Washington, it's agreed, is an exciting and beautiful place. But those of us who live here have learned that one of the local hazards is that sooner or later every one of our out-of-town friends and relatives shows up at the front door.

So what's your obligation as a host? Do you take your guests once again on a personally conducted tour (Is this the 10th or 11th time at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, watching them count those new bucks)? Do you send them off on their own, or on a guided tour?

Washingtonians are far apart in their answers. Some hate to conduct tours.

Expecting the host to lead the guest by the hand up and down all those marble steps is a "barbaric idea," says a Washington writer who advises her guests to buy a guidebook or take a tour.Others revel in it.

(Of course, one's Aunt Harriet and Uncle Pete-in this case, real relatives, mine-because they are special favorites, probably will always get your best escorted tour no matter how many times you've lined up at the Archives to see the Declaration of Independence.)

"Usually people who live here are bored taking their friends around, but they're afraid to say they're bored," says Bob Paris, whose family runs White House Sightseeing Tours, a private tour bus company. As a result, he says, both the host and the guests have a bad time. "It gets so people living here hate to have visitors."

As might be expected, he puts his guests on a tour bus. "You drop them off in the morning and pick them up in the evening, and you don't lose a day at the office. And they're so tired by then they don't require much of the host." An adult ticket is $15.

On the other hand, D.C. Police Chief Burtell Jefferson says he enjoys driving his visitors around town himself. A surprisingly large number of busy people agree with him: Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, White House curator Clement E. Conger, Chief of Protocol Kit Dobelle, Architect of the Capitol George M. White and Kennedy Center Executive Director for Performing Arts Martin Feinstein.

"We indulge in old-home week and drive them ourselves," says Ripley.

The Ripley tour usually takes in the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum and the movie there, the new East Building of the National Gallery, the National Zoo and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. "It's just a busman's holiday all the way."

Some people put their guests on Metro, which has several stops on or near the Mall. Once they've mastered the fare-card system, it's an easy way to get around on their own. For many out-of-towners, the Metro itself has become something of a tourist attraction. Uncle Pete, for one, loved it. You don't find many subways in Nebraska.

Those familiar blue and white Tour-mobiles are another good alternative. At a $3 a day for an adult ticket, they get your guests to all the capital's principal attractions, and you save your precious gas.

Keep your guests' interests in mind if you are helping them plan an excursion to the Mall. One couple who made friends on a bicycling vacation took their new friends from monument to memorial by pedal power.

Mary Perry's job with the National Park Service is to answer tourist questions at the Lincoln Memorial. But when family is in town from South Miami, Fla., the first place she takes them is to the top of the Washington Monument. The view is spectacular, she says, and it gives her guests a chance to seet he layout of the city.

Fellow Park Service technician Steve Bowie agrees. He operates the Washington Monument elevator on a rotating basis and has a great fondness for his place of work. "Once you're up there, it's a whole oreintation of the city."

Bowie offers a tip for the summer busy season: Get your guests down to the Mall early for tickets to the White House tour and the trip to the top of the Washington Monument. On some summer days, monument tickets have been sold out by 11 a.m., he says. Ticket distribution for both begins at 8 a.m.

Conger's guests often get a personally guided tour of the White House and the diplomatic rooms of the State Department, where he is chairman of the fine arts committee. Or he puts guests on the special congressional White House tours that begin at 8 a.m. Tickets are available to the public, but must be reserved in advance with members of Congress. The State Department's collection of Americans, he points out, is one of the best in the country. Tours are by appointment at 9:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Onday through Friday.

Conger also suggests the National Zoo as a good place to turn guests loose for the day, and he likes to send visitors particularly those from small towns where cultural events aren't all that plentiful, off to a performance at the Kennedy Center.

"I'm a tourist at heart myself," says Capitol architect White, "and I'm a great believer in doing tourist things. I think people should go to the top of the Washington Monument." Though some people prefer going off on their own, he takes guests to see the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials ("The beauty of the surroundings is magnificent.") and to the Kennedy gravesites at Arlington National Cemetery ("for their dignity and their design, and for what they connote of the two Kennedys").

White estimates he has made the trip to Mount Vernon 15 times (once by bicycle), often with house guests and friends. "It's a worthwhile journey. I enjoy it."

As for the Capitol, he suggests showing up at 9:30 a.m., when it opens, to avoid the crowds. If you want to see the House of Senate in session, however, it is better to come later in the day. Go straight to the Rotunda, he says, and join one of the free tours that leave every seven or eight minutes.

For nightlife, Mary Perry recommends Georgetown. "You can see everything there."

There's one other element of this city that perhaps shouldn't be overlooked. After spending three days sightseeing on the Mall, tourist Kay McManus from Fairport, N.Y., told her startled apartment-dwelling hosts she'd seen everything she wanted to see here, except a house. "There are all these buildings, but where do people live?" she asked.