What to do and see in Washington D.C.?
April 6, 2009 10:05 AM   Subscribe

Heading to Washington, D.C. this week; what must I ABSOLUTELY see?

I'm in Washington for a conference over Easter weekend and into the next week. I've never been before and I'm overwhelmed by options. Where should I go? What should I see? I'm not going to have a whole lot of time outside my other commitments, but I should have Saturday morning, all Sunday (which is Easter), and some mornings and definitely evenings next week. I'm staying at two places: one around Mount Vernon Square and the other near the Capitol. I won't have a car, so I'll mostly be walking or taking the subway.

I already know that I want to go to the Zoo, see the cherry blossoms, the Mall and the monuments, but what else in terms of touristy things that I need to see? I understand that most of the national museums are actually open on Easter - is that correct?

I'm hoping to shop, if I have the time, so please point me to fun shopping districts. (I'm Canadian and have a fascination with American stores that we don't have up here, so even if you're suggesting stores that you'd find in any American mall, I'd be more than happy!) I also knit and am hoping that some D.C. knitters could direct me to the best yarn shops in the city.

If you could tell me what the closest subway stops are to the locations you suggest, that would be wonderful. Thanks so much!
posted by pised to Travel & Transportation around Washington, DC (36 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
The Spy Museum! Don't miss this for anything! If nothing else, swing through the gift shop. Super cool stuff in there.
posted by jquinby at 10:06 AM on April 6, 2009

Try to get into the Holocaust museum, if you can. Not the cheeriest day, but perhaps the most life changing.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:07 AM on April 6, 2009

There's not a lot of great shopping beyond what you'd get in any major American city although for walking around and checking out shops you might like Georgetown or Alexandria.

But seriously, the Mall/Smithsonian will take up all your time.

This is a lovely time of year in D.C. If you want to spend time outside consider biking along the Potomac. My fondest memories of DC were of biking to Mt. Vernon or Great Falls.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:12 AM on April 6, 2009

Agree with the above -- spy museum very fun, Holocaust museum a bit of a downer but very powerful and well done.

Tip on the zoo: Start at the bottom and then work your way back up. It's on a hill and it's miserable to go exhibit by exhibit downhill to then have to walk a long way back-up past everything you saw. It's not the best zoo out there, but decent; Asian exhibit (pandas, otters, etc.) is particularly good. In terms of Metro, it's actually up-hill from Woodley Park - Zoo station, so a nice trick is to take the red line 1 stop further to Cleveland Park, walk towards the zoo, and then afterwards continue down the hill to Woodley Park. It makes it less intense, given that this is an all-on-foot experience.

Worth a visit also is the National Botanical Garden. It's free and quite gorgeous, with interesting exhibits along the back, and a very fun tropical greenhouse in the middle. You could just walk through for 20 minutes or so and it's a wonderful break from the daily hubbub. Federal Center SW on blue/orange line is a good way to get there.

Art-wise, I've always enjoyed the Renwick Gallery. Near the White House, by Farragut North (Red line) and Farragut West (Orange/Blue line).
posted by davidnc at 10:15 AM on April 6, 2009

old town alexandria has a lot of little shops and bric-a-brac-eries that may be of interest - depending on what you like to shop for. some decent restaurants, its on the water and the metro (king st. station on the yellow line).
posted by askmehow at 10:25 AM on April 6, 2009

Try and get a tour of the United States Capitol. Walking into the Rotunda for the first time will leave you awe struck. They've changed how they do things, but going on Saturday will mean less crowded conditions and they may have implicated a "buy a specific tour time" situation with the opening of the Capitol Visitor Center (can't vouch for this). If you have time during the week, get Gallery Passes from your congressional/senate office (you just walk in and ask for 'em) and go to the Capitol and see if you can catch one or both of the houses of Congress in action.

If you're going to the Zoo, then swing by the National Cathedral. It won't take a large chunk of time to go through, but be sure to check out the statuary and windows.

The Iwo Jima memorial over in Arlington is easy to reach via the Metro, and within twenty minutes of walking (entirely through Arlington Cemetery) you can visit JFK and RFK's grave sites, and not very far off, the Tomb of the Unknowns. Be warned, it's very easy to walk away an afternoon in Arlington (It's huge and has a lot of interesting stuff!).
posted by Atreides at 10:25 AM on April 6, 2009

It feels rather crass to ignore all the great sites and museums already suggested in favor of shopping, but I thought I'd chime in to suggest the Pentagon City Mall (on the Blue and Orange lines; Pentagon City stop). Not anything earth-shattering, but a classic American mall that's easily accessible and protected from the elements. Good for a rainy morning or if the weather gets unexpectedly hot.
posted by charmcityblues at 10:28 AM on April 6, 2009

Yup, the Smithsonian is open on Easter (they're closed only on Christmas day). I don't know what kind of stuff you like, but the new American Indian Museum is a knockout, and I love love love the American Art Museum and Portrait Gallery.

And if you have time and like this sort of thing, head over to Georgetown and visit the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks. Fabulously gorgeous.
posted by rtha at 10:28 AM on April 6, 2009

Stitch DC is a great store: community-oriented, classes, walk in for help on a project, plenty of funky yarn. If you are staying "near the Capitol" the 8th Street store is within walking distance, but you might prefer the Eastern Market Metro stop.

For shopping, Union Station (its own stop on the Red Line) or the museum shops. The National Building Museum (Judiciary Square on the Red Line) has a great shop. Seconding the Botanic Gardens (Capitol South or Federal Center SW, Blue/Orange line).
posted by jgirl at 10:30 AM on April 6, 2009

The Cherry Blossom Festival is still going on and you can check out events (including tours and fireworks) at the website. I hear bike tours or night tours are very popular.
posted by CoralAmber at 10:37 AM on April 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History has (along with lots of other fascinating things) an Insect Zoo in it that utterly entranced me, amateur bug geek that I am - just thought I'd mention it on the off-chance that the thought of getting to hold a live hissing cockroach or to see all sorts of (living, not pinned-in-a-display-case!) insects, arachnids, and the like might catch your attention, too...
posted by DingoMutt at 10:38 AM on April 6, 2009

Congress is not in session this week or next, for what it's worth. The museums will be open, but they do close rather early, so check the operating hours before you go. The F. D. Roosevelt memorial will be especially beautiful this time of year, since it's right in the midst of the cherry blossoms, and it's open all night (and better in the dark, anyway).

I'll be out of town the beginning of next week, so it looks like our schedules may not overlap, but shoot me an email if you'd like a behind-the-scenes tour of my office.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:42 AM on April 6, 2009 [3 favorites]

See what special exhibits are going on at the various museums on the Mall. This might help prioritize where you spend your time. Many years ago, I happened to be there when a Rodin exhibit was going on at the National Gallery, and what a treat that was! Nth-ing the Spy Museum, but it's private, so there's an admission fee, and it's not near the Mall.
Don't bother with the line for the Washington Monument. It's a big wait and you have limited time.
The Mall is spectacular, but, in a way, kind of miserable. It's enormous. It's definitively civic. It's tough just to find a bit of rest. Plan your site-seeing so that you can have breaks in human scaled places. A full day on the Mall is like a full day at Disneyland, fun but exhausting.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 10:43 AM on April 6, 2009

Response by poster: Mr. Moon Pie, it's like you asked me if I wanted to take a tour of HEAVEN while I'm there. MeFi-mailing you now...
posted by pised at 10:56 AM on April 6, 2009

The Mall and the zoo could certainly take up all your time (and then some). If you want to explore a more "funky" neighborhood with boutiques and restaurants I'd suggest U street.

(I admit I have never actually eaten at Ben's Chili Bowl, but some people consider it a must-do.)

The Metro is super-easy to figure out. You'll be fine without a car.
posted by JoanArkham at 10:59 AM on April 6, 2009

Don't bother with the line for the Washington Monument. It's a big wait and you have limited time.

Seconding this. If you want to go up and look at the best view of the city then you want to visit the Old Post Office Pavilion. There is a food court there too, so it is a good lunch/snack spot as well.
posted by procrastination at 11:00 AM on April 6, 2009

The Library of Congress is probably the most gorgeous of the Mall-area monuments, and the best food on the Mall is probably at the American Indian Museum's cafeteria.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 11:13 AM on April 6, 2009

Nth-ing the Spy Museum, but it's private, so there's an admission fee, and it's not near the Mall.
Don't bother with the line for the Washington Monument. It's a big wait and you have limited time.

See, I'd vote for the Washington Monument over the Spy Museum, I think. The Spy Museum is pretty awesome, but (last I checked) is $20 or so, which isn't cheap; and if you go on a weekend, beware of lines there, too -- get tickets online in advance to make sure you can get in, but you could be waiting awhile.

The Washington Monument, you can also get tickets online in advance from the national parks website. If you get there within ~20 minutes of your scheduled time, then that's about as long as you'd wait. Personally, I think it's pretty neat, and really ties DC together when you're looking out from the top and seeing where everything is.
posted by inigo2 at 11:16 AM on April 6, 2009

The Hope Diamond is in the Smithsonian. Normally I don't go for silly superstitions, but for some reason that silly necklace, I just couldn't take my eyes off of it.
posted by paisley henosis at 11:33 AM on April 6, 2009

Go to the Air and Space Museum - both of them!

If you're flying in/out of Dulles, there is a shuttle that will take you to the Udvar-Hazy Center, located a short drive away from the terminal. The shuttle costs a dollar, the museum is part of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and therefore free. If all you want to do is get up close and personal with airplanes and spacecraft, go there. It's very no-frills, but very very awesome.

Also, it's a great way to kill time if you get stuck at the airport for several hours.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:40 AM on April 6, 2009

Seconding the American Art Museum and the Portrait Gallery. They share a building and are actually pretty close to the Spy Museum. To get there, you'd take the Red, Green, or Yellow Line to Gallery Place/Chinatown. The American Art Museum has one of the best things in D.C.: The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly.

The National Building Museum is pretty cool, too, and definitely a space worth seeing at least once. To get there, take the Red Line to Judiciary Square.
posted by pasici at 12:12 PM on April 6, 2009

There is so much great stuff in DC - you will have no difficulty finding excellent ways to pass the time. I'm not a huge fan of the Spy Museum, especially given the amazing number of museums in DC that are free. My favorites include the Freer, the National Gallery (Magni's Reading Girl[self-link] statue is an absolute must-see - I usually end up examining it for half an hour or more every time I go), and the American Art Museum (see, e.g., Ives' Undine. I'd also consider venturing into the main reading room at the Library of Congress. It's gorgeous, and quite peaceful. Georgetown is good for shopping, though Metro access is a bit tricky (Foggy Bottom or Dupont are closest). The National Cathedral has a great garden well worth stopping by. And just walking through the neighborhood between Van Ness and Wisconsin Ave. while the azaleas[self-link] are blooming can be fantastic. Have a great trip!
posted by dilettanti at 12:35 PM on April 6, 2009

Avoid the National Aquarium at all costs. It was terrible when I went, and although they've done renovations since then they would have had to hire mermaids as tour guides to get me back.

The Vietnam Memorial really is worth it - that was the first monument that I've ever experienced that impressed me on every level. You come away with a greater understanding of how the US was drawn in to that conflict just by visiting it. The Korean Monument, while less well known, is beautiful at dusk/night.

Ford's Theatre is OK, but seeing the incredible disparity of wealth in that area was shocking.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 12:54 PM on April 6, 2009

People who haven't been often don't quite grok just how big and full of stuff the Mall is. If you wanted to, you could easily spend all your free time in the National Gallery. Or the NMNH. Or the Zoo. Or the NASM. Each of these could easily, easily absorb a couple of days if it's stuff you like.

On the off chance you're flying in and out of National*, I definitely would not bother with the Washington Monument. You'll get a better view on takeoff and landing. Dunno where the flight paths to Dulles are.

Shoppingwise, Canadian implies "trip to nearest convenient Target."

*It'll be a cold day in Hell before I call it by that other name.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:11 PM on April 6, 2009

this isn't technically DC but it's pretty close: Arlington Draft House basically a combination of a restaraunt and a movie theater. I enjoyed it.

Also I would avoid the National Museum of Crime & Punishment. It was overpriced, and had a miniscule amount of cool stuff, by my standards.
posted by pyro979 at 1:15 PM on April 6, 2009

Bike the Sites does great bike tours. I highly recommend their tour of the monuments at night. And Goldstar often has half-priced tickets!
posted by amarynth at 1:58 PM on April 6, 2009

If you do drop by the Holocaust Museum (on a weekday), feel free to stop by the Library and say hi. There's not much "behind the scenes" to see here, but I can maybe answer any questions you have. Oh, and the view of the Tidal Basin from the 5th floor is wonderful.
posted by arco at 2:01 PM on April 6, 2009

Ford's Theatre is OK, but seeing the incredible disparity of wealth in that area was shocking.

If you thought that about Metro Center, I'm guessing you didn't make it out to the Fredrick Douglass Museum in Southeast DC. (Which, incidentally, I hear good things about)
posted by meta_eli at 2:25 PM on April 6, 2009

I'm going this summer, and I think the Mitsitam Cafe in the National Museum of the American Indian sounds neat.
posted by Bigfoot Mandala at 5:41 PM on April 6, 2009

2nding Bike The Sites. The monuments are just too damn far apart to walk comfortably, but are a very easy bike ride.
posted by shiny blue object at 5:59 PM on April 6, 2009

If the weather is halfway decent, you should take a stroll along the towpath of the C&O Canal. Get off the subway at Rosslyn and walk across the Key Bridge. You'll see the path right under the Georgetown end of the bridge.
posted by NinaLee at 6:35 PM on April 6, 2009

Instread of taking a bike tour, you can rent bikes and use them as your transport up and down the mall (and over into Arlington). It is a fantastic way to save time.
posted by mmascolino at 6:36 PM on April 6, 2009

I haven't made it over yet, so I can't comment on its coolness, but here is the site to make a reservation for the tour of the Capitol building.

There's a meetup on Friday.
posted by little e at 6:19 AM on April 7, 2009

Oh, yeah, there's a meetup on Friday! The MrsMoonPie and I will be there.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:30 AM on April 7, 2009

suggestion for dinner (if you like hamburgers)

Rays Hell Burger (yelp link)

Google Walking Directions from metro to Rays

if you go to the national cathedral eat at 2 Amys (yelp link)

maybe check out a Nationals game

a good place for resteraunt suggestions/locations is DC Yelp
posted by knockoutking at 8:13 AM on April 7, 2009

Response by poster: I want to give a very belated official online thank you to Mr. Moon Pie for an awesome tour. THANK YOU!

I saw so much stuff while I was there and had an amazing time. I had a lovely walk from the zoo (PANDAS!) to the National Cathedral on a Sunday -- the church bells led me there. Thank you to everyone for the suggestions -- I tried to take as many as I could!
posted by pised at 4:46 PM on October 16, 2009

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