Written by Barbara Radcliffe Rogers
The District of Columbia, on the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia, was set aside as the nation’s capital, so that the federal government would not be located in any single state. Pierre-Charles L’Enfant was commissioned by George Washington to plan the city, and you can clearly see L’Enfant layout of a street grid intersected by broad avenues. The most important of these is Pennsylvania Avenue, connecting two iconic buildings: the White House and the impressive domed Capitol Building. Alongside and maintaining L’Enfant vision of an open and spacious city stretches the wide National Mall with its museums and monuments.
National symbols such as the Capitol and the White House are accessible to visitors, along with dozens of other tourist attractions, which include world-class museums and important monuments. Many of the most important things to see and do are in the northwestern quadrant along the National Mall and are best seen on foot. Summer can be unpleasantly hot and humid, so the best times to visit Washington are spring and autumn.
Plan your trip to the nation’s capital with our list of the top attractions in Washington, D.C.
1. United States Capitol and Capitol Hill
Recognized around the world as a symbol of the United States, the Capitol is the seat of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The huge dome, based on the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome, stands out above all other Washington buildings.
Like Washington itself, the building has grown over the years since the central portion was built between 1793 and 1812. The last addition, in 1958-62, enlarged the main facade where presidents take the oath. On the other side, a marble terrace offers beautiful views over the mall and the city.
The interior is resplendent with frescoes, reliefs, and paintings, especially the rotunda under the great cast-iron dome with a ceiling painting by Constantino Rubidium and huge paintings of scenes from American history on the walls. Beside it is the former Chamber of the House of Representatives, with statues of leading historical figures. The small Senate Rotunda leads into the beautifully restored Old Senate Chamber, where the Senate met until 1859, and the Supreme Court until 1935.
Free tours, which can be reserved online, begin at the visitor center on the lower floor, where there is an interesting exhibition on the building’s history. Free tours on weekday afternoons explore the ornate paintings on the walls and ceilings of the corridors in the Senate wing, designed by Rubidium between 1857 and 1859. To visit the Senate or House in session, you need to contact your Senator or Representative for a pass; foreign visitors can arrange visits through the visitor center.
An underground passage with historical exhibits leads from the Capitol to one of Washington’s little known places to visit, the Library of Congress. It’s the world’s largest library, modeled on the Opera House in Paris. You can visit portions on your own, but free tours disclose even more of its beautiful interior. Displayed here are one of the three surviving complete Gutenberg Bibles, an earlier hand-printed Bible, Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s personal library, and galleries filled with exhibits focusing on topics as varied as the musical careers of the Gershwin brothers and the work of editorial cartoonists and graphic artists.
2. The White House
The White House is the official residence of the President of the United States. The home of every president except George Washington, it was originally built by James Hogan in 1792, and after being burned down by British forces in 1814 was rebuilt in 1818. Although tours of the interior that include the East, Blue, Green, and Red Rooms; the Ballroom; and the State Dining Room must be reserved well in advance through your Congressional office or embassy, every tourist to Washington will want to see this iconic building, at least from the outside.
The free White House Visitor Center, a short distance away, has excellent interactive exhibits, which show details about the White House and the presidential families. It includes furniture of past presidents, a model of the residence, historical changes, and videos with insights from presidents about their time living there.
The Ellipse, a 54-acre stretch of lawn stretching to Constitution Avenue, hosts summer concerts by the US Army Band. Next door to the White House are the elaborate 1833 Greek Revival Treasury Building and the 1871 Executive Office Building, one of the most striking old government buildings in Washington. From Lafayette Square, one of the city’s best-known, statues of Andrew Jackson, Lafayette, and others overlook the White House.
3. The Lincoln Memorial
The best-loved of all Washington’s memorials, the Lincoln Memorial stands at the far end of the mall, separated from the Washington Monument by the Reflecting Pool. At its center is a 19-foot marble statue of a seated and pensive President Abraham Lincoln surrounded by 36 columns, one for each of the states that existed at the time of Lincoln’s death. This is the most famous work designed by noted sculptor Daniel Chester French. Jules Guerin painted the murals on the inside walls, showing important events in Lincoln’s life.
Since its completion in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial has been the scene of a number of historic events. 1n 1939, when the all-white Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to let celebrated African American singer Marian Anderson perform at a concert in nearby Constitution Hall, President Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to give an open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, attended by 75,000 people and broadcast to millions of radio listeners. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream…” speech from the memorial steps in 1963, again making history here.
Visiting this and other Mall monuments is one of the favorite things to do in Washington, D.C. at night. The monuments are all lighted, and many, like the Lincoln Memorial, are open 24 hours. The statue of Lincoln is especially powerful lighted at night inside the darkened interior of the temple and framed by the floodlit white columns.
4. The Washington Monument
The 555-foot white shaft of the Washington Monument is a familiar icon of the National Mall, and a beautiful sight, especially when mirrored in the long Reflecting Pool at its foot. Construction of the obelisk to honor the nation’s first president did not proceed smoothly. The plan was approved by Congress in 1783, but ground wasn’t broken until 1848. When the tower reached 156 feet in height in 1854, political wrangling and lack of funds stopped the project for several years, and the Civil War caused further interruption so that the tower was not capped until 1885, when it was finally completed by the Army Corps of Engineers.
You can still see the separate stages of its building by three changes in the color of its facing stones; inside are engraved stones from various states, cities, foreign countries, individuals, and civic groups, many of them donors who helped in its private funding stages. You can take an elevator to the very top for aerial views over the mall and much of Washington. The base of the monument is surrounded by a circle of 50 American Flags.
5. National Mall and Veterans Memorials
The spacious swath of lawns and pools that forms a wide greenbelt from the Capitol Building to the Lincoln Memorial is also the site of many of Washington’s landmark buildings and monuments. Most prominent at its center point is the Washington Monument, and war memorials include those to veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a poignant wall inscribed with the names of all American servicemen and women who lost their lives or are missing, is one of Washington’s most visited memorials. The nearby Vietnam Women’s Memorial has a bronze sculpture of three servicewomen helping a wounded soldier. The Korean War Veterans Memorial contains 19 steel sculptures of soldiers. The newest, American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial was dedicated in 2014.
If you look at a Washington, D.C. attractions map, you’ll notice that many of them line the National Mall, so you’re likely to spend a lot of time here. Along with providing a park for walking, running, and picnicking, the Mall is a place for celebrations and festivals. Best known of these is the annual Independence Day celebration with fireworks around the Washington Monument. Also in July, the Smithsonian American Folk Life Festival fills the Mall with music, crafts, performances, storytelling, cultural programs, and food from various regions around the country. The Smithsonian Kite Festival is held here in late March or early April.
On summer evenings, you can often find military bands performing at venues along the Mall. The US Navy Band has concerts at the Capitol steps overlooking the Mall on Mondays and on Tuesdays at Navy Memorial. The US Air Force Band performs on the capitol steps on Tuesdays and at the Air Force Memorial on Fridays.
6. National Air and Space Museum
The National Air and Space Museum is one of the world’s most popular museums, with a collection of history-making air and spacecraft that includes the original 1903 Wright Brothers Flyer and Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the first plane to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
More recent flight history is represented here by the Apollo 11 command module, part of the first manned lunar landing mission. Permanent and changing exhibitions illustrate the science, history, and technology of aviation and space flight, covering topics like the use of air power in both world wars, the space race, flight pioneers, and up-to-the-minute flight and space technology. Many of the exhibits are interactive, and all contain actual historical objects, such as a moon rock you can touch. Not only do permanent exhibits illustrate history, they show the how and why of flight and space science, explaining how things fly, how jet engines work, and what keeps the International Space Station in orbit.
In addition to the exhibits, there is the Albert Einstein Planetarium, an I MAX theater, and the Public Observatory on the east terrace, where you can examine lunar craters and see planets and other astronomical features through telescopes. Flight simulators (fee charged) allow kids and adults to fly combat missions with aerial maneuvers like 360-degree barrel rolls or experience naval aviation in an F-18 Super Hornet.
In addition to the museum on the Mall, the Edvard-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, adjacent to Dulles Airport, has even more historic aircraft and space exploration artifacts, including a Concorde and the space shuttle Discovery. You can watch from observation walkways through the hangars where experts are restoring historic aircraft.
The Air and Space Museum is currently undergoing a seven-year makeover that will transform not only the arrangement of 23 galleries, but the way it interprets the history and science of flight. During renovations, a number of the exhibits will be closed, beginning with the popular Apollo to the Moon, World War II Aviation, Jet Aviation, and World War I exhibits, which closed in January, 2019. If particular exhibits are of special interest, you can consult the museum’s website to find out if they are open.
7. National Gallery of Art
Housed in two separate buildings connected by a tunnel, the National Gallery of Art is one of the world’s premier art museums and one of the most popular in the U.S. Based on the sizable collection of financier and later Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, its large and diverse collection includes masterpieces of European and American paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts.
Frequent temporary exhibitions add to this outstanding permanent collection to highlight arts from cultures around the world. Among the highlights is Ginevra de Bench, the only DA Vince painting in any American museum. Others include works by major French Impressionists — Monet, Degas, and Renoir — and other masterpieces by Rembrandt, El Greece, and Vermeer. The newer East Wing features sculptures by Henry Moore, a mobile by Alexander Calder, and other modern works. Free concerts are held at the National Gallery on Sunday evenings from fall through spring.
Also part of the Smithsonian Institution and located on the mall are several other art museums. The Freer Gallery of Art houses nearly 30,000 pieces of Asian artworks, including Buddhist sculptures and Persian manuscripts, one of the most extensive collections in the world. The Freer also features 19th-century and early 20th-century American art, most notably a large collection of work by James McNeil Whistler. Connected to it, the Arthur M. Tackler Gallery houses more than 1,000 pieces, principally Chinese jade and bronze, Chinese paintings and lacquer ware, and ancient Near Eastern ceramics and metal ware.
The drum-shaped Shorthorn Museum and Sculpture Garden traces the history of modern art from the mid-1800s, through more than 12,000 pieces of art and sculpture. One of the highlights of the garden is Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. The National Museum of African Art displays thousands of objects representing the diverse artistic styles throughout the African continent, including sculptures, masks, costumes, household objects, and ceramics. All of these Smithsonian museums are among the many free things to do in Washington, D.C.
8. National Museum of Natural History
One of the most popular things to do with children in Washington, the Museum of Natural History explores the natural world with permanent and changing exhibits to interest all ages. Favorite exhibits include the renowned Hope Diamond and the dazzling collection of gems and minerals around it; Ocean Hall with its stunning underwater photography and replica of a 45-foot North Atlantic Right Whale; and the Hall of Human Origins, which follows human evolution over six million years in response to a changing world. Children will especially like the dinosaur exhibits and the interactive Discovery Room where they can touch and play with various artifacts.
9. National Zoological Park
The National Zoo is another part of the Smithsonian, where nearly 2,000 different animals, birds, and reptiles live in habitats replicating as closely as possible their natural environments. Of the several hundred species represented here, about a quarter are endangered. This is one of the world’s best zoos, not only for the quality of the visitor experience, but for its leadership in areas of animal care and sustainability.
By far the most popular animals here are the giant pandas, part of a major initiative that began in 1972 with the arrival of H sing Sing from the People’s Republic of China. Other zoo highlights are red pandas, Sumatran tigers, western lowland gorillas, Asian elephants, cheetahs, white-napes cranes, and North Island brown kiwis. In the Amazonian exhibit, you can glimpse the colorful underwater life of the Amazon, where one of the world’s largest freshwater fish swims beneath a living tropical forest.
Along with the cheetahs at the Cheetah Conservation Station, you can see Grey’s zebras, dams gazelles, vultures, and red river hogs, and at the highly popular Elephant Trails, you can see the multi generational herd and learn about the elephants’ life at the zoo and in the wild. Check the day’s schedule for feeding times, demonstrations, educational games, and talks. As you might expect, this is one of Washington’s favorite places to visit for children.
10. National Museum of American History
One of the most popular of the Smithsonian’s many museums that line the mall, The National Museum of American History traces the political, cultural, scientific, and technological history of the U.S. since the Revolution. It displays important pieces of Americana, including Thomas Jefferson’s desk, one of Edison’s light bulbs, and the original flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the words to The Star Spangled Banner.
But beyond these treasured national artifacts, exhibits also examine how people lived, what they ate, where they worked, how they played, what they wore, how they traveled, how they worshiped, and how they governed themselves. Illustrating these multiple themes are artifacts that include everything from gowns, work by First Ladies, and Julia Child’s complete kitchen to the Muppet and the actual ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in the film Wizard of Oz. With all the historical things to do in Washington D.C., you might think your family has had enough history. But this engaging museum houses some fascinating exhibits and artifacts of our collective past that will appeal to all ages.
11. Jefferson Memorial and Tidal Basin
The design for the domed white memorial to Thomas Jefferson, the third US president, is based on the Roman Pantheon, its low dome supported by 54 Ionic columns. Inside, appearing in a dramatic silhouette through the columns, is a 19-foot statue of a standing Jefferson, and around are engraved excerpts of the Declaration of Independence and other writings. The monument stands alone at the far end of the Tidal Pool, which reflects the monument in its surface, and all around the edge of the water are cherry trees, a gift from Japan. These are one of Washington’s greatest attractions when they bloom each spring, surrounding the basin with a cloud of pink flowers and celebrated with the Cherry Blossom Festival.
Along the Cherry Tree Walk around the Tidal Basin, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial reflects twelve years of American History through four outdoor rooms. Each one is devoted to one of FDR’s terms of office as he guided the country through the Great Depression and World War II.
12. Arlington National Cemetery
On a hillside overlooking the city from across the Potomac River, Arlington National Cemetery is filled with memorials to American history and the men and women who were part of it. Its best-known landmarks are the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, President John F. Kennedy’s gravesite, and the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial depicting the raising of the flag on Iwo Jami in World War II. The Welcome Center has maps, information (including the locations of specific graves), exhibits telling the story of Arlington National Cemetery and its monuments.
Among these are memorials to nurses, Iran Rescue Mission casualties, and various battles and groups, including one at the graves of Lt. Cmdr. Roger B. Chaffed and Lt. Col. Virgil I. “Gus” Kissogram, who were killed in a fire aboard their Apollo spacecraft. Another commemorates the seven Challenger astronauts.
In a solemn and impressive ceremony, the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is changed every hour on the hour October 1 to March 31, and every half hour April 1 through September 30. Although the cemetery is not right in the city, both the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Metro rail system and Metro bus have stops close to the gate.
At NeWSes, you can take a walk through modern American history, reliving iconic events as they happened and were reported in various forms of media. Going far beyond a history of journalism, the NeWSes combines films, interactive exhibits, and static displays to show how the public learns of breaking events. You’ll see sections of the Berlin Wall and hear the first news reports of its fall, follow the reports of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and read newspaper accounts from President Lincoln’s assassination a century earlier.
A film retrospective covers the events of 9/11, and an entire collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs shows some of the most compelling and dramatic images of the past century. The news literally comes to life here, and most visitors find themselves spending a lot more time engrossed in the experience than they expect. Be sure to step out onto the terrace for the splendid view of the Capitol Building.
14. International Spy Museum
The place for 007 wannabes, the museum covers the techniques, technology, history, and contemporary role of espionage. Many of the exhibits are interactive, and throughout the building are actual examples of real espionage equipment (including a poison dart umbrella designed by the KGB), from declassified hardware and captured equipment to movie props used in the James Bond series.
Photographs, audio visual programs, and special effects combine to give a picture of strategies and methods behind secret espionage missions. The collections include historic spy artifacts from the Revolution and Civil War, along with a wealth of ingeniously concealed and disguised cameras and weapons, even the famous Enigma cipher machine that broke the Nazi codes in World War II.
The top floor is dedicated to real life spies Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanson, and John Walker, detailing the actual methods and tools they used to spy on the United States, with videos describing how spies were caught. The lower floor moves from fact to fiction, filled with information and actual props used in James Bond movies. Highlighting these is the Aston Martin DB5 that first appeared in the 1964 film Gold finger, equipped with machine guns, oil jets, a dashboard radar screen, ejector seat, tire slashers, bulletproof shield, and rotating license plate. The car actually inspired intelligence agencies to add similar features to their own vehicles.
15. National Museum of African American History and Culture
Focusing on themes of history, culture, and community, the newest of the Smithsonian museums explores changing definitions of American citizenship and equality, at the same time highlighting African American culture and that of the entire African diaspora. Various themes are covered in changing exhibits, which center on themes such as African American food traditions and chefs, the influence of African American sports stars on the breakdown of segregation, and African craftsmanship.
Historic artifacts on display include a section of the original Woolworth lunch counter that was the scene of the Greensboro, N.C. sit-in in 1960, and the aircraft known as the “Spirit of Tuskegee.” In World War II, it was used to train African American airmen in the Army Air Forces, men whose work helped trigger the desegregation of the military.
16. Washington National Cathedral
The English-style, Neo-Gothic National Cathedral, one of the world’s largest cathedrals, took 83 years to build, from 1907 to 1990. It follows the Gothic building style and techniques, with flying buttresses and solid masonry construction of Indiana limestone. Throughout the cathedral are artistic details to see, from its stained glass windows to the hand-embroidered kneels that commemorate war heroes and historic events.
Special tours, reserved in advance, explore hidden parts of the building and its art; families should ask for the brochure Explore the Cathedral with Children for a scavenger hunt to find wrought iron animals, tiny carvings, and gargoyles. Be sure to look for the gargoyle of Darth Vader high up on the northwest tower. The cathedral is the burial place of President Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller, and state funerals for Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Ford took place here. The top of the 300-foot central tower is the highest point in Washington.
The Bishop’s Garden, on the south side of the cathedral, includes plants found in medieval gardens, plants mentioned in the Bible, and others native to the area, along with a fish pond. The 59-acre Cathedral Close, designed by the eminent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr in the early 20th century, is an urban oasis modeled on the walled grounds of medieval cathedrals.
Carillon recitals are held each Saturday at 12:30pm, and the peal bells are rung on Tuesday evenings from 7 to 9pm and after Sunday services. On Mondays and Wednesdays at 12:30pm, a cathedral organist discusses the Great Organ here, followed by a mini-recital.
17. Georgetown Historic District
The neighborhood from 27th to 37th Streets, between Rock Creek Park and K Street NW, is the city’s oldest, with origins in the early 1700s, before Washington itself. Georgetown University, the nation’s oldest Roman Catholic and Jesuit College, is located here. Today, Georgetown’s tidy streets of historic homes and its boutique shops, cafés, restaurants, and small museums make it a popular respite from lines at the mall attractions. The C&O Canal, the 184-mile waterway paralleling the Potomac River, begins here, and its towpath is a favorite place for walking and cycling.
Adumbration Oaks is a 16-acre estate with formal gardens and a valuable Byzantine and Christian art collection. Federal period Adumbration House features Federal-style furniture, paintings, textiles, silver, and ceramics, and is home to one of five original known copies of the Articles of Confederation. Tudor Place is an early 19th-century mansion built by Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Martha Curtis Peter, and her husband. Items from George and Martha Washington’s Mount Vernon home are shown here, and the Federal-period gardens contain plants and trees from the early 19th century. The Kedgeree Museum displays a wide collection of art from the 1850s to the 1970s including paintings by Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Chagall, Gauguin, and Picasso.
If you’re looking for places to eat in Washington or things to do at night, this is one of the places to visit. The neighborhood is filled with restaurants and cafes, along with live music venues.