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Would you buy tickets for a tourist attraction and then not go see it? Of course not! But if you've paid your taxes, then you've already bought admission to Washington, DC's most popular museums, parks, and monuments. So go -- it's free!
Most of the attractions are located on the National Mall, a two-mile strip of parkland between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. (This is one mall where you won't mind your kids hanging out.) Plan on spending a three-day weekend here, at least. For those short on time, follow our sightseer's survival guide to DC's top seven free attractions.
Touch a real moon rock, see the Spirit of Saint Louis that carried Lindbergh across the Atlantic, or view the actual Apollo 11 lunar command module that took astronauts to the moon. The country's most popular museum is so jam-packed with stuff for space buffs, it can take a full day to navigate. (The IMAX film and planetarium show sell out fast, so buy tickets as soon as you arrive.) "Trekkies" in the family won't want to miss the Starship Enterprise model used in the original Star Trek TV series. Estimated visit time: minimum two hours.
Skip the stuffed animals and lifeless dioramas. Instead, go straight to the second floor. That's where Mom can ogle the legendary 45-carat Hope Diamond, while the kids get bug-eyed watching the Insect Zoo's live tarantulas and giant millipedes. For another kind of bite, make a pit stop at the Atrium Cafe, where you'll find reasonably priced salads and sandwiches. Estimated visit time: 30 minutes for exhibits, 30 minutes at the cafe.
Kids getting out of line? Take them to law enforcement central -- the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, just off the Mall. Future legal eagles and troublemakers alike will be transfixed by the sobering, one-hour tour showcasing the agency's 10 Most Wanted List, crime laboratories, and a live firearms demonstration. Estimated visit time: one hour.
If the Mall is America's front lawn, then this is the attic. Nostalgia fanatics will love seeing Archie Bunker's armchair, Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, and ball gowns worn by the First Ladies. In the "Hands On History" room, kids can pedal an antique high-wheeler bike or send a telegraph message. Estimated visit time: An hour to see the highlights.
If your kids read Anne Frank's Diary in school, they can put the book in context at this powerful museum, recounting the story of millions who perished in the holocaust. The main exhibit, which depicts the event through film and eyewitness accounts, is suitable for ages 11 and up; a special exhibit, "Daniel's Story," appeals to children as young as 8. The museum gets crowded during weekends and holidays, but you can book museum passes in advance for a nominal service charge. Estimated visit time: two hours.
After a two-year restoration, this 555-foot monument to the Father of the Country will give you a patriotic boost. Tickets are free at the kiosk. But take our advice: For holiday visits, order in advance by phone. It's worth the nominal service charge to avoid lines. Allow 45 minutes to an hour for this stop, from lining up to exiting.
If you can squeeze it in, here's one more site that shouldn't be missed:
After a day in Washington, cross in front of the Capitol and turn to look again at the Washington Monument. Sure, you'll be proud of yourself for having taken a family trip that's fun, educational, and a real bargain; but you'll also be proud to know that you're a part owner of all the great things you've seen.
Best ages: 7 and up
Ideal trip length: Weekend
Distance: Baltimore (45 miles); Richmond (106 miles); Philadelphia (142 miles); New York (232 miles)
Best time to go: September through December, you'll get good weather without the crowds.
Weather: 69/50 degrees in fall; 70/50 degrees in spring, but larger crowds. Late summer you'll hit sweltering heat and humidity.
Squirm factor: Some, to a lot
National Air and Space Museum. National Museum of Natural History, and National Museum of American History. All located at the National Mall, Smithsonian Metro Stop, 202-357-2700.
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. 100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl. SW, 202-488-0400, 800-400-9373 (for tickets).
The Washington Monument. 15th St. and Constitution Ave. NW. For advance tickets, National Parks Reservation Service, 800-967-2283.
FBI Tours. J. Edgar Hoover FBI Bldg, 935 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202-324-3447.
The National Zoological Park. 3000 Connecticut Ave. NW, Woodley Park/Zoo Metro Stop, 202-357-2700.
More information: Washington CVA, 202-789-7000.
Favorite local spot: Tony Cheng's. In Chinatown at 621 H St. NW, 202-842-8669. This is the place for Mongolian Barbeque, a one-of-a-kind, all-you-can-eat dinner. Pick out your own raw ingredients from a buffet and take them to a chef, who fires them up while you watch.
Best souvenir: Freeze-dried ice cream (like the astronauts eat!) at the Air and Space Museum Shop. Don't worry, it only looks like Styrofoam -- when it melts in your mouth, you'd swear it was the real thing.
Traffic alert: Park at your hotel and explore the city via the Metro. The subway is clean, safe, and futuristic. Washington's diagonal streets are confusing and gridlock is common. If you do drive, watch where you park! The only thing more efficient than the Metro is parking enforcement, with pricey tickets appearing seconds after that meter turns red.
You may not be a beltway insider, but you still have friends in high places. At least a month in advance of your trip to the nation's capital, call the local office of your Congressperson or Senator. You might be able to scoop up free passes for a behind-the-scenes VIP tour of the White House or gain entrance to one of the congressional cafeterias. To track down your official, try the U.S. Capitol Switchboard, 202-224-3121.
Reviewed April 2004.