- Places to Explore
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- Fodor's Choice
Collette Vacations has a seven-day "Exploring America's Capital" vacation, which includes guided tours of the National Cathedral, Ford's Theatre, National Museum of American History or Air and Space Museum, the World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam memorials, Mount Vernon and Arlington National Cemetery. The trip also includes visits to Annapolis and Baltimore. Monograms Travel offers itineraries of D.C., some including Boston and/or New York, as well as "The Historic East," a driving tour of D.C., Virginia, and Philadelphia. All trips include a full-day guided trolley tour and free time. Mayflower Tours offers a seven-day "Washington, D.C. and Williamsburg" tour that includes four nights in D.C. with visits to the U.S. Capitol, Smithsonian Institution, Arlington Cemetery, and an evening monuments tour, as well as stops at Shenandoah National Park, Mount Vernon, and Jamestown; springtime trips take in the Cherry Blossom Festival, too. Smithsonian Journeys has two tours to D.C. The three-night "Celebrate Smithsonian" tour offers a behind-the-scenes look into the preservation and research being conducted by this famed institution. You'll meet with curators from the National Air & Space Museum, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, and more. On the "Family Adventure" tour, families will spend six days exploring everything D.C. has to offer, from the National Zoo to the charms of historic neighborhoods and museums. Tauck Travel has a "Williamsburg and Washington, D.C." tour that starts in Philadelphia, continues to Amish country, Gettysburg, Williamsburg, and the colony of Jamestown before concluding with two nights in D.C. WorldStrides, which specializes in educational student travel, has "Discover D.C." programs that are designed to enrich the study of U.S. history and government.
Collette Vacations (800/340–5158. www.collettevacations.com.)
Mayflower Tours (800/323–7604. www.mayflowertours.com.)
Monograms Travel (866/270–9841. www.monograms.com.)
Tauck (800/788–7885. www.tauck.com.)
WorldStrides (800/468–5899. www.worldstrides.org.)
Smithsonian Journeys (855/330–1542. www.smithsonianjourneys.org.)
Road Scholar, formerly Elderhostel, offers several guided tours for older adults that provide fascinating in-depth looks into the history and beauty of D.C. The nonprofit educational travel organization has been leading all-inclusive learning adventures around the world for more than 30 years. In addition to the programs listed here, Road Scholar also has several other world studies and history programs in D.C. All Road Scholar programs include accommodations, meals, and in-town transportation.
Presented in conjunction with the Close Up Foundation, the nation's largest nonprofit citizenship education organization, "Monumental D.C." is a four-night program that includes seminars on many of the figures memorialized on and near the National Mall. Prices start at about $1,045 per person.
"Spies, Lies and Intelligence: The Shadowy World of International Espionage" is a fascinating exploration of the country's intelligence operation. Retired CIA agents share secrets of high-profile spying cases on this three-night trip that costs about $799 per person. Highlights include visits to the International Spy Museum and the NSA Cryptologic Museum.
"Signature City Washington, D.C.: Historical & Cultural Gems" lets visitors explore some of the city's lesser-known marvels such as the Scottish Rite of Free Masonry, Georgetown's Tudor Place and Embassy Row, and H Street, one of D.C.'s most historic neighborhoods. This five-night program starts at about $1,299 per person. There's even a four-night "Urban Outdoors Adventure: Bicycling Washington, D.C." tour where you'll explore the city on two-wheels, including visits to Mount Vernon and Arlington National Cemetery.
Road Scholar (800/454–5768. www.roadscholar.org.)
Day Tours and Guides
We recommend any of the tours offered by A Tour de Force, DC by Foot, DC Walkabout, Smithsonian Associates Program, Spies of Washington, and Washington Walks.
For convenience, you can't beat the Old Town Trolley Tours, which take you to all the major historical and cultural landmarks in the city. What's great about these tours is that you can get on and off as you please and stay as long as you like at any spot; you can reboard for free all day long. From April through October, Washington Walks has two-hour guided tours that are interesting and, at $15 per person, affordable. From March to November, join a free tour of the monuments and memorials with DC by Foot. And on hot summer days, hop onboard Capitol River Cruises for a cool look at the city from the water.
For families we recommend the bike tours (or Segway tours if all kids are over 16), the DC Duck tour (younger kids will get a kick out of the quackers that are given to all riders), a mule-drawn barge ride on the C&O Canal, and any of Natalie Zanin's historic strolls, especially the Ghost Story Tour of Washington.
Bike the Sites Tours has knowledgeable guides leading daily excursions past dozens of Washington, D.C., landmarks. All tours start at the Old Post Office Pavilion. Bicycles, helmets, snacks, and water bottles are included in the rates, which start at $40. Their Capital Sites and Monuments night tours cost $45, and there's even a Blossoms by Bike tour for $35 during the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. Capital City Bike Tours also offers day and night monuments tours priced $35-$40 for adults. The Adventure Cycling Association, a national organization promoting bicycle travel, recommends tours around the region. Capital Bikeshare rents bikes by the hour and is a great way to visit the memorials and monuments at your own pace. And, you can return your bike at any of the 175 stations throughout the city, as well as in Alexandria and Arlington.
Adventure Cycling Association (800/755–2453. www.adventurecycling.org.)
Bike the Sites Tours (202/842–2453. www.bikethesites.com.)
Capital Bikeshare (877/430–2453. www.capitalbikeshare.com.)
Capital City Bike Tours (624 9th St. NW, Washington, DC, 20001. 877/734–8687. capitalcitybiketours.com.)
During one-hour rides on mule-drawn barges on the C&O Canal, costumed guides and volunteers explain the waterway's history. The barge rides, which cost $8 and are run by the National Park Service, depart from its visitor center Wednesday through Sunday from April through October.
Capitol River Cruises offers 45-minute sightseeing tours aboard the Nightingale and Nightingale II, Great Lakes boats from the 1950s. Beverages and light snacks are available. Hourly cruises depart from Washington Harbour noon to 9 pm April to October. Prices are $14 for adults and $7 for children 3 to 12; purchase tickets online and save $2 off the adult fare.
Several swanky cruises depart from the waterfront in Southwest D.C. The Odyssey III, specially built to fit under the Potomac's bridges, departs from the Gangplank Marina at 6th and Water streets SW. Tickets are approximately $52 for the weekday lunch cruise, $67 for the weekend brunch cruise, and $98-$120 for the daily dinner cruise. As the prices suggest, this is an elegant affair; jackets are requested for men at dinner. The sleek Spirit of Washington offers lunch and dinner cruises that range from $45 to $90. Odyssey and Spirit, as well as a handful of other companies, offer sightseeing boat tours from the new National Harbor on the banks of the Potomac River in Maryland. Just minutes from D.C., National Harbor boasts a convention center, hotels, shops, restaurants, condominiums and the newly opened National Children's Museum.
Departing from Alexandria, the glass-enclosed Nina's Dandy cruises up the Potomac year-round to Georgetown, taking you past many of D.C.'s monuments. Lunch cruises cost $48 Monday through Friday and $53 on Saturday. A Sunday Champagne brunch cruise costs $58. Boarding for these cruises starts at 11:30 am. Depending on the day, dinner cruises start boarding at 6 or 6:30 pm and cost $88 Sunday through Thursday and $98-$108 Friday and Saturday. The Nina's Dandy and sister ship Dandy also offer special holiday cruises.
The Potomac Riverboat Company, with docks in Alexandria and Georgetown, has a 90-minute Washington by Water Monuments Cruise priced at $26 for adults (one-way tickets also are available should you wish to board at one dock and disembark at another) from mid-March through early November. The company also offers sightseeing tours of the Alexandria harbor, a tour to Mount Vernon, and a Skipjack sailing cruise.
From mid-March through October, DC Ducks offers 90-minute tours in converted World War II amphibious vehicles. After an hour-long road tour of landlocked sights, the tour moves to the water, where for 30 minutes you get a boat's-eye view of the city. Tours depart from Union Station and cost $35.10 for adults and $26.10 for children ages 11 and under; seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.
If you're a sailing enthusiast, you'll want to hop onboard the 65-foot American Spirit schooner with DC Sail, the community sailing program of the National Maritime Heritage Foundation. Sunset cruises aboard this classic-rigged sailing vessel are available every other Friday evening from May through October and cost $50 per person. There also are baseball cruises that include a Nats game after the sailing trip and blossom cruises during the city's annual springtime Cherry Blossom season.
C&O Canal Barges (Canal Visitor Center, 1057 Thomas Jefferson St. NW, Georgetown, Washington, DC, 20007. 202/653–5190. www.nps.gov/choh.)
Capitol River Cruises (Washington Harbor, 31st and K Sts. NW, Georgetown, Washington, DC, 20007. 301/460–7447 or 800/405–5511. www.capitolrivercruises.com.)
Dandy Cruises (Prince St., between Duke and King sts., Alexandria, VA, 22314. 703/683–6076. www.dandydinnerboat.com.)
DC Ducks (50 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, 20002. 855/323-8257. www.dcducks.com.)
DC Sail (600 Water St., SW, D.C. Waterfront, Washington, DC, 20024. 202/547–1250. www.dcsail.org.)
Odyssey III and Spirit of Washington (600 Water St. SW, D.C. Waterfront, Washington, DC, 20024. 202/488–6010 or 866/404–8439. www.entertainmentcruises.com.)
Potomac Riverboat Company (205 The Strand, Alexandria, VA, 22314. 877/511–2628 or 703/684–0580. www.potomacriverboatco.com.)
All About Town has half-day, all-day, two-day, and twilight bus tours to get acquainted with the city. Tours leave from various Downtown locations. An all-day tour costs $50-$62, half-day and twilight tours cost $36-$46.
Big Bus Tours offers hop-on, hop-off tours for $45 aboard brightly painted red, white, and blue open-top, double-decker buses.
Gray Line's nine-hour "D.C. in a Day" tour stops at the White House Visitor Center, U.S. Capitol, World War II Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, and Smithsonian museums. The cost is $45 for adults and $10 for children ages 3–11. The four-hour "Arlington Cemetery Plus a Taste of D.C." includes visits to the Tomb of the Unknowns, U.S. Capitol, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and Washington Monument. It is priced at $30 for adults and $15 for children. There's also a 2½-hour tour on Saturday morning, presented in conjunction with the International Spy Museum, that showcases more than 25 sites used by infamous spies, with tickets priced at $59 for adults and $25 for children.
Gross National Product's Scandal Tours, led by members of the GNP comedy troupe, last 1½ hours and cover scandals from George Washington to Barack Obama. These extremely lively tours, held on Saturday from April through August at 1 pm, cost $30 per person; reservations are required.
On Board D.C. Tours offers a daily six-hour "D.C. It All" tour that lets you hop on and off with the guide at 12 locations. Monday-Thursday the cost is $80 for adults and $60 for children under 12; Friday-Sunday, it's $90 for adults and $80 for children. From mid-March through October, a one-hour private Potomac River cruise is included in the tour. Their three-hour "D.C. The Lights!" nightlife tour costs $60 for adults and $50 for children.
All About Town (301/856–5556. www.allabouttown.net.)
Big Bus Tours (877/332–8689. www.bigbustours.com.)
Gray Line (301/386–8300 or 800/862–1400. www.graylinedc.com.)
Gross National Product (202/783–7212. www.gnpcomedy.com.)
On Board D.C. Tours (301/839–5261. www.onboarddctours.com.)
Government Building Tours
Special tours of government buildings with heavy security, including the White House and the Capitol, can be arranged through your U.S. representative or senator's office. Limited numbers of these so-called VIP tickets are available, so plan up to six months in advance of your trip. Foreign visitors should contact their embassy in Washington, D.C., as far in advance as possible. Governmental buildings close to visitors when the Department of Homeland Security issues a high alert, so call ahead.
Don't miss the stunning Capitol Visitor Center. Before your tour of the Capitol, you can watch orientation films, view historical documents from the Library of Congress and the National Archives, learn about the history of democracy through interactive touch-screen displays, walk alongside statues of notable historical figures, and see models of the Capitol and the Dome. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where U.S. money is made, has some of the most popular tours in the city. Foreign dignitaries are received at the Department of State's lavish Diplomatic Reception Rooms, but everyone else can get a peek on weekdays.
Bureau of Engraving and Printing (14th and C Sts. SW, Washington, DC, 20228. 202/874–2330 or 866/874–2330. www.moneyfactory.gov.)
Department of State (2201 C St. NW, Washington, DC, 20520. 202/647–3241; 202/736–4474 TDD. diplomaticrooms.state.gov.)
United States Capitol Visitor Center (202/226–8000. www.visitthecapitol.gov.)
The Voice of America is the U.S. government's foreign broadcaster, beaming news and current affairs programming around the world in 44 languages. Get a look behind the scenes with tours weekdays at noon and 3 pm. Reservations are recommended and can be made either online or by phone.
National Public Radio leads tours of its broadcast facilities on Tuesday and Thursday at 11 am. Show up 10 minutes beforehand for a security screening. If you have more than five in your group, it's best to call at least four weeks in advance of your visit.
National Public Radio (1111 N. Capitol St. NE, Northeast, Washington, DC, 20002. 202/513–3232. www.npr.org/about/aboutnpr/visit.html.)
Voice of America (330 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC, 20201. 202/203–4990. www.voatour.com.)
Old Town Trolley Tours, orange-and-green motorized trolleys, take in the main Downtown sights and also head into Georgetown and the Upper Northwest in a speedy two hours if you ride straight through. However, you can hop on and off as many times as you like, taking your time at the stops you choose. Tickets are $39 for adults, $29 for kids 4-12; purchase tickets online and save $2.90-$3.90 per ticket. Two-day tickets also are available. ANC Tours is the only bus company authorized by the National Park Service to offer riding tours through Arlington National Cemetery. Tours depart daily from the Cemetery Visitors Center, 8:30-6:30, April through September, and 8:30-5, October through March. Stops include the Kennedy gravesites, the Women in Military Service for America and Robert E. Lee memorials, and the Tomb of the Unknowns, where it is timed to coincide with the Changing of the Guard ceremony; tickets cost $8.75 for adults and $4.50 for children ages 3-11.
ANC Tours (202/488–1012. www.anctours.com.)
Old Town Trolley Tours (202/832–9800 or 888/910–8687. www.trolleytours.com.)
Nationally known photographer Sonny Odom offers custom tours for shutterbugs at $50 per hour, with a four-hour minimum. Photo Expedition Tours, led by photographer M.J. Love, has a two-hour city photo walking tour priced at $140 per person that guarantees you postcard-perfect images of the nation's capital. With more than 100 different tour itineraries including "Franciscan Monastery at Tulip Time," "Monuments and Memorials," "Washington D.C.: Then and Now," and "Georgetown by Land and Sea," among others, Washington Photo Safari promises opportunities for photographers of all skill levels (even camera phones are acceptable for the tours). Prices range $69-$198 for the half- or full-day tours led by a team of professional photographers.
M.J. Love Photography (800/737–4051. www.mjlovephotography.com.)
Sonny Odom (2420F S. Walter Reed Dr., Arlington, VA, 22206. 703/379–1633. www.sonnyodom.com.)
Washington Photo Safari (877/512–5969. www.washingtonphotosafari.com.)
A Tour de Force has limo and walking tours of historic homes, diplomatic buildings, and "the best little museums in Washington." Tours are led by local historian and author Jeanne Fogle.
In business since 1964, the Guide Service of Washington puts together half-day and full-day tours of D.C. sights, including some off the beaten path.
A Tour de Force (703/525–2948. www.atourdeforce.com.)
Guide Service of Washington (202/628–2842. www.dctourguides.com.)
Segway and Scooter Tours
Rest your feet and glide by the monuments, museums, and major attractions aboard a Segway. Guided tours usually last about two hours. D.C. city ordinance requires that riders be at least 16 years old; some tour companies have weight restrictions of 250 pounds. Tours cost around $45-$90 per person and are limited to 6 to 10 people.
City Scooter Tours rents scooters and wheelchairs for self-guided tours. Three-day rental prices start at $175 for scooters and $150 for wheelchairs.
Capital Segway (202/682–1980. www.capitalsegway.com.)
City Scooter Tours (888/441–7575. www.cityscootertours.com.)
City Segway Tours (877/734–8687. www.citysegwaytours.com.)
Segs in the City (800/734–7393. www.segsinthecity.com.)
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