A chilly breeze whips around the base of the Washington Monument, causing the Revolutionary War soldier patrolling the grounds to pull his blue wool coat more tightly around his shoulders. The sun is out in full force, though, a perfect day for photos. I snap a few close-ups of the soldier, in period costume because it’s Presidents’ Day, then back up to scout out the best angle to capture the towering white obelisk. As I do so, I stumble into a squat metal post bearing a sign: “Peak Season is Memorial Day through Labor Day. Line up 1-2 hours before ticket window opens at 8:30 a.m.” A chuckle slips from my lips.
There are no crowds anywhere today in Washington, D.C. No throngs of tourists jostling for position in ticket lines, no people elbowing each other to get a better glimpse of the Hope Diamond or Dorothy Gale’s ruby slippers, no clump of anxious parents fighting to ensure their child is the next one to stand by the soldier over yonder for that oh-so-perfect shot in front of the Washington Monument.
And there’s certainly no need to arrive here at dawn’s early light just for the privilege of waiting in line for the ticket booth to open.
My brother was one of those who stood in this very spot for two hours early one steamy July morning, just to nab four tickets stamped with a midafternoon entry time. Smiling at the thought, and of how I’m going to rub it in to him later, I saunter up to the counter — there’s not a single person in line at 11 a.m. — and purchase two tickets that allow us immediate entry.
Washington, D.C., is one of America’s most popular tourist destinations, with 20.2 million visitors in 2014, a record high. The vast majority of leisure travelers stop in between mid-March (the start of the popular National Cherry Blossom Festival) and the end of July. My husband and I haven’t planned this offseason trip with the intent of avoiding D.C.’s crowds. Our younger daughter needed some assistance moving to town in early February, so we decide to stick around after she’s settled in to check out our nation’s capital. What we quickly discover, everywhere we go, is a peaceful aura and lack of frenzy that allows history buffs like ourselves to thoroughly take in every attraction at a pleasurable, leisurely pace.
Unintended private tours
It all begins at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate. Visitors use a timed ticketing system to sign up for the popular 25-minute tour of Washington’s mansion; generally, their tour time will be later in the day. We are able to immediately join the next tour of George’s abode. Outside, we snap photos without having to wait for people to step out of the way. The only time we have to pause — for about two minutes — is when a small group of international students clusters in front of George and Martha’s tomb. Before we leave, we take a good look at George’s false teeth on display in the complex’s nearly empty Education Center. (They’re rather unsightly, and are made of human and cow teeth, plus elephant ivory — ick!)
Melissa Wood, Mount Vernon spokesman, encourages offseason visitors to take advantage of the attraction’s special activities, such as “Meet Martha Washington.” “In April, you will be seated in a crowded theater listening to her speak,” she says. “In the offseason, many guests are known to have one-on-ones with our Martha Washington, which they always note is the highlight to their visit.”
At the Holocaust Museum, and at several of the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall, we have similar experiences. The National Museum of American History had 4 million visitors in 2014, most of whom likely stopped at the Star-Spangled Banner, one of the museum’s top five favorite exhibits. Usually the wait is no more than 15 minute to view the wool-and-cotton flag that fluttered over Fort McHenry and inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the words that would become our national anthem. Not bad at all. But it’s still nice when we’re able to walk right up to the famous flag, plus linger without worrying about spending too much time looking at others’ expense.
At the National Archives Museum, we spot limp roping arranged in a small, winding line designed to corral waiting tourists eager to gain access to the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, a semicircular area that contains the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and other impressive pearls. The roping is much more extensive in the busy summer months, but today even the pint-size corral is unnecessary. Not only is there no line, but my husband and I find ourselves in the spacious rotunda alone with the security guards.
Our biggest offseason coup comes at the Library of Congress, home of treasures such as the Gutenberg Bible and Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 world map, the first document on which the name “America” appears. We wind through the building, surprisingly colorful and ornate, and arrive at the spot where free guided tours are held six days a week, several times each day.
“No one’s here for the 11 a.m. tour except you two,” a volunteer guide says, a bit surprised. She checks the waiting area to make sure she hasn’t overlooked anyone. She hasn’t. “Then I guess you two get a private tour today!” she says.
As we get ready to depart, two additional volunteer guides join us. As part of their professional development, they’re encouraged to occasionally listen to other tour guides’ spiels. But the two tagalongs are so excited about the library and its treasures, they can’t remain quiet. At each stop, once our official guide finishes speaking, they pipe in with their own facts and stories, giving us a unique tri-tour of sorts.
Winter by the numbers
Kate Gibbs of Destination DC, Washington’s official tourism entity, says two of the city’s busiest months for leisure travelers are June and July, despite D.C.’s notoriety for hot, humid summertime weather. The National Cherry Blossom Festival, held mid-March to mid-April, is also a hectic time, while autumn brings a lot of conventioneers into town. But winter — specifically Thanksgiving to mid-March — is an exceptional time to visit, she says. Besides fewer people and more breathing room, the city holds signature holiday events, such as the lighting of the National Christmas Tree on the National Mall, while hotels offer discounted rates. But February may be the best-of-the-best time to visit when it comes to snagging deals. That’s when “Date Nights DC” is held, a citywide promotion composed of hotel deals, attraction discounts and special restaurant menus all aimed at getting people to come to D.C. for a long weekend. Or more.
Don’t worry about the weather if you’re pondering a wintertime escape here. While temps can dip into the 30s, you’re generally looking at days with highs in the 40s or 50s, and little to no snow — near-Floridian conditions for Minnesotans. One day during our early-February visit, the mercury neared 70.
We spend our final day in the city walking along the National Mall, stopping to see all of its memorials and monuments. At the World War II Memorial, yellow-vested volunteers mill about, eager to impart information about the war and memorial. Normally, visitors flock around the volunteers, trying to find answers to their questions. In wintertime, roles are reversed, with the volunteers seeking an audience.
“Hello, there!” one man waves. “Do you two have any questions about this memorial?”
We shake our heads no.
“Well, can you guess why the states are arranged in this fashion?” he continues, gesturing to the 56 granite pillars fanning out around him. Each pillar contains the name of a state, territory or the District of Columbia; collectively, they represent the nation’s unity during World War II. I spot Minnesota, which is preceded by Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri. … I’m perplexed.
“By location?” I venture hesitantly, knowing that’s not the correct answer.
“No,” he says. “Try again.”
“Is it the order the states entered into the Union?” my husband asks.
“Excellent!” he says. “That’s right.”
We chat a bit more, then head off toward the Lincoln Monument a half-mile farther down the mall. Old Abe is probably pretty lonely, sitting in that giant chair. He’ll surely welcome a photo op with us.
Melanie Radzicki McManus, a writer in Sun Prairie, Wis., was recently named Travel Journalist of the Year, honorable mention, by the Society of American Travel Writers.