I grew up in the suburbs of Washington DC. And yes, I have been up the Washington Monument and spent many a field trip at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. But you never really see the sights of a city when you live there. It’s only when you return as a tourist, as I did last fall, that you see the glory of a place.
For example, when I was a teenager and could hop a metro downtown with my friends to the zoo, I did not appreciate that in Washington DC all of the government buildings and institutions are free. Yes, free! Now that I have lived elsewhere in the country, I’m amazed by all that you can do for free in Washington DC. From monuments to museums to the halls of government, you can easily fill a week of activities without spending a dime. Sadly, the same is not true for food and lodging, but hey – you can’t win them all.
In October my son came to visit while we were on our Maryland poker road trip. It ended up being perfect timing for our free day in Washington DC!
Smithsonian Highlights for a Day in Washington DC
We started at the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian Institution consists of over 19 museums and the National Zoo. All are free! My son and I had visited the zoo earlier in the week, so we decided to start our free day in Washington DC with the newly reopened Air and Space Museum. Air and Space had been shut down for renovation for several years and had just reopened about half of their space with brand new exhibits the month we were there. We went online to score some free passes, and were able to enter right as the museum opened.
Air and Space has always been one of my favorite Smithsonian museums and it did not disappoint on this day. Currently open exhibits include one on the history of flight, an exploration of our solar system, and “Destination Moon”. All included interactive exhibits and were both thorough and intriguing. My son and I also took the time to watch a planetarium show.
While my son and I visited the Air and Space Museum, Paul took a stroll through the National Gallery of Art and the East Wing, which is housed in a stunning building designed by IM Pei. Paul enjoyed a few Calder mobiles and a few da Vinci paintings until my son and I joined him for lunch in the basement cafeteria.
After lunch, the three of us visited the Hirshhorn Museum, which is devoted to modern art. We were (again for free) able to obtain tickets for a fascinating exhibit featuring Yayoi Kusama and some mind-bending experiences. Like the Air and Space Museum, the
Hirshhorn was also under construction, so only a few exhibits were open. We made short work of them all and emerged into the light to enjoy more of our free day in DC.
Of course, we could have spent our entire day at the Smithsonian. There are so many fabulous museums to recommend. Some of my other favorites are the Natural History Museum, the National Museum of American History, and the Arboretum. I have not yet visited the National Museum of African American History, but it’s on my list for my next visit.
Touring Federal Buildings on a Day in Washington DC
In addition to the museums, you can also visit many of the Federal buildings in Washington DC for free. Whether you want to visit the US Mint, the Library of Congress, Congress itself, or the White House, all can be arranged. You can even spend time at the Supreme Court if you so desire. Paul and I had tickets for a tour of Congress, which unfortunately we had to pass up due to an unforeseen conflict.
Many federal buildings require a (free) online reservation to visit. The White House and Congress tours require passes only obtained through your state senator. We found Congress passes easy to obtain by going online and requesting tickets for any one of a number of days on our visit. While we were unable to get tickets to the White House during our trip, we were given passes for timed entry to Congress.
The Monuments – Oh So Many Monuments!
After our visit to the Smithsonian, we found ourselves in the middle of the National Mall, which is basically a wide open space bounded at one end by Congress and the other by the Lincoln Memorial. Someone who will remain nameless (Paul) thought it would be fun for us to take a walking tour of the whole span of monuments from the Washington Monument all the way to the Lincoln Memorial, around to the Jefferson Memorial, and back.You could easily spend a whole month of days exploring Washington DC for free.Click To Tweet
So we walked and walked. Then we briefly rested and I whined. And we walked some more. By the time we were back to the Smithsonian, we had walked (and I am not making this up) over 24,000 steps. That’s something like 10 miles. So buyer beware.
But it was a glorious day, and the monuments are so varied and inspirational. So after the Washington Monument, we visited the World War 2 Memorial, Constitution Gardens, and the Vietnam Memorial. After walking the length of the Reflecting pool, one reaches the inspiring Lincoln Memorial with all of the grandeur and historic quotes embossed on the walls.
Then it gets simultaneously interesting and ugly. For to see all of the newer memorials, you must continue on to the right. Even though your feet do not want to walk another step. First, the Korean War and Martin Luther King, Jr. memorials await. And then, it’s on around the Tidal Basin. Which is much larger than you might imagine.
After you circumnavigate the Tidal Basin, you come to the extensive Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the small George Mason, and the stately Jefferson memorials. If you have any whimsy left (I did not), you could rent a paddleboat (for a fee) for a paddle on the lake. If not, it is back to the Smithsonian to end your day.
If you find yourselves as we did, back on the National Mall starving and exhausted, I sadly can not recommend the plentiful food trucks. They are exorbitantly expensive and the food is mediocre to please-don’t-eat-that. I do, however, recommend hanging out until after dark. The Federal Buildings and monuments are lit up in a stunning fashion. Perhaps you will choose to do as we did and DRIVE around the attractions this time to capture every last drop of this free day in Washington DC.
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