VALUE TRAVEL Washington, D.C., Cherry blossoms, presidential portraits and more

VALUE TRAVEL Washington, D.C., Cherry blossoms, presidential portraits and more

Winter officially ends March 1 in the nation’s capital but almost anytime of year is perfect for a visit—if only to see the new Presidential portrait of former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle at the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum, located at Eighth and F Streets, NW. ( See photos. ) This Smithsonian museum ( which, like all Smithsonians, is totally free ) is near the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro. All the 43 presidential portraits are amazing and free tours offer background on their lives.

They also have several other exhibits worth seeing, including one on Marlena Dietrich, the former Hollywood film star from Germany. Another exhibit, “20th-Century Americans,” has portraits such as one of Marilyn Monroe.

In the courtyard, you will find an excellent café with a very good salad bar and other dishes. It’s located in a huge atrium between the two buildings that comprise the museum.

Stay: Bargain hunters will like the Comfort Inn, 1201 13th St. NW, near Massachusetts Avenue. I paid $119. It’s in the Logan Circle neighborhood and within walking distance to everything.

Other budget choices include the Washington Plaza at nearby Thomas Circle and the Beacon House. You can walk to the shops and restaurants on 14th Street from all three, including the gayborhood.

Going out on the town: I like the 9 1/2, where happy hour runs until 9 p.m. and has two-for-one drinks. It’s a tad younger crowd. The nearby Trade Bar on 14th Street is also a lot of fun. It has giant size drinks for $4 during a very long happy hour.

Getting there: Southwest has $79 one-way fares from Midway ( no luggage fee, no ticket change fee ). American has a $90 regular coach fare out of O’Hare that includes allowing a carryon and use of the overhead bin ( unlike some “basic economy” fares ).

Both airlines go into very close in Washington Reagan National Airport. Take the Metro to D.C. for just $2.25 ( off peak ) with a trip that takes 20 minutes ( Yellow Line, Convention Center ).

The Southwest flights are in a very cramped, older area of Reagan National that is very crowded ( and a very long walk to the Metro ); I recommend American Airlines for those going to DCA.

( Other options including Dulles, a United Hub that’s served by the new Silver Line Metro, and faraway Baltimore, a Southwest hub that gets you to D.C. via a Amtrak or MARC train connection that can take two hours. )

You can also take the Amtrak Cardinal three days a week from Chicago to D.C.—a rail that goes through the beautiful New River Gorge. Get a sleeper car and enjoy the scenery.

Drink and eat: The locally owned Compass Coffee, at 650 F Street, is a must ( kitty-corner from Portrait Gallery ). D.C. has lots of great restaurants for every price range.

Other fun stuff to do:

Check out the new Wharf Neighborhood, which just opened. It has a Shake Shack ( from New York ) if you want a burger and a branch of the Politics and Prose bookstore. You can reach the District Wharf Southeast area on a free Southwest Shuttle from Independence Avenue Independence Avenue or L’Enfant Plaza Metro. You can also take the Green Line to the Waterfront stop.

See a complete story on the trendy new District at, or pick a copy of the magazine up at the airports.

The Cherry Blossom Festival runs March 24- April 15. Japanese cherry trees around the Tidal Basin are the show-stoppers.

The newest Smithsonian museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, is also a must. You will find it on the northeast side of the National Mall.

Take the Metro south of Reagan airport to visit Old Town Alexandria.

Union Market , No Ma, the REI store, are a great area to visit in Northeast.

All attractions are accessible by bicycle, including the two new free-standing bike rental options that don’t use docking stations ( one of which is the Lime Bike ).

D.C. is a great getaway. Leave that heavy winter coat at home. Enjoy the daffodils and cherry blossoms, which arrive much earlier than they do in Chicago. But remind yourself not to visit in the summer—it is brutally hot and humid, and the nearest beach is three hours away.

Bill Malcolm resides in Indianapolis. His syndicated travel column has appeared in on line editions of LGBT publications in Indianapolis, Detroit, and Chicago. He also writes for All Aboard Indiana ( the passenger rail newsletter ) and has a column in the Broad Ripple Gazette. These are all hobbies as journalism is his passion. He receives no compensation of any kind for the places he writes about. Find him on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.