The Federal City
Moving forward continuing with the trip, we spared today for visiting the capital of the country, Washington DC as a day trip from our base Baltimore. Not even an hour away by train between both cities, the easiness to commute here paid off. I recall the trip back in 2012 where we came as a day trip from NYC having to take a very early flight and spend lots of time to/from the airport to downtown and so on. This time was as simple as taking a train and arrive literally meters from the Capitol at the impressive Union Station. And also I take the good chance for remaking this guide to be more complete than before.
The city was founded in 1791 to serve as the new national capital after the American Revolution, as was named after George Washington, the first President of the United States and Founding Father. Washington DC is one of the exceptions that break the rule of what a big city anywhere in the USA looks like. No skyscrapers at all but instead, broad avenues and a lot of parks, squares and monuments. It feels more European than any other city. And although everything looks nice, clean and elegant, most of it is just a pastiche. Buildings designed to look old and classic as if they would have been constructed back in 18th or 19th century. This is the case of most of the museum buildings that align the National Mall. The urban plan is worth to mention here as one of the greatest ever designed for a city. It was the work of genius surveyor and town planner Andrew Ellicott, who later would also design the plan for Buffalo, NY.
Everything is centred around the National Mall. This is where you find at both ends, the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial and aligned by the sides with all the museums, memorials, federal and governmental buildings. If divided in four, at the height of the second quarter is located the famous Obelisk, the Washington Memorial, from where perpendicular to the Mall is the other green area forming a perpendicular cross leading to the White House. With the main avenues that intersects at grand circus and squares is the same story, an impressive work of perspective and urban landscaping similar to Paris.
While the city might sounds too large to visit, it is the fact that a day is well enough to enjoy most of its sights at the expense of not visiting its countless museums. Then if in the other hand time is what you have, at least 2 days, I strongly advice you to use one of the days for some of the impressive museums, or at least, the world’s largest and most visited Smithsonian.
Walking, while distances are large from one to another end of The Mall, is your best bet to enjoy the wide variety of monuments and constructions that make the most famous sights in the city. The less you can do is walking it through in one direction, and taking the metro avoiding the way back or to get to a different location in the city. For instance, reaching the world famous cemetery of Arlington is best by taking the metro that drops you right at the main entrance. This is the westernmost part you would need to reach while in Washington (the Pentagon is also here, south of the Cemetery), and at the opposite eastern end, you have the Capitol served by Union Station or Capitol South metro stations. In between is the National Mall, Pennsylvania Avenue and the Federal Triangle completing most of the sights at the exception of the National Cathedral, fart northwest from the city’s core.
If I can suggest here, taking the hop-on hop-off sightseeing bus would be your best way to enjoy more than you could have done in a day walking and using the public transport, especially that as explained later, walking the Mall is nothing really out of the blue and can be complicated with severe heat weather conditions.
For more information about Washington DC check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. The United States of America currency is the Dollar (USD, $). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
How to plan the best way to visit the city in one day
The main tourist attraction in the city is that, The National Mall. Plan to start at one end and walk the whole of it, side to side. The best option and the most optimal is by starting at The Capitol, where behind you find the world’s largest library, the Library of Congress (free to enter, see website here) and from there making your way towards the White House but instead of going through the Mall, use the diagonal street, Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s in this avenue where you will find the FBI Headquarters and the Old Post Office, icons of the city; together with many elegant buildings, statues and memorials. By far much more beautiful than the otherwise, boring section of the Mall. Before reaching the White house, at the intersection of Penn Avenue with 10th Street take it north for just a block to see the Ford’s Theatre, place where on 14th April 1865 Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by a shot at a performance.
When you reach the perpendicular gardens, head first for the White House. Wander around making the usual pictures, and then get back towards the Washington Memorial. This is, the Obelisk. From there walk the last section direction Lincoln Memorial. You will be passing by the WWII Memorial, then the pond, Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and as last, the second most known symbol of the city, opposite the Capitol some kilometres away and perfectly aligned one to another, the Lincoln Memorial.
Through the Mall in order from east (the Capitol) towards the west (Lincoln Memorial) you have all the grand museums, being: Botanical Garden, right next door to the Capitol, National Museum of the American Indian depicting the history and culture of Native Americans; Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, one of the many buildings of this huge museum institution, here greatly specializing in the history of aviation and space among other transports. National Gallery of Art, located opposite the Air and Space Museum by the north side of the Mall. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, next door to the National Gallery, plus the Smithsonian National Museum of American History next to it and aligning by the south side of the Mall the Smithsonian Castle (visitor centre), the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, to name a few.
The city has more to offer, like the National Cathedral. You can get there by metro and walking the last bit. Also there is a Chinatown, and by Dupont Circle you will find most of the elegant embassies buildings and many more classical buildings.
Not to be missed is the Union Station. Recently revamped, it’s as for most of the railway stations in the USA, a huge and impressive early 20th century construction. And of course, the Pentagon, easily accessed by metro, Pentagon Station. And while you are there, the world famous Arlington Cemetery is right next door by the north.
The city boasts 3 airports, Ronald Reagan in the district of Arlington mostly serving domestic flights; Dulles the primary international gateway linking the city to the world, and Baltimore-Washington which serves both cities. Access from any airport to downtown is straightforward via shuttle buses or commuter railway.
As a good tip that will save you a lot of time, don’t fly to Washington if coming from New York or cities not too far. This takes with difference much more time than by train. And yes, you might find a great flight deal as we did, but at the end it will cost you more as you need transportation to/from the airports to/from the centre of the city. Instead, book the Northeast Regional. The whole trip down to Washington from New York City is less than 4 hours, much shorter if in the Acela Express. Super comfortable, directly from downtown to downtown.
Within the city there is a metro system pretty well communicated with 5 lines. And even if you don’t plan to use the metro, get yourself a ticket and go down to see the architecture of the stations, which is really unique. You can do this at Union Station for example. Buses and taxis are of course everywhere, and easy to read and understand the route on the bus stops.
The only way to explore the Mall enjoying its many memorials, gardens and museums is by walking. Although a long and tiring walk as described above, it’s worth in every step. As you will see, most of the sights are near each others, hence not really need for taking any public transport unless when going to Arlington Cemetery or the National Cathedral.
While being the second time in Washington DC, none of the occasions required us to book a hotel here. Back in 2012 this was done in a day trip from New York City, and in this occasion, from our base at nearby Baltimore. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers. For all the information about hotels in Baltimore check that respective guide.