A First Timer's Take On Washington DC

What We Did + What We Would Do Differently

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Our First Trip To Washington DC

Given the choice of a mountain trail or a city street I’ll always choose the mountain trail. I’m more at home there. I understand the risks and I have a better appreciation for the beauty around me when I’m in the wilderness. However, the cities still have a lot to offer. While the trails a filled with warm fuzzies brought on by the wonders of Mother Nature, big cities provide some insight on the human race with heavy doses of culture, historical stories and man-made wonders.

This is exactly what we were in search of when Robb and I headed for Washington DC in April 2018. We planned our trip for the weekend *after* the famed Cherry Blossom Festival. That bit was accidental, but it turned out in our favor. We still got a few cherry blossoms but missed the chaos of the flower seeking crowds.

Heading To The East Coast...

We arrived on the East Coast in the wee hours of Friday morning with a flight into Dulles Intl Airport and crashed our tired heads into a fluffy airport hotel pillow. We drug ourselves out of bed the next morning to catch an Uber into the heart of Washington DC. Our plan was to roam the National Mall, wander the museums that struck our interest and indulge in delicious food. That is exactly what we did.

This was our first trip to Washington DC and we were not sure what to do. It was a bit overwhelming, honestly. It’s a city full of history — at monuments, in museums, around buildings. How do you pick what is worthy of your time and energy? Where do you eat — what’s worth the wait and what’s just overrated?

We weren’t sure what we were getting ourselves into. We had a few things on our list of things to do, but beyond that we were winging it. Here’s what we learned about Washington DC on our very first trip to the US Capitol…

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Getting Around DC

  • Uber/Lyft is easy. Almost too easy, we definitely used it on Friday night because we were too lazy to figure out how to use the Metro. In our defense we did use the Metro the next morning!
  • Parking anywhere near the National Mall is a disaster [+ expensive!]. Just watching the chaos from our Uber convinced us *not* renting a car was the right choice!
  • The Metro is easy, albeit not always on time. Once we figured out you do need to get a metro card to load and reload with cash [like a gift card of sorts] we were set to go. There were issues with the tracks or something, so we were roughly 30 minutes behind schedule. Not a big deal, being on vacation and all.
  • Wear comfy shoes! You’ll be walking a lot! I was breaking in a pair of new ‘cute’ boots — thankfully they bode well with miles upon miles [we averaged 9-12 miles a day] of walking!

The National Mall

  • There is security at the entrance of nearly every building. Be prepared to have your bag searched. We had our overstuffed day packs and no one actually made us empty them [yea, the security seemed more for show], but be ready to offer them up.
  • All Smithsonian Museums are free and all National Monuments are free. There are more museums and exhibits to see, but if you’re looking to save money, stick to the free options. Of course you can pay for special exhibits or access — but we didn’t have time for that [plus, the Washington Monument was closed].

  • Many of the Smithsonian Museums are focused on art — historical and cultural art, but art. I don’t understand art at all, so we skipped over a lot of those museums with the exception of the Smithsonian Castle which houses samples of art from each nearby museum.

  • The Holocaust Museum is located just off the National Mall and the main area is free. You’ll need to get tickets for the special exhibits. These tickets are first come, first serve and 11am is not early enough to get one. That said, the free exhibits were interesting as well [ie: Daniel’s Story].

  • The Air and Space Museum is awesome — that’s coming from space nerd Robb as well as myself. It was interesting and easy to navigate with a ton of plane, space and war history.

  • The Natural History Museum was interesting to Robb, but I got bored of it quickly. I think I much prefer live animals to stuffed animals. While the exhibits had interesting information, I’m more interactive.

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The US Capitol

  • The Library of Congress is stunning. Even if you can only stop in to stare at the ceiling, do it! There are multiple exhibits inside the library, mostly historical, that are free to explore.
  • You can use an underground tunnel to connect the Library of Congress with the US Capitol building. Simply follow the signs down the stairs and go through another set of security searches.
  • The US Capitol offers guided tours as well as a short photo tour. If you arrive before 3:10pm and can get a ticket for a full tour, do it! We did not get there early enough [and probably wouldn’t have been allowed with our bags anyway] for the full tour, but we did get to do a quick rotunda walk-about for a few photos within the US Capitol building.

Extra Tid Bits

  • If you can, stay late enough to walk the National Mall after dark. The monuments, memorials and capitol building are all lit up. It’s a whole different world than the middle of the day. You’ll be able to focus on just the buildings, since you can’t actually see all the people milling about in the dark.

  • You don’t need to stay near the National Mall to have easy access to the area. One perk of staying close is having a place to leave your bags during the day [we hopped from hotel to B&B to inn during our stay, so bags came with us every day], but it’s crazy expensive so branch out a bit if you’d like to save on accommodations. We stayed at the Kalorama Guest House and would highly recommend it — quiet, beautiful and with a full breakfast included!

  • We spent a fair bit of money on food while we were in Washington DC. Looking back, we’d recommend Timgad Coffee for a pick me, The Alibi [a British pub] for fish and chips happy hour and the Capital Grill for a pricey meal and absolutely amazing cheesecake dessert.

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Our Take-Away...+ What We Will Do Next Time!

There ya have it, the basics of our trip in a ‘things we learned along the way’ format. While we were there it felt like we saw a lot. Our legs were exhausted at the end of each day and savored out any empty bench available as we strolled away our days.

However, looking back at the massive lists of things to day in DC we skipped over a lot! Rather than attempt to hit every museum briefly we spent quality time in the ones we knew would be interesting to us. We can always come back to see the others next time!

We probably walked the length of the National Mall about three times a day, just roaming around. I’m sure there’s a more logical way to go about exploring the area but that would have required planning and an agenda, something we were trying to avoid. Instead we just walked off every bit of cheesecake about four times.

When we return we’d probably take on our trip in a similar fashion with a few slight adjustments. For starters, we’d plan further in advance so we would be able to stay in the same place for more than one night, allowing us to leave our bags behind. This would give us the opportunity to tour the US Capitol building. We’d also plan more than 21 days in advance so we could put our name on the list for a tour of the White House. Since we already saw the two ‘main’ museums on our list [Natural History, Air and Space] we’d branch out to the Air and Space museum in Virginia, the Smithsonian Zoo and the ticketed portion of the Holocaust Museum.

Heidi Berghammer

Heidi is the founder of Adventure Feet First and the Creator of Experiences. She is the brains and legs behind all of the adventures created here at Adventure Feet First. This means she thinks up the itineraries and when they’re even remotely close to home she is the one out there scouting the routes, campsites and local businesses. As a trail running, bikepacker and overall adventure seeker Heidi is definitely the person you want creating your adventures!

"Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages."

- George Washington

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