Ah, springtime in Washington! The sun is warm, the tulips are up, and the lobbyists have switched to suits that are slightly less funereal.
May and June are terrific months to visit the US capital. The city is at its most attractive, and summer’s tourist horde has not yet arrived, meaning that it is possible to visit the Smithsonian without fear of being trampled in front of the case containing the Hope Diamond.
So if you’re planning on using your tax cut from the stimulus bill for a weekend in D.C., here are five tips from someone who has answered the question, “Which way is the White House?” hundreds of times over 30 years’ residence:
1. Never plan around the cherry blossoms. They’re so fickle that D.C.’s own Cherry Blossom Festival usually misses their bloom. I know they’re supposed to remind us of the fragility of beauty, etc., but did we really need to learn life lessons from plants? That’s what books are for. Anyway, the dogwoods are much more reliable.
2. The White House tour isn’t worth it. You’ll stand in line forever and you won’t get to see the Oval Office. Instead, walk outside the fence to the building’s northwest corner and watch TV reporters do their stand-ups. Visitors love this – don’t ask me why. They’re never interested when I offer to let them watch me write a story.
3. The Capitol tour is great. The building is bigger and more ornate than the presidential residence/workspace, and if Congress is in session you can get a real sense of the government at work. In the old House chamber, there’s a plaque in the floor where Abraham Lincoln’s desk was during his term as a representative. When my 9-year-old son saw that for the first time, he was so overcome he just stood on the spot and gaped, like he’d just seen the Jonas Brothers.
4. Call your representative. You must have tickets to tour official buildings (see above), and your member of Congress is eager to help. Really. Or at least an intern in his or her office will be. Ask if a staffer will take you on a personal Capitol tour – they’re allowed to do that.
5. Watch people touch the moon rock. At the entrance to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, there’s a piece of lunar basalt you can handle. Tourists always poke at it nervously, as if it’s going to give them an electric shock.
If you’re tired of touring, sit on a bench nearby and watch the show. Always good for a laugh.