Best sites of Washington D.C. - Trip Report

Our fourth break while on the East Coast road-trip over the Fall of 2009 was at Washington D.C. for a day. Three days is a minimum to breathe in what DC has to offer. A day only gives a sniff and needless to say, ours was a whirl-wind tour of the major sites.

Finding parking is a trick in itself as there is strict enforcement around the tourist spots – we saw several cars getting towed. For our part, we drove in from Philadelphia and chose to park at the Union Station parking lot (50 Massachusetts Ave) – extremely convenient with rates on par with other downtown areas (Rates - Cars 1 hr - $6; 2 hrs - $9; 3 hrs - $12; 3-4 hrs - $13; 4-5 hrs - $15; 5-12 hrs - $17; 12-24 hrs - $19). Many tours start from Union Station and the tickets can be purchased from the counters at the station.



A number of tour operators serve the area and given the traffic and parking problems, going with one of them definitely has many advantages. The DC metro system is excellent as well. The most popular tour options are:

1. Hop-on Hop-off open-top Double-Decker bus tours by Les Cars Rouge, a European tour operator that pioneered such tours in the early 80’s in European cities: The standard tour marketed in most brochures was a ticket valid for 48-hours (online pricing: Adults - $31, Children - $16). The 24-hour version was priced around 20% cheaper. A combo ticket that includes a cruise on the Potomac and a night-ticket were also available for higher pricing. Counter pricing was slightly higher. Below are some details about the double-decker tours:
  • The lower level is Air Conditioned and can be a refuge in inclement weather, but then the view is compromised.
  • Stops along Georgetown (Washington’s oldest neighborhood - river cruise access, shopping, and dining) and the National Cathedral.
  • Hours of Operation – Service is from 9 AM to 7 PM during the summer months (Memorial Day to Labor Day) otherwise till 5 PM.
  • The tour extends only as far as the Visitor Center at the Arlington Cemetery. To visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Changing of the Guards) and other sites, the best bet is to also purchase the Arlington Cemetery only Tourmobile tickets.
2. Hop-on Hop-off Tourmobile sightseeing trolleys by Landmark Services, a subsidiary of Universal Studios: This tour is authorized by the National Park Service and has been in operation since 1969. The standard tour is the “American Heritage Tour of Washington DC and Arlington Cemetery” with a one-day or two-day option. Pricing for the one-day option was Adults - $27, Children (3-11) - $13 and for the two day option, it was Adults - $35, Children (3-11) - $17. They also offered an Arlington Cemetery only tour (Adults - $7.50, Children 3-11 - $3.75), a 3.5 hour twilight tour (7 PM) Washington By Night tour (Adults - $30, Children - $15), a 5 hour Mount Vernon tour (Adults - $32, Children - $16), and a 2.5 hour Frederick Douglas tour (Adults - $7, Children - $3.50). Below are some of their noteworthy details:
  • They have the only riding tour available for the Arlington National Cemetery. Changing of the Guard’s ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a “not to be missed” event for most people and this tour offers the most convenient way to experience it.
  • Tour hours are from 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM with the recommendation that customers board their last bus of the day at-least by 3:30 PM. These hours can be too restrictive especially for people holding the one-day ticket option.

3. A/C Coach Tours by Gray Line: These tour offer more of a traditional organized bus tour experience with pick up from select hotels. The most popular is the day tour (8 hours) that include visits to the Capitol Building, White House South Lawn, Smithsonian Museums, and the World War II Memorial. The tour also goes by most other attractions in the area. Pricing is $55 Adults and $30 kids 3-12. They also have a 4-hour version and a very affordable 2-hour version (Adults $22 and Kids $11 with occasional two for one promotions!). Gray Line also offers several other tours that cover the Washington D.C. area and a 20-minute cruise on the Potomac. Below are some of their highlights:
  • Traditional organized tour experience as compared to hop-on hop-off.
  • Visits to White House South Lawn and Capitol Building included.

4. Old Town Trolley Tours by Historic Tours of America: They offer a two-day (2nd day free promotion) tour that includes hop-on hop-off privileges and offer three different color-coded loops – the orange loop covers all the sites along the national mall (most of the Monuments, Memorials, and Smithsonians), the green loop covers the National Cathedral, Uptown, and Georgetown areas, and the red loop is a shuttle to the Arlington Cemetery. The tour costs $31.50 for Adults and $16.20 for kids 4-12 (online price, counter pricing about 10% higher). Below are some of their specifics:
  • Live commentary.
  • Stops along Georgetown and the National Cathedral.
  • Hours – Buses run from 9 AM to 5:30 PM in the summer months (Daylight savings schedule, otherwise 4:30 PM).
  • The tour only operates till the Visitor Center at the Arlington Cemetery. Again, for visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Changing of the Guards) and other sites, the best bet is to also purchase the Arlington Cemetery only Tourmobile tickets.

5. Duck Tours by Historic Tours of America: This is a non-stop 90-minute unique amphibian tour that is geared towards families with little kids. Live entertaining commentary where sometimes facts are improved upon and a delightful river ride not intending to take you anywhere are its highlights. Ticket pricing is $28.80 Adults, $14.40 Kids 4-12 (online price, counter pricing about 10% higher). Below are some notable things about this tour:
  • Short 90-minute tour that goes by the major sites and includes a short cruise in the Potomac in the same vehicle.
  • Entertaining live commentary.
  • The tour departs hourly from Union station but can sell out.
Walking tours and Segway tours are both fairly popular among the healthy adults. We chose the Tourmobile one-day “American Heritage Tour of Washington DC and Arlington Cemetery” as ‘Changing of the Guards’, some Smithsonians and the major national monuments were in our priority list.

Washington D.C. is indeed a frugal traveler’s paradise, for admission fee is nonexistent at practically all of the attractions. What makes it even better is that entrance to the sites are available on a walk-in basis, except for the following:

  1. Washington Memorial: Free tickets are distributed for that days visit at the counter at 15th Street and Jefferson Drive starting at 8 AM. They run-out quickly and so remember to be waiting in line well before the opening. Reservation can be done online ($2) in advance.
  2. Capitol: The Visitor Center, Exhibition Hall, Gift Shop, and the 530-seat restaurant are open to everyone but a reservation is required for tours of the Capitol. There are several options for a tour and advanced planning is required.
  3. White House: Garden tours and White House tours are available but require advance planning. For the garden tours, tickets are distributed on the day of the tour on a first come first serve basis at 8 AM. For the White House tour, request for a reservation needs to be submitted through one’s member of congress, up to six months in advance. The visitor center is open to public at the corner of 15th and E streets 7:30 AM to 4 PM.
The rest of the attractions including the Smithsonians and the sites in Arlington Cemetery are walk-in admission (some sites have security check-points). For our part, we focused on three Smithsonians (National Gallery of Art, Air and Space Museum, and Natural History Museum), Tomb of the Unknown Soldier & Changing of the Guards at the Arlington Cemetery, and the National Postal Museum (building adjacent to the Union Station main entrance building). Overall, the National Postal Museum was the only disappointment as our expectation was set for a huge philatelic display while in reality there was only one gallery with a medium-sized global stamp collection and a smallish sheet collection display of US stamps. The Changing of the Guards ceremony and the Natural History Museum were our favorites. The Air and Space Museum followed closely but the planetarium shows (around $10) were only average at best.


Last Updated: 04/2013.

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