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The Best Free Things To Do On Your DC Vacation

Washington DC Has A Plethora Of Fun & FREE Things To Do. It is not only the capital of the free world but the greatest free city in the world.  Washington DC vacations can be fun and light on your wallet at the same time.  Because there are so many FREE things to do in Washington DC, it can be a great discount travel destination. The city provides free access to the monuments, government buildings, and the Smithsonian Museums.  Free attractions are limitless but include the Capital building, the White House, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Air and Space Museum, the Smithsonian Art Museum and the Natural History Museum.

Walk up the hill to the base of the Washington Monument and enjoy the vistas while walking the circumference.  Gaze back past the World War II Monument at the world famous Reflecting Pool and beyond to the Lincoln Memorial.  Look south past the cherry trees to the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial.  Now east past the Museums that line the Mall to the Capital Building.  Finally north to the White House, perhaps spotting the President or the First Lady.  Originally designed by Pierre L'Enfant in 1791, the National Mall is the best tourist attraction Washington DC has to offer.

About Washington, D.C.

The Very Best  Walk the National Mall from the Lincoln Memorial to the US Capitol Building.  At nearly two miles in length and over 300 acres, walking the Mall is more than just a stroll. You'll see cultural buildings rose blossoms in the right season and colorful people. A walk through the mall is one of the best free things to do in Washington DC but will take several days if you decide to stop in all the buildings.

DC has a multitude of free museums to visit. If you're not into the museum scene, then try an international restaurant. To feed tourists, imigrants and diplomats from all over the world, Washington DC offers food from all around the world. At night D.C. offers a vibrant club and bar scene.

Washington, D.C. Landmarks

Places To Visit On The Mall

The Monuments & Memorials Dominating the skyline, the 555 foot Washington Monument sits atop a hill in the center of the Mall. Its highest floor literally is the top place to visit in Washing DC if you are measuring by height or by view.  Climbing the steps up to the Lincoln Memorial, tied forever to Martin Luther King’s “I’ve Got A Dream” speech, is a moving experience.  The stately Jefferson Memorial sits across the Tidal Basin, a wonderful walk under the cherry trees that border the shore.  Be sure to look up and read the inspirational words of one of our greatest presidents.  Visit the Vietnam Veterans, Korean War, and World War II monuments which surround the Reflecting Pool.  Hundreds more monuments and memorials are scattered throughout the city.

The Smithsonian Institution Symbolized by the 19th century Castle made of red sandstone from nearby Seneca Creek, Maryland, the Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum complex.  Composed of 19 museums, most lining the Mall, and the National Zoo, the Smithsonian is an event in itself.  Allow at least a day for the museums alone when visiting Washington DC.  Oh yes, did I mention it is all FREE!

Museums you won't want to miss on your Washington DC vacation include the National History Museum, Air and Space Museum, and the National Gallery of Art, East and West buildings.  The modern East Building (designed by I.M. Pei) is devoted to modern and contemporary works of art.  The West Building includes more ancient and traditional art.

Other good choices include the new National Museum of the American Indian, the African Art Museum, and the Hirshhorn Museum with its outdoor Sculpture Garden.

The best place for adults to eat on the Mall is in the underground passage between the East and West building of the National Gallery of Art next to the underground waterfall.  For kids it’s the Air and Space Museum.

United States Capitol Building The home of the U. S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, the Capitol Building cannot be missed, even if only viewed as you walk the Mall.  The new Visitor’s Center makes for easy access and contains exhibits and theaters.  Passes are required to view either gallery, and should be obtained in advance from your Representative or Senator.

Spectacular on its West side, the US Capitol Building is equally impressive on the East side, where entrance is gained.  Senators and Representatives often hold news conferences from the East front steps.

Congressmen travel from their office buildings surrounding the Capitol to the floor of their respective chambers by underground tunnels.

United States Botanic Garden Tired of looking at museums and monuments?  Stop in the U. S. Botanic Garden along the edge of the Mall near the Capitol.  Climate controlled green houses allow for the display of exotic plants year round.   Desert flowers, tropical plants, orchids and rare or endangered species live in the U. S. Botanic Garden.  Stop by the outdoor Children’s Garden with the kids.

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Washington, D.C. Food



Cheap Eats:  

Ben’s Chili Bowl – A bit out of the way, but who knows, the President may be there.


Five Guys – best burgers in town


El Pollo Rico – rotisserie chicken has never been better.  From an authentic Peruvian recipe.  Two locations, Arlington, VA and Silver Spring, MD, it is worth the trip.


Zorba’s Café – for a Greek Washington DC restaurant experience.


Negirl Eatery – Jamaican.  Four DC locations.


Capitol Q – Located in Chinatown and is known as the best barbeque.

Also try Old Glory American Bar-B-Que if you’re in Georgetown.


Amsterdam Falafel Shop - Middle Eastern - located in Adams Morgan.


Best Chinese – a toss up between China Garden and Chinatown Express, both conveniently located in Chinatown.


Best All American – Clyde’s near Chinatown

Cactus Cantina – Best Mexican.  Near the Zoo.

Jaleo – Best tapas, a personal favorite.  Three locations – Downtown DC, Crystal City, VA, and Bethesda, MD.

More Upscale: Filomena Ristorante – Best Italian.  Georgetown.

D C Coast Restaurant – Best Seafood.  Near the White House.

Capitol Grille – Best steaks – Near the National Gallery of Art

Café Asia - Best Sushi – Near the White House

Restaurant Nora - Best Vegetarian – also America’s first certified organic restaurant.

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Washington, D.C. Hotels

Places To Stay: DC Hotels Omni Shoreham Hotel – From luxury suites to basic rooms the Omni Shoreham has a room for every budget and is a great Washington DC Hotel for any budget.  Conveniently located near the zoo.

Willard InterContinental Washington – Historic, located on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House.

Renaissance Mayflower Hotel - Luxury, historic, affordable.  No telling who your fellow guests may be.

Washington Marriot at Metro Center – Next door to the National Theater, very close to the White House and the Mall and right above Metro Center where several rail lines connect.  No DC hotel is more convenient.

Grand Hyatt Washington – Underneath its 12 story atrium you will find a grand piano on an island in the pond, the location of the best lunch and brunch in DC.  Convenient in-lobby Metro access.

The Hay-Adam – View the front of the White House directly across Lafayette Park from the historic Hay Adam.   Very pricey.

Bed and Breakfast?  Try the Kalorama Guest House – While many bed and breakfasts are available throughout DC’s neighborhoods, the Kalorama Guest House offers two locations in either Woodley Park or Adams Morgan.  Both are circa 1895 Victorian townhomes offering vintage artwork, antique furnishings, and great food in convenient locations.

On a budget? Consider Washington hostels if you don't mind sharing space.

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Washington, DC Fun For All

Just Off the Mall DC Activities

White House Sitting next to the Mall, the most powerful house in America is a must see.  Tours of the White House are minimal and must be arranged in advance (at least 6 months).  Contact your Congressmen for help booking a visit. Be sure to walk to the front on Pennsylvania Avenue for the best view.

Fun Facts:  The White House is Washington, DC’s oldest Federal building.

George Washington was the only president not to live in the White House

The White House was originally called the “President’s Palace” until 1810, then the “Executive Mansion” until 1902 when President Theodore Roosevelt changed the name to the world famous White House. 

United States Supreme Court Building Located just east of the Mall and across from the Capitol, the Supreme Court Building is home to the United States Supreme Court, representing the Judiciary branch, one of three coequal branches of the Federal government and the highest court in the United States of America.

Made of ivory Italian Marble, the stairs and stately columns in front are sure to impress any visitor.  An hour is ample time to tour the Supreme Court building.

Fun Fact:   The fifth and highest floor contains a gym with a basketball court often referred to as the "Highest Court in the Land" by insiders.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum As it should be, the USHMM is a dark experience of the worst of human nature.  It will leave a deep and lasting impression.   From a railroad box car used by the Nazi to transport the Jews to Nazi concentration camps to the eerie sight of thousands of pairs of left over shoes, the USHMM is a deeply saddening experience.  It takes two or three hours to visit all of the exhibits. It may take longer if you watch the videos and film footage and read the exhibits to gain further insight.  Think carefully if this is for you and the kids.



Washington National Cathedral The Episcopal Washington National Cathedral varies from most of the architecture in Washington with its Middle Age, neoGothic design.  It is the sixth largest cathedral in the world and an interesting sight to see on your Washington vacation.

The Cathedral is a spiritual center, ministering to people of all faiths and perspectives.  It also is a center of music and the arts with many concerts and performances enhanced by the Cathedral’s magnificent interior.  The National Cathedral is a center of learning and understanding, offering many lectures that are open to the public. 

A house of prayer for all people, cultural center, a place to enlighten spirit and mind, all are welcome at the National Cathedral. 

International Spy Museum Ever want to attend spy school?  On Your Washington DC vacation, you can. The International Spy Museum’s School for Spies will be one of the most hands of the free things to do in Washington DC.  Perhaps the most interactive, hands on experience in all of Washington, DC, the Spy Museum goes far beyond the normal exhibits and videos.  See the gadgets, hear the stories, tour places in DC where secret events occurred.  See spy magic, spy at night or around the city, and of course spying for kids.  This is the place to let out your inner James Bond.

Bonus Tip:  The National Portrait Gallery is across the street.

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Washington, D.C. Day Trips


Baltimore  The Inner Harbor is the place.  Baltimore's Inner Harbor is home to The National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center, the Planetarium , Museums, shopping and great food. You can climb a light house, go into a submarine, take a boat ride, water taxi to fort McHenry, go aboard the USS Constellation from the Civil War or a WWII submarine, take a boat ride on a pirate ship or tall ship or take a sight seeing cruise. You can rent a paddle boat or watch the Ravens or Orioles play.  Whew, better spend an extra day.

Enjoy diner at the Rusty Scupper for great crab cakes and a view.  Or wander over to Little Italy and eat Italian, then down towards the water and Fells Point to partake of the night life.

The birthplace of Babe Ruth, the final resting place of Edgar Allan Poe (so that’s where the Ravens got their name), and the city where the "Star Spangled Banner" was penned, Baltimore is a place to see. 

Annapolis Spend an easy day enjoying the quaint town of shops and restaurants.  Enjoy gazing at the boats.  Annapolis is situated on the Chesapeake Bay and is the state capital of Maryland. Be sure to visit the Naval Academy just outside town.

Old Town, Alexandria Virginia Just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, Old Town, Alexandria was a center of commerce since it’s founding in 1749.  Today it boasts art galleries, antiques, shops and restaurants.

Arlington National Cemetery, VA See the burial place of over 300,000 of America’s hero’s, the men and women who served our country in the military.  Originally the home of Robert E. Lee, the grounds were confiscated during the Civil War.  Visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where a soldier from each war since WWI is buried to symbolize and honor all of those who gave their life and are unknown. A moving experience.

Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens Take a historic tour of the home and garden’s of America’s first president.  See, hear stories, and feel what George Washington felt at his home in early America.

Inn at Little Washington, VA For a special treat visit the five star restaurant at the Inn in Little Washington, often voted the best restaurant in America or even the world.  You will not believe it is possible for food to taste so good.  The presentation is a work of art, the meal a performance.  Desserts, well why ruin the surprise.

The kitchen features an enormous Vulcan range, built to order in France at a cost of several million dollars.  The wine list includes over 2,400 bottles.  The experience of the Inn at Little Washington makes a 90 minute trip and staying over night is an experience of a life time.

Stay there, or at a nearby Bed and Breakfast.  Very pricey, but you will enjoy the dining experience of a lifetime.  Reservations are required and must be made more than a month in advance.

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Washington DC Nightlife

Washington DC Night Life: Kennedy Center – Check schedule of events for the dates of your visit. The Kennedy center offers a sophisticated Washington DC night time experience.

Madam's Organ Blues Bar – This place rocks with live music 7 nights a week.  Blues, R&B, and Jazz as well as authentic Soul Food are on the menu.  Redheads forever drink ½ price Rolling Rocks! An exciting Washington DC night life experience.

Palace of Wonders – Full bar, museum, and stage for magic, Vaudeville, or Burlesque shows, sometimes all combined.  Truly a nighttime place of wonders.

The Red Derby – Beer, burgers, and board games.

Chief Ike's Mambo Room – Two bars, 3 floors, outdoor patio, full kitchen, live music or DJ, dance floor, upstairs lounge to talk, Chief Ike’s has it all.

Ireland's Four Fields – Near the Omni Shoreham and zoo, just another great Irish Restaurant and Pub and a great place to visit on your DC trip.

Tip One:  Georgetown – Bars and restaurants galore, filled with the gentry, college students, young singles, and out of towners. 


Tip Two:  Arlington – Just across the Potomac River, Arlington is the top haunt of DC’s young, single government workers.

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