Fun things for my Mom to do in the DC-area
April 9, 2018 3:19 PM   Subscribe

My mother is visiting the Virginia/Washington D.C. area the last week of July and would like some suggestions of interesting/beautiful things to do.

My mother is visiting the Virginia/Washington D.C. area the last week of July for her sister’s big 90th-birthday-party. The party will just take up one afternoon/evening on the weekend, but my mother would like some interesting/beautiful things to do the rest of the days.

She grew up in D.C., but has has only visited a dozen or so times since her college days in the 1950s.

I was suggesting that she should see if she can arrange some sort of tour in Rock Creek Park (which she loves—my grandfather used to drive through it every day on his way to work), but she’s not quite sure.

I was thinking that if she was one-on-one with some sort of tour/information-giving friendly ebullient park ranger, she would have a great time.

My mother is a retired-therapist and now writes a great deal (stories from her life/childhood, poems, insights about communities and character that she’s picked up along her almost-85 years).

My mother is an alumni of Antioch College, so she is proud of being a free-thinker, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She loves art and trees (one of her favorite things to say is "Look at those trees!") and greenery and gardens. She also loves talking to friendly (and funny—a sense of humor is a must!) people, asking them questions about their life, their work, et cetera. She calls herself an introvert, but she loves talking to open-minded people. She loves to learn new things.

Before she became a therapist, she taught young children, and is interested in child development and how brains function—but more about the ideas—talking with fellow visual-learners who can speak about such things in metaphor instead of mathimatical equations.

She has sung all of her life and would probably love to see something like a local gay mens choir, or a student choir.

She mentioned the Falls of the Potomac as something she’d been to before that she would like to see again. She also mentioned driving out to Mt. Vernon—I think not so much for the buildings, but for seeing the surrounding landscapes.

She did mention Georgetown as a place she would like to look at buildings, old houses, and shops.

I think she’ll pretty much avoid downtown D.C., except for a visit to the Lincoln Memorial (when she was six, she went there with her parents to see Marian Anderson sing)—which she feels is the one monument that really feels like a warm and loving place.

I have heard great things about the new National Museum of African American History & Culture, but I don't know if getting tickets for a certain day might be to difficult.

She will have a rental car so she will be able to get herself around, and can walk pretty well, although flat ground (not bumpy trails) would be best. And a chair with arms would be nice for her to sit in if she was on the go for a while.

So, what say you?
Did you or your friends/family do any things that were especially lovely while you were in the Virginia/Maryland/D.C. area?
Any activities that you would have never thought of, but were unexpectedly fun?

Thank you in advance for any and all suggestions.
posted by blueberry to Travel & Transportation around Washington, DC (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The first thing I can think of is she may enjoy touring Lincoln's Cottage.
posted by General Malaise at 3:25 PM on April 9, 2018

I'm visiting DC right now! If your mom ends up visiting any of the Smithsonian museums, I personally loved the cafe in the National Museum of the American Indian. Seasonal food based on indigenous cuisines. A really novel way to bring the various indigenous cultures of the Americas to life, and surprisingly excellent food for museum fare.
posted by Jellybean_Slybun at 3:30 PM on April 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

She might enjoy the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks.
posted by dilettante at 3:45 PM on April 9, 2018 [6 favorites]

The C&O Canal towpath is nice and flat for walking, it's shaded in many parts, has views of the falls, and there are tours. The C&O Canal Great Falls Tavern main visitor center has activities and boat rides during the summer, and local naturalist groups do bird walks and that kind of thing.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:54 PM on April 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Botanic Gardens are one of my favorite things to do downtown- she should def go!
posted by brilliantine at 3:54 PM on April 9, 2018

The National Arboretum!
posted by jgirl at 3:58 PM on April 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

I was also going to suggest Dumbarton Oaks, since she wants to see Georgetown. They also have collections of Byzantine and pre-Columbian art in the museum there.
posted by candyland at 4:03 PM on April 9, 2018

I would strongly recommend the FDR memorial, which is the newest one. It absolutely competes with Lincoln as an affirming and moving memorial. Also the Vietnam memorial if she hasn't seen it, which is right next to Lincoln.

The African American Museum is really worthwhile, and you can get her a ticket with about 4 months notice -- check the website.

And seconding Dumbarton Oaks. Great Falls is also lovely, though more of a day trip out of the city. Skip Rock Creek Park (meh), though if she'd enjoy a Central Park experience with fun people watching options on a nice evening or weekend, Meridian Hill would be the place (think interesting architecture with lots of drumming circles and acro yoga)
posted by veery at 4:03 PM on April 9, 2018

The dress Marian Anderson wore that day is at the NMAAHC.
posted by brujita at 4:06 PM on April 9, 2018 [7 favorites]

I really enjoyed Mt Vernon. The house was interesting but I spent most of my time outside wandering around the old farm and the gardens. Plus it's right on the river and very scenic. Highly recommend it.
posted by kitten magic at 4:37 PM on April 9, 2018

If your Mom is into history the town I live in is about 65 miles from DC. We have the birthplace of George Washington, James Monroe, and Robert E. Lee here. We also are a small beach town with a newly remodeled boutique hotel done in an art deco style that is on the water.

Colonial Beach, VA is an easy drive from D.C. and has all sorts of cute restaurants, small shops, and a boardwalk on the front with plenty of benches to watch the river go by. There is a unique new food culture developing here with several intimate but fantastic restaurants in town.

Fredericksburg, VA is along the drive from D.C to Colonial Beach and has plenty of history there including Washington's childhood home and a lot of U.S. Civil War history.

Feel free to contact me if she decides to head this way!
posted by SuzySmith at 5:40 PM on April 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Without casting any aspersions on your sweet mother, may I gently suggest that today's DC might not be the best place for an 85-year-old to be driving around in a rental car all alone if she doesn't know the area.

This is not the DC she remembers from the 1950s. The traffic and road situation here is BONKERS. There's the sheer volume (rush hour is just petering out by 10am and starts again around 3:30pm on some routes), downtown is congested throughout the day, drivers are aggressive and mean, and there is construction everywhere that disrupts lanes and closes streets with minimal warning or alternative instructions. And don't even get me started on parking...

Even for those of us who are young and spry and who have lived here for years, it's a nightmare.

Definitely encourage her to do all those things that people are suggesting, but please have her do it with taxicabs and Uber/Lyft as much as possible.
posted by mccxxiii at 5:40 PM on April 9, 2018 [6 favorites]

My two favorite things when visiting the area are the boat ride to/from Old Town Alexandria to Georgetown, or the reverse, and the Monuments at Night Tour. Links below.
posted by kittygrandma at 5:58 PM on April 9, 2018

One my favorite museums in DC is the Renwick Gallery. It's still a Smithsonian Museum, but it's a smaller art museum that focuses on craft and decorative art. It is downtown, but it's near enough to the metro to be a short walk.
posted by gladly at 6:12 PM on April 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

I agree with mccxxiii. The traffic situation has substantially worsened in the last 15 years, particularly along all the interstates/through the suburbs. As an example, my drive home from high school in 2003 took about 15-20 minutes. Google Maps says that same drive today would take close to an hour. I cannot imagine what someone who was last in the region in the 1950s would think -- Fairfax County, where Mt Vernon is located, had a population of 275k in 1960; current population is well over 1 million. Not to say there aren't great things within driving distance of DC; just that she should be prepared for significant traffic from about 6 AM to 9 or 10 PM.

That is also a very hot time to be in the DC area, so would encourage your mom to do things indoors as much as possible. The Botanic Gardens are lovely, and I'll second the recommendation for the Renwick. Eastern Market is also great.
posted by basalganglia at 6:18 PM on April 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Thirding avoiding a lot of driving at her age, especially in Georgetown. Dealing with parking is slow and expensive enough in many parts of the city that just taking a cab/Uber/Lyft saves 20+ minutes and doesn't cost that much more.
posted by Candleman at 7:13 PM on April 9, 2018

She can reserve tickets to the National Museum of African American History & Culture in advance. My mom did it for our last visit. It looks like they have already released advanced passes for July
posted by amapolaroja at 9:18 PM on April 9, 2018

She must get her tickets to NMAAH prior to visiting. They go fast, she should do so now. They are timed tickets, and you cannot walk in the door without one.

I'd also suggest three Freer & Sackler Galleries of Asian art. They are some of the least-visited Smithsonians, so you can really get away from the crowds and enjoy the art in a calm, serene setting.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:03 AM on April 10, 2018

National Arboretum is huge and is set up to be driveable. There are benches for walking areas, as we did a walk through if the native garden after driving up. The is a garden of state trees that has magnificent specimens. There are indoor spaces at the garden so she would not be relying on shade/her car to stay cool. She could spend more than a day there. Other northerly gardens are Sherwood in Baltimore, Ladew Gardens in Jarrettsville, MD and Longwood Gardens in South PA, not far from Amish country. All have benches.

For DC proper, a metro pass gets her around, and while there are benches, a lightweight portable chair might be helpful, as well a sorting which side of the escalator is for standing.

Best wishes.
posted by childofTethys at 4:19 AM on April 10, 2018

The way I got in on 2 weekdays to NMAAHC was to get online sharp at 6:30 am
posted by brujita at 5:20 AM on April 10, 2018

(These are in downtown but might be worth stopping by if she will be down on the mall for the Lincoln Memorial)
NGA is truly impressive
National portrait gallery/American Art Museum has an airy atrium to rest in.

Out towards Great Falls there is Glen Echo Park - a cross between art and greenery.

Bishop's Garden at the National Cathedral has flowers, herbs, shady trees for resting in hot weather. Would also be a good place to catch some music and art.
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens has greenery and is on the new Anacostia River Trail which has lots of trees.
The Smithsonian Gardens on the Mall such as the Enid A. Haupt Garden, the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, the Victory Garden, the gardens around the NMAI and the Natural History Museum (these are in downtown but lovely)
Theodore Roosevelt Island is an oasis of trees

The Kennedy Center is not too far from Georgetown (but oddly difficult to access) and will have music programs (plus a free program daily at 6pm)
posted by BeHereNow at 7:47 AM on April 10, 2018

For trees: the arboretum.

For gardens: Dumbarton Oaks and the Franciscan monastery would be the classics.

For the park experience: Rock Creek Park is lovely, but you and she will need to do some research to figure out what parts she can visit comfortably (we live near the north end and I like the hiking trails, but they're not paved and they're rocky and hilly, so I'd imagine she's not up for that).

For art: depends on what kind of art she likes. Dutch masters and Italian renaissance and so on? National Gallery west building. Modern art? National Gallery east building, Hirshhorn, Phillips Collection (note: that one's not free). Craft? Renwick (note: this one's right by the White House, so depending on her leanings and her preferences, she may or may not wish to go). Asian and/or African? Freer and Sackler and the Smithsonian African Art Museum (which are right next to each other and connected underground; also, bonus garden content: the compact but tidy Enid A. Haupt garden is next to them). Portraits (including a Presidential portrait gallery) or American art? Those two share a building.

Getting around between all of those would be more or less a nightmare, though. The arboretum and the monastery aren't too far from each other, but Dumbarton Oaks is on the opposite side of town (and it's in Georgetown with bad traffic and limited parking). The museums are downtown, but even so they're spread out farther than she'll want to go on foot and parking will be a huge problem.

In general I'm going to add to the chorus to say she might not want to be driving in DC (my 79 year old mom wouldn't want to drive here, and our 90 year old neighbor, who's a native, only drives when she has literally no other choice). My mom struggled a lot with all the entrance stairs everywhere and ended up taking a lot of taxis, but she might be less fit than your mom.

The NMAAHC has timed tickets for entry, but they do have a limited number of tickets available online every morning, and they also start to let walkups enter as space is available at 1PM (all explained on their web site). If she knows she wants to go, she should get a timed ticket in advance. If she thinks she might want to go, she could check online in the morning, or go by at 1 and play it by ear.

Live performing arts: probably best to check closer to the date.
posted by fedward at 8:11 AM on April 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I believe the Art of Burning Man is being exhibited at the Smithsonian right now. An open-minded person might get an enormous kick out of that.
posted by egeanin at 9:38 AM on April 10, 2018

Chiming in to nth what others have said about the NMAAHC - day of tickets are available online but you need to be online right at 6:30am. I HIGHLY recommend getting as early a ticket as you can. Even with entry being ticketed, lines start forming outside the galleries early (not outside the museum itself, inside after you've already gained entry). It's well worth going but can be rather exhausting without also having to stand in line for long periods.

Since she likes art and trees, I recommend she check out Hillwood - art and gardens! Depending on where she is staying, it would be one of the places that she could get to by car easier than downtown DC.
posted by Preserver at 10:26 AM on April 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's not worth a special trip, but if she is in Georgetown, she might go to the Old Stone House. Also seconding the recommendation to go to Hillwood.
posted by gudrun at 10:33 AM on April 10, 2018

I think she would really like Green Spring Gardens.
posted by capricorn at 11:29 AM on April 10, 2018

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