My 10 tips for visitors (and locals, too)

I’ve seen tourists from dozens of countries visit Washington over the years. Now that I lead groups, I really have some advice for those coming in the summer. Since my blog is read nearly equally by out-of-towners as locals and from those in 58 countries this year, here are a few tips when coming to my hometown.

1. Wear light colors. Seriously, I know this sounds simple, but many Europeans come from cooler climates and don’t know a black shirt can feel 10 degrees hotter than a white one. They’re already dying from the humidity so don’t make it worse. Wear shorts, too.
2. Bring sneakers or sandals, but not dress shoes, high heels or clogs. You will get blisters walking around Washington.
3. If you want tickets to go inside the White House, call your Congressman or Senator six months ahead. They’ll need your social security number to run a security check. There’s no same-day line.
4. Don’t soak your feet in the fountains. I don’t care if you see others do it.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask for directions from passersby. Washingtonians are used to tourists and don’t mind.
6. But, locals do mind if you stand on the left of subway escalators. Stand to right, walk on left. If you aren’t familiar with using the passes for the metro, pick one of the gates on the ends.
7. Spend the hot afternoons at inside attractions like the Smithsonians. Mornings and evenings are better spent at monuments.
8. Don’t talk politics with locals. We really don’t care what you think.
9. It’s pronounced War-shington. Not Wash-ington. I know it’s spelled like the latter.  We’ll smile if you say it like a native.
10. Tip your tour guide.

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Go on tour by yourself (with me)

The Sniders and LincolnsNo, I haven’t been drinking . . . lately. I’ve just released my first audio tour in conjunction with

Voicemap combines GPS technology with the audio tour so when you come within 30 feet of the site the audio begins playing on your iPhone. Of course, you can also choose each site manually.

The Lincoln assassination tour takes you from Lafayette Park to Ford’s Theatre with 10 stops along the way. It’s an easy walk at your pace. The audio tour allows you to do so in less than one hour.

It’s like having me on tour whenever you like. You can even listen to it at home if you like the story but can’t make it to Washington. And, it’s just $2.99.

More audio tours are coming. I’m hoping to have a half dozen by spring when tourists really fill Washington. For now, listen to Lincoln’s final day.

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Business as usual around White House

White House

You never know what you’ll see when walking down Pennsylvania Ave. while approaching the White House. After the recent fence jumper, TV newscasters reported a new fence farther out on the north side where most tourists gather.

Tuesday morning, it was the usual scene. Lots of tourists, a protest about who knows what and the ongoing fence replacement with a temporary fence in front of the work area. There were several small black metal barricades by the temporary fence, but it was no big deal.

There has been a lot of talk about moving tourists back or even worse a screening area that would be a royal pain. If this is the solution, that’s fine. But, the public needs to see the White House up close. The Secret Service needs better training to ensure everyone’s safety.

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Gameplanning Arlington National Cemetery

You want to see the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns and the eternal flame where the Kennedys are buried, but have only one hour. What do you do?

Uh, turn around and come back when you have more time would be a sensible tip. But, tie your shoe laces tighter (seriously, makes the feet move faster) and get ready to roll.

The key here is what time is it? The guard changes at :00 and :30 until Sept. 30, then the top of every hour. It takes 15 minutes for most people to walk there from the visitor’s center. If you have 20 minutes, go to the Tomb first. I think it’s a harder walk than going to the flame first and cutting across the cemetery to the Tomb, but the time crunch decides this. You’ll catch your breath while watching the guard change, which takes about 10 minutes.

If it’s 10 minutes before the guard change, see the eternal flame first and give yourself 15 minutes from there to get to the Tomb. Go around the left side of the flame to catch the stairs down and (unfortunately) up to the Tomb.

The good part is it’s all downhill from the Tomb and I tell my charges that dessert tonight is guilt free. And since I lead a lot of visitors from the Gaylord National hotel, I show them the Peeps store by the hotel that has – ready for this? – chocolate covered peeps. Sinful, but you’ve already burned off those calories off walking Arlington.

It would be nice to have two hours to see Arlington and the many other graves and monuments, including Arlington House. I’ve been to Arlington many times and still don’t think I’ve truly seen the place. I have a great uncle buried four rows from the back wall by Henderson Hall so I have walked the entire cemetery on a 100-degree day.

When people ask if this is hard walking, I just say if a fat old man like me can do it, they can do it.

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Jesus at Arlington National Cemetery

JesusJesus on the cross always makes you stop and think.

You would think that some depiction of Jesus would be commonplace at Arlington National Cemetery. But the only one I’ve seen is next to the Crook stairs heading up to Arlington House. Maybe there are others around the cemetery, but I’ve walked nearly the entire place and not seen another.

The large headstone with Jesus nailed to the cross, shirtless and eyes closed with “NOT MY WILL BVT THINE BE DONE” is above the grave of Rear Admiral William Hemsley Emory, his wife and children.

A son of an Army Brigadier general of the same name, Emory graduated the U.S. Naval Academy in 1862 after being appointed to it by President Abraham Lincoln. Emory held commands throughout the world before retiring in 1908 after 56 years of service. He died in 1919. Perhaps his most famous mission was saving the Greeley arctic expedition. He was also a naval attache at the Court of St. James’s.

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St. John’s – “Church of the Presidents”

Every president since James Madison has attended the “Church of the Presidents” just a short walk (if they could do so nowadays) from the White House at 15th and H Sts. N.W. Madison started the tradition of the “President’s Pew” in 1816. It’s No. 54, not Area 54.

St. John’s Episcopal Church was designed by architect Benjamin Latrobe, who also worked on the Capitol and DeCatur House a block away from the church and rebuilt the White House after it burned in 1814. The Neoclassical church was built like a Greek cross, but five columns in front and a Roman Doric portico later added made it into a Latin cross. The church’s yellow stucco walls and golden cupola and dome make it easily standout from adjoining buildings. The 1,000-pound bell was cast by Paul Revere’s son Joseph in 1822 and served as an alarm for the neighborhood.

The 22 stained glass windows featuring Leonardo DaVinci’s ”The Last Supper” were added in the early 1880s.

Public tours are Sundays after the 11 a.m. service.

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Native Washingtonian 101: Who you calling Washingtonian?

Wikipedia sometimes cracks me up. The online reference source by the masses has an interesting description of Washingtonian.

Washingtonian is used to refer to people from the state of Washington (see List of people from Washington) or the greater metropolitan area of Washington, D.C. (see List of people from Washington, D.C.), in the United States.

We’re second to the state out west? Guess that all depends on which coast you live. I don’t know anyone in the east who when discussing Washingtonian thinks about the Pacific-Canadian border state.

Washingtonian may also refer to:

Washingtonian (Amtrak train), a named passenger train.

Uh, pass on this one.

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A White House in Dublin?







I’ve always heard the White House was modeled after the Leinster House in Dublin because Irish architect James Hoban used the Irish parliament as a model.

Well, the truth is the White House looks like part of Leinster House. You can see the colum I don’t see a big connection between the two building aside the same architect.

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My favorite places – Washington National Cathedral

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I like Ike, his building not so much

It’s not the prettiest building in Washington.

Mark Twain called the Eisenhower Executive Office Building “the ugliest building in America” while former president Harry Truman called it “the greatest monstrosity in America.”

The EEOB is a French Second Empire style building shown by the massive amounts of steel columns. Ironically, it was considered out of fashion before finished in 1886. It was also called the Napoleon III style that included some Gothic features.

Look high at the top for the War Pediment, which looks like a Roman soldier above a window. On the north side of the building, the military symbol has a medieval suit of armor. A sword runs through the helmet while an eagle representing America sits atop it. Behind the armor are two U.S. shields that partially obscure four Roman military symbols. On the right is the fasces, a bundle of rods enclosing an axe that was a symbol of authority. To the left is the Roman standard of powerful legions. Left of the helmet is the battle axe that denotes strength and then there’s a torch that symbolizes light and knowledge. There are also spears and cannons plus cannon balls. Also, in the left corner are laurel leaves to crown victors and on the right are oak laves representing strength and stability. The whole pediment is 8 by 30 feet.

This is the third Old Executive Office Building and now named for former president Dwight D. Eisenhower. The first two burned down, including by the British in the War of 1812. The shell of the original building is still used deep inside this office.

The President’s Executive Office, the Office of the Vice President, the Office of Management and Budget, and the National Security Council work inside this building. It was designed by Alfred B. Mullett.

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My favorite places — World War II Memorial

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Native Washingtonian 101 – Talking politics, not

My standard advice to my family when we’re traveling is to say we’re from Maryland, not Washington, D.C. Not that I’m ashamed of my hometown, but the conversation always goes the same if saying you’re from Washington. (I never say D.C.)

“That damned (name any president, senator or congress person,” they’ll say and start rambling about the federal government.

To all visiting our fair city, here’s one piece of advice – don’t talk politics with locals.

I try to explain to out-of-towners that Washingtonians do not run the government. We don’t live at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. or impose unfair taxes or laws.

We’re just everyday people, some of whom work for the government. But, we’re not the government. The president is not from here. Neither is your senator or congress person. You sent them to us, not the other way around.

If you try to engage a native Washingtonian on politics, at best you’ll receive a polite dismissal because we’re tired of it. At worst, you’ll get an unwanted earful. It doesn’t matter what political party you’re discussing, we don’t care to discuss it.

Now back to talking about the weather, cherry blossoms and rotten traffic.

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James Garfield Memorial – my 6th cousin

The only thing I knew about James Garfield was he was once U.S. president. I would have struggled to write a fifth-grade report on him

But coming across Garfield’s memorial on the U.S. Capitol grounds intrigued me into learning more. Turns out he was shot three months into his presidency in 1881 by a failed job applicant and died three months later at age 50.

And you thought today’s economic times was tough.

The only clergy member to serve as president, Garfield is also the only person in U.S. history to be a Representative, Senator-elect and President-elect simultaneously. He was not only left-handed, but known to simultaneously write in Latin in one hand and in English with the other. (My handwriting looks like Latin, but is really English.) Garfield was related to a Mayflower passenger later convicted of murder.

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All aboard the U.S.S. Barry

One of the things I enjoy about being a tour guide is learning about things I’ve passed all my life without knowing what they are.

But after asked enough times on tours when entering town what the ship was at the Navy Yard, I finally learned it’s the U.S.S. John Barry, a retired destroyer now serving as a museum ship. Commissioned from 1955-82, it came to Washington in 1984 so I’ve only not known what it was for 27 years. It’s highlights of service was serving as part of the blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis and earning two battle stars during the Vietnam War. It was the third ship named for Barry.

And who was John Barry? Seems he’s the “Father of the American Navy” who served in the Revolutionary War. He was the head of the Navy until his 1803 death.

OK, can knock that off my Bucket List of things to learn. The list never gets shorter, though.

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Wordless Wednesday: Georgetown canal

Georgetown canal

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Remembering Fala – the First Dog

I spent nine months readying to become a tour guide. I enrolled in an excellent tour guide class, passed the city’s licensing exam and spent the winter continuing to study monuments before tour season began in March.

I’m no expert. Not even close after meeting so many experienced guides who are walking encyclopedias of knowledge of our town. But one incident involving Fala the dog at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial made me realize some tour guides aren’t as smart as they think.

Standing at the FDR when a guide brought an eighth grade class to Fala’s statue, he asked if anyone know where the dog got its name.

Naturally, there was a silence. Kids that age won’t even say how they got their name even if they’re a junior.

The guide says, “He was a present at Christmastime and you know the song, fala la la la.”

My jaw hit the ground in amazement.

Fala was FDR’s dog and the only presidential pet honored by a statue. But, he was named after Roosevelt’s ancestor John Murray of Falahill, a place in Scotland which is only fitting given Fala is a Scottish Terrier. He was also named Murray the Outlaw of Falahil. Fala was indeed a Christmas present from FDR’s cousin.

Fala (April 7, 1940 – April 5, 1952) was a constant companion of FDR before the latter’s 1945 death. He then lived with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who said the dog merely tolerated her while waiting for its master to return.

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Patentees Memorial remembers founders

It’s the most nondescript marker in town. You’ve probably walked right by it on 15th St. N.W. by the many tourist trucks just short of Pennsylvania Ave. and never noticed it.

The Patentees Memorial is a simple six-foot granite marker commemorating the 18 original landholders of the District and their occupations up to 1700. It was erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1935.

It has names on all four sides of the base starting with Robert Troope in 1663. Each side of the monument contains a relief panel carved with a symbol of the early pioneers’ agricultural pursuits.

On the east side is a tobacco plant. It was the cash crop of the American colonies. On the south is a wild turkey, which were abundant back then and has since become an American tradition to eat on Thanksgiving. On the west is a stalk of corn, which native Indians showed colonists how to use as food and fertilizer for crops. On the north is a fish. The Potomac River was even closer nearly and fish were a staple food.


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Taking the ALS ice bucket challenge

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A 3D map of town at your feet

Freedom Plaza may be filled with skateboarding teenagers, lost tourists or protestors, but the Pennsylvania Ave. near 14th St. N.W. median is also a map of town’s original plan.

The L’Enfant Map detailing the 1791 plan by Washington’s first city planner Pierre L’Enfant is at your feet. With the white and black stone, it’s like being on a chess board of sorts as you can see how the streets were to be layed out. Maybe the first version of the Sims City game.

L’Enfant envisioned Pennsylvania Avenue as a great ceremonial street, the symbolic link between the Capitol (which he called the Congress’s House) and the White House (which he called the President’s House). Freedom Plaza’s open space reinforces this symbolic connection.

The upper map terrace has a grass lawn where the mall occurs and inlaid bronze plans of the White House and the Capitol located at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. The inlays illustrate L’Enfant’s intention to have these two buildings balance each other and symbolize two main branches of government.

L’Enfant’s plan of Washington combines two orders of scale. The giant order is the diagonal avenues that sometimes terminate in a building or a monument. This order characterizes the federal scale of the city. The minor order is the rectangular grid pattern of the local structure of the city. There are quotes from famous people about the city carved into the paving stones that surround the L’Enfant Plan.

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Baptist Alley gets overlooked

I’ve seen several tours of the Lincoln assassination as well as the one I give and one spot that’s often overlooked is Baptist Alley.

It’s the rear of Ford’s Theatre where assassin John Wilkes Booth entered and exited. The alley to the theater is called Baptist Alley because the theater was originally a Baptist church.

I don’t know of a tour that goes behind the theater aside mine. And, I only do it during the day. It seems like a security risk at night even though it’s very clean and essentially a bunch of office buildings surrounding the alley. But, you just can’t take a chance in the dark. I have no problem walking it during the day, though.

The rear wall shown above is the original wall. You can see a lot of changes by windows now bricked up. But, the doorway that Booth used is still there. Pretty cool.

The alley during the April 13, 1865 assassination was bordered by stables and shanty tents. Remember this was still the Civil War and not enough housing for the huge influx of people in the town. Booth could pass through it without notice, especially since he was a theater regular.

To reach the alley from Ford’s, walk up to F St., turn right, walk about a half block and you’ll see the entrance shown right. Just follow the alley to the rear.

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