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Travel: Washington DC via Amtrak

Walker Evans Walker Evans Travel: Washington DC via AmtrakPhoto by Walker Evans.
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A friend once described Washington DC to me as “a place obsessed with power that doesn’t actually produce anything”. He also said in the same breath that every American citizen owes it to themselves to visit the capital of the country at least once. Having never been there myself, and Anne only visiting once during a high school trip, we decided that it would be a great destination for our next vacation.

As people who don’t particularly enjoy driving long distances, we decided to see what it would take to visit the nation’s capital by train. While unfortunately there’s no way to depart Columbus by Amtrak, we do have two east-west routes that run through Ohio between DC and Chicago. The Capitol Limited (Cleveland) and the Cardinal (Cincinnati). We opted to board the Capitol at the Alliance Ohio station, which is really more of an unmanned boarding platform than a station. Anyone who thinks that Columbus isn’t a big enough city for Amtrak service owes it to themselves to visit the Alliance (pop: 22,322) station to put that into perspective.

The Alliance Amtrak Station – A half-open weather shelter and a boarding platform and not much else.

Unfortunately, the Capitol Limited is only a once-daily train intended to serve as an 18-hour overnight ride between Chicago and DC, which means that it passes through Cleveland and Alliance at roughly 2am. While waiting at the station was a little tiresome at that hour, it allowed us to board and go right to sleep and get two thirds of the trip out of the way while unconscious.

For those who’ve not traveled by Amtrak, it’s somewhat comparable to air travel with a little more breathing room. The standard coach seats are comfy recliner-style chairs with extendable leg rests that make sleeping easier than on a plane. There’s no seat belts to tie you down, and you’re free to roam the train at any time to use the bathrooms or visit the cafe car, the dining car or the observation car where seats face outward to larger windows that provide a view of your surroundings. And what a view it is! A quick glance at the map shows that the train tracks wind through parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland that you most likely have never visited, and other than Pittsburgh, there’s no major cities you’ll pass through en route. What you are treated to is the beautiful scenery along the Ohio, Potomac and other rivers that run through the Appalachian Mountains. There are tunnels, bridges, forests and rapids to view, which is quite a departure from the fast food signage and highway lights along the interstate. And when it’s dark outside along the train route in the middle of the night, it’s about as close to pitch black as you can get.

A scenic river view as you travel through the Appalachian mountains.

Our set of two round-trip tickets cost us $334, which was cheaper than most flight options at the time, but YMMV, as there are always ticket deals to be found depending upon timing, date of flights, and a bit of luck. We bought our Amtrak tickets two months in advance, and you can get them even cheaper if you buy them even further out. The total travel time is listed as 10 hours and 33 minutes, but our train arrived in DC about 30 minutes ahead of schedule. One other pleasant advantage to train travel was that there was no baggage check, shoe removal, or xray scanners to deal with, so boarding and exiting the train was literally a 60 second undertaking.

We arrived at Union Station in the heart of DC around 12:30pm and immediately boarded the Metro (subway) headed to Foggy Bottom where we were staying. We found an apartment for rent for $98 per night via airbnb.com that was close to everything we wanted to experience. The cheapest hotels in the area go for more than double that price, and our furnished 400 square foot apartment had more amenities than what we’d find in a cheap hotel. There’s no better way to visit a city and feel more like a local and less like a tourist than staying in an apartment, so we highly recommend airbnb for finding accommodations.

The Foggy Bottom neighborhood is home to George Washington University, a fairly large school that dominates much of the neighborhood with many young people coming and going. Immediately to the north is West End, an area full of mid-rise condo development, restaurants and hotels. To the northwest is Georgetown, a very old neighborhood that is now home to many boutique shops as well as chain stores along the main commercial strips. To the east is Downtown DC where endless rows of 12-story commercial buildings host all types of office and government workers. And to the south is The Lincoln Memorial on the west end of The National Mall. Foggy Bottom was a great pick for easy access to arts, culture, shopping and dining in every direction.

A common street view in Foggy Bottom and West End where historic rowhouses meet modern mid-rise condo buildings.

Other neighborhoods of interest on your visit may include any of the following areas. Dupont Circle is a historic-turned-hip neighborhood that has a glbt-centric history very similar to The Short North. The U Street Corridor is a semi-gritty neighborhood that has recently come back into vogue and hosts many of the city’s best live music and nightlife options. Capitol Hill is a large and dense eastern neighborhood with beautiful (and expensive) historic homes and slightly quieter commercial corridor. Columbia Heights is currently a rapidly gentrifying northern neighborhood that is home to the city’s most diverse mix of high-end condos along side low income housing.

One other “first impression” note about visiting Washington DC is taking in the sheer magnitude of urban density that can be found in our nation’s capital. There are building height restrictions that keep buildings topped out at roughly 12 stories tall, and give the city a more “European” feel when compared to skyscraper cities like Chicago or New York. Seeing endless stretches of these mid-height buildings in all directions with very few parking lots in between can inspire a bit of “urban density jealousy” in any Columbus resident who wants to see our city’s Downtown thrive in a similar manner. In an attempt to keep things in perspective, Anne and I searched for the “invisible” trade-offs that you wouldn’t normally encounter while on vacation. One trade-off was car travel and auto congestion. Even if you have no desire to drive, there were times when gridlocked traffic made pedestrian crossings hazardous, and the constant car horn honking was at times unbearable. Another trade-off is the cost of living. We searched several neighborhoods with the help of the Trulia iPhone app to discover that the popular neighborhoods boast plenty of 800 sqft 1br/1ba units that sell for over $500,000 or rent for $2,500 per month. A third trade-off was the people congestion experienced when a “quick stop” in the nearby Whole Foods meant standing in the checkout line for 20 minutes despite them having 15 registers running. It all amounted to a fun, bustling experience, and we loved having an urban two-story grocery store two blocks from where we stayed, but I can see those crowds getting tiresome quickly for residents.

Anyway, on with the travel report!

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