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DC & Philadelphia: Preliminary research

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Aug 13th, 2015, 02:08 PM
  #1
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DC & Philadelphia: Preliminary research

Hi folks!

In the midst of writing up my California trip report- which will be finished soon, I promise - I've been bitten by the that troublesome travel bug again. Maybe it's something in that California water! Anyway, I decided I want to go to DC and Philadelphia next year. I'd like your help deciding a few things so I can buy the plane ticket in the next month or so and then start planning the nitty gritty.

I have two weeks. Anytime between late March and end of July. I'm really struggling with how to divide up that time and when to go. Most basic question: how long to you recommend for DC? How long for Philadelphia?

Rambling, additional information:

"When" will mostly be determined by the weather. My initial idea was to go 1st week of April for the Cherry blossoms, but I've had difficulty figuring out what a good time frame is. I understand that this is a mini high season for DC also- but what does that translate into in terms of crowds? Are the various attractions going to be more crowded at this time or during the summer? I enjoy bicycling and walking, so weather is an important factor. I don't think I want to visit in the summer because east coast humidity just kills me, but I don't really want to be there when it is frigid either because I really do enjoy being outside! I realize there is no way to predict, but if there are any locals reading this, when would you recommend?

My general idea is to spend a week or a week and a half in DC and then take the train to Philadelphia to sightsee there for a few days. I've been to DC as a tourist a little more than a decade ago with a school group. I spent a lot of time seeing the monuments, at the holocaust museum and at the natural history museum. I whizzed through Air and Space. Consider me a blank slate otherwise- it was more of a "work" trip than a sightseeing trip. The focus for me is going to be the Smithsonians, but obviously I'd like to know what else you all consider "must sees". I know I want to explore Alexandria and Georgetown as I didn't have the chance last time. I know I want to take a day trip to Gettysburg as well. Feel free to recommend regional stuff. I haven't decided whether or not I want to rent a car, although I'm leaning towards not. The only place I've really ruled out is Williamsburg- been there, done that.

I've never been to Philadelphia. I initially thought I would go only for 2 nights, but now, with a little research under my belt, I'm beginning to think 3-4 days at minimum. I've gathered that Philadelphia is very pedestrian friendly and easy to see on foot. Is that accurate? What do you consider must sees? Any regional stuff you'd recommend? My main interest is colonial history, but honestly, I love museums of any kind- historic house museums, unique museums, ethnic museums, regional...you get the picture.

Also enjoy cute neighborhoods, boutique shopping, boats, food, historic sites. I don't mind cheesy attractions but that's not my preference.

Anyway, Philadelphia is sort of the clincher. Initially, I was contemplating a few days in Annapolis or Baltimore as well. (For Maritime history and Maryland crab, mainly!) But I don't want to shortchange Philadelphia. And I've also gathered mixed info about Annapolis and Baltimore, so I don't know if either place would be worth taking days away from Philadelphia. Another issue with Annapolis is that I'm fairly sure that it would require a car rental and I'd prefer to spend the money elsewhere. It's tempting though, because I don't get out to the east coast often and I'd like to make the most of this trip.

No need to suggest hotels- almost certainly staying in hostels. Always open to restaurant suggestions, of course! I definitely have foodie tendencies and I like to eat local!

So hoping for feedback on all of this! Thank you so much!
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Aug 13th, 2015, 02:30 PM
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I would choose May, because it should be warm, not hot, and not as rainy as April. March is likely to be chilly, sometimes downright cold, but also could be warm and wet--too unpredictable. If you don't like East Coast heat and humidity, July is out of the question! June is not as hot, but does mark the sstart of the ultra busy tourist season.

May is less busy than summer or spring break time (which varies, of course, but tends to run throughout April as far as DC tourism is concerned).

Cherry blossoms? Much too hard to predict!

I would not take time away from Philadelphia for Baltimore or Annapolis.

My big, giant must-see in Philly is the Barnes Foundation:
www.barnesfoundation.org
It is the most unusual art museum I have ever seen.
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Aug 13th, 2015, 04:44 PM
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Bummer, NewBe, but I suspected that the cherry blossoms were a no way to predict sort of thing. Is that why the festival is so long?

Is April rain freezing or constant? I'm used to Seattle rain, so just wondering how it compares.

Thanks for the Barnes Foundation suggestion, that looks intriguing! How long do you suggest for seeing it?

And if you were going to split 10-14 days between DC and Philly, how would you do it?
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Aug 13th, 2015, 05:34 PM
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Our last two visits to DC were the first week of April two years ago, and the third week of May (Memorial Day weekend) this year. Both were crowded although not unpleasantly so. I would agree with NewBe's suggestion as long as you go earlier in May than we did (our schedule was dictated, so we made the best of it). It's really hard to know when the cherry blossoms will peak, but if that's important to you, then you would want to go in April. For weather, I'd choose May.

If I were splitting 10 days between DC and Philadelphia I'd probably split them 7-3. If I were splitting 14, I'd go to Baltimore , but I have emotional ties there. I agree you'd need a car for Annapolis and probably even to make the most of Baltimore, so staying in DC and Philadelphia (with a couple of day trips like Gettysburg) makes a lot of sense.

We went to Mount Vernon on our most recent trip and enjoyed it a lot. If you like bicycling you can combine that with your daily dose of colonial history: http://www.mountvernon.org/plan-your...ernon-by-bike/.

One of my favorite day trips from Philadelphia would require a car, I think - Longwood Gardens and Kennett Square.
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Aug 13th, 2015, 06:40 PM
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"Anytime between late March and end of July." May would be ideal, IMO -- flowers and flowering shrubs and without the heat and humidity of June and especially July. DC can be utterly swamped with tourists during cherry season. And tourists don't JUST come for the cherries, so the subways are packed, the usual tourist destinations are packed, etc. The cherries are beautiful, no doubt about it, but it does change the experience of seeing the city!

"My general idea is to spend a week or a week and a half in DC and then take the train to Philadelphia to sightsee there for a few days." -- that could work, but of course, it depends on what you want to see and experience! If you haven't already done so, you might try marking up a calendar: Note the opening/closing times of places you hope to see, pencil in transportation, etc. With 2 weeks, I think you should be able to have a really nice visit!

"I haven't decided whether or not I want to rent a car, although I'm leaning towards not." From what you've said so far, I don't think you would need one, unless you decide to visit Annapolis. If necessary, you might consider one for just a day or two. IMO, a car would definitely be a disadvantage in DC, and wouldn't help much in Philadelphia, either.

"I've gathered that Philadelphia is very pedestrian friendly and easy to see on foot. Is that accurate?" -- absolutely!

"I was contemplating a few days in Annapolis or Baltimore as well. (For Maritime history and Maryland crab, mainly!)" -- I believe Baltimore has a few things that might be of interest to you, such as its art museum, American Visionary Art Museum, and Inner Harbor. So I wouldn't rule it out until you plot things out on a calendar. BTW, you can get Maryland crab in DC, too.

"No need to suggest hotels- almost certainly staying in hostels." -- Even so, you might want to look at the Tabard Inn. It has a few singles with shared bath that are quite affordable by DC standards, and it is extremely well located. And I love it's restaurant, which is up-scale. If one of those single / shared bath rooms appeals to you, I encourage you to book as soon as you can -- there are only a few and they get snagged well in advance.
http://tabardinn.com

"Is April rain freezing or constant?" In DC, neither is likely, each is possible. For Philadelphia, either is a tad more possible. IMO, April would not be a BAD choice for this area, but May would be a GREAT one.

"the Barnes Foundation ... How long do you suggest for seeing it?" -- As I recall, I spent about 4 hours, and would have liked another hour. But I saw it in its "old" location, and YMMV.

Hope that helps!
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Aug 13th, 2015, 09:01 PM
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Not freezing, but can be constant.

I agree with this 100%!

The thing about the cherry blossoms is that they're fragile: you may know that in Japan, they symbolize how fleeting life itself is. Some years they last for a week or two, even, other years they get blown down after a few days. So hard to plan around...

How long for the Barnes? I'd say two days. Seriously! We spent the better part of one day and began to rush at the end. But we were really super interested in reading about each object. For a less obsessive visitor, 4 hours would work.

I would split time 70/30: 70% in DC, 30% in Philly. DC just has so, so many monuments and museums and historic homes and neighborhoods, as well as excellent food. Philly has all those things, too, just IMO not in the same abundance.

Oh, and I agree with kja again, no car!
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Aug 13th, 2015, 09:14 PM
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NewbE wrote: "How long for the Barnes? I'd say two days" - OMG, I don't think I've EVER seen a Fodorite recommend a LONGER visit to ANY museum than the time I took! Awesome.


Oh, and one more thought about Baltimore: I'm not sure where you are coming from, but from many places, Baltimore can be a bit harder to reach than DC or Philadelphia, which could mean that it would be the place you would be LEAST likely to pick up on another trip. So if you might end up in DC or Philadelphia again for other reasons, fitting a day or two for Baltimore into THIS trip might make sense. Just a thought!
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Aug 13th, 2015, 09:38 PM
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LOL!!

I really am an art museum nerd. But, in my defense, the Barnes has a very unusual layout! Dozens and dozens of paintings are stacked on the walls alongside furniture and tiles and painted screens and ironwork and jewelry and carvings... all without labels! There are laminated pages in each room that you can use to identify everything, but that takes way more time than just strolling and glancing and moving on.

(kja, I know you know this from your visit to the old location, which I envy!)

And the collection is insane! One masterpiece after another, cheek by jowl with every other thing.

We decided that what would be ideal would be two leisurely days at the Barnes, because we got major beauty fatigue over the course of our time there.
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Aug 13th, 2015, 10:26 PM
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Newbe- LOL! I feel the same way about several museums, especially during my last trip to Boston. I might just plan a full day for Barnes. 4 hours is never enough for me in that kind of museum- I always say I can just glide through, but I get hung up reading the descriptions, and then suddenly it's closing time and I've only covered a quarter of the rooms!

I'm flying out of Seattle, kja, and it's been a while since I got to ride on the train. So originally, I thought about riding the train between DC and a few other places (NYC, Baltimore, and Philly were the top choices) but I really want to leave the lion's share of time for DC because the Smithsonians are glorious, free, and I didn't get to spend nearly enough time in them on previous trips! So I've narrowed it down to Philly and DC. But as you mentioned- I'm so close to Baltimore- so it's tempting, if anyone provides sufficient argument for that detour. My main concern with Baltimore is that I'm getting two very different impressions- some sources say it's a terrific city and the inner harbor is a "must see" while others say it's a crime ridden dump and the inner harbor is a trashy tourist trap. Any thoughts? I know enough about Philly that I have a pretty good idea, but I don't know enough about Baltimore to tell the difference between pearls and swine...
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Aug 13th, 2015, 10:46 PM
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@ NewbE -- makes sense!

As I'm sure you know, from your visit, Barnes intentionally collected pieces that showed the best AND worst of various artists, works that were complete AND incomplete, etc., because it was intended as a teaching collection -- what worked and didn't, how artists constructed their works, what they did when dissatisfied, how artists' approaches differed.... And he positioned pieces to illustrate the lessons he thought should be learned -- and as I understand it, recreating his placement of items in relation to one another was a requirement of the creation of the new building.

On my visit to the original building, I didn't try to look at each piece in detail. Instead, I tried to look at what each room was intended to achieve, and (with the help of its very informative audioguide), I focused my attention on the elements that Barnes thought critical to the room's lesson. And then I gave each room some extra time for things that caught my attention, for whatever reason.

Perhaps I should also say that when I visited the Barnes, I had seen MANY works by most of the artists whose work is on display there, including retrospectives on many / most of them, and I'd "grown up" with my mother's copy of of a book on the Barnes, so a lot was already familiar to me. (And oooh, it can be SO wonderful to finally see, in person, a loved image hitherto seen only in a book!)

I look forward to visiting it again. And I consider myself VERY fortunate to have seen it at all!

@ marvelousmouse -- sorry for the digression! Now that the Barnes collection is easily seen by public transportation, do consider visiting it!
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Aug 13th, 2015, 11:10 PM
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Holy moly! Barnes sounds fascinating. Glad to know they planned the new building with the original layout! (No worries about digression- that's the sort of thing I love to know)
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Aug 14th, 2015, 09:41 AM
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I used Baltimore as a starting point for a trip to DC a few years back and felt very safe walking around alone. I stayed at a hotel near the Walter museum and walked to the Inner Harbor and Fells Point.

I am not a "look and read about every item" type of museum person but I think that you could see Baltimore in one day. The train takes only an hour and I believe it was $12 each way. The Inner Harbor does have some chain restaurants and a bit of tourist shopping but you can walk past that. I visited the American Visionary Museum, the Aquarium and Fells Point in one day.

I usually need one day of non-history when visiting places like DC and Williamsburg.
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Aug 14th, 2015, 11:41 AM
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Gardendiva- How was the aquarium in comparison to other aquariums you've been to? I went to Monterey this year and the Chicago one last year, so I'm debating about whether I really want to go to the National?
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Aug 14th, 2015, 12:22 PM
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OK, now I have to defend Baltimore. "A crime-ridden dump" is a bit extreme, especially if the other two cities you are visiting are Philadelphia and DC - neither of which are exactly crime-free.

For art, you have the Walters Art Museum and Baltimore Museum of Art. The Walters is near the Peabody Library, which is lovely, and the Mount Vernon neighborhood, with its Washington Monument. (The OTHER Washington Monument.) The Baltimore Museum of Art abuts the Johns Hopkins campus, which can be a pleasant walk; on campus there is the Homewood Museum, which when I was in college was an administration building but has been turned back into a really nice example of 19th-century design and decor. For colonial and early US history you can walk around Federal Hill or Fells Point, and go out to Fort McHenry.

I haven't been to the aquarium for over 10 years, so I won't try to compare it with anything.

Between walking, buses, and water taxis, all of these things are accessible without a car, and you could easily spend a couple of days there. Practice the same attention to your surroundings that you would in any large city and you will be fine.
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Aug 14th, 2015, 12:24 PM
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I live in Philly and have been many times to DC. Late April/early May would be a good time to visit. Hard to predict when cherry blossoms are going to bloom; disappointing if you don't time it right and miss them. I suggest one week in each location. DC: The Smithsonian museums are great (and free), and the city is very walkable. There are other excellent museums (not free) and the various monuments. Definitely recommend seeing the Library of Congress. There isn't much nightlife. Seems most people go home to the suburbs at night. Georgetown merits only a short exploration. Alexandria is a cute, historic town that mostly features high-end shops, coffee bars and restaurants.

Besides the Barnes (one full day there is enough unless you want to dream about Renoirs), Philly has many other museums and attractions, a wealth of historic sites, and the top-rated urban bike trail in the country (Schuylkill River Trail) that runs from Philly out to Valley Forge (27 miles) and then even further into Montgomery County. If you tire of Philly itself, you can take day trips to Lancaster County (Amish farms), to Gettysburg, to Atlantic City and/or other Jersey Beaches (Cape May is a lovely Victorian beach town), to Hershey (chocolate factory attraction and theme park), to NYC, or to numerous nearby state parks. There is also lots of nightlife in Philly: the Philadelphia Orchestra, Philly Pops, Opera company, Curtis Institute of Music concerts, Pennsylvania Ballet, theater, jazz, etc. And our restaurants are incredible, and much more affordable than in New York! If you're vegetarian, book ahead for Vedge. It's not to be missed. The only time I'd recommend NOT coming to Philly is next month when the Pope comes. That is shaping up to be a giant mess!!!!
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Aug 14th, 2015, 01:19 PM
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I have only been to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and then the National Aquarium. Both are beautiful. I particularly enjoyed the giant turtle at feeding time. I don't remember a dolphin show like the have at Shedd if that is important. The day that I went it was not busy at all. I think it took me about 1.5 hours to go through it. Again, I don't stop to learn every detail about every exhibit.
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Aug 14th, 2015, 01:29 PM
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My main concern with Baltimore is that I'm getting two very different impressions- some sources say it's a terrific city and the inner harbor is a "must see" while others say it's a crime ridden dump and the inner harbor is a trashy tourist trap. Any thoughts?

I think your sources are a bit off key on both ends with the latter being unduly harsh. Like many US cities that aren't major tourist destinations, Baltimore is neither pearls nor swine. You've got your plate full with DC and Philadelphia. You can more than make a trip of those two cities.

I'd put the National Aquarium in the same league as the Shedd and the Monterey Bay.

I also disagree that DC is a city that empties to the burbs at night. It's a got a very diverse and vibrant night life.
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Aug 14th, 2015, 01:51 PM
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Barbara- thanks for your spirited defense of Baltimore I did not think "crime ridden dump" was accurate, just to be clear- the Internet is often a strange underbelly sort of place when it comes to accuracy lol. I just don't know anyone who has been there recently. I'm used to large cities and taking all the necessary precautions; it's good to know a car wouldn't be necessary. I don't think I have enough time, though- even a week in Philly and DC each seems too short. I seriously love museums though!

I've been to Mt Vernon, and I'm interested in Monticello but I suspect it would take too big of chunk of time. I did find one tour-viator- that does this trip from DC. It would be a full day thing. Anyone done this? If not, those of you who have been to Monticello- would you consider it worth the trek? Is there any advantage (places to see along the way) a car rental would have over the tour? I really want to see Monticello someday, just not sure this trip is the time to do it.

Lesliec1- thanks so much for the info about the bike trail! I was thinking I won't take my bike, but maybe it's worth it after all. And I'm not strictly veg, but I love excellent veg restaurants! I'm not nightlife person anyway, but was wondering how the theater scene is in DC?

And since you mentioned Cape May- are there any beach towns reachable by transit? How far (time wise) is Cape May from Philly if I were to drive it?
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Aug 14th, 2015, 02:16 PM
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As long as you're rejecting Baltimore for the right reasons. (I didn't think you were characterizing it that way.)

We have not seen Monticello as a day trip from DC. We stopped there with the kids (then maybe 5 and 10?) several years ago when we were driving through the area. We all loved it. But I would hesitate to advise you to do it as a tour from DC - you would lose a big part of a day that way. I would lean towards maybe saving it for another time when you might have a car and combine it with a visit to Charlottesville.

Cape May is about 1 3/4 hours from Philadelphia, in theory, but traffic often makes it longer.
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Aug 14th, 2015, 05:02 PM
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"How was the aquarium in comparison to other aquariums you've been to?" -- I'm inordinately fond of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, and did not personally think that National Aquarium lived up to that very high standard. In particular, I thought the "show" too gimmick-y. That said, it is, IMO, an excellent aquarium and it has a really great shark exhibit.
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