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A Guide to Guided Tours

There are nearly as many tour operators in the nation's capital as talking heads on Capitol Hill. Picking one from among the many options – including excursions by bus, bike, boat, trolley, helicopter, on foot, or any combination of those – can be a daunting decision.

We've put together a package designed to make that decision less onerous. In choosing a tour, keep in mind factors such as your budget, schedule, mobility, stamina -- and tolerance for fast-talking, microphone-laden guides in big buses. Then, strap on the fanny pack and hit the sites!

Hop a Bus

A favorite tourist choice seems to be Tourmobile Sightseeing, whose blue and white buses wrap themselves around the National Mall every day of the year except Christmas. Tourmobile buses stop every 20 minutes at clearly marked locations all over town. They are about as convenient and easy to use as public transportation. Unfortunately, like public buses, they also get crowded and mired in traffic and potholes.

Although there is a narrated tour on board, many tourists use Tourmobile buses as a sort of shuttle between museums, monuments, and other attractions. An all-day pass lets you get off at any stop you like, and re-board another bus at no extra charge.

Guides prattle on about monuments, museums and government buildings, providing some practical information such as hours of operation and current exhibits. On the downside, each stop can take up to five minutes, as guides continually remind riders to keep arms and other body parts inside the bus. The tour crawls along, presumably to give you time to capture D.C.'s finest Kodak moments. Don't expect enthusiastic or entertaining guides. Just enjoy the ride and accept Tourmobile for what it is: a bus tour of the city.

Tourmobile Sightseeing: 1000 Ohio Drive SW, Washington, DC 20024; Phone: (202) 554-5100; Fax: (202) 488-5200


Take the Trolley

Old Town Trolley covers much of the same ground as Tourmobile, including Mall sites and Arlington National Cemetery. But the trolley also meanders into the Northwest quadrant of the city, through Georgetown, Dupont Circle and Cleveland Park, and down Embassy Row. You can get on or off at any of 18 stops on the loop. The trolley is smaller and more personal than Tourmobile, thanks in part to charismatic drivers, who double as tour guides and make it part of their job to announce the hometown of every newcomer on the bus.

The Trolley is a great way to take in some of the city's posh, tree-lined neighborhoods and insider haunts, including the Georgetown house where the film St. Elmo's Fire was shot. Guides rattle off local trivia, such as the animal population at the National Zoo, and how high above sea level the towers of the National Cathedral rise. Along the way, they toss in comments like, "Here's the Embassy of Belgium, a country famous for waffles and Godiva chocolate."

If you don't mind the shoddy trolley bell that ding-a-lings at every stop or the kitschy jazz tape that plays as you pass the Duke Ellington Memorial Bridge, the trolley is among the better motorized-vehicle options.

Old Town Trolley: 2640 Reed St. NE, Washington, DC 20018; Phone: (202) 832-9800; Fax: (202) 832-9040


Hot Foot It

If you're after something more interactive, try historian Anthony Pitch's fascinating walking tours of Georgetown, Adams Morgan and Lafayette Square. Pitch's forte is Georgetown, where he leads groups past the current or former homes of John F. Kennedy, Madeleine Albright, Bob Woodward, Henry Kissinger, and others, making the bricks come alive with tales of scandal and intrigue. Pitch is a good storyteller, and you'll find yourself dreamily following him past the narrow homes of Georgetown or the ethnic markets of Adams Morgan, mesmerized by his tales.

Anecdotal History Tours of Washington: 9009 Paddock Lane, Potomac, MD 20854; Phone: (301) 294-9514; Fax: (301) 309-0753


Bike It

A walking tour can cover only so much ground. An ideal compromise between an up-close-and-personal walk and an institutional bus tour is a guided tour on a 21-speed hybrid bike, assuming you have the required stamina. A group called Bike the Sites takes advantage of Washington's unique design -- major attractions are clustered on or near the Mall and surrounded by paths and trails. It's a leisurely three-hour, eight- mile tour, with the caravan of bikers stopping frequently to hear the guide's commentary.

Bikers pedal through the grounds of the Capitol, around the White House and past the Washington Monument's Reflecting Pool, so close to the sites that they can touch the statues and feel the mist off the Pool. Guides supply a snack -- navel oranges -- once you arrive at the Albert Einstein Memorial, a huge statue of the genius which you are free to touch and climb.

Note that you need a reservation for this tour. Also, you will be asked to sign a liability waiver, making it perhaps Washington's most thrilling and extreme sport-like excursion.

Bike the Sites: 3417 Quesada St. NW, Washington, DC 20015; Phone: (202) 966-8662; Fax: (202) 966-8662

-- Melanie Goldman

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