“Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.”
– John F. Kennedy
In November 2010, I took my maiden voyage on Megabus – the route between Washington D.C. and Toronto, Canada. Why would I drag myself to the bus station at 7:30 am to hitch a 13-14 hour ride (depending on traffic, border crossing, weather, the bus breaking down, a fellow traveler getting left at a gas station…) in between these two great cities?
Because on average the trip costs about $60 USD. That’s about 6x less than a flight following the same route – and for a student living on minimum wage and Special K cereal, that was just not doable.
Since 2010, I’ve estimated that I’ve taken this bus about 2-3 times a year. That’s at least 12 trips in total. Luckily for me, I’ve had plenty of layovers in DC, which has given me ample time to explore the city. Over time, I’ve perfected the art of seeing it within a couple of hours – and on a tight budget (usually I spend between $15-20 only).
I thought it fitting then to write a post about this nation’s capitol, and all of the things you can do if you’re a broke student. Or just broke.
Unless you’re flying into DC, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll be arriving at Union Station. Sitting at the heart of DC, this station is just minutes away from Capitol Hill, the collection of Smithsonian museums, as well as the National Mall. Before I get into more detail about the sites however, it’s important for me to note that there is a place to leave your baggage within the station (right outside the men’s bathroom on the first floor) for $3-$8 per bag/per hour. If you’re in DC during the summer, then you should really take the opportunity to abandon your stuff for a few hours. The city is truly a swamp, and you’ll be swimming in sweat if you try to lug your bags around – and look like such a ‘newbie.’
Now that you’ve dropped off your luggage, it’s time to explore the core of the city – which you can do in 2-4 hours if you’re efficient. The first landmark I always head towards is Capitol Hill, which is a short 5-8 minute walk south-west of Union if you take Delaware Avenue to Constitution Avenue. There are signs pointing you in the right direction, but in case you get lost people will generally help you out. Unless you look like a politician – so leave the little American flag pins, and ignorant smugness at home.
Unfortunately for some of you, you will pop into the city at a time when the buildings are under renovation – which seems to be 80% of the time. As was the case during my visit above in July 2016.
I’ve also caught this historic landmark off guard – when it’s basking in it’s full neoclassical, architectural beauty. (I must say, the 18th century created extraordinarily simple, yet elegant buildings.)
If you would like to take a tour of the complex – you can, however that will eat up most of your layover time (1-1 and 1/2 hours). So make sure listening to a monotonous college student explain the law-making process (as well as witnessing the torture of Capitol Hill interns as they fight for relevance) interests you.
I opt for the U.S. Botanical Gardens, and the Smithsonian museums instead.
To head to the Botanical Gardens, walk south-west from Capitol Hill towards a roundabout that sits at the top of Maryland Avenue SW and First Street SW. Wedged between those two streets are the gardens (including the Conservatory and the National Garden), open from 10-5pm everyday.
Usually once you step inside the Conservatory (the greenhouse which contains the “living treasures of the world”) you’ll experience a wave of intense heat and humidity – this is for the benefit of the plants, not humans. So I tend to only stay inside for a few minutes or so during the summer to get my plant kicks, then sweat it out of there. However, during Christmas I stay much longer, not only because it’s warm but also because they build crafty model versions of D.C. landmarks from sticks and plants, showcasing them around the facility.
If plants aren’t your thing, you could actually head a few minutes east of Capitol Hill on Independence Avenue towards the U.S. Supreme Court Building, the James Madison Memorial Building and the Thomas Jefferson Building.
I always head west however, towards the National Mall – with the pinnacle landmark being the Washington Monument. Once you’ve seen the Washington Monument once however, you’ve pretty much seen it a million times. Therefore I suggest spending your few remaining hours exploring the multitude of museums and galleries that hug the sides of the National Mall. These include my favorite art gallery of all time, the National Gallery of Art.
I absolute love this museum because it has amazing pieces of art, and is constantly introducing new exhibits. Although busy in the mid-afternoon (it’s open weekdays 10-6pm), I often find the morning to be relatively calm. Particularly outside of tourist season. It is possible to spend a few hours here, but I tend to stick to the 18th and 19th century art halls which you can breeze through in 40minutes.
Of course, I have to always make a stop to visit the piece above, known as The Reader. By far one of my favorite works of art, created masterfully by my favorite painter, Jean-Honore Fragonard. My picture does not do it justice.
This brings me to the end of the cheap-short-tour of Washington D.C. If you have more time, continue to explore the other museums surrounding the National Mall, if not, then simply retrace your footsteps back towards Union Station. If you’re there in the spring, you’ll pass gorgeous parks, filled with D.C. staffers trying to catch a break from their hectic lives. Remember, they’re people too.
Oh yeah, I forgot about the frozen yogurt. Here’s a complete list of fro-yo (and ice cream) joints near Union Station. Enjoy!