The hotel’s been booked. Bought your plane tickets. Requested a few days off. You’re all packed and ready for your upcoming trip. Even mapped out all the quintessential Washington D.C. museums and monuments you want to visit. And then, the government shutdown happened. Oh no! Sightseeing plans foiled. Money down the drain. Leave wasted. Trip ruined.
No, wait. It’s true that the famous museums and monuments are what visitors flock to D.C. for, but there are free places and spaces in the District that may be less obvious to tourists, but no less worth visiting. Here are my suggestions:
You can just imagine the history entrenched in the buildings of a city that was founded in the 1700s, and much of it can be found in D.C.’s famous old neighbourhoods. While the weather is still decent, plan to tour some of them on foot or by bike. In the upscale Georgetown neighbourhood, see if you know where to find the terrifyingly steep and narrow staircase featured in the Exorcist movie. Stop by in bustling Chinatown, not just to check out the Qing Dynasty inspired arch, but to see what’s now become of the boarding house formerly run by Mary Surratt, who was convicted as a co-conspirator in the Lincoln assassination. (Hint: It’s now a Chinese carryout called Wok & Roll.) In addition to the many other examples of historical trivia that can be found all over town, you’ll enjoy quaint row houses, as well as the shopping, dining and the scenes of D.C.’s vibrant neighbourhoods. Here’s a Tripadvisor guide to help you identify the best of the best areas.
Washington National Cathedral
I don’t go to church, but have always been drawn to the architecture. The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, more commonly known as the Washington National Cathedral, or simply National Cathedral, is based on 14th century English gothic architecture and bears a slight resemblance to a castle. Admire the statues, gargoyles, vaulted ceilings, stained glass and lofty archways are what you’ll find when you visit. The Cathedral sustained damage to its exterior during the 2011 earthquake that originated in Virginia. The most noticeable from afar is damage to the turrets, which I believe is still scaffolded.
Love art? Get your fill at the Phillips Collection. The official website describes the Phillips Collection as “an exceptional collection of modern and contemporary art in a dynamic environment for collaboration, innovation, engagement with the world, scholarship, and new forms of public participation.” This one’s not quite free, however. Ages 18 and under pay nothing, whilst the rest of us fork out $12 adult admission.
Arlington National Cemetery
The Arlington Cemetery is quite a D.C. icon that most people would put on their list of places to visit, so I’m adding it here since it’s open to visitors during the shutdown. Many American politicians, including members of the Kennedy family are interred here. During Hurricane Sandy, you may remember that viral image of a soldier steadfastly standing guard in the pouring rain at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The Tomb, which is found here, is a memorial dedicated to unidentified soldiers who were killed at war. Tomb Guards that stand watch follow a change of guard protocol that would rival the ones they have at the Buckingham Palace. Americans really honor their fallen.
Millennium Stage at the John F. Kennedy Center
Mention the world class performing arts center to the average D.C. resident and they immediately think of expensive tickets for classical music concerts. But the Millennium Stage hosts daily evening performances from upcoming artists from all over the world, for free. Showcases range from contemporary folk music, dances and even magic shows. Tickets aren’t required, and you can check the schedule before going to find out who’s performing.
Easily accessible by the Metro, Eastern Market is a perennial favourite local spot. Apart from fresh produce, many vendors selling a whole variety of goods set up shop outside the Market – a good place to pick up some D.C. souvenirs. Arts, crafts, t-shirts, vinyl, posters, collectible LIFE magazines, are just to name a few. There are a few good restaurants, bakeries and coffee shops nearby for when you get hungry after all that shopping.
Embassy Row Walking Tour
Get a little taste of international life in the nation’s capital by paying a visit to the many dozens of embassies located here. Unless they’re holding an open event, you won’t be able to enter, but you get to check out the country flags and different building styles of every embassy. Nat Geo has a very useful map and description of Embassy Row, including tidbits about landmarks that you’ll see on your walk.
There are also companies specialising in walking tour services if you prefer to have a guide.
Most green spaces in the District are run by the National Park Service, and you’ll have to drive over to Maryland for this one. The 500-acre garden is free (parking might be limited when crowded) to tour and features about 16 different gardens, including a Japanese tea house built over a man made lake, a children’s “fairy” garden and a Reflection Terrace that’s dedicated to victims of the D.C. sniper.
Finally, consider these additional places that charge admission. The Newseum is a six-storey building (<— click to read my experience) that features milestones in media history, and lots of interactive new media fun to experience. The largest section of the Berlin Wall is housed here too. Tickets are $21 for two-day admission. Another is the National Aquarium in Baltimore, 50 minutes away from D.C. Tickets are at least $30 to see beautiful sea creatures like sharks, penguins, brilliant jelly fish, an electric eel and a dolphin show. Make it a day trip to see the aquarium and hang out at the Inner Harbor area that has plenty of restaurants, shopping and street performers. Click here to view a slideshow.
Shutdown or not, Washington D.C. has much to offer. To find more places of interest that are open, check out Washington.org’s DCisOpen resource. And for all you rebels out there, there’s always this option.
Enjoy your visit!