When you’re a tourist in a big city, you have a few options.
You can put yourself at the mercy of apps like Yelp and social media for recommendations on the fly.
You can live and die by a well-thumbed guidebook like Lonely Planet (which, I will say, helped me immensely in Europe pre-smart phone era).
You can guided-tour yourself to death.
All these have their pros and cons, and personally, I like to use a combination of all three when I travel. Yelp makes it all too easy to find a decent coffeeshop or bar within walking distance when I need a break or a pick-me-up. I don’t bring guidebooks with me, but most of the time I’ll do a little research before leaving to see if there are any restaurants or “must-see” spots that I want to make sure I visit. And I accept being a dorky tourist on guided walking and bus tours because I really love learning about the local history of the city.
For DC over the 4th of July, my parents really pushed us to get organized for a few tours before we left. They had used Free Tours by Foot earlier this year in New Orleans, so we wound up signing up for three of their DC tours during our trip.
I have to say, I’d recommend any of these. Architecture Tour of DC takes you around some of the National Mall, including the Smithsonian Castle, the Hirshhorn Museum, Air and Space, Museum of the American Indian, and several other spots, finishing by the Capitol Building (because we were there on July 3rd, most of the area in front of the Capitol was blocked off in prep for the July 4th concert, and security guards twice told our guide we couldn’t linger for more than a few minutes). It was really more history than architecture, since the buildings we stopped at were all built during, and thus influenced by, different time periods.
Georgetown Desserts mixed in some fun history and sight-seeing of Georgetown with stops at several bakeries and dessert spots (including Georgetown Cupcake, of course) — places we never would’ve gone to otherwise. I’d go back to Baked & Wired or Dog Tag Bakery in a heartbeat.
And the Lincoln Assassination tour absolutely brought the night of April 14th, 1865 (we did that on the 4th, and the bulk of it took place at various spots around Lafayette Square in front of the north lawn of the White House, and I spent a good bit a time trying to guess how many people in the crowd were plainclothes/undercover Secret Service and police officers). I loved this one because unless you’re a true Lincoln/Civil War history buff (which I am not), you’d probably never know about all the details of Lincoln’s assassination — like how Booth’s co-conspirators attempted to murder both the VP and Secretary of State that night, too, or how nearly everyone who was directly involved in that night was “cursed” afterwards. Even if you did know all that, it’s very cool to get to see the actual buildings and locations where those events took place.
For all these tours, groups ranged from about 15-30 people. And yes, they are completely free, or “pay what you wish.” You’re encouraged the pay/tip the guides at the end of the tour with however much you think it’s worth or can afford.
We also went on a bus tour Thursday night that took us…well, kinda all over, but stopped at the Martin Luther King, Jr. and FDR memorials, the US Marine Corps Memorial (the Iwo Jima statue), and the Lincoln Memorial (which is right next to the Vietnam and Korean War memorials). I have mixed feelings about bus tours, but this one was well done — we got a good overview of all the major monuments and buildings and also got to jump out at those stops to see some things more closely and get some photo ops. It was also nice that the bus was built more like a trolley with fully open windows — which helped keep me awake and made it easier to see the sights we were driving past.
One of my favorite ways to explore a city, though, is by running it. In Boston, we stayed less than a mile from Boston Common, so I got to run around there, along the Charles River, and the last mile or so of the Boston Marathon course. In Chicago, I ran in Grant Park and along the lakefront. And in DC, I roused myself on the 4th for a quick jaunt to White House and a sweaty, awkward selfie.