Tips for trip to Washington/Philadelphia in spring

I’m planning a trip to the U.S. (flying from Europe) next year spring (around may) with my teenage son. We expect to first go to NY, which I’ve been to before (and there is currently another thread on NY). Our idea was to next take the train to Philadelphia, leave our luggage at the station, do a quick walkaround in the city (Independence Hall), then take the train to Washington and stay there for 3 days to take in the sights.

I was hoping that you guys might be able to provide us with some tips and/or warnings. We want to see the historic important landmarks, also I like to walk around to catch the atmosphere of a city. I also like to try local cuisine (Philly cheesesteak?). My son is open to visit a few art museums but wouldn’t like to spend much time there. Naturally we plan to visit/see the main Washington sights (White House, Capitol, Supreme Court, Lincoln Memorial), realizing some are not open to non-US tourists or have restrictions. But are there other things to recommend? My son is interested in history and politics, also classical history, but I wouldn’t want to drag him along rows of ancient statues. Obviously I also can’t visit bars or late night sights.

Does your son like planes or space? If so, and especially if you are flying out of Dulles, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on the Mall has a much bigger branch called the Udvar-Hazy Center. I’m an AvGeek and it’s the best air museum I’ve ever been to.

Can you leave luggage at the train station, as you plan? Post-9/11, I think luggage checks may be more difficult, so you might want to confirm that it is an option.

I don’t know of any general restrictions for non-U.S. tourists. The one problem is the White House, since you have to ask a U.S. Congress member for a reservation months in advance, so that would be difficult. The main thing I would recommend for a tourist to see is the Smithsonian museums. There are a lot of them and they are full of interesting exhibits.

When we were considering a trip to Washington, we were told that only Americans could get a White House tour. That was some years ago.

In Philadelphia you might consider visiting the Olympia.

According to this website, you can reserve a White House tour if you’re not an American citizen by contacting your country’s embassy in Washington:

Sounds like a great trip!

Some quick thoughts:

Some Amtrak stations have baggage hold, but not all of them. You’d best check with Amtrak about the stations for the cities you want to visit. Amtrak is a good way to go between New York, Philly, and DC, in my opinion and experience. There are also passenger buses that can be cheaper. You’re in the same traffic as the cars, but you aren’t driving.

The Smithsonian Museums do not charge an entry fee, or ask for donations to enter. The Udvar-Hazy center does charge for car parking. The Smithsonian museums are large - you can’t cover them all in one trip. Do some research and decide which museums and exhibits you want to see. Same for the monuments - some are a very long walk apart. Public transit or cabs may be in order.

I suggest learning about the public transit systems in each city. You’ve chosen three of the best transit cities in the US. There are still gaps, and issues. The New York Subway is old, and hard to use if you can’t walk well. It’s also complex. I don’t have much experience with transit in Philly. There’s SEPTA and commuter rail. The DC Metro is pretty good, but stations can be far apart, particularly away from the National Mall and downtown DC.

DC Metro has a lot of escalators. Commuters walk up or down them (as appropriate) on the left side. If you aren’t walking on the escalator, stand on the right hand side to keep that path open. You’ll get a lot fewer dirty looks.

There are many YouTube videos about traveling in the US, including advice for people from Europe. I watch them for fun, and for a window into my culture. Tipping culture in the US is a big point of confusion, as is sales tax. Tipping can be confusing for Americans also!

Have fun!

May is school field trip season in D.C., so some places may be swarmed with busloads of 12-14 year old students. Check out the Trip Hacks D.C. for all you want to know about travel to D.C.

I’d recommend a day on a bus tour of the DC area. Good way to see many major local sites. Comfortable and stress free with great narrative.

I suspect that you aren’t allowing nearly enough time for a trip to New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. I think this is typical of tourists who think the U.S. is just one country so it shouldn’t be that hard to see everything of interest in the U.S. in one vacation. I’ve heard of tourists who decided that they would visit New York, Disneyworld, and Los Angeles in one two-week vacation. To be honest, two weeks isn’t even enough time to see everything of interest in the Smithsonian. That’s not to say that you can’t see from the outside a lot of places during a walk in Washington. You can walk by the Air and Space Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Natural History Museum, the American History Museum, the Hirshhorn Art Museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Smithsonian Castle, the Freer & Sackler Galleries & African Art Museum, the Washington Monument, the White House, the Capitol Building, the WWII Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Reflecting Pool, and the Jefferson Memorial in one long day if you want and don’t care about going into any of them. And there are other places to visit that are only a little further walk. I’ve lived ten miles from the center of Washington for almost 38 of the last almost 41 years and haven’t had time to see all of them. No matter what you do on this vacation, you will leave at the end thinking that there was much more that you didn’t have time to visit.

I have a Liberty Bell-specific tip: When we went to view it, there were perhaps 200 people in line. We opted out and kept walking, only to come across a viewing window where three people were peering in at the Bell. So, yeah, we saw it through a window, maybe 10-15 feet away. Good enough for me.

You may also want to have a look at the “Rocky” statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and then run up the “Rocky” steps and do the “Rocky” dance at the top.


I lived in the D.C. area from 1986-1993 so it’s been a while. May is a wonderful time to visit, as the summers can be sticky and awful. I wonder if there is some way to directly engage interactively, participate, instead of being a passive viewer (of art or gardens). I would opt for any place with live music, jazz or similar, in a smaller intimate setting. Ideally outdoors cuz COVID.

D.C. also has Rock Creek Park which is large and you can walk or hike in it. As with all cities, go in daylight hours, watch your back, be polite. As I recall, D.C. residents can be quite testy if they think you’re too pushy, or you ignore their presence.

Georgetown is a nice part of town, I used to love walking around there. I hear it’s very expensive now, for shopping and dining. But window shopping is always free.

Surrounding areas that are on the Metro include Silver Spring, which doesn’t necessarily have any huge destinations but the Metro is bigger now so more options.

Outside of town, if you’re renting a car, consider some historical sites. I don’t remember visiting homes of dead U.S. presidents but I do remember visiting a Frank Lloyd Wright house that is now a museum. That was in Virginia.

The Maryland shoreline is an attraction for many especially if you like all-you-can-eat crabs. I don’t, I like someone else to take them out of the shell.

I personally find monuments boring as F***. Obelisks and statues. Yaaawn. But even if your kid doesn’t like “art” he might like “history” or “facts” and the Smithsonian museums for Civil Rights, Holocaust, Natural History, Air and Space, are all good rainy-day options. Pick just one. Some of them have what is known as difficult content, so prepare for that.

I also like the Freer Gallery (Asian), the Hirshhorn (modern-ish), the National Museum of African Art.

ArtBeforeScience, those all would be great places to visit. Again, though, I have to emphasize that it sounds like Tusculan’s visit is far too short for those. Doing those things would take multiple visits. I have something else to suggest, even though this would be another thing crowding your schedule. We could have a Dopefest while you’re in town. There have been fewer Dopefests for the past five or ten years, so I should explain. A Dopefest is a meeting of Straight Dope Message Board members. Often they are in a restaurant for a dinner (i.e., a supper) at a meal with a lot of us sitting at a single table. Sometimes they are done for a visitor to the area to introduce them to the people who live in the area. If you’d like to do this, let us know.

Even if it was easy to get in, the White House tour is, IMO, not worth it. You’ll have a much better time spending that hour somewhere else. I don’t think I’m just being a jaded, cynical American here, that opinion is fairly common, but if you’re determined to see it, by all means enjoy.

And I don’t think you’re giving yourself enough time in Philly. There’s just as much history there as in DC, although much less of it in Philadelphia is free, and it’s not all conveniently packed together into one isolated area.

In fact, I would suggest that you treat this trip to New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. as a chance to see what things you’d like to visit on your next vacation in the area. I think, for example, you might use your time in Philadelphia to run to the top of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art so you can tell people that you ran up the same steps as Rocky in the movie. You can tell them that you ran up the steps in Philadelphia, looked up at the tall buildings in New York, and walked around the Mall in Washington, but you’ll do a much more thorough job of visiting things on your next visit.

I would not recommend them if you’re the least bit acrophobic.

I cannot recall if there ever was a left luggage place (or lockers) in Philly. Assuming that works, I recommend going up to the top level platform (SW corner of 30th St. station) and taking any eastbound train to 8th St. to continue to Independence Mall. I can remember visiting it on school trips when I was a kid and there were no lineups. On the other hand, if your son likes museums, it might best to take the commuter train to 17th St. and walk up to 21st and Ben Franklin Parkway where you will find the Franklin Institute, the museum of Natural History, the Rodin Museum and then you could walk to the end of the Parkway, climb up the Rocky steps and go to the art museum. But that would make for a very long day.

IMHO, cheese steaks are highly overrated. But what I wouldn’t give for a genuine hoagie. Thirty years ago, there used to be a guy selling superb hoagies out of a truck parked in the middle of the Drexel campus, just SW of the train station (on Woodland Ave.). Obviously, I dunno if he or a successor are still there.

For Washington DC, if you can spare the time, I would recommend Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. It would take about half a day to get out there, see it, and get back into town.

The main sights in DC, as Wendall_Wagner listed, are around the area known as “The Mall” (no, not a shopping mall). You can certainly walk from end to end and see most all of the buildings and monuments from the outside. But it will be a long hike! Some you can enter easily, the Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial are open air with a statue in the middle. Note the Jefferson Memorial is off on an island and not as close as the rest on The Mall. The Washington Monument (the big obelisk) needs timed tickets to enter and ride to the top. I’ve never done that 'cause it’s a pain to arrange. The Capitol building, and the White House, are also good for outside viewing (the White House is naturally behind lots of fences), and they require administrative effort in advance to visit inside. As for the dozens of Smithsonian (and non-Smithsonian) museums, you could spend a year going through them all - pick one or two greatest hits and go for those.

Outside of The Mall, there is Georgetown (shopping), The Wharf (brand new waterfront shopping and dining district), Old Town Alexandria (more shopping and dining across the Potomac river).

Also, in addition to Mount Vernon, you can tour the house where President Woodrow Wilson lived after the White House. It happens to be right next door to a house Jeff Bezos owns. And, there is the cottage where Abraham Lincoln spent the summers while he was President.

We loved Philadelphia. Favorites? Elfreth’s Alley is kind of cool. It’s the oldest continuously inhabited neighborhood in the US. The Rodin museum is good. Eastern State Penitentiary was probably our favorite thing.

You should swing by Reading Terminal Market. Get a Reuben sandwich at the Dutch eating place. Elsewhere, we really liked the pizza at Rione.

We walked a lot and saw lots of sculptures etc. I regret that we didn’t make it to Mt. Moriah cemetery.

The Mutter museum (medical oddities etc.) was a disappointment.

OP, are you not American? Philadelphia has hop-on-hop-off tour buses that can take you around town so you don’t have to drive but you can get a feel for where you might like to spend your time.