Worried a shutdown will thwart your sightseeing plans? Try these alternatives.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Ford’s Theatre would remain open. In a government shutdown, the building would be closed and all of its programming — except its “History on Foot” walking tour — would be canceled. Also, the article’s description of the Woodrow Wilson House near Dupont Circle misidentified the wife who lived there with Wilson after his presidency. It was his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, and not Ellen Axson Wilson, who died while he was president. This version has been corrected.

April 6, 2011

A government shutdown: It just sounds so technical, so sudden, so CTRL+ALT+DELETE. Federal workers and District residents bridle at the threat. But think of the tourists! Put yourself in the sweaty Crocs of the fanny-packed pods of out-of-town visitors, who will bum-rush the Capitol only to be turned away. And then what? The National Gallery? No, it would also be closed. The Library of Congress? Sorry, also shuttered. To keep tourists from staggering aimlessly around our city — and to redirect you, dear reader, should you venture into the sightseeing droves — we offer 10 alternatives, should federal institutions be closed.

Flora and fauna

Skip the U.S. Botanic Garden, which would keep the plants alive but turn away visitors. Instead, head to Dumbarton Oaks, a lush garden in Georgetown at 31st and R streets NW. The center for scholarship has beautiful gardens designed by Beatrix Farrand and a pre-Columbian pavilion, the work of the great architect Philip Johnson. 1703 32nd St. NW, 202-339-6401, $8 general admission, $5 for seniors 60 and older, students and children 2-12.

High-ceilinged vistas

The Library of Congress’s grand rotunda will not be accessible, but the Washington National Cathedral, high on Wisconsin Avenue and visible from all quadrants of the city, is a contemplative place to gaze upon the city, marvel at stained-glass windows, and say a little prayer or two that our legislators will wise up and get on with the business of the people. Wisconsin and Massachusetts avenues NW, 202-537-6200, free (but the suggested donation is $5).

Fine art

The National Gallery of Art, the country’s official encyclopedic museum, would be dormant. Try another approach to art history at the National Museum of Women in the Arts at 13th Street and New York Avenue NW. Right now the museum is featuring the photography of Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange in one show. On the promenade outside are outrageous sculptures by Niki de Saint Phalle. 1250 New York Ave. NW; 202-783-5000; $10 for adults, $8 for students over 18 with valid ID, free for youths 18 and under.

Sights in the sun

The National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden and its playful “Typewriter Eraser” by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen will be locked up, but more sculpture treasures are accessible at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. The chapel on the grounds was designed by James Renwick, architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and you can spend an entire afternoon just reading the historic tombstones, which date from the Civil War era. 3001 R St. NW; 202-337-2835; free.

Presidential residences

The occupants of the White House have their hands full with foreign unrest and a meek economy, and a government shutdown would only complicate matters. That’s means no tours through 1600 Pennsylvania. Step back into another era with a visit to the Woodrow Wilson House above Dupont Circle and poke around the living quarters of Wilson and his wife, Edith. 2340 S St. NW; 202-387-4062; $7.50 for adults, $6.50 for seniors, $3 for students, free for children 6 and under.

Cultural zestiness and eats

In addition to 825,000 artifacts, the National Museum of the American Indian boasts Mitsitam Cafe, which offers indigenous cuisine such as pumpkin seed tamal and campfire buffalo burgers. If it’s closed, though, the best and closest alternative is Eastern Market, a 25-minute walk eastward. On the weekends, farmers and artists sell the fruits of their labor in the open air. Seventh Street SE at C Street.

For wildlife

A government shutdown means a panda shutdown, so skip the National Zoo. Instead, venture through the 328-acre East Potomac Park to Hains Point, which juts out into the river and is an ideal spot for birding, biking and watching planes take off from Reagan National Airport. 1090 Ohio Dr. SW, a one-mile walk around the Tidal Basin from the Smithsonian Metro stop; free.

For domed majesty

Vacation incomplete without gawking at a huge rotunda? Forsake the Capitol and take Metro’s Red Line from nearby Union Station to the Brookland-CUA stop to see the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at Catholic University. It’s a 77,500-square-foot byzantine basilica — the eighth largest in the world. 400 Michigan Ave. NE; 202-526-8300; free.

For an Abe fix

You could not see where Lincoln got shot (Ford’s Theatre will not be open, except for the walking tour), so go instead to see where Lincoln got a tan. The president and his family summered at President Lincoln’s Cottage in upper Northwest Washington, and the Gothic-style residence is open to visitors every day of the week. The site, where Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, offers free parking and a picnic area. Rock Creek Church Road NW and Upshur Street NW; 202-829-0436; $12 for adults, $5 for children 6-12, $10 for active-duty military, $8 for Girl Scouts.

For the sweep of national narrative

The National Museum of American History is the prime destination for anyone seeking to absorb the fullness of the country’s heritage, but in a shutdown it would be closed along with many other destinations on the Mall. A hearty-if-pricey alternative: the Newseum, the glinting, soaring monument to the media industry. Peruse yellowed documents, marvel at the stunning historical gallery of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs and stoke your own ire at the “Covering Katrina” exhibit (through Sept. 18). 555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 888-639-7386; $21.95 for adults 19-64, $12.95 for children 7 -18, free for children 6 and under, and $17.95 for seniors, military and students with valid ID.

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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