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.
What 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.
Usually 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.
We 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.
The 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.
We 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.
The 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.
The 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.
We recommend cycling whenever possible in a new city. We have cycled in Costa Rica, Ottawa, Montreal, Washington, DC, New Orleans and Laos.
For 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.