WASHINGTON -- There are probably more free things to do in the U.S. capital than nearly any other major city in the world. The most popular museums and the zoo are free, thanks to government funding, as well as the picturesque memorials and monuments. With so many free options, the biggest challenge might be narrowing down what to see.
No visit to the nation's capital is complete without a visit to the nation's museums. First-time visitors learn fast that a trip to the Smithsonian is not a visit to one place. There are actually 19 different museums that are part of the Smithsonian, along with the National Zoo. Most line the National Mall.
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 large 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 http://www.si.edu/.
The nearly two-mile grassy expanse between the Capitol and Potomac River features memorials honoring five presidents, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham 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.
Beyond the large monuments, there are dozens of smaller statues, historic sites and walking paths along the Mall. The National Park Service offers a free new mobile app with a map and details on the sites. http://www.nps.gov/nama/photosmultimedia/app-page.htm
The park also draws about 1 million people each year to see its famous cherry blossom trees when they reach full bloom in late March or early April. 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 have been halted temporarily 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. http://www.loc.gov/visit/tours/.