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Presenting Your Survival Guide to DC

23 Apr

cover of -ebook

I’m so excited to announce the So You’re New to DC e-book!

The e-book has updated, expanded and new information, including 27 ways to meet people in DC (with tons of links), transportation essentials, a neighborhoods chart where I asked friends to give their insights, annual events and more.

The e-book is targeted toward people in their twenties and thirties (since that’s the age range that I’ve lived in DC). That’s not to say that people outside of that age range wouldn’t get anything out of the e-book, but I want to be clear that it doesn’t include advice on topics like buying a house (I focus on renting), school districts, etc. I also decided not to include topics that could be easily found elsewhere, like the region’s restaurants. I wanted to focus on things that either wouldn’t be easy to find info on or that you wouldn’t even know you should Google.

It’s been a labor of love, and I hope you like it!

The Inside Scoop: Wolf Trap

17 Aug
Courtesy of Wolf Trap

Courtesy of Wolf Trap

I’m sure you all remember Sports Editor Rachel who, in addition to reporting on the area’s sports news, regaled you with the tale of her speed dating experience. Yet another impressive area of Rachel’s expertise is the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, which is best known for the summertime events held at its outdoor theater called the Filene Center. Rachel was an illustrious parking attendant there for several summer breaks during college.

Though Rachel abandoned me to move to San Diego with her boyfriend (who she did not meet at speed dating), she agreed to share some Wolf Trap tips and tricks with us.

1. When is it worth shelling out the money for proper seats instead of lawn tickets?
The lawn is a great spot, but keep in mind that the sun will be bright for a large portion of the performance during the summer, when sunset is late in the evening. This can make it very challenging to get a good view of the stage inside the darkened pavilion from out on the lawn. So get a proper seat when you want to have a good view of the performers. This might be the case for a:

  • dance performance
  • play or musical
  • concert by a performer you really like, if you’re a front-row-seats type of guy/gal

For a concert by the NSO, a rock show or one of the annual sing-a-longs, stick to the lawn.

2. Say it’s raining and I’ve got lawn seats. Is it still worth going or should I stay home with my TiVo instead?
It depends on how much rain you’re getting, and how excited you were about the show. If it’s sprinkling on-and-off, I suggest going to the show and setting up your blanket. There are a few covered spots where you might be able to take shelter for a few minutes. Keep in mind that many people are likely to choose not to go to the show, so you’ll probably be able to get a great seat if you stick it out. On the other hand, if it’s a thunderstorm, and I were you, I’d probably skip it.

However, if there are empty seats inside the house, you’ll be able to “buy up” by paying the difference in price between your lawn seat and that inside seat.

3. If I have lawn seats and it’s nice weather, how early do you recommend I arrive to get a decent spot on the lawn?
The lawn opens 1.5 hours prior to the start of the show. If you must have a seat in the front row of the lawn, I recommend arriving around 2 hours before the show. This will give you time to park, unpack your car and line up. The ushers will often even scan tickets a few minutes ahead of opening the gate, so everyone can make a run for it.

4. Where’s the best place to park to avoid the long lines getting out?
The parking arrangements vary slightly depending on the expected crowds for that day’s performance. The most reliable option for a quick exit is parking in the west parking lot, right by its entrance. The west parking lot is the one across Trap Road from the Filene Center–see below.

Traffic from various exits is often all directed in one direction or the other, no choosing allowed. If you’re not familiar with this area of Virginia, I recommend having the GPS fired up in case you end up detoured.

(One additional note from me: Rachel never had to take the Dulles Toll Road to get to Wolf Trap because she lived close by, but my friend recently waited in a line of cars at the toll-booth for 45 minutes. Either take an alternate route down Leesburg Pike or factor in the waiting time.)

5. Is there a way to get discounted tickets?
Nothing came immediately, but a Google search for “wolf trap discount” did seem to have some good options. Everyone, please give that a try before you purchase!

6. Any other tips? Fun facts?
Some performances have a Pre-Performance Discussion, where an expert shares information about the upcoming show. Check out the 2014 schedule.

If you park in the lot I recommended, you can hitch a ride on a golf cart up the hill to the theater. My tip is actually to skip the golf cart: there’s typically a queue, and you’ll save time by walking. Plus, you know you’re going to have some wine with your picnic on the lawn—earn it with your exercise here.

On the other hand, if anyone in your group requires accessible parking or other assistance, this can be arranged by calling the park ahead of time.

In a typical theater, lights are dimmed in the lobby to indicate the show is about to start or resume. At Wolf Trap, a large farm dinner bell is rung.

The park was called Wolf Trap Farm Park until 2002. It was renamed because it had been a concert venue for quite some time and needed a more accurate name to avoid confusion.

If you have a National Parks Passport, don’t forget that Wolf Trap is a national park! Stop by the Ranger Station for your stamp.

Thanks Rach! Miss ya!

Wolf Trap map

Click on the map to make it larger.

A Quintessential DC Fall

3 Oct

Hosting a pumpkin carving party is a great way to start turning coworkers and acquaintances into friends.

With so many fun DC area events centered around fall, it’s just a shame that there’s only one month to take advantage of them.

Pumpkin Patches
People in DC, especially those with kids, love their pumpkin patches. And what’s not to love? Pumpkins, cider, corn mazes, hay rides, etc.

Cox Farms in Centreville, VA, is the most popular, so be prepared for crowds, especially if you go on a weekend. Also, they say that a pumpkin is included with the cost of admission, but it’ll be one that’s too small to carve, and those that are bigger are generally overpriced, so I suggest buying them elsewhere.

Other festivals include, but are not limited to Butler’s Orchard in Germantown, MD, Sharp’s at Waterford Farm in Howard County, MD, and Burke’s Nursery and Garden Centre in Burke, VA.

Enjoy Fall Colors
Many people head to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to enjoy fall colors. Hiking Old Rag is one of the most popular activities; it takes roughly four and six hours and reveals some gorgeous views. Make note, however, that it can get extremely crowded, so I suggest setting your alarm clock and heading there early. Last fall I had to wait in a line for 45 minutes (that’s not a typo) at the top of the trail to go through a narrow portion. Also, have some cash to pay a nominal parking fee. For those less active-inclined, cruising Skyline Drive is a nice alternative.

A closer and less crowded option is Brookside Botanical Gardens in Wheaton, MD. It’s gorgeous, peaceful and free. And, of course, there’s always the National Arboretum, which is a great place to explore by bike.

Scary Stuff
Nearby amusement parks create a shoulder season by offering Halloween-themed events. Six Flags in Maryland has Fright Fest and King’s Dominion in Virginia promotes its Halloween Haunt.

The National Zoo has its annual Boo at the Zoo, which is a trick-or-treating event. It costs $30 for non-FONZ members.

There’s plenty of haunted houses, hayrides and trails throughout the region. A couple options include Markoff’s Haunted Forest in Poolesville, MD, and Bennett’s Curse in Jessup, MD.

Celebrating Halloween
DC’s Halloween bar hop called Nightmare on M Street is really popular. A true rooky mistake is to go to M Street in Georgetown for this event, as it’s actually in Dupont. And be ready for some serious crowds and long lines at the bars.

Professionals in the City will also be hosting it’s annual Halloween party, Mayhem and Madness, at K Street Lounge.

Anyone Who’s Anyone: National Book Festival

13 Sep

One of the local events that marks fall for me is the National Book Festival when famous writers (some super duper famous and others only semi-well know) come to the Mall to talk about and read from their works. And this year it’s not one but TWO days, September 24 and 25. Yay reading!

This is the eleventh year of the festival, which is organized by the Library of Congress. Some of the better known names this year are Sarah Vowell, Toni Morrison, David McCullough, Michael Cunningham and Julianne Moore (apparently she “writes” children’s books). You can find a complete list here.

Each author gives a presentation and also does a book signing (not consecutively). There are multiple pavilions that are set up on the Mall (last year it was on the side closer to the Capitol).

If there is someone you absolutely have to hear speak, then I recommend arriving early, probably half way through the speaker before him/her. It does get to be standing room only (though people are always coming and going). Well over 100,000 people attend the event, but since it’s spread out throughout the day, the crowds are generally manageable. Same with the Metro—more crowded but not like when everyone is leaving an event at the same time.

In past years they’ve given out reusable tote bags, but don’t get too excited because, as you know, these are tight times and tote bags might not have been in the budget this year.

If you miss an author you really wanted to hear speak, not to worry! The Library of Congress posts all of the presentations to the website.

Note: George Mason University in conjunction with the City of Fairfax also has a book festival during this time (September 18-23) though with seemingly no connection to the National Book Festival. It’s called Fall for the Book and attracts some big names too (this year Stephen King and Amy Tan are speaking).

Survival Guide: July 4th on the National Mall

29 Jun

What better way to celebrate July 4th than by watching the fireworks from the National Mall. But be forewarned, it is no easy venture.

Do not, under any circumstances drive. Take Metro but be aware, the Smithsonian station will be closed for most of the day for security reasons. It will reopen after the fireworks, but it will be a mess, so I’d plan on walking to a farther station. Other stations that are within walking distance include Federal Triangle, Metro Center, Gallery Place-Chinatown, Capitol South, L’Enfant Plaza, Federal Center SW, Archives-Navy Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery. Someone told me it’s advisable to come from the Federal Triangle and even Foggy Bottom direction because crowds tend to be less heavy. I really like this map.

Metrobus will provide free shuttle service between the L’Enfant Plaza and Pentagon stations.

Free bicycle valet will be available from 2:00 p.m. until a half hour after the fireworks show. Locations are 15th Street between Independence Avenue and Jefferson Drive and the south side of the Lincoln Memorial on Daniel French Drive.

Note: The fireworks are launched from the Reflecting Pool and light up over the Washington Monument.

Okay, it’s going to be really crowded. And to make things worse, there are security checkpoints to get into the Mall. So bring your patience. After the fireworks, you might want to go grab a drink somewhere until the mobs of people clear out a bit, though be prepared for bars and restaurants to be crowded too. Just go into this situation knowing that it will probably take you a couple hours to get home one way or another.

When do people start arriving at the Mall? Earlier than you—as a presumably sane person—would ever consider. So you need to plan on being there at least several hours beforehand or else you’ll hate your life. Regardless, you will, at some point, feel like you’re being herded.

From about 8 p.m. to 9:30 the Capital Fourth Concert takes place on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. It’s free, you don’t need tickets and you can start piling in at 3. This year’s performers include Josh Groban, Little Richard and Steve Martin.

Earlier in the day, there’s a parade. It starts at 11:45 and will also be crowded so, if you’re interested, you’ll need to go early. Here’s a map of the parade route.

What to bring
A blanket, mosquito repellant, sunscreen, LOTS of water, plenty of food, a camera and your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer (the port-o-potty situation is not ideal). Alcohol isn’t allowed and coolers and bags are looked through at security, so if you’re planning on bringing it anyway, you better be stealthy.

If it rains
You better pray that that doesn’t happen because if it does, everyone runs for cover in all the local museums and its jam packed. The rain date is July 5.

Insider’s Tip from Sports Editor Rachel
You can also get a great view of the fireworks from some spots in Virginia along the Potomac. While you won’t be able to hear the music, it is a great vantage point for the fireworks. More importantly, the crowd is much less intense! Parks along the GW Parkway are set up to accommodate viewers. Things may change every year, but previous spots to seek out have included the Netherlands Carillon, Lady Bird Johnson Park and Gravelly Point. The Netherlands Carillon also has an afternoon bell concert if you want to show up early. But the great thing about watching from Virginia is that you can show up later in the afternoon to get a spot. And after the fireworks, you’ll beat the DC traffic back onto the roads.

A quintessential DC summer

11 May

A view of the Potomac from Jack's Boathouse. © AgnosticPreachersKid on Creative Commons

Despite the god-awful humidity, I love summers in DC. Patio dining, bare feet in fountains, picnics – pure bliss. And every year there are several activities that I eagerly await. Here they are!

Jack’s Boathouse: Nothing says summer in DC like taking a kayak or canoe on the Potomac River. Jack’s, located in Georgetown, can get crazy busy, so it’s best to try to go on off-peak hours (aka early or late in the day). I took my dad last Father’s Day, and we had a grand ole time. What’s more, they didn’t charge us for the extra time we were out, which my dad, forever the penny pincher, was over the moon about. Be warned though, Jack’s has very limited parking, so you’ll have to do street or garage parking (or walk from Foggy Bottom Metro).

Outdoor movies: There’s no shortage of outdoor movie festivals in DC. Screen on the Green, which takes place on Monday nights on the Mall, is probably the most popular. A year or two ago, the festival almost lost its funding, but there was an uproar and it was saved (though I’m not sure 2011 has been 100 percent confirmed yet). I’m particularly fond of Rosslyn’s Outdoor Film Festival, which always has a theme—this year it’s “SNL in the Movies.” Please note you’re technically not allowed to bring alcohol and, if you’re caught, you’ll have to throw it out. DCist lists a few other festivals around the city.

Jazz in the Sculpture Garden: My most favorite! Every Friday night in the summer, The National Gallery of Art holds Jazz in the Sculpture Garden, a free event from 5 to 8:30. On a nice night, people come in droves. It’s best to come as early as possible if you want to get a good spot—you will literally not be able to see a blade of grass once the night gets going—it gets that crowded. You’re not allowed to bring alcohol to the event (though you’ll notice some people do on the down low) but you can buy pitchers of sangria, which I highly recommend. The draw of the event isn’t really the jazz at all, in fact, you can often hardly hear it. It’s just about being in DC, being with friends and being kinda drunk.

Wolf Trap: This performing arts center in Vienna is, interestingly, also a national park. The outdoor venue is gorgeous, and if you can’t afford a covered seat, lawn tickets are pretty inexpensive. I suggest arriving early and having dinner and wine at one of the picnic tables.

Anyone Who’s Anyone: Embassy Tour

5 May

© Josh Carolina via Creative Commons

One of my favorite spring events is just around the corner, the Around the World Embassy Tour. It’s so uniquely DC! Embassies located throughout the city open their doors to the public for food tastings, dance presentations, art exhibits, crafts, etc. This will be the fourth year of the event, which will be held on May 14th from 10am to 4pm (though if I remember correctly from last year, the times can vary slightly depending on the embassy). And did I mention the whole thing is free? Hooray!

There is no realistic way to visit all the embassies—they’re pretty spread out and you’ll have to wait in fairly long lines to get into some—so it’s important to do a bit of planning beforehand to decide where you want to go (this link is helpful). There are two main clusters of embassies—the first around Dupont Circle and the other at Connecticut and International. The embassies around Dupont Circle are the most crowded. There’s a free shuttle to help you get around to different parts of the city as well as information tents.

The event is really popular and really crowded, so make sure to bring some patience. And hope for nice weather, since you’ll spend so much time walking from embassy to embassy and standing in line. I definitely don’t recommend driving—parking will be really difficult. Here are some other helpful hints.

Note: EU embassies are doing their own event this Saturday, May 7, from 10-4.


11 Mar

Team work!

The National Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates the gift of cherry trees—that now line the Tidal Basin—from Japan in 1912. Even if you don’t give a rat’s patootie about blooming cherry trees, you should very much care about the number of tourons that will soon be descending  upon DC. Been meaning to go see a new exhibit at a local museum? Do it immediately because it’s going to get substantially more crowded in another week or so, and then from there it’s class trips and then it’s summer and the crowds won’t cease until fall.

Despite the tourists, I actually enjoy going down to the Tidal Basin, I just have to mentally prepare myself for the crowds. Taking Metro in particular requires a good amount of patience. Not only are there long lines to board the train, the people in those lines are totally clueless. But let’s take a deep breath and embrace the season!

Currently the “peak bloom period” is anticipated to be March 29 to April 3 (though it can change with the weather). I’ve been to the Tidal Basin both during peak bloom and a few days after, and it really does make a difference. In addition to walking around the Tidal Basin to take photos, a variety of events are planned, including a parade and lantern walks. This year the popular Cherry Blossom Street Fair will charge a $5 admission, which will hopefully help with the crowds.

A popular way to see the cherry blossoms is to take a paddle boat tour. You can reserve a boat in advance for times between 10 am and 12 pm, but reservations fill super quickly. If you get to the Tidal Basin, the long line for paddle boats can be intimidating, but I’ve found that it only takes an hour at the absolute most. And if it’s a nice day out and you’re with people whose company you enjoy and you can ignore the children climbing on the trees around you even though there are signs that specifically ask that people not climb on trees, then it’s not bad at all.

Cherry Blossom Advice

  • DO NOT DRIVE. Trust me on this one. In fact, don’t drive anywhere near the Tidal Basin during the entire cherry blossom season.
  • Try to go on “off hours”, aka in the morning, during sunset and on weekdays.
  • Even if you’re not a photo person, bring your camera.
  • Tickets to events sell out, so plan accordingly.

Insider’s Tip: Can’t handle the idea of crowds? Then might I suggest going to the National Arboretum instead, which has cherry trees as well. There aren’t as many and they’re more spread out, but it’ll be less of a hassle and you’ll get to enjoy the other parts of the arboretum as well.

The 9:30 Club: A love story

23 Feb

When I was in college, I was really into seeing live music. In those five years (yes, five) I saw, I’d say, about 100 shows. And though I lived in California, a lot of those times were on the east coast during school breaks.

As many venues as I’ve been to—probably 20 or so—my forever-and-always favorite is the 9:30 Club in DC.

The club is on the corner of 9th and V Street, a few blocks from the U St / African American Civil War Memorial / Cardozo Station (Green Line). The club’s capacity is 1,200 and is, if you ask me, the absolute perfect size. Shows are mostly of the alternative/rock variety, but they host all kinds of music.

The Story
Originally, 9:30 was located at 930 F Street, NW, and so the name reflected both the address and the time most shows started (I never knew that until JUST now when I wikipedied it). In 1996 the club reopened at it’s current, larger spot.

Minus a few bar stools on the balcony, 9:30 is standing room only. Lucky for me I’m tall. With that said, back in the day it didn’t matter because my friend and I would wait for hours in line to be among the first people let in. I remember two distinct times in the winter when it was indescribably cold and we were out there for like four hours. My dad, bless his heart, bought me those little packets that you crack to make warm. They were futile. The suffering was worth it though because nothing is like being on the rail at the 9:30 Club. Catching a guitar pick, a lead singer sweating over you, locking eyes with a bassist—oohhh, the memories.

The Basics
Because the club is iconic and bands like to play there, you’ll often be able to see performers that normally play larger venues. Billboard Touring Awards gave it the Top Club award in 2007 and 2009.

The sound quality at the club is excellent, there’s four bars, they offer food (though it ain’t cheap) and there’s a merch booth. And almost all of the shows are all ages. They’ve got a parking lot ($12 in advance, $15 night of), but don’t get there too late because it definitely fills up. And the neighborhood isn’t the safest area, so walking multiple blocks at night isn’t the most ideal scenario.

The Crowd
A couple years ago an underground hip hop artist that I LOVE, Saul Williams, was playing at the 9:30 Club. I was sooo excited. I was going by myself, but normally that doesn’t bother me. So I drive over there, and before I park I see a bunch of hipsters standing outside. It’d actually been a few years since I’d been to 9:30, and for some reason I got really intimidated by the hipsters. So I turned the car around and went home! How stupid is that?! Anyway, the moral of the story is that yes, there are a few hipsters at 9:30, but you’ll generally find the crowd inside to be low-key and diverse.

Anyone Who’s Anyone: Oscar Fever

10 Feb

Photo by Alan Light on Creative Commons.

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit how much I enjoy watching the Academy Awards. I mean, I know it’s a bunch of self-congratulatory, overpaid narcissists thanking a bunch of people I don’t know, but I still get excited enough to mark it on my Google calendar a month in advance.

No matter what your opinion is of these kinds of awards shows, it’s undeniable that it’s more fun to watch them when you’ve actually seen the movies that are nominated. On Saturday, February 26, the AMC theater in Georgetown is showing ALL TEN best picture nominees.  (Note: If you’re driving, parking in this area can be a headache, so allow yourself plenty of time. If you’re walking from Foggy Bottom Metro, it’ll take about 20 minutes).

Want to take it to the next level? Well, might I suggest watching the short film nominees? You have not one but TWO viewing options.

  • The week before the Awards, the National Archives will be showing the nominees for Live Action Short Film and Animated Short Film, as well as Documentary Feature and Documentary Short Subject for free. The downside of them showing the films for free is that you’ll have to arrive well in advance to secure a ticket.
  • E Street Cinema in the Chinatown/Penn Quarter area, is also showing the nominees for Live Action Short Film and Animated Short Film this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. You have to pay a normal ticket price, but the brightside is you don’t have to wait in line for an hour.

A couple years ago I saw the Animated Short Film nominees at E Street, and I actually guessed the winner. Even though I was watching the awards by myself and my roommate was only vaguely humoring me from the kitchen, I still felt pretty hoity toity about it.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, the Oscars are Sunday, February 27. If you’ve recently moved from another U.S. time zone, you’ll be bummed when you realize the show goes on well past bedtime. That’s the price of living on the East Coast!