You know what else you can hop on and hop off of? The DC Circulator, which takes a more scenic loop around the Mall than the tour buses, and for approximately 1/40 th the price. Want narration? Download Slate’s free “D.C. Memorials” audio tour.
Menace though they may be on city sidewalks, electric scooters are actually ideal for sailing down the broad, paved, car-free surfaces that abound around the Mall. Seriously, you haven’t lived until you’ve slalomed through an eighth-grade tour group on one of these sweet rides.
The interior of the Jefferson Building is one of the most beautiful and colorful spaces in the city. No surface goes unadorned in this Italianate monument to the liberal arts. Plus, they have a Gutenberg Bible on display, one of only three perfect vellum copies left in the world!
Sheeple form lines for no apparent reason. Make sure there’s a point to a queue before joining it.
Exhibit A: There’s often a line in front of the Barack Obama portrait at the National Portrait Gallery. If you don’t need a selfie with the painting (and you don’t), stand beside the line and take in the artwork from a slightly oblique angle.
Exhibit B: At the National Archives, you do have to stand in line to get into the atrium that holds the Constitution. But once you’re in there, don’t stay in line. Most people follow a slow-moving queue around a bunch of glass cases filled with replicas instead of walking directly to the original document, which is at the center along the back wall.
Free tours are offered at most major D.C. tourist sites, but few people take advantage of them. Don’t worry about getting stuck with a dud of a docent — if you get bored, thank your guide and peel off. Wandering on your own is allowed at most sites, though there are some notable exceptions. For instance, on tours of Congress, the Pentagon and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, you’re expected to stick with your group. Incidentally, these locked-down destinations are eminently skippable: The congressional tour focuses mostly on undistinguished statuary, the Pentagon is just an overgrown cubicle farm, and paper money is so last-century.
There’s nothing notable in the first building you’ll enter at George Washington’s country estate — just some statues and a scale model of the president’s home. Save your steps for the sprawling plantation, and leave some time to browse the expansive museum near the farm’s exit.
The building’s small basement museum is filled with aging multimedia exhibits. Instead, spend your limited time with the actual artifacts — macabre objects including John Wilkes Booth’s pistol — you’ll find near the exit.
Stop and smell the flowers.
Expertly tended gardens flank nearly every Smithsonian building. My favorite is the Enid A. Haupt Garden, with its geometrical grids of plants and shrubbery, flanked by saucer magnolias that blossom extravagantly in the spring. Even in this well-peopled space, you can usually find solitude in the Moongate Garden, which is framed by stone arches that look like portals to another world.
How to get a White House tour:
Know someone who works there or request a tour through your congressional representative. If you don’t have a representative because you live in D.C., you may be out of luck. I tried for two years to get a tour through Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, to no avail. Do you have a workaround? Let me know!