A Washington sightseeing guide: Help your visitors get into these top attractions


Anyone can line up to hear arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)
March 1, 2012

The visitors are coming! The visitors are coming! The warmer weather just around the corner means sightseeing houseguests are about to descend. So what will it be? Parading around the president’s place? Checking out dinosaur bones? Gawking at the cherry blossoms? We can help you come up with a game plan, whether your guests are the kind who like to have the schedule planned out for months and written in stone or those who just like to hop on the Metro and wing it. (For that matter, it isn’t too soon to start planning for next year’s guests either.)

This week we’re focusing mostly on presidents and politics; next week it’s museums and monuments. So sit back and relax — we’ve done the prep work for you.

One final piece of advice: Make sure to be aware of each site’s rules about identification and what you can carry in. And, of course, wear comfortable shoes.

White House

No trip to Washington would be complete without a visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Public tours have been offered since Thomas Jefferson was president, but you can’t just drop in. It takes a little planning. And — who knows? — you might get a glimpse of first dog Bo, just as a group of schoolchildren did last month.

Have a plan: Visits to the White House are in high demand, and you must make your request for a time slot through your congressional representative up to six months, and no fewer than 21 days, before your visit. To find your representative, go to www.house.gov and enter your Zip code, or go to www.senate.gov and enter your state under “Find Your Senators.” Be sure to check the White House tour-info Web site to verify the personal identification you’ll need as well as prohibited items (strollers, cameras, purses, etc.). And on the day of your visit, call 202-456-7041 to confirm the tour schedule.

Once you’re there: Tours begin in the East Wing — you see such public areas as the East Room and the State Dining Room — and exit through the North Portico. The rooms are smaller than you might imagine, and unless you linger, the whole thing takes about 20 minutes. Also, there are no guides, but Secret Service officers are on hand to answer questions.

What’s in the neighborhood: Before your tour, stop by the White House Visitor Center (1450 Pennsylvania Ave. NW), which has presidential exhibits and a gift shop. Continue the day’s presidential theme by seeing all commanders in chief in wax form at Madame Tussauds (1001 F St. NW).

Info: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. www.whitehouse.gov/about/tours-and-events. Self-guided tours are Tuesday-Thursday from 7:30 to 11 a.m., Friday from 7:30 a.m. to noon and Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. (except federal holidays).

Cost: Free.

Transit: Metro Center, Federal Triangle or McPherson Square Metro stations.

Supreme Court

It’s one thing to hear about the weighty decisions America’s highest court debates; it’s another thing entirely to see oral arguments and rulings delivered in person.

Have a plan: Not too much prep work is needed, unless you want to hear a specific case. For a schedule, go to www.supremecourt.gov/visiting and click on Oral Argument Calendar. Otherwise, the main trick is to show up early, because lines often form before the building opens on weekdays at 9 a.m., and you should expect large crowds for high-profile cases. You can end up waiting outside, so plan for the weather. Hour-long oral arguments are Monday-Wednesday at 10 and 11 a.m. from the first Monday of October through late April in two-week intervals (there are longer hiatuses in December and February). Occasionally there are afternoon arguments, and after oral arguments conclude for the year, orders and opinions are delivered Monday at 10 a.m. until late June.

Once you’re there: Seating for the Monday-Wednesday hearings is first-come, first-served, so you might not get in. Either way, the building itself is open for self-guided tours weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (except federal holidays). Expect to see lots of marble as well as a statue of John Marshall — known as “the great chief justice” — portraits and busts of justices. If you have time, docents offer 30-minute lectures on Supreme Court history from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (The lectures are offered when the court is not sitting or after it has adjourned for the day.)

What’s in the neighborhood: After listening to all those arguments, it might be time to give your brain a break. Grab some pub grub and zone out watching sports at Bullfeathers (410 First St. SE). Or if the words inspire you, head to the Folger Shakespeare Library (201 East Capitol St. SE) to admire Shakespearean artifacts.

Info: 1 First St. NE. 202-479-3030. www.supremecourt.gov/visiting.

Cost: Free.

Transit: Union Station or Capitol South Metro stations.

U.S. Capitol

The U.S. Capitol is one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations, especially during the Cherry Blossom Festival (March 20-April 27). “We go from a few thousand people a day in January and February to close to four times that number in the springtime,” says Tom Fontana of the Capitol Visitor Center.

Have a plan: Make sure to allow plenty of time for this stop; you can easily spend a half-day here. You must get tickets in advance for Capitol tours (up to 90 days before your visit) through the visitor center or your representatives’ offices (limited day-of tickets are available at the center’s information desk). You also need to go through your representatives’ offices to see the House and Senate chambers or to get a staff-led tour, which can be faster and provide more personal attention. The downside? Your tour guide might be an intern who isn’t steeped in Capitol lore.

Once you’re there: Your visit begins at the visitor center; plan to arrive about 45 minutes before your tour to get through security (the building is open Monday-Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.). While waiting, browse the center’s exhibition space, which features such historic treasures as the table used by Abraham Lincoln during his second inaugural address in 1865 and the House gavel used during the roll call vote to declare war on Germany and Italy in 1941. In fact, even if you don’t have tour tickets, the visitor center is worth a stop if you’re in the area.

What’s in the neighborhood: After your visit, check out the Tune Inn, a Capitol Hill institution (331 Pennsylvania Ave. SE), and the go-to option for burgers and beer. Eavesdrop on congressional aides and reporters swapping stories on the latest political doings. And if it’s frigid out, there’s nothing like stepping into the jungle room of the U.S. Botanic Garden to warm up (100 Maryland Ave. SW).

Info: First and East Capitol streets. 202-226-8000. www.visitthecapitol.gov.

Cost: Free.

Transit: Union Station or Capitol South Metro stations.

Library of Congress

Soaring ceilings, bountiful books ... a visit here can easily keep you occupied for hours.

Have a plan: The Library of Congress is housed in three buildings: the Thomas Jefferson Building, James Madison Memorial Building and the John Adams Building. Although trying to see all of it in one day is possible — and dare we say, laudable — it’s probably best to do a little thinking ahead and figure out which areas you’d really like to explore (i.e. when your feet start to hurt, you won’t feel so bad about not catching everything). The complex opens Monday-Saturday at 8:30 a.m. Docent-led tours of the Jefferson Building, which houses the Main Reading Room and exhibits, are offered for small groups (10 or fewer) without reservations. Want to pretend you’re an expert? Download a virtual tour app at www.loc.gov/visit.

Once you’re there: The most popular visitor destination is the Jefferson Building, but there are things worth seeing — murals, sculptures, performances — elsewhere in the complex, not to mention gift shops, a cafeteria and snack bars. As cherry blossom season approaches, be sure to check out the “Sakura: Cherry Blossoms as Living Symbols of Friendship” exhibit, which runs March 20-Sept. 15 in the Jefferson’s Graphic Arts Galleries.

What’s in the neighborhood: Gawk at Washington power players having lunch at the Monocle Restaurant (107 D St. NE).

Info: Thomas Jefferson Building (10 First St. SE), James Madison Memorial Building (101 Independence Ave. SE) and John Adams Building (Second Street SE, between Independence Avenue and East Capitol Street). 202-707-8000. www.loc.gov/visit.

Cost: Free.

Transit: Union Station or Capitol South Metro stations.

President Lincoln’s Cottage

History buffs shouldn’t miss this stop, the hilltop home where President Abraham Lincoln and his family lived during part of the Civil War, and where he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a relatively new tourist attraction, having opened to the public for the first time in 2008, after a $15 million restoration.

Have a plan: Lincoln’s Cottage is a small site but attracts lots of visitors and requires tickets, so plan ahead, especially if you’re visiting during the peak tourist months of March through June. Your best bet: Get tickets online or call 800-514-3849. The hour-long tours are limited to 20 people. The visitors center is open Monday-Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Also, the closest Metro station is about a mile away, so you might want to consider transportation alternatives.

Once you’re there: On the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, Lincoln’s Cottage is sparsely furnished but features lighting effects and actors’ recordings that reveal Lincoln’s thoughts on slavery and the war. “In the library you can actually see the ghost lines of where the library shelves would have been,” says cottage director Erin Carlson Mast. “We haven’t re-created the bookshelves because that was such an amazing moment of discovery for us that we wanted to preserve that so people can have that moment of discovery themselves.” And if the weather is nice, bring a picnic to enjoy on the picturesque grounds after your tour.

What’s in the neighborhood: Rock Creek Cemetery, where Cabinet members, congressmen and other dignitaries are buried, is just yards away from the campus. Be sure to seek out the tucked-away Adams Memorial, a striking and moving grave marker commonly known as “Grief.” And for Southern-style sustenance, stop at the Hitching Post (200 Upshur St. NW) for fried-to-order chicken.

Info: Rock Creek Church Road and Upshur Street NW. 202-829-0436. www.lincolncottage.org.

Cost: $12 adults, $5 ages 6 to 12 (the tour is not recommended for children younger than 6), $10 for active military with I.D. Prices will increase April 1.

Transit: The Georgia Avenue/Petworth Metro station is a mile away, but there is free parking on-site and the H8 Metrobus stops at Rock Creek Church Road and Upshur Street NW.

Mount Vernon

It’s a bit of a trek to the first president’s home, but the journey is worth it for the picturesque views of the Potomac River, the expansive gardens and, of course, the grand house itself. Also, it’s open every day.

Have a plan: You can get day-of tickets to tour this historic estate, but it’s easier all around to get tickets online (you can book a year in advance). Allow time before your tour to watch the 18-minute orientation film, “We Fight to Be Free.” You also might consider planning your visit around one of the estate’s special events: Dinner for the Washingtons Walking Tour (March 31 to Oct. 28), a behind-the-scenes look at how food was made at the estate; and the Sunset Celebration at Mount Vernon (May 25-27). Bear in mind that these events cost extra and that tickets to the popular Spring Wine Festival & Sunset Tour (May 18-20) sell out within hours of being posted online or made available in person at the orientation center (April 9 at 10 a.m.).

Once you’re there: After leaving the parking lot, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Be sure to allow enough time to explore the grounds and gardens and take in the expansive river view. If the weather is nice, you can easily spend several hours here. Picnicking is not allowed, but food is available at the food court or the on-site Mount Vernon Inn (reservations recommended for dinner).

What’s in the neighborhood: If you want even more George Washington history, reserve tickets to the Mount Vernon Distillery and Gristmill just three miles south (5514 Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy.; open March 31-Oct. 31).

Info: 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy., Alexandria. 703-780-2000. www.mountvernon.org.

Cost: $15 adults, $14 seniors, $7 ages 6 to 11, younger free. Visitors younger than 16 must be accompanied by someone 16 or older.

Transit: Free parking on-site or take Metro to Huntington station, exit at Huntington Avenue (lower level) and take a Fairfax Connector bus to Mount Vernon.

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