Get to Know the City On Foot and by Bike

Posted September 22, 2010 at 4:34pm

Think you know everything there is to know about Washington, D.C.? Cultural Tourism DC bets you don’t, and the organization means that in the nicest way possible.

Cultural Tourism DC bills itself as an independent agency that celebrates all that is unique about the District to out-of-town visitors and longtime residents alike. In practice, that means free walking or biking tours — and lots of them.

That’s especially true this weekend, when the group is putting on its semiannual WalkingTown DC and BikingTown DC programs, which feature more than 100 tours.

The subjects vary from common destinations such as the National Mall to uncommon spots for tourists, such as Deanwood or Mount Pleasant.

While many tours are based on a particular neighborhood, others are organized around a theme such as theater, civil rights or the New Deal. As many as 4,000 people are expected to take part in a tour this weekend, Cultural Tourism DC executive director Linda Harper said.

“Fall is a time when everybody gets back in the city and begins to think about where they live and their sense of place,” she said. “September has been chock full of neighborhood festivals and events, people really celebrating where they live.”

“It’s a great time for WalkingTown to take place,” she added.

Even after conducting tours in the District for 10 years, Cultural Tourism DC has continued developing new routes for this autumn’s version of WalkingTown. The organization wants to introduce people to neighborhoods they’ve never visited and to dig deeper into parts of the city they do know, Harper said.

A new tour through Ward 6 — a prominent part of Washington that includes Capitol Hill and Chinatown — falls into the latter category.

The tour will focus on the revitalized part of the ward that runs along the Anacostia River, rather than the Capitol complex. And the tour will be led not by a professor or a volunteer, but by Tommy Wells, Ward 6’s representative on the D.C. Council and a proud promoter of cycling in the city.

“I don’t bike necessarily for exercise; my bike is my major means of transportation for work and getting around the ward,” he said. “My wife owns a car and we have a Zipcar membership, so I’m multimodal, but having a bike helps me get around a lot faster. Having a bike is the best way for me to be a ward councilmember. You can see what’s going on, whether it’s potholes or fallen trees, and get a feel for the ward.”

Wells’ tour, which will be held Sunday morning and is expected to take about 90 minutes, is packed with examples of the area’s history and development. Wells said he hopes he gets a chance to show some District residents a new side of Ward 6.

The tour is “a really great way to feature and highlight the old and new along the Anacostia River, throwing in Eastern Market and Barracks Row for good measure,” he said.

There is also a tour that focuses on women’s history in Congressional Cemetery, which will tell stories tour-goers probably haven’t heard — or haven’t had the nerve to ask about. It’s called “Congressional Cemetery’s Uppity Women,” and there’s no shortage of female crusaders buried there.

Rebecca Roberts, a journalist for National Public Radio who spends two days a week at the cemetery, will lead the tour. The cemetery participates in WalkingTown each year, but this female-centric tour is a new addition to the lineup. Roberts has a family connection to the cemetery because her grandfather, former Rep. Thomas Hale Boggs (D-La.), went missing after a plane crash in 1972 and is memorialized there, she said. But this weekend, she will focus on members of the suffrage movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Roberts said one of her favorite “uppity women” is Anne Royall, who lived around the turn of the 19th century and is considered the first newspaperwoman in American history. Legend has it that when John Quincy Adams was president in the 1820s, he would swim in the Potomac River, and Royall once sat on his clothes and refused to move until Adams agreed to grant her an interview.

Royall is one of about 55,000 people buried at the cemetery, and those include dozens of Congressmen, decorated military veterans and people who just happened to grow up in Washington.

That’s one of the pleasures of the District — if you take a walk or a bike ride, you never know what historical figure, past or present, you’ll bump into.

Cultural Tourism DC offers free walking and biking tours, although many tours require reservations because of limited availability. Reservations can be made at culturaltourismdc.org.