02 Jul 5 Tips for a relaxed and authentic trip to WASHINGTON, DC
1. Buy a SmartCard for the Metro
The Metro gets you from point A to point B in no time at all anywhere around DC. This is why it really doesn’t matter where you stay, you are likely to use the Metro multiple times a day.
First Advice: Get a SmartCard right away. It saves you $1 for each ride compared to the regular price.
Second Advice: Don’t even bother with all those mobile apps for the Metro. They are useless and will only waste your time getting you upset. Using Google Maps makes getting around a breeze: When entering your destination it will display the way to the nearest station, direction and all other stations.
I was impressed by the architecture of the subway, which is called Brutalism. Expansive, symmetrical shapes and the generous use of concrete. I wouldn’t call it “beautiful” but still it is impressive:
2. Take at least 3 days to explore the center
If you don’t do your homework ahead of time you may think that there are only a few well-known buildings and monuments to see in Washington, DC: The White House, the Monument, the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial. You could see all of these in a one day trip if must-be but you would miss out on a lot.
Because Washington, DC has so much more to offer.
Let’s take a look at the map. That’s always a good idea when beginning a trip. There is a grass strip extending horizontally that appears to be of importance. This is the National Mall where you can find almost all of the classic sights of Washington, DC.
So what can you find here? The Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and the Martin Luther King Memorial as well as the memorials for the Korean and Vietnam wars are all worth seeing. The most impressive one is the World War II Memorial.
These are all places where you can literally feel the American self-image and the very pronounced patriotism. For people from countries who find these kind of feelings usually hard to comprehend, this is a good place to give it another try.
If you have more than three days to stay you could start west of the National Mall at Arlington National Cemetery. This is the final resting place of John F. Kennedy with its eternal flame.
Of course, Washington also has more than a dozen museums of the Smithsonian Institute. American Indian history, the US Civil War, natural history and art – there is something for every taste here.
My Advice: Give yourself two hours for the National Archives. Aside from the American Declaration of Independence and various exhibitions including historical documents there is also the Magna Carta. As with most things in Washington, DC admission is free.
3. Bring your walking-shoes or rent a bike
The Metro is fast, however, if you truly want to see Washington, walking around is unavoidable. On the map, the National Mall may seem compact but that is very deceptive. Distances are great and even when staying close to the center you can easily walk many, many miles. Therefore, the same advice I give for any concrete city around the world:
Wear comfortable and good shoes. Your feet will thank you for it.
If your feet still hurt, there are two alternatives in Washington, DC. All around the National Mall you can rent bikes from Capital Bikes. This can save you a lot of walking time. You could also go a step further and rent a so-called Segway. Both can be paid for by credit card on-site.
4. Talk to residents!
While travel guides and blogs are great to gain knowledge about a city, they simply don’t compare to what you can learn from locals. That’s why I give this advice for every city. Perhaps, it is even more appropriate in Washington than ever.
How? What and Where?
Americans are generally quite open for small talk. I had such a conversation in the Shaw neighborhood on my way to U Street. Our conversation starter here was a huge turnip with fins and tentacles mounted on top of a car.
I learned about his participation in the Fishy Tour that is geared towards the labeling of genetically modified foods. The conversation also was very informative pertaining to the Shaw district but more about that in step 5.
Eventually we ended up sitting on the doorstep in front of his house sipping on a cold glass of soda.
In short, meeting and conversing with locals about their lifestyle and the vibe you get from that is something that can’t be bought in a travel guide. This is something you literally have to experience and go after yourself.
With a little luck, you may find long-term friendships and contacts abroad through which you can experience much more than just drinking a soda and making small talk.
5. Go discover neighborhoods outside the city center
At the beginning of this article I mentioned that Washington, DC has more than just a handful of interesting buildings and that you should stay for at least three days.
The question is, however, what do sights and attractions really tell you about the reality of living in a city?
Buildings and monuments are the product of long-term trends in society. These developments don’t happen in public places but rather the city where people actually live and work long-term.
By this, I don’t mean downtown Washington DC with skyscrapers, expensive shopping and short-lived hip bars.
I am also not talking about Washington Chinatown, although, I had the by far best noodle soup outside of Asia there. This was probably due the noodles being freshly prepared by hand right before putting them into the pot with the duck.
Back to the main topic:
I am talking about neighborhoods like the Shaw district mentioned in point 4.
It was formerly established as a settlement of freed slaves and then later named after the commander of the first all African-American infantry unit in the US military. Until the 1920 and the rise of Harlem, Shaw was the largest urban center of Afro-Americans.
It was still significant becoming the center of protest and racial riots in Washington, DC after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. In subsequent years, the neighborhood succumbed to petty crime and drug dealing.
The neighborhood has enjoyed a significant upturn through its Victorian architecture, its central location and proximity to governmental districts as well as the successful fight against crime in recent years.
However, the best part of Shaw are not its beautiful houses but the U-Street corridor. This area buzzes with life, especially in the evening hours. There are galleries, shops, bars, street art, music clubs and the best-known restaurant in all of Washington, DC: Ben’s Chili Bowl.
I has been serving the city’s best Chili since 1956 and its customers include celebrities like Barack Obama and Bill Cosby. There is often a line…
Unfortunately, there was a sudden heavy rain shower right after my arrival in U Street and my time in DC was almost over. This is why there are no pictures here. Still, I had a very good impression which is why I would recommend U Street to anyone who has enough time.
A cheap room in Washington, DC? Yes, it exists.
The backpacker hostel Duo Housing offers rooms starting at $30 a night which is very reasonable for American and especially Washington rates. Roof terrace, kitchen, internet ant contact to other travelers included. Click here for the website of Duo Housing DC.
Washington, DC truly left an impression for me. Initially, it was the extremely impressive monuments and unique and imposing architecture. Contrary to some opinions I found on the internet, Washington, DC is in no way a boring government town.
On the contrary: Those who are willing to take the time to go off the beaten path with be surprised at what they can discover here. The history of individual neighborhoods and the diversity that is alive everywhere.