I have been to Washington D.C. many times since my first visit in 1977. I was most recently there just this summer. We have done episodes on Washington D.C. on Amateur Traveler and I feel like it’s a city that I know. So I will admit that I was a bit surprised how much I learned about the city before even getting two page 15 of the The Unofficial Guide to Washington, D.C.
You may have noticed that most of the book reviews that we do on the Amateur Traveler site are written by other people. I usually farm out the book reviews because I have limited time. But this was a book that I wanted to review personally because I have always loved the unofficial guide series. I was first introduced to the series with the Unofficial Guide to Disneyland which, as I have mentioned before, I found to be a wonderful strategic guide to exploring the park.
I was curious how the guide book series would deal with a popular destination like Washington D.C. now that they have been expanding the series to deal with non-Disney destinations.
The author, Eve Zibart, grabbed my attention from the first page of the preface:
It has never been given much respect, or at least not until fairly recently. Charles Dickens called it “the City of Magnificent Intentions,” filled with “spacious avenues that begin in nothing and lead nowhere.” Pierre L’Enfant, who planned the city, died penniless and broken–hearted; his vision was considered too grandiose and was repeatedly amended. In 1809, the British minister Francis Jackson called it “scantily and rudely cultivated.” Washington Irving called it a “forlorn desert town.” Even John F. Kennedy famously described it as a”city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency,” although the massive beautification programs launched by Lady Bird Johnson in the mid–1960s and continued by the – National Park Service have done much to change that.
My original exposure to Washington D.C. was no better than some of those quoted by Zibart. I first saw the city on the 7th day of an air stagnation alert on a very muggy summer day. But, like the author my appreciation of the city has grown over time. By page 14 I was ready to write my Congressman to get some of the insider tickets that are available through all members of congress and by page 15 I was realizing how many of the neighborhoods of D.C. I still have not seen. You can quiz me on the Smithsonian, the National Archives and some of the government buildings like the Capital or Supreme Court buildings, but I have never walked the streets of Georgetown or even of Foggy Bottom.
I appreciated the suggestion of getting a hotel room near a metro station but will admit that the section on hotel rooms is probably not something that I will use. I tend to use online resources for that, while my wife has always appreciated that section in a guidebook. Similarly, I tend to look at online resources for restaurant reviews but find sections like “Getting In and Getting Around” and “Happy Hours (The Sightseeing Kind)” to be some of the most useful parts of the book. Knowing that you should hit the busy Air and Space Museum early but that the International Spy Museum stays open late is the kind of practical insider information I look for in the Unofficial Guides.
I find myself taking notes for my next trip. I didn’t know:
- The National Park Service offers hour long barge tours through the nearby C&O Canal
- Rock Creek Park is more than twice the size of New York’s Central Park
- History Channel narrator and historian Anthony Pitch offers walking tours of the city
- The National Security Agency operates a museum about codes, ciphers and spies
If you are a very visual person you may want to supplement the Unofficial Guide to Washington D.C. with one of the more picture filled guidebooks because this book is about prose. It has useful maps and some charts but the only picture is on the cover. But if you want an insiders guide to the District of Columbia, check out The Unofficial Guide to Washington, D.C.