In addition to planning a trip to Italy, I’m excited to announce that I will be visiting my friend this summer in Washington, D.C.!  She won a James Madison Fellowship award, which means she’s super stellar and it means that she gets to study constitutional history in our nation’s capital for 6 weeks!  One of her favorite places in the world is D.C., and one of MY favorite places in the world is D.C., so it only seems logical that I had to visit while she is up there learning about the city!  

I decided to travel somewhere in the range of medium as far as expenses.  Washington D.C. can be an expensive city to visit, but I knew that I didn’t want to stay far away for a few reasons. I’d be traveling over the 4th of July holiday, so I knew it would be extremely busy there.  If I wanted to see any of the 4th of July festivities, I knew I needed to be near the mall, but being near the mall means the prices for hotels increase, and therefore I couldn’t travel very cheaply. Also, the friend I’m visiting was staying a little bit of the way out from the mall area, and though Washington, D.C. has an excellent public transportation system, I knew that if we both had to return back far to our rooms in the evening it would be slightly riskier and also take us both potentially longer to get home (especially if, for example, she visited me far from the center, and then had to go that additional length back to her place).

(Side note for those who don’t know, a mall is a walking area.  D.C.’s mall is publicly owned and contains all the Smithsonian Museums.  It’s capped on one side by the Lincoln Memorial and the other side by the Capitol, and just off the mall in the middle is the White House.  But there’s no real shopping.)

I chose to go over the 4th of July despite my instincts.  I like areas to be quieter and not at the height of tourist season.  D.C. gets pretty crowded over the summer irrelevant of a national holiday, so 4th of July is probably one of the busiest times there.  I’ve yet, however, to visit during the 4th of July, and so knowing someone who would be up there was a good excuse enough for me to chose that week.  I could have visited a different week, but I wanted to see what the experience of the 4th in D.C. would be like.

Whenever I start planning a new trip, aside from the obvious issues of money (should I travel on the cheap, somewhere in between, or expensive?) and time (when can I go that is practical and doesn’t conflict with other major events in my life), I always come up with a list of goals for the trip.

I’ve seen most of the major sites like the majority of the museums on the mall, the Capitol building and the White House, Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial, etc., so I knew those did not need to be on my list.  If this is your first time to Washington D.C., then the places on the mall, the government buildings, and Arlington National Cemetery need to be on your priority list. But for this trip, they didn’t need to be on mine.  

So, my goals were to find a place near the mall so I could be near any major events and sites without having to travel a long time at night to get back to my hotel, to check out what was going on for the 4th, to have a list of museums and other places to go, and to try and go see the lecture by the historian Gordon Wood, who was giving a lecture on July 5th to my friend’s program.

I’d be leaving on July 3rd via Southwest from Jacksonville to Baltimore/D.C., taking the train to D.C., and then reversing that to leave on July 7th back home.

I found a hotel near the mall called The Hamilton Hotel DC (hamiltonhoteldc.com).  Oops!  I made a mistake and didn’t read the fine print on Booking.com.  It looked to be reasonable in rates for four nights at such a peak time of year, so I booked it.  I fell into a problem by looking at a room with free cancellation, but accidentally choosing a room that didn’t have free cancellation.  So once I was in, I couldn’t back out. I want to stay there, so that’s okay.  Despite all my research, we all make mistakes! I chalked it up as a lesson to not get so excited while planning that I ignore the obvious (or purchase via my phone!). Or, better yet, check directly with the hotel first to see if they have better rates, as that gives you more flexibility!

So, once I had figured out a hotel I wanted, I looked into different 4th of July events in D.C.  There is a traditional parade on the mall, and a long concert in front of the Capitol building, followed by fireworks.  I’m not opposed to any of that in principal, but wouldn’t want to feel “stuck” in the big crowds for hours (especially not the parade in the very hot sun).  Luckily my friend feels the same way, so we are actually playing the 4th by ear. Our goal that evening is to try and find a rooftop bar to watch the fireworks.  But, if we can’t, no biggie.

I also realized that while I’ve seen the Declaration of Independence before, it would be fun to try and sneak in to see it on the 3rd or the 5th.  So, museum-wise, I’m always happy going back to the Museum of American History (but just saw it on the last trip), the Air and Space Museum, and this time I might like to sneak into the Museum of American Art again.  It’s been a while, and there’s a weeklong summer teacher program there that I learned about at the NCSS Conference in Chicago last year, so I’d like to look at some artwork again and see if it gives me any good ideas for my classroom.  Finally, I’m an avid history researcher, so I thought about going to the National Archives or the Library of Congress to do some research on the 3rd or 5th. I couldn’t find much online that I felt like I needed ASAP, so I’m going to pass.  In addition, I was able to register for the presentation by Gordon Wood at 1pm on the 5th, so I think I’m going to give myself a bit of a slower day on the 5th.

As far as activities for my friend and I, we can do just about anything together, and she’s there for longer than I am, so on the 6th I plan on letting her fill me in on exciting things to do that she’s learned about.  6 weeks is a long time to start to explore a city, and honestly, I can’t wait to experience and report what she has learned!

While this post isn’t exactly a step-by-step guide for planning a trip, hopefully it gives you some kind of insight into what goes through my mind when going out of town.  I make sure I understand my general purpose and therefore match the logistics of transportation and hotel location with that purpose, including any date planning that might affect either of those, and then start to fill in my days based on a list of goals for the trip.

Not every trip gets perfectly planned, but I’ve never walked away from a trip yet feeling that I overbooked myself or that I was rushed anywhere, which works great for my personality.  I get to see what I want but have time to explore and relax based on my mood. And, for those things I missed, as my grandmother always used to say, “You’ve got to leave a little something for next time you come back.”