As a tourist in Washington DC, your number one destination will be the National Mall. You’ll be surprised to know it is not a big shopping mall that converges in the Capitol, but rather, it is a large, green space of land. It stretches for 2 miles (3.2 km) from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, and houses several famous monuments and museums. This article aims to give you some unique experiences that you may normally miss, which will cost you nothing.
1. Go on Ranger Guided Tours
The monuments can get crowded, and if you don’t want to jostle for space as you try and read the text that accompanies the monuments, why not go and join a ranger guided tour? There are plenty of them available throughout the Mall, like Jefferson’s Monument, Lincoln Memorial, the Memorial Pool, and others! Check out the National Park Services website for a full list. They do change their programs and times, so best to consult with them before making plans for the day. They even have guided tours that start from Lincoln Memorial and end at Washington’s Monument, covering all the other monuments you’ll pass along the way. These tours give a lot of information and insight on these iconic places, and best of all, you won’t have to reach for your wallet!
Tip from Trip101 local expert
The National Park Service ranger talks at the Monuments and Memorials in Washington, D.C. are one of the best free programs on offer. Always friendly and available to answer your questions after their talks, these park rangers provide detailed and compelling stories about the history of the Monuments and Memorials and make sure to dispel any myths that have arisen about them over time. I can promise that you won't be disappointed whether you are a history buff or only learned about these places while in school.
2. Walk inside Capitol Hill
Known for the beautiful domed building that houses the United States Congress, you may be under the false impression that the Capitol Hill is off-limits to tourists. In fact, you’ll be pleased to discover that daily tours are widely available! if you’re lucky, you may walk in and grab a time slot, but if you want your day planned, you may reserve your tickets online for the specific time you’ll need. Something to note: book your tickets in advance as they sell out quickly. You’ll be led by a guide throughout the various rooms, the most iconic being the Capitol Rotunda. Before you go, however, you’ll encounter airport type security where several guards will check your belongings. No food or drink is allowed inside– you can bring empty plastic water bottles, but you can’t have anything liquid with you! There is a food court in the basement – with quality, if a bit pricey, food. This same food court is the go-to place of the employees in Capitol Hill.
3. Visit the Library of Congress
If you’re a fan of Dan Brown, you might have read the Lost Symbol, which tells of a tunnel between the Library of Congress and the Capitol Hill. Well that tunnel is definitely real, and you can walk in it as you leave Capitol Hill and enter the Library of Congress. The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world! Best of all, you can see the beautiful reading room from the outside on your own, or through a free guided tour. Unfortunately, the reading room is off limits to visitors, but you can view the intricacies of the room and the books from an observation area. If you love books, then this place is definitely for you. You may check the Library of Congress’ website for the complete tour schedule. The bookstore is also a great place to pick up a book (or two, or more) as a souvenir.
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4. Pretend to be Larry at Night at the Museum in the Smithsonian Institution
The Smithsonian is actually the largest museum complex in the world, administered by the United States Government. Entrance to all of the museums within the National Mall is free, except for some special exhibitions that you may need to pay extra for. The Smithsonian also survives on donations, so if you enjoy the museum, you may donate whatever amount you wish. They have museums for pretty much everything you can think of: Natural History, where you can see great and precious gems like the “cursed” Hope Diamond, to dioramas of animals looking so realistic you feel like they are alive, to bones of other animal species. Another popular museum, is the Air & Space Museum, dedicated to the frontier of flight. Looks can be deceiving. From the outside, it looks like these buildings are quite small, but once you get inside, you’ll see the enormity of their spaces. These tours are perfect for a rainy day outing, as you can spend a full day in one museum!
Tip from Trip101 local expert
With so much on offer, it can be hard to decide just which museum to visit! Lovers of dinosaurs should make sure to add the recently remodeled exhibit at the Natural History Museum to their schedule. After being closed for five years, the dinosaur exhibit reopened in 2019 and was an incredible sight to see with brand new dinosaurs and a completely new layout. It was so well done that I visited three times in the first month that it reopened!
Washington Tour Guide
My name is Annie. I am a local Tour guide based in Philadelphia enjoying fully what the city has to offer with its deep history, street arts, murals, architecture, traditional food, black history, Farmer Markets, green space, a melting pot of neighborhoods and its great locals. I am looking for to welcome you and show you this incredible city where you will gain a better understanding of the city's rich heritage and its continuing legacy as the birthplace of the United States of America. Book my tour. Explore and learn about this unique city where you will walk on the footsteps of our America's founding Fathers. My tours are conducted in English, French and Italian.
Tours by Annie
Washington Tour Guide
I'm a graduate of ITMI, International Tour Management Institute and 17 years as a licensed Tour Director and Program Director. My expertise began in NYC and Washington, DC where I'm a licensed guide and has expanded to Europe, South America, Cuba and the Western / Southwestern National Parks of the US. I'd love to introduce you for a day or a week to Denver, Colorado and the 4 corners region of the US: Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona! Let's GO!! firstname.lastname@example.org
Tours by Stephanie
5. See the views from the Washington Monument
Last but not least, you have the Washington Monument. In the heart of the National Mall, a great obelisk stands. Dedicated to the first American President, George Washington, the observation deck at the top has recently been reopened to tourists. However, getting tickets can be quite challenging. If you don’t want to pay, expect to queue for a few hours before the ticket booth opens, if there are still tickets available. If you don’t want to queue, it is best to go online where you’ll pay a small convenience fee to have the tickets mailed to you.If you live in the US, expect the tickets to arrive within 7-10 days, or as advised on the confirmation page when you’re booking. Like Capitol Hill, expect to have an airport-like security screening before you enter.
Tip from Trip101 local expertWhile the 896 steps of the Washington Monument are closed to the public, make sure when you ride the elevator back to the bottom that you get a place close to the doors. As the park ranger gives their talk on the way to the bottom, the fogged glass will become clear and you will be able to see many of the donated stone inlays that line the inside of the Washington Monument. If you are visiting from across the country, keep an eye out as you might get to see the inlay from your home state!
A full week of fun & freedom
These experiences are definitely not for the tourist who wants to cram everything into one day. With so many historical sites to explore, don’t you wish you could start now? So book your airline ticket and your hotel, with the satisfaction of not having to worry much about attraction expenses. DC has it covered, as everyone is sure to enjoy this budget worthy vacation.
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