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How to tackle Washington D.C. in three days

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Wow, folks. It’s seriously cold and snowy in Cleveland in December. Who wouldn’t want to leave Northeast Ohio right now? If you find yourself dreaming of a quick three-day getaway, but can’t afford the cost or vacation time for a trip to the Caribbean or Hawaii, then Washington D.C. might be a solid bet for you.

Unlike Cleveland, with its constant snow and Arctic temperatures, the winter climate in D.C. is noticeably gentler. And by visiting D.C. during the winter, you will avoid the hectic throngs of tourists visiting during spring for the Cherry Blossom Festival, as well as side-stepping D.C.’s swamp-like climate during the summer months. After all, the city was built on a swamp! If you visit D.C. in December, January, or February, you’ll still need to bring your coats and gloves. However, frostbite is less of a concern in D.C. than it is in Cleveland. You can still take the city by storm, à pied, even during the winter months.

As a bonus, traveling to and from D.C. is remarkably easy, whether you travel by air or car.

So, is it really possible to tackle the Nation’s capital in three days? That answer is a resounding yes! D.C. is actually a rather small city, and most of the famous sites are located in close proximity. You just need to make sure you have a plan before arriving. And, that’s how this article can help!

First, a word on travel. Getting to any destination raises some cost and logistical questions. Below is a quick primer on air travel and driving options, which are probably the two easiest ways to travel to D.C.

Air Transportation: If you travel to D.C. by air, then you’re in luck. You’ll find that Cleveland Hopkins Airport offers numerous daily flights into Washington area airports. Be sure to research flight prices for the region’s three main airports to determine the best fare. The three main D.C. airports are Reagan National (DCA), Dulles (IAD), and Baltimore-Washington (BWI). Each airport boasts pros and cons, and here’s a quick takeaway on each:

  • Regan (DCA): Arriving at DCA will land you near the heart of D.C. proper. In fact, you can see the Washington Monument and Capitol building upon your descent. DCA is also on the Metro line (aka, D.C. subway system), which grants easy, cheap, and safe access to many major sites and areas of the city. Taxis to nearby sites are relatively inexpensive from DCA due to the proximity of DCA to downtown. If you don’t plan to rent a car during your stay in D.C., flying into DCA may be your best bet due to the numerous transportation options offered by this airport. However, a cautionary note: Airfares into DCA tend to be just a little pricier than other D.C. airports, so you definitely pay for convenience.
  • Dulles (IAD): If you choose to fly into IAD, you’ll arrive in the quaint, Virginia suburbs of D.C. You won’t have access to the Metro (however, a Metro extension is currently being built), and the airport is located roughly 35 minutes away from D.C. (without traffic). However, numerous buses will transport you to D.C if you’re willing to brave the hassle and the traffic. Alternately, a cab fare will cost approximately $80 from IAD to D.C.
  • Baltimore-Washington (BWI): A BWI arrival will position you closer to Baltimore than D.C. And, Baltimore is cool, but it deserves its own Examiner article. Located in the hinterlands of Maryland, BWI offers no Metro access, however you can take the MARC train for a small fare into Union Station in downtown D.C. Cab fare from BWI to D.C. also costs approximately $80. As a small consolation, BWI offers numerous Southwest flights to/from Cleveland, which are generally conservatively priced.

Driving to D.C.: You would not be unwise if you chose to drive to D.C. instead of flying! From most areas in Northeast Ohio, D.C. is roughly a 6.5 hour drive. By looking at a map of the United States, you might be surprised to find that this is the case, but rest assured, D.C. is easily drivable from Cleveland. Before leaving the Buckeye State, be sure to check the weather forecast, because the mountainous Pennsylvanian Turnpike can whip up a snow squall faster than it takes to fill up your gas tank. And if traffic jams give you a headache, try to avoid driving into D.C. between the hours of 6:30AM and 10:00AM, because you will find yourself dealing with local commuter traffic. D.C. has some of the worst traffic in the nation. P.S. If you're driving from Cleveland, then you are driving INTO D.C. in this direction. Heed the above commuter warning. Morning rush hours last from 6:30 – 10:00AM, and the evening rush hour extends from 3:00PM – 6:30PM. From Cleveland, the best time to drive through the D.C. area is from 11:00AM - 3:00PM (pay attention once you hit Frederick, MD). Despite the traffic woes, D.C. is not an “un-drivable” city, like New York. If you drive, you may opt to park your car at your hotel, and leave it there for the duration of your vacation because the city is mass-transportation friendly. Important side note: many hotels in D.C. charge a parking fee upwards of $30/day. Make sure you factor this into your budget when planning your vacation!

OK… You’re now in D.C. Congratulations! What do you do once you get there?

Day One: You’re probably a little tired from the traveling, and don’t want to be bothered with a lot of to/from logistical nonsense. To keep your sanity in-check on the first day of your arrival, follow this itinerary.

Arlington National Cemetery: The Arlington National Cemetery is a great first-day option because it’s vast enough to command several hours of your time, and it’s located just outside of D.C., which allows you to leave the D.C.-centric sites for the next day for logistical ease. You can drive to the Cemetery or take the Metro blue line to the Arlington National Cemetery stop. Located in Arlington, VA and adjacent to the Pentagon, this site is truly a humbling and awe-inspiring testament to our Nation’s history. Be sure to visit The Tomb of the Unknowns and The Changing of the Guard Ritual, which occurs every hour, on the hour. Some may find the Changing of the Guard Ritual to be an emotional experience, given its somberness and ritualistic honor, but the experience of seeing this ritual is remarkable and unparalleled. Another important site to visit at the Cemetery is the grave of President John F. Kennedy, who is one of two U.S. presidents interred at Arlington National Cemetery (William Taft being the other). His grave is marked by the Eternal Flame, which is designed to remain alighted 24/7, during any weather. Civil War history buffs may also be interested in visiting the Arlington House, residing atop Arlington National Cemetery. The Arlington House was the residence of Confederate Civil War General Robert E. Lee and his family before the Civil War. The House also offers a phenomenal view of D.C.

Iwo Jima Memorial: Adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery, near Rosslyn, is the famed Iwo Jima Memorial. This site is walkable from Arlington National Cemetery on a mild day. If the weather is cold, there is a free parking lot behind the Memorial. Go there, and Semper Fi!

Additional Options: If you still find yourself with time to kill, you can also visit the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial, located near Arlington National Cemetery. Taking the Metro (blue/yellow lines to the Pentagon station) is your best bet, because parking is very difficult, if not impossible. This Memorial is open 24/7/365. Make sure you visit the 9/11 Memorial Site website before visiting, because the Pentagon is very strict on which articles can/cannot be brought into the facility.

Food: You’re going to get hungry. This is a lot of walking! D.C. has amazing food! For a quintessential D.C. food experience, consider heading into Georgetown from this area. It will cost you an inexpensive cab fare from the Cemetery across the Key Bridge, but you’ll find yourself amidst an unparalleled array of food options. There is no Metro access to Georgetown, but if you feel ambitious after your day of traveling and traversing Arlington National Cemetery, you can walk across the Key Bridge (roughly 1.5 miles from the Cemetery). If you take a cab, instruct the driver to drop you off at M and Wisconsin, and go find your desired cuisine!

Day Two: You’re rested and re-charged, and ready to do a little walking. Today, you will witness the glory of the National Mall!

The National Mall Walk-A-Thon from West to East: Here, you will find the quintessential wonders of our Nation’s history, to include the Washington Monument, the Capitol Building, the Lincoln Memorial, and many of the Smithsonian Museums. The main corridor of the Mall (from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol Building) stretches approximately two miles in a linear path. It’s very walkable, but bring your winter gear because it gets blustery.

You might remember a scene from the movie “Forrest Gump”, where Tom Hanks’ character, Forrest Gump, gives an inaudible speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In the background stretches the Reflecting Pool, along with the Washington Monument, and a barely discernible Capitol Building in the offing. This scene actually offers a view of the real National Mall. Many of D.C.’s important monuments reside along this path, and walking its entirety is a must for D.C. tourists.

It might be said that the easiest way to tackle the Mall is by starting at the Lincoln Memorial, and walking east. The best and easiest way to arrive at the Lincoln Memorial is via the Smithsonian or Foggy Bottom Metro stations (blue/orange lines).

If you begin at the Lincoln Memorial, there is a lot to see in this area, aside from Honest Abe himself. Although let it be said, the Lincoln Memorial is probably one of the most thought-provoking and inspirational tributes to U.S. history and humanity. Spend some time there during your visit. Your jaw might drop. Read the inscriptions on the walls, and see if that doesn't move you as a human being. And when you visit Honest Abe himself, make sure you look at his hands. He is seated with one fist clenched and one open hand. In print, that doesn't sound like much, but when you see it, it is mesmerizing

Just north of the Lincoln Memorial is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. You must see this. No matter what your political bent or affection for U.S. history, it’s difficult to suppress the emotions felt when seeing first-hand the names of tens of thousands of names on this Wall.

Just south of the Lincoln Memorial is the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Even though the Korean War tends to get sadly glossed over in history lessons, this Memorial is a winner. The Memorial depicts the likeness of real U.S. soldiers combatting the enemy while trudging through rice paddies in Korea. And, it doesn't look easy at all. While it may not sound inspiring or glamorous written in this article, the Memorial is a must-see because it captures the grief, exhaustion, and humanity of U.S. soldiers during that war. You can literally see the emotions captured on their statuesque faces.

Keep walking east past the Reflecting Pool, and you will find the relatively new WWII Memorial near the corners of 17th NW and Constitution. Of course, you must stop here. Surprisingly, the Memorial only opened in 2004, and honors the 16 million who served in the armed forces of the U.S., and the States from which they came. For being such an important war in terms of casualties, ideology, and military weaponry, it is surprising that this Memorial was so delayed in making an entrance. But, here it is, and it is not to be missed.

As you walk past the WWII Memorial, you’ll notice the White House on your left. Get your camera ready! You SHOULD walk to the White House, because it’s only a block from the Mall. If you would like to book a White House tour, make sure to do so in advance through your Congressman (visit the White House website for info). Remember, security at the White House is really strict, so don’t stick your hands through the fence to take a picture or harass the Secret Service personnel. It sounds silly and trite to say this, but you don’t want your camera confiscated. Don't get your hand slapped. Seriously.

OK, keep walking East, and you will undoubtedly notice the Washington Monument on the Mall. However, these days, it may not be the iconic Washington Monument that you recognize. The Monument is actually “closed” for repairs due to an earthquake that hit the region in August 2011. Thus, the Monument is shrouded with scaffolding and you cannot take the elevator tour to the top of the Monument. However, the scaffolding is actually kind of neat, and adds an unusual element of coolness to the Monument. So check it out.

As you head east, you’ll notice numerous museums lining the Mall. The National Museum of American History, the National Museum of Natural History, the National Air and Space Museum, the Smithsonian Castle, the National Archives, and the Holocaust Museum all beckon to natives and tourists alike. Each of these museums requires a considerable amount of time spent within its walls to adequately view the exhibits. And in fairness, you can’t accomplish each of these museums in a single day. The National Archives is very neat, in that is exhibits the founding documents of our Nation - the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. The Smithsonian museums are free of charge, and you can walk in during normal business hours. The Holocaust Museum is a somber and potentially disturbing museum given its exhibits. For adults and history buffs it is a must-see. This museum may not be appropriate for children, however, so please do a little research if you’re planning a trip there with kids in tow. Some of the exhibits are graphic and disturbing, especially for young ones.

Rounding out your West-to-East Mall walk-a-thon is the Capitol Building. The Capitol resides at the eastern terminus of the Mall, and you should definitely spend some time there. If you visit the U.S. Capitol website, you can book a free tour online for your party while visiting,

Food: You’re going to get hungry. At the end of your walk-a-thon, consider heading to Union Station or Eastern Market, both of which are easy jaunts from the U.S. Capitol. Union Station (red line) offers food court fare from around the world, and Eastern Market (blue/orange lines) is a trendy neighborhood boasting casual and semi-upscale dining for numerous cuisines.

Day Three: It’s your last day in D.C. How sad! Depending on your flight or departure time, you may not have many hours to dedicate to site-seeing. And therefore, your last few hours should combine food and history.

Old Town Alexandria: This quaint, nautical neighborhood of Alexandria, VA is adored by tourists and natives alike. Easily accessible from the King Street Metro station (blue/yellow line), this area is a certainly something to cross of your to-do list. From its fantastic restaurants, and cobble-stone streets, and Revolutionary War history, Old Town offers something for everyone. Take the Metro and walk down King Street towards the Potomac River. Along the road, you’ll find plenty of main-stream stores, restaurants, boutiques, and antiques shops. Take a venture off of King Street, and you’ll find streets lined with beautiful historical homes. Old Town is the essence of Americana.

Mount Vernon: If you have a car, Mount Vernon is also a wonderful place to visit. Situated just outside of D.C. off the George Washington Parkway, Mount Vernon was George Washington’s home for more than 40 years. This site is only accessible by car, bike or tour bus. You must visit the Mount Vernon website in advance for tickets, and plan to spend roughly three hours on the Estate. The trip is worth the hassle, though. Mount Vernon rests upon a hill overlooking the Potomac River, and admission allows you to view Washington’s home and estate. This is a great trip for kids and adults alike. Kids will be thrilled by the animals present on the grounds, including horses, hogs, chickens, and sheep. And if you’re hungry, the Mount Vernon Inn offers wonderful cuisine not unlike the fare that would have been eaten in Washington’s day. Make sure to place reservations.

You did it! Voilà! There you have it! Quintessential D.C. in three days! Despite the travel involved, taking D.C. by storm is easily do-able in three days. Of course, if you have more time to spare, there is much more to see. But, this tip-of-the-iceberg primer will whet the appetite of anyone who plans to visit D.C. and hopefully come back for more. Because after all, our Nation’s capital is not so far away from Cleveland! There's always an opportunity for Round Two!

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