We are off to Washington, D.C. the day after Christmas, and we couldn’t be more excited! With all of the chaos around the U.S. Election this year, I’m looking forward to sharing one of my favorite cities with my girls and reflecting on all of the incredible people and events that make up this country’s amazing history. Regardless of our political views, it will feel good to appreciate and respect what it means to be American.
Both my husband and I lived in D.C. at different times in our lives. So we both have our own perspectives and priorities for planning this trip. Our time is limited, so we are going to be efficient and choosy with how we spend our days and nights!
Here are the items that made our must-see list:
- The Monuments – this alone could take several days. I have been to the biggies several times…namely, Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Iwo Jima and Vietnam Veterans. Since my last time in D.C. in the late 1990’s, several monuments have been added such as FDR and Korean War Veterans, among others. I also have to consider that it will be December, and potentially, it will be cold. I plan to explore a private tour to drive us to all the monuments…some by day and some at night. I’m currently checking out several options on Trip Advisor.
- The Smithsonians – the beauty of the Smithsonian museums is that they are all free of charge. So, you can “zip in” to see a few things and then move on without worrying about getting your money’s worth. I think the highest on our list will be Air and Space museum, and for that, I will leave several hours for exploration. In addition, the American History museum is very unique with displays that you won’t find anywhere else in the world, so it warrants a high priority visit. I personally love the National Gallery of Art, but I may end up spending more time there than the rest of my family. There are many more museums that we will consider visiting as well.
- The White House – Getting a reservation to go into the White House was a very interesting process. I had to contact my congresswoman (via her website, but then I also called for scoop). The nice intern in the office said that every Monday morning, their office attempts to obtain open tour slots for the White House. This must be done 90 days in advance…not a good candidate for last minute planning. Unfortunately, the White House is closed to visitors the week after Christmas, which is incredibly disappointing because I wanted to see it decorated for the holidays and my husband and kids have never been inside. However, we will do a “walk by” and take photos, and we plan to go see the White House Christmas Tree on the South Lawn as well.
- The Capitol Building – We were able to secure a tour of the Capitol during our visit also arranged by our congresswoman’s office. I’m curious how much we will see since Congress will not be in session. We will give a full report! And, I understand they have a beautiful Christmas tree and Christmas decorations as well.
- The National Archives – For my 8th grader who is currently studying U.S. History (and my 7th grader who will be next year), a visit to see the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are a MUST! In my research I learned that you can make a reservation online for a timed entry to the National Archives, but it is not necessary (highly recommended for summer months). I will explore this once I have my daily plan nailed down.
- Arlington National Cemetery – This is an absolute TOP priority for my husband. We will ensure that we see the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier. My understanding is that the ceremony takes place every hour on the hour from October – March (and every half hour during the peak summer months). Check out the website for more details. There is a long list of monuments at the cemetery, including the JFK gravesite and two Space Shuttle memorials. We will try to choose our best weather day for this visit. I’m assuming between the metro ride and the walking around, this is a solid half-day in the schedule.
- The Kennedy Center – Situated on the Potomic, the Kennedy Center is a beautiful building unto itself and it hosts a wide variety of entertainment options. On New Year’s Eve alone, it will have three different performances to include Wicked, a Second City comedy show and Into the Woods. We chose to see Into the Woods so that we could go inside the center and enjoy the New Year’s Eve Gala afterwards (free to all patrons). And, we think it will be a beautiful place to watch the fireworks at midnight that will be shot off in Alexandria down the river.
Washington, D.C. has a fabulous underground metro rail system for getting around to most all of the sites. Since most of my priority locations are on the Blue/Orange metro lines, I am choosing a hotel that is located near a Blue/Orange stop. I’m partial to the Foggy Bottom area because, as a GWU alum myself, I used to live there. The Foggy Bottom metro is the closest to Georgetown as well as there is no metro stop in Georgetown proper. I’m considering a few hotels that offer family suites with kitchens to allow us to eat breakfast in our rooms, pack lunches for our day and just have the convenience of eating more familiar food (less restaurant food). There is a Trader Joes and a Whole Foods within walking distance of this area. Stay tuned!
I’m from the era of Late Night with David Letterman. He had his “Top Ten” staple on every show, and as cliche as it may be, I really like the Top Ten concept. So here it is. I took some of these verbatim from my Trip Advisor reviews. My contributor name is JulieG if you are a Trip Advisor junkie.
The Funtrips Top Ten Favorite Experiences in Paris…
10. Shopping at Louis Vuitton: Now this seems a little silly, but I had been saving for a LV handbag for a long time. Shopping at the flagship store on the Champs Elysee turned my purchase into a luxury event, including complementary French Champagne. I don’t splurge like that often, but I say, if you are going to splurge, do it right! So by making this purchase in paris, I got the purse and the experience. And, for Americans, the exchange rate benefit ($ to Euro) and the VAT refund make the net price of French luxury goods a little more palatable now…so use THAT for your justification!
9. Lunch at La Duree: We went for lunch at the location on the Champs Elysee. Honestly, I expected this visit to be disappointing. I thought it would be overpriced and a bit snobby. But, we really enjoyed the food and the service was lovely. The only funny price issue was that my husband’s Diet Coke cost 2 Euros more than my wine! Gotta love France! My kids and husband had a chicken sandwich, and I had a chicken Caesar salad and both were good. The macarons are truly unlike any other. I think the vanilla is heaven. I have friends who went for tea here and also enjoyed that experience, so there are plenty of options.
8. Dinner at Vins et Terroirs: In a city with an overwhelming number of dinner options, we went here twice. That either says something about them or something about us. We loved the restaurant and the entire area around it (St. Michele). Our meals were delicious and a wonderful value. I had the canard avec sauce a l’orange…it was tres bon! My kids had steak and the staff ensured the sauce was on the side…because my girls are picky. Overall, the staff was so friendly and welcoming to our kids that it made the meal enjoyable for all of us. Our server recommended two great wines that just added to the deliciousness too. To top it off, the menu had English translations, but that didn’t take away from the ambience or French authenticity (as with other touristy restaurants).
7. Dessert at Amorino: We went twice during our visit to Paris…both times after dinner at Vins et Terriors (Amorino is down the street). We loved the classic chocolate, chocolate chip and vanilla. Not necessarily exotic flavors, but they were delicious. And the presentation was so fun! They make the gelato in the cones in the shape of flowers (see the featured image above). In making those flowers, they allowed multiple flavors in a single order. The petite is better with no more than four flavors…so if you want more than four, go bigger!
6. The Louvre in the evening: I had read about this somewhere else in my research and it was one of the best tips I received. On Wednesday and Friday evenings, the Louvre is open late (check the website to confirm, but I think closing time is about 9:45 pm). The lines are MUCH shorter (especially when trying to view the Mona Lisa) and the building is more peaceful (more conducive to enjoying art). We entered at about 6pm and left at about 9pm. This gave us plenty of time afterward to enjoy dinner nearby (and there are plenty of options).
5. Walking: I know this sounds odd, but we loved walking in Paris. We didn’t use the metro (subway) once. We walked EVERYWHERE! Paris is a city of big things and little things. Stay with me here. The big things are the obvious things – museums, monuments, etc. The little things are the architecture, the outdoor cafes, the little alleys and squares, the shops, the “Space Invader” street art, etc. It’s definitely easier to enjoy the little things if you are wandering on foot. And, while wandering is great, when you have limited time, you have to make your wandering productive. We planned out our days so that we had time to walk and enjoy neighborhoods between destinations. My favorite walk was from our hotel in the 1st Arrondissement to dinner in the Latin Quarter. It took us over two bridges and through the Ile de la Cite. Some of our favorite photos were taken on that walk. And it doesn’t hurt if you have an international data plan through your domestic phone service…using our maps on our smart phones saved us a lot of frustration and wasted time.
4. Notre Dame: I did a whole blog post on it we loved it some much.
3. The Eiffel Tower: Obvious! Did a blog post on that too!
2. Staying at the Relais du Louvre: We loved the location in the 1st Arrondissement. This location allowed us to walk to all the main city sites (see #10), and there was plenty of shopping and eating nearby, including the high end places on Rue St. Honore. The room was darling and very traditional French, and we felt like we were in family home. We were in room 51 (check it out on their site) which had plenty of space for our family of 4. Having breakfast (which was plentiful) served in the room was a treat and really a perfect way to start the day of touring. Also, the staff speaks amazing English but politely allowed us to practice our much weaker French. They called us cabs when necessary that arrived quickly and were clean/safe/helpful. We cannot wait to return!
1.Bike About Tours: We took a fantastic bike tour with Bike About Tours and the lovely Laura, future best-selling author. We learned so many fantastic tidbits about Paris that you don’t learn in the guidebooks or the history books. What sold me was their “off the beaten path” approach. We saw areas of Paris that we wouldn’t have gone on our own such as the Marais. Yet we also saw some important “typical” sites like the Tuileries or Centre Pompidou. Overall, the bike tour was a highlight of our Paris trip! And I appreciated their focus on safety. I never thought I would let my kids ride bikes in the streets of Paris! But, we all survived without a scratch!
Last night was Halloween, and no surprise, my daughter and her friends were watching Harry Potter movies on TV. It reminded me of our trip to the Warner Bros Studio Tour London to see The Making of Harry Potter. We talked about this tour, and how we almost missed out, in a previous blogpost. All I can say is, plan early! If you like Harry Potter movies even a little, you will not want to miss this tour!
TRANSPORTATION AND TIMING
As I previously explained, we waited too long to buy our tickets directly through the Warner Bros site. This is your best bet, by far. This gives you the most flexibility during your day and allows you to spend the necessary 4 hours (minimum) at the WB Studio (no joke). The website gives you instructions on which train to take to the WB Studio in Leavesden, about an hour away from London, and how to grab the shuttle from the train station.
Our only option was to buy our tickets through a bus tour we found on Trip Advisor called Golden Tours. We met the tour bus in downtown London (near Victoria Station) and they drove us out (and back) to the WB Studio. The ride itself was fine, but Golden Tours only schedules a three-hour visit to the WB Studio. We were fortunate to get on the first bus which left a little ahead of schedule and got us to the WB Studio 30 minutes early. We lined up immediately and the WB Studio staff let us in before our scheduled time (which may or may not be normal…it doesn’t hurt to try).
We had over three hours for the visit…and we felt rushed. By the time you look at everything, wait in line to ride brooms, practice with wands, and do other interactive things, the time flies. We did stop and shop at the WB Studio store, which was an absolute zoo (but remember we were there in August). My husband lined up to pay while we shopped in order to speed up the process. My girls felt like there were items at the WB Studio store that they did not see at Universal Studios Hollywood. I personally could have skipped shopping, which is a rare statement for me.
We didn’t stop for a snack halfway through the tour, except to eat the granola bars and drink the water they let us bring in. Many people stop for Butterbeer, but we had already tasted it at Universal Studios Hollywood. We would have enjoyed having a more leisurely lunch/dinner before jumping back on the bus, but the time was limited. The cafe in the main lobby has MUCH better eating options than the cafe inside (but only Butterbeer is sold inside…be forewarned). We ordered pizza and pasta for our kids to quickly eat and took most of it with us for the ride back.
OUR FAVORITE THINGS
The tour starts out in a group with guides/employees of the WB Studio. However, once you get past the Great Hall, you are set free to go through the rest at your own pace. The first room (which is enormous…no claustrophobia here) has on overwhelming number of things to see. The costumes, the make up, the sets, the props…all of it is so detailed and fascinating. Of course they have sets that you recognize, but they also have the drawings/plans and models that they created before building the sets. They also have demonstrations and videos to show how they did their special effects. I suppose that younger children may tire out quickly, but since I had a 12 and 13 year old, they took the time to look at the details. Also, we enjoyed the interactive exhibits which seemed to be open to all ages. If you need some fresh air, there are outside exhibits as well.
The broom riding (on a mechanical broom with a green screen backdrop) was a must-do for us. The line is a bit long to wait, but it is super fun! The activity is free, but it is quite pricey to buy the videos and photos. We did purchase all of it (and have done nothing with it), but it is an expense we weren’t expecting, so be prepared.
All in all, visiting the WB Studio was a highlight of our London trip! It was educational and entertaining for all of us. I’m so grateful that we did not miss this!