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Seven free apps to help you (re)discover DC

Seeing D.C. through all fresh eyes just takes a quick download.
Yes, it's 2014 and the iPhone has been revolutionizing travel (and everything else) for seven years now, but here's still something that feels vaguely futuristic about carrying an entire guidebook's worth of content in your smartphone. 

So many world-famous monuments, museums and attractions call D.C. home, and so many of them are realizing that they can create a better experience for visitors--whether out-of-towners or locals--by providing helpful information, photos, maps, or trivia in a pocket-sized download.

We thought now would be a good time to look at some of the best free apps from major attractions and indie ones alike so that you can spend the rest of your spring and summer getting to know D.C. that much better.

Major attractions
The Mall

The National Parks Service has designed an app to help you get around the National Mall. Unlike what you would expect from an app built in-house by the federal government, the app is surprisingly usable, featuring info about each monument, from major ones to tiny places you've never heard of (56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence Memorial, anyone?), allowing you to build your own walking tour, and an augmented reality view to show you where you're headed.
NPS National Mall, iOS and Android.

The Smithsonian has built about a thousand apps (even one that lets you watch Bao Bao from your phone, if you can believe it). The one that seems most useful is the Visitor's Guide and Tour, which lets you plan out a visit to one or more of the museums (or distract Grandma for a few hours).
Visitor's Guide and TouriOS and Android. Free, but extra tours cost more.

One side note: The Union Station Redevelopment Corporation (USRC), the entity that keeps Union Station running (and a sponsor of Elevation DC), is currently partnering with developer Neotreks to build out an app that will let visitors give themselves a self-guided tour of all the station has to offer, from historic architecture to future plans for redevelopment. The app should be out for both iOS and Android later this summer.

Off the Mall
Historic house museums
The Historic House Museum Consortium of Washington, D.C. unites dozens of historic houses in the region. Think "Brewmaster's Castle," Lincoln's cottage, and more. The app is fairly basic, but where else will you learn about Martha Washington's granddaughter's home?
DC House Museums, iOS and Android.

Get an inside view of the Library of Congress with the museum's app. It mirrors what you'll learn in the free, guided tours, so download this if you're visiting when the tours aren't offered, or if you want to explore at your own pace.
Library of Congress Virtual Tour, iOS only.

It's not an "app," but Cultural Tourism DC's web-based tours, designed for mobile phones, are some of the most interesting of the apps we tried. Five different walks (three downtown, two on U street) are available. Narrator Korva Coleman shares information about each spot, while the app provides oral histories, music and photos. Pull it up on your phone at http://dc.toursphere.com and start learning about your neighborhood's history.

Locals only
Secret dining options

Okay, okay, it's a national app, but Zagat's app pulls all its "editor's lists" of eats in and around D.C. into one handy place. Are you looking at this screenshot? "Hidden restaurant gardens around D.C."? Sign us up.  Though how Iron Gate didn't make this list is a mystery for the ages. At any rate, there are dozens if not hundreds of apps dedicated to help you find the latest and greatest dining options, so choose your favorite, even if it doesn't come with a guide to secret gardens.
Zagat, iOS and Android.

Make your Gravelly Point plane-watching experience even better with FlightAware, a flight-tracking app that also lets you see planes' trajectories as they approach DCA. The experience is better when the plane approaches from the north (i.e. directly overhead). Hey, it's on reddit, so it must be true.
FlightAware, iOS and Android.

Apps we wish existed
There are still some things technology can't solve...yet. Are you listening, developers?

Embassy Row Events Tracker
Do you know how many concerts, movie screenings, art openings and other cultural events with an international flair are going on at D.C.'s embassies? Neither do we, but we would if someone would build this.

Watch Kennedy Center Millennium Stage performances on my phone
Yes, they're all on the Web, but if TED can put out an app, we would like one for the KenCen, please.

Gargoyle finder for the National Cathedral
Because Darth Vader is up there somewhere, but no way can we find him without help.

Thumbnail image via PlaceIt

Read more articles by Rachel Kaufman.

Rachel is the managing editor of Elevation D.C. She also covers tech, business and science for publications nationwide. She lives in Brookland.
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