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Guide to Washington, D.C.

Updated on August 7, 2007

When you start listing great free vacation attractions, many of the places that come to mind are in our nation's capital. It would not be difficult to spend a week in Washington perusing the sights and not spend a dime on admission. And with a bit of an educational bent to the city, it can be a great place to bring the family.

The National Mall
The National Mall

The Mall

The heart of the city is the National Mall. Younger generations may need to be informed that "mall" does not mean an enclosed shopping center. The Mall is a grassy strip of land, about 2 miles long (depending on how you define the Mall's boundaries), around which most of the DC monuments, museums, and important government buildings are located. The Mall stretches from the Lincoln Memorial in the west to the Capitol Building in the east. It forms a bit of a cross shape, with the Washington Monument in the center of the cross and the White House and Jefferson Memorials anchoring the cross member.

Having everything together like this makes it convenient to park in one spot and then walk around the city. To a certain extent, though, walking is also the only good way to get around, so be sure to wear a comfortable pair of shoes.

The Memorials

The major memorials are all on the western end of the Mall. The tall spire of the Washington Monument makes it the most visible landmark. Starting at that point and heading west, the new World War II Memorial is the first monument you will come to, followed by the long reflecting pool and the Lincoln Memorial. Just north of the reflecting pool is the long, polished wall of the Vietnam Memorial.

South of the Washington Monument is the Tidal Pool, and on each side of the Tidal Pool are the Jefferson and Roosevelt Memorials. It will be a bit of an extra walk to get to either of either of them. The Jefferson Memorial is an impressive structure, but the Roosevelt Memorial is basically a series of gardens. It seems to be either people's favorite or least favorite of the monuments-some like it, some don't.

National World War II Memorial
National World War II Memorial

The Museums

The eastern half of the Mall is surrounded almost entirely by museums. Here you will find the famous Smithsonian Museums, the National Gallery, and others.

My highest recommendation goes to the National Holocaust Museum, which is between the Mall and the Jefferson Monument. It is not a happy place, and is probably not a good place to take younger children, but it is the kind of place that I think everyone should visit at least once. It gives a better appreciation for the horror of the Holocaust, and an understanding of how it came into being.

Across the Mall is the first of the Smithsonian buildings, the American History Museum. Here you will find many artifacts of our nation's past, such as the first John Deere plow.

Next door is the Natural History Museum, which is an especially good place to take the kids. Here you can see dinosaur (and whale) skeletons, the Hope diamond, and about every kind of gem or precious mineral on Earth.

On the other side of the Mall, towards the Capitol Building, is the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. It is home of Charles Lindberg's Spirit of St. Louis, early space capsules, and other aircraft.

For art, you have the National Gallery, split between an east and a west building. The larger West Building contains the classics, with oil paintings from around the world and throughout the centuries. The East Building houses modern art, and is itself a piece of modern art, with nary a square corner to be found anywhere in the building.

Across the Mall is the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Gallery, another modern art museum in another artistic building (this one with the distinction of having no first floor and no center). The art inside includes a 30-minute video of a long, complicated, domino-like chain reaction.

Other museums include the Freer Gallery of Art, Museum of the American Indian, and Museum of African Art. And, again, admission to most museums in town is free.

Hirshhorn Museum
Hirshhorn Museum

Government Buildings

The various seats of power around the Mall make for impressive sights. The Romanesque behemoths of different government departments and branches are frightening in their size and power-and in the amount of tax dollars represented by their size.

It is a bit harder to get into the Capitol Building or the White House, and it is probably not a good idea to try with the latter without an invitation or prior arrangements. You can still admire them from the outside. The Capitol, where the Senate and House of Representatives meet, blocks the east end of the Mall. The White House is directly north of the Washington Monument, and is not as accessible. An iron fence encloses its large yard, preventing pedestrians from getting too close to the President's house. It is still possible to get occasional sightings of the First Family, as they come or go in their motorcade or the Marine One helicopter.

Off the Mall

There are many hidden gems throughout Washington, and perhaps the best advice is to just set out walking and see what you come across. Take in a play at Ford's Theater, where President Lincoln was shot. Try some Ethiopian food-DC has a significant population from the African country and several Ethiopian restaurants. Or take the short drive across the Potomac to Arlington National Cemetery.

Have fun, and maybe you'll learn something along the way.


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