Washington, D.C. is part history, part culture, and part working capitol. Just as international capitals around the world like Tokyo, London, or Paris, there is so very much to see and do. Any traveler needs to accept that there is just no way to see it all in one go. So, where do you even start? I guess the same place that google maps would drop a pin: The Washington Monument.
Our National Mall is the epi-center of any first visit to the capitol. It encompasses most of the most famous monuments and almost all of the Smithsonian complex (more on that later). From the Lincoln Memorial to The Capitol Building, The Mall is a promenade that has something for everyone. It does not, however, have a superior array of restaurants to choose from.
Food trucks and McDonalds seem to rule the day on the mall, but, with a little bit of digging, you will find that there are a few hidden spots that may be better than a combo meal. Don’t get me wrong, some of the trucks that have a permanent permit mid-mall are really good, but you may want more than a park bench to enjoy your meal. A few options include the cafe at the sculpture garden, the restaurant in the Museum of African American Art, and, at the top of the Mall, the NoMa neighborhood by Union Station.
Washington, D.C. is, first and foremost, a working city with government responsibilities to accomplish daily (no matter how much we think politics brings things to a glaring stop!) Security is an unfortunate inevitably for any potential visitor. As a result, you may need to jump through a few hoops to visit some of the biggest draws in the city. Both the White house and the Capitol both need to clear tickets through your local congressman while the US Treasury and the Pentagon both need a registered security clearance. Use our direct links throughout this article to get the most up to date information and start the clearance process.
The most famous address in the country is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Visitors can arrange to take the one way tour through the public spaces on the lower level and main level. It’s important to note that you will not be able to actually enter many of the rooms on the lower level. As you can imagine, security takes precedence on any given day. And, while, rare, the possibility of tours being cancelled at the last minute is a possibility. In my opinion the 45 minute, one-way tour is well worth it if it’s Christmas time or if you have kids that have recently learned about the actual house. Otherwise, the hassle and time might be better placed on other endeavors.
Home to our most prominent politicians, the nation’s business take place here. The Capitol visitor’s Center is the place you’ll meet the intern who will be assigned to you- usually by one of the 50 statues that represent each state. The tour will take you through the lower levels, the chambers of House and Senate (if available) and the grand rotunda. Each intern has seemingly gone through tour guide school and do a great job explaining history, architecture, art, and basic politics. In my opinion, if I had to choose between the White House and The Capitol Building, I’d choose this.
Getting into the Pentagon, and Treasury both require a security screening but can be well worth your time if these topics interest you. I’d skip if you have young kids or the military or money making are not your thing.
Name a president, any president, and I will show you a monument to them. From the Tidal Basin, to the Capital, there are tons of odes to not only presidents, but to those who we lost in war, those who helped shape our country, and those who define what it means to be American. All but one of the monuments are free.
The Washington Monument stands at the axis point of the White House and the Capitol reminding each to mind their P’s and Q’s. It requires a ticket and advance reservation if you want to go to the top. I’d skip it for other venues that give you just as good of a view without the timed reservation.
Be sure to check in to the WWII Memorial and find your way to the poignant Vietnam Memorial that still packs quite the emotional punch. The tidal basin also holds some amazing tributes to FDR, MLK, and Jefferson. It’s where you’ll get the best view of the…
Each Spring, Washington gains a pink glow as trees all over the city wake up from their winter nap. The tidal basin is the premiere location for cherry blossom season and is the original home to the 3,020 trees gifted from Tokyo in 1912.
One of the largest museum complexes in the world, the Smithsonian Institute offers such a wide array of topics to explore. Eleven of the over 20 Smithsonian sites line the side of the National Mall. They include the most popular like the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Air and Space. A&S is, by far, the most crowded and has the longest security line. These days, many museums are in some sort of remodeling process and you should check the website to know exactly what to expect. No matter which ones you choose, there’s just no way to get to all of them in one go. Check out this video to see all your choices.
National Geographic Hall
One of the best small museums in the city, Nat Geo has three parts. First, enjoy the interactive, ever changing exhibit to the left. Then pass through to the secondary revolving exhibit which has plenty of art and artifacts. Lastly, pop out the back door to the permanent display of Nat Geo covers that illuminate amazing moments in history. I consider this stop the best rainy day pick possible. Get a sneak peak at what an exhibit looks like with Jane Goodall by clicking the video below.
National Holocaust Museum
If you could only do one thing in Washington, D.C., pick this. This world class museum depicts the horrible events leading up, during, and after Hitler’s maniacal final solution. This state of the art facility walks you through the difficult facts with compassion and helps young minds grasp the severity of the Holocaust in terms that they can understand. It is a must do.
Other Museums To Consider
- National Gallery: a world class collection of art ranging from ancient sculpture to modern art. A great stroll to get out of the heat with a super cool tunnel that lights up as you go from one building to the next.
- National Botanic Garden: in the shadow of the capitol this venue gives a visitor just the right amount of respite from the busy city. Stroll through the quiet exhibits which include model trains during the holidays.
- Library of Congress: Our national library has more to see than just a big fancy book room. Check out exhibit on the Gutenburg Bible, Bob Hope, The Gershwins and more.
- Supreme Court: Our country’s highest court is open to see the chambers when not in session. Little more than the room itself, law buffs will look in awe at the setting of so very much history.
- Law Enforcement Museum: the thin blue line is honored here with major events in history and memorials to the fallen. Well worth the time as way to view contemporary issues through another lens.
Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts
Our nation’s performing arts center is a treat whether you attend a show or simply tour the 1971-built facility. Broadway caliber stars and shows are often found in house with plenty to choose from off the busy calendar. The spaces are appointed with gifts from around the world in a feat of diplomacy headed up by Jackie Kennedy. Tours are available from trained volunteers daily. Also, there is a huge kids calendar to enjoy. Be sure to check out the hilarious in house production “Shear Madness” for a little interactive theater fun.
Other theaters of note include the National Theater and Ford’s Theater. both are worth tickets to a show but I’d pass on any sort of facility tour. On the other side of the river, you’ll find…
Find your patriotic spirit as you visit this national icon of the fallen. Arlington is open 24/7-365. These hallowed grounds honor veterans from every American conflict from the civil war to present day military actions. The most famous resident-JFK- is also here. Most visitors make their way around the site by tram but you can hike up to points of interest like the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier or the 9-11 pentagon memorial. Arlington is a lesson in humility and pride and well worth the visit.
You can get involved with Arlington (or any national cemetery close to you) by registering as a volunteer with Wreaths Across America. This organization lovingly places a wreath on every gravestone each holiday season. Please be mindful of stones or coins left on gravestones as they represent very recent visitors.
Venturing further away from the city center…
Washington is made up of some really great neighborhoods who are proud to show off their little slice of the capital with fin activities and seriously great food. Here are just a few…
Located next to the Navy Yard in Anacostia, the NYTS gives you a thrilling two hour clinic for anyone who’d like to fly through the air with the greatest of ease. Don’t worry! there are plenty of harnesses and nets to keep you and the kids safe!
Just around the corner is the Anacostia Riverfront with tons of great restaurants and plenty to do including taking in a game or tour at Nationals Park or kayaking on the Anacostia River. Kayaking and boating on the Potomac are also options all along the river. Toward the south side of town on the river is…
George Washington’s home is open for tours in any season. The property does a great job of telling its story through animated storytellers and well thought out exhibits in the visitors center. The house itself, is interesting if sparse in that we-are-just-getting-this-country-started way. With lots of events and plenty of outbuildings to explore, Mount Vernon is a great family option and may be just the right remedy if you don’t get that perfect tour up on Pennsylvania Ave.
The town of Alexandria is just north of Mount Vernon and can be just the place for you to enjoy a little of that revolutionary era charm in addition to famous Georgetown. Expect these neighborhoods to have that feel but be full of modern shopping and eateries.
Rock Creek Park
Answer this riddle: “Central Park is to NYC as ___ is to WDC”. Rock Creek Park on the north side of the city offers plenty for anyone who gravitates to urban outdoor settings. Home to plenty of sporting events including fun (charity/awareness) runs and locals enjoying a bit of nature, RCP is most famous for the national zoo. Pandas have been the marquee event at the zoo since the 1970’s. There is no doubt that those black and white fur balls are the star of the show. Expect the zoo to be completely walkable and doable in one afternoon. Be sure to skip the restaurants inside and opt for some of the yummy choices on the walk back to the metro.
Also up on the north side of town are The National Cathedral and The National Basilica. Both well worth a look if not on your first visit then on your second. You’ll most likely be far more familiar with the Cathedral as it is often where senior statesmen are eulogized on TV.
Getting in, out, and around
I’m gonna keep it real: WDC is the biggest pain in the you know what when it comes to driving and parking!!! Between double the rush hour, the ever traffic filled beltway, and motorcades that often put a screeching halt to anyone who is trying to get from point A to point B. Hop on hop off buses clog up the streets and parking is an expensive nightmare. There I said it. It’s all true.
I will, however, say that the metro system is a dream to use for any beginning traveler and will get you from one landmark to another far quicker than your own wheels. For tips on using the Metro, click the link. If you do need to drive, I highly suggest the handy app: spot hero. It will at least let you get to a guaranteed spot and will lock in a price for you. Here are some more great resources to help you inspired and planned for your big trip to the nation’s capital! Note that some of the links below are affiliate links. I only recommend products & brands I love and that I think you would love, too!
7 thoughts on “Washington D.C. 101”
I lived in DC for almost a decade and I love this guide! All of the museums that you recommended are so on point. Thanks for sharing!
I went to DC quite a few years ago so I would love to go back and visit these sites again. Thanks for sharing!
I live in Washington DC and you identified so many of its treasures, including the museums, green spaces and performing arts. But I would also add that Washington DC is not just a bland government city. No visit to Washington DC is complete without exploring its neighborhoods. You should reserve time to visit Dupont Circle, Shaw, Georgetown, U Street, and Cleveland Park – just to name a few gems. Great first time guide to DC.
I visited DC a while ago but would love to go back and explore it in more details. Thanks for sharing this!
I would love to visit DC and have beeb wanting to go there for a while. Of course I will be visiting some of the government buildings but the museums sound equally interesting. And I bet the city is magical during the cherry blossoms season!
DC during the cherry blossom season is one of my dreams! I have only been to DC once when I was in 5th grade but I remember most of these places.
National Geographic Hall would interest me the most for sure.