How to make the most of a trip to the nation’s capital

The Smithsonian was founded in 1846 after a bequest by British scientist James Smithson to establish an educational institution in Washington.
(Tish Wells / MCT)

A spring break in the nation’s capital is a rite of passage for some families, but if the airfare from the West Coast to the East has stretched your vacation budget, take heart. Many places are free, thanks to government funding (although the sequester may cause some changes in hours or personnel). Here are some suggestions on how to make the most with the least:

Smithsonian: No visit to Washington, D.C., is complete without a visit to the nation’s museums. First-time visitors learn fast that a trip to the Smithsonian is not a visit to one place. There are 19 museums that are part of the Smithsonian Institution, along with the National Zoo. Most line the National Mall.

Some must-see exhibits: The Apollo 11 capsule that carried the first men to land on the moon, President Abraham Lincoln’s top hat and the large Hope Diamond.

The Smithsonian was founded in 1846 after a bequest by British scientist James Smithson to establish an educational institution in Washington. Smithson’s remains are interred at the Smithsonian’s oldest building, the red sandstone Castle. This is also a good place for a quick orientation to decide where to start. Details at


National Mall: The nearly two-mile grassy expanse between the Capitol and Potomac River features memorials honoring presidents, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, as well as Martin Luther King Jr. and battle monuments in tribute to America’s veterans. One of the best times to visit is in the evening, when the monuments are illuminated and crowds have dwindled.

Beyond the large monuments, there are dozens of smaller statues, historic sites and walking paths along the mall. The National Park Service offers a free new mobile app with a map and details on the sites. Go to

The park draws about 1 million people each year to see the cherry trees when they reach full bloom in late March or early April. Some of the oldest trees, which were a gift from Japan, line the Tidal Basin and make for a picturesque view.

Behind the scenes: Washington is a place where everyone wants special access and a look behind the scenes of power. One of the best ways is to call your member of Congress (you can find the number at and request a personal tour of the Capitol led by a congressional staffer. White House tours are also normally available through congressional offices, though they have been halted temporarily because of government budget cuts. International visitors can request tickets through their country’s embassy.

If you don’t have time to make reservations, the Capitol Visitor Center ( offers free exhibits and tours of the Capitol. Tickets are available online. Some same-day passes also are distributed at the information desks each day. The center also offers specialty tours on the Capitol’s history and artwork.

The Library of Congress offers free access and impressive architecture near the Capitol. Volunteers offer free, guided tours of the nation’s oldest cultural institution. Info:

Presidential sites: A walk through downtown Washington offers a chance to connect with presidential history. A short walk from the White House, Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was assassinated, offers daily tours with free same-day tickets distributed each morning at 8:30. Otherwise, advance tickets are $2.50 per person.

Walk five minutes from the theater to the National Portrait Gallery. Its most popular collection is the presidential portraits, including some of the best-known images of George Washington and Lincoln.


Waterfront and Kennedy Center: Washington is increasingly embracing its once-neglected waterfront. New gardens and walking paths are bringing new life to these spaces. In Georgetown, a new park along the Potomac River has become a popular place to relax. Take a stroll along the water. Bring a picnic or stop for a late lunch at a riverside cafe. Then head toward the Kennedy Center along the river.

This living memorial to President John F. Kennedy offers free tours with no reservations required. Arrive in time for the 4:30 p.m. tour of the theaters and concert halls, then stay for a free Millennium Stage performance at 6 p.m. every day. The dress code for free shows is casual. The evening views from the Kennedy Center’s rooftop are a treat.