Get to Know Washington By the Book

The City’s Travel Guides Cover Trees, Sculpture, Parks and History

Posted March 20, 2009 at 2:13pm

With the economy a bit shaky of late and many keeping their wallets deep in their pockets, people are rethinking the idea of a weekend getaway. Instead of spending two weeks’ salary, it’s easy enough to drop an hour’s pay and rediscover D.C.

For $20, or just a little bit more, you can pick up one of the myriad new Washington, D.C., guides out just in time for the nice weather.

There’s no sense to the order of “Frommer’s 24 Great Walks in Washington, D.C.,— but maybe that’s the whole point: If you take them in order, you discover completely different neighborhoods, on the opposite sides of town, each perfect for a weekend romp.

The full-color guide, with a couple hundred fascinating photos, offers reasonable walks — usually about a mile and an hour long — that present quick stories and descriptions of what you’re seeing. This isn’t an in-depth history book, but it is good for people who are new to the area and want to explore what the District has to offer.

I took the book’s advice to discover D.C. “one step at a time— and followed Walk 13 through my neighborhood, Logan Circle, and though I’ve lived there for several years, I learned a lot of new information.

For a nice lunchtime stroll around Capitol Hill, try Walk 8, “A Walk through the Corridors of Power,— which begins and ends at Capitol South Metro station and does a square around the Capitol, or Walk 2, “At Home on Capitol Hill,— which, departing from Eastern Market Metro station, offers more of a leisurely neighborhood tour.

This is for: Walkers
Uses: Walking tours
Size: Pocket/pocketbook; 10 oz.
Price: $15.99

When I first moved into the District, I bought a popout map that I kept with me at all times. By the time it no longer popped, I had sufficiently learned the streets.

That, I can say, is the best use for “48 Hours Washington, DC: Timed Tours for Short Stays,— a pocket-sized tour guide that offers plenty of food and drink suggestions and multiple detailed maps.

Though meant for tourists who are in a time crunch, Washingtonians can use the book as a handy resource full of ideas.

If you do follow the very rigid 48-hour schedule, however, you hit a lot of important landmarks in very little time. The number of places you can visit in 48 hours is quite impressive, and that includes eight and a half hours for eating and 26 hours for sleeping/personal time.

All the major must-see D.C. destinations are mentioned, but the major problem is that there are no directions on how to get from monument to memorial. I am not sure how you’d get from the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden at 12:30 p.m. to Eastern Market by 1 p.m. if you’re trying to actually take in anything around you. The book could use a bit more Metro information, as it is the best way to get around the city, but overall, the maps and restaurant suggestions make it worth the small price tag.

This is for: People with weekend visitors
Uses: Great for weekend activity ideas or just a pocket-sized map
Size: Pocket; 1.7 oz.
Price: $7.95

A whole new take on what a travel guide should be, “Very Washington DC: A Celebration of the History and Culture of America’s Capital City— uses beautifully crafted watercolors to illustrate the charm of D.C.

Author and illustrator Diana Hollingsworth Gessler presents hundreds of paintings — all actually painted in the miniature size they appear in the book — as a visual tour of the city. That, however, doesn’t take away from the very interesting write-ups and histories that are brief enough not to lose the reader but in-depth enough to really educate.

The book takes you not only to well-traversed destinations, but also to many of the city’s more hidden gems.

The street maps at the beginning of each section are beautiful and reminiscent of historic maps, plus they’re well-labeled. Also adding to the book are the random-fact pages, such as the one she does on the historic grand hotels of Washington and the first pets of the White House.

This is for: Artistic types
Uses: A different type of tour guide
Size: Pocket/pocketbook; 10.3 oz.
Price: $15.95

As the cherry blossoms start to bud, all eyes are turning to the city’s famed trees. The District, however, has more than 300 species of trees that line its avenues and fill its parks.

First released in 1981, “City of Trees: The Complete Field Guide to the Trees of Washington, D.C.— is in its third run, but has been completely revamped in the 22 years since the previous edition with new ink drawings (540 of them) by Polly Alexander and twice as many (now 48) color photos.

Author Melanie Choukas-Bradley has also added dozens of new locations, including one of the area’s hidden gems, the Audubon Naturalist Society’s Woodend in Chevy Chase, Md., and an in-depth history of the city’s ecology.

A mix between a tour guide and a field guide, the backpack-sized book is great to take on hikes, and as you learn about the trees, you’ll also learn about the capital’s history.

This is for: Arbor enthusiasts
Uses: Field guide to native trees
Size: Backpack; 1 lb. 6 oz.
Price: $27.95

I recently reviewed “Washington Sculpture: a Cultural History of Outdoor Sculpture in the Nation’s Capital— (D.C.’s Poetry in Bronze, Feb. 24), but the book warrants yet another mention in this list despite its hefty price tag.

Author and Washington expert James M. Goode updated his 1974 tome of a similar name to reveal more than 600 outdoor sculptures in D.C. and outlying areas. And surprisingly, this is still not a comprehensive collection.

Though this book is too heavy to tote around the city (unless you’re really looking for a good workout), the breakdown of the chapters into the District neighborhoods offers a great basis for walking tours and to help you discover wonderful works of art that you may pass by every day. The historic and cultural significance of each sculpture is written with heart, but it’s the stories of the subjects portrayed in bronze that are the most intriguing reads.

This is for: Washingtonian connoisseurs
Uses: Good for a driving tour or research before a walking tour
Size: Bookshelf; 5 lbs. 14 oz.
Price: $75

“The Unofficial Guide to Washington, D.C.,— in its 10th edition, deserves an honorable mention — if only for the amazing restaurant recommendations written by book author and longtime Washington Post food critic Eve Zibart. Included in those pages is an “Up and Coming at Press Time— section that lists some of the hottest new restaurants on the D.C. scene, and that itself might make the book worth it.

The rest of the book is a take-it-or-leave-it option among all of the D.C. travel guides available on local bookshelves. The biggest weakness of the book is that the only pictures in the entire tome depict a very dated how-to on using the Metro.

This is for: A standard tourist or someone new to the city
Uses: An everyday tour guide
Size: Backpack; 14.2 oz.
Price: $16.99

2008 Books Worth Mentioning

These two books aren’t really traditional tour books; however both books offer guided tours of their own sort.

The authors of “On This Spot: Pinpointing the Past in Washington, D.C.— utilized more than a hundred Library of Congress photos and dozens from their personal collection to illustrate the history of D.C.

Douglas E. Evelyn and Paul Dickson made the write-ups interesting and often funny, and they offer more information in fewer words than your standard guide.

The repeating “Street Lore— feature presents little-known stories about well-known places. For example, many people know Constitution Avenue used to be B Street, but did you know other possible names for consideration in 1931 were Memorial and Jefferson avenues?

This is for: History buffs
Uses: Guided strolls down historic streets (primarily Pennsylvania Avenue)
Size: Pocketbook/backpack; 1 lb.
Price: $16.95

“The National Mall: Rethinking Washington’s Monumental Core,— a compilation of essays edited by Nathan Glazer and Cynthia R. Field, explores the Mall’s past, present and future, identifying problems and offering solutions. Over the years, demands for more memorials and museums have, in the words of many of the writers, overcrowded the original vision of the Mall.

This is for: City planners or social activists
Uses: Background reading before a Mall tour
Size: Bookshelf; 1 lb. 14.5 oz.
Price: $35