The USA’s capital teems with iconic monuments, vast museums and the corridors of power where politicos roam.
Museums & Monuments
There’s nothing quite like the Smithsonian Institution, a collection of 19 behemoth, artifact-stuffed museums, many lined up in a row along the Mall. The National Air & Space Museum, National Museum of Natural History, National Museum of African American History & Culture, Reynolds Center for American Art & Portraiture – all here, all free, always.
Alongside the museums, Washington’s monuments bear tribute to both the beauty and the horror of years past. They’re potent symbols of the American narrative, from the awe-inspiring Lincoln Memorial to the powerful Vietnam Veterans Memorial to the stirring Martin Luther King Jr Memorial.
Arts & Culture
Washington is the showcase of American arts, home to such prestigious venues as the National Theatre, the Kennedy Center and the Folger Theatre. Jazz music has a storied history here. In the early 20th century, locals such as Duke Ellington climbed on stages along U St NW, where atmospheric clubs still operate. Go-go (an infectiously rhythmic dance music) and punk also have deep roots in DC.
The city hosts several adventurous small theaters, like Arena Stage and Studio Theatre, that put on works by nontraditional writers. Busboys & Poets' open-mike nights provide another outlet for progressive new voices.
The president, Congress and the Supreme Court are here, the three pillars of US government. In their orbit float the Pentagon, the State Department, the World Bank and embassies from most corners of the globe. If you hadn’t got the idea, power is why Washington emits such a palpable buzz.
As a visitor, there’s a thrill in seeing the action up close – to walk inside the White House, to sit in the Capitol chamber while senators argue about climate change, and to drink in a bar alongside congresspeople likely determining your newest tax hike over their single malt scotch.
A lot of history is concentrated within DC’s relatively small confines. In a single day, you could gawk at the Declaration of Independence, the real, live parchment with John Hancock’s signature scrawled across it at the National Archives; stand where Martin Luther King Jr gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on the Lincoln Memorial’s steps; prowl around the Watergate building that got Nixon into trouble; see the flag that inspired the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at the National Museum of American History; and be an arm’s length from where Lincoln was assassinated in Ford’s Theatre.
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Add visiting these must-see local hot spots and culture centers to your next travel itinerary.
Plan a day trip full of local flavor and get back in time with these same-day options.
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Ways to maximize the fun without spending a dime on your next great adventure.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Washington, DC.
Play image association with the words “ Washington, DC, ” and chances are the first thing that comes to mind is the White House. The president’s pad is likely to take your breath away the first time you see it, not least because you’re standing in front of a building whose image you’ve seen a thousand times before. The surrounding streets are equally impressive, with handsome buildings and a bustle that comes courtesy of this neighborhood's role as America's center of bureaucratic and political business (or should that be shenanigans?). Visiting the White House isn't easy © Rarrarorro / Getty Images How to visit the White House Tours are free, but they have to be arranged in advance. Americans must apply via one of their state's members of Congress; non-Americans must ask their country's embassy in Washington, DC, for assistance – in reality, there's only a slim chance that the embassy will be able to help source tickets. Applications are taken from 21 days to three months in advance; the earlier you request during this time frame the better. Don't take it personally if you don't get accepted. Capacity is limited, and often official events take precedence over public tours. If you do get in, the self-guided walk-through takes about 30 minutes. Visitor’s Center Getting inside the White House can be difficult, so the visitor center is your backup plan. Housed in the splendiferous 1932 Patent Search Room of the Department of Commerce Building, it has plenty of artifacts, anecdote-packed information panels and informative multimedia exhibits, including a presentation on the history and lives of the presidential families and an interactive touch-screen tour of the White House. It’s obviously not the same as seeing the real deal firsthand, but the center does do its job very well, giving good history sprinkled with great anecdotes on presidential spouses, kids, pets and dinner preferences (betcha didn’t know President Garfield liked squirrel soup!). The gift shop is excellent if you're looking for classy souvenirs. Construction on the White House began in 1792 © Bau Haus1000/Getty Images History George Washington picked the site for the White House in 1791. Pierre L'Enfant was the initial architect, but he was fired for insubordination. Washington held a national competition to find a new designer. Irish-born architect James Hoban won. Hoban's idea was to make the building simple and conservative, so as not to seem royal, in keeping with the new country's principles. He modeled the neoclassical-style manor on Leinster House, a mid-18th-century duke's villa in Dublin that still stands and is now used by Ireland's Parliament. Why is the White House called the White House The “President's House” was built (and partially rebuilt) in stages between 1792 and 1829. Legend has it that after the British burned the building in the War of 1812, the house was restored and painted white to cover the smoke marks, and people began to call it the White House. That's not true – it had been white almost from the get-go – but it makes a nice story. Hoban, incidentally, was hired to supervise the rebuilding. It was a big job, as all that remained were the exterior walls and interior brickwork. Twenty-sixth president, Theodore Roosevelt is credited with giving the White House its official name in 1901. How many rooms are in the White House The White House has 132 rooms and 35 bathrooms. This includes 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, eight staircases and three elevators (for those who are counting). The residence is in the middle, flanked by the East and West Wings. In general, the West Wing is the business side, and the East Wing is the social side. So the Situation Room – a 5000-sq-ft complex staffed 24/7 to monitor national and world intelligence information – is in the west. The Cabinet Room is there too, with its huge mahogany table around which the cabinet secretaries sit to discuss business with the president. The East Wing holds the first lady's office, the social secretary's office, and the Graphics and Calligraphy Office (though tour participants don't see any of these). The White House has three main levels: the Ground Floor, State Floor and Second Floor. The Ground and State floors have rooms used for official entertaining and ceremonial functions (many of which you see on the tour). The Second Floor holds the private living quarters of the president and family. From restaurants to museums, the area around the White House has something for everyone © jiawangkun/Shutterstock Around the White House By day the streets near the White House hum with the comings and goings of office workers, diplomats, lobbyists, tourists and bureaucrats. You'll need at least a full day to do this part of town justice, and you should aim to explore by foot. Start outside the White House and then explore the surrounding streets, admiring the architecture, visiting museums like the National Portrait Gallery and The National Museum of African American History and Culture and popping into a government building or two. Come evening, there’s an exodus of office workers and the streets quiet. You could stay and mingle with DC power brokers over a cocktail in one of the hotel bars, enjoy a meal in one of the fine-dining restaurants, or elbow up to a tavern counter alongside GWU students. If these options don't tickle your fancy, consider catching a free early show on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center before taking a short riverside stroll into ever-busy Georgetown for dinner. How to take the best picture of the White House Want to snap a selfie with a White House backdrop? You have two options. First head to Pennsylvania Ave, past the peace activists who are always there, for photos across the North Lawn. This view shows the triangular north portico and main driveway. Then walk to E St NW for pictures with a South Lawn background. The view here focuses on the rounded south portico and distant flowery gardens. Alas, there's a security barrier between you and the White House fence, so you won't be getting any unfettered close-ups. Restaurants near the White House As you might guess, the area around the White House is high-end eating territory, the pinnacle of the power-lunch and show-off-dinner school of sartorial activity. With all that said, you usually get what you pay for – there’s too much competition around for local chefs to rest lazily on their laurels. A few top-tier places include Equinox, Old Ebbitt Grill and the Bombay Club. Hotels near the White House Four- and five-star options with good restaurants and bars predominate in the White House area. A few top spots include: Hay-Adams Hotel, Sofitel Washington DC Lafayette Square and the Willard InterContinental Hotel.
Constructed between 1907 and 1990, this huge neo-Gothic cathedral blends the spiritual with the profane in its architecture. Most of its richly colored stained-glass windows celebrate religious themes, although the 'Scientists and Technicians' window with its embedded lunar rock is an exception. The famed exterior gargoyles depict everything from Darth Vader to a Missouri bear. Specialty tours are available so check online for details. The excellent Open City cafe is in the cathedral's grounds, occupying the historic baptistery building. The Episcopal diocese runs this house of worship, but it’s open to all faiths. Presidents attend multi-faith services following their inauguration, state funerals are hosted inside and this was where Martin Luther King Jr gave his last Sunday sermon. Teddy Roosevelt witnessed the cornerstone being laid by workers in 1907 and construction stopped in 1990 when the west towers were completed, with George HW Bush looking on. In the main sanctuary, chapels honor Martin Luther King Jr and Abe Lincoln. Helen Keller and Woodrow Wilson, among others, are buried in the crypt. A guided highlights tour is included in the ticket price; these are held at 10:15am, 11am, 1pm, 2pm and 3pm from Monday to Saturday. Specialty tours, priced at $22 to $27 including admission, concentrate on the gargoyles, photographic opportunities and 'behind the scenes' access. Opening hours are extended to 8pm on Tuesday and Thursday from mid-June to August. Take the elevator to the 7th floor observation gallery for expansive city views or meander outside through the peaceful winding paths in the Bishop’s Garden. The 11:15am Sunday service features choral music. Choristers sing Evensong at 5:30pm Monday to Friday and 4pm on Sunday during the school year. The 2011 earthquake took a heavy toll on the cathedral. Repairs are underway, but visitors still have full access to the key areas of interest inside the cathedral.
The former estate of Marjorie Merriweather Post of Post cereal fame, this lavishly decorated 1920s mansion showcases her extraordinary collections of Russian imperial art (icons, paintings, jewelry, Fabergé eggs) and French 18th-century decorative artwork (Sèvres porcelain, Louis XVI furniture). Wandering through the mansion is fascinating – the state-of-the-art 1950s kitchen, modern staff quarters and opulent, objet-laden entertaining and living areas give a wonderful insight into her privileged life and role as a notable society hostess. As a bonus, the 25-acre estate incorporates some lovely gardens, which include Post’s dog cemetery, a greenhouse and a museum shop. The on-site cafe serves light fare, such as sandwiches, salads and soups. It's worth joining a free one-hour guided tour of the mansion – held at 11:30am and 1:30pm Tuesday through Thursday with an extra 3:30pm tour Friday through Sunday – to hear stories about Post's lifestyle. Alternatively, take advantage of the downloadable audio guide. The estate is a mile walk from the Van Ness-UDC Metro station.
The mansion's 27 acres of enchanting formal gardens are straight out of a storybook. The springtime blooms – including heaps of cherry blossoms – are stunning. The mansion itself is worth a walk-through to see exquisite Byzantine and pre-Columbian art (including El Greco's The Visitation) and the fascinating library of rare books that date as far back as 1491. From November to mid-March the gardens are free (and they close at 5pm). Enter them at R and 31st Sts NW. In 1944 diplomatic meetings took place here that laid the groundwork for the UN. The trustees of Harvard University operate the house, so Harvard students, faculty and staff get in free.
One of DC's top attractions for architecture buffs and those with an interest in 20th-century art, this museum is housed in a stunning 1963 International Style building designed by American architect Philip Johnson. Clad in travertine, it features a distinctive roofline, light-saturated interior salons and an expansive sculpture terrace that is home to works by artists including Jean Arp and Henry Moore. Inside, artworks from the top-drawer personal collection of David and Carem Kreeger are displayed. Exhibits are constantly rotated, so you’re just as likely to see Monet’s dappled impressionism as Edvard Munch’s dark expressionism. There are plenty of masterpieces, including works by Picasso, van Gogh and Cézanne. Guided tours are offered at 10:30am and 1:30pm from Tuesday to Friday, and at 10:30am, noon and 2pm on Saturday. If heading here by bus, alight at Hoban Rd NW and walk north up Foxhall Rd.
The greatest green space in Washington unfurls almost 450 acres of meadowland, sylvan theaters and a pastoral setting that feels somewhere between bucolic Americana countryside and a classical Greek ruralscape. Highlights include the Bonsai & Penjing Museum (exquisitely sculpted mini trees), the National Herb Garden (lots of hot peppers) and the otherworldly Capitol Columns Garden (studded with Corinthian pillars that were once part of the Capitol building). All are near the R St entrance. A short distance onward, the National Grove of State Trees rises up. It sprouts everything from New York's sugar maple to California's giant sequoia. Stop at the Administration Building for a map and self-guided tour information. Prepare to do a lot of walking. To reach the arboretum, take the Metro to bus B2. Get off on Bladensburg Rd at Rand St, which puts you a few blocks from the R St entrance. (There's another entrance on New York Ave NE, but R St is more convenient.)
Designed by Italian architect Luigi Moretti and DC-based landscape architect Boris Timchenko and constructed between 1963 and 1971, this five-building curvilinear riverfront complex encompasses apartments, fountains, terraces, boutiques, the recently refurbished Watergate Hotel, and the office towers that made ‘Watergate’ a byword for political scandal after it broke that President Nixon’s ‘plumbers’ had bugged the headquarters of the 1972 Democratic National Committee here. Though now acknowledged as an architectural masterpiece, the Watergate was derisively refered to as 'Antipasto on the Potomac' on its opening in 1971. The first large-scale mixed-use development in DC, it lost its lustre as a residential and commercial address after the scandal, but in recent years has edged back into fashion.
Home to more than 2700 animals and more than 390 species in natural habitats, the National Zoo is famed for its giant pandas, Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and Bei Bei. Other highlights include the African lion pride, Asian elephants, and orangutans swinging 50ft overhead from steel cables and interconnected towers (aka the ‘O Line’). This Smithsonian Institution zoo was founded in 1889 and planned by Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park. The zoo’s grounds follow the natural contours of a woodland canyon, and the exhibits are noted for their natural-habitat settings. The zoo is intensively involved in worldwide ecological study and species-preservation work. High points in the past decade include giant panda and lowland gorilla births. Even non-zoo fans will find the National Zoo entertaining. The panda house offers fun facts on the creatures’ sex lives (they only go at it three days per year – indeed Mei Xiang's pregnancy was the result of artificial insemination) and bowel production (behold the hefty replica poo). Big-cat fans will enjoy visiting the Cheetah Conservation Station and most visitors seem to find the Electric Fishes Demonstration Lab in the Amazonia exhibit quite fascinating. The grounds are well-marked, but there is a map on the zoo's website and printed versions can be purchased at the main entrance. Check the sign there for each day’s event program, including animal feedings. Note that the Bird House is undergoing a major renovation and is closed until 2021. If coming by Metro, the walk from Woodley Park is uphill and the walk from Cleveland Park is flat. If driving, parking costs $25.
Standing at the center of a granite plaza, this bronze memorial, Spirit of Freedom, depicting rifle-bearing troops is DC’s first major art piece by black sculptor Ed Hamilton. The statue is surrounded on three sides by the Wall of Honor, listing the names of 209,145 African American troops who fought in the Union Army, as well as the 7000 white soldiers who served alongside them. To look up individual names and find their location on the memorial, check the website's 'Colored Troops Search.' To reach the plaza, depart the Metro station via the 10th St exit (follow the ‘memorial’ signs as you leave the train).
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