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See nation's capital affordably

By By Michael Thompson, Contributing writer
Published On: May 12 2011 08:49:32 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 10 2011 02:13:32 AM CDT
Washington monument

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

If there were ever a place where you could take an affordable vacation, shouldn't it be Washington? After all, as a taxpayer, you're already helping to pay for a lot there anyway.

Fortunately, all of the famous monuments are free, although an elevator ride up to the top of the 555-foot-tall Washington Monument might cost $1.50, depending on the time of day.

Here are a few things to keep in mind while you are in Washington.

All 12 museums in the Smithsonian system are free. There's a free daily performance at 6 p.m. at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts' Millennium Stage.

A general rule of thumb for tours is that if your group includes 10 or more people, you will need advance reservations. Otherwise, you can simply walk up and walk in.

Public transportation is affordable. Explore the DC Circulator for $1 rides, or a Metrorail all-day pass for $6.50. You might find a lower-cost hotel across the Potomac River in Northern Virginia, rather than in the heart of town. At your lodging place, inquire about discounts and coupons, and ask for the nearest "local visitors center," which might also have special offers. Also, ask about local music and food festivals, many of which are outdoors and free. In addition, here are five ideas for a rewarding free -- or low-cost -- vacation experience:

DC By Foot

This walking tour called "More Than Monuments" is free, although the guides accept tips. They advertise themselves as offering banter and obscure facts that make a DC By Foot tour "smarter and funnier" than a droning lecture. (Why did George Washington love dogs, why did Abraham Lincoln wear a beard, which president invented baseball's seventh-inning stretch?) You can meet the guides morning, mid-afternoon or at dinner time, depending on the time of year. They'll be wearing powder blue shirts at the corner of East 15th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW. In addition to monuments, there's also a Lincoln Assassination Walking Tour and a Ghosts of Georgetown Walking Tour.

Bureau Of Engraving And Printing

Would you like to witness U.S. currency running hot off the presses in those huge sheets of bills that are still uncut? Those machines certainly are running nowadays, but 20-minute tours are only on weekdays at the corner of 14th Street and C Street. You'll see the entire process, from blank paper to wallet-ready bills. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing also produces passports, military I.D.s, immigration and naturalization certificates and White House invitations. You'll also get a chance to see currency production methods circa 1862, when the building opened. You can simply visit for free during the tourism off-season. Otherwise, you should order advance tickets online to avoid a wait at the call window.

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

The 19th century home of one of America's greatest abolitionists has been converted into a museum that gives honor to his courageous pursuit of liberty and justice. Late during his life, Frederick Douglass purchased this home at 1900 Anacostia Drive, SE, and named the property "Cedar Hill." The National Parks Service operates the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site and conducts tours. Admission is allowed only as part of a tour.

National Gallery Of Art

Washington is a town of politics, but the nation's capital also features a wide array of art museums. The National Gallery of Art is free. It's closed only on Christmas Day, New Year's Day, and every four years on Inauguration Day. Located between 3rd and 7th Streets at Constitution Avenue. The National Gallery of Art opened in 1937 by a joint resolution of Congress, launched with gifts from business giant Andrew Mellon. The facility was expanded in 1978, and an outdoor sculpture garden was added in 1999.

U.S. National Arboretum

The city of politics not only has room for art, but also for flowers and fauna. Are 446 acres enough for you? The National Arboretum does the National Gallery of Art one better by closing only on Christmas Day. The location is 3501 New York Avenue, NW, at R Street. It's been under the oversight of the U.S. Department of Agriculture since its founding in 1927. The mission is "to serve the public need for scientific research, education, and gardens that conserve and showcase plants to enhance the environment." You would have to walk nearly 10 miles to see everything.