I wish I had enough time to see the Smithsonian.
May 6, 2010 7:25 PM   Subscribe

Twofold question: I have a 4 hour train layover at Union Station in Washington DC Saturday morning. What can I do while I'm there and how can I do it?

(This is all dependent on whether or not I can actually get sleep on the train ride down from Boston.) My train gets in to Union Station at 7am and my connection doesn't leave until 11 for destinations further southward. I estimate that I'll have at least 2 solid hours to check stuff out. This is my first time in DC for any appreciable length of time, and it would be very cool even if I could just see some buildings of renown. Google maps tells me that the National Mall is just a couple of blocks from the train station; is that a realistic destination?

Now, while I'm walking about, I'll have a big suitcase and a hefty courier bag. I have no problems lugging the bag, but the suitcase might be a pain. Is there any kind of short term storage available in Union Station?

I'm really excited about this, even if it is such a brief trip. The weather is supposed to be gorgeous on Saturday, so that should make things that much more enjoyable. Thanks!
posted by Cat Pie Hurts to Travel & Transportation around Washington, DC (19 answers total)
Washington is such a great city for walking. But another great thing about it is that cabs are cheap and it'd be really easy to hop in one and go on over to the Spy Museum or the Washington Monument or whatever, and walk around with whatever time you have left after doing the one big thing you decide to do.

No personal experience with the suitcase question, but this page implies there is storage at the station (link in right column). Have fun!
posted by lakeroon at 7:30 PM on May 6, 2010

Walk around the Capitol grounds and over to the West Front, which overlooks the Mall. Be sure to take a look at the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress. The National Gallery of Art is very, very close, and the West Building has a nice cafe. That would all be a nice two hours.

AIUI, there are no lockers, but you can store your bags for a fee at the station. You might be able to leave things in the coat check at the LOC.
posted by jgirl at 7:38 PM on May 6, 2010

I think you should have a backup plan in case the train is late and you only have 1 hour, or less. Amtrak delays can be epic, although they're usually not too bad arriving at the final destination. I can't advise you on stuff close to Union Station in DC, but others surely can.
posted by Quietgal at 7:57 PM on May 6, 2010

I agree that you'll get the most bang for your buck just by walking around the Mall.

No need for a cab, just walk straight out of the station and you're basically staring at the Capitol. Head for the Capitol, walk all the way around it (which will give you a chance to see the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress buildings), then head west from the Capitol on the beautiful grassy Mall. Pop into any of the Smithsonian buildings or the National Gallery of Art -- they're right on the Mall, and they're free.

However, don't expect any of the museums/monuments to be open before 8:30. All the more reason to just enjoy walking down the Mall. You can briefly pop into the museum(s) of your choice on the walk back.

Also, you're being extremely conservative is assuming that your 4 hour layover will only yield 2 hours of "usable" touristy time. You'll certainly get at least 3 hours, 3.5 hours if you're willing to cut it close.
posted by Dimpy at 8:03 PM on May 6, 2010

There is no reason to take a cab in Washington unless you're going to a friend's house that is on the fringes of the district.

Union Station is right across the street from the Capitol, I don't know if they are open at seven but four hours would be enough for the tour, or to go through security and into the House gallery. Or you could walk to the White House and do that tour. It would also be plenty of time to walk all the way down the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial, with good, decent stops at the WWII and Viet Nam Memorials. If you like to walk more than you like to read plaques or listen to docents, that would be your best bet.

You could also circumnavigate the East Wing (very near the Capitol and decide for yourself if Pei made a mistake or not, then you could go inside and ogle things and meander your way into the rest of the Nat. Art. Museum. Just across the Mall is Air and Space, which give you a very different set of things to ogle. And near that is the American Indian Museum, which would be my target, because I haven't seen it.

Also the National History and Natural History Museums are just passed the Gallery. The National Archives is just up the street, but not one of my favorite destinations.

The early arrival really hurts you, I'm not sure these places open before nine, or maybe ten, and May is Junior High Class Trip Month - but better than June for crowds. If your going in July, you will hit the fold life festival, and miss your train.

This is maybe the best place in the world to get stranded. Yeah, really, and that's not even jingoism. Take a walk on the grass, and look around until opening time, then pick a building and walk inside. (As of now, they're all free, but who knows how long that will last.)
posted by Some1 at 8:13 PM on May 6, 2010

Oh, also, I've used lockers downstairs at Union, but that was about ten years ago (pre9/11, actually) so others probably have more up to date info. The museums have lockers though, and check stands for larger stuff, because you can't carry (virtually) anything in.
posted by Some1 at 8:19 PM on May 6, 2010

Walk out the main doors of Union Station, past the fountain, and walk up along Delaware Avenue. The Capitol is a few blocks, less than 10 minutes of easy walking, straight ahead. Just walk out on the Front side, hang out on the steps, and see the Mall in all its glory. It's an awesome thing to see just the Capitol, the surrounding buildings, and the Mall. You won't regret it!

It's almost exactly two miles between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial. You could easily walk from Union Station, to the Capitol, to the Lincoln Memorial and back in two hours, should you wish, even with a few stops at several outdoors memorials on the way. Korea/Vietnam/WWII and the Washington Monument are all on the main Mall, and fall along the line between the two.

If you prefer to do one substantial thing, rather than walking from one to the other, I would recommend the interior of the Capitol. The main entrance to the Capitol is the Visitor's Center, immediately behind (East of) the Capitol. If the line for security screening is really long, go to the Library of Congress instead - the LOC security line is usually short, and there is a tunnel leading from there to the Capitol. The library is cool by itself too.

And you do have time to see the Smithsonian! Just pick one of the museums that really speaks to you, and go there. Or do a cursory glance at a few of them. Bottom line is, you have lots of time to see cool stuff on your layover! Have fun!
posted by gemmy at 8:51 PM on May 6, 2010

I see other people have covered the available monuments and such, so I'll just add:

There is a bag check that's safe at Union Station. It's on the same floor as the gates. It's reasonably priced (IIRC $5 per bag for several hours). You can even check both of them. You MAY also be able to check them directly though Amtrak (I have done this in the past).

Union Station has some really good chocolate and shopping after 10.
posted by eleanna at 9:17 PM on May 6, 2010

Yeah, your main issue is going to be the hours, not the distance. It's a pretty quick walk to the Capitol and all the stuff on that end of the Mall, but looks like the museums don't really open until 10. Looks like the Capitol Visitor's Center opens at 8:30, but I don't know if there'll be a wait for same-day tour passes (or you could try booking in advance online, and if your train's late and you miss it, oh well.) Trips up the Washington Monument start at 9, you could line up for one of those once you arrive and see if you can get one early enough for you.

The other good thing is that there's a Metro stop right at Union Station-- it's a less than 10 minute ride on the Red Line to Metro Center which is near the White House, and near-ish the west end of the Mall where you'll find the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the World War II Memorial, etc. [Not that you'd have to take the Metro, it'd only gain you 15-20 minutes over walking, but if you'd rather cram the most into your time...] You should have plenty of time to wander around all those (the memorials are open 24 hours) and then make your way back east along the Mall past the Smithsonian museums (maybe checking out the sculpture garden on the way) back towards the Capitol, which will bring you back within a few minutes of Union Station. Depending on how early you want to be for your train, you'd likely be able to spend at least a few minutes in one of the museums after they open at 10. (The Museum of the American Indian is down at the end nearest the Capitol and Union Station, and is a cool museum-- and their cafe has amazing, amazing food...)
posted by EmilyClimbs at 9:23 PM on May 6, 2010

The closest attraction is the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, which opens at 10 am. It's fun and free but you can get through it pretty quickly. It might be a good choice if your train from Boston is late and you don't have a lot of time, or if you find yourself back by the station earlier than you need to be. It's just across 1st from the station.
posted by SandiBeech at 3:53 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Capitol Visitor Center opens at 8:30 and tours begin at 8:50. Things have changed since I was a tour guide there, but you should be able to reserve a spot on a tour for a time convenient for yourself on the website, unless the spots are filled up. Note, you WILL have to do something with your luggage. Backpacks aren't allowed in the capitol, to give you an idea of how big a bag you can take in with you. Generally, Saturdays aren't as busy at the Capitol because the majority of people come during the week. Get there for the first tour of the day and you get the rare opportunity to enjoy a tour with hardly anyone else around but your group.
posted by Atreides at 5:24 AM on May 7, 2010

You can also check out the US Botanical Garden, which is across the Mall from Union Station. Unfortunately it doesn't open until 10, but you might get a quick look.
posted by OmieWise at 5:37 AM on May 7, 2010

Because the hours are kind of early, I think you should just focus on a walking tour. You could stay in the Capitol Hill area -- check out not only the Capitol, the Justice Bldg, the Library of Congress, etc., but also walk around the residential areas -- definitely some beautiful old houses around there. You could also head to one of the cafes in the area and settle down, have some breakfast, and people watch.
posted by imalaowai at 7:04 AM on May 7, 2010

Bummer about the timing - the National Gallery (DC's best attraction, IMO) doesn't open until 10:00 - you might have 15 minutes to breeze through when it opens, but not much more than that. If you do go, try to see Magni's "Reading Girl" sculpture - best piece in the museum (West building, lower floor, north-west corner, gallery G8 on the map). Otherwise, just enjoy a walk around the mall - you can see all the main monuments and buildings right off the mall, and weather permitting, it makes a great walk/jog.
posted by dilettanti at 7:39 AM on May 7, 2010

If you want to grab lunch to go, there's an awesome tiny Italian eatery just behind Union Station, and a great little coffee house right next to it.
posted by schmod at 7:52 AM on May 7, 2010

Can you check your bags onto the 11 am train itself? Then you don't have to worry about getting them out of storage, and you can pretty much run onto your train at the last minute, assuming you don't need them on the train.
posted by musofire at 7:53 AM on May 7, 2010

Yeah, the only reason you can't see more of the Smithsonian museums is the early hours, not the geography. Some things to do before the museums open are to walk around the new Museum of the American Indian (worth looking at the outside landscaping/design) and the Japanese American Memorial to the US internment camps.

When I used to spend more time on the Hill than I do now I had a short list of favorite ways to kill a few hours between meetings, but my top choices were the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art and the Botanical Garden, both already mentioned here, and neither open early enough for you. Still, the National Mall on an early warm morning, before a lot of the tourists are out or the weather is too humid, is a lovely thing.
posted by gingerbeer at 8:29 AM on May 7, 2010

check your bags and walk to Eastern Market for breakfast and some browsing.
posted by jindc at 9:30 AM on May 7, 2010

The above suggestions are great, but if you're nervous about time/late arriving: Union Station itself is a mall (in the usual sense) so you could easily spend time shopping/eating without leaving the station.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 9:59 AM on May 7, 2010

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