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Washington, D.C.’s Hidden Gems

There’s still plenty to enjoy in Washington, D.C., even after you and your family tour the U.S. Capitol, visit the White House, see the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives, take in the monuments and memorials and peruse the exhibits at Natural History, Air & Space, American History and other noted Smithsonian Museums.

When visiting the museums and monuments, you’re already walking the National Mall, the green expanse that officially stretches for 1.3 miles from 3rd Street NW and the Capitol Grounds to 14th Street NW and unofficially also includes the land surrounding the Washington Monument as well as West Potomac Park. That makes it a three mile hike from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial.

For an open stretch that’s less congested than the Mall, try Constitution Gardens, steps away from busy Constitution Avenue. Graced by weeping willow trees and lawns, the 50-acre park provides a peaceful respite within walking distance (a long walk) of the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial.

Along with a 6.5 acre lake, home to scores of ducks, this park, like many in D.C., features a commemorative work. The Memorial to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence, set on a small island in the lake and reached by a footbridge, spreads out in a semi-circle of marble. The memorial is simple and engaging. Etched in each stone is a signer’s name, occupation, hometown and signature. And yes, John Hancock’s autograph looms large.

Hidden among Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C’s 2000-acre urban oasis, is the Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium, a find for families with young kids. In the Discovery Room, the several live animals, especially the turtles and snakes, draw kids.

So do the mounted bald eagle with his white feathered—not bare-- head and the Great Blue heron, as big as a two-year-old. At the lobby’s Please Touch table, piled with local items, kids can feel a beaver pelt, hold a turtle’s skull, finger a deer antler and stroke a rabbit’s cotton tail.

A main reason for visiting is the planetarium, the only one in the National Park system. The unpretentious space, much smaller than the mega-facility at the National Air and Space Museum, is just the right size for curious, but hesitant youngsters. The high-backed, comfortable benches seat about 60 and encircle “Miss See More,” Rock Creek’s projector.

Ranger Tony, the “captain” for the journey to the stars and beyond, involves children by asking them to count down to blast off and maintains their interest by asking questions.
During a typical 40-minute show, you rocket to the moon for close-ups of craters and ridges, fly by Jupiter for a look at the planet’s bands, and land on Europa, one of Jupiter’s 63 moons. One show targets ages 4-6 and another aims at kids ages 7 and older.

From gardens to lesser-known memorials to a planetarium perfect for a child’s first voyage into space, Washington, D.C.’s hidden gems make great additions to any city visit.

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