We Never Promised You the Rose Garden
Washington, D.C. isn't the travel destination it used to be. Here's a vistor's guide to help you make the best of it.
PRESIDENT BUSH HAS GONE to great lengths to spread Democracy around the globe. Perhaps he should also focus on the struggles for freedom by a group much closer to home: beleaguered Washington, D.C. tourists.
Thanks to increased security following 9/11, many of the freedoms once enjoyed by visitors to our nation's capital are just fond memories now. Some federal buildings are closed entirely, while others restrict visitors by deluging them with red tape. "The government seems off limits to the casual visitor," says Jeff Dickey, the author of "The Rough Guide to Washington, DC, Fourth Edition" (which will be published soon).
Consider the White House. It used to be that anyone could stand in line to visit the grand public rooms. Today, you need to plan your visit at least one month in advance (we'll explain below).
That's not to say that the increased security isn't understandable in light of the terrorist attacks. And it certainly doesn't mean that a trip to our nation's capital can't be a rewarding experience for both red- and blue-state families alike. But it does mean that you need to plan ahead, and perhaps lower your expectations a bit.
Here's the inside scoop on how to navigate around the current restrictions -- and some alternative destinations you might not have considered.
Restricted or Closed
The White House
The Washington, D.C. Convention and Tourism Corporation's Web site says it all: Tourists visiting the National Mall should remember to "stop and take a picture of the White House." That's good advice, since that's about as close as you're likely to get to the official Presidential residence.
Technically, the White House is open to visitors. But getting in isn't easy. You must contact your representative at least one month in advance to get tickets. (You'll have better luck if you make the request at least two months, but no greater than six months, before your visit.) And while you're on the phone, call some friends. Tours are open only to groups of 10 or more people.
Just how much success you have in scoring tickets may depend in part on which state you call home. Representatives with some clout on the Hill (meaning they sit on important committees, such as Finance) seem to get more tickets, says Dickey. And individuals might have more sway with their own representative if there's already a "relationship" in place. In other words, those who fund raise for a congressman or woman are more likely to get a tour on short notice. "It's politics as you would expect it," says Dickey. (The White House didn't return our phone call seeking information on visits.)
Want a view from the top of the Washington Monument? You'll have to settle for pictures that are posted on its Web site. The structure is closed for a "comprehensive security enhancement project." The good news: It should reopen sometime this spring. For more information, call 1-800-967-2283.
Good luck getting into the Pentagon. Whereas previously tours were open to the general public, since 9/11 they've been limited to schools, other educational organizations and military groups.
Federal Bureau of Investigation
The FBI is closed until sometime in 2006 because of renovations, in part to beef up security. When the building reopens, tourists might be disappointed to learn that the forensic laboratory, which previously made up one-third of the tour, has been moved to another location. In the meantime, you can channel your inner bounty hunter by checking out the most wanted list online.
Department of the Treasury
All tours of the Treasury building have been suspended "until further notice." Our phone call to find out when the building might reopen was not returned.
Open to the Public
The main attraction you still can see is the Capitol. But not without some hassles. "There's a lot of waiting in line Soviet-style to get into this building," warns Dickey.
Here's the drill. Tickets are given out for the same day only, and on a first-come, first-served basis. You'll need to get there pretty early to score a ticket, especially since this is essentially the only game in town. Tickets are handed out starting at 9:00 am. But if you're planning on touring the Capitol this spring or summer, make sure to get in line long before that. (Before 9/11, you could stroll right into the Capitol without a ticket.)
The Capitol is also undergoing a construction project, and so the East Front is closed for tours. This adds some logistical challenges. Visitors need to stand in line to pick up tickets at a kiosk on the southwest corner of the Capitol grounds. They then make their way to the South Visitor Receiving Facility, which is located south of the Capitol. Only from there can they proceed to the Capitol to begin the tour. Needless to say, you'd be wise to wear some comfortable shoes, since you could be standing for quite a long time.
After all that waiting around, you'll probably want to see the Senate and House of Representatives galleries. That will take a little more legwork. While some representatives will let you walk into their offices and pick up a ticket, others will require you to make arrangements before heading to DC. Best to make a few phone calls before your trip.
Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Touring the Treasury is out of the question, so how about a tour of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing? While it might not sound like the most enthralling way to spend an afternoon, it's bound to appeal to Alex P. Keaton types: You'll see millions of dollars being printed, beginning with large, blank sheets of paper, and ending with wallet-ready bills.
Tickets are required during the peak season of March through September, and are given out on a first-come, first-served basis. The ticket booth opens at 8:00 a.m., and the tickets tend to go quickly, so make sure to get there early. The building is closed on weekends.
The Supreme Court
"Law & Order" junkies might want to pay a visit to the Supreme Court. Not only can they tour the building -- they can also listen to oral arguments. Keep in mind that the court is open on weekdays only. To see the court's schedule, log onto its Web site.
The Lincoln Memorial
The good news is that the Lincoln Memorial is still accessible to the public. But don't expect to get up close and personal with Abe. The back area is fenced off because of a renovation project intended to improve security and visitor accessibility. The project should be completed by this fall.
Also Worth Seeing
There is, of course, more to Washington, D.C. than just the government sites and monuments. If you haven't been to the District in a while, you'll want to check out the new World War II Memorial, and the National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at the Smithsonian. There's also no shortage of fine arts destinations, including the National Gallery of Art, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Ford Theater. All remain open to the public.