National Geographic Museum (1747 M St. NW; tel. 202/857-7588; Free admission to museum; tickets required for special exhibits and events. Metro: Farragut North or Farragut West

Dedicated to "increasing and diffusing geographic knowledge," the National Geographic Society museum -- intimate compared with its Smithsonian counterparts -- presents a balanced mix of permanent and temporary exhibitions related to the natural world.

Currently, more than 170 geckos from around the globe are in residence through Jan. 5, 2011. Via computer interactives, visitors can approximate this colorful lizard's night vision (more than 300 times more powerful than a human's) and examine the unique toe pads that allow it to adhere to most surfaces. Elsewhere in the museum, photographs from the magazine are exhibited. Lectures, films, and music performance are featured several times a month year-round.

Newseum (555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; tel. 888/NEWSEUM; 888/639-7386; $19.95 adult admission. Metro: Archives/Navy Memorial

Dedicated to the fourth estate and covering five centuries of news in stunning multi-level galleries, the Newseum is a treasure trove of artifacts, photographs, and exhibits covering events that shaped national and international history. Start on the top floor and work your way down. State-of-the-art interactives are a big draw -- and not just for kids. Go ahead, test your mettle as a talking head, er, news anchor, and record your performance for posterity with state-of-the art equipment. Admission is pricey but it's good for two consecutive days. Souvenir- and gift-seekers will want to stop in the museum shops. The Source restaurant serves Asian fusion fare -- casual and reasonable in the ground-floor lounge; fine dining in the upstairs dining room (tel. 202/637-6100).

National Museum of Health and Medicine (6900 Georgia Ave. NW, on the grounds of Walter Reed Army Medical Center; tel. 202/782-2200; Free (donations suggested). Metro: Silver Spring or Takoma Park then a short taxi ride. Or drive; there's plenty of free parking.

Under Abraham Lincoln's directive, the museum was established in 1862 as the Army Medical Museum. Here, visitors can view the bullet that lodged in Lincoln's brain, see plaster cast reproductions of his face and hands, and read the autopsy report. A permanent exhibit, "Medicine During the Civil War," includes the amputated leg of Major General Daniel E. Sickles -- after losing the limb at Gettysburg, he dispatched it to the museum with a note: "With the compliments of Major General D.E.S." Healthy and diseased organ specimens are showcased elsewhere. Some may think it ghoulish. Most find it compelling and informative. This museum is definitely not for very young children. Figure an hour to get here if you take Metro, 20 minutes or less if you drive from D.C.

National Zoological Park (3001 Connecticut Ave. NW; tel. 202/633-4800; Free admission; fee for parking. Metro: Cleveland Park (an easier walk) or Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan then L-2 or L-4 bus, or walk ½ mile uphill)

A few Metro stops from downtown D.C. is the nation's zoo. While you may lack the time or energy (the terrain is hilly) to greet each and every resident in a single visit, be sure to see the first phase of the Elephant Trails which opened in early September 2010. Here, three resident Asian elephants -- more are on the way -- have their own swimming pool, two large yards, a walkway through some woods, and a huge barn. Daily viewing times are 10am to 4pm, weather permitting. Other highlights include the Giant Pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian (due to go home in the coming year, so don't delay!); Great Cats (four lion cubs were born to Shera on Sept. 17, 2010, three cubs to her sister Naba on Sept. 22.); the Indoor Flight Room (you may want to wear a hat), species from the East African savanna (lions, gorillas, oryx, mongoose, meerkats, gazelles, and a female cheetah); and playful river otters.

The Phillips Collection (1600 21st St. NW at Q St.; tel. 202/387-2151; Metro: Dupont Circle, Q St. exit. Free weekdays (donations suggested); admission Sat. and Sun. Closed Mon.

A gem in the already colorful Dupont Circle neighborhood, the Phillips is a breath of spring at any season. Come here for exemplary Impressionist to present-day American and European art. Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party never fails to delight. Chagall, Cassatt, Miro, Matisse, Rothko, Ryder -- the hits keep coming! In addition to a huge permanent collection (only a small percent is on view at any one time), temporary exhibits change every few months, on average. Join the locals for 4pm Sunday concerts, October through May. Attend an Artful Evening, 5pm to 8pm Thursdays for music or a gallery talk. Have a light bite or snack in the petite café and check out the courtyard with its bronze sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly. Note: Renovations are underway in the older portion of the museum following water damage from a small fire in early September. The good news: No paintings were damaged.

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