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A traveller’s mistake: How I screwed up (twice) in Washington DC

Washington Monument, Washington DC

Have you ever made the same mistake twice, and kicked yourself for being stupid enough to repeat it?

We’ve all been there. Even people like me who precisely measure each decision we make in an effort to avoid making stupid mistakes, still make stupid mistakes.

When I visited Washington DC for the second time, I promised myself that I’d be smart enough to amend the oversight I’d made the first time around.

But instead, I made it again.

Washington DC then and now
My trip to Washington DC in 2011, and 4 years later in 2015

When I visited USA in 2011, Washington DC was on my radar. Seeing as this was my third trip to the United States, visiting the capital seemed important. I hoped it would give me more of an insight on this country that kept drawing me in.

The only option I had to see it was on a day trip from New York City. The 4+ hour drive each way meant getting up at an insane hour of the morning, tiredly questioning my life decisions during the long bus ride, then following it up with as much sightseeing as could possibly fit into 5 hours.

It wasn’t ideal, but it would have to do. I had no idea whether I would be in this part of the world again, so I convinced myself that this short trip would still be worth it.

All the major buildings and monuments were included in the day tour, as well as Madame Tussauds (touristy, I know, but I’ll admit posing at the fake presidential speech stand and fake oval office was amusing) and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

Even though I spent the day powering through as much of Washington DC as I could, what remained afterwards was a feeling of regret. I’d barely scratched the surface of what seemed to be an intriguing and interesting city. I wanted desperately to see more, but time was not on my side.

Union Station, Washington DC
Union Station

Four years later, I happened to be living in New York City.

Another opportunity to visit Washington DC arose, and I jumped at the chance. This time I’d take Robert with me, and we’d catch a bus down on a Friday night to maximise our exploration time over the weekend.

We checked in to our hotel near Union Station, then walked to a nearby house party where we drank a tasty punch with some people we knew.

Standing by the fire in the backyard, we kept ourselves warm in the cold November air and got caught up in the novelty of comparing our New York shoebox apartment with this spacious detached house in Washington DC.

It’s possible that we may have enjoyed a little too much punch judging by our headaches the next morning, so a pre-sightseeing stop at the pharmacy was required for some much needed ibuprofen before a full day of exploring the National Mall.

Supreme Court, Washington DC
The Supreme Court

Our lap of the National Mall took a total of 6 hours and 21,000 steps. We successfully visited the exterior of the Capitol Building, National Archives, National Library, White House, Washington Monument, as well as visiting the Korean and Vietnamese war memorials and the Lincoln Memorial. Needless to say, our feet were killing us, but still we did more.

In the evening we made our way to U Street and 14th – a hotspot for anyone craving food from somewhere other than a chain restaurant. The Mexican meal we had was fantastic, but after that we called it a night – our exhausted bodies were well and truly ready for some rest.

The next day we had until 4 PM to explore more of the city.

I had a plan: visit the Air and Space Museum, then the district of Georgetown and Arlington Cemetery. There were a few more activities that I would have liked to include, but it didn’t seem like we’d have enough time.

Usually 2 hours in a museum is enough to bore anyone, but if you’ve ever been to the Air and Space Museum you might understand how it holds all the magic of being a kid again, staring wide-eyed at the massive planes and space ships and rockets that fill up this huge space. At the end of our 2 hours, we basically forced ourselves out the door in an effort to fit in more sightseeing.

Georgetown, Washington DC

Struggling to catch a seemingly non-existent bus from the museum (therefore wasting yet another half an hour when it didn’t show up), we finally made our way to the historic and incredibly pretty district of Georgetown.

A quick lunch and 45 minutes of wandering through the gorgeous streets was all we could manage before we again had to force ourselves to leave, this time heading back to Union Station to catch our bus back to New York.

I sank low in the bus seat and brooded with disappointment and regret. This was the second time I’d visited Washington DC and left it without seeing all that I wanted to see.

I’d hoped to visit the long rows of white graves at Arlington Cemetery. I’d wanted to explore the interior of the buildings we’d walked by in the National Mall. I’d been itching to explore more museums, visit more monuments, and eat at more of the restaurants that had been recommended to us.

The Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial
The Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial

From my two experiences in Washington DC, I can vouch for it truly being a city with a never-ending list of things to do. It looks small and achievable to see in a short amount of time, but that is absolutely not the case.

So Washington DC got the better of me, twice. If there’s a next time, I promise I’ll give it the attention it actually deserves.

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18 Responses to “A traveller’s mistake: How I screwed up (twice) in Washington DC”

  1. Deborah

    I have no idea of when will I visit Washington DC, but it’s on my list along with N.Y. I plan to visit both on the same trip. Sometimes we think we’ll have enough time to see everything, but only when we get to our destination we realize that there’s much more to see or it takes longer to get around. So it’s good to know that I’ll need more than 2 nights in the city! XO

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Washington and New York are good options to do on the same trip as they’re not too far apart. I usually pride myself on estimating a good amount of time to see a city, but this time I was so wrong. I’d definitely advise 4 or more nights in DC if you’d like to do a proper job of it! Thanks for your comment, Deborah!

  2. Allison

    I lived in DC for 5 years and there’s still a lot more I would love to see and do, so don’t beat yourself up too much! If you make it back, I would definitely check out The Library of Congress, Holocaust Museum and American History Museum. We the Pizza is a really good pizza place near the LOC, and I also really recommend Kramer’s books, they have a nice cafe as well!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Wow, it’s interesting to know that 5 years of living there still wasn’t enough to see it all (though living in a city and visiting it are quite different). Thanks for all your suggestions, Allison, I’ll definitely have to head back and do more 🙂

  3. Polly

    I grew up just outside of DC and so many people dismiss it as nothing more than downtown. I mean, even downtown you really can’t do in a day (the museums alone!) and DC is so much more than that!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      You’re absolutely right – the downtown area alone can justify three days at least, plus there are plenty of places to see and areas to explore out of the city! Thanks, Polly!

  4. eden

    This post couldn’t be more accurate! I went to Washington DC for the first time this past summer and I thought 3 full days would be more than enough time to see all the main sights and explore some off the beaten path spots — however I was wrong! My feet were killing me too after exploring the National Mall and checking out the free museums. I completely underestimated how much there was to see and do in DC. Definitely need to return again 🙂

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      I’m so glad you agree, Eden! Washington DC is a city so many people underestimate (myself included). You would think that 3 days would be plenty as the city is fairly small, but it really packs a punch with the number of activities and sights. Another trip would definitely be in order!

  5. Art

    I just moved out of DC. I lived there for nearly 7 years, and I can vouch for the place. You did just scratch the surface, but I think you did a good job scratching. I would recommend the Air and Space Museum to any first timer in the District, and the trek from the Capitol to the White House is a hike! Kudos to you for making it. I will say, however, there are plenty of shoebox apartments in DC. Not everyone can afford a detached home near Union Station 😉

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thanks, Art! The National Mall is so much bigger than it looks, it took us a good few hours. Still, it was a lovely walk and there was plenty to see along the way. And I agree about the Air and Space Museum, it’s a must for first timers to DC.

      I thought there might have been some smaller apartments closer to the city. I guess it was still a novelty that were any detached houses – there’s basically none in Manhattan at all!

  6. Jessica C. (A Wanderlust For Life)

    Like others who have commented, I grew up not far from DC so all of our school trips took us there. Of course, that was a loooong while ago. When we moved an hour farther away we never really went. Then we knew we were moving to Europe and knew that we really had to spend more time there! My husband even worked right by Dulles Int’l Airport (yes, horrible commute!)

    So, we tried to head up once a month for a couple months. We went for conventions, concerts, which was all very normal for us, but when you know you are leaving, you try to start squeezing things in! The problem is that when you grow up around something, it’s hard to appreciate it the way tourists do. But I tried little ways to do that, like hunting down food trucks, wandering around Georgetown, walking along the mall, taking the White House photo, etc. And MAN is the mall-white house-monuments walk a long one! I got so annoyed because I got really hungry along that route 🙂

    And I still feel horrible because I never went to Arlington National Cemetery. You know it’s there, but just don’t take the time sometimes. So, we’ve made a list for when we fly home. Downside is the traffic. Granted, I’ve never lived in LA, but I hate DC traffic and the roads are stupidly confusing downtown. So, thank goodness for the metro!

    So, in a long agreement with those before, don’t beat yourself up over what you missed. But next time, if you ever fly to Dulles, grab a shuttle (It’s $1!) to the OTHER Air & Space Museum (called Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center) just by the airport. In my opinion, it’s even cooler that the original. It has the Shuttle in it!! I totally geeked out and sounds like you will too.

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      I find that most people don’t tend to appreciate their hometown the way that tourists do, so kudos to you for realising that and making an effort to see more of it before you left!

      We got hungry along that walk too – luckily some food trucks appeared right as we needed them. And good idea about making the list – I’m sure that will keep you plenty busy next time you visit.

      Thanks for all the useful tips, Jessica! I hope there is a next time and if there is I will definitely geek out at the other air and space museum 😀

  7. Anne Sutherland-Smith

    I visited Washington DC on a recent work trip and only had 3 hours to explore… Fortunately my hotel was quite close to the White House so I was also able to walk around part of the National Mall.

    It was great, but like you I barely touched the surface of the city – I did manage to visit and go up the Washington Monument, see the Lincoln Memorial and do a whistlestop tour of the Air and Space Museum until it closed… Fortunately I have previously visited the USAF Air and Space Museum in Dayton, Ohio which was so much larger and there were quite a few displays which duplicated across the two museums.

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Oh wow, only 3 hours! That’s not much time at all! I’m glad you got to see a few parts of DC though, it would be a shame to go there and not see any of it.

  8. Anna

    I’ve been to DC 3 times: twice for 3 days and once for just 24hrs to see the Cherry Blossoms and catch up with a blogger friend.
    The first time I visited I spent the first day walking from Union station to Arlington cemetery stopping briefly at the memorials. Second day: Congress Library, Botanic Garden, Air and Space Museum, American History Museum, Natural History Museum, White House. third day Georgetown and leaving for NYC. If you do visit again check out for airBnB in the Capitol Hill area, as it is GORGEOUS. I don’t remember for how long you’re staying in USA but if it is long enough do visit when the cherry blossoms are in bloom (midweek preferably). I have a post about the cherry blossoms on my blog if you want to check it out and will be definitely sharing a “guide” in early 2016!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Wow, you managed to fit quite a lot into your trip! I’ve actually had someone else suggest the cherry blossoms to me as well, so I’ll definitely have to check them out. The photos in your post are beautiful! Thanks, Anna 🙂

  9. Jenia

    YAYAYAYAYAY for mistakes. That means you get to come back with another visit for cherry blossoms. This time, we will make the most of bits you didn’t see — including my extra special, extra secret spot to see the blossoms. Yes?

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Haha it’s true, I now have another excuse to go down to DC again! The cherry blossom season sounds like the perfect time to go 😀


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