Sean O'Neill, senior editor at BudgetTravel.com, answered your questions on Washington, D.C.
Sean O'Neill: Hello, chatters, and welcome to this week's Trip Coach session!
Today, I'm here to answer your questions about visiting our nation's capital.
I'm a writer who lived in D.C. for nearly a decade until I joined BudgetTravel.com a couple of years ago (where I assign and edit articles as well as oversee our blog This Just In).
I routinely visit D.C. to meet up with my friends who live there, and I've stayed up-to-date. I promise to point you to a variety of the city's options—not just my favorite parts!
Ready for takeoff? Let's go!
Bernardsville, N.J.: Hey, we are planning a trip to D.C. the last week of March-1st week of April. Three children: a dance loving, constantly texting 13 year old, a sports mad 8 year old and an amimal loving three year old. We enjoy good food and love art museums, and of course, we are on a budget. What do you think? Places to see, to stay, to eat? Thanks!;
Sean O'Neill: Hello Bernardsville, N.J.! So you're bringing the kids to D.C.? That's a terrific idea because most of the attractions are free—offering savings for your family of five. And the last week of March is typically the start of the prettiest time of year to visit this city. You're bound to have a great time in D.C.!
If your animal-loving 3-year old would like to see pandas, head to the National Zoo. In 2007, this free, Smithsonian-operated zoo debuted a new section that's gorgeous and is called Asia Trail, giving the pandas a misty, rocky-and-treed, Asian-inspired place to romp around in. The boy panda is full of energy, despite his name, Tai Shan (which means "peaceful mountain" in Chinese). Lots of other cute animals can be seen there, of course, such as tigers, monkeys, seals, giraffes, and elephants. I recommend going as early as you possibly can corral the kids. The animals are liveliest in the morning.
There's plenty of parking, and the Zoo offers specially designed strollers. If you take the subway system, called the Metro, I would recommend you NOT stop at the Woodley Park/Adams Morgan/National Zoo stop, even though it has National Zoo in its name. Go further along this Red Line train to the Cleveland Park stop because from this station you can walk *downhill* to the Zoo. If you're pushing a stroller, you'll prefer the downhill route! You'll walk through a cute neighborhood and over a pretty bridge at about the same distance as if you had taken the other subway stop. For bonus points in travel savvy, you can take the Woodley Park/Adams Morgan/National Zoo stop when you LEAVE the zoo, because, again, you'll be walking downhill. (Again, this is mainly relevant to you if you're pushing a stroller and dealing with a three-year old.)
Does your 8-year old like dinosaurs? If so, you may want to take them to the free Natural History Museum on the National Mall.
If your 8-year old prefers planes and spacecraft, head to the Air & Space Museum. Be sure to buy them some "astronauts ice cream"—which is freeze dried, and impresses most kids—at the gift shop.
The 13-year old might be the toughest to impress. Maybe you could split up, and one parent could take the 13-year old to the just-opened Newseum (a center dedicated to the media and understanding the Constitution's First Amendment right to a free press). It's located just off the National Mall, roughly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the National Gallery (a free museum that you, as an art lover, ought to see for yourself!) On the plus side, the Newseum has all of the cutting-edge technology for interactive exhibits that your constantly texting child might find engaging. For example, you can pretend to be a newsbroadcaster on a mock set with the latest equipment. On the down side, the place is pricey $20 for adults, $13 for kids.
Where to stay? Families may find good options across the Potomac River in Crystal City, Va. There are several hotels run by trusted national brands (Marriott, etc.) linked together via an *underground mall*. I recommend you get a hotel connected to his underground mall because it has lots of food courts and video game parlors to distract kids on rainy days. Plus, the hotels and the underground mall are linked by the subway system to downtown—you can travel to the National Mall, the park with most of the city's best free museums, within about 20 minutes.
Enjoy your trip!
Lansing, Mich.: I am staying in D.C. at the Phoenix Park hotel (North Capitol and F street) for this week coincidentally on business. Do you have any recommendations for where we should spend our $64 per day meal per diem? My sister works for the Library of Congress and knows most of the good deals around town (there is a 50 cent per taco Tuesday special that she has recommended), but anywhere else that might make a memorable dinner after a full work day would be appreciated. Thanks Sean! Ryan
Sean O'Neill: Hi Ryan,
Hope your business trip has been going well! $64 per day for meals isn't bad. Because you didn't tell me what type of cuisine you like, I'm going to dish out a menu of options and hope one strikes your fancy.
If it's cheap-and-distinctively-local that you're looking for, get a "half-smoke" at Ben's Chili Bowl, a D.C. institution for 50 years in the city's Adams Morgan neighborhood in its Northeast quadrant on the 1300 block of U Street NW (Northwest). In Ben's version of the D.C. specialty, the half-smoke, you'll enjoy a 1/4lb. half pork and beef smoked sausage on a roll. Order some chili cheese fries and a Coke for the full experience. You can walk off the calories with a stroll along U Street, one of the most vibrant corridors of the city right now, or along the National Mall downtown.
D.C. has one of the largest Ethiopian communities in the U.S., and thus it has some of the nation's best Ethiopian food. Cab it over to Meskerem It has a lively atmosphere inside, and is great for eating in groups of four or more—though you can eat solo, too.
(Ryan, tell your driver to take you to "18th Street in Adams Morgan.")
Or, to eat at the Ethiopian restaurant whose walls are lined with photos of famous political and entertainment celebrities who have dined there, cab it to Georgetown (1201 28th St NW) for Zed's. If you stick to iced tea and skip the booze, you can get out of both places for under $20 for dinner easily. If you do drink alcohol, you may want to try the signature honey wine at either Zed's or Meskerem.
Prefer something more within your comfort zone of American comfort food? Then go to the hopping new restaurant district is around Gallery Place/Chinatown, which you can access easily by subway. Try Matchbox, which serves familiar American staples, from pizza to pasta. Or wander around: You'll find B-B-Q joints and other Southern influence cuisine.
Also in the Gallery Place area, across the street from the Verizon Center sports arena, is Jaleo, a Spanish tapas restaurant. Skip the sangria and order tap water instead, and you can get out for about $25 for dinner. For example, a shared plate of house-made grilled pork sausage with sautéed white beans costs $8.50. Cold dishes are a bit cheaper. (jaleo.com).
If you'd like to try Mediterranean style mezze (small portions of Lebanese- and Greek-influenced foods), go a couple of blocks over (just past the National Portrait Gallery) to Zaytina.
While the two restaurants mentioned above are not "cheap", they offer lots of small dishes, giving you lots of different tastes for your money—and will give you a memorable experience—which I consider bang for the buck.
If you prefer to stay near the area near the Capitol Building, which seems to be the area where you're doing business, go over to the restaurant district on Eighth Street Southeast. Besides fine Irish and Thai restaurants, you'll find Belga Cafe, a classy but affordable Belgian restaurant. Try the french fries with mayonnaise, of course.
Be aware that Georgetown is generally overpriced when it comes to restaurants, although the early bird and late night special at Bistro Francais on M Street is a fantastic prix fixe deal. Get a typical four courses, including wine and dessert, for about $20. Call for details and the latest hours. This French restaurant has all the staples of French cuisine, and has been a long hangout for locals and politicos. (The greater D.C. area has one of the largest French populations in our country, so the food at local French restaurants has to be the best that it can be to satisfy the local demanding appetites.)
Another fine French restaurant is over by the Gallery Place/Verizon Center Metro/Subway stop and is called Bistro D'OC. Again, it has a prix fixe menu that will suit your budget. Call for details—the offer is often for pre-theater crowds only, meaning you'll have to eat on the early side.
Have a great trip! Stay warm! . Have a great trip! Stay warm! ve a great trip! Stay warm!
Clemson, Tex.: I'm a flight attendant well aware that I will not be able to get a seat on a plane to D.C. Believe it or not, I have NEVER been there. I have two tickets, courtesy of my congressman, to the inauguration. I realize that I am not going to be sitting at arms-length. I will be attending with my very well-traveled son, 15, who is six feet tall and looks 20. I have a couple of leads of free/cheap places to stay with friends, friends of friends, etc. Which direction from D.C. would be best? Will transport be running on 20-21? I MUST be in D.C. at noon Mon. Jan. 20 to pick up my tickets at the Capitol Hill office of my congressman. I need advice big time. I will be driving from SC. Where and when to park? How many people will be sleeping in cars? What to bring and NOT bring? We are prepared for a lot of walking.
Sean O'Neill: Hi Clemson, Tex.: Lucky you! Many people would be jealous that you have tickets to the big event.
But I think something's wrong with the instructions you've been given. The swearing in ceremony starts at noon on Jan. 20, so you can't possibly be picking up your tickets then.
Anwyay: As you probably know as a flight attendant, Southwest flies into Baltimore Washington airport and Dulles Airport, which are both connected by public transportation with downtown. But you won't find Southwest fares on sites like Expedia or Kayak. You'll have to go to Southwest.com to find them.
Don't expect to drive and park downtown—the sheer volume of people will be enormous. Plan to park miles away and walk. The subway system will be overtaxed that day, so unless you get on a rain at one of the originating destinations in the suburbs, you may not get a place to sit or stand.
Another warning: Cell phone service providers say they cannot promise that cell phones will be working on Inauguration Day due to the sheer volume of traffic and security restrictions—so make sure your son sticks by your side. Another tip for the rest of the year: Only Verizon/AT&T cell phones work inside the subway station.
FYI: A ride-sharing service has been launched to match car drivers with prospective passengers to the presidential inauguration in Washington on January 20. Register at obamainaugurationrideshare.com. A minimum $25 deposit is required to post the offer of a ride or to make a request. "A real human" acts as a matchmaker, reviewing the online listing and helping to put riders in touch with drivers.
Columbus, Ohio: With the new Capitol Visitor Center now open, are tours sponsored by offices of members of Congress still available?
Sean O'Neill: Hello Columbus! And let's hear it for Ohio State football! Yes, the new visitor center is open! Details are here, in this blog post I wrote.
There are limited tickets available at the center, but you can continue to contact the office of your member of Congress to arrange a tour. Word on the street is that contacting your representative remains the best way to get a tour for dates you'll be there if you're an out-of-towner. The phone list for Congressional representatives is here. Call first, don't e-mail first, for the best results.
Pittsburgh, Pa.: My husband and I are planning to go to D.C. for the inauguration and have a hotel room booked in Frederick. Are we nuts to go? Will the infrastructure (e.g. trains, restaurants) be able to support the millions that are expected to descend on D.C. this month?
Sean O'Neill: Howdy Pittsburgh. (Go Steelers!)
Well, you're only partly nuts. Frederick is waaaay out there. Plan to drive or cab it to your nearest subway station. (Maybe your hotel will offer a shuttle service? Call and ask.)
You'll be out in the suburbs far enough that, ironically, you may be one of the only people to get a seat on the train on Inauguration Day!
But expect to have a hassle getting back to your hotel. The metropolitan authorities have warned that the subway system will not be able to handle all the demand, so you may have long, long lines to get your ride back.
It's mainly that ride back (no matter what mode of transportation you take) in the evening or at night that I most worry about for you. The rest of the time, the city will be crowded and festive, but it will be able to handle the revelers.
Don't get intimidated, though. You'll remember the trip for years to come, and it's one of the least expensive trips you could make for a terrific memory—overall, a smart idea for a budget traveler, assuming you don't mind who is becoming president.
Baton Rouge, La.: Our daughter lives in Baltimore, Md., and on our 2 visits we just drove to D.C. using the Washington Baltimore D.C. parkway. The problem occurs once we get to D.C. Where or where do you park? Also, we need suggestions for sightseeing since we'll spend one entire day there and then drive back that night. Thank you, Diane
Sean O'Neill: Greetings Diane,
That's a pretty drive to take from Baltimore, along the Washington Baltimore Parkway.
It's not clear from your question what type of attractions you tend to focus on. I'm going to make my best guess here:
For free parking, there are large free parking lots between the Lincoln Memorial and the Potomac River, plus a few free lots between the White House and the Washington Memorial.
A safe, convenient, and not excessively expensive parking garage is at Union Station. Here's how to get there: When you take the Washington Baltimore Parkway from Baltimore, Route 50 will eventually become New York Avenue. Make a left turn onto North Capitol Street. Drive straight to the Capitol building you'll see ahead of you. Look for signs for Union Station on your left. Depending on traffic flow for the day you arrive, you'll probably have to loop around the front of the station to enter the garage. Once inside the station, know that the subway system is easy and effective to use, as you may know already from past visits—I suggest you consider a multi-use day ticket.
Have a great trip!
Seattle, Wa: Guide books make WA DC seem pretty unsafe (lots of tips for avoiding muggings). We are thinking of taking our 8 and 11 year old boys for mid winter break. How concerned should we be?
Sean O'Neill: The guidebooks are dated. D.C. is essentially made up of two cities—the part that tourists visit, and the part that the rest of the city lives in. Both have record low levels of crime. But crime is almost unheard of in the main tourist grounds (the National Mall, the museums, the Zoo, the downtown subway stations) because there is intense, intense, multiple layers of security patroling the area for both national security, tourism protection, and for the standard municipal protection (street cops).
All that said, law enforcement in D.C. points to two rising trends: Thefts of GPS devices from parked cars, and thefts of MP3 and iPod devices from pedestrians walking in neighborhoods that are sketchy. So if you have a GPS device, don't leave it visible in your car when you leave your car for the day. And ask locals about which neighborhoods are safe for you to visit. You'll find that all the places you want to visit are safe, but they'll point you to the safest routes.
I lived in downtown D.C. for a decade and never hesitated to take Midnight walks down along the National Park at Midnight or along Embassy Row on Massachusetts Ave., and I never once during my stay was mugged, etc.
Have a great trip!
Eaton, Ohio: What is the best way to get from Baltimore-Washington airport to downtown Washington?
Sean O'Neill: Hello Eaton, Ohio,
Thanks for writing!
"best" way to get from BWI to downtown is subjective. What's best for one person isn't best for another. Here are the top options:
Cheapest: For about $5 total point-to-point, one-way, you can take a bus to a subway station and then a subway downtown. Buses depart roughly on the half-hour. Check wmata.com for exact schedules. The bus trip takes about 40 minutes in typical traffic, despite official statements that say it's shorter (though you may be lucky and get a faster ride, depending on when you visit). The train from College Park, Md., takes about another 40 minutes, when you factor in time for waiting to catch the next out-bound train.
Another option: take a free shuttle to the nearby Amtrak/Marc train station. Then take the MARC (or suburban commuter train downtown). This is your next, least-expensive option. Fares are roughly $8 to $20, depending on time of day and how you make your purchase. Buy at the station to save the most money.
Amtrak also departs from this train station. Tickets can be roughly $30 to $60 one way, depending on which train you take.
Cabs also will take you downtown. Expect to pay about $45. It's the most costly option.
Have a great trip!
Orlando, Fla.: What are the name of some really great hotels that are relatively inexpensive yet have great accommodations? We are looking for travel during the summer months and we would prefer that they be located in D.C. and close to the action...i.e. monuments, museums, arts, music...? We got engaged in D.C. almost a year ago and will be getting married in April, and I'm looking to surprise my soon to be wife!; Ssshhhhh... keep this a secret. LOL
Sean O'Neill: Hello Orlando, Fla.,
Congrats on your engagement!
If your soon-to-be-wife wants a hotel that is "close to the action" and has style and panache, you may want to splurge a bit and try one of the boutique Kimpton Hotels around town. The hotels are well located, have funky, silly touches (the Hotel Rouge has dozens of Venus di Milo statues out front and recently had a standing offer of bloody-Marys-and-cold-pizza free for guests in the lobby on Sunday mornings.) You may save by booking directly with the site, though the "specials" offered on their site with "upgrades" etc. may not be worth the extra cash—always cross compare hotel prices with your favorite travel site (Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, Kayak, Mobissimo, etc.)
TripAdvisor.com has top picks for hotels in the D.C. area—you can search by city. So does Hotels.com.
But if you need to keep costs low because of your marriage, you may want to try the Days Inn in Van Ness. It sits above the Metro/Subway stop and is clean, quiet, and affordable. You can get a train ride and be downtown within 20 minutes. But be aware that D.C.'s subway system shuts down between 11:30 and 2pm, depending on the night and the line—so talk to a station attendant in advance if you plan to be coming home late—you may want to cab the two-or-three miles home to Van Ness for a typical price of about $10 to $12 (for two passengers).
Palm Harbor, Fla.: Approximately when are the cherry blossoms blooming in Washington, D.C. Also, a good, reasonable hotel within walking distance of the many attractions (Lincoln Monument, White House, etc.). We would be 2 women coming to see the sights (I have never been to Washington, D.C. We are far from wealthy, so need accommodations that are not going to cost us an arm and a leg. Also, some suggested sight-seeing, other than the usual (although those are defintely in our plans). My friend wants to go to the Indian Exhibit at the Smithsonian (I believe it is there). Would love to be considered for a trip plan. Paula
Sean O'Neill: Paula,
Thanks for your question, and we'll get in touch with you about being a possible guest for our magazine's Trip Coach feature, in which our expert guide coaches real travelers in planning and executing a trip. (For anyone else who would like to be coached, e-mail us your questions—seriously, the more the better—to Letters@budgettravel.com.)
You want magic! There are few hotels that are both located within walking distance of the main attractions and are "reasonably" priced. There's just not enough real estate, and there's too much demand. I've put up friends, with success, at the Hampton Inn downtown. It's nothing spectacular, but it's clean and convenient and within a 15 minute walk of the White House and other sightseeing destinations, but it's also in a "businessy" part of town that is very safe but not very lively.
Don't rule out the suburbs. It's fast to take the subway over from Crystal City, Va., across the Potomac River. See also my earlier comment about the Days Inn in Van Ness, also above a Metro/subway stop.
The National Museum of the American Indian, which you are referring to (I think) is interesting and conveniently located on the National Mall between the Capitol building and the Air & Space Museum. The key thing here is to eat at its CAFETERIA. It has the best cafeteria of all the museums on the national mall for its variety, appearance, and affordability. Menu options include foods from a variety of indigenous peoples, as well as more familiar comfort food.
The cherry blossoms are spectacular. My fondest memories of D.C. are of of walking down to stroll the Tidal Basin, past the Jefferson Memorial, among the crowds, especially as Japanese-style paper lanterns are lit, and leaves from the cherry blossom blow past like a light snow, and everyone is happy and optimistic at the return of spring. There are also parades and parties—see info at the Washington Post's excellent visitor's guide online.
(The Post is Budget Travel's parent company.)
Also, see 100 free things to do here, on a webpage produced by the local tourism office.
Have a great trip!
I'm continuing to take questions... despite our time being up, for the next little while...
Nashotah, Wis.: I've been to D.C. many times and love the city. I'm traveling this week and would like to hit the Newseum, the Portrait Gallery for the Abe Lincoln Photos and see the new Capitol Visitor Center. What else is new/good? Any delicious and affordable restaurants in this area?
Sean O'Neill: Howdy Wisconsin!
Yes, the Newseum has within the past few months re-opened in a brand spanking new, far more convenient location within eyeshot of the National Gallery. (But be aware that its cutting edge exhibits are expensive to see: It costs $20 for adults). See more in my answer above.
The Portrait Gallery was recently reopened after a long refurbishment and looks gorgeous inside.
The National Museum of American History reopened in November after an $85 million makeover. Details in this blog post I recently wrote.
Between April 15-18, Pope Benedict XVI will pay a visit (adw.org, free), saying a Mass at the Nationals Park stadium , which should be christened by the end of March.
On April 12, the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth will be commemorated with a re-creation of contralto Marian Anderson's famous 1939 open-air concert at the Lincoln Memorial. 2009's rendition showcases Denyce Graves, the Chicago Children's Choir, and the Washington National Opera (lincolnindc.com, free and non-ticketed).
Washington, D.C.: Where is a good and reasonable place to stay in order to visit the monument areas of D.C. and the Smithsonian. Also, is there good transportation without using our car? We plan on visiting May or June.
Sean O'Neill: Hello!
Please see my responses above, which offer hotel recommendations, and parking places.
I highly recommend the subway system, called the Metro. It will get you everywhere a typical visitor will want to go. Have a great trip!
Columbus, Ohio: Will be heading to DC for a friend's wedding over the 4th of July holiday. Any tips to avoid high costs on flights and hotels during such a busy time at the nation's capital? Also, what is best way to see the fireworks display?
Sean O'Neill: Hello Columbus!
Ohio is well represented in this chat today.
The fireworks display is always spectacular for the Fourth of July. Great positions to see the event are by the Washington Monument. Arrive by 6pm if you want to get a spot on the ground with a good view. (You'll have to pass through a security screening, so don't bring too much stuff that might cause a problem.) If you're lodging on the other side of the Potomac, go to the viewing spot along by the Marine Corps War Memorial, nicknamed the Iwo Jima memorial.
A hot tip: Musical concerts will accompany the fireworks display, but seating is ticketed. Performances will likely happen around the Capitol building, as in the past. But rehearsals are held the day before. If you're in town that Friday, you may nab free seats to see your favorite entertainers up-close. Keep your eye on the city's tourism site for details as the date approaches.
Book plane tickets and hotels as early in advance as you can because the Fourth is on a Saturday this year, and that will cause increased travel to D.C. on this date.
Calif.: I'm attending the Solar Decathlon October 9-18, 2009. What else is there to do in town while I'm there?
Sean O'Neill: Oh, you must be a pretty smart fellow if you're into the Solar Decathlon. What a great competition! I watched one of the events—never have so many brainy people been gathered together in a public event, perhaps.
Anyway: Look for nightlife options in this article that ran last year in Budget Travel. The info is still up to date, except for some changes in pricing.
And if you're into patriotism, know that the U.S. Air Force Memorial recently debuted on a hilltop in Arlington, Va. You'll see it at night light up across the river from many vantage points in the city. It's worth a visit, along with Arlington Cemetery, of course. 703/247-5808, airforcememorial.org, free.
Galveston, Tex.: We have trip dates of March 25-April 7 with plans to spend at least 4 days in D.C. One goal is to see the cherry blossoms, but would like to avoid the crowds for the actual festival. The other goal is to time our visit for the memorials and Smithsonian, again without crowds and yet get best hotel rates. Obviously, weekend rates are much lower except for the April 4 range. And have read that some Metro lines do not run on weeknds. Suggestions?
Sean O'Neill: Howdy Galveston,
You're going to love springtime in D.C. It's the best time of year to see the city. But that also means it's a peak travel season, including for elementary school trips (which tend to happen during the week) and for locals seeking some sunshine after a long winter (which tends to happen on the weekends). So crowds are unavoidable, I'm afraid.
But sunrise to 10 am is a great time to stroll around without many crowds, any day of the week. And seeing the Lincoln Memorial after the sun goes down is a special treat—and offers a chance for you to be nearly alone with his statue and the copies of his most famous speeches. (Ditto for the Jefferson, FDR, Vietnam, Korean, WWII, and other memorials—in many ways, they are best appreciated at nighttime, when, surprisingly, crowds are few and far between.
As for hotels, please see my answers above. Consider staying in a suburban area (Crystal City, Va., and Van Ness) that is located within walking distance of a subway line.
Subways do run full schedules on weekends on all routes, but these are reduced schedules because of the lack of business commuters. You should find them quite adequate to your plans.
I hope I didn't misunderstand your question.
Thanks for reading, and have a great trip.
Toronto, Ontario: I am a healthy 70 yr old visiting D.C. for one day at the end of March. Where do I park? What do I not want to miss? How do I get around?
Sean O'Neill: D.C. is the only American city that is well-equipped to handle people who are mobility impaired, with wide sidewalks and ample elevators. You did NOT say you were mobility impaired, but I mention it as a reassurance to you that it's easy to get around town. The city is best appreciated on foot and via subway. For ideas, visit washington.org.
Sean O'Neill: I'm afraid I've run out of time to be able to answer all of your questions, but most of the unanswered questions are similar to ones that have already been published above.
Thank you again for reading Budget Travel! We picked D.C. as one of the top 10 budget travel destinations for 2009, so I really hope you visit the city this year!