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.
FREE IN D.C.
You don't have to spend like a Congressman to enjoy Washington. The city offers a variety of places to see and things to do that don't cost a dime. Whether you like browsing activities or more adventuresome pursuits, there is definitely something for every visitor who wants to pay in time--not in pocket money.
- Stroll around the National Mall; (202) 426-6841. Study the original Declaration of Independence and then trace your own family tree at the National Archives and Records Administration; (202) 501-5000.
- See where your state representatives work during a visit to the U.S. Capitol; (202) 225-6827.
- See where your President lives on a tour of the White House; (202)" 456-2200.
- Watch your money being made at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing;" (202) 874-3019.
- Check out the world's largest lending library--the Library of Congress;" (202) 707-8000.
- Stage a visit to Ford's Theatre and see the box where President Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot; (202) 347-4833 or 1-800-899-2367.
- Have a blooming good time at the National Arboretum; (202) 245-2726.
- Remember three of our greatest Presidents at the Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln memorials; (202) 426-6841.
- Ponder the pandas at the National Zoo; (202) 673-4717. Ride a bike alongside, or catch a barge ride on, the C&O Canal; (202) 653-5190.
- Take a hike in Rock Creek Park; (202) 619-7222.
- Get a behind-the-scenes look at one of the world's largest newspapers during a production tour at the Washington Post; (202) 334-6000.
- Visit one of the world's oldest and most successful magazines at the National Geographic Society's Explorers Hall; (202) 857-7588.
- See the world through the eyes of the Discovery Channel at the television network's Destination Washington, D.C., complex; (202) 639-0908.
- Go see Van Goghs and make time for Monets at the National Gallery of" Art; (202) 737-4215.
- Brush up on the Bard at the Folger Shakespeare Library; (202) 544-7077.
- Find a cure for what ails you at the National Museum of Health and Medicine at Walter Reed Army Medical Center; (202) 782-2200.
- See every stamp issued in the United States from 1847 until today at The Smithsonian's National Postal Museum; (202) 357-2700.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Washington, D.C., Convention and Visitors Association (WCVA) offers three free publications to help visitors: a city guide, a quarterly calendar of events, and a map. To request these, contact the WCVA (attn: Tourist Information), 1212 New York Avenue NW., Suite 600, Washington, DC 20005; (202) 789-7000 or www.washington.org.
Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.