Known as "everybody's hometown," Washington, D.C. expects more than 15 million visitors this year. That's down from the norm, but the economic slip and slide is balanced by an intriguing new face at the helm of the United States, arriving with the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth. And, as in life, many of the best things in Washington, D.C. are free.
Having lived near the heart of D.C. for three decades, I've gone from my initial frenzied explorations to the pleasures of seeing the city through the eyes of children who can't begin to keep up with the area's adventures.
You can start your own voyage of discovery as soon as you arrive at Washington-Dulles International Airport. Begin with a detour, a 2.5-mile shuttle bus ride from the airport to the Udvar-Hazy Center. This Air and Space "annex" could swallow its National Mall sibling. It gobbled up the Space Shuttle Enterprise, the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay and a famed spy plane, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. Here, they look like Jonah in the belly of a whale. Return to Dulles for a $3 Metro bus ride into D.C.
Washington's low buildings and broad avenues put the human scale at a good comfort level, less claustrophobic than the narrow canyons of some cityscapes. A side effect of height restrictions in past decades was boring boxes that maximized space, but architects and builders now rise to the challenge with intriguing designs. Ample architectural echoes continue to define the federal city, among them the classic pillars that evoke ancient Athens and Rome, conveying strength and permanence.
The flavors that define Washington make the mouth water. Once notorious for ho-hum restaurants that cared little about tourists passing through, Washington is now a culinary capital. This resulted in part because Washington's international organizations and embassies attracted many folks who left their countries in a hurry amid shifting political fortunes. Many sought their native cuisine or opened their own restaurants. Within a six-block radius, there are more Ethiopian restaurants than in all of New York City. Note: Any menu item with a "Wat" in the title will be hot. If you're committed to Chinese, explore Chinatown's variations on a dumpling.
The Adams Morgan neighborhood offers dozens of ethnic eateries, as well as music ranging from jazz to West African to Latin rhythms. A peppy array of bands is at Madam's Organ. Before deciding, walk a few blocks up, down and across, starting at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW.
For an upscale-establishment experience, try the renovated Fairfax at Embassy Row and its celebrated Jockey Club, where Hillary Clinton held court during her campaign. The maitre d', Martin Garbisu, has been there for decades. He knows more about his past patrons, from Frank Sinatra to the ambassadors' A-list, than the CIA. But he's not talking—yet. Counterprogram with cost-effective soul food at the Florida Avenue Grill, with its photo gallery of local celebrities. And Ben's Chili Bowl has already proved a hit for both Bill Cosby and President Obama.
Another eatery walkabout is Dupont Circle, which is surrounded by striking embassies that reside in Victorian mansions, as well as impressive streets of late 19th-century row houses. But good food can be had throughout the city; there are a number of enclaves, including the area around the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station.
Dupont Circle is also home to many art galleries. One of the great freebies D.C. offers is on the first Friday of every month, when galleries there, as well as in Georgetown and a cluster downtown near the Shakespeare Theater, stay open after-hours offering a bit of vino. It's a good meet-and-greet, especially for young professionals.
Another freebie is the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center—featuring a free concert every night starting at 6 p.m., though popularity now dictates claiming a chair before 5:30. The mix is amazing—you'll find the schedule at kennedycenter.com. Performances can be seen online as well, streamed live or in the archive. My kids and I have seen everything from the jazz group Cubanísimo to a quartet of tubas. Take the free shuttle from the Foggy Bottom Metro station, or stroll there cutting through the George Washington campus.
Across from the Kennedy Center, accessible from the Virginia side of the Potomac, is one of the area's many rewards for early risers. Roosevelt Island, with its 17-foot-high statue of President Theodore Roosevelt, is worth visiting at sunrise to see the morning light shine over Georgetown and the riverfront at Washington Harbour complex. At the wharf, boat tours can be accessed, as can water taxis to Old Town in Alexandria. The river provides a great view of the monuments. Other boat tours go all the way to Mount Vernon. For shorter travels, you can enjoy the river by renting a kayak or canoe.
Outdoor offerings include one of the greatest urban parks, Rock Creek, a National Park, which winds through a spectacular valley that seems impossible inside a major city. Many portions make hikers forget they are in the middle of a metropolis. Deer are plentiful, and foxes, coyotes and beavers can be occasionally spotted. Birders rejoice with the woodpeckers and the seasonal migrations. The park balances city life, with a large section of roadway closed on weekends to give access to bikers. A nature center has numerous programs for kids.
Nestled within the park is the National Zoo, another freebie extraordinaire. My kids' favorite exhibit re-creates an Amazon environment, an underwater view topped by jungle. One can bike along the parkway all the way to the Canal path that follows the Potomac far into Maryland, or, in a different direction, to Mount Vernon.
Our ultimate freebie: miles of world-class museums in the Smithsonian and National Gallery systems. After two years of restoration, the National Gallery of Art reopened 14 American Galleries with two centuries of masterpieces. The new underground Capitol visitors' center is now the staging area for free Capitol building tours. Frequently overlooked are the National Building Museum, the Renwick Crafts Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Arboretum—all worth your time.
My favorite building is the Instituto de México, with its massive murals painted during the '30s by Roberto Cueva del Río, and a rotating arts gallery. New to downtown, though not free, is the Newseum, dedicated to news and its impact.
Don't neglect the stage. D.C. has a vibrant small-theater community, including the Studio, Warehouse and Wooly Mammoth, as well as the famed regional theater, the Arena Stage. There are often ticket price deals, so make sure you ask.
D.C. has endless lecture programs. The most famous is the National Press Club luncheon (npc.org), which the public can access if reserving early. Recent speakers range from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Dolly Parton to Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman. With lunch, it's not a bad deal.
Lincoln's 200th birthday—bringing numerous exhibits this year and a renovated Ford's Theater—coincides with Charles Darwin's. What better place to celebrate it and Darwin's evolution theory than by taking in the Museum of Natural History or the National Geographic Society!
Before coming, sign up for the D.C. Insider newsletters at washington.org. For accommodations, consider bed-and-breakfast offerings. If you live abroad, contact your embassy regarding available tours.
Day trips to the countryside, from the Chesapeake Bay to the Blue Ridge, are plentiful. A favorite is the weekend steeplechase circuit in the surrounding horse country of Virginia and Maryland, with their classic tailgate parties—the most famous being The Gold Cup.
But visitors never exhaust Washington's offerings. Come contemplate change.
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