There are some amazing values to any Washington DC visit. Consider that a ton of attractions are free – okay, paid by your tax dollars, that's true. But the fact you don't have to pay at the door does allow you to be smart about budgeting your vacation, and they do range from the historic – like the White House – to the marvelous – like the 19 Smithsonian Museums. Our nation's capital offers a diversity of visitor experiences that's tough to match by most other American cities. And, although the tried and true attractions are a must for any traveler, many of the most memorable are found well off the beaten path.
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.
Hit the Spa, Skip the Mall
Need a breather after walking the Mall? Spa World, located about 15 minutes outside DC in Centerville, Virginia, is not your ordinary spa experience. With 50,000 square feet of space, it bills itself as the largest Asian-style spa in the country. In the so-called poultice rooms toxins are removed through thermotherapy; heat is drawn from natural earth elements, like hot red clay, oak wood charcoal and gems, like amethyst and quartz. The huge "bade pool" offers different forms of water massage therapy as guests visit nine unique stations; the wave jet shoots high-pressure water from the walls, to massage the upper body, while the floating jet has jets on the pool floor, to massage the feet and stretch the body. There's a fitness center and a health-driven restaurant and juice bar, too. This family-oriented spa is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Do the Smithsonian, Keep it Fresh
The most visited Smithsonian destinations – like the Air and Space Museum and the Natural History Museum – are amazing, and worth a visit. But remember that there are 19 museums that bear the Smithsonian name, and the one you've never heard of may be the one worth visiting next. The Renwick Gallery, for example, is home to a fascinating array of modern crafts and decorative arts; located just steps from the White House, it's slated to close for a major revamp starting Dec. 9. And at the Freer Gallery of Art, located on the National Mall, there's Asian art spanning thousands of years, from Korean ceramics to Indian sculpture. 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 is therefore free to the public and open every day of the year, except Christmas Day.
See Glass, Blow Glass
DC GlassWorks is a unique way to do the arts in DC. This 3,200-square-foot industrial warehouse is located Hyattsville, Maryland, about 20 minutes out of DC, and houses several public-access artist studios. The focus here is on glassblowing, and the public is welcome to see this fascinating art form in action during periodic open houses. The next one is slated for Sept. 7. Classes – which can range from five evenings to several weeks – are offered throughout the year; the Beginning Glassblowing class teaches the basics – gathering, blocking and blowing molten glass. Metal works and sculpture have a home here, too.
Ride into Union Station, Stay Awhile
Accessibility is part of DC'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 to your cab, stay awhile. It turns out that this 106-year-old building is an architectural marvel, designed in 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 each weighs 25 tons. 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?). Admission to Union Station, of course, is free.
Get a Table, Taste History
Foodies already know: Washington DC is in the throes of a culinary movement that's creating some of the hottest new dining destinations in the country. But Old Ebbitt Grill enjoys longevity. It's DC's oldest restaurant and bar, dating back to 1856, and it may still offer the best raw bar in the city– lobster, shrimp, clams and bicoastal oysters galore. The main dining room is lit by antique gas chandeliers and the stairs that lead up to the new federalist-style Corner Bar are made of marble. Located around the corner from the White House, this eatery serves breakfast, lunch and dinner every day and is a great spot for late-night grub.
Long Legs, Big Seat
At close to 20 feet in height, the public artwork dubbed Chair may be the most recognizable attraction in the quaint DC community of Anacostia. Known as the largest chair in the country, it's often used as a marker when giving directions, and Santa sits here during the holidays. It's made of aluminum, features a painted brown-and-white cushion and weighs more than two tons. In a city known for landmarks, this quirky one, built in 1959, will make for neat pictures. Get to Anacostia by crossing the 11th Street Bridge (which happens to be the escape route John Wilkes Booth took the night he shot President Lincoln).
Ride the Bike, Skip the Cab
Capital Bikeshare is a program that puts some 1,800 bikes at your finger--, err, toe tips. There are more than 200 bike stations throughout DC, Alexandria and Arlington and you can buy access for as little as a day to as long as a year. The three-day pass, for example, requires a $15 membership and riding costs are based on how long you pedal; the first 30 minutes are free and there are charges for every 30-minute period thereafter. By the way, if you opt for the Metrorail system to move around, a one-day unlimited ride pass will cost you just $14.
Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features hotel, airfare and a bevy of local deals in Washington, DC at http://www.travelzoo.com/destinations/washington_dc/.