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Tour & Ticket Websites vs. Booking Direct

Websites such as GetYourGuide.com, Viator.com, and ToursByLocals.com are undeniably convenient to use. In just a few minutes you can have advance reservations and/or tickets for tours, museums, historic sites, classes, guided walks, and more. These sites also include reviews from recent customers, and sometimes offer discounts on high-volume products like bus and boat tours.

But there are downsides to using these websites. Here in Washington, the biggest downside is directly related to its greatest upside: Nearly all of the capital’s famous attractions offer free admission and tours. If you don’t know better, you could be paying, sometimes significantly, for something that is yours for nothing. Here’s an example: One tour and ticket website lists a $35-per-person, 3.5-hour “Capitol Building and Capitol Hill Walk” tour, which includes a walk from Union Station to the Supreme Court, a tour of the Library of Congress, and “reserved access and docent-led tour of the U.S. Capitol Building”—all of which cost nothing and are easy to do on your own. The outfitter’s role seems more escort than professional tour leader, since the guide does not even conduct tours at each of the stops; in fact, Capitol and Supreme Court tours are docent-led only. As one reviewer noted, “Paid money for service that is free with no additional benefit.”

Furthermore, many of these companies tout “priority,” “VIP,” or “reserved” access for a bit extra, allowing customers access to the “reserve line” rather than the regular one. The reality in Washington, D.C., is that all visitors must process through security screenings, whether equipped with a reserved pass or not, and the going can be slow. Just a small warning.

Guided Tours

D.C. offers a slew of guided tours, from themed jaunts that take you to sites at which famous scandals occurred to Segway tours of Capitol Hill. Beyond the ones listed here will be several listed at the Cultural Tourism D.C. website, www.culturaltourismdc.org (click on “Our Programs” for info on guided options as well as self-guided neighborhood heritage walking trails).

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On Foot

DC by Foot: These tours are free (though tips are expected)! DC by Foot (www.dcbyfoot.com; tel 202/370-1830) guides like to spin humor with history as they shepherd participants around the National Mall, narrating all the way. History is the emphasis on the popular More Than Just Monuments tour, but other offerings cover such topics as spies and scandals or Lincoln’s assassination. Unlike other guided tours, DC by Foot operates year-round, although on a restricted schedule during the winter.

Washington Walks: Excellent guides and dynamite in-depth tours of neighborhoods off the National Mall make Washington Walks (www.washingtonwalks.com; tel 202/484-1565) the guide service most frequently mentioned by reviewers. The “Get Local Saturdays” series of tours is especially popular, traveling to a different locale weekly and revealing surprising facts. Public walks take place April through October; private and group tours are year-round. Tours, usually $15 per person, are free during an annual 10-day event in September known as WalkingtownDC.

DC Metro Food Tours: DC Metro (www.dcmetrofoodtours.com; tel 202/683-8847) conducts participants on 3 1/2-hour-long gastronomic adventures within a particular neighborhood, serving side dishes of historical and cultural references. For example, a Georgetown tour might include a walk along the C&O Canal; a sampling of in-house-made pasta at a decades-old restaurant; tales of the neighborhood’s famous residents, like President and Jacqueline Kennedy; finishing with dessert at one of the city’s best bakeries. Inquire about pub crawls, which include behind the scenes tours of neighborhoods and stops at three to six bars. Rates vary by tour, from about $30 to $65 per person.

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The Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington, D.C.: Would you like your tour conducted in French? How about a tour tailored to your interest in women’s history? The Guild (www.washingtondctourguides.com; tel 202/966-4935), which is a membership organization for licensed, professional tour guides and companies, operates a guide-for-hire service on its website. You simply enter your dates, interests, and other details, and individual guides respond to your query. You choose from among the responders, but the price is always the same: $40 per hour for a minimum of 4 hours. These guides are the best of the best, with many members doubling as docents at places like the Capitol Visitor Center.

Spies of Washington Walking Tours (www.spiesofwashingtontour.com; tel 703/569-1875) offers four walking tours that focus on espionage-related sites in Georgetown and around the White House, Pennsylvania Avenue, Capitol Hill, and the Russian Embassy areas. Carol Bessette, a retired Air Force intelligence officer, conducts the tours, which cost $15 per person. Private tours and bus tours are also available.

Segway Tours (http://dc.citysegwaytours.com; tel 877/734-8687) offers a 3-hour tour year-round daily at 10am and 2pm, with an additional tour at 6pm March to December, as well as a 2-hour version available daily March through December at 11am and 3pm. Though technically they aren’t “on foot,” Segways are self-propelling scooters that operate based on “dynamic stabilization” technology, which uses your body movements. The 2-hour tours cost $65 per person; the 3-hour tours cost $75 per person. The cost includes training. Ages 16 and up.

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By Bus

Martz Gray Line of Washington, D.C. (www.graylinedc.com; tel 800/862-1400 or 301/386-8300) operates quite a number of sightseeing tours. Narrated motor coach tours include an After Dark tour, D.C. in a Day, and D.C. in 2 Days. Most popular are its excursions aboard the red, double-decker, Open Top sightseeing buses, also known as Big Buses (www.bigbustours.com), which provide hop-on/hop-off narrated tours of the sites, in various combinations of time and circuits. Gray Line’s ANC Tours is the only company allowed by the National Park Service to provide interpretive tours of Arlington Cemetery. Gray Line also operates an un-narrated express shuttle service between Arlington Cemetery and Union Station, with a few stops en route.

Old Town Trolley tours (www.trolleytours.com; tel 888/910-8687 or 202/600-2524) offer fixed-price, on-off narrated service as you travel in three loops around the city, with a transfer point at the Lincoln Memorial stop to go on to Arlington Cemetery, and a second transfer point near Ford’s Theatre to get to Georgetown and to Washington National Cathedral. The vehicles are trolleys, not buses; although enclosed and heated in winter, the trolleys in summer open their windows, meaning that most of the trolleys are not air-conditioned. Many hotels sell tickets; otherwise you can purchase tickets online or at the Old Town Trolley Tour booths at Union Station and in Georgetown (spring and summer only). Trolleys operate daily from 9am to 5:30pm. You can buy tickets online in advance and at a discount ($35 for adults, $26 for children 4 to 12, free for children 3 and under) and use those e-tickets to board at any of the stops on the route. The full narrated tour takes 2 hours (if you don’t get off and tour the sites, obviously), and trolleys come by every 30 minutes or so.

By Boat

Since Washington is a river city, why not see it by boat? Potomac cruises allow sweeping vistas of the monuments and memorials, Georgetown, the Kennedy Center, and other Washington sights. Read the information below carefully, because not all boat cruises offer guided tours. Some of the following boats leave from the Washington waterfront and some from Old Town Alexandria.

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Spirit of Washington Cruises, Pier 4 at 6th and Water streets SW (www.spiritcruises.com/washington-dc; tel 866/302-2469; Metro: Waterfront), offers a variety of trips daily, including evening dinner, lunch, brunch, and moonlight dance cruises, as well as a half-day excursion to Mount Vernon and back. Lunch and dinner cruises include DJ entertainment.

The Spirit of Washington is a luxury, climate-controlled harbor cruise ship with carpeted decks and huge panoramic windows designed for sightseeing. There are three well-stocked bars onboard.

Dandy Restaurant Cruises (www.dandydinnerboat.com; tel 703/683-6076) operates Nina’s Dandy, a climate-controlled, all-weather, glassed-in floating restaurant that runs year-round. You board the vessel in Old Town Alexandria, at the Prince Street pier, between Duke and King streets. Trips range from a 2 1/2-hour weekday lunch cruise to a 3-hour Saturday dinner cruise.

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Odyssey (www.odysseycruises.com; tel 866/306-2469) was designed specifically to glide under the bridges that cross the Potomac. The boat looks like a glass bullet, its wraparound, see-through walls and ceiling allowing for great views. You board the Odyssey at the Gangplank Marina, on Washington’s waterfront at 6th and Water streets SW (Metro: Waterfront). Cruises available include lunch, Sunday brunch, and dinner excursions, with live entertainment provided during each cruise.

From April through October, the Potomac Riverboat Company  (www.potomacriverboatco.com; tel 877/511-2628 or 703/684-0580) offers several 90-minute round-trip, narrated tours aboard sightseeing vessels that take you past Washington landmarks or along Old Town Alexandria’s waterfront; certain cruises also travel to Mount Vernon, where you hop off and re-board after you’ve toured the estate. You board the boats at the pier behind the Torpedo Factory in Old Town Alexandria at the foot of King Street, or, for the Washington monuments and memorials tour, at Georgetown’s Washington Harbour. A concession stand sells light refreshments onboard.

The Capitol River Cruise’s Nightingales (www.capitolrivercruises.com; tel 800/405-5511 or 301/460-7447) are historic 65-foot steel riverboats that can accommodate 90 people. The Nightingales’ narrated jaunts depart Georgetown’s Washington Harbour every hour on the hour, from noon to 9pm, April through October (the 9pm outing is offered in summer months only). The 45-minute narrated tour travels past the monuments and memorials to National Airport and back. Bring a picnic or eat from the snack bar. To get here, take the Metro to Foggy Bottom and then walk into Georgetown, following Pennsylvania Avenue, which becomes M Street. Turn left on 31st Street NW and follow to the Washington Harbour complex on the water.

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Old Town Trolley also operates DC Ducks (www.dcducks.com; tel 855/404-3825), which feature unique land and water tours of Washington aboard the DUKW, an amphibious army vehicle (boat with wheels) from World War II that accommodates 30 passengers. Ninety-minute guided tours aboard the open-air canopied craft include a land portion taking in major sights—the Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, White House, and Smithsonian museums—and a 30-minute Potomac cruise. Purchase tickets online or inside Union Station at the information desk; board the vehicle just outside the main entrance to Union Station. Hours vary, but departures usually follow a daily schedule mid-March through October: 10am to 4pm, every hour on the hour.

By Bike

Bike and Roll/Bike the Sites, Inc.  (www.bikethesites.com; tel 202/842-2453) offers a more active way to see Washington, from March to December. The company has designed several different biking tours of the city, including the popular Capital Sites Ride, which takes you past museums, memorials, the White House, the Capitol, and the Supreme Court. The ride takes 3 hours, covers 7 to 8 miles, and costs $40 per adult, $30 per child 12 and under. Bike the Sites provides you with a comfortable mountain bicycle fitted to your size, a bike helmet, a water bottle, a light snack, and two guides to lead the ride. Tours depart from a location near the National Mall, at 955 L’Enfant Plaza SW, North Building Suite 905 (Metro: L’Enfant Plaza), and guides impart historical and anecdotal information as you go. Other Bike and Roll locations rent bikes: at 901 G St. NW in the Penn Quarter, Old Town Alexandria (tel 703/548-7655), and at Union Station (tel 202/962-0206). Rates vary depending on the bike you choose but always include helmet, bike, lock, and pump; there’s a 2-hour minimum. Another option: customized guided bike rides to suit your tour specifications.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.