Spending Memorial Day in Washington DC

Washington, D.C. is a popular and enjoyable vacation destination. Although commonly seen as a place to go in the summer, especially with the children during the break, the climate tends to be more amenable in the late spring and early summer. The months of July and August in particular are unpleasantly hot, with little relief.

One of the best times to visit is Memorial Day weekend. With a more pleasant climate than high summer, but with most tourist attractions on their extended summer schedules, it is a perfect time to enjoy the city in general. It is also a perfect place to celebrate Memorial Day itself. The various memorials and monuments on the Mall are truly spectacular, ranging from the single needle of the Washington Monument to the new, extravagant World War II memorial. (Although it is worth noting that many locals hate the latter and consider it an aesthetic eyesore). The most moving, perhaps, is the black wall of the Vietnam Memorial, recently cleaned and restored. Also worth visiting is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery.

If you happen to be a biker…or simply somebody who appreciates two well cared for wheels…then Washington is definitely the place to be. Every year, thousands descend for the famous Rolling Thunder rally. This motorbike parade through the streets from the Pentagon to the Lincoln War Memorial honors prisoners of war and campaigns for veterans benefits. Anyone with a bike can ride and bike related events happen all weekend.

Monday itself sees the National Memorial Day Parade, which contains a large number of marching bands, many of them from high schools across the country. The three hour parade also contains balloons, floats and over ten thousand participants. The best viewing is on the National Mall as the parade passes down Constitution Street.

Of course, visitors can enjoy all of the other activities in Washington. The Smithsonian museums are all free, as is the National Zoo (the Institute does charge for some things, such as Imax movies). The Capitol Visitors’ Center is worth a visit for those who want to learn more about how our democracy works. The city also has excellent restaurants in almost every imaginable cuisine and for every budget.

With Memorial Day being so popular, however, a good visit requires thought and planning. Good hotel rooms in Washington tend to be expensive and on that weekend can fill up quickly. Booking well in advance is advisable. If possible, look for a flight into Reagan National Airport rather than the much less convenient Dulles. Unless you plan on leaving the city proper, leave the car at the hotel. If flying in, renting a car is a waste of money. Driving in Washington traffic is neither relaxing nor fun and is best avoided. Additionally, especially since 911, parking is highly limited and in some neighborhoods free parking is impossible to find. It is far better to rely on Washington’s public transport, including Metro. One word of warning: Metro day passes cover only the subway, not buses, and are only worth it if your schedule for the day involves four or more trips.

Washington is a large city and has many of the safety concerns associated with large cities. The largest risk to tourists comes in the form of pickpockets, who commonly target smartphones and high end MP3 players…keep an eye on your devices at all times, especially on Metro. Holiday weekends also often see repairs done to roads and subway systems, often causing delays.  There are also several free apps for both iPhones and android phones that can provide delay and next train/bus information. Downloading one of these before your trip is highly recommended. The Metro system is fully accessible to the mobility impaired and all stations have elevators, with shuttle service provided if elevators are out of service. Tourists should take warning that it is illegal to eat or drink on the subway or buses, and that this rule is heavily enforced with on the spot fines possible.

As mentioned, Washington’s summer climate can be extremely warm and humid. Although May is cooler than August, temperatures can spike well into the nineties. It is best to pack sunscreen, insect repellent and an appropriate hat. Brief summer storms can also occur. These storms are often very intense but seldom last for more than thirty minutes. Air quality can be poor in the city on particularly humid days, and visitors with asthma and other respiratory complaints should take care and be sure to have their medication with them. As many attractions require a fair amount of walking, comfortable clothes and sensible shoes are also recommended. However, many days in May can be pleasant short sleeve weather. Allow more money for food and sundries than you normally would, as Washington is a high cost of living area and tends to be more expensive than smaller cities. The city is extremely photogenic…a camera is an absolute must. And if you are very observant and lucky, and remember to look up, you might even glimpse a bald eagle in the skies above the capital.