Trip Coach: April 1, 2008

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Jeff Dickey, co-author of 'The Rough Guide to Washington, D.C.,' answered your questions about Washington, D.C.

Jeff Dickey: Hello, I'm Jeff Dickey (sometimes called J.D.), writer for Rough Guides, here to discuss the many aspects of traveling to Washington, D.C.—capital of our nation and home to presidents from Adams to Bush, musicians from Chuck Brown to Henry Rollins, civil rights pioneers from Frederick Douglass to Mary McLeod Bethune, and scores of pundit-journalists, political rogues, and other colorful characters. It's a great place to visit, starting about this time of the year when the cherry blossoms appear, so let's begin the chat!

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Orlando, Fla.: We will be staying in a vacation home in D.C. What is the best way to get to Mt. Vernon if you don't have a car, and how much time should one schedule for a visit there?

Jeff Dickey: To reach Mount Vernon, you can go by tour bus via Gray Line or Tourmobile (usually a complete four-hour trip for each) or by boat from Southwest D.C. or Alexandria, Va., through Spirit Cruises or Potomac Riverboat Company, respectively. The cheapest way is to take the Yellow Line Metro and hook up with a Fairfax Connector bus, although obviously this will take the greatest amount of time to get from D.C. proper to the estate. Cyclists may also enjoy taking the 18-mile Mount Vernon Trail from Theodore Roosevelt Island, near Arlington, to the home of the nation's first president. Three hours should be sufficient time to view the estate, although you'll want to budget a little more time to see Washington's gristmill and distillery, three miles away.

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Sacramento, Calif.: I will be in D.C. (June 18- 23) for a swim meet. I would like to sightsee that Thursday and Friday and maybe Sunday. I have already written to my area representative so I can visit the White House on Thursday. What other tickets do you recommend I get before I arrive in D.C.? YL

Jeff Dickey: Thanks for your question. Getting into the White House and a few other sensitive locations can be challenging in the years after 9/11. The White House itself, as you know, requires setting up a tour well in advance through your senator or representative. Contacting your member of Congress is also required for a pass to the gallery of either house; you can tour the Capitol itself (including the Rotunda) by first getting same-day tickets, beginning at 9am, at the service kiosk near the Garfield memorial southwest of the building (more details at aoc.gov.gov). Pre-purchasing advance tickets (for $1.50) over the phone for a Washington Monument tour is also a good idea (see the NPS website for details); get the tickets at the monument's will call. The International Spy Museum is also a hugely popular draw, despite the $18 fee, and tickets should be reserved ahead if you want to ensure entry. More elaborate protocols are required to get a look at the State Department's Diplomatic Reception Rooms or the Saturday morning tours of the Treasury Building; contact each department for details. Only special groups like school tours can get into the Pentagon these days; FBI tours have been suspended entirely until further notice.

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Santa Fe, N.M.: I'll have about a day and a half in early May to show my 9 year old daughter the sites of the Mall in DC. I'm thinking the Metro will be our best access due to the lack of parking (right?), but what's the best way to get from site to site? She may poop out on the long walk from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Should I consider a taxi, tour bus, or bike rental (that could be fun!). Thanks, Russ

Jeff Dickey: The Metro is almost always your best choice to see the main sights of the District—except around the Mall, where stops are few. You can alternatively take a taxi (the city is changing its metering system at present, but rates will still be cheap to travel the two miles from one end of the Mall to the other), or rent a bike from a vendor such as Big Wheel Bikes, or even enjoy a bike tour through Bike the Sites. The Tourmobile is an adequate option, giving you the opportunity to hop on and off the bus at your own pace, but you'll necessarily be confined only to the major tourist attractions. Driving is not recommended, as the Capital Beltway can be nightmarish to newcomers, and the District's many roundabouts and erratic directional changes and traffic patterns can take some getting used to.

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Lansing, Mich.: We have visted D.C. dozens of times and think it is one of the best big cities in the USA. We have visited most of the major historic sites and attractions. Can you recomend something for us to do that is out of the ordinary and off the beaten path?

Jeff Dickey: Visitors to D.C. often ask me about unusual or unexpected attractions to the city, and luckily there are many appealing options, depending on your taste. One of my favorites is the National Building Museum, in Judiciary Square, which occupies the opulent Pension Building, built in the Gilded Age, a marvel of huge brick columns painted to look like marble and a towering atrium—not surprisingly, it's often the home of political fundraisers and presidential inaugural events and parties. The architectural exhibits on view aren't bad, either. For art institutions, the Hillwood Museum is well off the beaten path in Upper Northwest (requiring a bit of a walk or a cab ride if you don't have a car), but worth a look for its treasure trove of Faberge eggs, Orthodox icons, and other priceless material purchased when the Soviet Union under Stalin decided to unload it on an American cereal-company heiress. Modern art lovers will enjoy the Kreeger Museum, out in Foxhall beyond Georgetown, for its collection of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and earlier works going back to Munch and Van Gogh. Finally, if you're into history, don't miss the newly opened President Lincoln and Soldiers' Home National Monument, where Uncle Abe made his summer retreat during the Civil War, at the so-called Lincoln Cottage. The national monument isn't far from the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the biggest Catholic church in the U.S. as well as one of the most eye-opening.

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Lester, Long Beach, Calif.: I am going to a Washington Nationals game in a few weeks. What kind of tips can you tell me about parking, the stadium and food concessions?

Jeff Dickey: A very timely question, given that Nationals Park just opened. I haven't seen a game there yet, but can tell you that the stadium sits in a Southeast neighborhood that the city plans to redevelop, so parking is problematic (take the Metro by all means) and eating and drinking options in the area are few—though this should be changing in coming months and years. Overlooking the Anacostia River, the stadium occupies a picturesque site, and is slated to offer countless more amenities than RFK Stadium, the Nats' temporary home up until this year. If you can find a ticket, by all means attend a game!

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Raleigh, N.C.: We get to D.C. about 6 to 12 times a year and are looking for something new and interesting ato do, especially with 15 to 17 year olds. Also looking for things they can do on their own. Jane

Jeff Dickey: For outdoorsy endeavors with teens—which potentially they could enjoy on their own—you could try rollerblading or hiking in Rock Creek Park (esp. the former along closed-off Beach Drive on the weekend), canoeing or kayaking in the Potomac (renting from Thompson's Boat Center near Georgetown), taking a mule-drawn boat ride along the historic C&O Canal in Georgetown, hiking Theodore Roosevelt Island, or taking a serious bike ride along the Capitol Crescent or Mount Vernon Trail. Indoors, some of the new youth-friendly attractions that will be opening include the Newseum (next week), a splashy institution covering how the news gets made, with plenty of interactive exhibits and colorful graphics, and the National Museum of American History, which is undergoing a huge renovation with plans to reopen in fall 2008.

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Chesterton, Ind.: What is the best steak place in D.C.?

Jeff Dickey: The easy answer to this would be The Palm, at Dupont Circle. However, partisans of places like Sam & Harry's, the Capital Grille, and Ray's the Steaks all make good arguments (along with the expected Morton's and Charlie Palmer fans), though my own personal choice, for the historic ambience especially, is the Old Ebbitt Grill.

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Stockton, Calif.: Hi Jeff,

So glad you were invited to do a forum! My husband and I will be in Washington, D.C. for one day as we transistion from NYC (Sept. 28-Oct. 4)to Boston, Mass. (Oct. 4-Oct. 12) for our 5th year wedding anniversary trip. My husband wants to visit the National Museums of: American History, Zoological Park, Air and Space and International Spy Museum. I want to do what I do in every city I visit, go Thrift Store shopping and eat. Question: Are there any good thrift stores in the area? I imagine we won't be able to do everything, what would you cut out? Are great budget restaurants an oxymoron in D.C.? And we've rented a car for the day, should we bail and take the BoltBus? Thanks in advance for your help. Shalisha

Jeff Dickey: Shalisha, good questions. Take the BoltBus for $15 if you're coming from NYC; after that, it's cheaper and easier to take the D.C. Metro or cabs than struggle with a car. I'd recommend you add the National Museum of American Art and National Portrait Gallery (housed in the same classic building) to the list. They were refurbished and reopened to the public in 2006, and are an incredible place to view the images and icons of notable figures from American politics, business, culture, entertainment and sports, and some of the country's best homegrown art as well. The American History Museum also demands a look, since it's had its own renovation and reopens in July, and the National Zoo opened the Asia Trail in 2006—an enjoyable stroll if you haven't seen it. By contrast, the collections of the Air and Space Museum and Intl. Spy Museum, while worthy, haven't changed as much in recent years, though the Air and Space Museum's more recent satellite branch in Virginia rewards a visit to get a look at a space shuttle, Concorde and the Enola Gay, among other super-sized attractions. For (somewhat upscale) secondhand and vintage clothes, Annie Creamcheese and Meeps Vintage Fashionette will do the trick, while for true thrifting, Ruff & Ready in Shaw has scads of old, fascinating antiques and various castoffs, and the neighborhood features similar stores in the blocks around the U Street/Civil War Memorial Metro stop, as well as the occasional flea market. The dusty but sizable thrift shop (name?) around 11th or 12th and H St NE is also worth a visit, though only in daytime as the area can get dicey at night.

Finally, not to worry: great budget restaurants can be found in the District, and include such favorites as the 18th and U Duplex Diner, Bukom Cafe and Amsterdam Falafelshop (all in Adams Morgan), Market Lunch or Las Placitas on Capitol Hill, many Asian diners in Chinatown, Pizza Paradiso or Sala Thai at Dupont Circle, Baked & Wired or Rocklands in Georgetown, and Julia's Empanadas, Firehook Bakery or Loeb's Deli downtown. Ben's Chili Bowl in Shaw is a longtime classic, of course, and Vace in Cleveland Park has great pizza and sandwiches.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: I am planning to go to DC for a few days in early June. The main things I want to do is see the Nationals new stadium and visit the Holocaust Museum. Can you give me some suggestions on a few other things to do with my limited time? Can you also recommend a good area to get a hotel in that offers affordable rooms? Thanks, Michael

Jeff Dickey: Michael, any of the above recommendations— Smithsonian sites along the National Mall, newly opened Newseum, off-the-beaten-path museums, Lincoln Cottage, and so on—would be worth your time, though it doesn't sound like you have enough time to explore much beyond the Mall and downtown (Nationals Park's neighborhood isn't exactly tourist-friendly, yet). I'd suggest viewing the Declaration of Independence and Constitution at the National Archives, taking in a concert at the Kennedy Center—or a play at the Woolly Mammoth or Shakespeare theatres—or picking up the catch of the day at the Fish Wharf, aka the Maine Avenue Fish Market, the oldest fish market in the country. For a break from the city, you could try the expansive gardens of the National Arboretum, which also holds a collection of grand Capitol Columns that used to decorate the U.S. Capitol itself.

There's no one area of the District to find affordable rooms, though Adams Morgan has more affordable hotels/B&Bs than most. Names to check include Adam's Inn, Kalorama Guest House, and Windsor Park; elsewhere, Maison Orleans, the Allen Lee, Tabard Inn, Chester Arthur House, William Lewis House, and Woodley Park Guest House have affordable rates, though all rates in town can spike during May and June.

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Wilkesboro, N.C.: I read that the Bureau of Printing & Engraving opens according to the "alert status"--Is there a way to know ahead of time? And can I get tickets for my 81 year old parents ahead of time? Also do any other sights open & close due to the "alerts"?

Jeff Dickey: For the general tour of the Bureau—an always-popular option for D.C. visitors—you'll have to queue up as early as 8am during the high season (Mar-Aug) for tour tickets later that day. A better bet might be the Congressional/VIP tour, which you can arrange well in advance through your representative, and which gives a more behind-the-scenes view of what the Bureau does in the process of creating American currency. For the various color-coded levels used by the Department of Homeland Security, check the DHS website and call or visit the Bureau of Engraving and Printing site to find out current conditions (the site closes during an "Orange" alert).

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Washington D.C.: Other than taking the Tourmobile or something similar, is there an easier way than hoofing it to get from one end of the National Mall to the other? Thanks!

Jeff Dickey: Good question. The Metro only offers central stops running north-south (e.g., Smithsonian and Federal Triangle), so it's of little use for getting from, say, the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol. The #13 bus (A, B, F or G) serves most of the Mall (except the southwest side), connecting to Arlington National Cemetery and/or the Pentagon, while the DC Circulator tourist shuttle makes a loop around the museums of the eastern part of the Mall, as well as the Washington Monument, but only runs on weekends.

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San Jose, Calif.: Hello, My best friend and I are 30. We're going to DC from April 25th to the 29th for a girlfriend's wedding shower and bachelorette party weekend. We'll basically have Monday and some time Sunday to explore the city. We know there are a lot of great free museums and sites so what do you think are the MUST SEES for a one day adventure? We love art and music and literature and would lean more towards that aspect of travel rather than the super patriotic route... Any pointers would be greatly appreciated! Thanks, Sarah

Jeff Dickey: Sarah, you're headed to the right place: the District is loaded with art, music and literature, though it might take a little planning to narrow down your list to just a few must-sees ¿ so I'll give you some options. Along with the institutions mentioned above (and especially the National Portrait Gallery), I'd recommend the Renwick and Corcoran galleries near the White House, respectively home to a great array of decorative arts and to some of the country's greatest eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings, and the redoubtable Phillips Collection, which boasts an amazing collection of European Impressionism and early modernism, as well as more contemporary works. Downtown, the National Museum of Women in the Arts holds a number of treasures by women artists over the centuries. For music, the Kennedy Center, Carter Barron Amphitheater, and the Barns at Wolf Trap present a wide range of music, from classical to folk and blues (especially the latter two at Wolf Trap), or you can go for an indie rock concert in Adams Morgan or a blues or jazz concert in Shaw—D.C. was one of the founding cities of the punk movement, as well as the onetime home of Duke Ellington. Finally, for literature, drop in for a late-night read or a snack at the Afterwords Café inside Kramerbooks, which on weekends is open 24hr.

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New York, N.Y.: I'm visiting DC this weekend with my family (husband, infant & 3 year old) and staying close to Union Station. Do you have suggestions for up-market restaurants that are relatively kid-friendly? Plus, if you could choose only 2 museums that my 3-y-o would love (and we would enjoy too), what would they be? Thanks. Charis

Jeff Dickey: Charis, around Union Station and Capitol Hill, Johnny's Half Shell for seafood and Two Quail for New American cuisine are both smart and tasty spots that shouldn't have a problem with children. More clubby, but still worthwhile, is the Monocle, where D.C.'s political elite make appearances. And for a pair of youth-oriented museums, the obvious choices have to be the Natural History Museum and the National Air and Space Museum. Both are loaded with kids and feature giant dinosaur skeletons and many curious fossils and gems in the former, and towering rockets, spacecraft, and planes in the latter—sure to delight any youngster with a flair for visual learning.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Hi Jeff!

We will be moving from California to Washington, D.C. in August. Can you recommend some restaurants that we should try? I'd love to find a great 50's diner, a great vegetarian restaurant, and a fabulous coffee shop. Thanks!

Jeff Dickey: Yes, indeed. The Diner is, what else, a classic diner in Adams Morgan that doles out gut-stuffing omelets and pancakes with flair; Luna Grill in Dupont Circle has plenty of excellent, affordable vegetarian dishes; and 14U and Tryst are stylish coffee haunts, while Capitol Grounds will suffice for an immediate caffeine jolt.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Jeff

I have been living in Washington, D.C. for many years now and during the Spring, the amount of tourists in my neighborhood (next to the zoo) makes me want to run in the other direction. My husband and I are looking for an inexpensive 3 day weekend retreat--one that is close to D.C. We were thinking of going down to Williamsburg, but any thoughts would be helpful. Thanks!

Jeff Dickey: The capital region of D.C., Virginia, and Maryland is one of the cradles of American history (along with New England), and contains so much to do that it's hard to know where to start. But Colonial Williamsburg is one such place. In recent decades, Williamsburg's historical accuracy has been much improved and the site now offers a factual, intriguing look at an old colonial capital; if you're visiting the Historic Triangle, as it's known, you should also drop in on Jamestown, site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World, which just celebrated its 400th anniversary, and Yorktown, site of the decisive battle in the Revolutionary War. Closer to D.C., Richmond has a number of fine historical attractions, foremost being the American Civil War Center, while the region's preserved battlefields provide context to that monumental conflict. Further east, you could visit Monticello in Charlottesville while making a tour of Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway, or stop closer to home at Harpers Ferry or deeper into West Virginia at New River Gorge.

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Athens, Ga.: When is the best time to go to D.C. to avoid the crowds and get the best deals? My mom and I were going to go in April before the school children get out but I read somewhere that many schools take trips to D.C. in April and the place is overrun with school field trips. Would May be a better time to go?

Jeff Dickey: April through June is really high season for the District, along with September and the weeks closest to it. The height of summer, July and August, features tropical levels of heat and humidity, while the depth of winter offers biting winds and icy temperatures. If you're planning a mainly indoors itinerary, then by all means you should brave the summer or winter conditions and snap up the deals you're likely to find for accommodation or tour packages. Otherwise, you'll be waiting in line for the major attractions in the spring or late summer/early autumn busy season.

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Topeka, Kans.: Jeff:

My husband, an active duty soldier, myself, an RN, and our active, sports-minded 9 year old daughter are planning a week-long trip to Washington, D.C., in September 2008. We plan to fly into Baltimore International, but have not purchased tickets yet, so if Dulles or Reagan are better airport choices we can do that. My question is this: What are some not to be missed sites for a soldier to see in DC? And for an active 9 year old? We all love history and would love to see where Frances Scott Keyes wrote the Star Spangled Banner. We have written to our Senator for White House Tours and have already filled out the Security Questionaire. Any information on "military discounts" would be greatly appreciated as I have noticed prices in D.C. area are alittle more that in Kansas!! And also, if it isn't too much of an "April Fool's" question, is it possible to get a hotel close to public transport (even it is at the end of the subway/"L" line) for under $200 a night? Thanks so much for your letting us use your expertise! Paula

Jeff Dickey: You'll find plenty to do in D.C. if you enjoy military and all other aspects of national history. Francis Scott Key finished his poem, later set to music, in the long-gone Indian Queen Hotel, but it was inspired by his witnessing of the British bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 (the Banner's original title is/was "The Defence of Fort McHenry"). You can still visit the restored fort in Baltimore, as it's a national monument. Key's Georgetown home, however, was destroyed in the 1940s to make way for the "progress" of the Whitehurst Freeway.

Obviously, you'll also want to visit the striking soldiers' memorials around the District, especially on the National Mall, as well as Arlington National Cemetery, the Navy Memorial, and perhaps the Navy Museum. For good hotels under $200 a night, check out my answers several questions ago for a list of good options.

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Jeff Dickey: All around, a great chat. Thanks for the many fine questions. If you're in need for further guidance, I'd suggest perhaps the Rough Guide to Washington DC, with an updated new edition arriving later this year. Good luck on your trips!

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