Big Apple vs Capitol Hill?
February 21, 2011 9:31 AM   Subscribe

Help a first-time visitor to the US decide how to split her trip between DC and New York.

The paternal unit and I are going to be spending 10-12 days in the US this June, split between New York, Washington DC, and Orlando, Florida. We're planning on flying into JFK, spending a few days in NYC, taking the train down to DC and then flying down to Orlando for the final leg of the trip. At this point all we're certain is that we're spending 3-4 days in Orlando, which leaves us around 7-9 days for NYC and DC.

What would be the best way to split our time between the two cities?

- Dad and I both love museums, monuments, things like that. As things stand, we plan on hitting MOMA, the Smithsonian, the International Spy Museum, and all the usual sites- the Statue of Liberty, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Washington Monument. Arlington and the Wall if we can manage it. Any glaring omissions on this list?

- NYC/DC natives, tell me about your cities! What must I see/do? The less touristy, the better. I'd also love any shopping recs, especially for thrift stores and discount retailers like TJ Maxx and Nordstrom Rack.

-Restaurant recommendations please! I'm not a huge fan of Asian food, but anything else goes. If they have a great vegetarian selection, even better.

- I would love to see a show on Broadway, preferably American Idiot or the Lion King. How early do we need to start thinking about booking tickets?

-Would it be worth it to go up to Niagara? I'm not a huge nature type person, but I'd be willing to go if it were a day trip and we didn't have anything else that I'd like to do more.

-Re: Orlando, I'd like to do EPCOT and the Harry Potter and Marvel theme parks for sure, and the Hollywood theme park if we have time. Would all of these be doable in two days? And is there anything within these theme parks that I shouldn't miss/avoid like the plague?

-Finally, I'd like some ideas for cool/interesting souvenirs. I've already got the I ♥ NY shirt and the Empire State keychain. I'm a geeky type who's also a bit of a girly girl, so recommendations along those lines would be helpful.
posted by Tamanna to Travel & Transportation (36 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
New York City is 100 times more fun and interesting than Washington D.C., if you ask me. The only thing I saw in D.C. that didn't have a better equivalent in NYC was the air and space museum. I would spend the whole time in NYC, except for maybe one day in washingon.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:37 AM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Re: DC -- So many great museums, so little time. It'll have to depend on your interests. Art-wise, I love the National Portrait Gallery, and going there would give you a chance to check out the DC Chinatown. Another great cultural stop is Ben's Chili Bowl, which has a lot of African American history as well as delicious chili dogs. Also, cheesy as they sound, if the weather is nice I love a good open-top bus tour.

Re: cheap clothing -- The undisputed discount clothing store in the DC area is Filene's Basement, which you should have no trouble finding.

Re: Niagara Falls -- Meh, I've been there and it's okay. But if you aren't really into natural wonders, I'd stick to all of the great museums in NYC and DC.

Re: Souvenirs -- At lots of the Smithsonian gift shops, you can get red, white, and blue scarves that have all of the signatures of the American presidents. Tons of cheap crap that says FBI. There are tons of places that sell this stuff, so don't think you need to make a special stop to get it.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 9:41 AM on February 21, 2011

I think the monuments are especially gorgeous at night. I've done the "Monuments at Night" bike tour through bike the sites, and thought it was excellent. We got discounted tickets through Goldstar, which also regularly offers discounted tickets for the Spy Museum and the Museum of Crime and Punishment, as well as some food tours.
posted by amarynth at 9:41 AM on February 21, 2011

Allow plenty of time for the Spy Museum or skip it. It is very detail oriented with much reading, etc. Very interesting if you are interested in it. Expensive for a quick-tour I think, but great if you love to study.
posted by JayRwv at 9:45 AM on February 21, 2011

Niagara is indeed not an easy day trip from either DC or NYC -- Niagara Falls is substantially farther from NYC than DC is. Like, almost twice as far away.

But, Niagara is not 2 hours from Buffalo. More like 20-30 minutes.

You could do it in a day -- take a wee silly airplane from LaGuardia to Buffalo, rent a car, see the falls, go back. But it would be a pretty hectic day.

I'd like to do EPCOT and the Harry Potter and Marvel theme parks for sure, and the Hollywood theme park if we have time. Would all of these be doable in two days?

Only if you want a miserable, grinding experience instead of anything remotely resembling fun.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:47 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah Niagara Falls in not a day trip at all. It's about 7 hours from NYC to Buffalo (I drove up there last year).

If you want to go to some cheaper stores in NYC, the Century 21 downtown is huge. It's also right near the World Trade Center and City Hall. And make a stop in Soho. Most of the stores are pretty pricey, but H&M and Uniqlo (only one in America!) have good prices. As for thrift stores, there's tons of Salvation Armies and Goodwills. The Housing Works on 17th st between 6th and 7th ave is pretty good.

If you haven't between Metropolitan Museum of Art, you must must go. Also, if you're in to film, the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria is pretty fun, if you don't mind trekking out to Queens.

As for Orlando, Marvel and Harry Potter is all in one park, so you can definitely do those both in one day. But don't expect to have time to go to either Disney MGM Studios or Universal Studios (they're both Hollywood themed) if you also want to go to Epcot.
posted by catwash at 9:58 AM on February 21, 2011

Response by poster: Point taken, ROU_Xenophobe. What about just Epcot, HP, and Marvel?
posted by Tamanna at 9:59 AM on February 21, 2011

The International Spy Museum isn't really all that great, IMHO, and I'd recommend visiting the Newseum instead. It's also worth hitting up the Phillips Collection.
posted by evoque at 10:01 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

In DC, don't miss the Vietnam War Memorial. It's right by the Lincoln Memorial, so you should be able to fit it in. For something less touristy, you could visit the Dumbarton Oaks formal gardens - especially pretty in spring. If you're up for a healthy long stroll, you could then wander through Georgetown down to the new waterfront park, or walk across the Key Bridge to get a great view of the Potomac and the city.
posted by yarly at 10:04 AM on February 21, 2011

The Spy Museum is great if you're in the 7-11 year old age bracket. Otherwise, not worth your time. If you feel some compulsion to PAY money for a museum entrance fee in DC, go to the Newseum. Or the Corcoran. Or the Phillips. But, probably the Newseum.
I, too, love the Portrait Gallery, and be sure to ask how to get to Luce Foundation Center, on the 3rd floor, because I only ever found it by following a security guard. It's a confusing secret that the museum staff wishes was well known (and a great place to study, DC-locals! They have free coffee!! and wifi!).
I hate Niagara Falls with all the hate I can hate. The falls are very nice, but the clusterfuck of crap around it. It's Atlantic City without the class. Yeah.
In favorite memorial-land, take the time to walk over to the FDR Memorial. Yes, it's kind of over there by itself. But, yes, it's also the coolest one.
posted by atomicstone at 10:08 AM on February 21, 2011

I don't know what you like in particular, put the MET is a phenomenal museum if you've never been there. You can see actual structures inside the museum such as the Temple of Dendur If you check out the schedule in advance, too, you can go with a volunteer who will show you part of the museum in great detail (Egyptian art, the instruments/music collection, etc.).

Also, I think the Cloisters is a unique museum. The less touristy, the better.

This may become touristy overtime, but I was delighted last year to have a chance to check out Governors Island, which has only been open the last few years to the public.

If you go on Wed or Thursday, there are special tours and only a handful of people go with a park ranger. You get to see things like forts and hear how this island has been occupied and used from the time of the Native Americans, wars (one of the forts was used as a prison)., etc. You can also go during a weekend, and there is typically sort sort of festival/concert during those times, but I doubt the actual events will e announced before then.

Also, for more along "unusual"/nontourist (and only if you enjoy this), you can bike and slowly explore areas like the west side of NYC along a bike path, cross by ferry to Staten Island, and check out another fort and home of a former/historic photographer. Alternatively, go out to Brooklyn, also take a bike path along the west side, but explore Coney Island, which is changing a lot. If you are really interested in this last part, memail me because I think most pple don't do this and you would obviously need more details.
posted by Wolfster at 10:12 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

You could consider stopping in Philly for a day too. The art museum alone is worth it - I like it better than anything in dc. Great restaurants, and for your shopping needs there's a nice consignment shop called Greene Street, located on South Street. Also super nice to get coffee and sit in Rittehouse Square, grab a roast pork sandwich at Reading Terminal Market, stroll through Italian Market... plenty of historical sites too, like Independence Hall, although in my opinion they are not really worth touring but are nice to look at.
posted by yarly at 10:16 AM on February 21, 2011

Harry Potter World can be seen in about 4 hours. The rest of the "Islands of Adventure" are pretty dated in my opinion, but you could catch one of the bigger rides (Jurassic Park, Hulk, Spiderman) while you're there. Just go to HP World right when it opens and you'll be done by early afternoon.

Epcot is a one day affair as well as long as you can prioritize what you really want to see. Also, Epcot is awesome after dark, so if you get the chance stay for dinner.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:17 AM on February 21, 2011

Ben's Chili Bowl, mentioned by BusyBusyBusy, has a delicious veggie burger.
posted by hilaritas at 10:23 AM on February 21, 2011

Harry Potter and Marvel aren't theme parks. They are tiny parts of Universal/Islands of Adventure. In June, those will be a zoo. Stay at a Universal resort and get there an hour before opening if you want to attempt to do these parks in 2 days.

EPCOT is a two day park; Disney's Hollywood Studios is another full day.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:23 AM on February 21, 2011

For NYC: MOMA is doable in a day. The Metropolitan Museum of Art or the American Museum of Natural History (which you should have on your list) less so. The Statue of Liberty (and Ellis Island) will eat up at least half a day: waiting in line to board the ferry, the ferry ride, and don't forget to get a monument and/or crown pass if you wish to actually go inside the statue. Book your ferry and monument pass well in advance online. Many people are disappointed when they get there since it tends to sell out in the summertime.

And you're not even including Empire State Building/Top of the Rock (I prefer the latter), a stroll through Times Square, a stroll through Grand Central Terminal, exploring any part of Central Park, seeing the NYPL Main Branch, or a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. The Union Square Greenmarket will also be in full swing in June.

In DC: The Smithsonian is huge -- it really depends what part you want to visit and your interests. A lot of the Smithsonian museums have counterparts elsewhere that are equally good. The Air & Space Museum is unique. Don't miss the National Archives (to view the Declaration of Independence, Constitution of the United States, and Bill of Rights). As for the International Spy Museum, it's a fun afternoon diversion if you're into the spy stuff. Just be aware that the beginning is pretty cheesy (choose your spy cover!) and unlike the Smithsonian, there's an admission fee.

As for the Lincoln Memorial (don't miss the exact spot where MLK stood at the top of the steps -- it can be easy to miss the engraving), Washington Monument, Vietnam War Memorial, White House, Jefferson Memorial, Capitol Hill, etc. it is a very long walk to and from each of these attractions, especially if you want to take in the details. Hopefully the weather will be good and not humid.

Oh, and if you want to go inside the Washington Monument to the top, tickets will sell out far in advance.
posted by kathryn at 10:25 AM on February 21, 2011

For Disney, plan on one day per park. You can easily do Epcot in a day if you use FastPass for the popular rides; ditto the Hollywood park - doing both in one day is possible, but you'll miss a lot and waste a substantial amount of time in traveling between them (plus it will cost a fortune because they charge by the park). Harry Potter and Marvel are both at Universal (in the Islands of Adventure park) - they can be done in a single day. If you want a don't-miss activity there, see if you can get tickets to La Nouba (the Orlando Cirque du Soleil show) -- it's a simply incredible show.

There's not a lot of discount shopping in Manhattan proper, though you can often get incredible deals at Century 21, if you can stand the crowds. For don't-miss museums, the Lower East Side Tenement museum is something you won't find anywhere else, the Met for the Temple of Dendur, and the Guggenheim is worth a visit just for the architecture. I love the Cooper-Hewitt museum as well. Many of the museums are within a short walk from one another, and offer pay-as-you-wish, so you can do more than one in an afternoon if you just want to see one or two things.
posted by Mchelly at 10:45 AM on February 21, 2011

I don't know what you like in particular, put the MET is a phenomenal museum if you've never been there.

Agreed. An amazing collection ... and in my opinion a 'must see.'

There's also the Whitney and Guggenheim museums.

While in NYC you might also enjoy the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History's Rose Center for Earth and Space. If you are into photography, don't miss ICP (the International Center of Photography).

In addition to booking tickets for Broadway shows ahead of time, you can also get discounted tickets for shows at the TKTS Discount Booths
1. The Times Square Booth sells day-of-performance tickets only.

2. The South Street Seaport Booth sells tickets to evening performances on the day of the performance, and matinee tickets the day before.

3. The Downtown Brooklyn Booth sells tickets to evening performances on the day of the performance, and matinee tickets the day before as well tickets to Brooklyn performing arts events.
posted by ericb at 10:46 AM on February 21, 2011

Here's my 2 cents:

Orlando - if it's your first visit, stick to the biggies: Magic Kingdom and Epcot. Stay at a Disney resort so you can take their easy and free transportation to and from the parks. Then move on to DC and New York.

DC - can't offer any advice, but I plan to visit the Holocaust Museum and the White House someday.

Philly - I'm from Philly. Boring. Skip it. But if you do go, have a cheesesteak at Jim's, Geno's or Pat's. Jim's is my favorite, on South Street.

New York - aside from seeing some museums, take some time to explore the variety of neighborhoods. Shopping on Fifth Avenue is corporate and mainstream, shopping in Greenwich Village can be local and quirky.

A few of my New York favorites, many of which are definitely not touristy:

Lower Manhattan village walk - Chinatown's canal street, Little Italy, Soho, Village, Lower East Side...
Katz's Deli for a Pastrami Sandwich and a hot dog. Favorite place to eat in New York by far!
The Strand Bookstore
Hot dogs at Papaya King or Grey's Papaya
Take a Circle Line cruise around NY for great city views
Visit a jazz club in the Village - like the Blue Note
Favorite museums: MoMA and Guggenheim
Radio City Music Hall behind the scenes tour
Risoterria (risotto restaurant) downtown
United Nations tour
Patsy's Italian - in the theater district. Go before a show.
Times square - avoid except for a walk-through at night to see the lights. Otherwise, it's one big tourist attraction.
Ellis Island - fascinating
Shake Shack - best burger in New York City
Bleeker Street Pizza - perhaps the best pizza in New York
Apple Store near Central Park
Have tea or a drink at a grand old hotel - Waldorf or the Plaza
Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge - awesome
Ess-a-bagel - best NY bagels

Feel free to email me via MeFi mail if I can assist further.
posted by kdern at 10:49 AM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

DC has great museums, and you should check them out. The rest of the city is kinda meh, so I'd just go there for the museums and spend the rest of my time in NYC.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:32 AM on February 21, 2011

A few thoughts -

Many of the big museums in DC are free. Most of the ones in NYC are not. Many of the museums in DC are grouped around the National Mall (a big grassy area) where there are often festivals and other diversions. You can look up the days you will be in town to see if there will be a big festival - if so it can be crowded, but can be fun if it's a festival you like. The many open-air monuments of DC are mostly grouped nearish to the Mall, but they are a big of a walk if it's hot out. DC in general is a "low" city - the buildings are required to be shorter than the Washington Monument, so in the main museums-and-monuments area, it is very human-scale, with short buildings and a lot of wide open space. NYC (especially Manhattan where many of the big attractions are) is a "high" city that doesn't have as much open space (though Central Park is great). So if you find skyscrapers to be a tiring environment, DC will be easier on you. The "outer boroughs" of New York (such as Brooklyn) are areas adjacent to Manhattan, and in most cases they are "low" cities too - so a trip out to Brooklyn might be a relief if you find the high rises tiring.

DC has lots of good restaurants, and is one of the best places in the world outside Africa to have Ethiopian food (which can be an acquired taste, but if you're looking for a characteristically DC experience, that's a good one). Meskerem, Dukem, and Etete are all good ones.

The websites "yelp" or "chowhound" give restaurant reviews, and would be a good place to start in figuring out where to eat. In both cities, there are tons of good restaurants so you'll want to pick ones that are close to your hotel or to your day's destinations, rather than adding 45 minutes travel each way to get to dinner. (IMO)

DC's subway system is Metro, and is very clean and fairly straightforward. Two drawbacks: it does not have great coverage outside the core of the city - just okay coverage. And fares vary depending on how far away your destination is, and on the time of day, so you may want to look at a subway map in advance to get a sense of how it works. Then there are maps in every subway entrance to allow you to figure your fare. You can also get multi-trip passes, which may make sense depending on specifics of your trip. The Metro does not run all night, so if you're out late you'll want to note when the last train is.

NYC's subway system is more confusing, has many more lines, covers a much larger area and covers it more densely - and runs overnight in most cases. I believe their system is a one-fee system, where all rides cost the same. (Could be wrong about this, look it up.) Talking about what combination of trains to take to get to a destination is a favorite sport of New Yorkers, so if you ask someone for help they'll be happy to reel off directions ("take the L to the R and then switch at Smith St, there's construction on the F so you'll need to take the back staircase..." etc).

NYC is more geographically spread out, so be careful in planning your days that you don't plan on itineraries with huge travel times - I always get worn out in New York because we say "oh let's go see such and such" and it's an hour on the subway and a half hour walk, then walking around a museum, then walking to dinner, etc. Take it easy on yourselves!

In DC: If you're interested in American history, you can go across the Potomac river into Virginia - there is the Arlington National Cemetary, on the grounds of the mansion of Robert E Lee (the famous general of the Confederacy, the southern states that seceded in the Civil War). There is Old Town Alexandria which is a historic colonial-era port with quaint old buildings and cobblestone streets, today full of boutiques and flower shops and cute eateries. In Alexandria there is the Torpedo Factory which was an old munitions warehouse that's been converted to artist studios and small contemporary-art gallery spaces. There are also malls if you want to go shopping - for example the Pentagon City mall, which is on the Metro line that goes to Old Town Alexandria.

If you're wanting nature, you can go check out the C+O Canal tow path, which is a forested path along an old canal path, nice for a peaceful walk. Part of it goes through Georgetown, a pedestrian friendly shopping area.

You could go to a baseball game, if you're wanting to do an American thing - games in New York may be hard to get tickets for, but games in DC should be available. The Washington Nationals are a fairly new team, with a nice new stadium. Baseball games are open-air and often around 3 hours long; there is beer and food at the stadium. The team in Baltimore (about an hour north of DC) is the Orioles, and their stadium ("Camden Yards") is one of the best-regarded in baseball.

In NYC: Definitely you need to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art if you have any interest in art at all. You could easily spend the whole day there; allot at least a half day to it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:34 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding Yelp... great app / website to find user reviews of restaurants.
posted by kdern at 11:53 AM on February 21, 2011

Just confirming LobsterMitten's info and adding a bit about the NYC subway:

It's a flat fare of $2.25 for all rides regardless of distance; you don't have to swipe your card upon exit of the system like you do in DC.

However, if you buy a MetroCard over $10, you will get a 7% bonus. For example, if you pay $15 for a MetroCard you will get one that is worth $16.05. There are also 7-day unlimited ride passes ($29) but it doesn't look like you will be staying in NYC long enough to be worth it.

Also, while the subway does run 24 hours a day, night service is often significantly different from daytime service, e.g. the 5 train which normally runs from the Bronx to Brooklyn only runs from the Bronx to Manhattan on evenings & weekends, and it only runs in the Bronx during late nights. Make sure to look this up if you plan to be traveling back home late at night.
posted by andrewesque at 12:40 PM on February 21, 2011

I've lived in both NYC and DC. I'll focus more on DC since NYC seems well represented here.

DC in three days would be plenty; 2.5 would be fine too, but less than that won't give you enough time to see everything you want to see. If you have 7 days, I'd do 4.5 in NYC, leave in the afternoon of the 5th day so you get in before dinner and have some evening time (maybe a nighttime monument tour?), spend days 6-7 in DC, and leave either the night of the 7th day or morning of the 8th day (not sure how you are counting time). If you have 9 days, I'd do a full 5 in NYC and leave early the morning of the sixth day. Skip Niagara. Take Amtrak between NYC and DC.

We have great museums here in DC, and they are almost all free, but it's a small city and 3 days will be enough. Also, keep in mind most of the museums here close at 5. It will be hot and sticky in June. Definitely check out the federal stuff while you're here--the Library of Congress, the Archives, the White House, the Capitol, the monuments--they're all different than what you get in NYC and really neat places to visit. You need to reserve tickets for the White House and the Washington Monument ahead of time. Of the Smithsonians, I like the Museum of American History (America's attic!) and the National Portrait Gallery (which closes at 7pm) the best.

Seconding the recs for a Nationals game in DC; they're fun even if you aren't a baseball fan, and Dumbarton Oaks is really beautiful (don't miss the museum or the garden, they're both worth it).

I'd argue NYC is tons more fun to people watch in, or to just go to a coffeeshop and hang out in, and of course it's much bigger, so it's worth spending more time there. The museums there are fantastic, just pricey. Do not miss the Met. The Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of the City of New York are pretty great too. Definitely spend at least one day in Brooklyn, and one in Queens too if you can.

There is good food in DC, but the average good food is more expensive here. You can get much cheaper good food in NYC (as well as much more expensive food, obviously). Eat pizza and bagels in NYC and Ethiopian food and at Ben's in DC. I like Busboys & Poets for veggie food (as well as great bookstore) in DC. Also Bar Pilar (small plates), Estadio (tapas), 2Amy's or Pizzaria Paradiso (pizza), and Zaytinya (Greek mezze) are all fantastic spots and very veggie friendly.

Have fun!
posted by min at 1:56 PM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

In DC the National Museum of the American Indian is not to be missed. It opened in 2004 on the last site available on the National Mall, the 17th of the Smithsonian museums. It houses cultural treasures from indigenous peoples from every part of the continent. Nothing like it exists anywhere else in the world. Lunch in the cafe there is also fascinating with four delicious menus inspired by native foods from different areas of the country.

NMAI and the Air and Space Museum, with American History Museum, of course, might be the most distinctly American of the Smithsonian museums. Also noteworthy are the Museum of Natural History, the Zoo, the garden at Dumbarton Oaks and the National Cathedral, for its shiny and loving homage to Gothic architecture, but perhaps the latter might not as interesting if you are familiar with the originals.
posted by Anitanola at 5:24 PM on February 21, 2011

Katz's Deli for a Pastrami Sandwich and a hot dog. Favorite place to eat in New York by far!
Hot dogs at Papaya King or Grey's Papaya

If you're a vegetarian, though, there aren't many (if any) choices for you at Katz's or Papaya King/Gray's Papaya.

United Nations tour

I thought the UN tour was dry and boring. Many of the rooms look similar and are decorated in the same 1970s style decor .

Tamanna: If you wish to tour the White House, BTW, you'll need to contact your embassy in Washington, DC for assistance in submitting a tour request since you're not a US citizen I assume.
posted by kathryn at 6:03 PM on February 21, 2011

Skip shopping at Pentagon City and shop at Union Station instead. It's beautiful, less fatiguing and crowded by far, and it's right by the Capitol. And, you are already going to be there when you arrive from New York, so you can scope it out a bit for later. Otherwise, shop in New York.

I also suggest Ford's Theater, and Peterson House, AKA The House Where Lincoln Died.

Also, when you are on Capitol Hill or at Union Station, walk to Eastern Market and have crab cakes at the lunch counter.
posted by jgirl at 7:01 PM on February 21, 2011

Yes - I should have been clearer about the Pentagon City shopping mall. It is not a great mall, it's just an average American mall that is on the subway line to Alexandria. Definitely not worth a trip as a destination on its own. Union Station is a much more scenic one.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:13 PM on February 21, 2011

Considering you'll be traveling in June, I would opt to spend more time in New York than in DC. DC being a hot, humid hellhole in summertime. At least in New York there's plenty of shade and the occasional breeze off the rivers.

I would not attempt Niagara Falls. There will be more than enough stuff to see and do in New York and Washington.
posted by Sara C. at 7:18 PM on February 21, 2011

MOMA is doable in a day. The Metropolitan Museum of Art or the American Museum of Natural History (which you should have on your list) less so.

The best approach for the Met and AMNH is to look at a floor plan of each museum and choose around three things that you ABSOLUTELY must see. Then you also look at things that are on the way to/between those three things. Ignore the rest. I majored in anthropology and used to have to visit Natural History every few months for class projects - I still haven't seen everything. I fracking WORKED at the Met and only now, after ten years in New York, have I begun to approach completion. You have to just prioritize and let the rest go.

MoMA, on the other hand, is specifically set up to be viewed in its entirety in one day.
posted by Sara C. at 7:35 PM on February 21, 2011

Response by poster: Wow, great answers so far! Thank y'all so much, and please keep them coming.

Sara C., I'm from the south of India, so no worries about the weather. I'll probably find it downright pleasant in comparison!

The current DC itinirary is something like this: three days to see the Newseum, the Spy Museum, the National Archives, the Air and Space Museum, and the Museum of the American Indian, plus the night-time monument bike tour amarynth suggested, and the WH tour if we can swing it. Is that realistic, or should I cut something out? Not too wedded to the WH or the Newseum.

As for food, while I prefer not eating meat, the point of travel is to try new things, right? So all kinds of recs are fine. I'd especially love some for NYC street food, since I've heard a lot about it.
posted by Tamanna at 7:35 PM on February 21, 2011

the Guggenheim is worth a visit just for the architecture.

In my opinion, the Guggenheim is the most missable of all the major New York museums from the perspective of a tourist. The building itself is brilliant, but honestly if you've seen it from the outside, you've seen it. If you're a huge Frank Lloyd Wright fan, step into the main lobby area to get a sense of the interior. Done and done. They don't have much of a permanent collection on view - whatever show is occupying the main spiral gallery space is what you get. Which can be amazing if it's something that particularly interests you, but will be a waste of $20 if you're not too keen on it.
posted by Sara C. at 7:39 PM on February 21, 2011

Street food in New York: avoid the ersatz hot dog carts that are on every other corner in midtown. What you want are the food trucks and the halal carts. There are also a lot of "street foods" that you don't buy from a kiosk on the street but from a deli or fast-food style joint which may or may not have attached seating. In that category are New York style pizza, bagels, Italian subs, dumplings, and the like.

Some of my favorite "street" food:

Ess-A-Bagel. The original shop on First Ave. in the 20's sells bagels and only bagels (with "shmears" AKA spreads, as well as coffee, juices, etc), but there is an outlet in Midtown which is more like a traditional deli where you can also get some other breakfast things, knishes, and some prepared foods.

My ideal slice: this particular Ray's Pizza* on Prince Street in SoHo. Apparently it is The Ray's. The first. The true original. The real deal. This is another good bet for a classic New York slice.

After you've done the New York style slice thing, though, you might want to branch out a bit. Lombardi's claims to be the oldest pizzeria in New York, and their pie is superb. It's a sit-down place with waiter service, and the pies are closer to what's referred to here as "Neapolitan style". Rivaling Lombardi's in New York City pizza lore is Grimaldi's, under the Brooklyn Bridge in Brooklyn Heights. In my personal opinion, Grimaldi's is the best easily accessible pie in New York (easily accessible because I think either Di Fara or Totonno might be better, but they're a schlep for tourists). All of the latter sort of places (Lombardi's, Grimaldi's, Totonno, Di Fara) are expensive for what they are and typically involve long waits for a table, which, if you didn't grow up obsessing over The Perfect Pie, probably won't be particularly impressive to you. There's lots of fantastic pizza all over the city - stay out of Sbarro's and you'll probably get something that will make you very happy.

If you want a radical departure from anything resembling New York pizza, check out Artichoke on 14th St. between 1st and 2nd Avenues. Get the spinach and artichoke slice. Only order one - they're huge. Try not to have a coronary.

If you eat beef, check out Gray's Papaya. New York isn't particularly well known for its hot dogs, but this is a local institution. For a couple or three bucks you get two all-beef hot dogs cooked on the grill, with optional sauerkraut, as well as a small fruit drink of your choice. Papaya being the classic, of course. There's nowhere to sit, and you'll be rubbing shoulders with vagrants and hoodlums. But there is nowhere like this place in the whole world.

Dumplings and other carb-encased snack foods. I like Prosperity Dumpling on Eldridge St. My go-to dim sum used to be Golden Unicorn, but I feel like they've really gone downhill over the past few years. I like the pierogi at Veselka, though they're by no means the only game in town for Eastern European comfort food. They are probably your best bet within the usual tourist stomping grounds. I get potato and cheese, mushroom, or whatever the monthly "special" pierogi is. Or sometimes I mix and match if I can't make up my mind. Fried, not boiled. With both sour cream and applesauce. Washed down with a Slavutich beer, because how often do you get to drink Ukrainian beer?

The best pastrami on rye is actually in Montreal at Schwartz's, but don't tell anyone I told you that. In New York, I like Ben's Kosher Deli, on 38th and Seventh. This is sort of blasphemous, because not only is it less famous than Katz's, Carnegie, and the like, it's also *gasp* a chain. Yes, it's true, they also have locations in Westchester, Long Island, and Boca Raton. I don't care. They are awesome, and a lot cheaper and less crowded than their touristy counterparts. I also like that they are in the garment district, and that the decor looks like something you'd find in a strip mall. It feels real, rather than a theme park version of what New York was supposed to be fifty years ago. Also worth a mention in the "Jewish Cuisine, Non-Bagel" category are Yonah Shimmel's Knish Bakery, Russ And Daughters, and if you like vodka and a spectacle, Sammy's Famous Roumanian Steakhouse. The latter is a real sit-down restaurant, not street food by any means. But I couldn't pass it up. My family LOVES this place. We have to go every time they come visit me. It's almost embarrassing. It is a great way to get a taste of a particular corner of New York City, though. And the chopped liver is incredible (Like Buttah, maybe? If any restaurant in New York deserved a Barbra Streisand pun, it's Sammy's).

Jesus, writing this made me so hungry...

*There are A LOT of Ray's Pizza places, all over the city, often stretched out into Famous Ray's, Original Ray's, Famous Original Ray's, ad nauseum. Most of them have nothing to do with each other, if I recall correctly. I think there's some tall tale about two pizzaiolos, both alike in infamy, in fair Manhattan where we lay our scene... A rivalry, brother against brother, for the right to inherit the family pizzeria. But I have no idea if it's true. It might also be that the name is short, sweet, easy to spell and pronounce, and just familiar enough to hit the right neighborhood notes.
posted by Sara C. at 8:38 PM on February 21, 2011

Just in case your travel dates coincide, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival will be taking place on the Mall in DC June 30–July 4 and July 7–11, 2011. This year highlights Colombia, Peace Corps and Rhythm & Blues. The Folklife Festival typically offers tons of music and other cultural events taking place under multiple huge tents spanning several blocks. It's typically mobbed, but would be a fun diversion as you hit the museums around the Mall.
posted by itstheclamsname at 8:44 AM on February 22, 2011

Sara C., I'm from the south of India, so no worries about the weather. I'll probably find it downright pleasant in comparison!

Ha, don't be so sure about that! Last summer at the height of our heatwave, I heard a family of South Asian tourists complaining to each other about how unbelievably hot it was. Now, maybe they actually live in Canada, but still ... it got really, really hot here last June!
posted by yarly at 9:23 AM on February 22, 2011

Also, when you are on Capitol Hill or at Union Station, walk to Eastern Market and have crab cakes at the lunch counter.

Ooh! Excellent suggestion -- it's a bit more of a "local" thing, but it's definitely one of DC's unique highlights! They've got a fantastic flea market on Saturday and Sunday. It's easily accessible from the Orange/Blue lines, but also a pretty short walk from the Capitol along Pennsylvania Ave.

The National Portrait Gallery and National Building Museum are my two favorite attractions in DC. The latter is especially recommended if you have any interest in architecture, and only takes about 90 minutes to see in its entirety - both are free, and walkable from the Gallery Place Metro stop. The National Postal Museum is also surprisingly good, and can also be done in a little over an hour. The Natural History museum is a close runner-up -- if nothing else, stop in to see the Hope Diamond and gem/mineral exhibit (arguably the best of its kind in the world).

Like the others here, I'd give the Spy Museum a pass, unless you have small kids with you. The "Interactive" portion costs more, and is definitely not worth your time. Air/Space and the Newseum are also very much family-oriented. If you find yourself with lots of free time, you can drive out to Dulles Airport, and see the Air & Space Museum's annex, where they keep all of the cool planes that they couldn't fit into the main museum. The Newseum is nice, but very expensive for what it is, especially considering that most of the other places in DC are free.

DC has a very large Ethiopian community, and excellent restaurants to match. If you've never tried this cuisine before, there's no better place to try it than here! Lots of good vegetarian options too. I can't say that I'm particularly well-versed in our various vegetarian-friendly dining options, although I will say that DC's dining scene is a lot better (and more affordable!) than most people give it credit for.

3 days is plenty (if not excessive) for your itinerary. Don't feel like you need to see every museum and monument in its entirety. Also, try to optimize your schedule around the fact that some attractions close rather early.

For discount shopping, in addition to Filene's Basement, we've got a mediocre H&M, a decent Zara, and an enormous Forever 21 all on the same block (also directly adjacent to the Metro Center metro station). Also, check out Century 21 while you're in NYC. If you're into "Mall-like" shopping, I'd skip both Pentagon City (ick), and Union Station ($$$), and walk or take the bus over to Georgetown, which though not a mall, has a lot of the same stores, and is generally a very pleasant place to be.

(Protip: Figure out how DC street addresses work before coming here. All streets are numbered and identified in relation to the Capitol Building. For instance, 500 8th St NW is 5 blocks north, and 8 blocks west of the Capitol, and in a completely different part of the city than 500 8th St SE. Numbered streets run north/south; State-named avenues run in confusing diagonal patterns, and lettered streets run East/West. For bizarre historic and linguistic reasons, there is no J Street. There's some other weirdness around the mall regarding Independence (B St SE/W), Jefferson (A St SW), Madison (A St NW), and Constitution Avenues (B St NE/W) that you'll need to look at a map to understand.
posted by schmod at 10:41 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

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