By Samantha Chapnick
I love Washington, D.C. It’s one of the few major cities where you can live the high life for less, thanks to the affordably priced Washington, D.C. hotels, free Smithsonian museums, and plethora of civic sites. Here are my favorite ways to do D.C. for free, or almost free.
I’m assuming you already know that most of the major museums (e.g. Natural History, Air & Space Museum, National Zoo) are free and open to the public. So let’s get beyond them to the lesser known spots.
Kennedy Center Millennium Stage: The Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center brings a different performance every single night of the year at 6 p.m. See if you can catch one on a night they are playing the South Plaza Stage. It has a beautiful view overlooking the Potomac river. No tickets are required, but it is on a first come, first served basis. So get there early for key shows.
Tour the Capital Building and White House: Formerly getting to visit the White House was an almost impossible feat. Calling 6 months in advance and trying for a late fall or winter tour was always the best idea — and still is. But luckily the new administration is trying to make a more level playing field by instituting a lottery for last-minute tours. Anyone who makes a request within 40 days or so of the tour has a chance of getting picked in the lottery. Admittedly, it’s still a really small chance, but it’s better than nothing if you can’t plan that far in advance. Tours run Tuesday through Saturday in the mornings. Get details.
Alternatively, it’s relatively easy to get a great tour of the Capitol Building. Most congresspeople have aides on hand who will give you gossip and other inside info on the building, congressional history and current spats. Our aide even snuck us on the secret subway meant only for members of Congress. Call your congressperson and ask him or her to request a tour for you. You’ll need to have the legal names, Social Security numbers and birth dates for everyone in your party.
See Money Being Printed: Are you an early bird? Get in line as early as 6:30 a.m. at Raoul Wallenberg Place (formerly 15th Street) to get some of the first-come-first-served tickets that are distributed starting at 8 a.m. Most summer days the tickets go within an hour or less of opening, so skip this if you can’t get there in time.
Get Some Stamps: With the proliferation of e-mail, and the lines at some local post offices, it’s easy to forget how important the delivery of mail once was. Visiting the National Postal museum is a constant reminder how American society was built on the flow of paper information before the Internet. Start at the Binding the Nation exhibit, which covers the origins of mail service and leaves off at the Civil war. Then it’s time for Customers and Communities — how service expanded in the 20th century to meet the shifting geographic demographics of the U.S. population. Then it’s on to Moving the Mail, where you’ll see the latest technological advances in mail delivery technology — finally an explanation why you can’t use staples! Don’t leave without seeing the largest collection of stamps anywhere.
Visit a Farmer’s Market: I once ate an entire lunch comprised solely of tastings from a farmer’s market. The multitude scattered around D.C. from Foggy Bottom to H Street, and places in between, are perfect for people who want to beat my record — or just for normal people who want to buy fresh pastries, vegetables, fruits, ice cream and more straight from the source. They’re also a great way for foodies to be entertained with numerous chef demonstrations, book signings, and of course, tastings. Recent visiting chefs include Mark Bittman, Anthony Bourdain, and Sharon Banks. Get details.
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Samantha Chapnick is a New York writer who scours international destinations looking for what hasn’t been found.