YOU CAN GAZE at it forever from your secondhand cloud in USAir nonsmoking, or your Washington Monument porthole, or even your 14th Street Bridge backup. You can listen all you want to the insider advice of natives near and actual, and you can read about it forever -- in everything from high-gloss generality to daunting detail. But at some point ya gotta get out there and see it yourself, this Washington D.C.

And wouldn't it be nice, at that point, to have someone whispering relevant somethings in your ear as you hiked leisurely about town? To explain, say, these mysterious bronze buffalos flanking this curved stone bridge into Georgetown, or the strange ceramic tilework over that doorway?

Yes, you can always take a Gray Line tour. In fact, for orientation, you should. But few D.C. tour companies offer the flexibility you prefer, and almost none of them let you see the city from the sidewalk, which is the only way to get to know any place.

Lacking encyclopedic companions, the next best thing for us ground-level tourists since the advent of the Walkman has been the so-called tour tape. In theory, such tapes are a flexible and sensible way to simultaneously see and have the scene set for you.

And they also make a nice handoff to an out-of-town guest (as you leave for work).

In reality, here are three recommendations based on experience: Remain single (at least on these tours; the tapes don't work for anything more than one of us at a time). Stay away from those tapes made for the carbound (they're impossible to pace properly, and if you're unfamiliar with this city's misfit streets you're already enough of a hazard). And get your hands on the best of the general-interest Washington walking-tour tapes I've heard: Tapewalks ($11.95 at bookstores, hotels and from Pacesetter Productions, 7316 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda MD 20814).

There are currently four Tapewalks available, each a neighborhood-oriented, two- to three-hour tour with logical built-in breaks and packaged with crude but handy maps. Two Tapewalks are Georgetown tours, one based in lower Georgetown and the university, the other on Dumbarton Oaks; another tour encompasses Dupont Circle and Embassy Row; the newest Tapewalk, the only one I haven't taken, is titled "A Walk Around the White House." All are episodic -- as in, "Turn off the tape and meet me next at the corner of Wisconsin and M."

Produced by local businesswomen Judy Zickler and Barbara Tempchin (the latter also being the public-radio veteran who narrates), Tapewalks include judicious music and sound (when you take off the headphones, the birds in the courtyard of Grace Episcopal Church stop chirping). Most happily, these tours hit history where it lives -- emphasizing, by pointing out the everlasting oddments of architecture and landscape, the history of those homes you're standing in front of -- from the longtime residences of Alice Roosevelt Longworth and Herman Wouk, say, to the Potomac pitstops of the Kennedys and, yes, the Washingtons themselves.

If you don't live here already, you will be fascinated (and you will draw some worried looks in front of the Iraqi embassy). If you're already a Washingtonian, you still will be fascinated. And you'll certainly do better on your next real estate exam.