Washington, D.C.

How to conquer Washington, D.C.

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Let’s be honest from the start. We didn’t love Washington, DC. Maybe we hyped it up too much. This was our visit to the nation’s capital on our Great American Road Trip. It was to signify something important, a key stop on the trip. It was also the weekend of the official unveiling of the new Martin Luther King, Jr statue. Plus we had both obsessively read Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol and wanted to see live and direct the locations in the book.
Capitol BuildingWhat we found instead was a cluster of official capital buildings, a rougher northern neck of the woods and quirky neighborhoods far from both. The city is without center, and had we not taken advantage of the CaBi Capital Bikeshare program, it could have felt like a city without a soul.  Cycling is the absolute best way to conquer Washington, DC.
Washington DC Capital BikesUsually we focus on spots recommended by locals, but come on – this is Washington, DC. We immediately headed down to the White House and stood outside to take in the house you see most on the news, so glad that we were hoping to spot Michelle out in her garden or the girls playing in the yard, rather than the skin-crawling sensation I may have gotten seeing its previous inhabitants.
The White HouseWe then circled the White House, hit up a few museums and were wiped out. A quick check on googlemaps later indicated that to do this tiny chunk of DC sightseeing, we had already walked over 3 miles. We knew we’d never be able to stroll from neighborhood to neighborhood like we love doing in London or New York. We considered hopping on the Metro, as DC easily has one of the best public transportation systems in the U.S., but spending time in tunnels means not taking much in. Luckily, we spotted the familiar bike racks similar to the Bixi bikeshare system in Montreal, and we knew we were saved.
Washington Monument & skyThe system is most useful for city residents, who can buy annual memberships for $75, but for casual tourists, the CaBi program offers two membership options – a 24-hour rental for $7 (it was raised to $7 from $5 AFTER our visit), or a three-day option for $15. You swipe your credit card at the station kiosk, get a code to unlock the cool cruiser bike and you’re off. The three-day rate is actually new, so while we were in town, we did the 24-hour rental option, and for that (back then) $5 fee, we could take unlimited trips of 30 minutes or less. At the 30 minute mark, we returned the bikes to the nearest kiosk and either do some sightseeing, or wait two minutes, swipe your card and head off again on another bike. With 1,100 bikes available throughout the city, you almost never have to worry about not getting a bike, and if a station is full, you swipe your card, look for the nearest station with free slots, and you get a 15-minute grace period to get over there. If you want to, you can keep bikes for additional half-hour increments, but fees are charged additionally on a rising scale of $1.50 per half hour. The system is designed for you to hop on, get to where you need to go and hop off. No responsibility, no locking up bikes, and at a rate one-fifth the price of a daily bike rental in the city.
Capital City Diner outsideWe hopped on bikes just outside the Justice Department at sunset and cruised the Mall, the Capitol Building, and the Monument. It was cool to get the night perspective here and then we dropped the bikes back off and picked up new bikes and headed north up Massachusetts Avenue to the DuPont circle area past lively bars filled with office workers and people who on the Hill getting their after-work drinks on. We dropped off the bikes a couple of houses down from Hotel Helix where we were staying and freshened up for dinner before hopping back on new bikes and pedaling our way to a nice dinner. Riding bikes through a city after dark, when the weather has cooled down and traffic has died down is such a liberating experience. We can ride slow, take pictures and are free to roam and get lost without worrying about keeping track of traffic.
Bikes & Capitol Building Washington DCThe next morning we had seen the main sights and took a recommendation to check out the Capital City Diner in the roughneck Trinidad area of the city. With over 10 hours left on our rentals, we were able to ride on over, to a bright, shiny station two blocks from the diner. Unfortunately this local experience was a total dud (unapologetically filthy, processed McFood and at least one person with a prison ankle bracelet on just released from prison that morning), but we really enjoyed the through the quiet and colorful neighborhoods on the way – something we’d have never experienced otherwise.
washington dc streetThe rest of the afternoon was spent cycling around through back streets and along main roads which have very clear and easy bike lanes. Whereas the day before we had been ready to cash it in and put down our DC stop as a flop, we were able to take in more of the city and appreciate these quiet peeks into what real life is like here. It turns out, Washington, DC is a pretty cool city, easiest to conquer on two wheels.
washington dc downtownWe recommend cycling whenever possible in a new city. We have cycled in Costa Rica, Ottawa, Montreal, Washington, DC, New Orleans and Laos.
washington dc sculpturesFor iPhone users, we would recommend a super useful app we’ve just discovered, called Spotcycle, which shows available bike slots at bike stations in Washington, DC, Boston, Minneapolis, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, London and Melbourne.

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Hotel Tip of the Week: Hotel Helix | Washington, DC

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Welcome to our Hotel Tip of The Week series. Being on the road every day of the year means we stay in countless hotels, and at over 500 days as nomads, we have stayed some of the best (and worst) accommodation the world has to offer. We cover everything from budget to luxury accommodation, and believe that any hotel worth recommending must be comfortable and clean, offer good value for money and treat people as guests, not clients. We have personally stayed in every hotel we recommend to you here on

We’d like to thank Martin Luther King, Jr for our Hotel Helix experience. Had it not been for the unveiling of King’s memorial in Washington, DC the very weekend we were in town, we would have never been on the hunt for a new hotel (the one we stayed at had overbooked).

Hotel Helix, a Kimpton hotel, makes you feel fabulously groovy from the minute you pass through the theater curtain upon entry. That’s right, each time you enter through the front door, you pass through a theater curtain to the sound of applause before heading up to your room. The fabulousness continues as you pass Warhol-esque photography covering the walls and your eyes adjust to the neon green and shimmering silver color scheme in the hallway.

hotel helix washington dc

As we booked at the very last minute, our expectations were very low – A small, cluttered broom closet with a double bed, perhaps. What we got was essentially a spacious room most hotels would consider a suite, but we were assured it was a standard room. Immediately our eyes were drawn to the giant swivel entertainment center hanging in the center of the room, which can be turned to be watched in either the bedroom or the living room.

helix hotel washington dc room

Tucked away in a sleeping nook was the super comfortable bed with fully-adjustable lighting and sheer curtains to envelope you into this private sleeping space, complete with a leopard print throw blanket on the bed. We had a laugh with the animal print bathrobes hanging in the closet.

hotel helix washington dc kimpton hotel

Although ‘fun’ would appear to be the main focus at Helix, judging by the fully equipped desk area, the motto would better be ‘Work hard, play hard’. The desk came with enough plugs and a power strips for charging and using multiple devices. The ergonomic office chair was just as comfortable as the couch for watching TV (and getting work done, of course).

hotel helix washington dc kimpton hotels

And how awesome was the retro-space-age mini-bar! Forget $9 mini vodka bottles and lame salted peanuts. This mini-bar extravaganza included Pop Rocks, Pez dispensers, hangover cures and…fun stuff for adults as well.

hotel helix washington dc minibar

As for the bathroom, it was….adequate. Some call the space of the basic shower/tub and toilet cramped, but we say if it leaves room for the large living area and separate sleeping nook, the trade-off is easy.

hotel helix washington dc bathroom

On the ground floor, Helix has a fitness center in the back with a pair of treadmills, a cross trainer, stair-master and a full set of weights. Helix has Flex Suites available, too, with gym equipment for private workouts in your own room. Next to the gym is a fully functional business center and two recording studios for their rock-n-roll clientele. Seriously. Up front, the restaurant serves breakfast and dinner, while the bar stays open until 1am and can get pretty rowdy. If you’re not the nocturnal type, I’d ask for a room on the other side of the building. Helix is all about fun, after all.

hotel helix hotel washington dc

Stand-Out Feature: All things to all people…almost

The hotel is 100% dog-friendly, with a food and water bowl for Rex upon arrival and availability in any room. For those who drive a hybrid car, Hotel Helix cuts your parking day rate in half.

For those who write a song in the middle of the night and just have to get in to the studio and lay down the track, Helix helps there too. And despite all of the fun, Helix is family friendly, too. One reviewer on Tripadvisor mentioned that when staff saw she was traveling with her baby, they brought her up a bottle of bubbles, plus there are family rooms available with bunks for kids.

We pictured business travelers, bored at their meeting, giggling inside at the thought of coming home, throwing on a leopard robe, and eating pop rocks on the colorful couch.  Let us be frank here – the over-the-top glitz and glamor at Helix is a bit gaudy, and those who don’t come in with a sense of humor, or want a standard luxury or business hotel, need not book a room. For everyone else, however, Helix works really well.

Stand-Out Feature: The local’s perspective

Normally, the more stars a hotel has, the more globally-focused and less connected to the city it is. Staff at guest houses, budget hotels and B&Bs love to give guests tips on little local gems and hidden hotspots, while finer hotels have a concierge to book standard city tours and reservations at fine-dining restaurants. Hotel Helix posts staff favorites – hidden gems and DC’s inside track – on the elevators above the up-down button and a fuller version on a handout in your room: restaurants you would have never heard of, bars you may not have found online, etc.

hotel helix washington dc live like a local

Room for Improvement: Impersonal

While we loved these locals’ tips, we found staff to be a bit stand-offish. For example, no one explained the breakfast situation (supposedly there was free coffee and tea in the morning?) nor was there a mention of a free wine happy hour or $10 free mini-bar when joining Kimpton’s rewards program (a must that gets you the free wi-fi).

Room for improvement: The Valet

The location isn’t great in terms of public transport and most guests come with a car. We found the $34 nightly parking rates sky-high, especially considering that this is a neighborhood hotel far from anywhere downtown. Although we did not travel with a car, there were quite a few complaints on review sites about issues with the valet (damage, over 20 minutes to get the car, etc) so you might consider alternative parking options for your stay.


Hotel Helix is an affordable, hip hotel and an interesting member of the Kimpton Hotel brand. Most of Kimpton’s hotels are more clearly on the luxury level, but we appreciated the tongue and cheek gaudiness. For those who stay in a lot of hotels, as we do, we appreciate a hotel dedicated 110% to its theme.  No half-thought out, half-implemented designs here. The attention to detail was a pleasure, the pop rocks were an added bonus. If you’re looking for a standard hotel experience, Helix isn’t for you. But if you are up for it, Hotel Helix is a quality boutique hotel in a good DC neighborhood that makes nearby boutique hotels look boring in comparison.

helix hotel washington dc kimpton hotels

Location: 1430 Rhode Island Ave NW  Washington, DC 20005
from $179 on hotel deal websites, $229 standard rate
LGBT Friendly: Any place this fabulous has to be!
Amenities: Free wi-di (after sign-up to free rewards program),

For more from our Hotel Tip of the Week series, check out the following Hotel Reviews:

1. Hotel Elysee in Manhattan, NYC Luxury
2. Cabinas El Pueblo in Santa Elena / Monteverde, Costa Rica
3. La Candelaria, Valladolid, Mexico
Budget – one of our Top Picks!

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Great American Road Trip 2011 – Irene and MLK go to Washington

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What a day in the nation’s capital! We started off with bikes from Capital Bike Share and visited an interesting diner in Northeast DC called Capital City Diner. It sounded like a great local gem – the diner was bought on eBay and shipped over on a truck from New York. Unfortunately, the restaurant really needs a makeover from the Food Network’s Robert Divine.

Capital City Diner outsideAfter that adventure, it was back on the bikes and over to the Capitol Building for a free tour. The architecture of the building is really incredible and worth taking the free 45 minutes to discover it!

Capitol Building Washington DC

We took a whirlwind tour of the memorials, a couple of museums, peeked at the original Declaration of Independence at the National Archives, but the best part of the afternoon was visiting the brand new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. The memorial has undergone a soft launch this week, although the official dedication has been postponed thanks to Hurricane Irene. Seeing the crowds of proud people taking pictures around the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial made the weight of the momentous occasion hit home. Plenty of visitors take pictures of the other memorials, but it felt like everyone was taking pictures with the MLK Memorial.

Martin Luther King Memorial DC

Tomorrow is still very much up in the air thanks to Hurricane Irene. We hope that we are able to leave DC and travel south tomorrow!

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Great American Road Trip 2011: Washington, DC

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Rain, rain go away…With the approach of Hurricane Irene, the weather in DC and everywhere on the East Coast has been wet and gray. What was a sunny morning turned into heavy rain by the time we were ready to go, but instead we stayed in an re-arranged plans for the road trip through the Carolinas. We won’t be able to visit Virginia Beach, the Outer Banks and some other coastal stops on the way down to Charleston. Stay tuned for where we are headed next!

Luckily, the rain stopped this afternoon, and we headed down to Obama’s house…

On our walk over, we discovered that DC has the same exact bike rental system as in Montreal, which we loved and used the whole time we were there. Dozens of Capital Bikeshare stations are spread throughout the city, and users have unlimited 30-minute bike rentals for $5 all day.

So we hopped on our bikes and rode through the neighborhoods of DC, finishing the evening with a visit to the National Mall and saw the Washington Monument, the Capitol Building and all the grand buildings along Pennsylvia Avenue regally lit under a clear night sky.

Tomorrow, rain or shine, we’ll be out again for our last day in DC. We’d love to hear your rainy day suggestions for DC just in case, or ideas for where to spend the day in the neighborhoods of the capital.

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