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small but interesting

Some of the most interesting tourist attractions in Washington aren't anywhere near the Mall.

The nation's capital is filled with unique, often free museums devoted to spying, guns and the history of the U.S. Postal Service.

Options include:

The National Building Museum: The name sounds boring, but the museum, which explores the world of American architecture, urban planning, engineering and design, is a conveniently located and gorgeous building in the heart of the city.

Museum doors open to a grand, lush hall, which once was the site of inaugural balls.

One of the most fascinating exhibits is a history of Washington's architectural highlights, including the Capitol, the White House and the rows of townhouses spread across the city.

Your best bet is to pick two or three of the many exhibits for a good visit. The museum is at 401 F St. NW, across the street from the Judiciary Square stop on the Metro subway system's Red Line. Admission is free, although a donation is requested. For information, call (202) 272-2448 or check out the Web site, www.nbm.org. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

The National Museum of Health and Medicine: It might seem that a journey into the world of medicine would be uninspiring, if not "yucky," but this museum has fun exhibits.

Try on a smock that will let you know what you'd look like pregnant. Then move on to the gross exhibits, such as a stomach-shaped hairball surgically removed from the stomach of a 12-year-old girl.

The museum is not big, but it is informative, with a fascinating exhibit on military medicine during the Korean War and fragments of Abraham Lincoln's skull on display. Particularly interesting: the Civil War wounds exhibit.

The museum is in the rear of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center at 6900 Georgia Ave. and Elder Street NW. It is Building 54, a short cab ride from the Takoma Park or Silver Spring stops on Metro's Red Line. Admission is free. For information, call (202) 782-2200 or go to the Web site, www.natmedmuse.afip.org.

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts: Those overwhelmed by the sheer mass of arts in the Smithsonian might try this more intimate, manageable collection.

Enter the building to a spectacular hall. The rewards are great. From classic art to gutsy, modern stuff, you will get a range of art crafted by women. And it won't overwhelm you: You can do the whole museum in an hour or so. Stop by midday, and you can enjoy a casual lunch at the ornate museum's cafe.

The museum is at 1250 New York Ave. NW, closest to the McPherson Square or Metro Center Metro stops. Call (202) 783-5000 or see www.nmwa.org.

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and students and free to those under 18.

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