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Summer fun in the nation's capital

  • Story Highlights
  • Military bands captivate crowds with free concerts on Capitol Hill during the summer
  • Visitors can explore the Potomac River by renting kayaks and canoes
  • Minor league baseball teams in the area offer big league fun on a smaller scale
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By Bob Kovach
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- From free concerts to fresh blue crabs, summertime in the Washington area can be a lot of fun.

Sunset provides a striking backdrop for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

On most summer evenings, military bands provide wonderful free entertainment for the whole family on the west front of the U.S. Capitol. Bring a lawn chair and a picnic or just take a seat on the steps. Bands from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps alternate performance duties on the hill.

You can't find a more relaxing way to spend an evening as the sun sets at the far end of the National Mall, the sky darkens and lights brighten the Capitol dome. Enjoy jazz, classical and even some Broadway show tunes and music from films. Occasionally, a vocalist will treat the crowd to a well-known song.

For an outdoor adventure, set out on the Potomac River. There are boathouses along the river where you can rent a kayak or canoe or learn to handle a single shell. Thompson Boat Center and Jack's Boathouse rent all sorts of watercraft. The staff provides some tips and a life jacket, and you are able to explore the river at your own pace.

Take a leisurely paddle around Roosevelt Island or under the Francis Scott Key Bridge or paddle your way to an excellent workout.

When hunger starts to get the best of you, grab a bite at Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street N.W. The place has been there for decades, serving up chili dogs and fries and other great food. Grab a seat at the counter and watch the staff put on a show serving the masses. The crowd ranges from college students to families, business people to late-night revelers.

A scene from the 1993 film "The Pelican Brief," starring Denzel Washington, was shot at Ben's, and the walls are lined with photos of other celebrities who have stopped in for a quick meal.

Don't Miss

There's nothing sweeter than the taste of a Maryland blue crab in the summer, and the Washington area boasts some of the best places. My favorite is a short drive outside the city in Annapolis, Maryland. Jimmy Cantler's Riverside Inn serves up outstanding steamed crabs seasoned with the restaurant's special mixture of spices. Come early -- especially on weekends -- because the indoor and outdoor tables fill up fast.

A large sheet of paper is placed on your table, and before you know it, the crabs you ordered arrive. Now the fun begins -- but you have to do a little work for your meal. Crabs need to be cracked and pried open to unlock the tasty goodies inside the now bright-orange shells. Groups large and small can be seen pounding and smacking open crabs and washing them down with ice-cold beers and assorted soft drinks.

If you're not in the mood for crabs, the menu is full of other great seafood. Jimmy Cantler's is off the beaten path and takes a little work to find as you drive along winding and twisting roads, but it is well worth the trip.

The Washington area is a great place to check out the national pastime. The Nationals have a new ballpark downtown, and there are a handful of other venues where spectators can experience the joys of baseball. Just east of downtown Washington, the Bowie Baysox in Maryland play their brand of baseball in a charming park with all the attractions of the big leagues.

North of Washington, in Aberdeen, Maryland, the Ironbirds (owned by baseball legend Cal Ripken) have become a draw for baseball lovers. In Waldorf, the Blue Crabs are bringing minor league baseball to southern Maryland for the first time this season.

All of these parks have one thing in common: big league fun on a smaller scale. Many of the parks boast free parking and a playground for younger kids who might get bored with a nine-inning game. You may not know any of the players' names, but the play on the field can be just as exciting as the big leagues. The between-inning fun and games are entertaining, and many fans go home with prizes. And there's nothing minor league about the food at these parks. It's often just as good as the big leagues with much shorter lines.

To beat the heat, you can pop into one of the many museums of the Smithsonian Institution and enjoy the treasures. These amazing museums are free of charge and open to the public year-round.

And don't forget to check out the city's monuments. They're worth a look -- especially early in the morning before it gets too hot and crowded. The Korean War Veterans Memorial, which depicts a platoon marching on patrol, takes on an eerie presence in the early morning fog. At night the black marble wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial emits a poignant glow from its subdued lighting. The recently added World War II Memorial is spectacular with its many fountains and sculptures.

But there is still nothing quite like sitting on the steps of two of the old standards, the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, at sunset as the lights brighten the columns and walls that make up these majestic structures.

Bob Kovach is a coverage manager in CNN's Washington bureau. He has lived in the city since 1999.

All About Travel DestinationsTravel and TourismWashington, DC

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