Even though it doesn't have a theme park or boast a beach, Washington, D.C., still gets the family vote every year as a favorite vacation destination. Filled with more attractions than a Congressman has campaign promises, the Nation's Capital is a perfect getaway for either a week or a weekend. And it helps that many of the city's museums, monuments, and other historic landmarks are free because, unlike the federal government, you have to worry about balancing your budget.
MR. SMITHSON GOES TO WASHINGTON
Just as the Japanese helped D.C. start its largest festival, a generous Englishman helped the city build its largest public attraction. In 1829, James Smithson bequeathed the money to found an institution for education and exploration, but he probably didn't realize that one day his gift would form the basis for the world's largest museum complex. Today, his investment has grown into The Smithsonian Institution, with 14 museums and art galleries and the National Zoological Park all in D.C.
The best place to start a Smithsonian sojourn is on Independence Avenue, where six of those museums and galleries are located. If you're a first-time visitor, stop by the Castle Building for information that will get you acclimated before you take a tour.
From the Castle, head down the Mall to the National Air and Space Museum (final landing place of the Wright Brothers' 1903 flying machine); then move on to the National Museum of Natural History (home of the Hope Diamond). Next pay a visit to the past at the National Museum of American History (where you can still salute the original stars-and-stripes made famous by Francis Scott Key in "The Star-Spangled Banner").
REELING AND WHEELING
Although you could spend your entire vacation meandering around the Mall, a host of other attractions and activities awaits in other sections of the Capital city. A few blocks from the White House, the MCI Center features restaurants, shops, and an arena where Washington's professional basketball and hockey teams play. The entertainment center also houses the MCI National Sports Gallery and Museum. In nearby Arlington, Virginia, the Newseum tells the stories of the men and women who bring us the stories. The multimedia museum lets visitors view old-fashioned newsreels, put together a newspaper story, and step in front of a camera to anchor their own televised news segments.
If you want to see the city from a different point of view, consider a "Bike the Sites" tour. The 8-mile tour takes in such sites as the U.S. Capitol, Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial, and other Mall landmarks. Except for street crossings, all of the three-hour ride is done away from traffic on footpaths along the Mall and surrounding parks.
The Smithsonian Institution Visitor Information Center: Castle Building, Room 153; (202) 357-2700. Hours: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily for most Smithsonian attractions, except the National Zoo, which follows seasonal hours. Admission: free (some, such as the National Zoo, charge a parking fee).
The MCI Center: 601 F Street NW.; (202) 628-3200. Call for event schedule.
The Newseum: 1101 Wilson Blvd.; (703) 284-3544 or 1-888-639-7386. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Admission: free.
Bike the Sites: 3417 Quesada Street NW.; (202) 966-8662 or www.bikethesites.com. Hours: Tours (ages 9 and up) start at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily March 15-April 30 and 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily beginning May 1. Reservations required. Cost is $40 per person and includes bike, helmet, water, and a snack.
With so much to see in D.C., it's sometimes hard to squeeze in a meal. So here are a few quick and inexpensive lunch spots we've found.
On Independence Avenue, the Library of Congress cafeteria (in the Madison Building) serves homemade pizzas; (202) 707-8300. Across the street from the Capitol, the entrées at the Supreme Court Cafeteria start at $3 and overrule many of those found at more expensive places; (202) 479-3246. Around The Smithsonian, the Air and Space, Natural History, and American History museums all feature fast-food and cafeteria-style restaurants. And a few blocks from the Capitol, Union Station contains an indoor food court and several full-service restaurants; (202) 371-9441.
The District is filled with lodging choices, but these cater to families.
DoubleTree Guest Suites: 801 New Hampshire Avenue NW.; (202) 785-2000. Features special weekend rates and packages for families. Rates range $140-$180.
Holiday Inn Capitol at The Smithsonian: 550 C Street SW.; (202) 479-4000. Located one block from the National Air and Space Museum, it houses a Pizza Hut Express. Rates range $119-$150.
Holiday Inn on the Hill: 415 New Jersey Avenue NW.; (202) 638-1616 or 1-800-638-1116. Two-and-a-half blocks from the Capitol, it features a sports-themed cafe and a swimming pool. Rates range $150-$180.
For a complete list of lodgings, contact Washington, D.C., Accommodations at (202) 289-2220, 1-800-554-2220, or www.wdcahotels.com. This free service provides information on hotel rates and will make reservations.