To avoid capital hassles, go by train, take the Metro

June 27, 1993|By Joe Surkiewicz | Joe Surkiewicz,Contributing Writer

Whether it's a trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or a lesser-known spot, Washington visitors can count on seeing awe-inspiring monuments, world-class museums, and breathtaking sculptures and fine arts.

Yet Washington is also a baffling city that confounds visitors with a Rube Goldberg street plan and elbow-to-elbow crowds that can easily wipe out a tourist's enthusiasm.

A little planning, however, can eliminate the worst Washington torments. Here are some suggestions to make your trip more enjoyable.

* Leave the family car at home, or else park it in the suburbs. Washington traffic snarls and parking hassles are legendary. On weekdays, MARC trains shuttle commuters and savvy tourists to Washington's Union Station. Round-trip fare from Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station is $9, less than the price of a full day's parking in a downtown parking garage. For information, call (800) 325-RAIL.

* On weekends, daytrippers can drive to Washington's Maryland suburbs, park free and ride the subway downtown. Drive to either the New Carrollton station, located just inside the Capitol Beltway on U.S. Route 50, or the Silver Spring station at Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue. On weekends, Metro operates from 8 a.m. to midnight. Call (202) 637-7000 for more information.

Save shoe leather, time and money by using Metro as your primary means of transportation in Washington. The system is clean, safe, inexpensive, convenient and air-conditioned. (When purchasing a ticket from the automated fare machines located in the mezzanine area of each station, buy a card with enough value to last several trips.)

* Get off the Mall. While the museums and monuments that grace this 2-mile expanse of green are justifiably famous, an all-day traipse through marble halls soon takes on the feeling of a grade school field trip . . . and there's going to be a quiz.

Instead, after visiting one or two Mall museums, take Metro to nTC Dupont Circle, "new" downtown (west of 15th Street), Capitol Hill or Old Town, Alexandria. There's plenty to see and do. Or take a cab to Georgetown or Adams Morgan, two interesting Washington neighborhoods.

* Museum cafeterias, with few exceptions, offer dreary, over-priced food -- galling in a city noted for its ethnic cuisine. So, when hunger pangs hit, take a short hike or Metro ride to the Old Post Office Pavilion, L'Enfant Plaza, Union Station, Chinatown or the Shops at National Place -- and find selections ranging from sushi to ribs.

* To avoid the worst crowds, visit popular destinations such as the Air and Space Museum, the Museum of Natural History, the FBI building or the Museum of American History early in the week. Monday and Tuesday are usually the slowest days; Saturday the most crowded. (Crowds are thinnest just as the attractions open.)

* When crowds are jamming well-known destinations in the early afternoon, plan on visiting less-popular sights.

* On hot, muggy Washington afternoons, skip the monuments and memorials. Instead, see them after dark. The Jefferson and Lincoln memorials float in pools of artificial light, while the scene at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a moving experience as people hold flickering matches and search for names on the polished stone.

* When the line wraps around the Washington Monument three times, it signals a three-hour wait for the 70-second elevator ride to the top. You've got two alternatives: Walk to the Old Post Office Tower for Washington's second-best view -- and there's rarely a line for the elevator -- or go back to the Washington Monument at night.

* First-time visitors should consider taking a "motorized trolley" tour of the city. The regularly scheduled, open-air shuttle buses follow routes along the Mall, the major monuments, Arlington Cemetery, downtown, Georgetown and upper Northwest. The tours are an easy way to see the city's most popular sights -- and save wear and tear on the feet.

Two touring services operate on slightly different routes. Tourmobile service costs $10.50 ($5 for children) and makes 18 stops along the Mall and National Park Service sights, while Old Town Trolley tours cost $15 ($7 for kids) and make 14 stops on the Mall and in upper Northwest and Georgetown. Both services allow unlimited boarding for the day on shuttle buses that run every 30 minutes; buy tickets from the driver.

* If you're short on maps or need more information, stop by the Washington Visitor Information Center, 1455 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., a block east of the White House. The center stocks maps, brochures and is staffed by folks who can offer touring advice. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays (closed Sundays and holidays). For a package of free information before a visit, call or write: Washington D.C. Convention & Visitors Association, Tourist Information, Suite 600, 1212 New York Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005; (202) 789-7000.

Joe Surkiewicz is the author of "The Unofficial Guide to Washington," to be published in November by Prentice Hall Travel/Simon & Schuster.

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