Several tour companies provide multiday tours that either focus on or include Washington D.C. in their itineraries.
Mayflower Tours. The 10-day "America’s Heritage" tour features D.C., Williamsburg, and New York, including a visit to Arlington Cemetery, and an evening monuments tour; as well as tours of Mount Vernon, Monticello, Jamestown, and Gettysburg; springtime trips take in the Cherry Blossom Festival, too. 800/323–7604; www.mayflowertours.com. From $2,629.
Smithsonian Journeys. A three-night "Celebrate Smithsonian" tour offers an exciting 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. 855/330–1542; www.smithsonianjourneys.org. $3,195.
Tauck. This company has a "Williamsburg and Washington, D.C." tour, which starts in Philadelphia, continues to Amish country, Gettysburg, Williamsburg, and the colony of Jamestown before it concludes with two nights in Washington. 800/788–7885; www.tauck.com. $2,850.
WorldStrides. Specializing in educational student travel, WorldStrides has Washington programs that are designed to enrich the study of U.S. history and government, including tours of the Capitol, the Smithsonian museums and the Arlington National Cemetery. 800/468–5899; dn.educationaltravel.com.
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 since 1975. In addition to the programs listed here, it has several other world studies and history programs in D.C. All Road Scholar programs include accommodations, meals, and in-town transportation.
Road Scholar. 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. "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. Highlights include visits to the International Spy Museum and the NSA Cryptologic Museum. "Signature City Washington, D.C.: Historical & Cultural Gems" is a five-night program that 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. 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.
800/454–5768; www.roadscholar.org. From $1,085.
Day Tours and Guides
There are various excellent tour options for discovering the nation's capital, many of them led by highly qualified experts, some with a touch of theater, and all worth an hour, a day, or more of your time. You are sure to learn something you wouldn't have found out on your own.
For families we recommend the bike tours (or Segway tours if all kids are over 16), the DC Ducks 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.
Adventure Cycling Association. Three 330-mile bike tours along the C&O Canal from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh are run by the association. The seven-night fall trip is fully supported (vehicles transport riders’ gear and meals are catered) and can accommodate up to 70 riders, while the two spring trips are self-contained tours for 13 (riders carry their own gear and cook their meals). If you’d like to just set out on your own, the association sells a Tidewater Potomac Heritage Route map for $15.75 with a detailed 378-mile route that starts in D.C. and travels along the Potomac River to the Chesapeake Bay, incorporating many historic sites. 800/755–2453; www.adventurecycling.org. From $899.
Bike and Roll. Knowledgeable guides lead daily excursions past dozens of Washington, D.C. landmarks. All tours start at L’Enfant Plaza near the National Mall. Bicycles, helmets, snacks, and water bottles are included in the rates. Their Capital Sites and Monuments night tours is popular, and if you're in the city at the right time of year there's even a Blossoms by Bike tour during the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. 202/842–2453; www.bikethesites.com. From $35.
Capital Bikeshare. You can rent bikes by the hour with this bike-share scheme, and it's a great way to visit the memorials and monuments at your own pace, then return your bike to any of the 300 stations throughout the city. There are also stations in Alexandria and Arlington, VA, and neighboring Montgomery County, MD, if you want to venture farther afield. 877/430–2453; www.capitalbikeshare.com. Membership fee, from $7, includes first 30 min, then $1.50 per 30 min.
Capital City Bike Tours. Daytime and night tours of the monuments run by this company are suitable for all ages. 877/734–8687; dc.capitalcitybiketours.com. $36.
Washington tour operators make the most of the city's waterways, which offer a unique perspective on the sights and a relaxing experience. Some cruises include meals on board, some have a historical focus, and DC Ducks and the Potomac Riverboat Company's pirate cruises appeal particularly to children.
C&O Canal Barges. During one-hour rides on mule-drawn barges along the C&O Canal, costumed guides and volunteers explain the history of the waterway. Run by the National Park Service, the barge rides depart from their visitor center on weekends, April through October. Canal Visitor Center, 1057 Thomas Jefferson St. NW, Georgetown, Washington, District of Columbia, 20007. 202/653–5190; www.nps.gov/choh. $8.
Capitol River Cruises. Sightseeing tours lasting 45 minutes are aboard the Nightingale and Nightingale II, former Great Lakes boats from the 1950s. Departures are hourly, noon to 9 pm, April through October. Washington Harbor, 31st and K Sts. NW, Georgetown, Washington, District of Columbia, 20007. 301/460–7447; 800/405–5511; www.capitolrivercruises.com. $15 ($13 if purchased online).
Dandy Cruises. Departing from Alexandria, the glass-enclosed Nina's Dandy cruises up the Potomac to Georgetown year-round, passing many of D.C.'s monuments along the way. Lunch, champagne brunch, and dinner cruises are offered, and there are special holiday cruises, too. Prince St., between Duke and King Sts., Alexandria, Virginia, 22314. 703/683–6076; www.dandydinnerboat.com. Lunch cruise $48 weekdays, $53 Sat.; Sun. champagne brunch cruise: $58; dinner cruise $88 Sun.–Thurs., $98–$108 Fri. and Sat..
DC Ducks. Converted World War II amphibious vehicles give you an hour-long road tour of landlocked sights, then moves to the water for a 30-minute boat's-eye view of the city. Tours depart from Union station mid-March through October. You can book online, but where you sit is on a first come, first served basis. 50 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Capitol Hill, Washington, District of Columbia, 20002. 855/323–8257; www.dcducks.com. $35.10.
DC Sail. If you're a sailing enthusiast, you'll want to hop aboard 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 May through October. 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. 600 Water St., SW, D.C. Waterfront, Washington, District of Columbia, 20024. 202/547–1250; www.dcsail.org. $50.
Odyssey III and Spirit of Washington. Specially built to fit under to Potomac's bridges, the Odyssey III departs from the Gangplank Marina for daily dinner cruises, weekday lunch cruises and weekend brunch cruises—elegant affairs with a dress code (jackets for men) at dinner. The sleek Spirit of Washington offers lunch and dinner cruises, too, and both also do sightseeing trips from the National Harbor in Maryland. Just minutes from D.C., National Harbor has shops, restaurants, hotels, condominiums, and a convention center. 600 Water St. SW, D.C. Waterfront, Washington, District of Columbia, 20024. 202/488–6010; 866/404–8439; www.entertainmentcruises.com. Sightseeing from $45; lunch cruise from $57; brunch cruise from $67; dinner cruise $100–$120.
Potomac Riverboat Company. With docks in Georgetown and Alexandria, this company has a 90-minute "Washington by Water" monuments cruise from mid-March through early November. They also run sightseeing tours of the Alexandria harbor, a tour to Mount Vernon, and a pirate cruise. If you just want to get between the city and Alexandria, you can get one-way tickets. 205 The Strand, Alexandria, Virginia, 22314. 877/511–2628; 703/684–0580; www.potomacriverboatco.com. From $28.
Bus and Trolley Tours
A number of companies run hop-on, hop-off services that give you the freedom to see all the major sights and disembark to explore the ones that hold the most interest for you. The two-day tickets are good value, particularly as it's unlikely you'll see everything you want to in just one day.
ANC Tours. The only bus company authorized by the National Park Service to offer riding tours through Arlington National Cemetery departs daily from the Cemetery Visitors Center. 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. 202/488–1012; www.anctours.com. $9.
Big Bus Tours. Brightly painted red, white, and blue open-top, double-decker buses provide a hop-on, hop-off service with different city loops. Discount ticket prices are sometimes offered online. 877/332–8689; www.bigbustours.com. From $43 for one day; $54 for two days.
Gray Line. A 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 nine-hour "Mount Vernon/Arlington Cemetery" tour includes visits to the Tomb of the Unknowns, Iwo Jima Memorial, and the Lincoln, Korean, and Vietnam memorials. The popular "D.C. After Dark" tour gives visitors a glance at the city's top attractions when the sun goes down and the monuments light up. Stops include the U.S. Capitol, the Jefferson, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials, as well as the White House. 301/386–8300; 800/862–1400; www.graylinedc.com. D.C. in a Day $50; Mount Vernon/Arlington Cemetery $90; D.C. After Dark $45.
Gross National Product. Members of the GNP comedy troupe lead extremely lively and entertaining 1½-hour "Scandal Tours" airing D.C.'s dirty linen, from George Washington to Barack Obama. They are held on Saturday at 1 pm, April through August, and reservations are required. 202/783–7212; www.gnpcomedy.com. $30.
Old Town Trolley Tours. For convenience, you can't beat these hop-on, hop-off tours, which take in more than 100 of the main historical and cultural landmarks and also head into Georgetown and the Upper Northwest. Each of the three loops, aboard environmentallyfriendly orange-and-green motorized trolleys, takes two hours if you ride straight through, but you can disembark as many times and for as long as you like at any of the 20 stops. On board, there's live narration by the conductor. Tours run from 9 am from the Washington Welcome Center or Union Station, with last reboarding at 5 pm. Tickets cover two or three of the separate routes, and discounts are offered for online purchases. 202/832–9800; 888/910–8687; www.trolleytours.com. $39–$48 for one day; $78–$96 for two days.
On Board D.C. Tours. The daily six-hour "D.C. It All" tour lets you hop on and off with the guide at 12 locations, and from mid-March through October the tour includes a one-hour private Potomac River cruise. There's also a three-hour "D.C. The Lights!" nightlife tour. 301/839–5261; www.onboarddctours.com. Day tour $70 Mon.–Thurs., $80 Fri.–Sun.; nightlife tour $60.
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. For full details, see the Official Washington chapter.
National Public Radio. Tours of the broadcasting facilities are available on weekdays at 11 am. Register online in advance of your trip and plan to show up 15 minutes beforehand for a security screening. 1111 N. Capitol St. NE, Northeast, Washington, District of Columbia, 20002. 202/513–2000; www.npr.org. Free.
Voice of America. This is the U.S. government's foreign broadcaster, beaming news and current affairs programming around the world in 44 languages, and you can get a look behind the scenes on a tour. 330 Independence Ave. SW, Capitol Hill, Washington, District of Columbia, 20201. 202/203–4990; www.insidevoa.com. Free.
M.J. Love Photography. City Photo Walking Tours, led by portrait photographer M.J. Love, include several two-hour tours that guarantee picture-postcard images of the nation's capital. 800/737–4051; www.mjlovephotography.com. $140.
Sonny Odom. This nationallyknown photographer offers custom tours for shutterbugs, with a four-hour minimum. 703/379–1633; www.sonnyodom.com. $50 per hour.
Washington Photo Safari. Founder E. David Luria promises opportunities for photographers of all skill levels (even camera phones are OK) on his half-day and full-day "Monuments and Memorials" workshops, held every Wednesday and Saturday. Special themed tours, led by a team of professional photographers, including "A House of Cards: Icons of Capitol Hill," "Washington National Cathedral: An Insider's View," and "Georgetown By Land and Sea," are held on selected weekends. 877/512–5969; www.washingtonphotosafari.com. From $74.
There's no better way to get the best out of your visit to Washington, D.C., than to hire someone to take you exactly where you want to go and dedicate their expertise to you and your party alone.
A Tour de Force. Local historian and author Jeanne Fogle will escort you via custom-designed limo or on walking tours of historic homes, diplomatic buildings, and "the best little museums in Washington." You can opt for half-day, full-day, multiday or evening tours. 703/525–2948; www.atourdeforce.com.
D.C. Sightseeing. Well-known author Anthony Pitch, winner of a number of awards and with appearances on many TV programs, leads several D.C. Sightseeing walking tours, including a full day "highlights" tour and a pair of two-hour excursions, "The Curse of Lafayette Square" and "The Lincoln Assassination." Tours can also be customized to your requirements. Washington, District of Columbia. 301/437–2345; www.dcsightseeing.com. $100 per hr (min 4 hrs) per individual or group (plus charge for driver, if one is used).
Guide Service of Washington. In business since 1964, this company puts together half-day and full-day tours of D.C. sights, including some that venture off the beaten path. 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 between two and three hours. D.C. city ordinance requires that riders be at least 16 years old; some tour companies have weight restrictions of 250 pounds. Tours, limited to 6 to 10 people, begin with an instruction session.
Capital Segway. More than 25 historic sights are included on this company's Segway tours, which depart from the corner of 14th and I Street NW. 202/682–1980; www.capitalsegway.com. From $65.
City Segway Tours. Several tours, lasting two or three hours, are on offer, including the National Mall sights, Museums, and Cherry Blossom and customized trips for small groups. 877/734–8687; www.citysegwaytours.com. From $65.
Scootaround Inc.. This company rents scooters and wheelchairs for self-guided tours. Washington, District of Columbia. 888/441–7575; www.scootaround.com. From $150 for three days .
Segs in the City. Daily departures from the Ronald Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Avenue range from one to 2½ hours and explore the top sights on the National Mall. 800/734–7393; www.segsinthecity.com. From $45.
Variety is the spice of the many walking tours that explore the city, ranging from standard sightseeing to themed tours with a focus on anything from historical events to hauntings to neighborhood culinary heritage. .
Capitol Historical Society. American-history scholar Steve Livengood leads guided tours around the grounds of the Capitol every Monday at 10, March through October. The two-hour tour starts at Union Station. 202/543–8919; www.uschs.org. $10.
Cultural Tourism DC. This nonprofit group has 15 self-guided Neighborhood Heritage Trails, plus a citywide African-American Heritage Trail, all of which are highlighted with historic markers. All the tours can be downloaded from their website. One week each fall, the group leads free guided walking tours that highlight the history and architecture of certain neighborhoods, from the southwest waterfront to points much farther north. You can also check out other cultural events, many free, happening around the city on their website. 202/661–7581; www.culturaltourismdc.org. Free.
DC by Foot. Dozens of tours, including the Tidal Basin and National Mall, Arlington National Cemetery, Capitol Hill, Georgetown, and U Street, are led by guides who work for tips, guaranteeing a highly entertaining experience. Tours last two to four hours, and are available year-round, but days and times vary by season and advance reservations are required. 202/370–1830; www.freetoursbyfoot.com. Guides work for tips.
DC Metro Food Tours. Three-hour tours, on weekends year-round, explore the culinary heritage of a D.C. neighborhood, with 10 locales to choose from. There's also a D.C. Pub Crawl around Old Town, Capitol Hill, and U Street, and private tours can be arranged. 202/683–8847; 800/979–3370; www.dcmetrofoodtours.com. From $30.
DC Walkabout. Download a tour to any mobile device and set off in your own time and at your own pace, guided by a narration, historical recordings, and even music and sound effects. Tours, ranging from one to two miles, include "American Scandal," "Capitol Hill," "The Georgetown Ghost," "Haunted History," and "the Lincoln Assassination. 202/421–4053; www.dcwalkabout.com. $9.
History on Foot. Relive the night of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination with Detective McDevitt on this two-hour walking tour. From Ford's Theatre you'll follow the escape route taken by assassin John Wilkes Booth on the 1½-mile trek, ending at Lafayette Park. Tours are on Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday, March through October. 202/347–4833; www.fords.org. $15.
Natalie Zanin's Historic Strolls. Step back in time on one of these interactive theatrical tours, which revisit Washington D.C. during the Civil War, World War II, or in the 1960s. You can also sign up for a Ghost Story Tour, on which Natalie Zanin dresses as Dolley Madison's ghost and shares stories of hauntings around the city, including Lafayette Square Park, where Edgar Allan Poe's spirit is said to wander. 301/588–9255; www.historicstrolls.com. $12.
The Smithsonian Associates. A range of fascinating guided walks around the city and nearby communities are available. An all-day "Booth's Escape Route" tour starts at Ford's Theatre, heads out to related sites in Maryland and Virginia. Within the city, an expert guide reveals eco-friendly architecture in Washington D.C., including an equally eco-friendly lunch. 202/633–3030; www.smithsonianassociates.org. From $129.
Spies of Washington Tour. Two centuries of espionage are revealed during this two-hour tour of Washington D.C. sites, in the company of a retired Air Force officer and former president of the National Military Intelligence Association. 703/569–1875; www.spiesofwashingtontour.com. $15.
U.S. National Arboretum. One of the most popular tours in the city is the National Arboretum's Full Moon Hike, offered about three times a month (except July and August). It's a brisk 4-mile walk through the grounds and hills by the Anacostia River, which afford beautiful views of the city at night. The Arboretum also has a number of other walking tours through the enchanting gardens. Registration is required. 202/245–2726; www.usna.usda.gov. $22.
Washington Walks. A wide range of tours offered by Washington Walks, includes the self-explanatory "Memorials by Moonlight" and "The Most Haunted Houses." "Get Local Saturdays" goes in-depth into Washington neighborhoods, and there are tours of Georgetown and Dupont Circle. 202/484–1565; www.washingtonwalks.com. $15.