Collette Vacations has a seven-day "Washington D.C. Family Discovery" vacation, which includes a guided bike tour along the National Mall, tours of the U.S. Capitol, Newseum and International Spy Museum and a visit to the Air & Space Museum or National Museum of American History Museum. The trip also includes visits to Mount Vernon; Eastern Market, the city’s historic indoor market; and the National Zoo. Mayflower Tours offers a 10-day "America’s Heritage" tour featuring D.C., Williamsburg, and New York that includes a visit to Arlington Cemetery, and an evening monuments tour; as well as tours of Mount Vernon, Monticello, Jamestown, and Gettysburg; springtime trips take in the Cherry Blossom Festival, too. Monograms Travel offers itineraries of D.C., some including Boston and/or New York. All trips include a full-day guided trolley tour and free time. Smithsonian Journeys has a three-night "Celebrate Smithsonian" tour that offers an exciting behind-the-scenes look into the preservation and research being conducted by this famed institution. You'll meet with curators from the National Air & Space Museum, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, and more. Tauck has two itineraries that include D.C. "Williamsburg and Washington, D.C." starts in Philadelphia, continues to Amish country, Gettysburg, Williamsburg, and the colony of Jamestown before it concludes with two nights in Washington. Highlights of the six-night, family-focused "National Treasures: Philly to D.C." tour include a kayak adventure on the Potomac River and a scavenger hunt in the National Archives. WorldStrides, which specializes in educational student travel, has Washington programs that are designed to enrich the study of U.S. history and government.
Mayflower Tours (800/323–7604. www.mayflowertours.com.)
Monograms Travel (866/270–9841. www.monograms.com.)
Smithsonian Journeys (855/330–1542. www.smithsonianjourneys.org.)
Tauck (800/788–7885. www.tauck.com.)
WorldStrides (800/468–5899. dn.educationaltravel.com.)
Road Scholar, formerly Elderhostel, offers several guided tours for older adults that provide fascinating in-depth looks into the history and beauty of D.C. The nonprofit educational travel organization has been leading all-inclusive learning adventures around the world since 1975. In addition to the programs listed here, it has several other world studies and history programs in D.C. All Road Scholar programs include accommodations, meals, and in-town transportation.
Presented in conjunction with the Close Up Foundation, the nation's largest nonprofit citizenship education organization, "Monumental D.C." is a four-night program that includes seminars on many of the figures memorialized on and near the National Mall. Prices start at about $1,059 per person.
"Spies, Lies and Intelligence: The Shadowy World of International Espionage" is a fascinating exploration of the country's intelligence operation. Retired CIA agents share secrets of high-profile spying cases on this three-night trip that costs about $998 per person. Highlights include visits to the International Spy Museum and the NSA Cryptologic Museum.
"Signature City Washington, D.C.: Historical & Cultural Gems" lets visitors explore some of the city’s lesser-known marvels such as the Scottish Rite of Free Masonry, Georgetown’s Tudor Place and Embassy Row, and H Street, one of D.C.’s most historic neighborhoods. This five-night program starts at about $1,399 per person. There's even a four-night "Urban Outdoors Adventure: Bicycling Washington, D.C." tour where you'll explore the city on two-wheels, including visits to Mount Vernon and Arlington National Cemetery.
Road Scholar (800/454–5768. www.roadscholar.org.)
Day Tours and Guides
We recommend any of the tours offered by A Tour de Force, D.C. Walkabout, Gross National Product’s Scandal Tours, History on Foot, Smithsonian Associates Program, Spies of Washington, and Washington Walks.
For convenience, you can't beat the Old Town Trolley Tours, which take you to all the major historical and cultural landmarks in the city. What's great about these tours is that you can get on and off as you please and stay as long as you like at any spot; you can re-board for free all day long. April through October, Washington Walks has two-hour guided tours that are interesting and, at $15 per person, affordable. Join one of the lively and free tours offered year-round with DC by Foot. And on hot summer days, join Capitol River Cruises for a cool look at the city from the water.
For families we recommend the bike tours (or Segway tours if all kids are over 16), the DC Ducks tour (younger kids will get a kick out of the quackers that are given to all riders), a mule-drawn barge ride on the C&O Canal, and any of Natalie Zanin's historic strolls, especially the Ghost Story Tour of Washington.
Bike and Roll has knowledgeable guides leading daily excursions past dozens of Washington, D.C., landmarks. All tours start at L’Enfant Plaza near the National Mall. Bicycles, helmets, snacks, and water bottles are included in the rates, which start at $40. Their Capital Sites and Monuments night tours cost $45, and there's even a Blossoms by Bike tour for $35 during the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. Capital City Bike Tours also offers day and night monuments tours priced at $36 for adults and $26 for children, ages 12 and under. Adventure Cycling Association offers two 330-mile bike tours along the C&O Canal from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh. The seven-night fall trip is fully supported (vehicles transport riders’ gear and meals are catered) and can accommodate up to 65 riders, while the spring trip is a self-contained tour for 14 (riders carry their own gear and cook their meals). Or if you’d like to set out on your own, the Association sells a Tidewater Potomac Heritage Route map for $15.75 with a detailed 378-mile route that starts in D.C. and travels along the Potomac River to the Chesapeake Bay, incorporating many historic sites.
Capital Bikeshare rents bikes by the hour and is a great way to visit the memorials and monuments at your own pace. And, you can return your bike at any of the 300 stations throughout the city, as well as in Alexandria and Arlington, VA, and neighboring Montgomery County, MD.
Adventure Cycling Association (800/755–2453. www.adventurecycling.org.)
Bike and Roll (202/842–2453. www.bikethesites.com.)
Capital Bikeshare (877/430–2453. www.capitalbikeshare.com.)
Capital City Bike Tours (877/734–8687. capitalcitybiketours.com.)
During one-hour rides on mule-drawn barges on the C&O Canal, costumed guides and volunteers explain the waterway's history. The barge rides, which cost $8 and are run by the National Park Service, depart from its visitor center Wednesday through Sunday, April through October.
Capitol River Cruises offers 45-minute sightseeing tours aboard the Nightingale and Nightingale II, Great Lakes boats from the 1950s. Beverages and light snacks are available. Hourly cruises depart from Washington Harbour noon to 9 pm April through October. Prices are $15 for adults and $7 for children 3 to 12; purchase tickets online and save $1 on each fare.
Several swanky cruises depart from the waterfront in Southwest D.C. The Odyssey III, specially built to fit under the Potomac's bridges, departs from the Gangplank Marina at 6th and Water streets SW. Tickets are approximately $55 for the weekday lunch cruise, $69 for the weekend brunch cruise, and $100–$120 for the daily dinner cruise. As the prices suggest, this is an elegant affair; jackets are requested for men at dinner. The sleek Spirit of Washington offers lunch and dinner cruises that range from $45 to $95. Odyssey and Spirit, as well as a handful of other companies, offer sightseeing boat tours from the new National Harbor on the banks of the Potomac River in Maryland. Just minutes from D.C., National Harbor boasts a convention center, hotels, shops, restaurants, condominiums and the National Children's Museum.
Departing from Alexandria, the glass-enclosed Nina's Dandy cruises up the Potomac year-round to Georgetown, taking you past many of D.C.'s monuments. Lunch cruises cost $48 weekdays and $53 on Saturday. A Sunday Champagne brunch cruise costs $58. Boarding for these cruises starts at 11:30 am. Depending on the day, dinner cruises start boarding at 6 or 6:30 pm and cost $88 Sunday through Thursday and $98–$108 Friday and Saturday. The Nina's Dandy and sister ship Dandy also offer special holiday cruises.
The Potomac Riverboat Company, with docks in Alexandria and Georgetown, has a 90-minute Washington by Water Monuments Cruise priced at $26 for adults (one-way tickets also are available should you wish to board at one dock and disembark at another) mid-March through early November. The company also offers sightseeing tours of the Alexandria harbor, a tour to Mount Vernon, and a pirate cruise for mateys young and old alike.
Mid-March through October, DC Ducks offers 90-minute tours in converted World War II amphibious vehicles. After an hour-long road tour of landlocked sights, the tour moves to the water, where for 30 minutes you get a boat's-eye view of the city. Tours depart from Union Station and cost $35.10 for adults and $26.10 for children ages 11 and under for advance online bookings; seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.
If you're a sailing enthusiast, you'll want to hop aboard the 65-foot American Spirit schooner with DC Sail, the community sailing program of the National Maritime Heritage Foundation. Sunset cruises aboard this classic-rigged sailing vessel are available every other Friday evenings May through October and cost $50 per person. There also are baseball cruises that include a Nats game after the sailing trip and blossom cruises during the city's annual springtime Cherry Blossom season.
C&O Canal Barges (Canal Visitor Center, 1057 Thomas Jefferson St. NW, Georgetown, Washington, DC, 20007. 202/653–5190. www.nps.gov/choh.)
Capitol River Cruises (Washington Harbor, 31st and K Sts. NW, Georgetown, Washington, DC, 20007. 301/460–7447 or 800/405–5511. www.capitolrivercruises.com.)
Dandy Cruises (Prince St., between Duke and King sts., Alexandria, VA, 22314. 703/683–6076. www.dandydinnerboat.com.)
DC Ducks (50 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, 20002. 855/323–8257. www.dcducks.com.)
DC Sail (600 Water St., SW, D.C. Waterfront, Washington, DC, 20024. 202/547–1250. www.dcsail.org.)
Odyssey III and Spirit of Washington (600 Water St. SW, D.C. Waterfront, Washington, DC, 20024. 202/488–6010 or 866/404–8439. www.entertainmentcruises.com.)
Potomac Riverboat Company (205 The Strand, Alexandria, VA, 22314. 877/511–2628 or 703/684–0580. www.potomacriverboatco.com.)
Bus and Trolley Tours
ANC Tours is the only bus company authorized by the National Park Service to offer riding tours through Arlington National Cemetery. Tours depart daily from the Cemetery Visitors Center, 8:30–6:30 April through September, and 8:30–4:30 October through March. Stops include the Kennedy gravesites, the Women in Military Service for America and Robert E. Lee memorials, and the Tomb of the Unknowns, where it is timed to coincide with the Changing of the Guard ceremony; tickets cost $9 for adults and $4.75 for children ages 3–11.
Big Bus Tours offers hop-on, hop-off tours with four different city loops aboard brightly painted red, white, and blue open-top, double-decker buses. The cost is $46 for one day and $57 for a two-day pass and includes all loops. Prices on Tuesday and Wednesday are discounted by 10% if you book in advance online.
Gray Line's nine-hour "D.C. in a Day" tour stops at the White House Visitor Center, U.S. Capitol, World War II Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, and Smithsonian museums. The cost is $45 for adults and $10 for children ages 3–11; there’s also a special family rate of $95 for two adults and two children. The four-hour "Arlington Cemetery Plus a Taste of D.C." includes visits to the Tomb of the Unknowns, Iwo Jima Memorial, and the Lincoln, Korean and Vietnam memorials. It is priced at $45 for adults and $15 for children. Walk in Abraham Lincoln’s footsteps on "The Lincoln Experience" tour that includes visits to Ford’s Theater and The Cottage, a quiet and unassuming country getaway on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home where he enjoyed reading, writing and entertaining guests. It was at The Cottage where he developed the Emancipation Proclamation. The 5½-hour tour is priced at $60 for adults and $20 for children.
Gross National Product's Scandal Tours, led by members of the GNP comedy troupe, last 1½ hours and cover scandals from George Washington to Barack Obama. These extremely lively tours, held on Saturday, April through August, at 1 pm ($30 per person); reservations are required.
Old Town Trolley Tours, orange-and-green motorized trolleys, take in the main Downtown sights and also head into Georgetown and the Upper Northwest in a speedy two hours if you ride straight through. However, you can hop on and off as many times as you like, taking your time at the stops you choose. Tickets are $39 for adults, $29 for kids 4–12; purchase tickets online and save $2.90–$3.90 per ticket. Two-day tickets also are available.
On Board D.C. Tours offers a daily six-hour "D.C. It All" tour that lets you hop on and off with the guide at 12 locations. Monday through Thursday the cost is $70 for adults and $60 for children under 12; Friday through Sunday, it's $80 for adults and $60 for children. Mid-March through October, a one-hour private Potomac River cruise is included in the tour. Their three-hour "D.C. The Lights!" nightlife tour costs $60 for adults and $50 for children.
ANC Tours (202/488–1012. www.anctours.com.)
Big Bus Tours (877/332–8689. www.bigbustours.com.)
Gray Line (301/386–8300 or 800/862–1400. www.graylinedc.com.)
Gross National Product (202/783–7212. www.gnpcomedy.com.)
Old Town Trolley Tours (202/832–9800 or 888/910–8687. www.trolleytours.com.)
On Board D.C. Tours (301/839–5261. www.onboarddctours.com.)
Government Building Tours
Special tours of government buildings with heavy security, including the White House and the Capitol, can be arranged through your U.S. representative or senator's office. Limited numbers of these so-called VIP tickets are available, so plan up to six months in advance of your trip. Foreign visitors should contact their embassy in Washington, D.C., as far in advance as possible. Governmental buildings close to visitors when the Department of Homeland Security issues a high alert, so call ahead.
Don't miss the stunning Capitol Visitor Center. Before your tour of the Capitol, you can watch orientation films, view historical documents from the Library of Congress and the National Archives, learn about the history of democracy through interactive touch-screen displays, walk alongside statues of notable historical figures, and see models of the Capitol and the Dome. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where U.S. money is made, has some of the most popular tours in the city. Foreign dignitaries are received at the Department of State's lavish Diplomatic Reception Rooms, but everyone else can get a peek on weekdays.
The Voice of America is the U.S. government's foreign broadcaster, beaming news and current affairs programming around the world in 44 languages. Get a look behind the scenes with tours weekdays at noon and 2:30 pm. Reservations are recommended and can be made either online or by phone.
National Public Radio leads tours of its broadcast facilities on weekdays at 11 am. Register online in advance of your trip and plan to show up 15 minutes beforehand for a security screening.
National Public Radio (1111 N. Capitol St. NE, Northeast D.C., Washington, DC, 20002. 202/513–2000. www.npr.org.)
Voice of America (330 Independence Ave. SW, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, 20201. 202/203–4990. www.voatour.com.)
Old Town Trolley Tours, orange-and-green motorized trolleys, take in the main Downtown sights and also head into Georgetown and the Upper Northwest in a speedy two hours if you ride straight through. However, you can hop on and off as many times as you like, taking your time at the stops you choose. Tickets are $39 for adults, $29 for kids 4–12; purchase tickets online and save $2.90–$3.90 per ticket. Two-day tickets also are available. ANC Tours is the only bus company authorized by the National Park Service to offer riding tours through Arlington National Cemetery. Tours depart daily from the Cemetery Visitors Center, 8:30–6:30, April through September, and 8:30–5, October through March. Stops include the Kennedy gravesites, the Women in Military Service for America and Robert E. Lee memorials, and the Tomb of the Unknowns, where it is timed to coincide with the Changing of the Guard ceremony; tickets cost $8.75 for adults and $4.50 for children ages 3–11.
Nationally known photographer Sonny Odom offers custom tours for shutterbugs at $50 per hour, with a four-hour minimum. City Photo Walking Tours, led by portrait photographer M. J. Love, has several two-hour tours priced at $140 per person that guarantee postcard-perfect images of the nation's capital. Washington Photo Safari founder E. David Luria promises opportunities for photographers of all skill levels (even camera phones are OK!) on his half-day ($89 per person) and full-day ($169 per person) "Monuments and Memorials" workshops, held every Wednesday and Saturday. Special themed photo tours, including "A House of Cards: Icons of Capitol Hill," "Washington National Cathedral: An Insider’s View," and "Georgetown by Land and Sea," are held on selected weekends. Prices for these half-day tours led by a team of professional photographers range from $74 to $99.
M.J. Love Photography (800/737–4051. www.mjlovephotography.com.)
Sonny Odom (703/379–1633. www.sonnyodom.com.)
Washington Photo Safari (877/512–5969. www.washingtonphotosafari.com.)
A Tour de Force has limo and walking tours of historic homes, diplomatic buildings, and "the best little museums in Washington" led by local historian and author Jeanne Fogle. Award-winning author Anthony Pitch leads two D.C. Sightseeing walking tours: "The Curse of Lafayette Square" and "The Lincoln Assassination." The two-hour tours are $400, no matter the size of your group.
In business since 1964, the Guide Service of Washington puts together half-day and full-day tours of D.C. sights, including some that venture off the beaten path.
A Tour de Force (703/525–2948. www.atourdeforce.com.)
Guide Service of Washington (202/628–2842. www.dctourguides.com.)
D.C. Sightseeing (301/294–9514. www.dcsightseeing.com.)
Segway and Scooter Tours
Rest your feet and glide by the monuments, museums, and major attractions aboard a Segway. Guided tours usually last about two hours. D.C. city ordinance requires that riders be at least 16 years old; some tour companies have weight restrictions of 250 pounds. Tours cost around $45–$90 per person and are limited to 6 to 10 people.
City Scooter Tours rents scooters and wheelchairs for self-guided tours. Three-day rental prices start at $175 for scooters and $150 for wheelchairs.
Capital Segway (202/682–1980. www.capitalsegway.com.)
City Scooter Tours (888/441–7575. www.cityscootertours.com.)
City Segway Tours (877/734–8687. www.citysegwaytours.com.)
Segs in the City (800/734–7393. www.segsinthecity.com.)
American-history scholar Steve Livengood, from the Capitol Historical Society, leads guided tours around the grounds of the Capitol every Monday at 10, March through October. The two-hour tours, which start at Union Station, cost $10 per person.
The nonprofit group Cultural Tourism DC has 15 self-guided Neighborhood Heritage Trails, plus a citywide African-American Heritage Trail, all of which are highlighted with historic markers. All the tours can be downloaded from their website. One week each fall, the group leads free, guided walking tours that highlight the history and architecture of certain neighborhoods, from the southwest waterfront to points much farther north. You also can check out other cultural events, many free, happening around the city on the Cultural Tourism DC website.
DC by Foot offers dozens of free tours—the guides work for tips, which makes for a highly entertaining experience—including the Tidal Basin and National Mall, Arlington National Cemetery, Capitol Hill, Georgetown, and U Street. The two- to four-hour tours are available year-round, but days and times vary by season; advance reservations are required.
DC Metro Food Tours explores the culinary heritage of seven neighborhoods, with 3½-hour tours offered year-round on weekends.
DC Walkabout has created a number of engaging and informative audio walking tours including "American Scandal," "Capitol Hill," "The Georgetown Ghost," "Haunted History" and "The Lincoln Assassination," that feature narration, historical recordings, and even music and sound effects. Each tour, ranging from one to two miles, costs $9 and can be downloaded to any mobile device.
You can step back in time on one of Natalie Zanin's interactive theatrical tours, which revisit Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, World War II, or the 1960s. Or you can sign up for a Ghost Story Tour, on which Zanin dresses as Dolley Madison's ghost and shares stories of hauntings around the city, including Lafayette Square Park, where Edgar Allan Poe's spirit is said to wander. Tours cost $12 for adults and $6 for children.
Relive the night of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination with Detective McDevitt on a two-hour "History on Foot" walking tour ($15 per person) from Ford’s Theatre to Lafayette Park. You’ll follow the escape route taken by assassin John Wilkes Booth on the 1½-mile trek, on Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday from March to October.
The Smithsonian Associates program offers a range of fascinating guided walks around Washington, D.C., and nearby communities; advance tickets are required.
Spies of Washington Walking Tours, led by a retired Air Force officer and former president of the National Military Intelligence Association, visits sites in Washington associated with espionage over the past 200 years. The approximately two-hour tours cost $15 per person.
One of the more popular tours in the city is the U.S. National Arboretum's Full Moon Hike, offered about three times a month, excluding July and August. It's a brisk 4-mile walk through the grounds and hills by the Anacostia River, which afford beautiful views of the city at night. It costs $22 per person and registration is required. The Arboretum also has a number of other delightful walking tours through the enchanting gardens.
Washington Walks has a wide range of tours for $15 per person, including the self-explanatory "Memorials by Moonlight" and "The Most Haunted Houses"; "Get Local Saturdays," which goes in-depth into Washington neighborhoods; and tours of Georgetown and Dupont Circle.
Capitol Historical Society (202/543–8919. www.uschs.org.)
Cultural Tourism DC (202/661–7581. www.culturaltourismdc.org.)
DC by Foot (202/370–1830. www.dcbyfoot.com.)
DC Metro Food Tours (202/683–8847 or 800/979–3370. www.dcmetrofoodtours.com.)
DC Walkabout (202/421–4053. www.dcwalkabout.com.)
History on Foot (202/347–4833. www.fords.org.)
Natalie Zanin's Historic Strolls (301/588–9255. www.historicstrolls.com.)
The Smithsonian Associates (202/633–3030. www.smithsonianassociates.org.)
Spies of Washington Tour (703/569–1875. www.spiesofwashingtontour.com.)
U.S. National Arboretum (202/245–4521. www.usna.usda.gov.)
Washington Walks (202/484–1565. www.washingtonwalks.com.)