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Capitalizing on D.C.

10 free things to do in our nation’s capital

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If you want to feel good about the way your tax dollars are spent, you need only to come where the spending is plentiful. Washington's monuments and museums are elegant. Even better than the way they look is the story they tell about our heritage. They speak of freedom and human dignity.

In short, Washington makes you proud.

It's impossible to take in all the city has to offer in one visit, and it's difficult to choose only 10 favorite free places. But we tried. We went to Washington in May on a family vacation. The family included grannies and college kids — now, finally, mature enough to enjoy a museum. (Everywhere we went, however, we saw families with preteens enjoying the same sites. It seems other people's children have better attention spans.)

These were our 10 favorite places:

1. The U.S. Capitol — The best view of the Capitol is at night, from Union Station. It dazzles. When you go inside, you'll be awed all over again.

On this visit, we were reminded of a detail we'd forgotten, if indeed, we ever knew it: In the hall of statuary, where the famous women of U.S. history are immortalized, there is an empty space awaiting the likeness of our first female president.

The Capitol is on 1st Street between Constitution and Independence Avenues and is open daily except Christmas, New Year's and Thanksgiving days. Guided tours are offered from 9 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Passes to visit the gallery of the House or Senate may be obtained from your representative or senator. www.uschs.org.

2. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial — We were in Washington over Memorial Day weekend, and the crowd was thick on the path along the Vietnam Wall. Some people made rubbings of a name. Others just stood and stared.

A middle-aged man standing near us stared for a while, then hung his head and started to sob. Within seconds a woman appeared at his side. She seemed to be a grief counselor. She asked his name. When he said, "Daryl," she said, "Why is Daryl sad?" He said, "My brother . . ." and couldn't go on. The woman put her arm around his shoulders while he cried.

The Vietnam Memorial is outdoors, on the National Mall, between Constitution and Independence Avenues at about 22nd Street. The mall is open 24 hours a day, every day but is staffed only between 8 a.m. and midnight. Information about these National Park Service sites is available at 202-426-6841. Also at www.nps.gov/parklists/dc.

3. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum — What struck us most on this visit was not the overarching tragedy of the Holocaust but the hopefulness depicted in the final displays. The last part of the museum honors ordinary people who dared to try to save a neighbor.

At 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, S.W. (14th Street and Independence Ave.) 202-488-0400. The building is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (later in the summer months), and timed passes are required. On holidays and weekends, you are advised to arrive early to line up for a pass. Or you can order an advance pass (for a fee) by calling 1-800-400-9373. This museum is not recommended for children younger than 11. www.ushmm.gov

4. Arlington National Cemetery — Acres of white crosses, an eternal flame, the mesmerizing rhythm of the changing of the guard — this is Arlington. Robert Kennedy's cross sits alone at the bottom of a wide green hill.

In Arlington, Va., where the Arlington Bridge crosses the Potomac. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. from October through March and two hours later during the warmer months. Handicapped persons and those visiting a private grave may obtain a temporary pass to bring a car into the cemetery.

5. The Newseum — This museum is a tribute to democracy and to reporters who have found the truth and told it. The best parts are about the history of journalism, including the video of Walter Cronkite announcing JFK's death, and a young Morley Safer reporting from South Vietnam as Marines burned a village and the people wept, and a first-person account by Mine Okubo of her two years in a resettlement camp in Topaz, Utah.

Grandma had fun in the interactive displays. She especially enjoyed pretending to be a photographer, working against a deadline to shoot a dramatic rescue.

I spent a long time in the war reporting exhibit, looking at the work of Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway and Andy Rooney. I spent a long time looking at a pillowcase that was splattered with blood and bore a note from a wounded reporter named Clark Todd. Todd worked for Canadian Television, and he wrote these words in 1983, in Lebanon, just before the Phalangist came back to make sure he was dead. "Please tell my family I love them," he wrote.

The Newseum is at 1101 Wilson Blvd., in Arlington, Va., just across the Key Bridge from Washington D.C. Open Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. At 703-284-3544 or www.newseum.org.

6. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden — Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali and Henry Moore and all the rest. Joseph Hirshhorn was born in Latvia, came to the United States, made a fortune in the uranium mines, bought 6,000 works of art and gave them as a gift to his new country.

At Independence Avenue and Seventh Street S.W. This and the other Smithsonian museums listed below are open daily, except Christmas, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Check the schedule of free films, lectures and (especially during the summer) displays and demonstrations, by calling the Smithsonian at 202-357-2700; www.si.edu.

7. The Smithsonian National Museum of African Art — Scholars come here to study the material culture of ancient and modern Africa. The permanent collection includes more than 7,000 objects and 20,000 volumes. The most intriguing items in the current exhibits are: a modern sculpture from Nigeria; necklaces from the kingdom of Benin, circa 1300; and all the artifacts in the Images of Power and Identity Gallery — the funeral masks and the staffs of office and the ivory pendants.

At Independence Avenue and Ninth Street S.W.

8. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History — We only had time to see two exhibits, but they were both great. "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden" is the newest permanent exhibit. Highlights include a newsreel of Herbert Hoover playing medicine ball and an interactive video that lets you pretend to be the president, addressing the nation. The "Paint By Number" exhibit, which runs through this year, is a testimony to a slightly less important slice of history.

At 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, N.W.

9. The Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the FDR Memorial — (which are actually four separate sites, but it was easier to cheat than narrow the list). You've no doubt seen photos of the first three. For those who lived through the Depression, the FDR Memorial is as moving as the Vietnam Wall. There are statues of Despair and Hunger, of FDR in his wheelchair and of Eleanor with the seal of the United Nations.

All four are located on the National Mall. When we were in Washington, everyone was talking about the soon-to-be-built WWII Memorial. The consensus of cab drivers: It's un-American to block the vista down the length of the Mall.

10. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Millennium Stage performances — Every night of the year at 6 p.m. there is a free performance in the Grand Foyer of the Kennedy Center. You might see theater or dance or music. We saw something called Sideshow, from New York City.

Rather than risk trying to describe Sideshow, let us quote from the program: "Bass-clarinet-guitar-vibraphone-percussion versions of Charles Ives' turn-of-the-century art songs . . . Transplanting America's gnarliest composer to semi-improvisational topsoil is a weird idea, but it works shockingly well, and the group blurs the line between intellectual rigor and chaotic fun."

New Hampshire Ave. N.W. at Rock Creek Parkway. Free tours of the Kennedy Center are offered Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.

The disclaimer: A few years ago, our top 10 list would have been different. This time, for example, we didn't even look at the Air and Space Museum because we'd seen it when the kids were young.

The dissenters: My son John Lyman's favorite Smithsonian is the National Museum of American Art (which is closed for renovations until 2002). Grandma Helen Lyman wanted the White House at the top of the list. (This, her first visit to Washington, was made golden when President Bush waved in her general direction as he strode toward his helicopter.)

The 10 things we've never seen and want to: The Supreme Court, the FBI Headquarters, the Folger Shakespeare Library, Arlington House, the Library of Congress, Ford's Theatre, the National Archives, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Textile Museum and a church service at the National Cathedral.

E-mail: susan@desnews.com