There's plenty to do in the federal capital without an entrance fee, writes Sheila Consaul.
Washington DC is known for its vast abundance of things to see and do. But if you prefer getting sunshine and fresh air to lingering in museums or riding on bus tours, there's a long list of ways you can enjoy this capital city's great outdoors.
Every sightseeing trip to DC should include visiting the stunning white marble monuments and buildings, such as the White House, Washington Monument, Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, and the US Capitol. A great way to visit them is on a bicycle. One of the companies that makes it easy to grab a bike and tour DC on two wheels is Capital Bikeshare (similar to NZ's Onzo bikes). To ensure rider safety, the city has implemented a series of bike lanes and there are plenty of paved trails and sidewalks close to the major tourist attractions. If you want a special DC night-time experience, tour the monuments after dark when they shimmer in the moonlight. Capital Bikeshare's bikes are available 24-seven and equipped with reflectors for night-time touring.
If you're more comfortable with a guide and a group, take a bike tour. Try Fat Tire Tours or Bike and Roll, whose guides will tell you fun facts and historic anecdotes along the way so you can spend more time looking at the sights than your map. However, if a bicycle is too low-tech, upgrade to a motorised Segway. Known officially as a personal motorised mobility device, you can rent one or take a tour — the power boost may be just what you need to zip around DC. Contact DC Segway Rentals or Segs in the City and for guided tours, try City Segway. And, just as in New Zealand, electric scooters are the latest option to get around town. Look for Lime, Skip or Bird scooters and download an app before you head out.
The massive National Mall, also known as "America's Front Yard," is the perfect place for Segway or scooter riders to cruise around, taking in the outside of many of the Smithsonian Museums. Or head in the direction of Constitution Gardens to pass by the impressive World War II, Martin Luther King, Korean War Veterans and Vietnam Veterans memorials.
If water sports are more to your liking, there are many ways to enjoy DC's highlights from the Potomac River. You can rent canoes, kayaks, paddleboards, sailboats, paddle boats, hydro boats, swan boats, sculls or row boats from Boating in DC. They are in seven locations along the river so what you want to see may determine where you rent from and the kind of watercraft best suited for your trip.
If you're more comfortable as crew than captain, opt for a guided tour. Experienced boaters can rent larger boats to ply the river through Boat Setters or you can let someone else drive while you simply enjoy the ride by hiring a captain. Make sure your Potomac River experience takes you by The Kennedy Center, or what functions as America's national cultural centre, because its massive 192m white facade is best viewed from the river.
For another way to enjoy DC, strap on your hiking boots and hit one of the many trails. The American Hiking Society recommends several top hikes in and around the city including: The C&O Canal Tow Path, Rock Creek Park, or the Potomac Heritage Trail. Combine a hike on the C&O Canal Tow Path with a stop in historic Georgetown. Once a bustling shipping port, this tiny DC neighbourhood is now the perfect stop before or after your time on the Tow Path for lunch, a drink or one of its famous Georgetown Cupcakes.
You can access the busy Mt. Vernon Trail at the central Theodore Roosevelt Island and at other major landmarks, including Arlington National Cemetery and various Metro stations. The Mt. Vernon Trail snakes along the Potomac River with breathtaking views of the city. Along the trail, you will also experience the roar of jets at Reagan National Airport, so if you love aircraft bellies, you'll be in heaven.
A worthwhile stop along the trail is historic Old Town Alexandria. This charming town still boasts cobblestone streets and offers plenty of shops, restaurants and cafes. If you reach the end of the trail — all 29km — visit Mt. Vernon, George Washington's home. The estate is worth a few hours for a tour to hear about the former president's contributions to the nation and get a better slant on life in Colonial America.
Finally, if all this outdoor activity means you need some down time, find a patch of grass and settle in for a picnic. Favourite spots include the National Mall, US Botanic Gardens, Constitution Gardens, Tidal Basin/West Potomac Park and the US Capitol Grounds. Takeaway food outlets are plentiful in DC — especially during the week when they cater to DC's working wonks. The local food trucks that line the streets are highly sought after for their fresh — often ethnic flavours — and convenience. For a more traditional European-style picnic to take away, try Dean and Deluca in Georgetown or Glen's Garden Market in Dupont Circle.
If you are visiting in the summer (May to August), plan your picnic for the evening hours and catch some free live music at one of DC's many outdoor venues. The military bands are a perpetual favourite for an upbeat sound or if jazz is more your style, head to the National Gallery of Art for its Jazz in the Garden series.
So although Washington DC is known for a plethora of indoor activities, including the museums, renowned art galleries and guided tours, there's plenty to do and see without ever setting foot inside.
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