Free in Washington, DC

In June 2013, Kiplinger named Washington, DC the 6th most expensive city in America to live in. The LA Times named it the 6th most expensive American city to travel in. Whether you are living here or traveling here, it’s going to be relatively expensive. But, the good news is that there are ways to offset an abused wallet on your journey through the nation’s Capitol — what to do for free in Washington, DC:


The ceiling of DC

The buildings in DC are allowed to be no higher than the tip of the US Capitol Building. It is a matter of national security, an added layer of protection for the city and those who live here.

This height requirement limits the room we have to build upwards, and it seems that special attention is always given to that last stop. The rooftops of DC, I love them. The views extend as far as the eye can see. For a glimpse of the sunset, the stars, the moon, the landscape, fireworks — there is no place better to go. Almost every building, office, apartment and restaurant — any space that can afford insurance and permitting — has one. So if you want to know where the city lands at dusk, look to what I call the ceiling of Washington DC — it’s about seven stories high.

Perry's rooftop restaurant and bar in Adams Morgan

Perry’s rooftop restaurant and bar in Adams Morgan

Cherry Blossoms (spring only)

How pink flowers formed friendships…

101 years ago, the mayor of Tokyo gifted Washington, DC, 3,000 cherry blossom trees as a token of enduring friendship among nations. Did they know that a century later, the relationship between the US and Japan would still be blooming strong? Did they hope that people from across the world would plan trips to DC around one specific spring week when they could come see them in full bloom? Could it be imagined that locals of the District would set aside spontaneous time on busy work days to rush down and see them before the petals disappeared? So quickly they come and go… Was it planned that old and new loves would kiss beneath them? That runners would train during the late winter for the Cherry Blossom 10 Mile Run? That photographers would awake at sunrise to capture them in still shots? All of these instances are about connection, sharing, enjoyment and friendship and could not occur without one smart gift.

Citizen Cope sang that some gifts may fade but “…flowers they don’t.” Each year, as this song floods my head when I see these lovely pink blooms hugging the Tidal Basin, his song about love becomes in my mind a song about friendship.

Cherry blossoms at sunset at the Jefferson Memorial

Cherry blossoms at sunset at the Jefferson Memorial

Biking or Running the C & O Canal

Seclusion and nature

Between Georgetown and the Great Falls overlook in Virginia lies an area of seclusion on the historic C & O Canal towpath — it is available to anyone who wants to take the ride. The distance from point to point is somewhere around 14 miles, so nearly 30 miles if you plan to return to where you started from. About 1/2 way along, when the leisure strollers on bikes, skate and foot turn around, a stretch unfolds for those who want to commit to a long run or ride — the kind of meditation-inducing run or ride that occurs after a significant amount of endorphin-fueled time among the thoughts in your head or the sounds in the air or the music in your ear.

This ride has become a much beloved ritual in my life. I just grab a sandwich and go — ride from the city to the trail to the falls, eat the sandwich next to the white water and ride back — just under 40 miles from doorstep to doorstep, and a lot of sweat in between.

Bike path on the C & O Canal (Photo credit: Jonathan Irish)

Bike path on the C & O Canal (Photo credit: Jonathan Irish)

The Reflecting Pool

What you see is what you see…

If you walk to the top of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and spin 180 degrees, you will look upon the same view that many of our heroes did as they were altering the political landscape of our nation.

The reflecting pool, enfolding the towering Washington Monument, is easily one of the most intense and important landmarks in the world. It is also free of charge and my favorite place in Washington. Here I find the rare opportunity to connect with a superb history in a way that my brain and heart wants to. It is politically charged and (almost) completely bipartisan — an extremely unique combination.

Songbird Marian Anderson performed here in 1939 for 75,000 people after she was forbidden to a show at Constitution Hall because she was African American. Martin Luther King delivered his world changing “I Have a Dream” speech here. Jenny splashed towards Forest Gump after years apart here. Nixon contemplated his moves on the heels of the Watergate scandal here. Obama held his 2009 inauguration ceremony here. Glenn Beck held a wildly popular rally here in 2010. And after a long restoration project, the pool was uncovered to reflect the monument once again in 2012 — a rebirth to prepare for events of the next century.

Reflection — I go here for that symbol as many others did. And when my mind tires, I look at its beauty.

The Reflecting Pool in Washington, DC (Photo credit: Jonathan Irish)

The Reflecting Pool in Washington, DC (Photo credit: Jonathan Irish)

The Woodley Park Zoo

Life really is a zoo

Just two weeks ago, Rusty the red panda took off on a short excursion from his home at the Woodley Park Zoo (be-still my heart, Rusty, you adventurous soul!) His plight to explore the other side of humanity is not unlike mine, wanting to break free from urban city dwelling on occasion to be among the wild. For that, I go to the zoo.

Last year, one of the famed giant pandas died there, illustrating the struggle this species has growing its dwindling tribe. At about the same time, two cheetah cubs found a place to grow and play just steps away — steps away from zebras who are their prey in the wild. And just around the corner, at the new American Trail exhibit, lives a sea otter that I call ‘dancer’ because of the way she twirls for onlookers.

This circle of zoo life undergoes constant change, just as the animals do in the wild. I stand next to the lions as the wind blows, watching them sniff the air as the scent of animals, humans, passes through their den. We are upwind, they look at us, we look at them. It’s the closest thing to safari in the city.

Rusty and others don’t get a chance to explore our grounds very often, but I get my chance to explore theirs early each week, before crowds flood the free of fees, open air grounds.

Rusty the Red Panda at the Woodley Park Zoo (Photo credit: Jonathan Irish)

Rusty the Red Panda at the Woodley Park Zoo (Photo credit: Jonathan Irish)

Graffiti Art

The DC Mural Project

One thing that I notice more of each day is civic improvement in and around Washington, DC. Showing up in random areas across the city are amazingly fun, incredibly large works of colorful art on old city buildings. Turns out that the locations aren’t random, but carefully selected and created through the collaborative at Murals DC — an ongoing partnership between the Dept. of Public Works, the DC Commission on the Arts and the Humanities, and Words Beats & Life Inc. Together, they commission spaces tagged with illegal graffiti, bring well-known local artists to design and create murals to cover it, while simultaneously teaching children about mural artistry and project development in the process. Community improvement, education for young people, work for artists, and support of the humanities — one wall at a time.

DC mural art by Cita Sadeli Chelove.

DC mural art by Cita Sadeli Chelove.

The Capitol Building Subway System

DC’s Basement Trains

Dan Brown wrote about the US Capitol Building’s underground subway system in his 2009 book ‘The Lost Symbol.’ But beyond those pages, few outside of the US government (and others by invitation) know the look and feel of the 3-line system.

The “Senate Subway R.R.” as it was originally known, operates between the Hart office building (on the Senate side of the Capitol) to the Rayburn building (on the House side) — Dirksen, Russell, and the Capitol Building are the stops in between.
Since 1909, the trains have escorted members of Congress, the Senate and other high-ranking politicos to and fro, bypassing time-consuming security and media. Members of the general public are able to ride these trains coupled with a tour of the Capitol Complex, but must be escorted by someone on staff or with proper identification — the special access only adding to the mystique.

Photo credit: / Library of Congress | c. 1915

Photo credit: / Library of Congress | c. 1915

Netherlands Carillon Memorial
Where to watch the supermoon and 4th of July fireworks 

I knew that there was a Perigee moon due to rise when the sun went down one Sunday evening in late June. Being particularly tired that day, I declined to go photograph it that night. But as the light began to dim, and as my friends started to post online their setup overlooking the city, I started to feel pangs of regret. Not only was this rare moon sighting a great story to bring to my friends at NASA the next day, but a unique opportunity to photograph it from one of the only places where you can capture the US Capitol Building, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial all in one shot.

“I’ve got to be mad,” I thought.

I grabbed a friend, a blanket and car keys and off we sped to try to catch a glimpse of the “supermoon.” We found a parking spot at the Netherlands Carillon Memorial that sits adjacent to Arlington Cemetery and the Iwo Jima Memorial and sprinted down the grassy field to a large oak tree where we pegged our friends to be.

The moon began to rise — in all of its rosy-golden-mysterious-over-sized glory. We sat until it ascended to the ceiling of the sky, talking and laughing and taking in a most remarkable found — and almost lost — moment.

This spectacular setting is the perfect place to picnic and to watch 4th of July fireworks that head skywards each year over the National Mall — smaller crowds, bigger sky.

Photo credit: Jonathan Irish (

Photo credit: Jonathan Irish (



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