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In Defense of the Touristy Bits

Authentic Georgetown architecture

Is it wrong to love something that’s… oh I can hardly say the word… touristy? If it is, I’m guilty as charged.

“Touristy” has become a pejorative in the travel world. Travel “experts” loudly proclaim that real travelers (as opposed to their poser counterparts, tourists) should never ever spend time somewhere touristy. Countless articles and blogs and guidebooks will advise you on how to avoid the dreaded tourist traps and see the real essence of a place. Admittedly even I am always on the lookout for off-the-beaten-path, authentic experiences. But I draw the line at going so “local” that the touristy stuff gets the ax.

Some commercial attractions become tourist destinations because tour companies promote them as such, not because they hold any actual appeal. These are the traps to avoid. But usually, places or experiences become touristy for a reason. The main one being: people like them! Maybe it’s a sight you can’t see anywhere else. Maybe it’s fun. Or maybe there’s just something about it. Whatever the reason, travelers are drawn to them, inexorably and organically. And if, as a result, these places and experiences become a bit crowded and perhaps a bit commercial, that shouldn’t negate their original appeal. Is the Eiffel Tower touristy? Of course! That doesn’t mean you should turn your nose up at it.

Earlier this week I made a trek over to Georgetown, which is a nice encapsulation of this dilemma. Georgetown is popular. So popular, in fact, that it is occasionally derided as being touristy.

Yes, the sidewalks are mobbed and the streets are jammed. Yes, most of the stores are national brands. And yes, the line outside Georgetown Cupcake is ridiculous. But still, I like it. It has the best stretch of non-mall shopping in the District (sorry, CityCenterDC – you’re out of my league). It has some of the city’s best restaurants. The Georgetown Cupcake cupcakes are ridiculously good. And it’s all wrapped up in quintessential DC architecture: a little bit federal Americana, a little bit European.

You can get even more out of a touristy destination by starting at its core and branching out. Just a block or two north of Georgetown’s main drag, you can enjoy one of DC’s finest features: its beautiful, historic, tree-lined neighborhoods. Walk a little farther and you can experience the Ivy-League-meets-League-of-Nations atmosphere of Georgetown University. Or wander south instead, over the C&O Canal and down to the Potomac River. This requires you to walk under an Interstate overpass, but don’t be deterred; the Georgetown Waterfront Park and its views downriver to the Kennedy Center are worth it.

Just because something is touristy doesn’t mean it’s not also authentic. There are plenty of local residents (including, ahem, yours truly) shopping in Georgetown’s stores and eating at its restaurants. Georgetown certainly isn’t representative of all of DC; it is, nevertheless, an authentic DC neighborhood. (No one neighborhood can represent an entire city anyway.) I don’t take all of my out-of-town guests there, but I refuse to feel like a sell-out if we end up in the line outside Georgetown Cupcake.

Along the C&O Canal (a nice place to eat a cupcake)

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