For The Washington Post

Beyond the Bus

By Eve Zibart
Friday, September 15, 2006

So you're new around here. Got a new job, got married, got into college, got into grad school. Moving away from your parents, moving back in with your parents. You have in-laws coming for a looooong weekend. Thanksgiving. Forever.

Or maybe you're not even new to town, you're just one of those locals who has somehow never actually been to the Lincoln Memorial or the Library of Congress or the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Whatever the reason, you still don't know Our Town.

Welcome to Washington.

No matter whether you think of it as "our nation's capital," "the center of the free world," "Hollywood on the Potomac" or L'Enfant's prescient blueprint for gridlock, Washington is one giant exposition, part carnival, part museum, part shrine. You can cover the ground in a week, but you could spend a lifetime learning the city.

Not only that, but you can cover the ground almost any way you choose: by land or water, by day or by night, on a bike or Segway. You can hire a horse-drawn carriage or hoof it yourself.

So, here's the plan: Work your way in. Start with a group tour of the Big Stuff -- the Mall, the monuments, L'Enfant's whole layout -- if you have a limited time frame (i.e., have guests) or have mobility or breathing problems such as allergies or asthma. Then move in for a close-up with a few friends or on your own. Look into the special-interest tours, whether guided or do-it-yourself. There are online resources to help you customize your own route, and, after all, many of the national monuments have park rangers who'll talk for free. Government buildings, religious sites and historic houses are likely to offer docent-led tours or detailed recorded versions.

Certain types of tours are more common at particular seasons: ghost tours around Halloween, candlelight tours from Thanksgiving to New Year's, garden tours in early summer, etc.; check newspapers or local Web sites. Also, there are many government or educational organizations that provide information about Old Town Alexandria, Frederick, area battlefields and more if you decide to expand your horizons.

And, luckily, you can "sample" two dozen of the best (and in some cases, most offbeat) tours Washington has to offer on Sept. 30, the fall date for WalkingTown DC, a festival of free neighborhood walking, biking, boating and even behind-the-subway-doors tours. Those include a gay/lesbian history tour of Capitol Hill and one tracing the German entrepreneurs of old downtown; a tour of U Street as the "Black Broadway"; and another by artist G. Byron Peck of Shaw's murals. For a list of tours and directions, visit . (And if you move fast, you can take the last sail of the season aboard the American Spirit on Saturday at 5:30.)

Once you really feel at home, tour the most interesting sights in depth. For some personal favorites, see Page 31.


If you decide to take a drive-by tour, you can either stick to the bus for the whole circuit or hop on and off at more than a dozen hot spots. With the former, you know the time scheme; with the on-off tours, set your own rhythm.

Among the major land operators are Tourmobile, which has the National Park Service franchise and sends open-air buses around the Mall from Capitol Hill past the Tidal Basin and to Arlington Cemetery; Gray Line, which offers a four-hour coach tour that takes in Old Town Alexandria as well as downtown and another tour that combines Old Town and Mount Vernon; the L'il Red Trolley, an on-off service also operated by Gray Line that makes a two-hour loop around the Mall and Penn Quarter attractions; and Old Town Trolley, which runs from 9 to 4:30 (5:30 spring and summer). Both trolley lines stop at Washington National Cathedral -- which, unlike most of the other sites, is not near a Metro station -- so you may want to work that in. Old Town Trolley also offers a 2 1/2 -hour "Monuments by Moonlight" version that leaves Union Station at 6:30 (7:30 spring and summer) and includes a few more ghostly anecdotes.

D.C. Party Shuttle Tours has a hop-on/hop-off system with a difference: The tour guide disembarks with you and continues the narration. It's unusually extensive, stopping at a dozen points and passing by two dozen more, which, if you have the time -- it's a six-hour circuit with a lunch stop at the Pentagon City mall food court -- will get you far better situated than the others. It also offers a three-hour nightlights tour starting at 7.

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