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Welcome to Our Nation’s Capitol

I visited the nation’s Capitol this weekend with my friend L and her husband. We learned several important things we didn’t know before and hadn’t discovered on the school trips we used to take to DC.

  • Things aren’t as close as they look on the map. Sure, it may look like you’d be able to go between ALL the Smithsonian museums AND see all the major monuments, but the National Mall area is nearly two miles long from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol building. Even if you’re a fast walker and can walk across the length of the mall in a half hour, you still will have to contend with other tourists that may be blocking your way and construction. And that’s not the only walking you’ll do! Don’t forget you first have to get to the mall, plus walk around inside all the buildings. And if you’re planning on seeing anything that’s not actually part of the mall, factor in more walking.
  • since 11 September, security has been stepped up at ALL attractions. Each building has it’s own security checkpoint now, complete with metal detector and someone to check your bag(s). It’s not too bad when you’re going into something like the Freer Gallery of Art, but if you’re waiting in line at the Archives to see the US Constitution, prepare to wait. They even have signs snaking around the side of the building to tell you how long the wait is to get in from certain points.
  • The Metro is nice, but there can be delays, and stops might not be convenient. L picked a hotel near a Metro stop that had a shuttle, so we wouldn’t need to drive into the city. From where we were in Alexandria, it was a 40 minute Metro ride to the Smithsonian stop. Not a bad ride, but it depends on how late you’ve started your day. Currently, there’s also construction along the Orange line, so be prepared for delays.
  • Pack a water bottle, and make sure you have an insulated case for it. DC tap water isn’t the best thing to drink, and bottled water can cost an arm and a leg ($2 for a small bottle of Dasani). Make sure you have a way to keep it cool, too, especially if you’re visiting in the Summer. If you have room in your bag, pack a few snacks too. Remember that sugary drinks like soda will not quench your thirst and may actually make you hotter.
  • Do not trust your GPS within the city. L’s GPS got confused, and we wound our way through downtown into bad parts of town and through circles…Logan at least once, and Thomas twice. While we’re on the subject of GPS, don’t tell it to avoid stop-and-go traffic on the highway. It will take you through the city instead and make you contest with traffic lights.
  • Washington DC rolls up the sidewalks early! Many buildings and monuments close between 5:30 and 7:30PM, some even earlier. A late start to your day means you might miss out on some of the places you wanted to go.
  • If you have dietary needs, plan ahead. I’m a vegetarian with food allergies, and we had problems finding places I could eat at.
  • Wear comfortable shoes! Make sure you wear comfortable shoes. Don’t even attempt to wear new shoes, or shoes that might not be sturdy. A good pair of sneakers is your best friend. Wear socks, not only for extra cushioning, but to keep your feet from sliding around in the shoes if you sweat.
  • Don’t carry a large bag. Large bags mean more weight to carry around, and more time waiting for it to be searched. However, if you need to carry around a lot of things or plan on picking up souvenirs, then pack along something like a backpack which will distribute the weight evenly.
  • keep an eye on your belongings. Never leave a bag unattended, even if you’re sitting down to eat a meal. Hold your purse in your lap or put it on the floor with the strap looped though your leg. Don’t sling it on the back of a chair. Be mindful when you’re in a crowd too. Periodically check to make sure you still have all your essentials (wallet, phone, camera, etc.) and empty your bag of anything you won’t need. Avoid carrying all your cash at once or in the same location. If you are an international traveler, keep your passport in a safe place.
  • Make sure you get off the right side of the Metro. Most stops have two exits. Look at the signs and follow them to the side you want, or you not only may wind up doing lots of extra walking, but you could wind up on the “wrong side” of the tracks.

Washington DC can be a very fun place to visit. There’s a variety of museums for everyone in your family to find something they’ll like. Currently, the Museum of Natural History has a butterfly conservatory right inside the museum where you get up close to the butterflies by walking through their habitat. The National Gallery currently has a Jim Henson exhibit where you can see some of the original muppets running until October, and the National Archives has a display of political cartoons.

If you’re planning on eating while downtown and you’ve got a variety of tastes in your family, head to the Old Post Office. The bottom floor of this building has been converted into a food court with food ranging from pizza to Mediterranean to subs, hot dogs, and ice cream.

You can completely avoid driving by taking the Metro everywhere, and you can even fly or take a train into DC and then get on the Metro. I took the train from Lancaster to Hamilton, NJ where I was picked up by L and then we drove to our hotel in Alexandria where we left her car and used the Metro to get into DC. Fares vary depending on how far you need to travel, but a daypass is only $7 and you can purchase day passes at all Metro stops using an automated machine that takes both charge and cash.

To see photos from our trip to DC, including a free Carbon Leaf show in Baltimore, you can view them here: http://photos.beccajanestclair.com/wa

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