Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Touring the monuments on the National Mall by foot

A trip to Washington D.C. isn't complete without a tour of the monuments and memorials located on the National Mall and along the Potomac River. One of the great things about D.C. is the National Park Service doesn't charge entry fees for the monuments – so much to see, for free! In my opinion, the best way to navigate the National Mall is on foot and by using public transportation.

Take advantage of public transportation

You don't want to spend your time tied up in traffic or searching for a parking space. If you take the Metro and walk, you avoid wasting time with the parking hassles. You see much more if you are on foot anyway.

The Smithsonian Metro station (on the Orange Line) is the most convenient Metro stop because it is located right in the midst of the National Mall. It is center to the museums, monuments, Capitol building and other federal buildings. There are also some buses which I noticed recently – most notably the DC Circulator. They’ve added a route that takes you around the National Mall – I haven’t tried it yet but sounds like a great way to save some time and still see everything on foot. You can either get to the Capitol side of the Mall or to the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorial sides.

If you do want to drive...

If you do prefer to drive, there is some free parking
by the monuments. But unless you're a real early bird, these lots fill up pretty quickly and some stipulate limited parking hours which puts you back in the find a parking spot loop. On the plus side, if you drive downtown on the weekends and are early enough, you can typically grab some free parking along Constitution Avenue. Paid parking is also available but it is not cheap. If we do paid parking, we’ve used Panda Parking but primarily park at Union Station and start at the Capitol and walk down or just hop the Metro’s Red line and transfer to other ones to get us where we want to go.

Start at the Washington Memorial and loop around

Since the memorials are laid out symmetrically, it is
easy to make the most of your time and see it all. The best place to start is the Washington Monument because this is the only monument where you need tickets if you want to go inside and ride to the top.
Tickets tend to go quickly, so you will want to secure these as early as possible. Tickets are free and distributed on a first-come, first-served basis; you can get these at the 15th Street and Jefferson Drive kiosk. If you wait too long to get them, there may be no availability or a wait of several hours to get inside the memorial, taking away time from seeing everything else or, alternatively, you can pay a small fee and reserve your place online. (Just to note, the elevator is temporarily closed for repairs until 2019).

After seeing the Washington Monument, it’s a

relatively short distance to the World War II Memorial. Afterward, you can stroll along the reflecting pool to get to the other side where the Lincoln, Vietnam Veterans and Korea War Memorials are located. This is a nice walk, and you can often spot a lot of wildlife along the way.

Want to see it all? Just keep walking

WWII Memorial, Reflecting Pool and Lincoln Memorial
If you are ambitious and want to see most, if not all of the monuments in one day, after visiting the Lincoln Memorial, head south to loop around to the FDR Memorial on Ohio Drive and Jefferson Memorial on Raoul Wallenberg Place. This is a bit of a hike, but a neat walk. 

There is also a hidden gem along this route, the not
highly publicized District of Columbia War Memorial. The memorial commemorates District of Columbia citizens who served in WWI; you can pass through
here on your way to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorials.

District of Columbia WWI Memorial
If you want to see it all, and don't mind the walking, after seeing the FDR Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial should be next on the list. After visiting the Jefferson Memorial, continue around and the Holocaust Museum is on Raoul Wallenberg Place.

This route will loop you around the Mall and bring you closer to the center of where the rest of the museums are located. Chances are visiting the monuments will take up most of the day; if you're pressed for time, all can be seen in the same day, but if you have time to linger you can always pick up where you left off the next day.

At this point you'll be back at the Smithsonian Metro Station, where a number of the Smithsonian museums are located. All are right near the station; the Smithsonian museums are free. Chances are though you'll want to save these for another day. It is easy to spend hours in each museum, so if time is limited, you might want to plan ahead of time to determine what you want to see most. There's much to see, but by planning it well, you can see most, if not all, of what you want and more. 

What to wear

Plan to wear a good pair of walking shoes though because you'll be putting some mileage on your footwear. While the monuments look close together on a map, or even by eye, they aren't as close as they appear. Dress for the weather too. In the spring, summer and even sometimes in the fall it can get rather hot. Early spring is unpredictable and winters can be cold! So definitely check your weather app before you plan to spend the day walking around the National Mall. Also, there is not much in terms of food down on the Mall but there are kiosks and often truck vendors located in scattered places.

Be warned: No matter how much you do, your visit is likely to leave you wanting to see more. Even after 10 years, I still keep going back to see it again and again.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Summertime fun in Old Time Alexandria, Virginia

No Shortage of Things to do in Old Town during the Summer Months . . . 

The Old Town section of Alexandria never lacks for things to do and summertime is a fantastic time to spend a day, evening or even a week exploring this quaint and happening city. Alexandria is located just south of Arlington along the Virginia side of the Potomac River. Once a part of Washington D.C., it is a part of the land given back to Virginia in the 19th century. 

Old Town Alexandria is the section of the city where there is a lot of activity going on. and visitors taking a stroll along the streets can typically find lots to do. Both locals and tourists spend time at the many museums, restaurants, ice cream shops, historic landmarks, live music and enjoy the numerous things to see and do.

There are also many annual summer events. Whether you are visiting Alexandria specifically or just want to explore beyond the Washington, D.C. area, here are some fun summertime things to check out:

Ideas for things to do on Father's Day

Gadsby's Tavern, Friendship Firehouse and the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary offer free tours for Dad on Father's Day (the Firehouse is free for the whole family that day). Whether you are looking for something different or are a real history buff, you'll enjoy learning about places chocked with history and where prominent families, such as the Washingtons, Carlyles, and Lees, along with other noteworthy people, spent time. 

The Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site is a well-preserved fort in the U.S. from the Civil War era. Fort Ward usually offers Civil War reenactments and tours led by soldiers. Additionally, you can tour the museum to see their extensive exhibits and collections.

Other museum events in Old Town

Carlyle Housewarming

Each first Saturday in August brings the Carlyle Housewarming at Carlyle House. During this event, visitors can watch period era interpreters recall the 1753 moving in day of John Carlyle and family to their new mansion

Additionally, on this day John and Sarah Carlyle's son, William, arrived. Usually, Mr. and Mrs. Carlyle are present for these types of events and you can participate in a meet and greet with these historic figures (they stay in character).

Friendship Firehouse Museum

The Friendship Firehouse Festival also hosts an annual birthday celebration the first Saturday in August - fun for the whole family. Originally established in 1774, the Friendship Firehouse Company is a landmark. Fun, history and celebration wrapped up in one.

Festival of the Arts

The Alexandria Festival of The Arts takes place every September. Stroll down King Street and enjoy the paintings, sculptures, jewelry, photos and more! This annual event showcases many different styles of art and caters to different budgets. You can browse, buy and/or talk with the artists about their work. It's a large event and some have said it's one of the best art festivals in the country. Artists from all over the U.S. attend. 2017 celebrates the festival's 15th year.

Other things to see and do in Old Town

There are plenty of other things to do in Old Town during the summer. We often take a ride over there on a whim and explore the museums, stop in one of the numerous great restaurants or pop into one of the quaint shops. We also often like to just walk along the riverfront area. On your way down to the riverfront, stop by one of the many ice cream shops and grab a cone to bring with you.

Stop in the Torpedo Factory to learn about its history, then browse through the many artist studios which are now housed in the once factory. You can also buy tickets at the riverfront and take a boat tour along the Potomac. Many people simply like to sit down, relax to watch the boats. Or they feed the birds and ducks that hang out in this area.
Sunset at Alexandria's waterfront area

If you drop by the Ramsey's Visitors' Center on the Corner of King and Fairfax Streets, they are happy to give you brochures, answer questions or just get more information about what there is to see and do (Note: There are also restrooms here). 

The local Farmer's Market, which is believed to be one of America's longest running markets, offers a variety of fruit, vegetables, baked goods, flowers, plants and crafts for sale. The market runs every Saturday from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. If you don't make it in the summer, the market is a year-round one.

Alexandria is a wonderful destination for a summer getaway, or if you're local, it's a great day trip. For more scheduled events that might be going on at any given time, check out the The City of Alexandria's website.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Family fun on Father’s Day in the D.C. area

Father's Day is almost here. If you’re looking spend a day out with Dad and are in Washington D.C. metro area, you won’t be lacking for things to see or do. June usually brings beautiful weather in the District and its suburbs (albeit sometimes hot!) and it’s a great time of year to be out and about.

Looking for ideas of things to do with Dad this year? Here are some thoughts:

Go to a car show

Car show at an Air Show in Manassas a few years back
Every Father’s Day a number of places in the region host car or antique car shows. Here’s are some of the ones I know about:

Sully Historic Site – This is a long running event, now more than 40 years. Co-sponsored by FCPA and The Model A Ford Club of America, see hundreds of classic and antique cars on display. Family-friendly. Admission includes a tour of the 1794 house and grounds. 

Crystal Car – Held in Crystal City, 2017 is its first event. This car show offers a variety of cars including electric, sports, classic muscle cars and motorcycles, to name a few. There is a beer garden hosted by the Washington Wine Academy. The event is also advertised as having some kid-friendly activities too.  

Old Town Warrenton Father’s Day Car Show – Another long-time tradition, this car show takes place on Main Street in Warrenton, Va. See classic cars, hot rods, bikes, tractors and more. They have an active Facebook page to find more information and updates.  

Father’s Day Blues, Brews and BBQ – Hosted by the Goodstone Inn & Restaurant in Middleburg, Va., this event is advertised as a family-friendly day full of activity. There is the classic car show, along with lawn games, music and a BBQ buffet.

Kent Island Cruisers Father’s Day Show – This annual event is held at the Kent Island High School in Stevensville, Md. (Side note, there is a great nature preserve located in the area too – see my earlier post).

There are some other car shows too, the Capital Cruisin' website has many listed, so if you want to go beyond local, there are numerous other shows too.

Take in a museum in Alexandria

George Washington greets his guests
Many of the local museums in D.C. are free daily, but they’ll also probably be crowded this time of year. If you want to explore something different, many of the historic sites in Alexandria offer Father’s Day specials. Gadsby’s Tavern, Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary and the Friendship Firehouse are all offering free admission for Dads on Father’s Day (the firehouse is offering free admission for the whole family). There are many terrific restaurants in the area, you can end your day with taking Dad to a nice dinner.

Over across Route 1 in Mount Vernon, George Washington himself will be at his beloved home to celebrate Father’s Day. He’ll talk about his role as a husband, stepfather and Father of the United States during a special program being offered, “Father to the First Family”.

Water fun

If your Father’s Day is going to be spent with your little ones, water fun usually fits nicely into the equation. Check out SplashDown in Manassas, one of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority’s many pools/waterparks, Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole (Fairfax County run) or Waterworks Waterpark (Dale City). Day or weekend trip? Head down I-95 to the ever-popular Kings Dominion (believe it or not, I’ve never been to Kings Dominion but everyone I know who has loves it!)

Other Father’s Day ideas

Are the kids older or you’re celebrating with all adults and maybe you’re looking to something more “grown up”? In the District itself, I’ve noticed there are a ton of restaurants downtown offering special Father’s Day brunches. Also, one of Virginia’s many vineyards are also other good options.

Like enjoying the great outdoors? Up for a hike anyone? If it’s not too hot out, try visiting Rock Creek Park,
Theodore Roosevelt Island, Prince William Forest Park, Manassas National Battlefield Park or Great Falls Park (Virginia or Maryland side). Want to go a little further or make a weekend out of it? Head out to Skyline Drive (about 90 minutes from downtown, 60 from Fairfax County). You can enjoy a nice hike, leisure stroll or simply enjoy nature and the fab scenery. There are a handful places to eat or grab food along the way or you can stop at one of the numerous areas with your own picnic lunch.

Happy Father’s Day!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Free things to see and do in Washington, DC

Washington D.C. is one of the top tourist cities in the United States. Throughout the year visitors come from near and far to visit this historic and amazing city. A city full of wonderful landmarks, attractions and other things to see and do.

Traveling is typically expensive no matter where you go and, while it is true accommodations and food are pricey in the District, there plenty of free things to do too. This can help make bring costs down if traveling on a budget.

Walk the city

Upon arrival in the capital city, visitors are often bombarded with pricey tours and other ways to explore the city. While it’s true organized tours provide a thorough (and often faster) viewing of the city overall, many of them are expensive. If you want to tour the city and keep to a budget, as long as you do not mind walking and have the time to do it, it is fun to tour the city on foot and/or using the Metro rail and bus system when possible. Or you can rent a bike to cover more ground.  


The Hope Diamond
Unlike other cities which charge high entry fees for their museums, this is not the case for much of Washington. For instance, the Smithsonian museums house some of the most amazing artifacts and special exhibits and all are free to enter. You can make a donation but these are low-key and not forced on you as “admission” in some museums do in other cities. There are many museums in the network, each with a different focus. For the most part, the Smithsonian museums are close in proximity to one another and the Smithsonian Metro station puts you smack in the middle of the museum area of the National Mall. For a list of museums, the Smithsonian website offers a wealth of information. 

Ford's Theatre and Petersen House are run by the National Parks Service. Touring the historic museum and the home where President Lincoln passed on after the assassination took place in the theatre is free of charge but does require tickets. Occasionally, these tickets can be gotten on the fly, but this option is not always available, especially during peak tour times of the year because tickets go quickly. Plan to get them early! If you're only going to be in Washington once, book tickets online (there is a fee).

Monuments and Memorials

When one thinks of the U.S. Capital City, the monuments almost immediately come to mind. Entry to all the monuments are free, although the Washington Monument does require tickets for those who are adventurous enough to ride to the top (note: the elevator is closed for repairs until sometime in 2019).
Jefferson Memorial/Tidal Basin (2017)
Nestled throughout the National Mall, the monuments in Washington are truly a wonder, especially from an architectural perspective.  Many of the memorials have small museums, plaques or storyboards where you can see or learn more. Then there is also the Tidal Basin that many of the monuments surround. It’s a beautiful walk and there are benches along the way so you can stop and take in the view. Many people also picnic here.

Capitol, Library of Congress and U.S. Botanic Garden

The U.S. Capitol Building, the hub of U.S. government, offers free tours, although passes must be gotten in advance through specific channels. Although, a newer option is to book a tour online; limited tours are available this way. During non-peak seasons, you can book very close to the time you want to visit. If you’re visiting during peak tourist times, I recommend you reserve your tickets early. 
U.S. Capitol (2012)
While you're in the area of the Capitol, check out the Library of Congress. After your tour, you can take the underground corridor right into the Thomas Jefferson building of the LOC. There are two other buildings, the John Adams Building and the James Madison Memorial Building (I haven’t gotten into those yet). Additionally, just next to the Capitol is the United States Botanic Garden, a beautiful place to visit.

White House

The White House is another can't miss landmark; however, admission to the free self-guided tour also
White House (taken many years ago)
requires pre-planning and advance booking. This one cannot be booked online, you have to go through designated channels. With heightened security, the current process could change at any time. Recently, when I've been downtown the barrier placements have moved a few times. When I first moved here, we were able to walk up to the White House fence itself but over the years times have changed. If you can't get close on your visit and want to minimize the barriers in your photos, you can get some nice shots by standing back a bit further into Lafayette Square.

National Zoo

The National Zoo, run by the Smithsonian, is also free. Certain attractions or special events (i.e. ZooLights) may have a small nominal cost and parking is not free, but entrance the zoo and most exhibits are all open to the public free of charge. The zoo is open year-round.

Old Post Office

Old Post Office (2017)
The Old Post Office is another wonderful landmark. NPS runs the elevator up this historic tower and it’s a free tour. Spectacular views! This is in the building that now houses the Trump International Hotel. I haven’t taken this tour since the remodel but from what I understand getting to the clock tower is now a separate entrance.

National Archives
Other places you can visit for free include the National Archives (see the 1297 Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights), U.S. Holocaust Museum, U.S. Supreme Court, Washington National Cathedral, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Union Station and also the many cool neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Marine/Iwo Jima Memorial
Just across the river in Virginia and close to the District are Arlington Cemetery (including Arlington House), Marine Corps War Memorial, United States Air Force Memorial and the Pentagon. Entry to all are free. If you want to tour the Pentagon, plan ahead of time, you cannot do it any shorter than 14 days in advance. Check the website for current policy.

While paid guided tours are useful to cover more ground, if you’re on a budget and do not mind doing some of the legwork yourself, you can see most of the District on your own, customizing based on your available time. Not to mention, you also never know what other landmarks, gardens, statues and other things you may stumble across by strolling through Washington, there is usually something to see in every corner of the city.