Both bulging crowds and big expenses dwindle down to a more manageable size in the Capital city this time of year. Because most tourists retreat to warmer climates, cost-conscious travelers searching for intellectual and cultural stimulation share the run of the city.
Often referred to as "our nation's attic," the Smithsonian Institution's 16 museums provide a weekend into world art and civilization. Combined with stops at some of D.C.'s unique restaurants and shops, the Smithsonian is a great way to cozy up to the area this winter.
Elect the Loews L'Enfant Plaza Hotel as your lodging choice. It sits close to the Smithsonian Castle and offers access to the Metro stop, which should come in handy during rain or snow. Weekend rates range from $110 to $150 during January, a relatively cheap price tag for a central location in D.C.; (202) 484-1000.
Start the quest for culture at Kramerbooks on Connecticut Avenue (off Dupont Circle), which carries titles as varied as a politician's scandals. Then venture into Afterwords, their cafe and grill. The Thai-steamed mussels and noodles ($9.25) will render you speechless.
Next, hit the National Geographic Society headquarters on the corner of M and 17th Streets NW. Their Explorers Hall (free to the public) houses exhibits on dinosaurs, undersea exploration, and other natural history wonders. Global goodies abound in the gift store, whether its books on Africa or tablecloths from India.
Mix up your mealtime with dinner at Jaleo, located on Seventh Street NW. Guests choose from more than 60 Spanish tapas, including the popular gambas piniento (shrimp with garlic, olive oil, and red peppers, $7.95).
We vote for breakfast at the Old Ebbitt Grill on 15th Street NW. Considered the oldest saloon in Washington, the Ebbitt is frequented by everyone from politicians to truck drivers. Adventuresome diners should try the bagel topped with smoked salmon ($9.95).
It's now time to visit the National Museum of African Art, where you'll find four levels of works from across the massive continent. Make sure you stop at the gift store to take home a carved gourd wall hanging ($7.50) or myrhh bead necklaces ($15).
To see the First Ladies' inaugural gown collection, go to the National Museum of American History. They also managed to snag the kitchen of master chef Julia Child. View everything from the peanut butter on the counter to her black skillets.
Afterward, trek next door to the National Museum of Natural History. Some of the world's best natural exhibits, including the largest mounted elephant in the world and the legendary Hope Diamond, shine here. When hunger strikes, head to the museum's world-class cafeteria.
Children love the National Air and Space Museum, and for good reason. Kids can touch a 4 billion-year-old piece of moon rock from the Apollo 17 mission. Amelia Earhart's tomato red plane also remains a favorite.
For dinner, visit Rosemary's Thyme Bistro, a Mediterranean eatery on 18th and S Streets. Grilled seafood and specialty pizzas make this place a favorite spot. Spinach lovers will enjoy the spinach ravioli ($9.95).
Step out for a night on the town at the Kennedy Center for some fantastic entertainment. On most weekends you'll hear the melodious sounds of the National Symphony Orchestra. For tickets call 1-800-444-1324, or visit www.kennedy-center.org.
Wake in the morning for a wonderful jazz brunch ($23.95) at Georgia Brown's. Enjoy salmon cakes, eggs Benedict, fried chicken, seasonal fruit, and much more. It's a worthy splurge.
If you can fit in an aromatherapy massage ($95) at Georgette Klinger (Chevy Chase Pavilion), do so. Less expensive treatments include the 100% collagen mask ($40); it's perfect for rejuvenating your skin in winter.
Your final stop at the Washington National Cathedral will send you head over heels for D.C. Everyone from President George W. Bush to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., has worshipped inside this overwhelming edifice. It is a moving experience and well worth the time.