If you've been avoiding a trip to the nation's capital because you've heard it's nothing but politicos and pocket protectors, think again, green traveler.

Washington, D.C., not only boasts more green space per capita than any American city, its mid-Atlantic location, parklike layout and quirky neighborhoods full of activists, diplomats and journalists make this a can't-miss green destination for 2009.

Whether you're a history-loving hiker, an eco-foodie flower child, a vegan preservationist, or a sailor who just wants to make the world a better place, D.C. delivers any Earth-friendly explorer enough urban treasures and untamed wilderness to keep you busy for a week and still wanting more. If you're ready to visit the District you didn't know existed, read on.

Before you hit the city, download a good map that includes Maryland and Virginia. You'll want to see D.C., but locals know that much of the area's best hiking, biking, sailing and kayaking lies a short distance across the state lines.

Also, get to know the city's quirky layout before you hit town. The U.S. Capitol building divides the District into four quadrants — NW, NE, SW and SE — but the quadrants often duplicate street names. Avoid first-timers' confusion by making a note of the quadrant for every destination and fanny-packed tourists will be asking you for directions.

Now let's go to D.C.!

Getting there

By air: Washington's Reagan National Airport (DCA) is about 10 minutes from the city and Metro accessible, while Dulles International Airport (IAD) and Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) are about a 45-minute drive away. Train service from BWI is available.

 

By rail: Amtrak train service will drop you in the heart of the city at Union Station, complete with Metro train service to take you the rest of the way.

Stay green

If you want to save money and save the Earth during your stay, consider bunking at Hostelling International D.C. Located near the nightlife-loving Penn Quarter and a stone's throw from NPR headquarters, this is the only hostel in the world to be Energy Star-certified and so very close to Steve Inskeep's silky voice. Your stay might even overlap with the hostel's monthly movie night featuring a documentary on environmental topics. Dorm-style rooms start at $25 a night, and the nearest Metro stop is three blocks away. 1009 11th St., NW, Washington, D.C. 202-737-2333 or 1-800-909-4776. For reservations and information: mailto:reserve@hiwashingtondc.org.

Other hotel choices abound in Washington, but green travelers will find no better place to bring their four-legged friends than the stylish, boutique-sized Hotel George on Capitol Hill. Named for our first president (who reportedly had 36 dogs), this Kimpton hotel sticks to the corporate commitment to use eco-friendly products, reduce water use by 25 percent, and recycle 60 percent of its waste, but the pet-friendly policies set George apart.

You can bring an unlimited number of furry companions with you, with no deposit required. Check-in includes bowls for food and water, as well as a welcome doggie bag with food, a mat, snacks and toys. Complimentary dog walking by the hotel staff and by-appointment dog sitting mean you can head out to the nearby Supreme Court, Library of Congress, Capitol building or Mall without the pooches — but why would you want to do that? Standard rooms, with two double beds, start at $389, with free wireless and a daily wine reception. AAA and government-rate discounts are available. 15 E St., NW, Washington, D.C. 202-347-4200.

For Washington's most historic and luxurious green stay, check into the legendary Willard Intercontinental Washington Hotel, across the street from the White House. In addition to front-of-the-house green efforts you can see, the Willard also has its own "sustainable hospitality" model you can't see — sponsoring water wells in South Africa, adopting Washington parks for maintenance, and overhauling its back-of-the-house operations to reduce energy and water use. The hotel even published a white paper with Cornell University last year as a model of sustainable development for the hospitality industry to follow. Rates range from $299 to $4,100 per night, with group discounts available. 1401 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. 202-628-9100 or 800-827-1747.

See green

Now that you've got a roof over your head, let's put some green under your feet.

The National Mall: Strap on your walking shoes for the nearly two-mile expanse between the U.S. Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial. Joggers, kite flyers, soccer fiends and Frisbee buffs fill up the Mall's grassy fields alongside the Smithsonian museums, the National gallery, the Washington Monument and several war memorials. Metro accessible, dogs must be leashed.

The U.S. Botanic Gardens: Located on the eastern tip of the Mall, the recently renovated conservatory features a half-dozen simulated plant habitats, an impressive orchid collection and a massive Lord & Burnham green house called "the Jungle Room." Head to the gardens to escape the winter chill (the Jungle Room is always a balmy 75 degrees) and to see the newest exhibit, Hawaii!, which displays rare and endangered Hawaiian plants, a lava flow and a waterfall. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., including all weekends and holidays. 100 Maryland Ave., SW, Washington, D.C., on the National Mall.

The National Arboretum: This national park features the National Grove of State Trees, the original columns from the U.S. Capitol building and more than 600 different species of plants, including a collection of all the bonsai trees ever given to the White House as gifts. Drive, walk, bike or take a tram through the 446-acre campus. Admission is free. Tram tours cost $4 for adults and $2 for children. 3501 New York Ave., NE, Washington, D.C. 202-245-2726.

Theodore Roosevelt Island: Named for the original conservationist and creator of our first national park, Roosevelt Island is a one-of-a-kind, 88-acre woodland preserve, accessible only by a footbridge on the Virginia side of the Potomac River near the George Washington Memorial Bridge. Paths cut through the island's heavy woods and over marshy terrain, making it a haven for walkers, joggers, dogs and Roosevelt-philes. Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. designed the mature sanctuary, a wilderness-in-the-city that makes a trip there truly unique. Open every day, dawn to dusk. Admission is free; no bikes or cars allowed; dogs should be on a leash. The closest Metro station is Rosslyn.

Play green

Kayaking: To see or ride some of the toughest rapids in the country, head to Great Falls, Va. The Billy Goat Trail will take you into the gorge that boasts Class V-VI rapids up top and Class II-III rapids below. History buffs should also see the Patowmack Canal ruins, site of George Washington's effort to make the Potomac River navigable to Ohio before he got the presidential gig. $5 for cars, no fee for hikers and bikers.

More casual paddlers can rent gear in town at the Thompson Boat Center. Paddle past Georgetown, Roosevelt Island and the monuments along the Potomac River from March through October. Rowing shells, kayaks and canoes are $8 an hour or $24 for a day. Shells are $13 for an hour. 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. On the corner of Virginia Avenue and Rock Creek Parkway. 202-333-9543.

Biking: The 10-mile Capital Crescent Trail, a path of pavement and crushed stone, runs along the old B&O Railroad from Bethesda, Md., through Rock Creek Park, all the way to Georgetown. It's a scenic ride that promises plenty of exercise. Bike rentals are available at the bottom of the trail at Thompson Boat Center. On the corner of Virginia Avenue and Rock Creek Parkway. 202-333-9543.

For 18 more miles of biking, walking and jogging, follow the paved Mount Vernon Trail from the George Washington Memorial Bridge south along the Potomac River, through the George Washington Memorial Parkway to Washington's home at Mt. Vernon. Take plenty of water with you, since the parkway is so well-preserved, you'll go miles between stores for refreshments and restrooms.

Hiking: In addition to hiking at Great Falls, don't miss Rock Creek Park, a 1,754-acre national park that cuts a wooded oasis through the middle of the District, from its northernmost tip south to DuPont Circle. Following a 15-mile-long portion of Rock Creek, the park features miles of walking and jogging trails, a nature center, a planetarium, a mill and a the cemetery where Abraham Lincoln's son is buried. Park rangers offer specialized hikes for everyone from Lincoln lovers to birders and tree buffs.

Eat green, drink green

Breakfast: If you're on Capitol Hill, start your day at Johnny's Half Shell or Taqueria Nacional. These brother-and-sister eateries share a location and a commitment to locally grown, organic produce. Johnny's serves up savory Cajun breakfasts like grillade-and-grits and baskets of beignets, while the more casual Taqueria does take-away soft tacos with eggs and chorizo, as well as shade-grown Mayorga coffee. Entrees at Johnny's are $7 to $12; tacos start at $6. Breakfast: 7-9 a.m. at Taqueria; 7-9:30 a.m. at Johnny's. Taqueria also serves lunch; Johnny's serves lunch and dinner. 400 N. Capitol St., NW, Washington, D.C. 202-737-0400.

Brunch: For a weekend brunch in the District, head to Logan Tavern, near D.C.'s historic and newly hip Logan Circle. This neighborhood favorite calls itself "Super Green," because it uses wind-energy credits, recycled materials as furnishings, and recyclable or biodegradable materials throughout. Heaps of French toast, crabs cakes Benedict and thick burgers await anyone willing to run the brunch-line gauntlet. Entrees range from $9 to $18. Brunch: Sat. and Sun, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Lunch and dinner also served. 1423 P St., NW, Washington, D.C. 202-332-3710.

Lunch: If you're heading out for a hike or want to pack a picnic for the Mall, fill your backpacks with Organic To Go. The USDA-certified organic fare makes for a fast, casual breakfast or lunch, with dozens of vegan and vegetarian options for the greenest of palettes. A small cafe, complete with bamboo and biodegradable service settings, also means you can eat your quinoa salad and Epic Harvest Wrap there before you head out for the day. With five locations in the D.C. area, on-the-go organic could be blocks away. Hours vary.

Another in-town organic option is Java Green Eco Café. The name says it all for this earnest organic oasis, where sustainable fruits, vegetables, breads, beans, cheese and sugar make up equally organic smoothies, sandwiches, wraps and salads. The raw-food menu options are extensive enough to warm the heart of any eco-activist, even at Java Green's Gucci Gulch location, in the heart of the lobbyist-dense K Street corridor. Prices range from $8 rice wraps to an $18 bread-and-spread raw platter. 1020 19th St., NW, Washington, D.C. 202-775-8899.

Those who can linger over lunch should try Commissary, Logan Tavern's sister "Super Green" restaurant. The owners invite patrons to "relax, hang out and chill out," at the Logan Circle lounge, restaurant and coffee house. Commissary also uses wind-energy credits and recycled materials for menus and furnishings, while sourced green and organic offerings make up the straightforward menu, including about a half-dozen vegetarian items. Breakfast and dinner are also served. 1443 P St., NW, Washington, D.C. 202-299-0018.

Dinner: Poste is located in Penn Quarter's Old Post Office, but it's the neighborhood farmers market that delivers for the tony brasserie's chef every week. With more organics growing in the building's courtyard garden, your dinner will give new meaning to "locally grown." Entrees range from $26 to $45 in the dining room, with less expensive options at the bar. Breakfast and lunch are also served. 555 8th St., NW, Washington, D.C. 202-783-6060.

High-design restaurant Founding Farmers is owned by a collective of American family farmers who produce the food on the menu. Washington's first LEED-certified restaurant features a seasonal American menu, alongside small-batch brewery beers and biodynamic or organic wines. Although the owners want you to feel "like you've walked into a very cool farmhouse," Founding Farmers' swanky neighborhood (including the White House, the World Bank and the IMF) means you'll be breaking organic bread with diplomats and administration hot shots. Entrees range from $10 to $35. Breakfast and Sunday brunch are also served. 1924 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. 202-822-8783.

Drink green

If you'd rather do drinks than dinner, try the wine bar at the polished Urbana in DuPont Circle, where organic wines from around the world come by the bottle or glass. Open until midnight, Sunday through Thursday, and 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. 2121 P St., NW, Washington, D.C. 202-956-6650.

Go green, green days

Washington's Metro train and bus routes reach nearly every corner of the city and much of neighboring Virginia and Maryland. Map your route with Hopstop.com, or print a map ahead of time.

ZipCar members can use one of Washington's hybrid fleet to get in and out of the city easily, and wherever Metro doesn't take you. 866-494-7227.

Pedicabs can make your trip around the monuments easy on the feet and the carbon footprint. 202-345-8065.

If you're going to or from Arlington County in Virginia, Envirocab promises carbon-negative cab service with the nation's first all-hybrid taxicab fleet. 703-920-3333.

Green days

A day in the mountains: Drive 60 miles west from Washington to Shenandoah National Park, where 500 miles of wilderness trails await you and your hiking boots. Skyline Drive, the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley all offer breathtaking hikes and views alike.

On the return trip, stop at Hunter's Head Tavern in Upperville, Va. This traditional English pub uses only organic meats, produce and dairy cultivated at the owner's nearby Ayrshire Farm. Savory chicken pot pie and fresh pub bread become guilt-free after a day in the mountains. 9048 John Mosby Highway (Route 50). 540-592-9020.

A day at sea: Some of the best skippers in the world set sail on the Chesapeake Bay from Annapolis, Md., the state's historic capital 45 minutes to the east of Washington. You can start exploring the country's largest estuary with a lesson at the Annapolis Sailing School, or find a charter boat, with or without a captain, through the visitors bureau.

On the way, stop for a green picnic basket at Annapolis' Rockfish, the town's only EPA-certified green restaurant, where chefs make Bay favorites with sustainable seafood and herbs from the rooftop garden. 400 Sixth St., Annapolis, Md. Call ahead at 410-267-1800.

Party green

Finally, if you voted for Obama, or if rubbing elbows with Carol Browner is just your idea of a good time, check out the upcoming green inaugural balls scheduled in January.

The Green Inaugural Ball, sponsored by green party planners Event Emissary, will feature Wyclef Jean, carbon offsets and 1,500 of your closest, greenest friends. This ball should not be confused with Al Gore's party (details below). Jan. 17, 8 p.m. to midnight. $500 per ticket, or $1,000 for V.I.P. Andrew Mellon Auditorium, 1301 Constitution Ave., Washington, D.C.

Al Gore's Ball will be Jan. 19 at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, and is by invitation only. Sorry!