Get Out of Town to Washington, DC

There is a lot to see in DC for free!

Champaign, ILL - Travel Expert Marcia Frost shares tips for a budget friendly family vacation in DC.

When it comes to family vacations, you need to look at the whole picture. Even though Washington, DC may require a short plane ride or about an 11-hour drive, once you get there you will find enough free things to do to fill a week.

I only had three days in DC with my niece, Alea, who is now a student at American University. I managed to squeeze in quite a bit on a low budget and I give a lot of credit to finding the perfect hotel.

Truthfully, you can find plenty hotels in and around Washington, DC to stay in, but it’s not quite that simple in the nation’s capital. Driving and parking can be a nightmare, but the Metro system is terrific.

The Embassy Suites at the Chevy Chase Pavilion has a subway stop right below it. You don’t even have to go outside to access it. It’s all located in one mall so you are also set if you want to do some shopping.

The hotel offers more than great location. The suites are huge. A family of six would have been comfortable in my corner suite. The rooms all have televisions, microwaves, and refrigerators, and the hotel has an indoor pool.

Like much of DC, Embassy Suites also has lots of freebies. Their complimentary hot breakfast – which includes pancakes and French toast – is huge. Every evening they also have a free reception for guests with snacks, cheeses, and cocktails (for those over 21).

You can never have too much time to explore DC. The trick is to take a good look at the locations and the hours. There were a few things I wanted to see and missed because I didn’t plan well.

Although there are occasionally special additional hours, most of the Smithsonian Museums close at 5:30 each day.

Only two of the museums are open later every evening, the National Portrait Gallery, where you can see the portraits of all the Presidents as well as prominent American figures, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where you can see rare art by the nation’s best. The two museums are connected.

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is a must for the family. Allow at least half a day here as it’s huge. Inside you’ll find everything related to creatures and land, from an exhibit on the evolution of the elephant, to the Hope Diamond, and ancient fossils.

My favorite museum is the same one it was as a child, the National Museum of American History. The big attraction now is Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers (#KeepThemRuby) from the Wizard of Oz as there’s a renovation project going, but that’s one of a million things to see here. Again, I’d give it a full half day, and make sure you look at the “The First Ladies” exhibit.

I didn’t make it this trip to some of the other museums I love, such as the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the National Air & Space Museum, and the White House, but I couldn’t leave Washington, DC without a trip to the Smithsonian National Zoo.

The zoo is also free and there’s lots to see, but my heart was stolen by the giant pandas, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang.

All that sightseeing will make a family hungry and there’s no shortage of places to eat in the nation’s capital, especially since it’s such a melting pot.

Put Alpha Pie House  on the top of your list for a quick and inexpensive stop. You’ll feel like you walked into a scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding with all the family members of owner Tina at the community table, where you will be welcomed. Once there you can taste Celebrity Chef Argiro Barbarigou’s creations, which includes amazing Mediterranean salads and four types of spinach pie (you can’t go wrong with any).

The whole family will love Cuba Libre, where you are instantly transformed into the Caribbean country. The food here is not only good, it’s fun. Don’t miss the pineapple guacamole with banana chips, Guava BBQ Ribs (a favorite of President Bill Clinton’s), Empanadas, and Mahi Mahi. You can’t go wrong with anything here. For the adults, the Passion Fruit Mojito and Piscojito are a must.

Bayou Bakery is perfect for a stop for breakfast, lunch, or anything in between. David Guas, host of Travel Channel's "American Grilled," brings his New Orleans favorites to DC. Anything on his buttermilk biscuits is worth a try, but don’t rule out the Shrimp Roll. And, of course, what’s bayou baking without a beignet and a dat-o cookie.

With all that money you are saving on car rentals and admissions, you can also visit a few of the moderately priced, but kid-friendly, restaurants. The Brasserie Beck Burger is known all over the city and is served with herbed goat cheese. They also have a delicious beet salad, flavorful gnocchi, and scrumptious desserts.

District Commons is the place to be seen in DC. Don’t be surprised if you see some members of the house and senate chowing down on the mussels, scallops, and Low & Slow Duck.  No matter what you get, start with the Pretzel Baguette, or maybe two. Their Oatmeal Crusted Apple Tart also lives up to its reputation.

For something a bit more flavorful, try Ottoman Taverna. This Eurasian restaurant features unique dishes with shrimp, lamb, and beef. There are also plenty of vegetarian choices. Order a selection of appetizers and main dishes and share.

Looking forward to returning in the spring for a different set of activities, including the brand new African American Museum, which was too crowded to get in to this trip.

When planning a family trip to Washington, DC, keep in mind that all the attractions are open every day, except for December 25th. For more information on visiting, go to their Official Washington, DC Travel Website

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