Secretly, though, we envy them. We see them clustered on the Metro and eating breakfast at coffee shops near their downtown hotels, and we wish we were the ones preparing for a day of sightseeing in the Nation’s Capital — instead of running late for our 9 a.m. meeting.
Stop wistfully wishing: Whether you’re a lifelong Washingtonian, here only for a summer internship or still unpacking after a recent move, all of this — the monuments, the memorials, the museums — is yours, too. And there’s no better way to acquaint (or reacquaint) yourself with Washington than with a guided tour.
We think you’ll be surprised by how much you’ll learn when you allow yourself to be a tourist in your own town, whether by land, by sea or by Segway. Climb aboard as we test out some of the District’s most popular tour options.
— Alex Baldinger
Open Top Sightseeing
“There’s Washington, and there’s D.C.,” is a common refrain about the nation’s capital, and there’s a lot of truth to that: There is the Capitol, the museums and the monuments, and then there are neighborhoods with local flavor, where fourth-generation Washingtonians and fresh transplants rub shoulders in restaurants and bars hidden within gorgeous federal architecture. Open Top’s double-decker tour gives you a clear sightline of both.
The red buses loop through Washington on three “lines”: The red line circles the Capitol, stops at the museums, gives you the best view of the under-construction Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. The short blue line heads to Arlington Cemetery. But it’s the yellow line that can expose tourists to at least a smidgen of that real D.C.; it rolls into Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan, points out the shenanigans at the Mayflower and stops at Georgetown’s murky canal. (You can switch lines without having to pay more.)
Despite a lack of great insider trivia, the ride to the many top stops is a boon in the humid summer months; just be sure to invest in a guidebook, too, for the full experience.
Something I learned: Foggy Bottom was once home to breweries; in fact, the Kennedy Center’s famous perch once housed Heurich Brewery.
Who would enjoy?: Anyone who wants to try to squeeze in all of their Washington sightseeing into a day or two, and people with mobility issues or who aren’t used to doing a lot of walking.
If I were giving my own tour: I’d weave in more history and detail. The red line tour seemed to miss the chance to tell riders the story of the Washington Monument’s construction, and Ford’s Theatre felt like a bus depot rather than a historical location. This recorded tour is awfully thin, and Washingtonians will not help but notice that it skims over significant stories while offering minutiae about rather insignificant places.
Comfort tips: The tour is air-conditioned on the lower level of the bus. While the upper level offers the best view, it gets hot, so be sure to bring water or a sports drink, sunglasses and a hat. Hop off at shop- and restaurant-packed neighborhoods such as Georgetown or Dupont Circle for snacks and the chance to unwind.
www.opentopsightseeing-dc.com. 877-332-8689. $20-$65; $10-$33 ages 4 to 12; free for age 3 and younger.
— Lavanya Ramanathan
Capital Segway Tours
If you have considered going on a Segway tour, chances are you’re not one to agonize over appearances. Because, let’s face it — the upright, two-wheeled machines are odd-looking, and most people don’t fare much better riding them. For those who can get past the thought of onlookers having a chuckle at their expense, a Segway tour is the perfect way to see some of the city’s most essential sights in a mere two hours.
The Capital Segway tour starts and ends with a five- to 10-minute interlude for riding around on the Segway, which is fun and easy to operate. With the summer breeze whipping at your back, you’ll zip past Lafayette Park to the White House, down the Mall to the Capitol and past the National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of the American Indian, U.S. Botanic Garden, FBI, National Archives, National World War II Memorial and Washington Monument. All participants wear a headset with adjustable volume controls through which the guide imparts light historical tidbits and directions.
Unfortunately, apart from brief water breaks, there’s no hopping off to peek inside the museums. But by the end of the tour, you will have seen the biggest sights on the Mall in a quarter of the time it would take to walk. And, instead of cramming onto a bus full of sweaty tourists, you will have maintained your personal space and enjoyed the freedom to scoot to and fro. You may look funny on a Segway, but with this tour you’ll have the last laugh.
Something I learned: The Blair House, where foreign delegates, dignitaries and politicians stay when they’re visiting the White House, is substantially larger than the White House at 70,000 square feet (the White House is only 55,000 square feet). Talk about serious Southern hospitality.
Who would enjoy?: D.C. law prohibits anyone younger than 16 from riding Segways. The Segway tour is ideal for families with older children, adults and older yet still spry individuals looking for a fun alternative to walking (Capital Segway reports having given tours to people in their 80s).
If I were giving my own tour: I would cover all of the monuments on the Mall, not just the World War II Memorial and the Washington Monument.
Comfort tips: Wear comfortable athletic shoes and bring water. Apply sunscreen generously. For lighter crowds and relief from the sweltering summer heat, take a morning or evening tour.
Tours leave from 1350 I St. NW. www.capitalsegway.com. 800-979-3370. $65-$80.
— Jess Righthand
Old Town Trolley
In their heyday, Washington’s trolley fleet spider-webbed across the city, transporting people from hot spots such as the Lincoln Theatre on U Street and the then-rural theme park Glen Echo. In short, streetcars were the mode of transportation in the District.
The Old Town Trolley Tours have attempted to recapture that romantic image with three lines that travel to landmarks including the Mall, National Cathedral and Arlington National Cemetery. Riders can hop on and off at 20 points of interest and catch a trolley every 30 minutes. The two main loops (if you don’t get off) lasts about 90 minutes.
Be aware that the vast majority of trolleys are not air-conditioned and are often crowded with tourists slick with sunscreen. When the trolley is moving, a nice breeze comes through the open windows, but Washington gridlock can strike at any time.
If you can get beyond the stuffy conditions, the ride isn’t all bad. The routes are easier to figure out than Metro buses’, the every-30-minute pickups are reasonable, and the tour guides are entertaining in a hokey way.
On a recent ride on the green line, the tour guide was able to correctly point out every country as he drove along Embassy Row. When he finished, riders applauded.
“Up ahead? The Embassy of Sunoco,” he added pointing to a gas station and earning some laughs.
Something I learned: The Motion Picture Association of America has an office on I Street NW that has its own movie theater.
Who would enjoy?: Your aunt, uncle and cousins from the Midwest who are going to want to do everything and will chuckle at the driver’s narration. Keep the temperature in mind when taking older people and babies.
If I were giving my own tour: I would add more trolleys in the rotation so they aren’t so crowded, install a louder sound system so you can hear the tour while the trolley is moving and add fans in the trolleys that lack air conditioning.
Comfort tips: Sit near a window. A hand-held fan is also a good thing to bring along.
888-910-8687. $31.50-$35; ages 4 to 12 $22.50- $25, younger free.
— Amy Orndorff
Potomac Riverboat Co.
It’s easy to joke about the cleanliness of our nation’s urban rivers, from the occasional stench of New York’s East River to Boston’s Charles River and the Beantown anthem, “Dirty Water,” it inspired. Heck, Google “Chicago River” and the first results you’ll see are of a waterway dyed kelly green, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.
But it’s another kind of green that flows through many of these city-serving aquatic arteries, including our own Potomac River: That of tourism dollars spent on water-based tours that offer a survey of a town’s geography, history and architecture. Sailing on one of Potomac Riverboat’s Washington by Water Monuments Cruises offers rarely seen views of the city’s best-known edifices.
The narrated, 90-minute round-trip tours consist of two 45-minute voyages, departing from the Georgetown or Alexandria waterfronts. Two boats — the double-decker, open-topped Miss Mallory, and the covered, single-deck Matthew Hayes — transport passengers between the two ports. Unfortunately, the narration is prerecorded and is delivered by a man who sounds like the less-caffeinated brother of Mr. Moviefone: “The White House was originally called the President’s Palace,” he intones. “A Baltimore reporter once called it the White House in a newspaper article, and the name caught on. Theodore Roosevelt made
this the official name in 1901.”
“Bet you never learned those facts in school,” he adds.
Thankfully, the views afforded by the cruise speak for themselves: The welcoming swoop of the stairs leading up to the Lincoln Memorial, framed perfectly by the Washington Monument in the background, says everything needed about Pierre L’Enfant’s plan for the city.
One thing I learned: Those stairs leading up to the Lincoln? L’Enfant called that area the Watergate, and he dreamed of it being used as a ceremonial welcoming area for foreign dignitaries arriving by boat. It was never used as such, however, and now the name belongs to that other Watergate.
Who would enjoy?: Anyone who has either looked longingly at Potomac River boaters before, or anyone who is sick of cruising around District roads on four wheels.
If I were giving my own tour: I’d divide the narration more evenly. There were more gaps in the recorded dialogue between Georgetown and Alexandria than on the return trip. Or just let the crew members onboard provide the tour.
Comfort tips: Heat-sensitive guests will want to ensure their cruise is aboard the air-conditioned Miss Mallory; ask for its schedule at the ticket booth.
703-538-9000. $13 each way; $7 ages 2 to 11.
— Alex Baldinger
There are lots of tours offered in Washington, but it’s hard to miss the DC Ducks. Perhaps it’s the unusual World War II-era craft, which look like fishing boats mounted on a pickup truck chassis. Or maybe it’s because the riders all get bill-shaped noisemakers that make quacking sounds.
The DC Ducks tour is a true sightseeing tour: It drives past monuments and government buildings — slowing down in intersections so the tourists hanging out the windows can get photos of the Ellipse — before heading to the Columbia Island Marina in Arlington, where the amphibious Duck drives into the water. (Soundtrack: the “Gilligan’s Island” theme.) It motors leisurely down the Potomac to Gravelly Point, hops back onto dry land (soundtrack: “On the Road Again”) and circles past the Smithsonian and the Capitol on the way back to Union Station. Round trip is a little more than 90 minutes.
Along the way, the captain rattles off an impressive amount of trivia. It seemed as if every other sentence was something to remember, and he did a good job keeping everyone onboard engaged.
One special perk for locals: Tickets are two-for-one for D.C., Maryland and Virginia residents with ID.
One thing I learned: “Nineteen feet is the magic number for statues in this town,” the driver told us. Statues of Jefferson and Lincoln in their memorials are 19 feet tall, a touch shorter than the statue of Columbia atop the Capitol dome, which stands 19 feet, 6 inches.
Who would enjoy?: Kids seemed to enjoy the whole experience of driving into the water and watching planes fly overhead more than anyone. Just remember to take that quacker away from them when the tour is over.
If I were giving my own tour: As relaxing as the ride down the Potomac was, I’d try to find a way to sail a more picturesque stretch — from Georgetown to Columbia Island.
Comfort tips: Dress for the weather and remember that it’s a few degrees cooler on the water. Also, sit close to anyone you want to talk to: The diesel engines are LOUD.
Departs from Union Station. www.dcducks.com.
855-323-8257. $31.50-$35; age 11 and younger $22.50-$25.
— Fritz Hahn
Editors note: Tourmobile service ends on Oct. 31, 2011..
Tourmobile weaves a figure-eight through the city with 16 stops, but one is the clear highlight: Arlington National Cemetery. This is the only riding tour through the sprawling cemetery, with a four-stop trek that hits the major spots — the Kennedy grave sites and Tomb of the Unknowns among them.
Additional important landmarks are rapidly reeled off as you drive past, while other curiosities can simply be spotted from the bus. (Is that the tombstone of Abner Doubleday, the “inventor” of baseball, in the distance? Yes it is.) You’ll want to get out and do some exploring. Buses arrive at each stop every 15 minutes to take visitors to the next location.
The bulk part of the tour is in the city and hits all the top attractions on and around the Mall, as a two-section, windowless bus covers ground from Union Station to the Lincoln Memorial. There are drop-off/pickups at or near all the major museums, and the tour guide delivers the right amount of history (building dates, architects), logistical information (where you can get a burger) and folksy asides (“Ulysses S. Grant was short in stature and is short in statue,” one guide said of the rendering of the 18th president in front of the Capitol).
You can purchase tickets from the driver at any of the 16 stops. Tickets are good for two days, and riders can come and go as they choose. Tourmobile also operates a Twilight Tour at 7 p.m.
One thing I learned: There are a staggering 331,000 bodies interned at Arlington Cemetery.
Who would enjoy?: With the Arlington Cemetery focus, the tour seems perfect for veterans and military history buffs.
If I were giving my own tour: I might tone things down during the cemetery portion. A tour guide asking visitors for “more enthusiasm” seems a bit inappropriate given the somber surroundings.
Comfort tips: There is extremely limited leg room on the D.C. trams — people even approaching six feet will find themselves pressed for space. Don’t expect to escape the heat — the windowless buses leave riders at the mercy of Mother Nature.
www.tourmobile.com. 202-554-5100. $32, $16 ages 3-11. (Twilight Tour is $30/$15.) Arlington National Cemetery tour only is $8.50, $4.25 ages 3 to 11.
— David Malitz