Many of you know that this month, we flew to Virginia to finally visit Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Kings Dominion. In the time that we spent on the East Coast, we also made whistle stops in Colonial Williamsburg, where we took in a fantastic ghost tour, as well as Washington, D.C., Arlington, and nearby Old Town Alexandria. It was a trip full of firsts for TPA, and after doing loads of research and some careful planning, we managed to pull it all off flawlessly. It occurred to me that many of our TPAers (as well as those stumbling across this feature story) may be in the same boat we were a few weeks ago – a few hours to spend in Washington, and no clue as to what to see or do.
The following is a trip report, as well as a research tool with our suggestions based on our own observations and experience. If we can help someone out with the planning of their whistle stop in Washington, that’s fantastic; otherwise, I hope you enjoy our observations and reflections on our quick trip through D.C. and surrounding areas!
Washington, D.C. is served by two major airports; Dulles International Airport and Reagan National Airport. We flew in to Dulles, as it was cheaper (think flying in to Orange County vs. LAX) and not too far outside of Washington. In fact, the distance between Dulles and Washington, D.C. is closer than downtown Los Angeles to Orange County; without traffic, it’s only about a 30-minute drive; with traffic, it can be much longer – and the Washington area traffic absolutely gets as gnarly as it does for us here in Southern California, so beware when planning your trip times in, out, and around the city.
Our plane landed in the early afternoon on a Friday, so we opted to save the Washington, D.C. stuff until the following Tuesday, before our flight out. A friend of ours who’s very familiar with D.C. said we were nuts to try and get in and around the city on a Friday afternoon during rush hour, and that we’d do much better to wait until the following week. Great advice; thanks, Don!
If you have the Waze app (or don’t yet), we highly recommend using it; it’s free (for both Android and iPhone users), and features very accurate real-time traffic routing that was fantastic throughout our trip, especially since we had zero clue as to where we were going. Our first stop once we landed was to be Arlington National Cemetery, which is just across the Potomac River from Washington’s National Mall. There was already afternoon traffic, and Waze routed us nicely around it through several Washington suburbs, which we would have otherwise never seen or known to drive through. Our trip to Arlington National Cemetery was exciting – it was a challenge keeping my eyes on the road as landmark after landmark revealed itself to us as we drove closer to D.C. – seeing the Washington Monument for the first time looming over the landscape, realizing we were driving right behind the Lincoln Memorial (talk about distracting – that was a huge item on our bucket list, and it was right there next to us), and even catching a glimpse of the Pentagon. It was all very overwhelming and incredibly surreal to finally see these things I’ve known about my entire life right there in front of me. Honestly, that’s what the entire trip was like, for the most part – very strange and exciting!
Arlington National Cemetery
There probably are few places in the United States so absolutely sobering or respect-commanding than Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Within view of the National Mall in Washington, Arlington National Cemetery is a 624-acre military cemetery, where personnel dating back to the American Civil War are buried and memorialized. While every soldier and officer has their own amazing legacy and story, I’ve always known about Arlington because it is home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as well as the burial place of President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; it is at their site that the eternal flame burns in President Kennedy’s honor.
Arlington National Cemetery is very large. To put it in perspective size-wise for our main audience here on Theme Park Adventure, it is more than twice the size of Epcot at Walt Disney World in Orlando. For those making a day trip out of it (easily, one could spend hours at Arlington, exploring and paying respects), the cemetery offers tours, with shuttles that take guests through the grounds. Except for special guests and arranged family member visits, there is no public driving in Arlington; you either take a tour/shuttle, or you walk. We literally had maybe two hours to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Kennedy’s eternal flame grave site, so we opted to walk. The afternoon heat can be oppressive on the East Coast, so it’s wise to take a bottle of water with you as you visit the cemetery. There are plenty of directional signs posted throughout the grounds, so visitors on foot can easily find the major monuments; there can be a lot of people visiting the same spots you are, so between the signage and the ant trail of guests, finding your way around Arlington isn’t difficult. The Visitor Center, which is the entrance to the grounds, also offers guests complimentary maps. Give yourself time, make sure you’re hydrated, and in case you’re wondering, shorts and T-shirts are acceptable attire – just keep in mind that you are visiting a sacred place and that clothing and conduct should be appropriate at all times out of respect.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier sits atop a hill, overlooking Washington. It was built in 1921, and contains the remains of unidentified soldiers from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. Most notable about this monument is that it is guarded 24 hours per day by hand-picked Honor Guards. There are large tiers that allow for ample viewing of the Tomb and its guards. Some people sit, others stand, and everyone keeps their voices at a whisper. This is an incredibly hallowed place; watching the Tomb Guard go through his paces is awesome, to say the least. During the summer months (April 1 – September 30), guests can witness the Guard Change ceremony every 30 minutes while Arlington is open. This is something that should not be missed; it is sobering, and very impressive. We arrived at the Tomb and waited for approximately 15 minutes before seeing the Guard Change take place. During the off-season (October 1 – March 31), the guard is changed every hour. When Arlington is closed to the public, the Guard Change ceremony occurs every 2 hours. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been guarded every minute of the day since 1937.
When we arrived, there was a sizable crowd that had gathered – including many vets, which was moving to see. The crowds at Arlington are to remain silent at all times, and most of the visitors comprehend that and abide by that request. No one was out of line while we were at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but on those occasions when people disregard the call for silence, the Honor Guard has no problem addressing them loudly and putting them on blast in front of everyone. It’s common sense – when there are signs asking for respect, and you’re visiting a “tourist attraction” that is obviously much more than that, simply act like it. Be respectful, be polite, and be quiet, as instructed. If you’re curious like me, a simple search on YouTube will pull up many videos where the Tomb’s Honor Guards have had to snap rude guests to attention; it’s fascinating, albeit disappointing that they have to ever do that.
The actual Guard Change ceremony is awe-striking to see in person. It’s a perfectly-executed operation, with stern commands being ordered by the overseeing officer as two Sentinels go through a precision-choreographed presentation of arms and synced marching, accented only by the echoing sounds of each soldiers’ “clicker” – a piece of metal that is affixed to the inside-facing portion of their shoes that reports loudly and sharply when their feet are brought together. To hear this particular sound in person is to carry it with you completely embedded in your memory forever.
A huge amount of gratitude and respect for the Honor Guard that protects the Tomb at Arlington. Simply awesome.
There are only two United States Presidents buried at Arlington National Cemetery; William Howard Taft, who died in 1930, and John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated on November 22, 1963.
Growing up, I’ve always seen images of Kennedy’s gravesite, and have always been struck by the symbolic Eternal Flame that marks the location. This was a component of the Kennedy gravesite that was requested by his widow, Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy, to be modeled after the eternal flame found in Paris at the tomb of an unknown French soldier near the base of the Arc de Triomphe. The Eternal Flame was lit by Jacqueline during President Kennedy’s funeral on November 25, 1963. A special design by the Institute of Gas Technology of Chicago, there remains a constant spark near the tip of the Flame’s nozzle, which will re-light the fire to a specific color and shape any time it is blown out by wind, rain, or any other factor at the gravesite.
Walking up the hill to the Kennedy gravesite, you immediately note the stunning view of Washington, D.C. on the immediate horizon across the Potomac River. The Washington Monument can be seen through the trees, which have obviously grown taller with the decades since Kennedy was laid to rest in Arlington. The burial site is 3.2 acres, and is also the resting place of Jacqueline Kennedy, who was interred next to her husband on May 23, 1994.
Again, as is the case throughout Arlington National Cemetery, the Kennedy gravesite is a hallowed place, and utmost respect and decency is requested at all times. We found there to be a much faster flow of visitors at this site as opposed to the The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, including school groups – which one should definitely expect to encounter during the school season if visiting Arlington on a weekday. Unfortunately, many of the young students we encountered or passed while walking through Arlington seemed more interested in goofing off and socializing loudly among themselves in large groups, which definitely was disruptive to the ambiance of the cemetery grounds. Kids will be kids, I suppose – and we did see several teachers reminding students that they were in a hallowed place; I don’t envy them and that job at all – huge respect to our teachers.
There are a few small steps/tiers you climb when visiting the Kennedy gravesite; it’s on a steep hill, but easily accessible to foot traffic. Once you’re there, it’s suddenly right there in front of you at the top of a few more wide steps, in all of its solemn glory. Approaching, I was moved to tears – after seeing images of the Eternal Flame on television and in photos all of my life, I was standing just feet away from it, as it wavered silently in the afternoon breeze. People around the grave spoke in hushed whispers and carried on pleasant conversation – definitely not as heavy as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, although respectful and thoughtful at all times. There are no posted guards here – simply signs requesting silence and respect.
I would imagine at times, the Kennedy gravesite can become very crowded. However, on this particular Friday afternoon, we had no problem walking right up to the perimeter of the grave to pay our respects and take several pictures. It was incredibly moving.
Once we took in the view of Washington from the site, we made our way back down the hill toward the Visitor Center and the exit. It was a peaceful, reflective walk – and while the afternoon heat and humidity were fairly heavy, it was something we were so happy to have finally done in person. A very appropriate way to begin our East Coast trip, and absolutely a very humbling experience.
Parking at Arlington is easy, although at peak times, it might be a bit more challenging. There is a fee to park, but it is nominal – ours was a few bucks for the two hours or so we spent there. There is also public transportation that drops you off literally right outside the Visitor Center, if you opt to go that route while visiting Washington, D.C.
We highly recommend visiting Arlington National Cemetery – it’s not something we see ourselves doing each time we return to Washington in the future, but doing it at least once was very moving and made us very proud as Americans to walk on such important, hallowed ground and pay our respects in person.
Old Town Alexandria
Just a few miles away from Arlington/Washington is Old Town Alexandria, a charming Colonial-era suburb of Washington that features boutique shops, fantastic restaurants, and intimate streets and walkways. People do live there – in fact, it’s one of Washington’s most high-end suburbs for the well-to-do.
Our original plan was to have dinner at Gadsby’s Tavern, a restaurant that has been in operation since 1770, serving such notable figures throughout history as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and more! Unfortunately, Gadsby’s was closed for a special event the night we arrived, so we did a quick search on Yelp, and found what turned out to be an amazing spot – the Columbia Firehouse.
Columbia Firehouse is a fantastic restaurant that seems perfect for locals as well as visitors, complete with several dining rooms, a wonderful (and packed) bar area, and a patio space with really nice string lights overhead. Housed in what was once a firehouse in the 1800s, the restaurant is modern, yet still remains very grounded in its rich history and past; it’s really quite beautiful and interesting outside and in!
The staff was incredibly friendly and attentive. We’d booked a table online with them and in the “comments” field, I stated that we would have just flown in from Los Angeles and would love a nice booth, if possible. Not only did they give us a great booth upon arrival, they acknowledged our flight in from LA! Once seated, the manager on duty – a very nice and enthusiastic gentleman – came to our table and asked how the flight was, etc. It was a very cool introduction to the Columbia Firehouse! He recommended house cocktails for us and personally placed our drink order with the bar; we noticed that he greeted each table of guests throughout the dining room – a very nice service touch that we appreciated completely. Our food was great, and our drinks were awesome; service was prompt throughout dinner, and honestly, we hated that we had to wrap up our meal so quickly; we’d have loved to move into the bar and spend the evening sampling specialty cocktails and chatting with locals. Alas, we had a tight schedule to stick to, and stick to it we did. If you’re passing through Old Alexandria, we highly recommend the Columbia Firehouse, either for a drink or a meal – ideally, both! Huge kudos to the staff – we absolutely loved our time there and definitely would pop back in again on a return visit!
The streets of Old Town Alexandria are easy to get around on – and most are very busy with the hustle and bustle of tourists, as well as locals walking their dogs. One thing we noticed right away, is that this is a very dog-friendly neighborhood, with many of the businesses placing water bowls outside along the sidewalks for their thirsty four-legged residents. Everywhere we turned, we found dogs of all sorts as we explored the streets of Old Alexandria – including a Great Dane that was the size of a pony outside one of the many shops we strolled past!
Parking in Old Alexandria is ample; there are paid lots and garages to be found, although you should definitely wear comfortable walking shoes – because you’ll do a lot of that, uphill and down, toward the Potomac River, which has a cool waterfront with shops and restaurants – as well as boat tours and ferries! We found a small flat-rate lot for $5 just a few blocks away from Columbia Firehouse on a balmy Friday evening; while these lots certainly must fill up during peak seasons, parking in Old Alexandria is nowhere near as difficult as it can be elsewhere in the region.
City Hall in Old Alexandria is a striking structure, with a courtyard area that has a nice fountain and scores of local musicians and entertainers hanging out in Colonial garb, offering ghost tours, information, and plenty of photo opportunities – tips appreciated, I’m sure! While definitely targeting tourists, this location wasn’t overtly crowded or over-saturated with unwanted “street artists” the way Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, or Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas are. The “tourist spot” in the middle of Old Alexandria was actually very nice, clean, and offered a friendly, warm atmosphere.
One could easily spend a day and evening exploring Old Town Alexandria – even an afternoon and evening of bar-hopping there would be epic; unfortunately, we only had a matter of a few hours to spend in this beautiful Colonial neighborhood. If you visit Washington, and have time to dedicate to the city’s suburbs, definitely put Old Alexandria on your bucket list!
The White House
On our way back to Dulles International Airport (our primary reason for visiting Virginia was to visit Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens Williamsburg), we had a matter of a few hours to spend sightseeing on the go as we passed back through Washington. Knowing that we only had a matter of about four hours to see sights in Washington, we spend a few weeks doing research and narrowing down a short list of things we wanted to see. Naturally, time-intensive items such as the Smithsonian Institution was immediately ruled out, simply because of our time constraint, as was a tour of the White House. That said, there are plenty of things to see on the run in Washington D.C. and we did the following with flying colors, thanks to some careful planning.
Of course, anyone visiting Washington, D.C. for the first time is going to want to see the White House, the residence and primary workplace of the current President of the United States. Parking near the White House is virtually non-existent, and most spaces that are available, are chewed up quickly by numerous tour buses and food trucks near Pennsylvania Avenue. Knowing that the White House would be our first stop when zipping through Washington itself, we parked a couple blocks away at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. Parking isn’t cheap here – a few hours will cost you $20 or more – but it is very close to the White House; maybe a 10-minute walk, if that.
For this trip, we opted to view the White House from its south side, on E Street (cross streets are E Street and 15th Street), because of its close proximity to the National Mall, which we also were going to visit. There are multiple vehicle checkpoints and barricades near 15th and E Streets; lots of police as well, with little to no signage pointing where you’re supposed to go, which was a bit confusing and intimidating to us – we didn’t want to try and enter anywhere we weren’t allowed! Foot traffic is allowed on E Street, and no one stops you if you walk along the street on sidewalks that are lined with chained stanchions.
From E Street, you get a really cool view of the south side of the White House, and when it came into view, it was a moment that I will never forget – awesome and commanding! To finally see it in person for the first time was really, really cool. Again… America! I’m personally not at all a fan of politics or the workings of Washington; however, there is no denying the history of the White House and the legacy it has. Regardless of who is or has been a resident there, seeing the place was very meaningful to me. True-life history lesson before my eyes, you know?
From E Street, you are allowed to take photographs and video of the White House and its South Lawn, home to formal ceremonies and events, as well as the landing spot for Marine One. The only advice I have is once you’re there, take as many photos as you want and act appropriately; it’s very safe to assume that if you’re close enough to take pictures of the White House, someone is definitely looking at you and watching what you’re doing while you’re standing there.
National Mall / Washington Monument / Lincoln Memorial
From the South Lawn of the White House, we walked a short distance along 15th Street and crossed Constitution Avenue, entering the National Mall, where we visited the Washington Monument.
The National Mall is an area of about 146 acres in downtown Washington, D.C. It is home to 10 of the Smithsonian Institution museums, and numerous monuments and memorials including the Washington Monument, Constitution Gardens, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, and more. It is bookended by the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol building. The National Mall is easily accessed by public transit, as well as cabs, which are abundant in Washington.
We knew early on that we weren’t going to go near the Capitol building, as it is under refurbishment, and the massive exterior is covered with dense scaffolding; that would have to wait for our next trip to Washington. The Washington Monument was definitely something we wanted to see – and touch – while at the Mall.
The Washington Monument is a massive obelisk at the center of the National Mall, and one of this country’s most prominent visual icons. Built in honor of George Washington, the enormous monument is the largest stone structure (and obelisk) in the world, rising nearly 555 feet into the Washington D.C. skyline. While guests can go inside the Washington Monument and take an elevator to an observation space at about the 500-foot level, we didn’t have time to do this, and so, we walked up to and around the monument, taking many photos and Periscope broadcasting to our TPAers. The Washington Monument has 50 American flags representing each of our states flies around its base 24 hours per day. From the Washington Monument, visitors can enjoy really neat views of the White House, Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool, and the U.S. Capitol building.
Many people choose to walk along the National Mall, and that is absolutely doable and very nice. There are many memorials and monuments along the way – so many, that you could really spend an entire day and evening exploring the Mall on foot. We simply didn’t have that time during this trip, so we researched our various options that would allow us to see as much as possible while staying within our rigid time window.
We opted to hire a pedicab to take us from the Washington Monument along the Mall, to the Lincoln Memorial, and then to the spot we chose for lunch. In Washington, there are several pedicab companies (carriages towed by bicyclists). After looking at pricing and customer reviews online, I chose National Pedicabs and sent off an email with a bunch of noobish questions about the National Mall, and getting around D.C. in general. In almost no time at all, the company’s General Manager, a gentleman by the name of Joe Brophy, answered my questions and then over a few days, carried on a detailed conversation with me via email, kindly answering any and every question I had fully and with amazing enthusiasm for Washington and his service! I was honestly, blown away by his incredible customer service, and never once did I say that we were the owners of TPA or would be writing about our trip. Joe didn’t know me at all, except that I was someone visiting Washington for the first time from Los Angeles and was on a very tight schedule. He hooked us up with an amazing tour guide/driver named Rob, who met us at the Washington Monument.
Rob drove us along the National Mall on Independence Avenue, pointing out each monument and memorial as we went, filling our ride with fascinating stories and great humor; he definitely is someone who loves what he does and his guest interaction was natural, and really appreciated. He was well-spoken and delightful as a guide, spouting knowledge about everything we passed and then some – amazing! I did a live Periscope broadcast as we rode, and our viewers loved Rob! Truly a fun way to see the National Mall and get a crash-course in Washington history; better than anything I ever learned from a text book, that’s for damn sure!
We arrived at the Lincoln Memorial, which was definitely to be one of the highlights of our trip. Rob waited patiently for us and told us where the bathrooms were, etc. and what we definitely needed to get pictures of while at the memorial. We walked first to the edge of the Reflecting Pool, and took pictures facing the Washington Monument. I couldn’t help but think of Forrest Gump and the anti-Vietnam demonstration scene; geeky, but that’s what came to mind!
Built in 1922/23 as part of the Lincoln Memorial, the Reflecting Pool stretches over a third of a mile long and is 167 feet wide, making it the largest reflecting pool in Washington. It’s really beautiful to see in person, with the Washington Monument’s reflection rippling on its glassy surface.
As we turned around to face the Lincoln Memorial, my breath was taken away. The Lincoln Memorial is a massive structure, built in the early 1920s, in honor of America’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. I always knew the Lincoln Memorial was big – but in person, it is huge.
You ascend many stairs to the memorial’s inner chamber, where the breathtaking statue of Abraham Lincoln sits. Entering the memorial, it is easy to see that its designer, Henry Bacon, intended for it to be both commanding and symbolic of the power and majesty of America – and of the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. Emotions welled up inside of me as we crossed the threshold of the memorial into the interior chamber. Looking up at Lincoln, I couldn’t help but think of my past visit to Springfield, Illinois to see his Presidential Library, and to his imposing tomb. I also couldn’t help but think of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland, which I have grown up with. In my head, I could hear Walt Disney talking about how much he admired Abraham Lincoln, and how much of an impression the President had made on him.
The interior of the Lincoln Memorial was full of people, but it wasn’t difficult to make our way to the base of the statue and pose for pictures as well as take many of our own. Everyone was very courteous to one another, and patiently waited for each group to take their own photos. The entire memorial is awe-striking in scope and sheer magnitude both physically and emotionally.
There is a small museum inside the structure, as well as public restrooms. One of the more jarring observations of our trip were how poorly the restrooms were maintained at the Lincoln Memorial. The men’s restroom smelled so badly that I literally held my breath when using the facility. The women’s restroom was no better. This is shocking to us, considering the importance of this memorial, and we found it incredibly sad that there aren’t janitorial staff members in abundance throughout the day there to maintain these facilities as they should be maintained – properly, immaculately, and with the respect that the memorial deserves.
The National Mall is watched over by the National Park Service rangers; there was a group of about 4 or 5 that we saw at the Lincoln Memorial during our visit. As with many of the locations in Washington, this is a site that is to be respected and guests are requested to maintain common decency and act in a quiet, well-behaved manner at all times. During our visit to the Lincoln Memorial, we witnessed a large group of school kids being very loud and completely disruptive to the sanctity of the memorial. As the group of school kids chanted and shouted loudly, park rangers made their way quickly through the crowd and publicly shamed them, demanding that they leave the premises immediately, not to return again. Most of the kids laughed and thought it was funny – and we felt terrible as a teacher scolded them loudly on the steps of the memorial as most of the teens simply ignored her and continued to laugh and carry on. The teacher looked so distraught and broken that they had been kicked out of the Lincoln Memorial before they even got into the interior chamber – she was furious, and looked like she wanted to cry. Again, our hearts go out to the men and women of this country who choose to be teachers; the hardest job in the world, and when faced with a group of kids that are disrespectful and couldn’t care less about an opportunity such as this – it’s maddening. Huge respect and kudos to our teachers, once again.
We returned to our pedicab, and Rob drove us to our lunch spot – a very well-known and highly-rated restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue called Founding Farmers.
Before I close out the National Mall portion of our trip, I once again want to reiterate how much fun we had listening to and conversing with Rob. For us, the way to go absolutely was National Pedicabs. It’s faster than walking, you get to see the sites, and take in Washington D.C. while being driven around. TPA highly recommends giving this a try, regardless of how touristy it may seem – we loved every second of it, and would have spent more time with Rob if we had been able to! Huge thanks to Rob, Joe, and the team at National Pedicabs for delivering an outstanding customer service experience at a very reasonable rate – we loved it and hope others reading this will look you up when planning a trip to Washington, D.C.
Founding Farmers Restaurant
Founding Farmers was hard to ignore on Yelp, with more than 5,000 reviews! We needed a place that was good, as well as fairly fast service-wise to maintain our extremely tight schedule.
We immediately fell in love with this restaurant – and judging by the amount of people dining there in the late afternoon on a Tuesday, we’re not the only ones! Our service was quick and extremely friendly and attentive – the staff was great! We started our meal with cocktails; I ordered the Chelsea’s Manhattan, which features a 12-year-old Elijah Craig bourbon – it was oh, so damned nice! The perfect final drink of our vacation! So smooth and so tasty; it went shamefully well with the ridiculously good avocado and bacon burger I had. Oh, and the fries at Founding Farmers – we don’t know what they do when prepping them, but the end result is magic in your face! Whatever you do, whatever you get, make sure you order their house fries – they’re beautiful!
Founding Farmers can and does get very busy, so reservations are highly recommended. It’s worth it, and I cannot imaging returning to Washington D.C. and not having another meal there! We can’t recommend this restaurant enough – the bar was a cool space, too! Definitely something to add to your list when visiting D.C.
The Exorcist House /Stairs
Being the true horror geeks we are, there was no way we could skip out of town without paying a visit to the location where several key exterior scenes of The Exorcist were filmed! The foreboding, iconic stairs are just feet away from the house used in the exterior shots of the classic horror film were shot. The best way to get there is by cab, which is what we did after leaving Founding Farmers after our late lunch.
The Exorcist stairs/house are found at 3600 Prospect Street in Georgetown, about 10 – 15 minutes via cab from the north side of the White House (traffic can be bad at peak times), just a block or two from Georgetown University. The area is busy with foot traffic, so there are usually folks there willing to take your photo, if you’d like.
The house that was used for the exterior shots in The Exorcist has changed appearance over the years, and the iconic lamp post that Father Merrin stood next to upon his arrival appears to have been a prop; there is a post nearby, but it isn’t the one seen in the film. The gate outside the house is very different now, and the main thing that will throw people off, is that the entire second wing of the house as seen in the movie (MacNeil house) isn’t there – it was created specifically for the movie, and was nothing more than a facade to extend the house to the steep steps as described in the novel. The house is a private residence, and while we did see an elderly gentleman there watering plants (and keeping an eye on us as we shot pictures of the exterior), we didn’t bother him; no one should, really – everything you need as a fan is outside of the property anyway. Leave the residents in peace and don’t be a nuisance; it is someone’s home, after all.
Much of The Exorcist was shot in the Georgetown area. In the film, Father Karras visits a bar; that location is now called The Tombs, and is located just a few steps away from the house, across Prospect Street. We hadn’t planned on visiting this location, but it was so close, it was a no-brainer. You take a narrow staircase down to the entrance of The Tombs. Inside, we found it to be a bit stale-smelling, although the staff that met us were very friendly and enthusiastic when we explained why we were simply there for a moment to take pictures. The Tombs was a yep… there it is moment, and once we saw it, we left and climbed back up to Prospect Street and sunlight.
The famous stairs are just a few feet away, and standing at the top of them, looking down, was one of the coolest moments of our trip! It was so surreal! We snapped pictures and even broadcast to fans via Periscope – everyone loved it, and locals came and went, smiling to themselves (and thinking tourists, no doubt). We walked down the stairs, which are very steep, although not as long as I’d expected. Make no mistake – I wouldn’t want to race anyone up the stairs – but they weren’t the horrible hike that many make them out to be. At the base is an Exxon gas station’s parking lot; glamorous, right? The ground is fairly dirty, so we opted not to lie down and re-create the shot from the film; we did have a plane to catch, so we had to look relatively clean! More locals came and went, and we had no problem finding someone to take our picture at the base of the stairway, which empties out onto M Street, a very busy thoroughfare.
Going Home Time
We hailed another cab in no time, and were on our way back to the Ronald Reagan Building, which took about 15 minutes or so in afternoon traffic; not bad – in all, about a $15 cab ride (not including tip). Just as quickly as it began, our trip came to an end as we rode past the north side of the White House on the way to our car.
Driving out of town back to Dulles International Airport, we passed many of the locations we’d just visited – the White House, National Mall, and the Lincoln Memorial. Then, it all faded in our rear-view mirror. The freeways around Washington are very efficient and ours had a dedicated express lane specifically for airport traffic, which was really nice! At 5pm on a Tuesday afternoon, it only took us about 30 minutes to get from the National Mall to Dulles International; not bad at all!
As stated earlier, the object of our East Coast trip was to visit Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens in Virginia; our blast through Washington was the icing on the cake, so we had very little time there. Our research paid off, and we were very content with what we did see and accomplish while in the Washington area. You can easily burn a week in D.C. – and I am sure we will return sooner than later. With the extremely short window of opportunity we had, we saw a great many things in the total period of about 6 – 7 hours.
Like I’ve said, I couldn’t care less about politics. However, after visiting Washington, D.C. and some of its outlying areas, I can totally see the appeal and draw that pulls folks in; the city is beautiful, alive with incredible history at every turn, and mysterious in many ways for students and historians alike. If you ever head to visit the theme parks in Virginia – you must take some time to visit Washington like we did – it can be done, and you’ll leave excited and content as we did!
– Rick West