t may be Washington's best-kept secret: From Manassas to Rockville, Brookland to Laurel and points between and beyond, this is a great place to have a good time.
Despite our reputation as a region filled to overflowing with driven careerists, political lifers, humorless policy wonks and stuffy bureaucrats, nearly eight in 10 residents consider the Washington area a "fun" place to live, according to a new Washington Post survey.
Washington's playful side may come as a surprise to the rest of the country. Nationally, Americans see Washington as being about as lively as a quorum call in the U.S. Senate. In a national poll conducted by The Post earlier this month, fewer than half of Americans said they thought of the Washington region as a fun area.
"Most people think, when you say 'Washington, D.C.,' they think the White House and museums, but there's a lot more to that in D.C.," says Kendrick Smith, 27, a systems engineer who lives in Columbia and loves to spend time in the shops and bookstores on Georgia Avenue. "There is always some type of cultural event going on; there are a lot of concerts. . . . It is a rich culture."
Throughout the Washington region, people are clearly having fun. The overwhelming majority of area residents say they were satisfied with the way they spent their days off -- and just over half report they were "very" satisfied, according to the survey. Bored? Hardly. Most of us say we have too much to do on a typical weekend.
Robin Riner of Manassas has four children and works in a Giant grocery store six days a week. But she manages to fit a dose of fun into her limited leisure time. Sunday morning "I'll work the 5 a.m.-to-10 a.m. shift, and then we'll leave and go do whatever the kids need to do," says Riner, 42. "Generally that's family day so it's picnics or something like that going on."
That's not to say that we have no regrets about how we spend our free time. Nearly six in 10 said they often wished at the end of a weekend that they had done more things they really enjoyed. Half would have liked to have had more fun. More than six in 10 -- perhaps feeling guilty about all the fun they did have -- said they frequently wish they had done more around the house.
What does Washington really do on its days off? To find out, the Weekend section interviewed 1,001 randomly selected adults living in the District and the Maryland and Northern Virginia suburbs. Interviewing was conducted June 28 to July 1; the margin of sampling error for the overall results was plus or minus three percentage points.
We asked residents what they had done the previous weekend or what they did on their regular days off. "The previous weekend" was June 25-27 -- a fairly typical Friday through Sunday in early summer with mostly clear skies, high humidity and temperatures in the mid-80s throughout the region.
The survey suggests that area residents love to shop, sweat, read, watch movies and eat on the weekends. And we like to visit: Three out of four of us spent time with friends or relatives, the most popular of the 38 activities tested in the survey. A surprising number of us took naps. A distressing number of us -- about one in seven -- went to work on a day off, and a quarter brought work home. One in six of us went on dates -- including one in 10 married men and women who presumably were trying to keep the romance alive.
Some regional differences emerged, but not many. District residents were more likely than their suburban counterparts to have gone to parties or out clubbing the previous weekend. Perhaps as a consequence, they were also more likely to have taken naps. Suburbanites were more likely to have barbecued and puttered in their yards than people in the District.
Men and women play in different ways: Women were more likely to have read books last weekend; men were more likely to have played team sports. Old and young play differently, too. Twenty-somethings were about twice as likely as sixty-somethings to have watched videos or eaten fast food. And older people were more than twice as likely to have gone to church. (Perhaps they were seeking forgiveness for the sins they committed as twenty-somethings.)
A majority of area residents report that they went shopping or to a mall, an activity somewhat more favored by women (60 percent) than men (48 percent). Many apparently went shopping for sporting goods, the survey suggests: Area closets and garages overflow with sports equipment. Nearly six in 10 area residents said they owned bicycles, and most of these said they've used their bikes in the past year. Four in 10 own a tennis racket, though only half of these say they've used it recently. Seven in 10 say they have some sort of exercise equipment . . . and most claim they've used it.
Clearly, many area residents get moving on weekends. One in six worked out at a gym. One in 10 rode their bikes. Despite the hot and humid weather, nearly one in five went running. And more than half -- 57 percent -- went for walks, making walking Washington's favorite way to keep active. Taken together, seven in 10 area residents reported having crowded the region's gyms, sidewalks, jogging trails and bike paths the previous weekend.
Richard Allen, 52, a marketing executive who lives in Mount Airy, says he runs and walks on his jaunts through the Maryland countryside. "I live in a very bucolic setting. I go for two miles, I run the first mile or so and walk half of the way back. It's a good time to get away and ponder things other than work, and to pray. It's exercise for me, but it's also a good chance to thank God for all of the parts of my body that still work."
All that exercise clearly makes us hungry. About four in 10 area residents said they'd eaten at fast-food restaurants over the past weekend. Somewhat more took a leisurely approach and ate at non-fast-food restaurants. And one out of four super-sized their weekends, if not their waistlines, by feasting at both fast-food places and more upscale establishments, while an equal proportion said they stayed away from restaurants altogether.
"We do the whole gamut, from very fancy to Burger King," says Susie Willing, 45, a management analyst living in La Plata who says her family eats out five or six nights a week. "We'll travel for it; we'll go into Virginia, we'll go into D.C."
"Locally we have one that we go to a lot. We're regulars. . . . They know what we're going to order."
Other Washington residents took holidays from the kitchen without leaving home. Nearly half -- 46 percent -- said they'd barbecued over the past weekend.
Of course, having fun is hard work. And to recover, a majority of residents -- 55 percent -- took a weekend nap. And it's not older people who were most likely to say they needed their rest. Just the opposite: People under age 30 were the area's real sleepyheads. Two-thirds reported taking a nap the previous weekend, compared with just over half of all residents 50 years old or older.
Where does Washington play? All over the region, but usually close to home, the survey suggests. One in three said they often went to the District for leisure activities; fewer than one in 10 said they never came into the city. Distance is key: Nearly half of those living in the inner suburbs -- inside the Beltway in Virginia and Maryland -- said they came to play in the District at least somewhat regularly. But outside the Beltway, many residents apparently believe that it's not worth the trip: Only one in four frequent the city regularly.
The city is particularly attractive to younger people, including those living in the suburbs. Nearly half -- 48 percent -- of everyone ages 18 to 29 said they often went into the District for leisure activities compared with 28 percent of area residents 50 and older.
"If I'm bike riding I always end up in the District," says Laura Bowser, 25, a computer security specialist who lives in Gaithersburg. "The trails are great. . . . A bunch of friends and I get together. . . . We probably go three weekends a month."
Many area residents stayed indoors and took pleasure in more sedentary pursuits. Slightly more than half said they'd read a book over the past weekend, with their choice of reading matter ranging from trashy novels devoured by the pool on Saturday to the Bible in church on Sunday. More than half also said they watched videos or DVDs. In fact, the survey suggests that stay-at-home movie viewership has soared in the region.
In 1992, when Weekend last polled area residents, barely one in five area residents said they had watched a video over the past weekend. Today, thanks at least in part to the spread of DVD technology, 56 percent of all area residents said they'd watched a movie or recorded show on their video or DVD player.
On average, area residents reported watching 5.6 hours of television over the weekend; only one out of every 10 residents said they didn't watch any TV. Others were glued to another kind of screen: A majority of area residents spent at least an hour at their home computers, and roughly one in 10 computer users averaged five or more hours at their keyboards.
Kevin McGowan, 31, a defense analyst who lives in Fairfax, says he plays his favorite computer game, "a modern-day version of Dungeons and Dragons," for a few hours in the morning on the weekends. "I get up about 6:30," he says. "I probably play two or three hours, then I go out -- go to the gym, go to the driving range, run errands. Then based on what the rest of the day looks like, I might jump on for another hour later in the day."
What does his wife think of his cyber-hobby? "She doesn't like this game; she doesn't understand it," McGowan says. But it's not a problem because he's usually done playing "before she rolls out of bed."
All play and no work would make for a lot of empty refrigerators, overgrown lawns, running toilets and unpainted pantries. So area residents put down that softball bat or took off their walking shoes to tend to household tasks, the poll found.
In fact, doing chores unites us as a region: Three in four area residents said they took a break from having fun during the weekend to run an errand, go to the market or stop at the cleaners. Half of us worked in our yards. Four in 10 did home repair. And nearly as many -- 37 percent -- said they had gone to a home improvement store or a plant nursery the previous weekend.
Raul Sagun, 40, a defense contractor who lives in Waldorf, says he enjoys his frequent weekend trips to the local Home Depot. "That's a common weekend adventure," he says. "It's something like an adult toy store for the home. There are things . . . that you need like batteries, that you go there for, but in the end you buy the latest gadget."
Not everybody has a good time every weekend. About one in six area residents say they typically have too little to do in an average weekend -- a view more frequently expressed by young people than older residents. Others wish Washington was a little less buttoned-down.
"The city is really sometimes kind of boring and tame," laments Scott Fleischer, 24, a radio traffic reporter who lives in the District whose typical weekend is "a mix of everything . . . going out to dinner, going to a party, going to a bar."
And, he says, Washington can be a challenging place for a twenty-something in a hurry to have fun. "Getting from place to place is tough because the cabs are too expensive here. The Metro runs so infrequently all weekend that it takes away from people's willingness to use it."
One in eight residents told us they had been ill the previous weekend. But that didn't stop them from trying to enjoy themselves. Of the activities measured in the poll, people who were sick on average did 10 of them, while people in good health did a dozen.
Why aren't we doing more? We want to, but we can't find a place to park. In fact, hunting down increasingly elusive parking spaces also unites the region: Parking was the reason most frequently mentioned by District, Maryland and Virginia residents to explain why they didn't do more fun things. Another roadblock to fun in the suburbs are the roads -- they're too crowded, say more than four in 10 Virginia and Maryland residents. And finding enough time is as hard as finding a parking space, say a third of all District residents and a slightly larger proportion of suburbanites.
"Parking is really a concern for us. When you have a family like this, it is kind of daunting," says Marcy Gessel, 40, a homemaker and part-time freelance writer who lives in Arlington and has three boys ages 6 and younger. "We like going to D.C. for things, but occasionally it keeps us out of there."
Gessel says different problems present themselves when her family tries to have fun in the suburbs. "In the Virginia suburbs, it's the traffic. We live in Arlington and we're not used to traffic. Occasionally we go out to Tysons, and it's disgusting."
Many area residents have taken drastic steps to work around the problems. Half of the region's residents have changed the times they do certain things, opting for matinee movies or early-bird specials at area restaurants. More than four in 10 have changed the days of the week they go to certain places or attend certain events. And a similar percentage have simply cut particular venues out of their entertainment itineraries.
Suzanne Hurtt, 60, is a plant pathologist who lives in Clarksville. She remembers the days when she and her husband loved to come downtown to attend festivals on the Mall, go to the theater and visit the museums. "The travel talks at the Smithsonian" were particularly enjoyable, she says.
No more. "We haven't been downtown in years," Hurtt says. "Even when you can find parking, it's so expensive," she says. "And we don't want to spend hours on the road. We're busy people. We have to think how long it will take."
Do they miss their trips downtown? "Well, we keep saying we've got to start going again. So, yes, I guess we do."
Richard Morin is director of polling and a staff writer. Claudia Deane is deputy director of polling and a staff writer.