YOU CAN complain all you want about the traffic on the Mall from the cherry-blossom beginnings of every spring through the bitter, back-to-school end of every summer, but you cannot (unless it is your job) escape the truth:

We have met the tourists, and they are us.

Yes, they do come from around the world to overrun our empty Senate chambers; to take snapshots of our fabled monuments, vistas and pandas; to loll in the unprecedented acreage of our inner-city greenery; to happily stuff paper money the wrong way into our Farecard machines; and to rival the local cab corps for the annual midsummer Excuse-Me-While-I-Stop- Dead driving awards.

But the fact remains that a lot of these people are friends of ours, are related to us -- may, in fact, even be staying with us. Moreover, still others are us -- walking seven abreast with them along that foot-wide stretch of sidewalk in Georgetown.

The least we could do here, in the way of redemption, is to have something intelligent and historically accurate to pass on about why, for instance, the sidewalks are so puny in Georgetown. Or perhaps about Georgetown's pre-D.C. history (or the Potomac River's pre-Georgetown history) in general, or about that Beaux Arts building across the street in particular. Or the ownership of that embassy across the park, the booking policy of a nightclub across town, or the whereabouts of a secret- garden getaway across the Beltway. And so on.

A good guidebook, in other words, would be a nice thing to have at this juncture. For visitors, when they arrive; for us, as perfect hosts. And for our own selfish pleasures on those odd days off.

You'd be surprised what you didn't know about your own backyard, built as it was from scratch, with spontaneous dignity and occasional, unavoidable pomposity -- a city as close to being a center of sophistication as it is to being in the middle of nowhere.

Wilderness, less than an hour's drive in every direction. Woody Allen festivals, meanwhile, at Washington Circle.

There are dozens of guidebooks available to those of us who'd like to get to know Washington better, whether we're from Woodley Park or Woonsocket, Rhode Island. You choose yours, in part, much as you choose friends -- you have to feel comfortable with them, more or less seriously entranced by the way they look, and the way they talk.

Plus, they have to have shown you at least one good time in three, generally.

Here's a bunch of friendly suggestions on guidebooks, broken down into helpful categories (and if you're looking for just one, the first category is for you).

Of course, not mentioned here is the fact-filled, weekly guide in your hands at this moment. Ahem. THE ALL-PURPOSE GUIDES

This is the book you lend to your visiting friends -- lists and ratings of lodging, museums, restaurants, tour guides, sights, historic sites, public buildings, parks and so on. Unlike those in another category -- Daytrips, a pasttime more likely pursued by those of us who already live here -- the following books stay near the city and its close-in suburban attractions. The one exception in this regard is the first (and, coincidentally, best) of the lot, namely:

Frommer's Washington, D.C. and Historic Virginia on $40 a Day/1986-87 (1986, Simon & Schuster, $10.95) is, for the money, the most complete and up-to-date guide to Washington you'll find. It bests Fodor's similarly comprehensive 1986 guide to Washington largely because of its detailed, out-of-town expeditions into Virginia (plus one, unheralded, to Annapolis), and its sprightly, off-the-cuff, minutia-prone tone. Frommer's author Rena Bulkin writes the way we tour -- she digresses, and happily. And she makes connections, as when suggesting you coordinate a visit to Ticketplace on F Street with a lunch or breakfast at Reeves' new old bakery. (In any case, do not confuse this guide with Frommer's Guide to Washington D.C./1985, which is less than half the price and size, but is not as current, wide-ranging or as much fun to read.)

The others:

FODOR'S WASHINGTON, D.C. AND VICINITY/1986 -- (1986, Fodor's Modern Guides, New York, $7.95). As in its other 101 titles, Fodor's is versatile and resolutely practical (I think four paragraphs on tipping should help you understand the whole tawdry practice, at last), and its listings of lodgings are unmatched, spanning six categories -- from "super deluxe" ($100 and up per night, double) to "rock bottom" (under $40). (This spring, incidentally, Fodor's will come out with its first separate guides to the Chesapeake, and Virginia.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. IN YOUR POCKET -- (1985, Barron's, Woodbury, N.Y., $2.95). Everything you always wanted in your vest -- and more. Also quirkier than you thought. (The lists -- and the book is virtually all lists -- include good ones on jukeboxes, bookstores, information-seeking and nightclubs and pubs.) More out-of-date than its publication date would indicate, but a good second, carry-around-everywhere guide. No maps.

FLASHMAPS INSTANT GUIDE TO WASHINGTON -- (1985, Flashmaps Publications, Chappaqua, N.Y., $4.95). This one is all maps. And all color-coded, subject-oriented, with cross-indexed lists of landmarks, hotels, museums, restaurants, churches, embassies, parks and Metro stations. Quick. Fits in your pocket. But several of the maps are hard to follow; and don't rely on these nightlife (Georgetown only) or restaurant listings for much more than an address and phone number, if that much.

WASHINGTON D.C. ACCESS -- (1984, Accesspress Ltd., New York, $9.95). Los Angeles architect Richard Saul Wurman's guidebook company, now working on similar pocket guides to Rome, London and Paris, put out several colorfully quirky, architecture-es to other major cities before coming to D.C.; the San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York guides are its best. Washington, perhaps because it is not so neatly rezoned into Wurman's color-coded architectural and cultural districts, did not make for one of Accesspress' best efforts -- particularly not more than two years after publication.

WASHINGTON, D.C.: THE COMPLETE GUIDE -- (1982, Random House, New York, $7.95). A large but easy-to-skim guide to the sights of D.C., comprehensive but getting old fast. Symbols at every destination listed indicate access for handicapped and by public transportation, appeal to children and proximity to essentials like food and shopping.

I LOVE WASHINGTON GUIDE -- (1982, McMillan, New York, $4.95). The low- key, pleasing design of this almost-outdated, European-style guide is offset by author Marilyn J. Appleberg's breathless tone, and some tough-to-follow maps.

PATHFINDER PATHGUIDE TO THE NATION'S CAPITAL -- (1985, Pathfinder Tour Consts, Box 318, Olney MD 20832, $4.95). Maps and detailed directions for several self-guided walking tours around the usual monuments and downtown areas, plus a few lists of parking, shopping and eating places. (The restaurants here aren't exactly affordable for those who might be on foot of necessity.)

500 THINGS TO DO IN WASHINGTON FOR FREE -- (1983, New Century Publishers, 220 Old New Brunswick Road, Piscataway NJ 08854, $5.95). If you can find one of these paperback gems by author Brian Cox, buy it. (Otherwise, check the library; a spokesman for the publisher said this tourbook line is being dropped.) Cox put together an enormously informative, wry and refreshingly skeptical portrait of Washington -- with emphasis (aside from keen peeks down all the necessary beaten paths) on downtown walks, the arts community, out-of- the-ordinary entertainment, annual events and libraries. ARCHITECTURE, PERSPECTIVE

On your next free sunny afternoon, go find yourself a copy of E.J. Applewhite's paperback Washington Itself (1983, Alfred A. Knopf, $8.95) and position yourself with said volume on a spare knoll near the Washington Monument. You ought to discover immediately that, of those that follow, Applewhite's is the best -- and, not coincidentally, most frankly personal -- of all the architectural-historical guides to Washington.

Architecture and history are closely tied most anywhere, but they are particularly telling of each other in the facade- conscious District of Columbia.

Applewhite, a resident since 1947 who became a full-time writer in 1970 after retiring from the CIA, places the subjects of his informed affection -- buildings, with a few exceptions, most of which you hadn't thought twice about before -- in convenient geographic groupings.

That's in case you've a sudden compulsion to get up from your knoll and see for yourself.

I guarantee this compulsion.

Applewhite occasionally drifts into sermon, but anyone who can make such lofty enclaves as the Freer actually human and accessible gets my $8.95 without argument. Elsewhere, after describing the complicated floodlighting of the high-profile, mysterious Washington Monument, Applewhite writes: "The windy spaces of the Mall and passing clouds produce a pattern of constantly shifting intensity, of flickering gossamer shadows on immovable stone. Insects attracted by the brilliance fall prey to whirling nighthawks."

This book, illustrated by Fred H. Greenberg, will help you stop and smell quite a few locally grown roses. It will also tell you who designed the trellis, and why the neighbors were unsuccessful in their efforts to have it razed.

The others:

WASHINGTON ON FOOT -- (1984, Smithsonian Institution Press, American Planning Association, $4.95). Twenty-four walking tours, with pictures, capsule histories and detailed directions. The next best thing to the out-of-print "Guide to the Architecture of Washington D.C.," which the Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects is revising, probably for 1987.

ONE-DAY TRIPS THROUGH HISTORY -- (1982, EPM Publications, 1003 Turkey Run Road, McLean VA 22101, $9.95). Practical advice and exhaustive research from author Jane Ockershausen Smith (see also "Daytrips"), especially suited to groups of children.

WASHINGTON D.C.: A GUIDE TO THE NATION'S CAPITAL -- (1983, Pantheon, $8.95). With only a new introduction by Roger Kennedy (and reinsertion of a formerly quashed chapter on the history of and atrocities suffered by blacks in Washington), this paperback reissue of the original 1942 "American Guide" series volume compiled by Work Projects Administration writers is a surprisingly relevant and perspective-laden look at pre-War Washington -- with priceless black-and-white photos. DAYTRIPS

We live here. Thus, we need to get the heck out of here -- for the day, for the weekend, maybe longer.

It helps to be aware of the possibilities, otherwise we'll no doubt wind up with the laundry, or visiting the folks again.

For an especially well-thought-out and versatile first-hand look at nearby day-ies (and longer trips), see Jim Yenckel's Great Getaway Guide (1985, Andrik Associates, PO Box 5029, Alexandria VA 22305, $6.95). For the price, Yenckel, a staff writer for The Washington Post's Travel section, supplies more up-to-date resources than you will find in any other current such volume -- from the mountains of West Virginia to the Chesapeake beaches, from nearby rafting to far-flung llama trekking, from backpacking through Pennsylvania to lounging at the pool in North Carolina. The book is particularly well suited to singles and young couples.

Others include:

COUNTRY ADVENTURES -- (1984, Washington Book Trading Co., Box 1676, Arlington VA 22210, $5.95). Author Elizabeth C. Mooney is the kind of writer you wish were perpetually out of town -- so you could get letters from her, that is. This seems like just tat: a collection of on-the-road dispatches from Mooney -- with much still-current advice -- written during her keenly observed meanderings through the nearby country roads (and side roads) of Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia.

ROBERT SHOSTECK'S WEEKENDER'S GUIDE TO THE FOUR SEASONS -- (1982, Potomac Books, PO Box 40604, Washington DC 20016, $7.95). The family of Shosteck, who died in 1979, last updated his fact-filled book (a sort of weekend bible for most of the 1970s) four years ago. Still has a hard-to-beat list of pasttimes (from spelunking to winery-hunting to felling your own Christmas tree) and destinations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

THE WASHINGTON ONE-DAY TRIP BOOK -- (1984, EPM Publications, 1003 Turkey Run Road, McLean VA 22101, $7.95). Jane Ockershausen Smith's collection of relatively easy-to-reach destinations, from Alexandria's Torpedo Factory to the B&O Railroad Museum in Ellicott City, grouped by season and by Beltway exit.

WEEKENDER CALENDAR/1986 -- (1986, Andrik Associates, PO Box 5029, Alexandria VA 22305, $5.95). A datebook of regular local and regional annual events, with lists of suggested sidetrips, shopping and entertainment possibilities.

FAIRS & FESTIVALS -- (1982, Smithsonian Institution Press, $4.50). One of the more eclectic collections of regular annual events (including, among a few hundred others, the D.C. School Safety Patrol Parade in May). HIKING, BIKING, OTHER OUTDOOR PURSUITS

The D.C. area -- for all its interstate congestion and its passing plagues of potholes, pigeons and supply-side architecture -- has some of the easiest access in the world to considerable pockets of serenity.

If you aren't already a devotee of the surprisingly close-in amenities (for hiking, biking, nature walks, birding, canoeing and other pursuits), consider the following cream of the local outdoors-guide crop:

COUNTRY WALKS NEAR WASHINGTON -- (1984, Appalachian Mountain Club, Boston, $6.95), and

MORE COUNTRY WALKS NEAR WASHINGTON -- (1985, Rambler Books, Baltimore, $7.95). You could probably fit both of these precise and passionately unstuffy works by Alan Fisher into one pocket, but you'll want to have them in your hand for most of the trips. In the first book, there are 20 trips, accessible by public transportation and including two peerless eight-mile treks, one through Rock Creek and the other through a series of lesser stream-valley parks in Northwest. In the second book, Fisher presents 18 hikes farther afield, including memorable ambles through the Great Falls and C&O Canal parklands, and several upriver. He starts each trip/chapter with history, perspective and a map, and ends it with meticulous step-by-step directions. As worthwhile a purchase as a good pair of hiking shoes (which you really ought to buy first).

GREATER WASHINGTON AREA BICYCLE ATLAS -- (Third Edition/1985, Potomac Area Council of American Youth Hostels and Washington Area Bicyclists Association, $6.95). The local biker's bible, edited by Ken Moskowitz, features 68 favorite, largely rural trips in fail-safe, odometer-pegged detail, with good maps and an introduction and appendix, which by themselves are worth the cover price.

TOWPATH GUIDE TO THE C&O CANAL -- (Third Edition/1984, American Canal & Transportation Center, Box 310, Shepherdstown, WV 25443, $10). Thomas F. Hahn's durable volume is yet another definitive regional outdoors guide, if more scholarly, exacting and history-bound than the aforementioned three.

ALSO: "Maryland and Delaware Canoe Trails" by Edward Gertler (1983, Seneca Press, Silver Spring, $8.95); "Natural Washington" (1980, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, $6.95); "Chuck Dougherty's Running Washington: A Guide to 101 Washington Area Running Trails," (1984, AB Associates, PO Box 5243, Arlington VA 22205, $6.95); and "The Potomac Trail Book" by Robert Shosteck (1976, Appalachian Books, Oakton, $3.75) KIDS' STUFF

Those who seek full-family fun (and those who plan class trips) have helped advance Rockville's Green Acres School into the 11th edition of the school's self-published Going Places With Children in Washington, (1985, $5.95) -- the definitive book of its kind around. Particularly worthwhile, aside from the good-to-know details of popular kidtrips, is the chapter on behind-the-scenes tours: airports, a commercial butcher in Vienna, a Carvel ice cream plant in Rockville, a morning newspaper plant downtown, essential stuff.



In addition to the listings found in every guide mentioned under "All-Purpose" -- and especially those in the Fodor's and Frommer's guides -- here are two good places to find good lodging and dining advice. The lodging advice (and an extensive list of briefly described and rated restaurants) comes from a familiar old standby: the Mobil Travel Guide 1986, Middle Atlantic States (1986, Rand McNally & Co., $8.95). It has complete listings -- and ratings -- of hotels and motels in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

The restaurant advice comes from another veteran, this one a scrupulously unfamiliar face: Washington Post restaurant critic Phyllis Richman, whose Best Restaurants & Others, Washington D.C. & Environs (101 Productions, San Francisco, $4.95) rates more than a hundred area restaurants in a completely revised 1985 edition. THE WASHINGTON TOURIST MAP

There are three major brands you'll come across around town, but one of them stands out when it folds out: Tourist Washington, a 1984 production of the National Geographic Society's crack cartographers. Like the other two popular maps, by the Alexandria Drafting Co. and TravelVision, it gives u a downtown, tourist-area close-up on one side and a Beltway-bounded view opposite. It costs a buck (at the Society's 17th Street bookshop).

The Geographic's map jumps ahead of the competition because it is printed on plasticized, water-resistant paper -- which means it has a chance of surviving a typical August afternoon in Tourist Washington.

Did anyone mention those August afternoons?