Recently the Washington Post did an article on what local customs tourists routinely ignore or trample upon when they arrive here, things that make the area and it's people function smoothly. I am reminded of those things when I go into the city to shop, or go to the museums or the days I ride the train in with Jim to visit his office. Wednesday I went into the city with Jim to go over his retirement paperwork with HR and to attend the retirement party that his office threw for him.
Jim is more sanguine about the tourist hordes than I am. Yes, I understand we live on the edge of one of the biggest vacation destinations this side of Disney World and Disneyland. I understand they bring 7 billion dollars into the area every year. My problem with them is that they act like the DC/VA/MD area is just like Iowa or Mississippi plus the piles of RVs snaring up the really bad traffic on the major highways the areas I go to shop.
Like this photo from the Washington Post of the Metro escalators. I'm surprised no one pushed these folks or said something to them. You do not stand on the left side of the escalators in the District or you risk being pushed over or elbowed aside. Here it's stand right and walk left.
See, here's the thing. When I go places, like Costa Rica, or even someplace like the Midwest, I try to research as much info as someone in tourist mode can. Looked up tipping practices in Costa Rica. Made sure when I was in Germany not to give the 'okay' symbol to any drivers because it means 'asshole' there and is against the law. I never expect anyone to talk to me in my own language, I eat whatever the local cuisine is and try not to act like The Ugly American, save my venting over customs I don't like either for here or into poor Jim's ear, not airing them publicly.
I had a couple of hours to kill before Jim's retirement party and I spent them shopping at Union Station, observing the tourists after getting stuck on an escalator behind them trying to get back up to the Postal Square Building Jim works at.
So what do you need to know besides never stand left on the escalator (which can earn you a shove, a nasty retort, or a simple big sigh and side eye) Sorry, but most of us there have a limited amount of time to get to work or are running to catch a commuter train.
1 - It is rarely a good idea to come to DC with a camper or RV. The nearest campgrounds are between 30 minutes to two hours away dependent upon traffic and rush hour situations. There is absolutely no place to park them in the city and many of the streets are too narrow to accommodate them easily. You'll also find drivers shaking their fists at you as you clog up the major highways with them and try to drive the speed limit. Traffic is too insane here to ever make that a good idea.
2 - Don't try to lecture a local on some custom or notion of the city. This happened to me standing in line at the Union Station Subway location to get a sandwich. Some busy body lady turned around and started trying to tell me where the line started and all the things wrong with D.C. I had to point out that she was mistaken about a few things, including where the line ran. She was in the wrong line. Don't assume everyone around you is a tourist.
3 - Expect to be run through security EVERYWHERE..... There are armed security officers just about everywhere, Metro, Union Station, the Mall, the various Smithsonians and every federal building ever. Don't take offense, just shuffle yourself through them, but please leave your handguns home.
4 - If you insist on driving, which I do not recommend, I recommend you fly in and take the Metro/VRE/MARC and stay in a hotel. But if you do drive please have a working GPS with recently updated software and at least take a look at a few maps to familiarize yourself with the fact that the city is laid out in an odd fashion and filled with lots of one way streets. Doing this might keep you from ending up in the worst parts of the city and out of the grips of petty criminals. Ask me about the time I got lost going to pick up an uncle from the Trailways Bus station in the middle of the night and the crackhead that jumped on the hood of my car at 2 am.
5 - Another point to consider when driving is the problem of parking. Real estate is at a premium here and parking during the work week is next to impossible and can be quite expensive. Many times you end up parked so far from the place you're going you would have been much closer if you've have taken the Metro into that thing you are going to see.
6 - Realize everything here costs much more than in many places. Simple supply and demand. Griping isn't going to help. Again, research the costs before arriving instead of standing in the middle of Union Station and ranting that you never paid that much for sandwich/bottle of water/memory card. Tourist areas are always financial ripoffs.
7 - Don't come in the Summer time. Not only is that when there are hordes of tourists that make obtaining things like tickets to the White House harder to get, but it's miserable here in the Summer. Washington D.C. is built upon a swamp and all the auto exhaust is not helping anything! It's gets Louisiana swamp hot here in the Summer. Spring or Fall are glorious, just not the Summer. Unless you enjoy sweating your ass off. Oh, and Winter sucks too because it's just far enough north to get some nasty nor'easters and snow.
8 - There are many places that are not going to allow you to bring that water or that backpack in, where you'll have to check your belongings, like the viewing gallery of the Capital. If you want to watch the senators or congressmen bloviate from the balcony be prepared to check your belongings.
9 - Summertime driving coming out of the District means that the traffic jams can start as early as noon on Thursday and Friday with people taking off early and fleeing the city for the mountains or Ocean City/Virginia Beach.
10 - Best to travel into and out of the city after rush hour unless you enjoy being stuck on the freeway for upwards of two hours to go a short distance.
But to counter balance all that awful in some ways D.C. is the best place to go for freebies. The Smithsonian is always free, with the exception of parking at the Air & Space Museum near Dulles Airport. There's always something happening on the Mall and every afternoon brings a free concert at the Kennedy Center. It is a center of culture with many interesting things to see and do.
Don't forget to see the great things in the surrounding countryside too. Where I live is mile after mile of white fenced rolling hills and horses. Not too far past that is the Shenandoah National Park with some of the most magnificent views in the East.