Three Days in D.C.: Day 1 Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 3, 2011; 10:15 AM

Washington D.C. is known as the Capital of the Free World, and tourists come from across the country and around the globe to see the White House, Capitol and other symbols of freedom. But there's far more to Washington than marble edifices. We have a huge network of free museums, expansive outdoor spaces, some of the best restaurants in America and lively late-night clubs. There's a lot to see and do in our area -- it could take a lifetime to experience everything there is to offer. But if you give us three days, we can help you make the most of them.

Day 1

No visit to Washington would be complete with a trip to the National Mall, the broad, (somewhat) grassy expanse of lawn that runs from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial.

Start at the Capitol, where 45-minute tours are available from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. The earlier you go, the shorter the wait will be. After your tour, it's time for the truly difficult decision: Choosing which one of the Smithsonian Institution museums you want to visit. There are 15 altogether, with objects ranging from the Hope Diamond (inside theNatural History Museum) to the Wright Brothers' Flyer (Air and Space Museum) to paintings by Andy Warhol (Hirshhorn Museum). Trying to take in all the highlights is too much for one vacation, so it's better to choose one or two areas of interest and focus on those museums. Also near the Mall -- but not part of the Smithsonian -- are the National Gallery of Art, the largest art museum in Washington and home to many major exhibits, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

No matter what you choose to do, we're going to suggest having lunch at the Mitsitam Cafe inside the National Museum of the American Indian. The selection of Native American foods ranges from buffalo burgers to chicken tamales and is easily the best option on the Mall.

After lunch, take in fantastic views of the city from the top of the Washington Monument. You don't actually have to climb the 897 steps -- an elevator gets you there in just over a minute -- but you'll save plenty of time if you reserve same-day tickets ahead of time through the National Park Service. (See our story on planning ahead for more tips on getting tickets in advance.) You'll be rewarded with breathtaking views of Washington, though you'll have to wait your turn to look out of the tiny windows.

Now that you've seen the city, it's time to check out another of the museums, or perhaps wander through one of the two outdoor sculpture gardens at the Hirshhorn or National Gallery. (The latter is a destination for all seasons, with live jazz in warmer months and ice skating in the winter.)

Time for dinner. If you have a favorite cuisine, check out Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema's annual dining guide and recent reviews. For something more traditional and crowd pleasing, we'll steer you towards the Old Ebbitt Grill, a sprawling, clubby restaurant near the White House and Treasury building that boasts friendly service and an excellent raw bar -- and is a favorite with Secret Service agents and other government employees.

Daytime isn't necessarily the best time to see the monuments at the western end of the Mall. The World War II Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Jefferson Memorial and Lincoln Memorial are all open 24 hours a day, and are all much more dramatic in the dark. The FDR Memorial's rushing water and outdoor "rooms" especially lend itself to after-hours exploration. One note about safety: The Mall and the Tidal Basin aren't well lit at night, but all the memorials have nearby parking and park rangers on duty until 11:30 p.m.

Those who want to explore Washington's nightlife should head for the bar-heavy Adams Morgan neighborhood, where dozens of late-night spots surround the corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road. West African bars with live music, international lounges pouring champagne cocktails, dive bars, dance clubs, cool rooftop decks -- there's something for everyone.

For a more laidback scene, try one of the traditional grand hotel bars. The Round Robin Bar at the Willard, the Mayflower's Town and Country Lounge and the Hay-Adams's Off the Record are old-school hideaways with fantastic bartenders and strong martinis.

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