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 Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, and the walnut-size 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 www.si.edu.
The nearly 2-mile grassy expanse between the Capitol and the Potomac River features memorials honoring five presidents, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and 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, as the monuments are lit and crowds have dwindled.
Besides the large monuments, there are dozens of smaller statues, historic sites, and walking paths along the Mall. The National Park Service offers a free mobile app with a map and details on the sites: www.nps.gov/nama/photosmultimedia/app-page.htm
The park also draws about 1 million people each year to see its famous cherry trees when they reach full bloom in spring. Some of the oldest trees that were a gift from Japan line the Tidal Basin and make for a picturesque view.
Behind the scenes
Washington is a city where everyone wants special access and a look behind the scenes of power. One of the best ways is to plan ahead. Call your member of Congress to request a personal tour led by a congressional staffer. Visitors can also ask for a tour of the Capitol dome. White House tours are also normally available through congressional offices, though they may still be halted temporarily due to government budget cuts. International visitors can request tickets through their country's embassy.
If you don't have time for reservations, the Capitol Visitor Center offers free exhibits and tours of the Capitol. Tickets are available online. A limited number of 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. www.loc.gov/visit/tours/
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 a.m. Otherwise, advance tickets are $2.50 per person.
A five-minute walk from the theater, visitors will find the National Portrait Gallery. Its most popular collection is of presidential portraits, including some of the most famous images of Washington and Lincoln.
Waterfront and Kennedy Center
Washington is increasingly embracing its waterfronts, which were once neglected. New gardens and walking paths are bringing 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.
The 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 every day at 6 p.m. The dress code for free shows is casual. Finally, the evening views from the Kennedy Center's rooftop are a treat.
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