I had never been to Washington D.C. Recently my wife had the opportunity to go for work and I figured this was a good opportunity for me to see the sights. She was able to get a couple of days off of work and on her first day she suggested we go on a bus tour. We decided to go with GrayLine DC – and their DC in a Day Tour – at $55 per person. As you can tell from the title it was a big mistake. (Note: In the title, I’m assuming that the person reading this is one person and thus isn’t spending the $110 we did.)
Let me take you through the day in a series of bullet points:
- Capitol Building – The bus drops us off at the Capitol building at 9:00 and says he’ll be back to pick us up at 11:00AM. For obvious security reasons the bus can’t park that close to the Capitol. Our group walks around to the building and we find that it closed to the public today for a special ceremony. So we now have 2 hours with no way to contact our bus driver to see something else. (Note to tour guides: If you aren’t going to be with the group, leave your cell phone number behind so that people can reach you. Also get everyone in the tours cell phone so if they are late to the meeting spot they can be reminded). Fortunately the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court are behind the Capitol, so we head there. The Library of Congress had an interesting exhibit about Herb Block. It also had a lot of information on the Declaration of Independence and other notable historical documents. It was somewhat interesting and may have been better than Capitol. I couldn’t tell you since I didn’t see the Capitol. The Supreme Court was pretty boring with not much to see or do.
- White House Visitor Center – The next stop was the White House Visitor Center. I thought this was going be the highlight of the tour… after all you don’t get too much bigger than the White House in D.C. Unfortunately after the 9/11 attacks they moved the White House Visitor Center so it’s away from the actual White House. When I visit a “visitor center”, I actually expect to see the place. The White House Visitor Center was mostly pictures and a couple of artifacts. While I thought it would be difficult to be more disappointed, I was wrong. The bus driver mentioned that we could walk from the Visitor Center to the southern part of the White House and see it. The website exclaims “You might even see the President!” We went to the south side, but it was more blocked off than Fort Knox. You could only see specs of whites through some dense trees and part of what may have been a flag poking out. I imagine the specs wouldn’t even be visible if it were summer time when the trees had leaves on them.
- Smithsonian (American History version) – This was by far the best stop on the trip. The Star-Spangled Banner alone was amazing. However, seeing everything in the Smithsonian in two hours is like trying to do Europe in 5 days. It’s destined to fail. We also have to eat lunch in this time. The Smithsonian’s cafeteria is overpriced with a roast beef sandwich, a chicken salad wrap and a drink running us over $22.00.
- Ford’s Theatre – You might know this landmark from such events as The Place that Lincoln was Assassinated. Continuing on the disappointment track, the theater was actually closed as there was a performance. There was a museum portion of it open. We got to go through that and then across the street to see the 700 square foot place where Lincoln actually died (actually called The House Where Lincoln Died). Looking at blood-stained pillows… kind of morbid. We finish here with 25 minutes left on this stop before the tour continues. My wife and I decide we might as well pick up a glass of wine, but the wine bar is closed as it’s between lunch and dinner.
- WWII Memorial – Outside the famous reflecting pool near the Lincoln Memorial is the WWII Memorial. Unlike other memorials with names on them (I think Vietnam Memorial – haven’t been), this is more like a really big fountain. There are 56 pillars for all the US states and territories during WWII (I learned that the Philipines was once part of the United States (my history teachers never covered WWII because they started the year with Columbus). The big disappointment here was that the reflecting pool was drained for cleaning. It resembled a construction zone.
That was the whole tour. I would have liked to visit either the Lincoln Memorial or Washington Monument, but that wasn’t on the list. I probably would have preferred the Jefferson Memorial over the Ford Theatre. I also would have liked to see the Smithsonian (Natural History version) and the Hope Diamond.
Despite all the above, perhaps the worst part is that we were staying in a hotel (Harrington Hotel – good for those on a budget) that was within about a mile of all places. When we weren’t able to get wine after Ford’s Theatre, we decided to walk two blocks back to our hotel just to visit the bathroom. It made the whole bus ride pretty useless (especially with the excellent and cheap Metro system here).
While we were issued tickets for Ford Theatre, I found out that tickets to the museum are free. In fact, each stop on our tour was free. I’ll take some responsibility, we could have researched things better and realized that we could have done them on our own. On the other hand, I think the tour company should take some responsibility and not book places that are closed or under renovations when there are a lot more other things to see and do. Let my experience be a warning to anyone else considering a D.C. tour.