A TNT Travel Writign Awards entrant

Author: Natanya Van der Lingen


Zooting around Washington DC in his presidential limo is probably still very appealing to new president, Barack Obama. However if you’re not as well connected, there is another equally exhilarating, somewhat more accessible and very 21st century way to see the city.

‘Commit to the ramp,’ my guide Will says, all of what, twenty. It’s obviously much easy for him to say, he’s clearly been doing this a lot longer than I have and while I’m struggling to stay upright, he zigzags effortlessly and elegantly up and down the sidewalk. Looking around though everyone seems to be doing a lot better than me. So far I’m the only one in the group of around ten helmeted first-timers who has had to step off their segway to stop themselves from connecting cheek to gravel with the pavement.

‘Lean forward,’ Will says, ‘head up, believe you can do it!’ With the determination of a prize fighter entering the ring, I will my way up the tiny ramp connecting the road with the pavement at the traffic light, flexing my legs somewhat in anticipation of absorbing a little bump. ‘Don’t bend your knees!’ Wills calls out too late and with that I’m picking grit out of my teeth. Point taken: lean forward, look up, believe you can do it AND don’t bend you knees … well not too much anyway.

Despite my initial wobbles, learning to ride a segway is much easier than you would might think and much quicker than say learning to ride a bike. The idea is as you change your weight on the machine, you change its direction and its speed, so for example the more you lean forward the faster it goes.

And once you’ve got it right, what a fantastic way to see a city such as Washington DC. The fact that the city has broad well maintained pavements and gentle sloping hills – ideal for segway use – definitely helps, but as there is a lot to see in Washington over a surprisingly large footprint, it’s also a very practical way to get around and see the sights. And with a maximum speed of 12.5 miles an hour (which believe me is zippier than it sounds) you will soon feel like you own the sidewalk.

What I wasn’t expecting though was having to deal with the transfixed silly half-grins on the faces of the other visitors to the city as we roll by. But it’s not long before you find yourself tipping your brow to the stunned spectators, realising you have developed a sort of sidewalk confidence which frankly is quite intoxicating.

The segway tour is not just about dashing around the city at high speed. Will who turned out to be exceptionally knowledgeable about Washington DC, stopped several times to point out buildings of interest and entertain with us alluring little anecdotes. It was a great way of getting an introduction to the city and I chose to return to many of the places we visited en route later for further exploration.

This included the city’s newest visitor gem, an interactive multi-media six-level building dedicated to news and journalism called rather aptly, the Newseum. It offers captivating coverage of world changing news events such as the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the falling of the Berlin Wall. And with 15 break away theatres, behind the scenes TV studio tours and a row of green screens where you can try your hand at presenting the weather, it’s billed as the most interactive museum in the world.

DC has no shortage of museums and interesting things to see and do. The Smithsonian Institution alone consists of 19 different museums. Think South Ken on steroids.

Having attracted over 219 million visitors in its first 25 years, one of most popular museums in DC, and in deed the world, is the National Air and Space Museum. It houses the largest collection of air and spacecraft on the planet and with heaps of interactive displays and simulators, it’s a must for high energy kids who want to touch and experience everything.

The International Spy Museum is another venue aimed at bringing out the [look left, look right] kid in you. Riding on Washington’s espionage-riddled reputation (the headquarters of the FBI is situated only a few blocks away) visitors are asked to choose a ‘cover’ on entering and are charged with fulfilling a mission as they make their way through the installations.  

My favorite museum however is the National Museum of the American Indian. The wonderfully organic five-story curvilinear building is clad in light coloured Kasota limestone and is designed to evoke natural rock formations shaped by wind and water over thousands of years. The museum is dedicated to the life, languages, literature, history and arts of the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere. It’s incredibly inspirational, detailed and completely fascinating. I spent a glorious day getting lost in its labyrinth of multi-media installations and tasting the authentic native foods on offer at its Mitsitam Café.

Segway tours around DC last between one and two hours and cover the major highlights of the Federal Triangle, Embassy Row and Capitol Hill. One unusual tour option is the night-tour which offers a completely different way to see the city. Washington is filled with several imposing and rather colossal buildings including monuments, museums and federal headquarters in a variety of architectural styles and to see it all lit up at night, especially the view from Capitol Hill, is quite breathtaking.

So if you want to get to know the city but feel a coach tour is a little too Golden Girls for you, a limo tour is way too ‘Grey Poupon’ and a walking tour is just too much effort, why not drag yourself kicking and screaming into the Noughties by hopping onto a segway for a rather thrilling roll-about-town. Just don’t forget to lean forward, look up, believe you can do it, wave to the president and DON’T BEND YOUR BLOODY KNEES!