Capital cities are often expensive and boring, with inflated prices and deflated culture due to a nomadic class of well-paid political and business professionals. You'd think that would be the case with Washington DC, capital territory of the world's biggest super-power, but DC has been the recipient of quite a bit of national attention over the years, and even more national funding. As a result, DC does not just play home to a dizzying array of beautiful national projects and monuments, but actually does so mostly for free. Travelling to DC is one of the cheapest short-term vacations around, as the canny traveller can fill multiple days with free, enriching entertainment. Each of the five following ideas could easily fill a day of travel.
National Mall + Memorials & Monuments
The National Mall is easily the most walkable summer daytrip in DC. This is the site of countless protests and celebrations, not to mention movie scenes, and it's also the centre of the United States' governmental history. Despite being quite a young country by world standards, the US government is actually getting fairly old, as changes in European politics shrink the number of surviving heritage democracies. The United States now has the history for historical travel of the sort usually reserved for Old World countries.
Walking the grounds, there are a number of moods available. Secluded paths run through small wooded areas that line the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, more than 600 metres of shallow water reflecting the towering Washington Monument. The reflecting pool has become one of the Mall's great attractions in its own right, though it was only ever intended to accent the experience of the others. Emerging from the trees presents a totally different experience, with the monument standing alone in a wide, open lawn.
That's typical though, since the National Mall is really just a jigsaw puzzle of different experiences, all aimed at evoking some aspect of national or humanitarian feeling, all pressed into one space. The Lincoln Memorial has stared down at countless young politicians and impressed the responsibility of government, while just across the way Jefferson's Pier sits in one of the most serene and relaxing garden settings in DC. With everything from lakeside tributes to the US Constitution to sombre memorials to fallen soldiers, a day spent walking the US capital’s National Mall is filled with little, interesting moments to occupy any curious mind.
Smithsonian - Natural History, American History, Air & Space, Art Galleries, Zoo
The Smithsonian is without question to world's most comprehensive single day or educational touring. This is the largest complex of museums and galleries in the world, with a neurotic commitment to completionist history that has earned it the nickname “the national attic”. You won’t just find flotsam and discarded old photos here, however; the Smithsonian is home to some of the most awe-inspiring exhibits ever created.
Perhaps most famously, the Smithsonian is home to the National Museum of Natural History – if there is any such place in the world that can rival New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, it’s this national one in DC. It houses over 125 million specimens from throughout the history of planet Earth, from trilobite fossils to towering dinosaur skeletons, to extinct modern species. The museum runs exhibits on things like insect evolution, human origins, the geology of planets, and more.
Another attraction is the Air and Space Museum. This is one area that the US can confidently claim to dominate, as NASA and the US government saw to it that their country was by far the world’s premiere space explorer. The Air and Space Museum is second to none in its comprehensive overview of the history, science, and importance of aviation and the space race, and it is second only to Cape Canaveral in its collection of trivia. The aircraft put on display at this museum are some of the best preserved vintage planes you’ll find anywhere.
The Smithsonian is home to over a dozen major museums and galleries. Leave the Air and Space Museum and take your pick of any number of galleries featuring both domestic and exotic art forms, ancient Aboriginal art and modern Art imported from contemporary artists around the world.
Library of Congress, National Archives
Washington DC is important for two reasons: One; it’s the seat of power in the US government, and Two: it’s the organizational centre for the US bureaucracy. The first of these facts make it interesting to wander through, but the second means that it is home to more than just museums and capital buildings. The Library of Congress is the modern Library of Alexandria, the closest thing the human race has yet made to a total repository of all human knowledge.
The Library of Congress houses everything from mass market paperbacks to obscure Master’s Thesis papers to ancient tomes full of wrongheaded science to, most recently, Twitter logs. No matter what your area of interest, you can feel confident that, upon entering the Library of Congress, you very likely could not be in a better place to look into it.
As a result of its amazing utility, the Library of Congress has been a home away from home for countless influential people. The research which broke the Watergate case and which won the Nixon interviews that followed, found their critical information in the stacks of the Library of Congress. This building houses everything from transcripts from the Oval Office (ever wonder what Kennedy had to say during the Bay of Pigs?) to records of every major oil purchase in US history, to obscure half-published manuscripts from underappreciated authors.
The National Archives is quite similar, but it tends to focus on the physical collections, more than the simple presentation of data.
White House, Capitol, Supreme Court, Pentagon
These tours barely need justification, but on the off chance that you’re wondering why you might want to tour such places, let’s take a moment to remember just what they are. The White House is easily the most skip-able of these attractions, because while it’s the one with the most famous architecture and layout, it’s also the one with the most famous architecture and layout – try for things you don’t already know. That said, a look through the home, office, and personal centre for the office of the US President is always interesting. Walk through the Oval Office, where world decisions are made virtually every day.
Next, visit the Supreme Court. The US Supreme Court is an interesting stop because not only is it an architectural landmark, a high-ceilinged cathedral to the high-minded and academic approach to justice exemplified by Supreme Courts, it is also a good potential daytime activity. Though you’re unlikely to sit in on a national event vote, a little planning can let you arrive in time to watch real court business, be it a congressional inquiry or a full vote of the members of the Supreme Court.
Then be sure to visit the Pentagon, which, unsurprisingly, offers the most superficial of these tours, keeping travellers well back from the actual military proceedings it houses. Still, a walk through the heart of the US security complex is fascinating, and tours will show not just how it works and some of the important locations, but its modern realities as well. Damage is still (intentionally) visible following the attacks of September 11, kept to remind employees and visitors of the real-world importance of the place.
6PM At Kennedy Center Millenium Stage
A lot of DC is free, or heavily subsidized; that’s why a list like this can work. Still, a free museum or art gallery is one thing, an enriching experience that borders on (uh oh) education. A concert, though? It’s amazing that the country has put so much effort into keeping DC an affordable destination that the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts has regularly scheduled free shows on its Millennium Stage.
Every day at 6 pm, the Kennedy Centre Millennium Stage hosts mid- and high-level acts for free concert revelry. It’s part of an initiative called Performing Arts for Everyone, which began in 1997. Military bands are one frequent attraction, but rock and other shows also regularly finish out the schedule. From the US Army Woodwind Quintet to indie-rockers like Alexis and the Samurai, this is the perfect, free ending to the perfect, free DC vacation.