Traveling alone to DC on Christmas weekend. What to do?
December 7, 2014 8:06 PM   Subscribe

So I have a few days off and just want to get away on a small budget. I have decided that I will take the bus to Washington, DC over the Christmas weekend, and will probably be staying at a hostel or maybe couchsurfing. I will probably stay for one or two nights. I don't have any friends or family in the DC area and, so far, I couldn't find anyone to travel with me, so I will be traveling alone.

I have been living in the Northeastern US for a few years (currently in NYC) but have never been to DC, so I really just wanted to explore and do some touristy things and learn some history. I also enjoy art and photography and may be bringing my camera and tripod as well. I will rely entirely on public transportation (I don't have a car).

Are a lot of places closed over the Christmas weekend? How far in advance do I have to schedule tours of museums/capitol building and other landmarks?

I've also never really traveled alone before so any general advice and suggestions are welcomed.
posted by wye naught to Travel & Transportation around Washington, DC (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
One photo possibility is a Washington Photo Safari outing. There's a monuments and memorials one on the 27th if after is what you mean by Christmas weekend. I've gone on this and you'll get some good photos. Since it's daytime you might not need a tripod, but I'd take mine if I were going to go. Bring a good zoom (200mm-ish equivalent) if you have one. It will be surprisingly useful. Keep in mind you probably won't be able to take your tripod in anywhere so it might be convenient to get a place where you can easily take it back after the workshop. Also many monuments also don't allow tripods (e.g. the Lincoln Memorial), but they'll explain that at the workshop.

The Smithsonian museums at least will all be open except on Christmas Day itself.

I've been to DC by myself many times. You won't have any problems. There will be lots of people on the weekend and there is security and police everywhere around the tourist and museum areas.
posted by sevenless at 8:42 PM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

DC is pretty wonderful around the holidays - enough residents leave the city for it to feel almost like you have the whole place to yourself.

The Smithsonian museums and zoo are closed on the 25th but open all other days - here's the event calendar. The Kennedy Center has a free show every day at 6pm, looks like there are vaudeville performances that weekend.

As for tours: the Washington Monument, you can either get tickets in advance if they're available or get there super early and wait in line. You have to contact your member of congress for tours of the White House, check their website, there is usually a form you can submit (though since it's only a few weeks away, you may also want to call their office too). For the Capitol, you can go through your representative/senator to get a staff-led tour or just book one online. Due to the holiday, they may not be offering the staff-led ones, depends.

The major outdoor monuments/memorials are open 24 hours a day and are quite close to each other. Many offer free guided tours (Lincoln, for example, has guided tours every hour on the hour from 10am to 11pm). If the weather is nice, the monuments are just lovely at night.

That's sort of the more general tourist-y stuff. As far as tourist-y stuff goes, it's not bad. If you are looking for specific parts of history, I can get more specific.

You will be fine on the metro, but there is an pretty good bikeshare network (Capital Bikeshare) that offers a 3-day pass for $15.
posted by troika at 8:45 PM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

As it gets closer to your trip, check the City Paper, DCist, and the Post's Going Out Guide, they have reliably solid event listings.
posted by troika at 8:48 PM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

The National Portrait Gallery is fabulous.
posted by ajryan at 9:15 PM on December 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just throwing this out there... is couchsurfing over the Christmas holidays really a thing? OTOH, I have stayed in guesthouses/hostels during that time and it was fun because all the travellers got together and fixed Christmas dinner. Once in London a family called up and asked if a solo traveller wanted to spend the day with them and that was great too. Crackers!
posted by TWinbrook8 at 10:39 PM on December 7, 2014

If you don't make it out of NYC after all and the weather isn't too bad: Coney Island. I was stranded in NY due to a blizzard back home and so I spent Christmas Eve Day alone on the boardwalk, taking pictures and reaping the benefit of that wonderfully stark December light. There were just enough people there to make it interesting, some of them in Santa hats dipping into the ocean. Nothing was open. It was probably my favorite Christmas Eve ever. I still have the pictures.
posted by mochapickle at 10:40 PM on December 7, 2014

Washington DC is very much a transplant town, so it will be very quiet and dead during the holidays because many people will have gone to their hometowns. My family celebrated Thanksgiving there one year and it was very quiet. You will certainly find at least some places that are open -- we did. But yeah, lots of places will be closed. You'll just need to do a little research.

And it terms of things to do, "Zoo Lights" where they light up the National Zoo is pretty cool, but you may not want to be coming back from the zoo in the dark. (The "lights" part doesn't really work during the day.) As with (almost) all museums in DC, admission is free!

I've never done an official museum tour, but visiting museums is free and easy. Just check the hours before you go. My favorites are the Library of Congress and the National Gallery of Art. People seem to like the Air & Space one, but I think it's way overrated. National History is a good one. The Holocaust museum makes for a rather somber, depressing day, but it's very well done. The Newseum always looked cool to me, but it costs money so I've never been.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:58 AM on December 8, 2014

I strongly recommend that if you visit the Capitol, you book a tour online through the visitor's center (and not your legislator's office). The Hill staff are lovely people, but many of them will be gone for the holidays (or gone altogether, if your legislator lost an election), and the people who give the tours through the visitor's center are highly trained people with master's degrees. And fair warning for photography and tourism - the Capitol dome is currently undergoing major restoration work, so the outside is covered in scaffolding, and the fresco in the Rotunda is substantially obscured at the moment with draping.

I also really recommend taking a tour of the Library of Congress. It's a beautiful building, the tours are frequent, and it's underrated. I'd skip the White House unless you're dead set on it; it's not that interesting and the security theater to get in is a pain in the ass (you'd have to leave ALL your stuff at the hostel). Instead, visit the National Christmas Tree and all of the state trees outside the White House at dusk. They are a treat.

For any touring of government buildings, be sure to review the most current security restrictions, so that you aren't turned away for having a tripod/water bottle/snack/lotion sachet (no, really).

Definitely visit some of the museums on (and off) the mall. I wouldn't even bother with the paid ones, honestly, because DC is unique in having so many free offerings and they could keep you busy for ages and ages. The Smithsonian offerings on and off the Mall are wonderful, and the National Gallery isn't part of the Smithsonian, but is on the Mall and free. If you are interested in religious art, this would be a gorgeous time of year to visit the National Cathedral (still under substantial scaffolding to repair earthquake damage, if that matters to you) and the breathtaking National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

If you're interested in street photography or landmark photography, get off the mall and into the neighborhoods. I do think a good bus tour of the monuments is worthwhile, to hit them in one fell swoop, but DC has some fabulously photogenic neighborhoods. You've got the waterfront and cobblestones of Georgetown (and, bonus, the college kids will be gone), the chess players in Dupont Circle, the old Victorians in Logan Circle, lots of interesting public art in U Street, Adams Morgan, and Shaw.

Have fun! DC is such a great place to visit, especially if you find time to get off the Mall-Capitol Hill-monuments circuit. Those things are famous for good reason, but the rest of the city is so much more vibrant (and the food is better/cheaper!).
posted by bowtiesarecool at 6:53 AM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

« Older Is it too late to max out my 401k?   |   Dramatic voiceovers Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.