Updated on June 13, 2015
Here are a few different ways one could tour D.C. depending upon how you would like to visit and what you would like to see. A few of the options include a sight-seeing bus tour, on foot, and less conventional ways such as segway tours or kayaking in the Potomac.
Sight-seeing bus tours: This is a great way to get a wide view of the city in the shortest amount of time as well as a good option for anyone that may have mobility problems. Bus tours can bring tourists around the mall, to the older parts of the city and to any other note-worthy places, such as Mt. Vernon.
My personal favorite bus tour type is the ‘Hop-on Hop-off‘ bus tours. A ticket to one of these tours means you can literally ‘hop-on’ and ‘hop-off’ at any of their bus stops and on any of their tour lines. The tickets come in one or two-day passes.
The ‘hop-on, hop-off’ bus tour in D.C. has three different lines. The first takes tourists on the classic sights of the city, including around the mall, across the Potomac into Virginia and by the Lincoln memorial. The second line will take tourists farther into Virginia to view the Pentagon and Arlington Cemetery and the last time will take you through Embassy row and into Georgetown. This last line also has a stop by the Georgetown waterfront where guests can get onto a touring boat that goes up and down the Potomac. Each tour is narrated by a recording that plays throughout the bus.
When my family bought the tickets for the ‘hop-on hop-off’ busses, we got free passes on the boat tour as well. (I’m not sure if they were running an unpublicized special or if this was included in the price of our tickets.) The boat tour was nice, but not something I would pay for separately. It was a narrated ride up the potomac, but really just plastic chairs on a flat boat with some sights viewable from the water and really expensive beer/wine prices. The commentary wasn’t as interesting as on the busses, but I enjoyed being on the water.
I recommend looking into this bus tour for two reasons. One, you really can get on and off anywhere and switch tours whenever you want. Meaning you are able to set your own schedule and can see whatever you like for however much time you like. (It’s also about the same price as regular bus tours.) Secondly, this is the only set of bus tours that has a double-decker fleet and the top is open-air. The best benefit of the double-decker is that you can see over the other cars, so if on top you can actually see all of the monuments, but it is also nice on a summer day to sit atop the bus with a breeze.
On foot: The on-foot tour is a lot of fun, but you will not be able to see as much within a single day. If you are going into D.C. to have a tour of the mall, I suggest taking the metro in and stopping at the Smithsonian station (orange/blue lines), L’Enfant Plaza (yellow/green lines) or another close one. These will put you in the center of the Mall.
Most on-foot tours center around the mall. As it’s a pretty large area and packed with monuments, museums andmemorials, there is plenty to do on foot in the mall. At one end, there is the Lincoln memorial, then the Washington monument, which marks the western end of the Mall. The Smithsonian museums line the mall from the Washington monument until the U.S. Capitol building.
I recommend one of three ways to approach an on-foot tour of the Mall. One would be to see the monuments. This tactic would be to focus on the monuments and go into each, take a few photos and take in the monument. This type of tour would involve the most walking, but if you are looking to see the sights of Washington, D.C. on-foot, this is the way to go.
Second, you could focus on the Smithsonian museums. They are enormous museums that could easily consume your time for a day. Focus on just one favorite, such as the natural history (but beware of the wide-eyed children running around) or the art museums, space, American history, whatever, but you could easily see a bit of each museum or focus on a few. All of the Smithsonian museums are free, although they encourage donations. If you want to go to the Air and Space museum hanger, you can take a bus for a few dollars from the Mall and entrance to the museum is free.
Last, your tour could focus on one place. Let the one monument, museum, park, or whatever you really want to see/do determine the rest of your day. This would work well with a tour of the U.S. State Capital being the main focus of the day with side trips to the Library of Congress and the Botanical Garden, or any other close destination. This type would work best for someone who wants to focus on a specific monument.
Finally, there are other less traditional ways of discovering the monuments in Washington D.C. Two fun ones would be to go on a segway tour of the mall or a kayaking tour of the monuments viewable from the Potomac.
Segway: As far as I can tell, the Segway tours mimic a walking tour just without much of the walking. This would be faster and probably good for anyone that is touring during the summer and likely to suffer heatstroke during a very hot day. A few of the companies that offer these tours include Capital Segway, City Segway Tours and Segs in the City. Please note that I am not recommending these companies. They each have differing tours depending on what sights you would like to see around the capitol and prices are about $70 for 2-3 hours.
Kayaking: You can only do this in fair weather, so unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to try out kayaking yet. Kayaking is a great way to see the monuments from the water. This does restrict some of the monuments that you can see, for example you cannot see the white house from the Potomac, but you will get a nice view of the Lincoln memorial, the cherry blossom trees, and the tidal basin (if you are able to go into it).
This would be a good opportunity for the tourists that have already done a walking tour of the monuments, are fairly adventurous/athletic, and like the water. A few of the places that offer kayaking tours include Jack’s Boathouse, which was recommended to me, and Thompson’s Boat Center. Cost is typically $10 per hour and 2-3 hours will suffice for touring everywhere the kayaks are permitted to go (from the Chain Bridge to the Bridge by the Lincoln Memorial).
If you prefer any of these tours, or have a great time with a service I did not mention, please leave it in the comment section!