Ah Washington DC – capital of the United States and home of many a great (and not-so-great) President. A hub of culture, art, politics, and alien invasions. Washington DC is a popular stop for travellers who enjoy a sense of history and have a thirst for knowledge but it is also fantastic for those travelling on a budget. The number of free activities and the availability of free public transport throughout the city gives not-so-luxury backpackers (such as myself) the opportunity to make their way around the iconic monuments, museums and parks without burning a hole in their pockets.
Now, I have never had much patience for museums. I tend to grow tired after half an hour and need constant feeding to stop me napping on an ancient ceremonial rug or the wing of a seaplane. The most interest I glean from these incredible buildings is the creative and expressive architecture. I was faced with many examples of modernist, classical, and sometimes just downright futuristic formations as I travelled down North America’s East coast. The Guggenheim (of course) with its complete lack of corners, The World Trade Centre which looks like a giant insect about to take off, and the art deco style of Miami which throws you back to sequin dresses, sipping champagne and riding around in a top down Rolls-Royce (I wish!). And so the list could go on.
Washington DC was no exception, from the towering spire of the Washington Monument, to the almost 20 foot tall statue of Abraham Lincoln. DC is full of classical architecture from the Capitol and The White House with their pillars and domes, to the modernist style of the National Museum of the American Indian with its stone waves. Which museums you might find most interesting depends entirely on your own interests so be careful not to listen to what everyone tells you is the best. Grab yourself a map of the Smithsonians and take your pick.
Did you know there are over 70 museums in Washington DC and all 17 Smithsonian museums, galleries, gardens and the zoo are free to visit? Not being a big museum fan, the zoo was top of my list. Considering this is a free venue the exhibits and animals you can see and the vast information available to visitors is pretty incredible. From elephants and lions to pandas and zebras. I filled almost an entire day exploring the zoo before catching the free bus* down to Georgetown for a much needed strawberry mojito to cool off from the rather extreme heat of the day. If you like quaint streets, funky boutiques and great riverside cocktails (seriously, who doesn’t) then a trip to Georgetown is a MUST!
*Travel Tip: As well as free attractions, DC has a free bus service, the Circulator, which runs several routes across the central city area. Look out for the red Circulator bus stops and pick up a map from any tourist information or train station.
I only had 48 hours to explore DC but I still managed to capture some great moments and make some great memories. If I were to recommend how to spend a weekend in DC, these would be my top picks.
My highlights of Washington DC:
- Arriving at Union Station and spending the first morning walking down the National Mall past The Supreme Court, The Library of Congress, The US Capitol, The Washington Monument and the incredible WW2 Memorial. (You’ll also find several museums along this strip to get you started).
- Standing at the feet of the great Abraham Lincoln and contemplating life’s beauty and challenges while overlooking the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.
- You can barely get close enough to see the White House through binoculars due to all the security, but I did manage to time my passing of it as a cannon salute marked the arrival of the Australian Prime Minister – pretty cool. You can also catch a glimpse of the home of the President from several swanky rooftop bars in the area.
- I spent half a day exploring the Smithsonian Zoo and would highly recommend for animal lovers or anyone travelling with children.
- Exploring boutiques and drinking cocktails on the harbour front in Georgetown.
- A couple of things I missed – I didn’t make it to see Arlington Cemetery or The Pentagon and would have loved to snap a look at these iconic spots too.
The points of interest in DC are pretty concentrated and you can visit most of these within a few hours walk of each other. So pack a picnic lunch and head down the National Mall in central DC and pick a couple of museums to explore on your first day. Then learn a thing or two about elephants at the Smithsonian Zoo and end day two with a browse around Georgetown and a cocktail or four.