So you've decided to travel to Washington, D.C. for the historic inauguration of Barack Obama. Good on you--it should be an awesome experience! If you're still looking for a place to stay I can't help you much with that, but as a former D.C. resident I can provide some great travel tips about other aspects of your stay. Keep reading for the 411.
As you've probably heard, Inaugural visitors who aren't traveling by motorcade are being advised to take Metro, Washington's state-of-the-art public transportation system. Since Metro officials expect delays, they're advising tourists to buy their metro tickets in advance. The official Washington Metro Transit Authority Website provides information on how to do this, as well maps, and general information about choosing among the farecard options. if you plan on staying at a fair distance outside of D.C. and parking at an outlying metro station, you will want to buy a SmartTrip card, as those are required for parking at most metro lots. (You can even get a commorative Inauguration version of this card here--but it will cost you an extra $10. You could probably get a good bootleg T-Shirt on the street for less than that.)
Metro can be confusing, so if you aren't familiar with the system I strongly recommend reading up on it in advance instead of using the usual tourist method of learning about Metro (i.e. tying up the farecard line while commuters behind you frantically try to teach you how to buy your card.) I also recommend checking out Metro's Inauguration travel F.A.Q., where you can learn how to sign up for email travel alerts about the Inauguration. One important thing to note, especially at rush hour: on the escalators you are expected to stand on the right and walk on the left. If you want to stand still for your ride up or down, move to the right or prepare to be mowed over, or at least shouted at by impatient D.C. commuters.
Finding Your Way Around
Also confusing--D.C.'s bizarre mapping system. It's pretty simple once you know the secret, which I'm going to tell you: DC is divided into four quadrants with the U.S. Capitol as the epicenter--Northeast or NE, Southeast or SE, Northwest or NW, and Northeast or NE. These two little letters at the end of an address (e.g., 101 Third Street SE) are crucial to reaching the proper destination, as there very will might be a 101 Third Street in the other three quadrants, all of them many blocks apart. Until you get the hang of it, it's best to carry a DC street map with you at all times.
This About.com blog provides a pretty good clearinghouse for learning about Inauguration-related events. The Senate's Inauguration site, in addition to providing history and context, has great helpful information (including such information as accessibility) There is an official Inauguration site that enables you to sign up for email alerts for crucial as-yet-to-be-announced details. There will be events throughout the weekend, as well as tie-in exhibits and events. The Smithsonian museum will feature a variety of Inauguration-themed exhibits. A free Inaugural event kickoff event will be held at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday, January 18. (I attended a similar event held during the Clinton Inaugural facilities. My advice is to arrive early, carry water and snacks, dress warmly and bring something waterproof that will allow you to sit comfortably on the ground for hours. In fact, that advice pretty much goes for all outdoor Inauguration events.) This event will also be broadcast on HBO.
On Monday the Obamas and Bidens plan to do service projects in honor of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday is officially celebrated on this day. I'm guessing your odds of schlepping concrete at a Habitat for Humanity site with the future President or Veep are slim to none, so you'll probably elect to check out some of Washington's Smithsonian museums. My family's current favorite is the National Museum of the American Indian, and as luck would have it they're hosting a special three-day multicultural Inaugural tie-in event on that very weekend. It's also the only Smithsonian where the expensive food is actually worth the price. (More on where to eat later.) Other kid-friendly Smithsonian sites include The Museum of Natural History (home of the Hope Diamond), the Air and Space Museum (where kids can pilot a "spacecraft"), the newly-remodeled Museum of American History (Home of the Star-Spangled Banner and the First Ladies' Gowns) and the National Zoo (giant pandas!). A little book of fun facts and scavenger-hunt games called We're There: Washington DC (available on Amazon) enhanced my kid's first D.C. trip (and kept them from being bored as we traveled from place to place.) There are other kid's guides to DC, including Frommers (this website gives a free preview of their guide and helpfullly points out that DC is the site of the International Spy Museum.) If you are looking for a more adult Smithsonian experience, check out the National Portrait Gallery (which will showcase the famous Shepard Fairey Obama portrait as part of the Inauguaral festivities). The building co-houses the Renwick gallery, where you can see some truly wacky folk art, such as this charming carving of Adam and Eve (note: NOT work-friendly.)
On Monday Night a free inauguration-eve youth concert will be held at the 20,000-seat Verizon Center. Tickets are required, but so far details about getting the tickets have yet to be announced. (My guess is that signing up for those email alerts will prove crucial in securing these tickets.) Those who don't score tickets can watch the show on ABC or the Disney Channel.
The actual swearing in requires tickets, but for the first time in history groundlings will be allowed to gather on the National Mall and watch from jumbo-tron screens. Festivities commence at 10 a.m. (Remember--dress warmly, bring water and snacks and something waterproof in case you want to sit on the ground.)
The Inaugural parade starts at 2:30 p.m. There are limited tickets available, but they've long since sold out. The good news: the parade is free and open to the public. Unfortunately for those willing to pitch a tent now to get a good spot, that won't be possible, as visitors won't be allowed to line up on the parade route until 7 a.m. on Inauguration Day.
This year, for the first time ever, the main ball will be a Neighborhood Ball, which will offer free or low-cost admission and include many regular-people-type D.C. residents (I feel a Spike Lee feature film coming on...) This event will be broadcast on ABC and the Disney Channel (is this the final step in the Disneyfication of America? Oh, heck--I don't even care anymore.) This will be one of ten official balls (most of which are invitation-only affairs) which the Presidential and Vice Presidential couples are guaranteed to attend. Oh yeah--the President, Vice President and their wives spend the night schlepping all over D.C., doing a token twirl on the dancefloor at each ball, posing for a few photos and then moving on to the next event. Good times, huh? If you really want to boogie down in D.C. and you can't manage to score tickets to one of the official balls, you still have options, my friend, including an eco-friendly "Green Ball," a shindig sponsored by the National Coalition of Technology and hosted by my former employer, The Folger Shakespeare Library, and my personal fave, The Baltimore-Washington Black McDonald's Operator's Association Ball ( it's described as "an intimate gathering.") The complete list (with links, no less), perhaps best described as a snapshot of America's diversity, is available here, and I for one found it worth the five minutes or so it took to read it.
Besides the People's Inaugural LGBT Gala, there are sure to be lots of LGBT-friendly events. Lambda Rising bookstore (in the LGBT-centric Dupont Circle neighborhood) should be a good first stop, as they are promising to provide free copies of the city's LGBT weeklies and free advice to out-of-town travelers.
Eating in DC
Washington, D.C. is a Foodie's dream, with everything from great local fast food (like Burrito Brothers) to the ultra-expensive eateries (like Citronelle Restaurant) and plenty of stuff in-between, including burger joints (like Capitol Hill's infamous Tune Inn) and affordable ethnic restaurants ( like Salvadoran restaurant El Tamarindo). Here is a quick overview, keyed to the needs of Inaugural Travelers.
For affordable eats near tourist sites, there are three main destinations--Union Station (includes a Food Court and affordable chain restaurants like Au Bon Pan), The Old Post Office (also has a food court) and Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast on Capitol Hill. Union Station is found at the Union Station metro stop, next to the Postal Museum and within walking distance to the U.S. Capitol and the National Gallery of Art. Capitol Hill eateries located near the Independence Avenue side of the Capitol Mall (where you also find the Smithsonian Castle, the Museum of the American Indian and the Air and Space Museum. To find it, get off at the Capitol South Metro stop (ask for directions or look at a map) or follow Independence Avenue heading towards the U.S. Capitol and past the Arboretum and the Madison building of the Library of Congress. Just past the Madison building you will run into Pennsylvania Avenue SE, where Capitol Hill employees go for a quick bite. The Old Post Office Pavillion is at the corner of Pennsylvania and Twelfth Streets NW, near the Federal Triangle and Metro Center metro stops, and is close to the Museum of Natural History and the monuments. Tourist bonus: The view from the bell tower is the second-best in Washington (second only to the Washington Monument.) For dinner you might like to check out one of the many very inexpensive ethnic restaurants in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood (this website will give you a good overview.)
Adams Morgan has the most interesting eats, great shops, and some seriously happening clubs, but my favorite overall nightlife spot in DC (okay, in the world) is Georgetown (not terribly close to metro lines, but worth the parking hell.) Georgetown has a vibe that's hard to pin down--it's kinda funky and also kinda preppie, but it somehow always feels like home to me. Old Town Alexandria has a similar feel, but it's over the river in Virginia (not that there's anything wrong with that.)
Hangin' Out Around DC
If you're planning on exploring the region, you might want to check out some other nearby tourist destinations: In Maryland, there's plenty to see and do in Baltimore, Annapolis and historic Ellicott City (Just follow my Maryland link for more information). If you're looking for a hands-on history lesson, explore Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia (about 3 1/2 hours outside of DC).
Cross-posted at Cheapskates Blog.