Cramming onto a 2.5-mile-long space with as many as 4 million other spectators to see Barack Obama’s swearing-in might seem hard enough, but for visitors to Washington during the inauguration, that’s only part of the effort. From navigating a new city to figuring out where to sleep and eat, the pressure might not end when Obama leaves the podium. But knowing some basics in advance can help.
The first issue? Getting around Washington at a time when public transport will be weighed down with thousands of extra passengers. Nearly a million people are slated to take the Metro on Inauguration Day alone.
Unsurprisingly, Metro officials are repeating one crucial word of guidance: Walk. “We want to be realistic,” says Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel. “The system is going to be very, very crowded. It’s going to be packed.”
If walking isn’t an option, Metro advises that visitors schedule an extra hour just to get into Capitol-area stations, especially on Inauguration Day. That’s because when the stations overcrowd after the ceremony ends, officials will hold people back so the platforms don’t become dangerously full. Better yet, officials say, visitors might plan to stay in the city center for another couple of hours to see the sights or grab coffee before heading home.
The best way to ensure that transport is smooth is to plan ahead of time. That’s easily done on metroopensdoors.com, where visitors can input starting and ending addresses to generate a travel plan. Metro officials also recommend buying bus and rail passes in advance to avoid long ticket queues, but because they’ll be mailed, they warn visitors to make purchases at least two weeks in advance. An inauguration web site gives information on opening times and travel tips.
There certainly is no shortage of activities during inauguration week. But places to sleep will be in shorter supply.
For visitors immune to the recession, it’s not too late. One opulent option is the Omni Shoreham Hotel’s “44th Commander-in-Chief Package.” For a mere $440,000, guests enjoy not only four nights in the 1,700-square-foot suite and tickets to the swearing-in, but entertainment by political satirist Mark Russell, a personal chef and chauffeur, a preinauguration makeover, travel on a private jet, a $44,000 shopping spree, a separate trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, for “foreign policy” exposure, and a puppy.
For visitors whose wallets aren’t the fiscal equivalent of Teflon, booking becomes harder. The few hotel rooms that have not already been snapped up are likely to be pricey. One city tourism group, Destination D.C., announced last week that 900 rooms remain in the District; call 1-800-422-8644 for more information.
Still, finding a floor remains feasible. The farther away from the District one looks for a hotel, the more options there are. Meanwhile, the online message board craigslist.org is crawling with locals looking to lend their empty futons, spare rooms, or entire homes to visitors. For those willing to brave the cold or who are rolling in on an RV, urban camping at Greenbelt or Prince William Forest parks is an option. (And no, camping on the Mall to snag a viewing spot for the swearing-in is not allowed).
For the truly desperate, the city passed an emergency law to allow bars, nightclubs, and restaurants to stay open all night long from January 17 through the 21st. They can serve alcohol until 4 a.m. but provide food round the clock.
But whether sleeping on silk sheets or bar stools, one more basic remains: food.
The options around the Capitol tend to be either swanky or touristy, and all of them will be crowded. Other neighborhoods might be better bets for a bite.
Back in 1984, the New York Times wrote that “a local joke has it that whenever a government friendly to the United States falls, a new restaurant opens in Adams Morgan.” That rings as true for the Northwest neighborhood now as it did 25 years ago. Ethiopian food is particularly prevalent, but for those not as keen to scoop up mounds of meat with sourdough bread, options range from Vietnamese to Peruvian to Lebanese.
Around the U Street corridor, an area energized by African-American culture and nightlife, Ethiopian food also abounds—but so do soul food, funky cafés, and vegetarian hot spots. In the same quadrant of the city, Dupont Circle is a bit more staid, but in terms of cuisine, it’s no less eclectic. The area offers everything from fine dining and wine bars to coffee shops and sushi spots.
For something different—whether in terms of atmosphere or wait times—visitors might consider leaving the District behind. Historic Old Town Alexandria offers some quality seafood restaurants among an otherwise touristy mix. Meanwhile, heading north to suburbs like Bethesda can be surprisingly rewarding for the city-focused, offering everything from Italian to Indian.