Washington, DC: Land of the free or very cheap





I've recently returned from a visit to Washington, DC and it's been a long time since I've been so impressed by a city.

Many cities are nice, or fun, or really enjoyable, but they are not places I'd visit twice. They're one and done, basically. But there are some cities that are remarkable from the moment you step off the plane, cities that have that intangible WOW factor. Venice, Italy, is one such city. Singapore is another. And now I'm going to add DC to that list.

There are many reasons for this. The city -- the part that tourists will see, anyway -- is incredibly clean and so well laid out. Transportation is cheap, efficient and intuitive to use. And because there are police officers and Secret Service and FBI everywhere through these areas, you will never feel as safe as when you're in DC. I really loved talking with our Uber and Lyft drivers and hearing how proud they were of their city.

When you tour the Capitol (above), make sure you also visit the amazing Library of Congress.
My favourite sights were the Pentagon and Arlington Cemetery. But there's so much to do in DC that it will appeal to a broad spectrum of visitors. Stroll along the National Mall, visit any of the wonderful museums, take in a baseball or football or hockey game, have a bite in the hip new Wharf area, or do a little shopping in Georgetown.

Here are five things to know while you're planning your trip:

v
Arlington Cemetery in Virginia. 

1. Pretty much all sightseeing is free. Yes, really. After you've shelled out for a place to stay, this will be the cheapest place you'll ever visit. The Capitol and the Library of Congress? Free. Any of the 17 Smithsonian museums? Also free. The very moving Arlington Cemetery (which is actually across the Potomac River in Virginia)? Absolutely. Sights like the Pentagon or White House? Yep, even these are free.

In addition to free admission, many sights also offer free tours. They really like tourists in DC! Ask at the information desk if you don't see the tour times posted near the entrance. And the tours are fabulous. For example, we had a fantastic docent named Jack who gave us such an informative tour of the highlights of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Ditto at the Capitol, where we enjoyed another free tour. My favourite tour was of the Pentagon (more on this below) and of the White House as well.

An aerial view of about two-thirds of the National Mall, between the Washington Monument and the Capitol. It's long!

2. The sights aren't as close as they look on the map
. In fact, just about everything is farther apart and it will take longer than you think to see the museums along the National Mall, which is that long, green space along which many of the museums and galleries are located. It's also wise to keep in mind that most of the sights you'll be seeing are government-run, and so they will all close around 4:30 p.m. or 5 p.m. In DC, you need to get an early start.

Many sights offer timed entry slots online; take advantage if possible by booking before you leave home. It will save you a ton of time when you get there.

It's also good to remember that it can take a long time to gain entry to a sight due to security checks. Just about all of the museums will ask you to remove cellphones and metal items from your pockets; then you'll have to go through a body scanner. It all takes time. The National Gallery of Art seems to be more relaxed in this regard. They had no lineups when we were there, and guards only did a visual check of my purse.

The front of the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

3. Visit the White House and Pentagon.
 I find it incredible that these two sights are open to the public. One is the home of the President of the United States and the other is the home of the Department of Defense and the U.S. military. And you can visit both for free! Just make sure you allow lots of time after making your request to clear security checks -- literally, months. There aren't a lot of spots and the few that are available will go fast.

My favourite visit in DC was to the Pentagon, where unfortunately no photos were permitted except for the cheesy fake podium shot at the gift shop. (So of course I got one taken! See below.) The most surprising thing to me was that practically the whole first floor of the Pentagon is a giant mall, complete with drycleaners, banks, pharmacies, clothing stores and even a jewelry store. The Pentagon also has four Starbucks locations and two Dunkin' Donuts spots, and a full food court. The reason: 26,000 people work there and it would be chaos if all of them left at noon to go into the surrounding areas for lunch or to run errands. So everything a person might need is right there within the Pentagon walls. Other fun factoids: The Pentagon has 17 miles of corridor, and some 8,500 parking spots. It is the largest office building in the world.



Pro tip if you want to visit the White House: Canadians, despite what it says on the White House website, our embassy hasn't helped us get tickets for a White House tour since 2011. I contacted Congresswoman Suzan DelBene in Washington state for help, and her office was kind enough to help us get our tickets.

The Washington Monument, where you can take an elevator right to the top.

4. The Washington Monument is open again!
After being closed for more than three years for elevator repair and for the construction of a new visitor screening centre, the sight opened again in October 2019. Built without cranes, bulldozers or electric power, at 555 feet in height it was the tallest structure in the world for some time after it was completed in 1885.

Did you even know the structure has an elevator? The views are spectacular from the top. You'll need to act fast to get tickets to go on it, though. (Again, they're free.) Put your request in as soon as you can. Make a full morning of it and also visit the majestic Lincoln Memorial to the west as well as the poignant Vietnam Veterans Memorial you'll pass along the way. (Both are free, of course.)

5. Transportation & weather: About the only thing you'll pay for in DC is transportation, and even that is very low-cost.
✔ The best way to get around is on DC's easy-to-use Metro system (map is below). As a tourist, you'll spend most of your time on the Blue Line, which will take you from the Capitol all the way west to Arlington Cemetery in Virginia. Rides cost between $2-$3 each way.

✔ Once you're in the vicinity of the National Mall, you can also take the Circulator bus for just $1. Seniors pay 50 cents, and students ride for free. The bus has a number of routes, but the one you're most likely to be interested in is the National Mall loop. It will take you to all the points you'll want to get to for sightseeing.


✔ Finally, just a note about the weather and the skeeters. If rain is forecast, bring appropriate gear because it rains in sheets in DC. And, after the sun sets, expect to get bitten by mosquitoes unless you've got repellent.


Photos by Juanita Ng


No comments