Washington D.C.: The Land of the Free (Admission)

Our nation's capital may be pricey when it comes to lodging and parking, but not when it comes to culture.

By Bill Wiatrak October 6, 2016

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Giant pandas are the most famous denizens at the National Zoo, which is just one of the many free museums throughout Washington D.C.

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As a House of Cards fan, it seemed only fitting that I should make the pilgrimage to the nation's capital with hopes of seeing Kevin Spacey driving around in a limo tailed by a presidential motorcade. And with recent visits to Boston and Philadelphia, it began to feel like I was missing the final element in the triad of pivotal American revolution cities. Add that to the fact that almost four decades had passed since my last visit, and I decided to catch up with Washington D.C. after far too many years.

What does one do in Washington D.C. anyway? Everything. There is a ridiculous number of museums to visit in the area—more than an average human could squeeze into even two weeks. Our capital is filled with world class museums that should cost a fortune to visit—but here, most of them are free. You won't get any deals on hotels or parking, though, so leave your car behind and stay outside the city if you're on a budget. Unlike visiting every museum in the city, that's fairly easy to do: Washington itself is quite walkable while the omnipresent bike rickshaws can cart you around pretty quickly if you want to rest your legs and don't want to sit in traffic.

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The National Gallery of Art has its own, super-cool, light-lined, underground walkway.

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The Smithsonian is one of the biggest draws in Washington D.C., named after James Smithson, who left his fortune to create "an establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men." Whatever that means. It was the mid-1800s, and after a few different interpretations of what Smithson really meant by our nation's leaders, The Smithsonian Institution was formed. Today, it consists of 19 museums, nine research centers, a zoo and is affiliated with 170 other museums. Nineteen museums is a lot, no matter how quickly you walk through them. Collectively they hold 138 million items. It's doubtful anyone could visit all of them in one trip, so I suggest the second best option: visit the highlights, take pictures to keep everything straight, and keep moving.

The National Gallery of Art is as impressive as the Louvre or Hermitage in my opinion and is much more up close and personal. When I visited, there were no lines to get in and no hordes of people pushing and shoving their way in front of the big headliner paintings. Granted, there is no Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo here, but there is a respectable Van Gogh collection, including one of Vincent's most famous self-portraits. Rembrandt also has a famous selfie hanging at the National Gallery, mixed in with some of his other works and those of his Dutch contemporaries. Ginevra de' Benci, sometimes referred to as the American Mona Lisa, is on permanent display. It is the only Da Vinci painting in America open to the public. In the next building there are more modern pieces by Picasso, Warhol, Matisse, and a smattering of splattering by Pollock.

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The National Museum of Natural History

A few minutes walk will get you to the Museum of Natural History, itself a Smithsonian institution. You'll immediately recognize the interior from the movie Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. There is a giant, de-gendered elephant in the foyer and an area that contains the skeletal remains of just about any animal you can imagine. You'll also find a living aquarium, a reassembled Neanderthal man, and a hodgepodge of random animals such as polar bears and lions. One of the biggest draws of this museum is the infamous Hope Diamond. This priceless jewel spins tirelessly in its illuminated box while tourists snap photos of the 45-carat gem. There are lots of other colorful and unusual rock formations in the Gems and Minerals display including the Dom Pedro aquamarine, solid sheets of natural copper, and even meteorites.

Even those who are not big museum fans will likely love the National Museum of American History, another Smithsonian spot, with its famous pop culture exhibits. You'll see everything from George Washington's military uniform to Michelle Obama's inauguration gown as America's relatively short history is chronicled across nearly 3 million different objects (only 5 to 8 percent of which are on display at any given time). You can see the original Muppets puppets, Dorothy's red slippers from the Wizard of Oz, a recreation of Julia Child's kitchen, Lincoln's stovepipe hat, The Star Spangled Banner itself, Edison's original light bulb and even the first teddy bear, named after Theodore Roosevelt.

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The National Air and Space Museum

The National Air and Space Museum is one of the most visited in the world and its collection, like all of the other Smithsonian museums, is massive. From the beginnings of flight to modern spacecraft technology, you'll find more than you can imagine would fit in this one building. The Wright Brothers' 1903 plane is on display so you can skip that trip you had planned to Kitty Hawk. Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis is on display as well as the Apollo 11. The Bell X-1, the plane in which pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, is on display as well as the X-15, the fastest manned aircraft in the world. There's even a model of the Starship Enterprise, but let's be honest: Most people come just to touch the moon rock.

Need some fresh air after all those indoor visits? One of America's largest zoos is also free and part of the Smithsonian family. The National Zoo's most famous residents are its pandas, but about one-fifth of the animals kept here are endangered species you may not see at many other zoos. The menagerie also has elephants, lions, and the usual zoo stuff, but is very focused on animal conservation and providing habitats as close as possible to natural conditions; for instance, the recent elephant trails provide its pachyderms with almost two acres of walking space. Animals are kept in their social groups whenever possible so that breeding and natural life cycles are encouraged. You'll also find interesting exhibits such as the Cheetah Conservation Station and Lemur Island to name a few.

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The National Mall

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The Smithsonian may be the largest museum complex in the world, but one cannot visit Washington D.C. without visiting the National Mall. "Mall" in this case doesn't refer to a shopping complex but rather takes its name from the the meaning of the word in the 1700s, which originally referred to a place where people played a game called pall-mall (similar to croquet). Over the years, the name was shortened and came to mean any tree-lined park. The National Mall today is made up of the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the White House, the Jefferson Memorial and most of the government buildings in between. You'll be happy to know that you can visit all of these places for the same low price: free.

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