My wife and I visited Washington DC from January 4 - 8, 2010. It was just the two of us - no children - and we stayed with friends in Vienna. These are random thoughts and observations - what we learned and what worked for us, as well as a summary of our trip.
1. Timing - We could not have picked a better time to visit based on crowds. Yes, it was cold and windy, but there were no waits anywhere we went, just walk up and walk in. There was no need to reserve tickets online for anything. That being said, if you want to go into the White House, or the House or Senate Chambers, you will need to make arrangements at least 30 days in advance. Once inside, there were few people to contend with and small groups for tours.
2. Transportation - We used the Metro and were very pleased. Parking was non-existent at Vienna after about 8:30am as most of Northern Virginia seems to want to park there (it is the farthest station out on the orange line). Dunn Loring was a longer drive to reach, but had parking available each day around 9:30am. Also, if you arrive at 10 or just after, you can grab a "reserved" spot which opens up to the public after 10am. We chose to arrive at 9:30 to take advantage of the all-day pass ($7.80/day for unlimited rides) as you cannot use them on weekdays prior to 9:30. Parking costs $4.50/day in the lots/decks which must be placed on a SmartTrip card which will set you back an additional $5 for the card initially.
We started at the WASHINGTON MONUMENT, arriving around 11:30 (I had reserved tix for noon online). Walked up and got 11:30 tix instead. A great place for us to start; centrally located and you can see everything from the top. On the ride down, try stand near the front or back doors for a better view of the memorial stones during the two stops along the way. Total time spent approx. 30 minutes.
Next stop was the AMERICAN HISTORY MUSEUM. As this was high on both of our lists, we spent a large part of the day here - mostly on the 3rd floor - and also ate lunch here (a little pricey, but good and convenient). Approx time: 4.5 hours
Having stayed in the museum until near closing (5pm), we then headed out on the mall to the monuments and memorials. Our first stop was the WORLD WAR II MONUMENT which I thought was well-done. My wife was not as impressed. I have to believe it is more impressive during warmer months when there is water present.
LINCOLN MEMORIAL - Got there just after dark. Gorgeous at night, with a great view of the Wash Monument and Capitol looking back up the mall.
KOREAN MEMORIAL - Great visual monument, but difficult to see in the dark (i.e. go during the day). Both of us really liked this memorial.
Long walk back to Smithsonian Metro stop, but plenty of people walking around the mall and on the streets so we never felt uneasy.
US CAPITOL - Again, walked up and got tix with no wait. Our tour group had about 20 people in it which seemed small enough to me. However, our tour guide (Natalie) still managed to walk off and leave half the group after telling us to take our time looking in one of the rooms. Along with another family, we attempted to join the next group coming through, only to be told by that guide that we would have to leave if we weren't with our original group!?! On our way out, I found a supervisor and let him know what happened. He took us back and finished the tour himself, plus got us tickets to the House Chamber which we didn't have. A great way to remedy what started as a very negative experience. Approx. time 2 hours.
Then we took the tunnel to the LIBRARY OF CONGRESS. Beautiful building, and the circulation desk was impressive. We could have spent more time here, but wanted to get to other things. Approx time 30 minutes.
SUPREME COURT - 30 minute presentation by the docent was very informative and well worth the time. Enjoyed walking around looking at the busts and portraits as well. Approx 1 hour.
From the Supreme Court, we walked past the NEWSEUM, which we had hoped to get back to, but didn't on this trip. It was cool to see the collection of front pages from all 50 states out front, though.
NATIONAL ARCHIVES - a must see/do while in DC. See the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Magna Carta. Photography is allowed, but no flash. Approx 1 hour.
We finished Day 2 at UNION STATION which was a cool building, but highly commercialized. We hopped the Metro to get there, then took it back home with a transfer to the orange line.
WHITE HOUSE VISITORS CENTER - the video was a good overview of the White House for those who do not have tickets for a tour. Otherwise, this was a stop we could have skipped. I certainly wouldn't go out of my way to go here. Approx 30 minutes.
We took the short walk over to view the White House from the front, then headed back to eat an early lunch in the Reagan Building which had an enormous and very diverse food court. Highly recommend this area for a quick bite.
After lunch, we went to FORD'S THEATER. There were no programs being offered, so we just toured the museum and walked through the balcony. We found this well worth our time (from the actual gun used, to the short drop from the box to the stage). Approx 1 hour.
The walk across the street to the house where Lincoln died was less than inspiring. First, there was a scaffold completely obscuring the entrance making it difficult to find. And once inside, we found only replica items and furniture in the small 3-room space. A disappointing exhibit, but it's free and right across the street from the theater, so you might was well walk though it. Approx. 5 minutes.
NATIONAL GALLERY & MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART - We found the Presidential portion of the gallery to be a must see. The rest of the museum was hit and miss depending upon your likes and dislikes, but well worth the time. Approx. 4 hours.
ARLINGTON CEMETERY - Took the Metro to the front gate. Purchased tourmobile tix for $7.50/each which got us rides to the Kennedy Gravesite, Tomb of the Unknown, and Arlington House. This was well worth the money for the ride and the great information along the way. The changing of the guard (on the hour) was as impressive as the Arlington House was unimpressive. The Arlington House (Robert E. Lee's home) was devoid of any furnishings as they are remodeling and working on climate control. All the rooms were empty with posters of what the room should look like. This could be found in a book. Check back to see when they finish this project; but until then, skip this stop and stay on the bus.
Taxis were readily available at the gate to the cemetery and the ride over to the JEFFERSON MEMORIAL cost $8. Well worth it to avoid the walk on a cold, blustery day. I had originally planned to continue on from there to the Holocaust Museum by taxi, but was informed since all roads in that area were one-way, we would have to circle all the way around again. I chose to walk to the museum.
HOLOCAUST MUSEUM - a very moving experience, just be certain you are ready for it. This was one of the most depressing places I have ever been. It's difficult to describe the feeling, because I am glad I went, but I never want to go back. Approx time 3 hours.
Walked from the Museum, back over to the KOREAN MEMORIAL and VIETNAM MEMORIAL to catch them during daylight hours. Finished up there just as the sun went down and headed back to the Smithsonian Metro again to go home.