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Trip Report Epic East Coast Vacation for Family of 5

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This dream for this trip began years ago when we went to Rome. My husband and I would tell each other, “We need to take one more big trip with the kids before it’s too late.” Mostly, our budget allows for camping or more regional trips on the West Coast. Our oldest will be a junior in high school this fall, so time was running out.

I had always wanted to go to New York again, and my brother wanted to join us on a family vacation. His dream was to go to DC. A few college visits also seemed in order to round out our Epic East Coast Vacation.

So our travel group was comprised of my husband and me, DS1 (age 16), DD (age 14) and DS2 (age 11). Due to work, my brother joined us only for the DC portion. This is a nearly 3-week trip....and we will hit Pennsylvania briefly, New York, DC and a bit of Maryland in that order. I will try to break out the hotels so that people looking for that information only can skip the rest.


DAY 1: Pittsburgh

After a red-eye flight, we weren’t expecting this: We loved our view of Pittsburgh with all the bridges as we drove into the city. Lots of cool buildings. DS1 loved his time Carnegie Mellon. It was close to 100 degrees. During one of my son’s interviews I took the other two around the neighborhood, enjoying fro-yo and a great used book store called Caliban. We really enjoyed our dinner at the Oakland outpost of the Primanti Brothers. Fries on a sandwich? Who knew?

Our hotel: Springhill Suites by Marriott. Since it is above retail still under construction, that may be why we were able to get a reasonable rate. But this is a new, stylish property. Extras: The toilet and a pedestal sink were in a separate room than the large shower-tub and counter with a second sink. Also loved the cool glass divider between the sitting area and the beds. This hotel had a better breakfast bar than most. The hotel’s only weakness was the rather small size of the pool. (There is an exercise pool for adults in the nearby athletic club.)

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    DAY 2: Travel and Ithaca, NY

    We left quite early for Ithaca NY and Cornell. Our main snafu of the trip came with our trip route planning. I had done a preliminary map weeks before the trip and decided north on I-79 and east on I-86. We had reprinted our maps the day before leaving home, adding the actual hotel address. I did not compare the new route to what I had previously chosen. Mistake! Since the Springhill Suites is east of Pittsburgh’s city center, Google decided to completely change my route. (I have since played with Google Maps…Google thinks its new route saved me 24 minutes. I doubt it!) Suddenly we were on highways 66, 28 and 219 all the way to I-86.

    Famous sayings from the trip: “Uhh, it looks like our freeway is coming to an end in about five miles.” Honorable mentions: “Can we get past that oil truck before we lose the passing lane?” and “Kids, you’ll probably never drive on this highway again in your entire life.”

    We toughed it out, but lesson learned. From then, I second-guessed Google (and our Navigator we nicknamed “Jill”) against our AAA maps more closely. As another example, I noticed that Google would have had us leave I-86 far sooner and go around the southern end of Seneca Lake. We opted to stay on I-86 and exit in the Elmira area, taking Hwy 13 for a more direct route.

    Cornell was hot, hot, hot. Hard to appreciate when it was shimmering, but yes this campus is a beautiful place. The school had some interesting details. There is a PE requirement for all undergraduates, and a sense of humor regarding the various items placed at the top of their central tower. Their chapel was beautiful (although the campus has always been secular) and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke there. The new freshman village north of campus was also impressive. Afterward, we really liked Aladdin’s Natural Eatery. The tzataki dip with veggies and pita and the great pita sandwiches not to mention the gorgeous desserts. My kids had never seen a cake plated that beautifully; they didn’t want to eat it!

    Our hotel: Country Inn and Suites had a large, warm pool and hot tub adjacent to the pool. Another perk of this property was a decent breakfast spread. It was clean but not surprisingly, as part of the country inn chain, had a more old-fashioned décor. I liked the open wood stairway to the second floor and the wide hallways. Less claustrophobic than a lot of hotel halls. If you are coming to see the waterfalls, one of them is right nearby. The main negative of this hotel was that our suite was somewhat long and narrow. Thus, the window was also narrow for the two rooms, and there wasn’t a lot of room to get around the pull-out couch when it was extended. However, I would definitely stay there again.

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    Long ago memories of our camping trip "out east" from Illinois with 3 kids. Those were the days. We took in the major sites such as Gettysburg. Philadephia (on July 4), Washington, Manhattan, New England. Campgrounds outside the cities and then touring.
    Bill in Boston

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    Thank you all for your encouragement...Ackislander, it's funny but I never used any of those electronic helps for years of travel. My husband is a big fan for local trips, for example, to take our child to a new friend's house. The difference is, we know the structure of our area's roads enough that we would just laugh if we were sent a silly way.

    DAY 3: Travel and New York City
    After an early morning swim, we headed out. Since there is always a lot of conversation about what it’s like to drive into New York City, I will give you our outsiders’ impression in detail. (Note to readers bored by driving details: Skip 3 graphs.)

    This time it was much clearer going to New York City. Besides a little construction around Scranton, Pa., the drive was non-descript. There was a big change as we went through New Jersey in the other drivers’ behavior. Busy and a little pushy with more lanes to watch for. Reminded us of Los Angeles Freeway style experience.

    I had studied both my google maps, the Google direction list and AAA. The only snafu was that Google told me to turn right on Dyer. We did not see signs anywhere before/during/in the tunnel for Dyer. But, we got in the right lane, confident we would see Dyer. We then realized that the right lane would be sending us uptown (not where we wanted to go). Since we were just crawling along, it normally would have been easy to change into the left lane. Unfortunately, two cars were blocking the small triangle of land between the lanes. They had suffered a fenderbender and stopped to exchange information.

    We took the uptown ramp, but I had studied the city enough to know we could do three sides of a rectangle to get back to 34th Street. The driving was not very difficult for my husband. Paying attention to the amount of pedestrians crossing mid-street was the challenge.

    We were staying at the Affinia Dumont, and their staff came out immediately to help us pull the bags onto a cart. My teenager rode off with Dad down to 22nd Street to drop the car off at Dollar. They found it fine. They actually got a little turned around walking back. Ah well, can’t have everything.

    Our hotel: The Affinia Dumont If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the New York crew on Fodors’ was confused. New York has small rooms? Really? Our room in the Affinia Dumont might be among the most spacious I’ve ever had. I did call a few days before our trip to confirm we would be getting two queens and not a king bed because we were a party of 5. When I came in, the guy at the front desk said “Oh, I remember talking to you. I noted it so we would save you a good room.” The view from the 21st floor included a straight shot of the Chrysler Building and interesting rooftop gardens across the street. On their website, a full view of the Chrysler Building is an upgrade. We were grateful to get it! David, the concierge was extremely helpful our first day as well. I was able to go over some questions about the Metro and our destinations.

    Affinia Dumont (more): The main room included a sleeper sofa, and even when it was later folded out, there was still plenty of space to move about the room. Also, I tried lying down on the foldout bed and the mattress was actually comfortable! I didn’t feel like I was sinking to the metal frame (as is so often the case with foldout beds). There was a large flat-screen TV in both bedroom and living room. Finally, our kitchen was a full kitchen—ie a stove with oven, full-sized refrigerator, microwave and even a dishwasher. As to quality, the finishes and furniture in the bedroom, living room and bath were all updated and very current. The kitchen was all-white, and a little less trendy. But it was immaculate and everything worked properly, so we were happy with it.

    We headed out to Food Emporium, thanks to Fodorites for the rec. We bought food to make two dinners, plus breakfast items and snacks. While yes, prices were higher than back home, it tends to cost us about $60-80 at even the cheapest restaurants, so we were pleased to be so close to a good-sized grocery store. I tried to pick up some things we don’t have back at home—everyone loved the challah bread. With five breakfasts and four dinners eaten in our room, the additional cost of a room with a full kitchen more than paid for itself.

    We finished the day with an evening trip to the Empire State Building. It was such an adventure being just five blocks away from a world- renown landmark. Thank you all for telling me repeatedly, “Buy tickets in advance.” I figure it saved us waiting behind about 100-200 people. Just a guess as we walked past the mob. My kids thought that was awesome too.

    The main deck was very crowded. I had bought tickets to the upper observatory as well. It turned out to be a great move because very few people were in the upper observatory, and my youngest child could see out the windows without people getting in front of him. It was also easier to find someone on staff to identify different buildings or bridges. It had been dusk when we arrived on the main bridge and were able to see buildings and identify them. By now, it was completely dark and we enjoyed finding the lights of Time Square and the beautiful bridges.

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    PS to respond to Bill...I think it's awesome you were able to camp and see such famous sites as your day events. Someone was trying to work out a campsite for an RV outside of New York a couple of months ago. I haven't seen them report back but it would be interesting to hear how it comes out.

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    The reason the Affinia "rooms" are so large is that it's a converted apartment house. (No so large when you think about living in it full time, is it?)

    Many of the Affinias are the same - as long as you don;t want full hotel services (room service etc).

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    DAY 4: New York, the new and the old

    After an easy bus ride uptown, we were at the Sony Wonder Lab. It was enjoyable, but if your kids are pretty high-tech savvy, they will find portions of this activity great and portions behind the times. The collection of phones and gaming machinery over the ages was fun. The quirky music lab and the animation stations were worth the stop. OTOH, the heart surgery stations had a responsiveness level on the controllers that was at least 10 years out of date compared to modern gaming. Very poor. Best part was the newscast, which had my younger son bobbing around reporting on a hurricane. We laughed hard when we saw it played afterward.

    We then had lunch at Mimi’s Pizza about four blocks from the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum. DS1 decided we needed to break away from the pepperoni the younger ones want. I think we had a prosciutto combination. Having been to Italy, we can say that while it wasn’t the same as in Italy, it was really good pizza. (We won't pretend to be experts on New York style pizza and whether this meets the criteria!)

    The Met was such a different experience than when I went years ago. My whole interest had been the paintings. The kids wanted Egypt, the armor and Middle Ages, some Greek antiquities. My oldest son actually enjoyed the Schiaffarelli/Prada exhibit. His comment: “They are explaining their clothes and their relevance to the world. It was interesting to hear.”

    Then, the gift shop. The first thing my daughter notices is, a gorgeous puzzle of a unicorn. “We didn’t see that” she says authoritatively. Yup, we had seen the entire medieval collection sans unicorns. I knew with a sinking feeling that we were Cloister-bound. At least it was a Friday and I knew the Met was open late. We split forces, and my husband and oldest took off for the hotel. I went to the information desk to find out details. Although I had read the website, it turned out that The Cloisters still closed at 5 pm.

    So, disappointed, we also headed back in pouring rain. After grilled cheese and tomato soup, we were re-energized and walked up to the Morgan Library for a Friday night free visit. We loved it. My oldest focused on the Winston Churchill exhibit. We meandered over to the library. The letter from Madison to the Marquis de Lafayette, Webster’s Dictionary and an excerpt of Poe’s were highlights. Also an early version of Washington’s inauguration speech. Because this site was far less busy than many tourist sites, we were able to read the words that Churchill, Washington and the rest wrote without being mobbed.

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    DAY 5: Statue cruises and a night on Broadway

    I wake up early, so I actually woke them before I headed down to Guy and Gallard to pick up my coffee, which was my stop every morning in New York. We headed to the subway for our trip to Battery Park. We had 9 am tickets to board the ship to Liberty and Ellis islands. We got there much earlier than needed. I had hoped to see a bit of Battery Park while it was still cool but before we knew it, they hustled us on to the 8:30 ship. My husband is quite sure there were far less people at the 9 am, but really I don’t know that.

    We did go up on the top deck, and per the comments here, as well as from our concierge, the views are gorgeous as you approach the Statue of Liberty. It was pretty crowded on our boat so we did need to get off to get family pics in front of the statue. Ranger tour was the right amount of information and well said too, mixing the construction of the statue, the history and how people feel about it.

    Ellis Island was a very personal stop since I have family who came through here. I highly recommend this landmark as you do get a sense of place if you take the time to wander around and nose in different rooms. The exhibit hall is excellent but don’t get overwhelmed reading. Absorb the place. The cafeteria here was uncommonly good, if you get the specials of the day (for us, the Panini). We headed back early afternoon for some downtime and dinner.

    We took the subway to Times Square to see Nice Work if You Can Get It. Gotta say, Times Square was not my family’s cup of tea. We were trying to get to our show and of course it’s so crowded. And the Elmo impersonator was acting oddly, and my husband heard him first and kept us moving. So we didn’t enjoy just looking around. We later saw Elmo on the news when we were in DC. He’d been arrested. My husband said “yup, that was him!”

    Nice Work if You Can Get It was a great, classic show. All of us loved it, and that includes my sons (ages 16 and 11). My daughter put her money down for a disk to be sent to our house; that’s how much she loved it. This is a classic musical with all the pieces that traditionally made musicals beloved: great music sung well, large dance numbers, great humor and comedic timing, improbable plot twists. If you want something avante garde, or with a stripped down modern set, or delving into psychological drama or deep feeling…umm, you will hate this show.

    Details: I loved Kelli O’Hara, her voice was great and she had the right amount of aplomb to carry off her character. After loving all Matthew Broderick’s movies it was great to see him in person. He is a master at comedic timing and his dancing was solid. His singing, while pleasant, was not equal to O’Hara’s. The other thing we all just really loved were the supporting actors—and waiting at the back door in the crowd, we were pleased to meet Michael McGrath (Cookie), Chris Sullivan (Duke) and Judy Kaye (Broderick’s mother). We had dessert at Europa Café—cupcakes or cheesecake. Quite good, but I completely forgot about Junior’s…I guess a future trip.

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    DAY 6-New York, Moments of Beauty and a Wild Ride

    We started off the morning at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. We decided on the earlier Mass so we could fit in Central Park before it got too hot. Mass was good but frankly the cantor and the organ appeared not to be very together. Both were individually excellent so it is probably a question of acoustics and sound system. We did take some pictures in front of Rockefeller Center but didn’t stay.

    We took the bus up to Central Park and walked over to the Boathouse to rent the bikes. A fundraising event had just ended and there were no cars on the street. It was a great time to bike the road all the way around the park. The kids really love to bike and enjoyed the length of the trip. My 11-year-old was a little tired afterward. He is an athlete and quite strong, so I would not recommend a younger child to attempt the road. I believe a very young child could bike slowly on the paths while you walk alongside, but please check with the park before renting a bike.

    We ate lunch at the casual back half of the boathouse. The hamburgers were small and so-so, but the daily special sandwiches were quite good. From here we walked through parts of Central Park and saw the fountain and some meandering paths before making our way past Strawberry Fields. My younger two kids took off with my husband to explore the American Museum of Natural History.

    My teen and I headed off to shop for electronics. He really loved B&H. He found a laptop that was quite a steal but not quite what my husband wanted. But he had great fun going through them all with the salesclerk who clearly enjoys his technology too. We also hit the speaker and audio area, the electric keyboards and more. Then it was off to the East Village to a smaller shop I found. But it turned out to be mainly Japanese high-tech gadgets (think cute USB drives), so that was a bust. But we were quite near one of Adu’s list of ice cream shops, Sundaes and Cones so we walked a few blocks over. Really enjoyed the ginger ice cream! Never had anything quite like it.

    We also stopped in the Best Buy for me to find a screensaver for my phone (no luck) and him to surreptitiously get a few minutes of charge on his phone. And I should mention that the subway stops along this line had some especially lovely tilework.

    From there we headed downtown to J&R, a quirky place literally across the street from St. Paul’s Chapel. J&R was about 5 floors housed in what looked like an old Woolworth’s or Newberry’s Department store with skinny little escalators. (By the way, the second floor is all kids’ toys, and not just electronic ones.)

    I went to St. Paul’s Chapel while he shopped and explored. It was a fascinating mix of old, old New York history and modern reflection and the story of 9/11. It was a great opportunity to put together many of the images and articles I had read into a more cohesive picture. When I came back to J&R, my son was asking a sales clerk questions about routers.

    We headed back to our hotel, after one of my favorite days of the trip. We loved seeing the neighborhoods and the wonderful tile artwork in the subway stations.

    Meanwhile, my husband and the younger two kids were out enjoying Dum Dum and Rexie and all the rest at ANMH. I got a text, “Where should we eat? They’re starved.” I text “Grab hot dogs at Gray’s Papaya.” But autocorrect sent it as “Graize Papaya.” My husband tried to search that name and thought I was nuts. Fortunately he went back and asked at the AMNH desk and they gave him directions. For their trip back, my husband realized that DS1 and I had been doing the navigating. The 11-year-old took over and helped him find the subway lines back to Grand Central to transfer back to the Local. You never know what the kids are capable of until you vacation outside your comfort zone.

    My oldest and I went to the Second Avenue Deli. He had pastrami and I had a favorite from my college era, blintzes--blueberry and cheese. A great meal.

    When everyone was back at home the kids wanted to hang out in the hotel and watch sports or text. So my husband and I headed out to Cask for wine and dessert. A cute restaurant/bar near the Dumont. Would not say it is destination-worthy if you aren’t nearby, but worth a visit if this is your neighborhood.

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    DAY 7: Downtown, the 9/11 Memorial and a lot of Retro Candy

    We had been on the go for almost a week now, and everyone wanted to sleep in a little later. I got up early and instead of just getting coffee at Guy and Gallard, I headed up to New York Bagels & Café on First Avenue and got a good mix of bagels with cream cheese and lox.

    We voted, and no one wanted to trek over the Brooklyn Bridge. I ordered tickets that morning to the World Trade Center online. We took the subway downtown and stopped in just briefly at St. Paul’s Chapel for the family to see it. Then we went to the World Trade Center Memorial Unfortunately, my order wasn’t a valid one as I had never received a confirmation number. Same-day tickets were available but required a trek back to their ticketing office. With a little time to kill, my daughter and I went into Century 21 for some shopping and the guys hunted for souvenirs, finding a baseball shop with a Mantle shirt for Grandpa.

    We really appreciated what was done with the World Trade Center site. The size of the fountains is really impressive. Also the sound of the fountains dampened out the chatter and street noise and gave a sense of peace. The museum was not open yet but from our perspective the combination of St. Paul’s and the fountains was the right amount of exposure for a child visiting.

    We headed to Wall Street—although people here said it would be boring. It wasn’t. Seeing the front of the stock exchange was cool if you read that news regularly. While sitting on the steps across the street, we discovered we were at another historic site. We poked our heads inside and it was the building that once held the US Treasury and that the site was where the first US Congress met in 1789. We saw the large stone step where Washington had stood for the first oath of office and the Bible that he had sworn upon. Honestly, it was a really great find that didn’t take all day to see or require standing in a line. Paired with the Morgan Library earlier it was a nice amount of history in smaller bites.

    We had eaten breakfast late, but it was moving toward mid-afternoon. I had no great ideas for lunch nearby. And, we wanted to stop at Economy Candy next, so we plowed on. The kids loved me for stopping and loved Grandma for the spending money in their pockets. What an odd little store. I saw more retro candy than I could remember, although I remember my mom always had Dentyne gum in her purse and picked some up for her. I also loved the chance to Cross Delancey, myself. Didn’t go find the pickle guy, though.

    We then took another subway to the Village for Joe’s Pizza. Good thing it was close to our subway stop because the rain was really coming down. There was no one in the shop and the staff told us that with our size family to order a whole pizza. We also bought an extra couple of slices. Great meal. I had hoped to explore Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park but the rain started in again, and that killed my plan.

    We took the subway back and although it was rush hour, it wasn’t too crazy. We weren’t hungry since we ate lunch so late. After some time to recharge, we asked who wanted to visit Grand Central Terminal. Since it was so prominently featured in Madagascar, my youngest was game to go. He got a special treat when we visited the huge Apple Store up on the large balcony area. Thanks to the Fodor’s posters who advised this Apple branch over the 5th Avenue one. I popped by Magnolia Bakery in the food court before it closed to pick up a few things. For those who want a moderate—not expensive meal out—I think you could eat well your entire trip in this food court. It all looked really good, and no national chains.

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    >The 11-year-old took over and helped him find the subway lines<

    Humbling experience, it is, to rely on a child for navigation. My then 12-year old DD navigated the subway in NYC, and most recently, at 17, navigated the alleyways of Venice for her geographically-challenged mother.

    Reading your report makes me want to go back to New York!! :)

    Carry on......

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    Great report. Minor correction, Second Avenue Deli does not serve any dairy products like cheese blintzes so what you had was probably tofu or other faux cheese. Interesting that it was good enough to fool you !

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    Had to laugh about the New Jersey driving observations.....I am a Jersey Girl and I am not afraid to drive anywhere. You have to have a "set" to drive in this part of the country. Love your trip report.

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    Thanks, you guys. If you caught my comment on the Lounge, my dad had heart surgery, and my son had his wisdom teeth out just before school started. I haven’t had a lot of sleep and now know the shortcuts to the hospital. I also have been back to the oral surgeon a few times. I finally sat down longer than 10 minutes to scan the threads and will get this rolling again. Fair warning, though, we may have a few lags still. Before, I had written quite a bit for myself and was only modifying it for Fodors. We will hit a point in the report soon where I’m writing the last days from scratch.

    To answer comments:

    Second Ave. Deli, Yes, Nyer, I was taken in by the parve cheese, although when I think back, my son wasn’t too hot on it when he tried it. I had always seen vegetarian “meats” or “cheeses” spelled differently or with an asterick. I did like the blueberry best, but I always do. The parve acted as a foil to the sweet blueberry so it worked.

    I think you would also enjoy driving Los Angeles then, familythattravels. That’s where I had to get over my fears as a young adult and just go for it.


    A few general thoughts as I wrap up the New York segment:

    My husband had traveled so much as a military kid, he really wasn't that into traveling when I met him. And he'd been in big cities like Taipei, which was not what it is now. So over the years, when I’d throw out the idea of going to New York, it just didn’t appeal to him. He became more receptive to the idea of New York after a trip to China last year for work. He really enjoyed the vibrancy of Shanghai and the history of Beijing. Still, even late into our planning, he was trying to squeeze a day or two out of our city time to do Niagara Falls. My teenagers were resoundingly "No! We want to see New York City!"

    DH not only ended up liking New York City, he more than once mentioned "when we come back some day, we'll have to see..."

    The subway and bus system was one of the things that won DH over. He is always trying to make the systems he does at work easy for users; he thought the system was highly functional. In some cases the stations weren't too lovely but in other cases, the tile was gorgeous. And we rode on new, clean buses. Never did we feel unsafe.

    I found myself looking around at a lot of details this trip. The longer you live and read and watch movies the more you realize that references to New York are imbued throughout our culture. On my first trip years ago, I remember spotting the names of streets I knew in songs, like Bleecker Street (a lesser known great song by Simon and Garfunkel).

    Tip to future NY tourists: If there were one thing I’d like to have done more of, it was to wander through more of Lower Manhattan, especially the Village, to find some of those inspirations from music and pop culture. At the same time, I’d explore some of those neighborhood shops and food specialty places like Adu posts. Because the population is so dense, it can support a large number of thriving independents. I didn’t get to the music shops—another trip—but we did make to the techie ones for my son. As travelers, we can get so caught up in what we “ought” to see, but New York is definitely a place to step back and see what you “want” to see. Whether you have a hobby, a passion, a favorite cuisine, check ahead of time to see what New York offers, and make room for it in your itinerary. It will be a nice counterpoint to the main tourist sites.

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    The good news is, they caught my dad's problem before he was in heart failure. Also great is that he is healing okay so far. It's just that he is a very active guy and is ready to go back to work on the farm...my mom really has her hands full. But yeah, another trip would be a nice diversion!

    Here's another round.

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    DAY 8—Headed to DC, but we can’t leave New York without…

    Visiting the Cloisters. Yup. My daughter didn’t whine about it, but she had clearly been disappointed at the Met. And my husband says, “This is why we weren’t supposed to take the train to DC.” We rented a car from Budget (a Mazda) and instead of leaving the city we drove uptown to the Cloisters. We did not pay the full recommended admission for the Met since we had done so a couple days before. We loved our hour or so at this enchanting spot, including the highlight, a room full of unicorn tapestries.

    Tip: If you have a daughter, don’t overlook the unicorn angle of this site. And for young readers, be sure to pick up Blizzard of the New Moon, one my favorites in the Magic Treehouse series.

    Leaving New York City, we took the George Washington Bridge. It was a successful trip to New York. As mentioned, my husband had not been keen to go to New York City, and he left it really loving it and wanting to come back. Another sweet goodbye touch was when my children got up early with me, and said “today we want to go buy your coffee with you.” The cashier at Guy and Gallard seemed pleased to meet them and said she’d miss me when I said it was our last day.

    The drive to Washington DC was straightforward. We drove into DC via Silver Springs area, exit 25B. My husband had noticed University of Maryland on the computer science lists, but we talked him out of a detour that day. The only odd thing the entire trip was the middle-lane system in DC where the direction of the lanes changes depending on the time of day. We were unable to get an Easy-Pay box for tolls for this rental car, so we had to go through all the booths. Tip to West Coast people who aren’t used to tolls, bring enough cash! We spent somewhere between $21-30 on tolls total.

    Our hotel: The Savoy Suites It is on an odd corner lot and the hotel is kind of shoe-horned in, but they have made good use of their space. The hotel had free parking and free (but slow) wi-fi. This was one large room with two queen beds and a rollaway bed. The kitchenette, while sporting more modern dark cabinetry and trendy styling was much smaller than our prior hotel—a half-size fridge, no oven and only two burners. Still, we could make it work. One problem though was that there was no table or desk for the kids to sit at or a coffee table to kneel at for eating cereal. We asked, and they brought us a small table and two chairs for the duration of our stay. The shower was kind of mod with a clear glass wall, but no door or curtain where you step in. We also used the hotel laundry in the basement and the shuttle to Georgetown and the Metro. The hotel has a conference room and was hosting a small conference (100-200 people) the days we arrived. We also met a fair number of flight attendants and people attending conferences elsewhere in DC. Clearly the hotel had a good name on both those circuits.

    Savoy Suites contd: Tourists ideally should seek a hotel closer in, but this is still a pleasant area if you can’t find one in your budget. If you’re a jogger and it’s better jogging weather than what we got, you will like your proximity to the Upper Northwest residential neighborhood. It’s beautiful. In fact, if you like to jog, right now, this is a far better choice than staying by the National Mall (see later report). The Savoy is also a nice option if you do want free parking. It’s an underground parking and the ramps are not wide enough for two-way. We always lightly tapped our horn before going up or down a level. Some parking spots are kinda small but there were enough that we always found one for our van.

    We shopped at Safeway for dinner and groceries, and picked up my brother from the church rectory where he would be staying. Note: Without a car, Whole Foods is closer and more reasonable to walk than Safeway.

    After dinner in our hotel room, we drove the rental car to Union Station to return it. We took the Dupont Circle at least three times with turn-around detours before exiting it correctly. Our phone Navigator, Jill, was very patient with us although we weren’t with her. Finding the rental car return entrance was also a needle in a haystack despite my son and I both searching for it. We had called Budget that day but the description of where to turn it in was not precise enough to really help. I called again because we were getting near 10 pm—and out of time to turn it in. They tried to help.

    The guys at Budget were a riot once we made it. Kidding us, and joking about DC streets. We doublechecked our car rental for later that week before leaving the station via the Metro. We walked back to our hotel through a lovely neighborhood since we’d missed the last shuttle at 10 pm. It was about a mile and a half and a good test. Not something we wanted to do regularly, but good to know we could do it if necessary.

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    DAY 9, Wednesday—Georgetown, the Tombs and the Mounds of Dirt

    We took a shuttle from our hotel directly to Georgetown University. My brother joined us via the Georgetown shuttle at Dupont Circle. We were really early. My oldest had an assignment for an online course he was working on and wandered into a computer lab where he somehow got a machine. The younger two and I explored the nearby neighborhood. We loved the row houses and the trees. The Georgetown tour was one of the most enjoyable activities we did in DC. My oldest has decided the program is not the right fit for him. My younger two loved everything about it. The speakers from around the world, the focus on community service, the traditions, the beautiful campus. With the exception of two National Park tour guides, the Georgetown student leading our tour was probably the best guide we had over our three weeks. I bet she goes far in life!

    We ate lunch at Tombs restaurant, a Georgetown tradition. Food was decently done pub food and the ambiance great. But, it took an hour and a half to eat lunch and this was after the main rush was over. I can’t recommend it if you are on a time crunch.

    We walked down to the main street and took a city bus to the Smithsonian. The Circulator had been recommended to us, but people at the bus stop told us that the Circulator was usually packed, had no a/c and would take longer to get there. So we sprang for the city bus. Sadly the paper tickets we’d bought at the metro station didn’t work on the bus.

    Okay, here’s the truth. My first view of the United States Capitol was framed by large mounds of dirt and construction vehicles. I took a picture because that was our family’s reality. It was the biggest let-down of the trip. I had known about the Washington Monument (earthquake damage) and the Statue of Liberty repairs. But despite hours of research, I never saw a current picture of what the Mall actually looked like in spring 2012, and that it would look just about as attractive as our local highway expansion. Even the areas where no work appeared to be taking place, they didn’t bother to water the lawns and make it presentable. In short, I would have liked to see this article back in March while trip planning.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/11/us/national-mall-dotted-with-construction-projects.html

    Note to Fodors’ editors: When a major tourist attraction is closed, please note it in your Destinations Section. You did this well for the Statue of Liberty in New York, with both closure date and anticipated opening date. I don’t really see a true entry for the National Mall anywhere. Nor are the Mall’s monuments listed under either memorials/monuments or under military sites.

    We spent the afternoon and evening at Air and Space and American History. They were great and we didn’t entirely finish what we wanted to see of either one (although we were close with American History). The Star Spangled Banner display and the Thomas Jefferson Monticello exhibits were the most moving for me. The nails the slave boys hammered were the one thing my oldest son really was moved by. Oddly since I had seen the American History Museum’s traveling tour, it stole the thunder from some of the favorites here. Dorothy’s shoes? Seen ‘em. Presidential dresses? Glad to see the rest, but not quite the same excitement level.

    Air and Space—Loved the Wright exhibit and some of the war planes. Disappointed by the planet area; felt the information was outdated compared to what NASA has discovered in the last 10-20 years. My younger son was with me, and he also noticed that the description of how ancient peoples studied the stars and planets completely focused on Europe.

    One advantage to a summertime trip, is that the most popular of the Smithsonian museums will have certain nights open until 7 pm, not 5 pm. So check the website before you go.

    We took the metro back, caught the hotel shuttle and made dinner in our room’s kitchenette.

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    Day 10—Thursday Where Laws are Made (and Ruled on)
    We saw on the news that the Supreme Court would announce the results of the Healthcare Case the next morning. We were due at the Capitol Building for an 11:10 am tour. My daughter really wanted to get up early and watch the announcement. She is just more fascinated by American history, the courts, etc. So my husband took her and the earlybird son to the Supreme Court.

    My son, brother and I all got to our Capitol Building Tour only to be told that they were not letting us stay. We all had to leave while they dealt with a security risk. My husband had already gone through security with the younger two kids and was waiting for us inside. We texted and called back and forth. What it turned out is that regularly, it seems, people leave lunches and backpacks outside of the Capitol Building hoping to come back for them later. Meanwhile, someone else finds it and reports it to the Capitol Police, who shut the area down until they go through it. Generally it’s literally someone’s food or drink bottles, but the Capitol Police always have to treat it seriously.

    Since my brother, my son and I were stuck on the outside of the Capitol anyway, we mosied over to the Supreme Court where people were speaking, protesting the healthcare decision, cheering the healthcare decision, waving flags, the whole bit. It was great to see although pretty hot out. We had guzzled what water we had when in the security line and there really is nothing around.

    They finally cleared the threat and let us into the security line. We had to throw out our EMPTY water bottles. Other than that, we passed quickly. The lady in front of my brother, however, must have stolen half the stuff from her hotel’s breakfast bar. The guard kept pulling out more and more stuff—even disposable jellys. And it took forever.

    Finally we caught up with my husband who had befriended the bored staff inside the Capitol Visitor Center. They had a new timed ticket for us all and off we went. I thought the film was helpful and our guide courteous and well informed, but I guess I wanted more about the historic events that took place in these rooms rather than how it was built.

    Sadly, I realized I should have ordered passes to the galleries from our senator or congresswoman because those weren’t included in the tour. A guide (not ours) kindly gave us some to the House. We went in and saw the debate on the Holder Contempt of Court bill. It was fascinating to watch. The best part was when the Democrats insisted on a full vote and we got to see the U.S. Reps coming pouring in the doors to vote. They didn’t sit down after voting either. They walked around and talked to different groups. It was like it was a cocktail party and the Speaker was just an irritant they ignored. We saw essentially the “vote to hold a vote” and then they started voting on other stuff—maybe since they’d gotten a good crowd? We watched one rep mistakenly vote against student loan bills and then watched the vote switch to a Yes. We wished we could have heard that conversation. Only the Ron Paul contingent voted against student loans. It was really fun and we know we were lucky to see a session with serious action. Still, I’d suggest you do some investigating and get passes if your kids are the right age and well behaved. It was a highlight of our DC week.

    We ate lunch in the Capitol’s cafeteria. Not amazing but better than walking through the hot streets looking for an alternative.

    We then went through the underground passage to the Library of Congress. A much quicker route. They had just enough room for two of us on the final tour of the day.

    My youngest had been looking forward to the Library tour. It proved to be the weakest tour of our entire trip. For entertainment value, we have loved kidding about it. I believe, to his defense, the guide was a volunteer. We started off with a quiz: Where was the first Capitol of the United States? And my son was excited to announce: “New York.” And another lady shouts out “Philadelphia” and the guide says “Yes, it’s Philadelphia” and cuts off further discussion by launching into his story. During a break as we walked through the hall, I explained to him that it really was New York and I showed him Wikipedia on my smart phone. His answer? “Well Philadelphia’s the one that matters.” He also didn’t seem inclined to see the photos I had of where Washington was inaugurated; just shut me right down. So we have a lot of jokes about how the guy at the Library of Congress might want to read some of the volumes in there.

    Overall, the other big problem with this tour is that it focuses far more on the construction and materials of the Library of Congress, rather than the collection of the Library of Congress. So if you want to know where the marble in the floor comes from and how it was shipped here, and what the different paintings depict, then the general tour is for you. We wanted to know what the collection contains and how it was housed and archived and preserved, and how the LOC is handling all the new media in today’s world. I was told that focus was something you’d find on a a special tour and that you need to order such a tour from your congressional representative or senator.

    After such a long day, it was nice to head back to our hotel and eat in our unit. We watched TV looking for us in front of the Supreme Court, but no luck. Our youngest was up on my husband’s shoulders, so maybe somebody saw him!

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    Friday—Melting in the heat, we head to Hershey

    We rented a Mini-Van for the rest of our DC trip. Since we had free parking, we had a great deal to rent for a week. And we headed off to Hershey Pennsylvania to beat the heat.

    I find that most amusement parks have lots of details available about the rides. As a West Coast person, I would say this is a great park, both for younger kids and for teens and well worth visiting for a day. The extensive water park was perfect given the heat and we did not get there early enough to enjoy all the regular rides. In fact, this is the number one activity I would add to a summertime family trip to DC. Just a great changeup from the monuments and the tours.

    We stayed until 10 pm closing and drove back to DC. Although I was exhausted, I was jarred awake by the intense lightning storm that started almost immediately after we drove away from the park. We also discovered that our rental van—a Dodge Caravan—will light up the dash when you turn the car on in the dark, but that does NOT mean it will automatically turn on the headlights. So someone flashed us and we were shocked to figure out that our headlights were OFF. Otherwise a great vehicle for us, but would like to save someone else!

    After miles of lightning, the weather turned to pouring rain sometime around the state line into Maryland and continued to some level all the way to DC. As we got close to DC we were saw a lighted sign mentioning a tree down. That was the understatement of our trip. After Silver Springs exit we had to turn around several times to get my brother back to his lodgings. Some of the streets we had been driving were not huge streets and they were simply closed. We noticed some of the neighborhoods were super-dark and realized there were power outages. So we got my brother to his place off California Ave. and then headed back up Massachusetts. No dice: It too was completely closed due to a tree down. So we followed other people through some cut-throughs to Wisconsin and made it to our hotel.

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    Interesting to read about your DC visit. that's too bad u didn't get to c the Mall once it was finished later this summer. It really was in dire need of renovation. Sounds like U were here during the Dercho storm in June?

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    Yes, it was the Derecho storm! But we had no idea how big it was, or how unusual it was at the time. It rains a lot in the Northwest (not nearly so much lightning) so we figured it was just a summer rainstorm.

    I'm sure we'll make it back to the Mall someday, but preferably any of the other three seasons. In a way that might be nicer. We can enjoy some of the secondary museums but not feel overwhelmed.

    Will update later today.

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    Day 12—Washington DC, Moving Trees, a White House tour and the Scenic Journey of 5Alive’s Cellphone

    The next morning I walked down to Starbucks and was stunned to find a long line in the store. It turns out once off Wisconsin Avenue, the neighborhood was out of power. But we had no Internet or TV to learn this, and I don’t remember even a stack of newspapers in our hotel.

    When I got home from vacation, I read more about the 4 million without power and the 104 degree temperatures in DC that we had missed by going to the water park:
    http://abcnews.go.com/US/derecho-storm-ravaged-washington-area/story?id=16696593#.UFJIzLKPWSo

    http://news.yahoo.com/storm-hits-washington-dc-area-thousands-without-power-035759980.html

    We had a noon White House tour, and wanted to show up by 11:30. We arrived for the 10:30 hotel shuttle to be told it was full. So we drove to the Metro stop but couldn’t find a parking spot in the neighborhood. Wait! My husband said. Look at all those tree branches. None of them are that big. Couldn’t we consolidate them and squeeze a spot? So it was all hands on deck to make room for the Caravan.

    And then off to the Metro and the White House. We hiked it and made our noon time with a few minutes to spare only to be told “You can’t take the backpack in. Or even your daughter’s purse.” (Her purse was one of those dinky bags teens carry.) Sure enough, I hadn’t read the fine print. I couldn’t bring my camera in, either. Our phones could be in our pockets, but if they caught us taking pictures, that would cause security to take them. Okay, so we all look at each other and my husband, the good sport says “I’ll take all the stuff, you go on without me.” We went in and at the inside checkpoint the guide mentioned “if you all finish before 1 pm, I’ll let your husband go after you’re through.” Then, while in a short line, I got a text “I have checked our stuff. Can I still come?” I asked the guard and he said “yes, his name’s on the list.” So my husband made it after all.

    The White House was a really pleasant experience. We didn’t feel herded along, and while the guards don’t volunteer a lot of information, if you ask them questions, they will answer them quite fully. It was fun to hear about the dinners were put on in the dining room, and how the large events are held outside on the White House Lawn these days. Near the end of the tour, there is an odd vent up high on the wall. We asked about it, and the vent was a peephole for the First Lady to look down on the crowd to make sure she did not have the same colored gown as someone else at the party. Too fun.

    We picked up our checked bag from a location I am not supposed to name and wandered around. We ate lunch at a Corner Bakery I had researched, and it was really just a perfect lunch spot for our needs. Breakfast foods, lunch foods fresh and well made. This one has a press theme as it is in the Press Club building.

    My oldest son was ready to be done touring today and headed back with my brother who had some work to get done. We headed toward the Mall, stopping at the Reagan Building to see a fragment of the Berlin Wall. Then on to the Smithsonian to see the Girl Scout exhibit we’d missed before—thank you, Juliet Low! The IMAX film on the Hubble was really enjoyable at Air and Space.

    We tried to find the Metro home. Finally we found a station up near 7th where the staff informed me that the Red Line only runs infrequently on Saturday afternoons due to maintenance. We were near the Verizon Center and took a cab. It had to be the worst cab I’ve ever been in, and the A/C did not work well at all. And the driver didn’t spend much time allowing us to get out. I realized, “He’s driving off with my phone!” I was stressed. I never seem to update my contacts or my pictures on it in the best of times. My husband asked DD to start calling my phone number with her phone. She was persistent. And after I’d given up, and were driving away with our van from the tree-limbed street, a lady answered her ring. She said “I can help you get your phone back. I know how this feels.” So she called us back and said “I’m going on a Potomac cruise and I’ve arranged with the ticket-taker to hold your phone until you get here.” She mentioned that the taxi driver hadn’t been too keen on helping me out. Well, I was just thrilled she DID. And so after all that work to leave downtown, back we went, picking up my brother and DS1 on the way.

    We noticed all the curving roads along the Potomac and the small parks. For now, Dinner. I had wanted to try a new cuisine and hopefully see a new part of town for our dinner out. I decided on Bardia from the Fodor’s Guide book. It’s a New Orleans Café in Adams Morgan. The kids explored new foods to varying extents. My oldest went for the jambalaya. My DD loved the breakfast foods and sausage. The hot beignets were a fun surprise for them to end the evening.

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    dina4, we requested the tickets about five months before our trip. Go to your congressman's website and there will be information there on how to apply. You can also request a Capitol tour and a Library of Congress tour through his or her office.

    Lee Ann

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    Day 13—When the best of plans…
    The day began well. My brother had arranged to assist at Mass Sunday at the Mass at National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. This is considered the “national cathedral” for American Catholics. This is a church that has moments of beauty and other places where you can see that it was built in sections, or by committee, or by a series of artistic directors with differing goals. Exquisite gold tiling in the side aisles is contrasted with a Jesus behind the altar that looked like a guy out of Marvel Comics. He was really distracting. The blue tiled center vault with the Lamb felt Byzantine in style, and I loved it. Some of the side chapels are wonderful and others, not so much. Most appear to have been funded by different ethnic groups.

    The music however, left no doubt. Here was an excellent organist and cantor and overall, really well done. Sound system was good. Acoustics were supporting--not fighting--the sound. I would encourage native Washingtonians to attend a concert in this building if one is ever offered.

    The day took a nose-dive with an attempt to find a breakfast place. DD and DS2 voted for IHOP. The hostess told us 20 minute wait. We waited an hour, easily, and the place was probably 85 degrees inside. The manager was a jerk to his employees and I was grateful not to work for a guy like that.

    Then, most of the way through the meal I made my first mistake of this nature in years. I opted to keep one of my pancakes. I want regular syrup, I said. My husband passed me a bottle and said “I think it’s Mrs. Butterworth’s.” It tasted funny. When I looked closely, I saw on a faint sticker that it was Butter Pecan. I have nut allergies. I didn’t feel good, but I had begun my meal overheated and lightheaded. Symptoms weren't getting more severe, so we wondered if it was artificial flavoring.

    I had the family drop me off at the hotel and I took two Benadryl and sent them to the Zoo. They had a good time seeing the pandas, which I didn’t mind missing. Someday I will see one and my life will be complete. Meanwhile, I have some cute pictures my oldest took.

    I dozed, which was good, because we still had no TV and no Internet. Later, we ordered a pizza from the neighborhood brew pub, quite good, and supplemented with our own salad and sides.

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    Day 14—Monday, Exploring Virginia
    I was a meanie on this one and said (after yesterday) that we’d be getting an early start of 7:30 am. Turned out to be an easy drive along the riverfront drive, over the Arlington Bridge and through Alexandria to Mount Vernon.

    Really, really enjoyed this site and felt I understood the Washingtons’ life far better. It was far more relaxing than being on the Mall. A breeze was blowing from the river. The docents seemed to rush us through the main house. When we commented to a staff person that we would have liked a little more in one of the rooms, she said we were welcome to go through the main house again with another group! So we did.

    We went to the gravesite and this was a special moment. A girls’ choir had just arrived and they were laying a wreath at the tombs. Then they sang the 23rd Psalm. The music kind of echoed into the tomb, and the silence afterward was almost glowing. Ahh, the reasons we travel.

    We also went to the slave quarters which helped fill the circle of the Jefferson Monticello exhibit we’d seen at the Smithsonian to what their homes might have looked like.

    While friends had urged us to go back for lunch in Alexandria, we passed on that and followed my brother’s heart. After a quick fast food lunch along the way, we were at Manassas. Or, if you learned it the other way, the Battle of Bull Run. Jill, our navigator powered by Googlemaps, sent us to the wrong destination here. It is a little unnerving to be told “you have arrived at your destination” when you’re on a fast road with no driveways and large fields, but we persisted and found it. (My son the techno guy sent them a correction, which they followed up on.)

    Nice visitor’s center that gives an overview but doesn’t overwhelm. We focused on the First Battle of the Bull Run, and it all came alive through a wonderful park ranger, who was working here as a summer job while in college at West Virginia. Even though it was hot out here, the grassy fields and lack of cars helped a bit.

    We had an easy drive back into DC but stopped for an early dinner at Ray’s Hellburgers in suburban Virginia. We found this site also in our Fodors’ Guidebook and highly recommend it! A great burger. Some of us went crazy with the choices. Get there at 5:15 like we did and hopefully you too will beat the crowds. Bring cash.

    Fortified by an amazing dinner, we realized there weren’t that many days left to do our Monument Walk. We’d noticed some free parking starting in the early evening, and at 6:40 pulled into a spot right on Constitution Avenue (between 17th and 18th).

    We opted to go to the Jefferson Monument first, so that hopefully we would see the Lincoln as the sun was setting. The Jefferson was so beautiful it really set the tone for the rest of the evening. Our kids love sports and running, and they liked the monument walk a lot, as the standing at museums or slow walking in crowds cramped their style. My oldest, who was really missing his girlfriend by this point, had begun to request an early ticket home, but he was all smiles in our pictures of that evening.

    I would have to say the wonderful surprises were the FDR Monument, which we unfortunately saw backward in chronology (by the time we realized we were half-way through). I also really loved the new Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Monument, especially the side view angle and the perfect quotations for the setting. Maybe because it was so new, this monument had people really pausing and reading and stepping back to look again. The most striking was the Korean Memorial; in the dusk, the figures of the soldiers almost looked real.

    I don’t know why I thought the Lincoln reflecting pool would be spared given our disappointment earlier in the week, but it was an expanse of bare concrete. Despite the construction, it was extremely crowded (far more than any other monument) and definitely not a place to get separated from a younger child. But I do love our 16th president and his writings: “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just -- a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”

    The Vietnam Memorial was hard to see as it was getting dark and there was no lighting. The World War II memorial we could not find, maybe it was behind a construction fence. Then it was another few blocks to our car with a full moon over the Washington Monument from afar.

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    I'm really enjoying your trip report as we are about to do some parts of the same journey in December. I see that you hired a Dodge Caravan. Was it big enough for lots of luggage? I'm thinking of hiring one for our trip where we will, at times have 5 adults & one child and 5 lots of luggage. Thinking I may need to order roof racks?

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    5alive, I'm really enjoying your report. Our daughter's Girl Scout troop placed a wreath at Mount Vernon a couple of years ago, and it was so very nice to observe those who had gathered giving the brief ceremony its due.

    The WWII Memorial is at the opposite end of the Reflecting (dry) Pool; it's too bad you missed it because it really is well done. I think because it doesn't have the height of some of the monuments, it can get overlooked. It's especially pretty as night, but, then, all of the monuments are.

    Not sure if the Fodor's guide noted that President Obama has eaten at Ray's, maybe even a couple of times. I'm sure there is a photo, or other marker at the restaurant?

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    Hey, Anne, we definitely had enough room for all our luggage in a Grand Caravan. Really loved this vehicle, just be sure to turn the headlights on even if the dash is lit up.

    Here's what we took: We did 4 "carry-on" size suitcases and 1 large suitcase that had to be checked. We also had 4 backpacks and one laptop bag. We worked to get our luggage to that size, because I didn't want to do laundry until we got to Washington DC. Since yours is a winter trip, remember that shorts and t-shirts take less room than pants and longsleeve shirts.

    Fourfortravel-It was very disappointing; I would have liked to have seen it as we have several relatives who served. I knew where the WWII Memorial is supposed to be according to a tourist map. But much of the Mall is under major renovation and lot of the area was cordoned off in early July. After going to the Vietnam Memorial, we didn't find a way through to the WWII memorial so we kept walking, thinking there would be signs. Perhaps we had to go back to the Lincoln and back up the other side of the reflecting pool to access it.

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    Just a couple of anecdotes:

    <<<our navigator powered by Googlemaps, sent us to the wrong destination here. It is a little unnerving to be told “you have arrived at your destination” when you’re on a fast road with no driveways and large fields, but we persisted and found it>>>

    We tried and NEVER FOUND IT!

    <<<The most striking was the Korean Memorial; in the dusk, the figures of the soldiers almost looked real>>>

    By absolute happenstance, my daughter and I were in DC the day the Korean Memorial was dedicated. We didn't know what was going on, but there were snipers on all the roofs surrounding the monuments. My cousin (who was then a civilian employee of the Pentagon) went to inquire and we learned that then-president Bill Clinton would be speaking at the dedication. We walked over to the area of the Memorial and anyone could go in - all you had to do was walk through an airport-like metal detector! So we saw the dediction, and heard Bill Clinton speak (despite the fact that we were originally scheduled to be in NY that day :-) )

    Your trip report is great - love the honesty!

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    5alive, based on my trip last year, there was a path through all of the construction at the Reflecting Pool from the Vietnam Memorial to WW2 - but it was not straight and not marked out well. We just knew to keep aiming towards the Washington Monument knowing that the WW2 Memorial was right before it. I can definitely see how you missed it.

    I'm leaving for DC in the morning and cannot wait.

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    Your experience at Mt Vernon reminded me of the the time at the Lincoln Memorial when a school bus pulled up. It had a banner that said "Washington or Bust" (very original). Out piled the kids, they lined up on the steps. The teacher blew on the "tone thing" and they sang "Mime eyes have seen..." I will never forget it. Many thanks to them!

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    tchoiniere--I feel better that I couldn't find it... Signage would go a long way. Most importantly, have a great trip! I hope you have good weather and catch a fly ball or two (especially for your friend who can't move out of the way!)

    sf7307-- That was a lesson in frustration, wasn't it? We had my husband driving, me with an AAA map (thanks to my MIL!!) and my brother and oldest son on smart phones looking at the NPS website.

    Manassas Update: Google may have emailed my son "yes we're fixing it" but as I type this, it's STILL NOT FIXED if you type "Manassas National Battlefield" into your Google search bar. That method will STILL drop you off along Lee Highway without a clue.

    So here's what works, type in the actual ADDRESS for the Henry Hill Visitors Center. You can also find it at the National Parks Service website, or even in the Google Search:

    6511 Sudley Road, Manassas, VA 20109

    I have also made a link to it, which I shortened in Tiny URL:
    http://tinyurl.com/d64fqcp or http://preview.tinyurl.com/d64fqcp

    Also, Sudley is also called 234 and the visitor's center is quite close to the Northern Virginia Community College, Manassas.

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    Day 16—Fourth of July
    Since we were going home the next day, we opted to do some packing and organizing. The main itinerary was the concert and fireworks for the Fourth of July.

    I took the train down with the kids, while my brother and husband parked the car at the church and joined us later. I showed the kids where I’d be standing in line to get into the concert area. Then I sent the kids to the American Art Gallery to see the Video Game Exhibit.

    Firework Strategies: I did what reading I could on the fireworks ahead of time, but much of the information did not come out until we were on our trip, and we had no hotel Internet after the storm. Nor do the locals anywhere traditionally post the best spot to watch fireworks. Who wants tourists overwhelming your favorite haunts? But I’m not coming back, so I’ll tell what I can. We decided to go to the Capitol Lawn concert for our big night. I found out the gates open at 3 pm or so. I tried to stake out a place where I could see both the large screens and the Washington Monument, as advised by one of the police officers. If you really care to hear the symphony live, I found the right place. But I think going to the concert at the other end of the mall to hear the military band might be better for tourists from out of town because you will be much closer to the fireworks. Watch the fireworks with a radiocast of the symphony and you have the best of both worlds. Of course, staking out a place in the middle of the mall assumes the construction will be done. I wasn’t sure how much space would be available for staking out blankets near the Washington Monument or in the middle of the Mall this particular summer. As always with fireworks, remember that the shady areas that look nice right now are not where you want to be when the fireworks go off. You can’t see then.

    Hot sun while I waited, but not crazy crowded. Met a serviceman recovering from multiple surgeries. He and his wife had brought their little boys for the afternoon. Hopefully for him, he is done coming back to DC for a while and this round is successful.

    My brother and husband joined the kids for the video game exhibit. Then my husband came into the concert lawn and traded spots with me. I went and joined the group as they were about to get in to see the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights at National Archives. It does not get more American than visiting these faded, venerable documents on July 4. A surprise was that the Archives also contains one of the few copies of the Magna Carta. Don’t miss it!

    I had been studying Yelp while lounging on the Capitol lawn and had some ideas of where to pick up food to supplement our snacks. The guard at Archives directed me on how to get to Potbellies up on 7th or so. What a great local chain and moderate prices. I want one! Wonderful sandwiches that smelled so good. We were the envy of everyone around us on the lawn.

    Once the Park Service Police deems the Capitol Lawn area at capacity, you have to have a hand stamp to get back in if you go out for food etc. I got my kids and brother in because I told the staff I had saved spots for them. I don’t know if they always do that.

    I saved it as a surprise for the kids that one of the big acts at the Concert was….Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara. It was so wonderful to hear them sing again. The concert was short and disjointed, but it was fun to do. The different acts really put it out there. My husband ran into a co-worker on his way back from the bathroom; quite a surprise.

    The actual fireworks were a bit disappointing (hence my advice above). There was a grassy area kind of near us that was blocked by trees. A youth group in matching T-shirts went and sat there. When it came time for fireworks, they squished in front of us because we had a good sightline, and they made it hard to see. My husband took our 11-year-old up to the front. The rest of us made do and we did see the fireworks and the music was lovely. It was great to see them in person behind the Washington Monument.

    Getting back was not a big deal. We walked to the main Union Station so that we could take our direct train and not make a change. We walked quickly but no one was pushing and people were patient. We caught one of the first trains after the event and got off at Dupont Circle to get our vehicle and say goodbye to my brother (always tough for me as we are quite close).

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    Day 15—Hallowed Ground and Old Friends
    We didn’t get moving quite so quickly today and we paid for it! However, driving to Arlington Cemetery and paying the $9 or so for parking made this an easy journey versus the people we saw walking over the bridge from DC.

    I am one who doesn’t sweat much, but sweat was just pouring down my back while I watched the Changing of the Guard at noon. And of course I wasn’t wearing dress wool. I took a picture of the many white gravestones with large tree limbs crashed down among them: The story of our DC trip all right there. For me, it was meaningful seeing the Pan-Am Memorial. My brother appreciated seeing the Battle of the Bulge Monument remembering the sacrifice of so many Americans: 19,000 killed, 47,500 wounded and 23,000 captured or missing. My husband and he also hiked around finding some of the graves of our Supreme Court justices.

    Note to future tourists: If it’s really hot out when you go to DC, don’t walk to the cemetery. Get a taxi because you’ll be walking soon enough, even if you get tram tickets. Also bring water bottles in a mini-backpack. We had ours, but many didn’t. The only water sold on site is at a Women’s Museum, which is not right at the entrance of the cemetery. As we left, we heard a worker say that two people had suffered heat-related illness already and it was only 2:30.

    We went back to our hotel for a while to veg out before going to Maryland to see an old high school friend. We had planned to meet his family earlier in the trip, but they had been staying in Virginia until they got electricity back. One of their kids had Down Syndrome and ADD. It threw me off guard for a minute but explained why they didn’t fly home much to see people. We had a nice barbecue and their other kids took to ours right away. I wished we could have seen them earlier, because I would have brought their kids along on some of our sightseeing.

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    Day 17—Do you want to be a Terrapin? And that’s all folks!
    While I had wanted to see the Boston Downtown harbor, I hadn’t made much effort to plan it. And we still had packing to do. So when my husband launched a campaign to visit the University of Maryland, 14th in the country for computer science, who could resist?

    And DS1’s emphatic answer to my husband at the end of the tour: He’s not interested in being a Terrapin. The tour was again, so very hot, and I ended up in a different group than my husband and DS1.

    The student leading my tour seemed surprised someone from across the country might want to attend there. He was a CS major and had not done any CS before college, but then again he was taking extra summer classes to catch up. Nice, nice guy but not sure he was their best representative. The school is known for more generous out-of-state aid than many state schools. The other thing DS1 concluded was that he would not want to go to any bigger campus (both size and population) than this one.

    After lunch at nearby Chipotle (the highest-grossing branch on the East Coast), we headed for Baltimore Airport. We changed planes in Texas and were glad to make it home.

    Thanks for taking the long ride with me. I had fun writing this one, but gave up condensing it down for my TR. So you are a faithful bunch if you are reading this far. Good luck in your own travels. Pay it forward by posting your own report no matter how humble your budget or odd your choices!

    Five Alive

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    Great details - thank you so much!

    Why can't you disclose the checked bag place during White House tour? I'm most concerned that a day of sight seeing will occur without our camera.

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    This was posted on another travel forum in 2011:


    "At Union Station, there's a company called Tiburon Lockers that opens at 6 am and is open through early evening. Their rates start at about $2/hr and end up around $12 per day. Phone number is (202) 898-1592; they're at Gate A on the street level."

    Also, the National Portrait Gallery has lockers. I wonder if any of the closer museums do too.

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    >>Why can't you disclose the checked bag place during White House tour? I'm most concerned that a day of sight seeing will occur without our camera.>>

    At least one of the Smithsonian's on the mall near the WH has small lockers available. I'm guessing they don't want that info out there since the lockers are meant for museum visitors. It wouldn't take you more than a couple of minutes to google it. The lockers may not be available when you need them though.

    I also know a guy who tipped (nicely I might add) the valet at the W Hotel to hold their purses/cameras while doing the WH tour.

    You were looking at hotels in the vicinity of the WH so it may be a better issue to strategize about once you get your tickets and times.

    I am pretty sure they allow you to take your phone on the tour but it must stay in your pocket.

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    Sorry I did not see my TR had new questions. Vjpb is correct; it was a business that did us a favor. And they specifically said not to tell anyone.

    obxgirl is also correct in that you can take your phone on the tour if you keep it in your pocket.

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    Sounds like there are some locker options. We're staying at the Sofitel. I'm unsure of walking times, but probably we're best to keep the camera at the hotel and then go back.

    Do you start the WH tour on the east side or west side of the building...or walk to front door and ring the bell. Heehee.

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    There are locker options but it will depend on what time your tour is.

    Look for the William Tecumseh Sherman Monument. You line up around there waiting for your timeslot. Southeast of the WH.

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