Why not D.C.?
Washington, D.C. was built on a strategically chosen plot of land on the Potomac River. Contrary to popular belief, it was not built on a swamp. It was designed by French-born, American designer and engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant, whom Washington.org says, “Presented a vision for a bold, modern city featuring grand boulevards” reminiscent of Paris.
Founded in 1790, the District was a compromise between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, who wanted the Capital in different places. (Jefferson wanted “the capital placed in a location friendly to slave-holding agricultural interests,” according to Washington.org.)
If you are planning a trip to D.C. to experience American history and culture, (and, of course, take that incredible tourist photo of touching the tip of the Washington Monument), there are a ton of ways to enjoy it that are fairly inexpensive. Free parks and monuments dot the landscape of the city.
Here are six places in D.C. easily accessible by public transit.
Theodore Roosevelt Island
Theodore or “Teddy” Roosevelt Island is an island in the middle of the Potomac honoring the 26th President of the United States. According to the National Parks Service it’s about 88.5 acres of woodlands. You can walk around the entire island to see wildlife and beautiful views of the Potomac. In the middle, there is a statue of Roosevelt himself. If you are tired of the city itself, this island is a perfect getaway into nature that isn’t totally out of the way. The views of Georgetown are lovely.
Closest Metro Station: Rosslyn on the Blue, Orange or Silver lines.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
Yes, another Roosevelt. The Roosevelts have some of the most gorgeous memorials in D.C. This one is dedicated to the 32nd President of the United States, and each of the four terms of his presidency has its own room. With walls covered with some of Roosevelt’s most inspirational quotes — “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” — and statues of Americans listening to Roosevelt’s radio addresses or standing in bread lines, the memorial is a trip through time. If you’re in D.C. for longer than a few days, it’s also a great place to study. Sit by Roosevelt’s statue and watch as people touch his finger for good luck. (And maybe slyly do the same on your way out. Hey, we could all use some luck!)
Closest Metro Station: Smithsonian on the Blue, Orange or Silver lines.
While I was exploring D.C., I decided to walk through Pershing Park, and came upon this plaza by happenstance. On the ground there are quotes from American luminaries about D.C., along with a giant stone map of the Capital. You may not be able to step inside of the real White House, but you can step on top of it here!
Closest Metro Station: Metro Center on the Red, Blue, Silver or Orange lines, or Federal Triangle on the Blue, Orange or Silver lines.
The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial
If you are looking to honor those who lost their lives on 9/11 at the Pentagon, the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial in Arlington, Virginia is a good place to start. The memorial is organized by the age of the victim, each victim receiving their own bench to commemorate their life. I went on 9/11 this year, and the memorial was filled with people paying their respects, and looking at the pictures left by the families of the loved ones they lost all those years ago.
Closest Metro Station: Pentagon on the Blue or Yellow line.
King Street/Old Town Alexandria/Alexandria Waterfront
King Street in Alexandria is filled with shopping, food and historic sites. One could take their time, spend the entire day, and probably not even get a few blocks down. At the end of King Street is the waterfront, where you can relax on a bench and watch the boats go by. And, if you are tired from all of the walking you’ve done by the time you get there, you can take the free King Street Trolley back to the Metro station. (It goes both ways, so if you’d rather use the trolley both ways, it’s very handy!)
Cost: Free, unless you splurge on food and gifts.
Closest Metro Station: King St.-Old Town on the Yellow or Blue lines.
Smithsonian National Zoological Park
The Smithsonian National Zoological Park is part of the Smithsonian family in D.C., meaning it’s all free. There are all sorts of fascinating animals at the zoo beyond the normal lions, tigers, and bears. (Oh my!) Asian elephants, pandas, sloths and vipers are all on display. The zoo is a great way to spend a day, and there are many seasonal events to enjoy there, like Zoo Lights in December.
Cost: Free. Pack a lunch to avoid food costs.
Closest Metro Station: Woodley Park (Zoo/Adams Morgan and walk north on Connecticut Avenue) or Cleveland Park (walk south on Connecticut Avenue) on the Red line.
How to get to D.C.
Before you get around the city, you have to get to the city!
- Fly: There are three airports. Washington National Airport is the closest to downtown D.C., and is directly on a Metro line. Baltimore/Washington International Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport require more travel into the city, but fares are often less expensive than the conveniently located National Airport.
- Amtrak: Amtrak trains come to Union Station, which is Metro accessible, and just blocks from the Capitol.
- Bus: A good selection of buses end at Union Station, including Greyhound and MegaBus.
Some ways to stay in D.C.
- Hotels, like the Holiday Inn Washington-Capitol, which is a few blocks from the Mall. I stayed here before moving in for the fall semester, and it was really great to be so close to all of the tourist locations for a low price.
- The cheapest way to stay in D.C. is to crash on a friends couch! All semester people were in and out of the dorm I stayed in. So find friends in the area, and stay for free!
How to get around D.C.
All these D.C. locations are accessible by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), or Metro, as it is known in D.C., (and Paris, for that matter). It is one of the easiest ways to get around. As a tourist living in the city for an academic semester, I’ve fallen in love with the ability to travel almost anywhere on the Metro.
Pro-tip for navigating the system: Always walk left and stand right on the escalators. The locals will love you for it.
The Metro is clean, easy to navigate and sometimes on time. Track repairs have caused the Metro to be frequently crowded and delayed. Chill. If you are a tourist, be patient, or get above ground and walk.
Washington is laid out on a grid, much like New York City. Streets — generally — ascend by number and letter, with avenues crisscrossing the city named for states, patriotic concepts and important Americans like presidents. (Independence and Constitution avenues, Madison, Jefferson, L’Enfant Plaza.) Frederick Law Olmstead — who designed Central Park in New York City — also designed parks in D.C. Fountains abound in summer, and statues in the “circles,” or rotaries hold secrets to inform you which direction to go. (Hint: John Wesley)
The best way to find your route is look at the Metro map — in all stations, in Metro cars and online — and note the name of your exit station. To know which side of the tracks to embark, you’ll have to know the name of the final stop. Too complicated? Ask a station master.