“Get Out There” is a column for itchy footed humans written by Paste contributor Blake Snow. Although weird now, travel is still worthwhile—especially to these open borders.
Know what the second biggest industry in D.C. is, after the federal government? It’s actually tourism—over 20 million people visit our nation’s capital each year. And it’s not just patriotic Americans and school buses filling the streets. Washington welcomes visitors from all over the world, which you’ll encounter as you walk the National Mall.
I first visited D.C. as a junior in high school with a local youth group. Like most self-centered teenagers, I was disinterested by anything that wasn’t music related, a trip to D.C. very much included. But I left with a newfound appreciation for the arts, achievements, and history of America that week. “I will take my kids here someday,” I even uttered.
That day arrived this year, after my wife and I booked our family for a weeklong visit over spring break, just in time to catch the last few cherry blossoms (while also skipping the swampy summer weather). In short, D.C. is a surprisingly quiet, clean, pedestrian-friendly city with arguably more free things to do than any other city on Earth.
It has a few warts, of course—most noticeably the excessive barricades blocking the view of the White House. But like the many locals that outwardly share their love for the city, my family and I couldn’t agree more. Here’s why.
Whether you pay U.S. taxes or not, there are literally hundreds of free things to see and do in D.C. That’s good for everyone, but it’s especially pertinent to families. This, of course, is the major draw, from the many monuments you’ll encounter to the dozens of museums and public buildings.
We started our trip with visits to the monuments on the west side of the two-mile wide mall. Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson—the giants of democracy—were our favorites and even more magical when visiting at night. We then skidded the bridge over to Arlington Cemetery to witness the insane honor and precision of the U.S. Army as they changed guards.
The next day we headed to the many museums on the east side of the mall. We gawked under the rotunda at the National Archives and were wowed by the perfect handwriting of the father and son that inked the constitution. We saw originals by Da Vinci, Vermeer, and Van Eyck at the National Gallery of Art. Van Gogh’s Green Wheat Fields, Monet’s Woman with a Parasol, and Fragonard’s Young Girl Reading were our favorites.
We enjoyed the American History Museum, Botanical Garden, and sunbathing on the capitol lawn for an entire afternoon. (Sadly the Capitol and Air & Space Museum are still closed for security and renovation reasons.) We saw one of the most impressive marble interiors on either side of the Atlantic at the phenomenal Library of Congress. Seriously, that building is unreal and probably the family favorite of any we visited.
Of course, the sobering Holocaust Museum did its job in reminding us that racism and class warfare are the ugliest things in the world. The kids saw their first national protest—”We demand action!” shouted a small group of organizers, exercising their right to be heard.
Getting around, where to stay
Get ready to walk. A lot. Even with the help of crazy clean subways, a terrific bus system, and Lime scooters, my family walked over a dozen miles per day on several occasions. All restaurants and hotels are outside of the 150 acres of the National Mall and traffic is too bad to rent a car. Bike shares and rentals can lessen your load, however.
Either way, I highly recommend sleeping in some days and staying in one night to rest. It really made the rest of the trip—aka going hard all afternoon and evening—actually enjoyable. But so did the free museum bathrooms, ice cream, and french fries at the refreshment stands.
In terms of hotels, we stayed at the terrific Thompson Hotel for most of the week. Located in the chic Navy Yard, we could get to the southeast edge of the mall within about 15-20 minutes after powering up on the included pastry and coffee breakfast in the lobby. Better yet, the rates were more affordable than expected from a place this nice. For a little less, we also stayed at The Oakwood for the first part of our week to facilitate visits from northwest side of the mall. While the former was nicer, both were great locations with helpful staff and free amenities.
In addition to all the freebies that week, we treated ourselves to a three-course dinner cruise on the scenic Potomac River. It was a great way to celebrate a successful spring break in a capital that’s much more unified than it gets credit for.
Blake Snow contributes to fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies as a bodacious writer-for-hire and frequent travel columnist. He lives in Provo, Utah with his adolescent family and two dogs.