Washington D.C. May 2013 – Tour Director License and Familiarization Tour

A week in Washington D.C. to become a licensed guide and explore the city before my first student tour…


Usually I drive the 3-4 hours to D.C., but this time I decided to take the Amtrak train. I initially made this decision because of the cost of driving (both gas mileage and parking for a week) and because my parents were meeting me in the city at the end of the week (it made sense to just drive back to PA together). This ended up being a great decision and I enjoyed my journey on the train. I took an early train out of Paoli, changed trains in Philadelphia, and arrived in D.C. by 11:30am. Once onboard, the service was on time, carriages had ample luggage storage, large seats with lots of legroom, and free Wi-Fi with electrical outlets. The only downside to traveling by train is that the closest train station to my home is still about an hour’s drive. I think I need to start a petition to expand the rail network to the Lehigh Valley because this was definitely the way to travel!

Washington Plaza Hotel [10 Thomas Circle NW]

I was a little late in booking my hotel in D.C. so my choices were limited. Luckily I had stayed at the Washington Plaza once before and knew it was a stylish hotel in a good downtown location. It also has free Wi-Fi, complementary in-room bottled water, a pool (although it wasn’t open yet during my stay), a fitness center, bar and restaurant. I stayed in one of their Superior Queen rooms and was able to check-in early. The metro is only a 10-minute walk away and the Mall/Smithsonian complex only took about 30 minutes to walk to. Overall I was very satisfied with my stay and would recommend the Washington Plaza.

License Course and Fam Tour

This trip was primarily focused on obtaining my Tour Guide License for Washington D.C. (D.C. is one of the few cities in the US where you need to have a license to lead tours) and taking a familiarization tour of the city in preparation for my first work assignment in June. ITMI had recommended Metis Licensing because of its success rate and ability to properly prepare us to not only take the test, but to become good Washington D.C. tour guides. While the course, transportation and accommodation was pricey, it was well worth the investment. I feel extremely prepared to lead my first student tour in a few weeks time.

Here are a few highlights of the week…

Day 1: We started the class at Foggy Bottom Metro Station and took a walking tour of downtown D.C. using a route that we would likely be following as tour directors in the city. We started by walking down 23rd street to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, and Korean War Veterans Memorial. We then made our way down the Mall towards the DC War Memorial, World War II Memorial and the Washington Monument (which we only viewed from afar because it is currently closed for construction). From here we headed up 17th street, past the DAR, Octagon House (on 18th street), and Renwick Gallery to the White House. We then traveled down H Street to Chinatown where we ate lunch at New Big Wong (610 H St. NW). The rest of the afternoon was spent in the Martin Luther King Library preparing for our D.C. license exam.

White House

Day 2: Today we toured the Smithsonian museum complex on the Mall and walked through Judiciary Square. We then spent some time reviewing for our DC license exam before heading northwest to the National Cathedral. I love cathedrals, and I have wanted to visit the National Cathedral for a while now. I could spend hours wandering through these ornate structures, but I was especially intrigued by the stained glass in the National Cathedral because it not only depicted religious subject matters but also American history (no separation of church and state here!). I wish we could have spent more time in the Cathedral, but this is a downside of group tours; you have a schedule to stick to and sometimes do not get to spend ample time at a site that you find personally interesting. We ended the tour day at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a Washington D.C. landmark restaurant [1213 U St. NW]. The staff here were especially accommodating as they agreed to show us a movie about the restaurant that they usually reserve for groups.

National Cathedral

Day 3: Today was test day! The first couple days of this course concentrated on visiting sites and reviewing material that we needed to pass the test. Overall I felt very prepared going into the exam and I passed! The D.C. exam is 100 multiple-choice questions and you must score 70% to pass. Unfortunately, they do not give you your score at the end, or tell you what you got wrong. It is either pass or fail. The Metis License course definitely prepared me for the exam by narrowing down the information I needed to know to pass. Passing the test and having a sufficient working knowledge of the city are two separate things, however. Memorizing dates, historical figures, addresses and landmarks are important, but people want to hear stories in our business, not just an assortment of facts. This is where staying for the Tour Guide Familiarization portion of the course benefited my professional development; it focused more on what we need to know to succeed as tour directors, not just pass a test.

After taking the test we ate lunch at Sizzling Express [538 23rd St. NW], a buffet restaurant that many student groups choose because of its varied food selection and ample indoor and outdoor seating. We then traveled over to the Tidal Basin to see the Martin Luther King Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and the Jefferson Memorial. Next we were treated to a visit to the Crime & Punishment Museum [575 7th St. NW], a fascinating museum that featured exhibits on the history of criminology and penology in the United States. This museum is definitely worth a visit if you are interested in crime and justice. We ended the day with a ride through Georgetown and were dropped off at the Kennedy Center for a production of Sheer Madness. This show is a whodunit that lets the audience solve the crime. The student group in attendance seemed to especially enjoy the performance and they got very involved in the audience participation segments. The Kennedy Center also has beautiful views of the surrounding cities from its terraces. The venue doesn’t have a metro station within walking distance, but the center provides a free shuttle to the GW Foggy Bottom station.

Day 4: We began the day at Arlington Cemetery where we met at the Visitors Center before beginning our tour. In the Visitors Center there are computers for looking up specific graves, which I did for a family friend, and it prints out a fact sheet as well as directions to the gravesite. We then made our way to the Kennedy gravesites, the Robert E. Lee House and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. After our morning at Arlington Cemetery, we drove to the Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima) before having lunch in Rosalyn. In the afternoon we visited the Air Force Memorial (I found the sheer size and design of this memorial to be very powerful) and the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial (which was very moving and full of symbolism honoring those who lost their lives). We then decided to add a visit to the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. Here we took a guided tour that allowed us access to the 333 ft. observation tower which had stunning views of the surrounding area. The building itself was also quite interesting as it contained some ornate lodge rooms and multiple exhibits on George Washington and his connection to Freemasonry. We ended the day with a visit to Alexandria’s waterfront and dinner at Daniel O’Connells Restaurant & Bar [112 King Street].


Day 5: Today we met at Union Station and walked over to the Supreme Court building. Here we took a short walk around the building, but were unable to get inside the Chamber because entrance is by guided tour only and our schedule did not allow us enough time to wait for the next tour to begin. We then headed across the street to the Library of Congress, a building that I have wanted to visit for a while now. I also love libraries, and the Library of Congress did not disappoint. It is ornate and full of beautiful books. My favorite room was the reconstruction of Jefferson’s personal library (he sold his entire collection of books to the Library of Congress after the British set fire to Washington in 1814). We all decided to go downstairs and get a reader card so we could come back to the library and use it to research. We finished our visit to the library by having lunch in one of the on-site cafeterias before heading over to the Capitol. We had a prearranged timed entrance to the Capitol, which allowed us to view an informational video and have a guided tour of the Crypt, the Rotunda and the National Statuary Hall. The tour was interesting, but chaotic because of the sheer number of people.  In order to view the House or Senate Chambers you do need to obtain separate passes from your state representative. We ended the day with a quick overview of three of the most popular Smithsonian Museums; the Air and Space Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Museum of American History.

Library of Congress

Day 6: Our final morning was spent at Mt. Vernon. Unfortunately, it was raining and the site was running about 20 minutes behind schedule with the timed entrance tickets into the mansion.  We had been given free time to roam the grounds before our entry time but decided to forego the mansion in favor of visiting the education center and museum. I found the education center very interesting and was pleased to have more time to explore this exhibition on George Washington. Our course ended here, but I still had half a day to explore some of my own interests. I chose to head back to the Smithsonian Complex and went into the Freer Gallery (this museum contains a collection of Asian art and the beautiful Peacock room), and the National Museum of the Native American. I then joined my family for dinner at the historic Army Navy Club. This is a private, not for profit, club open to active duty and retired military officers from all branches of the Armed Service. The building itself houses a fascinating collection of memorabilia, a large library, hotel and restaurant. One fun fact I learned while at dinner was that the Army Navy Club introduced the daiquiri to the United States and is credited with giving it its name (so of course I had to try one before dinner!). It turned out to be a very nice end to a long, but stimulating week in Washington D.C.

As I described in an earlier post, I learn by listening, reading, seeing and doing; and this course allowed me to interact with Washington D.C. on all of these levels. We were sent materials to study and research independently, we listened to local experts give commentary, and we were able to visit and view the sights first hand. The combination of this has left me feeling very prepared to lead tours in Washington D.C. and I am looking forward to my first assignment in a few weeks time…