One of the best parts of living in Washington, DC is that it is truly an international city. Home to more than 175 embassies, we’ve walked or driven by many of them over the years; many of them are in beautiful, historic buildings with country flags flying above their doors, which is a quick way to grab attention and spark a bit of wanderlust in those of us who love to travel. However, visiting the embassies is not typically an option even for those of us who can practically call ambassadors neighbors. Embassies are usually closed to the public, especially without an appointment, and many countries operate separate locations for consular business like issuing travel visas, so it’s rare to have a reason to walk through an embassy’s doors.
One day each year, though, Washingtonians have their invitation to peek inside. Cultural Tourism DC annually hosts an Around the World Embassy Tour, and this year we eagerly laced up our sneakers and made the trek to Northwest DC to join the crowds eager to circumvent the globe in just six hours. We had a great day; here are some tips and thoughts we hope will help you if you plan to attend future or similar events!
About the Embassy Tour
The Around the World Embassy Tour is part of a month-long Passport DC event that celebrates Washington’s international community. The tour itself is a free, self-guided experience that connects visitors with participating embassies. We arrived right at 10 AM when the event started with high hopes of seeing as many embassies as we could. Info booths are set up around the city, and we visited the booth at Dupont Circle to grab a free map and purchase a special event passport. Most embassies were happy to stamp the passports as we arrived (although one volunteer at the Moroccan embassy noted she would gladly stamp anything “within reason”—so the passports make a great souvenir but aren’t a requirement to participate).
Structuring Your Day
Here are some of our tips for planning out your day touring the Washington, DC embassies.
► You won’t get lost
If you have a copy of the event map or your cell phone, you’ll have everything you need to enjoy a successful, educational day. We found the map to be helpful to visualize where each embassy is located, and we often entered street addresses into our Google Maps app for quick walking directions. Every single embassy we visited had a huge blue banner announcing their participation, and volunteers with event shirts were located just about everywhere. I can’t begin to count how many times we were approached by friendly faces asking if we needed maps, directions, or answers to questions. The event staffing was truly a noticeable highlight.
► Consider creating a plan in advance
Cultural Tourism DC stayed on top of the list of embassies that elected to participate, and their website was updated frequently with new additions. We created a map to plot where each embassy is located and arrived with notes on which embassies we really wanted to see, which helped us to structure our time and select other embassies that were located along our way. About 40 embassies were open to the public as part of this event; you won’t be able to see them all, so knowing in advance which ones are of the most interest to you will help you spend your time well.
► Use public transportation
While street parking is available, it’s not always easy to find, especially on weekends with events like this one. We took DC’s Metro to Dupont Circle, as many of the participating embassies are within walking distance from there. Several public buses run to and through the area as well.
► Don’t start near the info booths
Info booths are natural entry points, which means everyone will head to the embassies closest to where they pick up their maps. Consider walking a few blocks past the crowds to try to beat them early in the day. By midday you will likely find lines everywhere, but you can always circle back to the embassies closer to the info booths to end your day instead of beginning there.
What You’ll Find During Your Embassy Tours
We ate well as we toured the embassies! From hot donuts in Kazakhstan to grilled meat pitas in Iraq to dried fruit in Kyrgyzstan, if there was food to try we were glad to wait in line. Many embassies also had large plates for sale, and while we didn’t stop long enough for a full lunch the meals looked delicious. There was no shortage of beverages to try, either—we were grateful for hot tea at many stops on this chilly spring day!
Although every embassy was well marked with large banners, we knew where many participating locations were based on the music they played. From KPop at the South Korean embassy to the loud, fun beats we heard while visiting the Dominican Republic, music definitely set the tone. Along with the music often came dancing and performances from embassy staff and children, many of whom wore traditional costumes. It was so much fun to get a glimpse into life and fun in foreign countries through the entertainment they shared!
Most of the embassies we saw were brimming with local artwork brought from their home countries, and waiting in lines was made infinitely better with such beautiful pieces to enjoy. Many artists were selling their work as well, which was a nice touch particularly for DC locals who might not otherwise get a chance to visit some of the countries that participated to purchase similar works.
If nothing else, we felt welcomed as honored guests at absolutely every embassy we visited. The staff were genuinely happy to have us visit, talk with us about their countries, and answer our questions. We ended our day with an entirely new list of countries we would love to explore and a wonderful reminder that people share so many of the same positive traits and qualities no matter which country they call home. We’re lucky to celebrate our diversity and similarities in DC.
Tips for the making the most of Embassy Tour day:
► Start early
There is a lot to see and experience in six short hours—you’ll want every minute you can squeeze out of the day! Plan to arrive right when the embassies open to maximize your time in each one or the number you can see in a single day.
► Expect to wait in line
This is a popular event—for good reason! Lines will get long, so bring your patience and know the lines will move and no wait is forever. Plus, the time you’ll spend waiting is a great opportunity to study your map and figure out which embassies will be next on your list.
► Expect the unexpected
There is little—if any—transparency into what each embassy will offer as part of their open house. That means it won’t be possible to know if you’ll get free food, great music, or good shopping before you enter. Don’t use the length of the line to judge; the longest line we waited in ended up being the biggest disappointment of the day (25 minutes in the rain, 15 minutes of weaving through a room full of vendors, and another 15 minutes just to arrive in front of an empty food table). The shortest line led to plentiful free snacks, hot tea, and beautiful artwork to enjoy. You may not know what you will get, but you will almost certainly learn something from the stop!
► Wear the right shoes
This should go without saying, but I saw enough people limping around in heels or shivering in sandals that it bears a mention. Our tour was during a rainy DC day; we encountered puddles, hills, and short crosswalk times that left us jogging across streets. We walked more than 6 miles in 6 hours. Make sure your feet are well supported!
► Bring a backpack
Just about every embassy had items for sale or gifts to give, and having a backpack made it easy to keep everything secure and in one place. It was also nice to have a way to transport our camera and umbrella when we wanted our hands to be free!
► Take some cash
The entire event is free, but many of the embassies had food or crafts for sale, so consider taking some cash with you in case you plan to make a purchase or two.
Washington, DC Hotels
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Just for Fun… a Few Awards!
(We didn’t visit every embassy that was open to tour, but of the 13 embassies we did experience, here are a few of our favorite memories!)
Best Food: We had a chance to try a lamb sausage while visiting the embassy of Albania, and it was absolutely the most memorable treat we tried—it reminded us of the cevapi we enjoyed in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina last year.
Best Drink: We sampled some delicious coffee at the embassy of Uganda—it was perfectly brewed and didn’t need milk or sweetener to enjoy.
Best Entertainment: We watched a terrific a cappella choir from Zimbabwe; they were absolutely captivating. We also loved watching the traditional dance performances at many of the embassies.
Most Welcoming: Although every embassy was welcoming, Guatemala was especially kind and friendly to us. From welcoming us with our choice of peach juice, mango juice or a Guatemalan beer (Famosa) to greeting us at every turn with smiles to providing us with a gift as we left, we had a great visit. The Kazakhstan Embassy was another highlight of the day for us. They were very friendly and they gave visitors free snacks, free bottles of water, and free books about Kazakhstan artwork and Kazakhstan history.
Biggest Surprise: The embassy of Iraq was a huge surprise. Iraq is, sadly, a country that many Americans are unable to easily visit. Having a chance to enjoy the food, artwork, and people made me both very excited to learn more and very sorry I may not be able to experience it firsthand.
If you have ever dreamed of starting your day in the Caribbean, stopping by a few South American countries, swinging through Africa, heading over to the Middle East, and ending your day in Asia, the Around the World Embassy Tour may be the closest you can get to achieving your goal.
As our souvenir passport collected stamps, we excitedly made plans to collect stamps in our real passports with trips to some of the places we visited. Until then, we’ll smile every time we pass by the embassies in DC, knowing that behind their doors are beautiful artwork and incredible people that we look forward to seeing again next year.
Washington DC Embassy Tour Day 2017: Participating Embassies
Here is the final list of embassies that participated in the 2017 event:
Afghanistan, African Union, Albania, Angola, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Barbados, Benin, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Gabonese Republic, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Korea, Kyrgyz Republic (Kyrgyzstan), Malawi, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Nepal, Nicaragua, Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center (Oman), Pakistan, Peru, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, Uruguay, Zimbabwe
Photos from the Around the World Embassy Tour 2017
We tried to take as many photos as possible to keep track of our day. Here are some of our favorites!
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* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. This post includes our candid review of our experience at various locations. We selected these locations based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review. Learn more about our travel philosophy here.