WASHINGTON — You could easily spend a whole visit to Washington exploring the museums, galleries and monuments along the National Mall. But that would be wrong.
You'd miss out on all the energy, nightlife, parks, culture, sports and interesting food and drink in D.C.'s thriving neighborhoods.
See the must-sees like the White House and the Smithsonian. But carve out some time for the things locals love, too.
Be forewarned: Washington is under construction. A large swath of the grassy National Mall is torn up between Seventh and 12th Streets for a turf restoration project that won't end until January 2017. The Capitol dome is encased in scaffolding, and there are renovations underway inside the Capitol, too. The Rotunda will be closed through Sept. 7. And there's more construction near the Washington Monument, where the National Museum of African American History and Culture is rising on the last available spot on the mall. It's scheduled to open in 2016.
Updates from the White House: Tourists finally can take photos on the public tour, and the newly redecorated Old Family Dining Room has been added to the tour route. Outside, you can gawk at the extra spikes that have been added to ward off White House fence jumpers.
Born to shop? Check out the high-end retailers in the new CityCenterDC neighborhood.
A convenient new way to get around: Hop on the $1 "Circulator" bus that makes a loop between Union Station and 15 stops around the Mall.
You can't beat the free and plentiful historic sites and museums at the heart of the city. But do some homework to zero in on what most interests you. Or, surrender to happenstance and be surprised.
Important Lesson One: The Smithsonian is not one building. It's 19 museums, 12 public gardens, nine research centers and the National Zoo. You can't cover it all. Would you rather see the giant pandas (National Zoo) or the Hope Diamond (Natural History Museum) or the Star-Spangled Banner (American History Museum) or Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis (Air and Space Museum)? These are the kinds of choices you must make: http://www.si.edu/visit/ .
Important Lesson Two: You probably won't get inside the White House if you don't plan months in advance and line up tickets through a congressional office — https://www.whitehouse.gov/about/tours-and-events/ . You're also better off booking advance tickets for the Washington Monument and to tour the Capitol — http://www.recreation.gov/tourParkDetail.do?contractCode=NRSO&parkId=77811 and https://www.visitthecapitol.gov/plan-visit/book-tour-capitol .
Avoid getting glares from locals when using Metro escalators: Stand on the right side, walk ahead on the left side. Clogging the escalators is the biggest peeve locals have with out-of-towners.
Pick up the Smithsonian's 35-page Visitor Survival Guide for a $1 donation; it distills the essentials into one pamphlet.
Park your car and use other ways to get around. Ride the Metro: It's cleaner than New York's subway system though less extensive — http://www.wmata.com/. Rent one of the thousands of bikes stationed around town by Capital Bikeshare, http://www.capitalbikeshare.com/ . Take the red Circulator buses that loop through different sections of the city, http://dccirculator.com/ . Take a guided Segway tour, a fun way to see classic sites while trying out a new mode of transportation. Check out monuments from a new vantage point by kayaking the Potomac. Try the hop on, hop off tour options, including Old Town Trolley Tours, D.C. Ducks (land and water) and Big Bus.
Visit the monuments at night or book an evening tour. It will be cooler and less crowded than during the day. Fall is a nice time to visit: the summer heat and humidity ease, and you miss the hordes of school kids who come in the spring.
Washington.org, the go-to site for tourists, has a long freebies list: http://washington.org/100-free-and-almost-free-things-do-dc . It also offers sample itineraries focused on various interests. Search under "DC Itinerary."
When you max out on history and patriotism, ditch the Mall and explore some neighborhoods.
Have weekend brunch on Capitol Hill at Eastern Market, the city's oldest continually operated fresh food public market, or in the restaurant mecca along Barracks Row on Eighth Street SE. Spend Sunday afternoon at the Dacha Beer Garden— http://dachadc.com/ — in the newly cool Shaw neighborhood. Grab dinner along Maine Avenue at the fish market on the Southwest waterfront. (Think crabs steamed 30 seconds ago on a floating dock on the Potomac.) Also popular on the waterfront: Cantina Marina — http://www.cantinamarina.com/ — for cheap-ish eats and drink.
Check out special events at the National Building Museum — the Great Hall has been turned into a "beach" made of translucent plastic balls through Labor Day, http://nbm.org/ . Rent a kayak from Fletcher's Cove boathouse — http://www.fletcherscove.com/ — and paddle the C&O Canal; pick pawpaw if the pulp fruit's in season. Enjoy a free Friday night concert or other activities at Yards Park — http://www.yardspark.org/ — in the emerging Navy Yard area. Play bocce on the outdoor plaza at Vinoteca in the U Street corridor, http://www.vinotecadc.com/ . Have some serious barbecue from the pitmaster at DCity Smokehouse, http://dcitysmokehouse.com/.
Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nbenac