What to See and What to Skip in Washington, DC

PHOTO: Cherry blossoms are pictured during peak bloom at the Tidal Basin in Washington D.C. in this stock photo. PlayGetty Images
WATCH Can't Miss Travel Destinations for 2017

With political winds shifting sharply, the spotlight is clearly on Washington, D.C., this month.

But no matter who occupies the White House, or who inhabits the halls of Congress, D.C.'s draw as a traveler's playground remains intact.

A plethora of free attractions creates value in our nation's capital. Throw in competitive pricing from a bevy of brand new hotels -– 14 grand openings in 2016 and at least 16 more planned for this year -– and Washington just became an even bigger bargain. That's why it's on Travelzoo's WOW Deal Destinations list for 2017.

If you're planning your own D.C. visit, these expert suggestions are a solid start.

Skip the Cab, Walk

"Just walking around the city is really incredible," says Laura Evans, whose just-ended 18-year run as a D.C. news anchor that helped make her one of the city's most recognizable media personalities. "The way the city was built –- it's so aesthetically pleasing. Do your own walking tour: from the Capitol, around the Potomac, then over to Arlington National Cemetery. There’s so much to see."

When it's time to give your feet a break, consider Capital Bikeshare, a program that puts some 3,500 bikes at your disposal. There are more than 400 bike stations throughout D.C., Alexandria and Arlington, and you can buy access for as little as a day to as long as a year; the first 30 minutes are free and there are charges for every 30-minute period thereafter.

By the way, a one-day unlimited ride pass on the Metrorail system costs $14.50.

Don’t Skip the Guide

Even if you tour on your own, a guide to D.C.'s attractions is a must. "You want to get the background on the memorials, because you don't always get the meaning just from looking at them," Evans says. With the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and the Korean War Veterans Memorial, for example, "there's treasure behind what meets the eye," she adds, "and they are extremely moving when you know their meaning."

New Yorkers Karyn Ravin and Leigh Fisher Savar just traveled to D.C. together with their families. They armed their kids with a book called, "Mission Washington D.C.: A Hidden Treasure Adventure" by Catherine Aragon. "The kids had the most use for it at the tour of The Capitol -– they had to find different statues and identify items in the artwork," she says. "It kept them busy and engaged."

Skip Room Service, Be a Foodie

Washington's reputation as a culinary haven is on fire, attracting celeb chefs and ravenous patrons alike. Among Evans' favorites: The Red Hen for "organic, clean, artful, yummy" food; Les Diplomats for "more of a party scene but fun and excellent" French cuisine; Zaytinya for "great tapas and lots of young people;" Rasika for Indian and Kapnos for Greek. Evans' "very favorite restaurant on the planet" is Komi in Dupont Circle, where Chef Johnny Monis "is a creative mastermind," where each night's multi-course meal with pairings "is like a symphony," she says. Because there are only a few tables here, calling in a reservation at noon exactly a month before you want to go is highly recommended.

Politicians are D.C.'s version of celebrities, so if you want to spot your favorite lawmaker, dine at The Bombay Club. "It's been around a long time and close to the White House, and you always see a member of Congress," Evans says.

For more political sightings, Awet Sium, general manager at the slick Kimpton Donovan (one of 10 Kimpton hotels in D.C.), sends guests to "Bistro Bis and Caucus Room, both on Capitol Hill, and my absolute favorite, Johnny’s Half Shell."

The city has many kid-friendly options, too. "Filomena is a classic, over-the-top Italian restaurant -– so much amazing food," Ravin says. And the booths at Ted's Bulletin are "fun for families," although reservations are a must. "We went early and by the time we left the place was totally jammed," she adds.

Stephanie Rosenblum, a PR account executive in New York City who lived four years in D.C. while attending George Washington University, says Founding Farmer's in Foggy Bottom has "one of the best breakfasts in D.C., everything is farm-to-table," and she suggests Busboys & Poets for a memorable brunch. For dinner, she likes Lincoln in downtown D.C., where "the floor is made of pennies," and the grub at Ben's Chili (a President Obama favorite, rumor has it), is good any time of day. For her sweet tooth, Rosenblum heads to Georgetown, home to Georgetown Cupcake (starring in the TLC show, "D.C. Cupcakes") and famous District Doughnut.

For a taste of history, dine at Old Ebbitt Grill, D.C.'s oldest restaurant. Dating back to 1856, the antique gas chandeliers and the marble stairs that lead to the federalist-style Corner Bar are classic, while the raw bar remains one of the best in town.

Skip the Restaurant, Visit the Market

If your inner chef is in a DIY mood, check out Eastern Market, a few blocks south of the Capitol. The huge 19th century structure is registered as a National Historic Landmark –- it's the city's only historic building that maintains its original public market function. The South Hall Market hosts merchants every Tuesday through Sunday, selling meats, seafood, flowers, produce, pasta, baked goods and cheeses from around the world. Weekends bring out antiques and arts and crafts merchants, as well as live music.

After the Smithsonian, Visit These Museums

There are plenty of museum "musts" in D.C., including the 19 awesome Smithsonian venues. Among Rosenblum's musts: the Smithsonian Museum of American History, home to the Ruby Slippers from "The Wizard of Oz," baseball memorabilia and The Muppets' puppets; the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, where you'll find props from the "Transformers" movies and simulator rides; and the National Archives Museum, which features The Bill of Rights, The Constitution and The Declaration of Independence.

Ravin and her kids loved the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, which houses a bug museum and several interactive exhibits. "My son was able to pull real fossils, rocks and insects out of drawers and put them under high-tech microscopes himself," she says. "The staff was incredible."

And don't forget that the National Zoo -– with its 2,000 animals, a quarter of which are endangered -– is part of the Smithsonian family, too, and therefore free to the public. "Just make sure you start at the top and walk down -– it's on a giant hill," Ravin says.

But don't stop there. The Capitol Tour always gets high marks. Savar and family liked the International Spy Museum: It's not free but they found it "very engaging, interactive, and truly fascinating." Rosenblum touts Madame Tussauds. "I know they have this in almost every city," she says, "but D.C.'s has a great exhibit with wax figures of all the U.S presidents and first ladies, along with famous celebrities and media personalities." The museum just unveiled a new wax figure of President Donald Trump.

Evans is a huge fan of the Holocaust Memorial Museum. "Heavy duty, but very special," she says, especially since it offers seasonal live, on-stage interviews with survivors.

And then there's the hottest ticket in town: the brand new National Museum of African American History and Culture. "People can't get a ticket -– they're still waiting three or four months out," Evans says. But planning ahead is worth it. The museum, which opened in September and is managed by the Smithsonian, houses tens of thousands of objects related to topics from segregation, civil rights and slavery to family, religion and community. Among the notables: items once owned by Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Louie Armstrong, James Brown and Muhammad Ali.

After Lincoln, Visit These Landmarks

Many landmarks are also a must, of course, like the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument. The White House and the Department of the Treasury are right next door to each other. The 50-acre Constitution Gardens are framed by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Reflecting Pool.

But there's plenty more. The Donovan's Sium says, “The FDR Memorial isn’t as well-known as Lincoln or Jefferson, but is a stunning tribute. It’s located on the far side of the Tidal Basin and a hidden gem not typically on people’s radar while visiting the National Mall.”

My colleague Elisabeth Barker, an associate producer in Travelzoo's New York City headquarters, spent eight years in the D.C. area as an undergrad at the University of Maryland and as a journalism grad student at Georgetown. "One of the coolest statues is not of a president or leader on the National Mall but can be found at Potomac National Harbor," she says. "Among the shops, paddleboat rentals and restaurants is 'The Awakening,' a 72-foot structure of a giant rising from beneath the earth." The piece is by J. Seward Johnson Jr.

Ride into Union Station, Stay Awhile

Accessibility is part of D.C.'s appeal. Case in point is Union Station, which allows millions of people a year to visit by rail. But rather than just strolling through on the way out the door, stay awhile. It turns out that this 110-year-old building is an architectural marvel, designed in the Roman-inspired Beaux Arts style by Daniel H. Burnham. All woodwork is mahogany. Carved white granite figures nestled into nooks of the main entrance façade weigh 25 tons apiece. The antique train gates are originals. And a two-year, $160 million restoration that ended in 1988 used more than 70 pounds of gold leafing and 2.5 acres of pink marble. After you play tourist, you can shop (dozens of retail stores feature everything from cigars to chocolates) and dine (will it be chicken and biscuits or sushi?).

Skip the Mall, Do Georgetown

"Georgetown is a well-maintained example of the early days of D.C., with cobblestone streets, pastel row houses dating back to the Revolution and Georgetown University -- the oldest Catholic college in the United States," Barker says. "If you're visiting on a weekend, I recommend having brunch at Martin's Tavern. The Wisconsin Avenue restaurant is more than 80 years old and has hosted every president from Harry Truman to George W. Bush -– JFK even popped the question to Jackie in Booth Three. The surrounding blocks are home to historic sites like the Watergate Hotel, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the oldest jazz club in America. Visitors can shop along M Street and end the day with an alfresco happy hour in Georgetown Waterfront Park."

The Donovan's Sium adds: "A must-do is the Georgetown Ghost Tour, which shares some really cool and creepy history to Georgetown, including the famous stairs from 'The Exorcist.'"

Don't Miss These 'Hoods

Other D.C. neighborhoods of note, according to Rosenblum, include Dupont Circle. "There are a lot of quaint restaurants and coffee shops," she says. "I recommend Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café for brunch. It's a bar at night, but it's a really cozy brunch place that happens to be in the back of a bookstore."

She also suggests Old Town Alexandria.

"This is a lot of fun to visit –- the metro ride is pretty short," she says. "They have a big gallery where you can watch artists paint and sculpt, and there are a lot of restaurants and cute shops around the waterfront."

And Chinatown "is not a must-see or a must-do," she says, "but they have a cool archway that's nice to look at if you're in the area. You may end up walking through this neighborhood anyway, since it's pretty central and close to a lot of other stuff downtown."

See the Island, Skip the City

Just off the shores of Washington, in the Potomac River, lies Roosevelt Island, an 88-acre, totally car-free isle that visitors can access via footbridge. It's been known by a variety of names in the past, including My Lord's Island and Mason's Island. It became Roosevelt Island when it was selected to memorialize President Theodore Roosevelt, and it became a national landmark in 1966. You can only travel the island on foot, and there are several trails that lead to its centerpiece, a 17-foot statue of the 26th president. You can take the metro and get off at Rosslyn or park your car at the lot located along the Virginia bank of the river.

Eating healthy for the New Year? Keep it going with our Mediterranean Veggie Fritatta! ????#kramersbrunch #washingtondc #dupontcircle

A photo posted by Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe (@kramerbooks) on Jan 8, 2017 at 8:14am PST

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Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals on New Zealand hotels, flights, activities, restaurants, spas and shows at www.travelzoo.com.