If you happened to plan a family vacation to Washington, DC, over the next few days, you're probably incredibly frustrated at the moment. After all, what on earth are you going to do? Maybe you wanted to teach your kids about American history or wanted to see our government in action for yourself. Though you can't tour the Capitol, monuments, or the Smithsonian museums, here are five FREE things you can do.
Though the tour tram won't be operating, you can still walk through the cemetery. I recommend starting at President John F. Kennedy's grave site with a visit to Robert F. Kennedy's site as well. From there, the walk through the trees to the Tomb of the Unknowns is both beautiful and moving, especially as we head into fall. After paying your respects during the Changing of the Guard, head around Memorial Amphitheater to see the Mast of the U.S.S. Maine, the Canadian Cross, Columbia Memorial, Challenger Memorial, Iran Rescue Monument and the Third Infantry Division, all within a few feet of each other. Arlington House is closed, but you can still end your visit with a stroll through the newly refurbished gardens and enjoy the spectacular view of the National Mall from the top of the hill. Keep in mind that there are still several funerals planned at the cemetery, so be respectful to mourners.
Washington National Cathedral
This beautiful homage to American faith is well worth the visit. While there is a suggested $10 donation (and I encourage you to leave more if you can as they are still trying to fund repairs for the damage caused by the same 2009 earthquake that shut down the Washington Monument), you are still welcome to visit without leaving a monetary donation. The architecture, art and grounds are simply breathtaking--my favorites are the moonstone displayed in a stained glass window and the Darth Vader gargoyle. There are half-hour tours offered most days between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., but be sure to check their website for conflicts. The Sunday services held between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. in both the main chapel and the smaller chapels are also worth attending. There are many churches in the DC area worth visiting, including St. Johns Church Lafayette Square, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, Calvary Baptist Church, National City Church, Christ Church in Georgetown, the Masonic Temple in Alexandria, VA, and the Mormon Temple in Kensington, MD.
Rock Creek Park
The largest of DC's many parks, Rock Creek is a beautiful spot for hiking, biking and driving. Okay, so technically the park is closed (along with the National Zoo which is housed in the park and run by the Smithsonian Institute), but there is little enforcement of the closure. While the main road remains open to automobile traffic--for the moment--Beach Drive is closed to cars, and many bikers and joggers are enjoying the winding, shaded road. The C&O Canal and the Mount Vernon Trail are also "closed" with little to no enforcement.
The Big Chair in Anacostia
Yes, seriously, this is one thing you don't want to miss. While DC is full of beautiful architecture and rich American history, it is also a community with a quirky culture. This is no longer the biggest chair in the world, but in my book, it is certainly the most impressive. And while you're out looking an funky sculptures, why not check out the massive Einstein Memorial on Constitution Avenue, the Friendship Archway in Chinatown and the Kahlil Gibran Memorial Garden on Massachusetts Avenue.
Old Post Office Pavilion
You might not be able to go up the Washington Monument or tour the dome of the Capital, but you can take a free ride up to the clock tower of the Old Post Office Pavilion. They give a really great tour and talk about a lot of American history that you might otherwise miss out on because the museums are closed.
And So Much More
Learn about modern art at The Pillips Collection (free every Tuesday through Friday), see local artist at Eastern Market, play in the HUGE playground at Turtle Park, or sit in the lobby of Willard InterContinental Washington where Julia Ward Howe wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and Martin Luther King wrote his "I Have a Dream" speech.
If you're willing and able to spend some money, I'd recommend visiting the International Spy Museum ($20.95/adult, $15.95/senior, $14.95/under 12 and free/under 6) and the Newseum ($21.95/adult, $17.95/senior, $12.95/under 19 and free/under 6). For an amazing art museum, stop by the National Museum of Women in the Arts ($10/adult, $8/senior, and free/under 19) or the Corcoran Gallery of Art ($10/adult, $8/senior, and free/under 12). If you're looking for a presidential experience, try President Lincoln's Cottage ($15/adult, $5/under 13 and free/under 6) or George Washington's Mount Vernon ($17/adult, $16/senior, $8/under 12 and free/under 6). Be sure to ask about student and active-duty military discounts to see if you qualify--and be sure to bring your ID! These are all either privately owned and operated or funded through generous financial grants and trusts, so they have not been affected by the government shutdown
Washington, DC, is so much more than a city shut down by politicians who can't seem to get along. There's no reason for you to miss anything this city has to offer.