immediately and get your photos, and then take in everything else you can stand before things get too crowded around lunchtime. If, in that day, there are things you wanted to see but didn’t get to, come back between 4 and 4:30. The museums will still be crowded then, but many of special exhibits will be a little less so. And though the museums close at 5:30, you can usually squeeze in a bit more roaming since trying to get the crowds out the doors on time is like trying to thread an elephant through the eye of a needle.
5) Forget eating at the museums; head out.
No offense to my career choice, but I’ve never had a good meal in a museum. Passable and stomach-filling? Sure. Worth the price and backed-up lines? Never. So why bother with overpriced pizza and juice in a crowded, sticky food court, when you can get overpriced pizza and juice in a much more relaxed atmosphere off the Mall? (P. S. At the National Zoo, you can bring in your own food, unlike at the museums.) Head a couple blocks in any direction from the National Mall and you’re bound to stumble across an eatery or three. If you time things right, like avoiding lunch and dinner peaks, you can even sit comfortably among Washington’s business class as you enjoy a little elbow room and some decent food.
So…who’s up for a road trip? You better get your sleep in now, because this early bird is ready to go! (Promise you’ll be home and in bed by eight. The crowds can have the night.)