When Mark de Kubber of the Netherlands visited the United States in 2017, he never made it to the District of Columbia. Like most Europeans, de Kubber, who has spent time exploring destinations on just about every continent, bypassed the nation’s capital and headed straight to New York City. When asked why he decided to forgo a trip to Washington, de Kubber revealed he just didn’t think there was much to do in the city. “When I decide where to go on vacation, I start by Googling. When you Google D.C. the first things that pop up are the Capitol and the Washington Monument. I just can’t imagine flying all that way to stand in front of a building,” he said.
During the tourist season, the District fills with people exploring its museums, historic houses, and famous monuments. It’s easy to get the idea that tons of Europeans are visiting Washington. Yet data released by Eurostat, the official statistics agency of the European Union, reveal that most Europeans vacation closer to home — in Europe. The agency’s 2017 report, based on 2015 tourist statistics, determined that 85% of European vacationers spent their holiday time somewhere on the Continent, with Spain, France, and Italy topping the list. Only 2.2% of vacationing Europeans headed to the U.S. for a bit of rest and relaxation in 2015.
Most Europeans who make it to the U.S. don’t bother with Washington. Trivago, a travel website, analyzed 2013 hotel booking data and came up with a list of the most popular U.S. cities among European visitors. Washington came in 9th on the list. New York City took the prize. According to Travago’s data, Europeans would prefer to spend time in Orlando or Las Vegas than in the District of Columbia. “I’d rather go to Boston or Philadelphia than Washington,” said de Kubber. Boston, at number seven on Trivago’s list, beat Washington by two spots.
The city’s cultural attractions don’t seem to provide much of a draw for people who live surrounded by centuries of history. Aleksandra Strzelichowska, who grew up in Poland and has lived in Belgium and the Netherlands said she thought a trip to the Smithsonian might be interesting but didn’t really see the city’s appeal on the cultural front. “I live in Europe. There’s culture all around. It’s just not worth the time, money or general hassle to go to Washington for cultural things,” she said.
A perceived lack of restaurants, cafes, and nightlife also appears to play a role in the European aversion to Washington. “Are there even cool places to walk around or grab a cup of coffee in the city?” asked Janco Bons, a world traveler who has spent time in dozens of countries, including Canada, Vietnam, Thailand, Spain, and Curacao. “I know there must be. Common sense tells you that. But you just never hear about them,” he continued.
The city’s movie and tv appearances don’t help Washington’s international reputation. “Everything seems to revolve around government buildings and agencies. You never see people shopping or sitting outside at cafes when a show takes place in Washington,“ says Strzelichowska. Bureaucratic and boring appears to be the consensus. “All the series set in Washington seem to be about politics or the FBI. That’s not really all that enticing,” says Bons.
There does seem to be one way to get Europeans to visit the District — road trips. When asked if there were any circumstances under which he would spend time exploring the city, de Kubber thought for a moment and responded. “Yeah, if I were renting a car and driving from New York to Miami or something like that I’d probably take a quick side-trip.” Miami is number three on the Trivago list.