A visit to our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., is an irreplaceable experience. In Washington, D.C. the past and the present coexist in harmony, and nowhere else in the United States do you have the opportunity to witness democracy in action and pay tribute to our nation’s proud history and those who have given their lives to defend it. The capital city is home to so many monuments and attractions that it can be difficult to narrow down an itinerary, especially if you are only visiting for a few days. Below is a list of the top ten things to do in Washington, D.C. to help you get started.
1. The Presidential Monuments and Memorials
Some of the most iconic images of our nation’s capital are the various monuments and memorials to past presidents and founding fathers. Fortunately, you don’t have to travel too far to see these icons for yourself since most of these are located along the National Mall, which is the name for the famous national park in downtown Washington, D.C.
The most iconic, of course, are the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Though it has been surpassed since then, the Washington Monument was once the tallest manmade structure in the world, and it still stands tall as a proud monument to the free world. You are free to visit the monument at any time of day during any day of the year, but you shouldn’t miss out on the opportunity to ride the elevator to the top for a 360-degree view of the city. Tickets are required and hours depend on the season.
The Lincoln Memorial is also free and open to the public at all times, so there are absolutely no excuses to not see this icon of American architecture. One can’t help but feel humbled staring up at the solemn face of the president who sacrificed so much to preserve the Union.
2. The War Memorials
Also located on and around the National Mall are reverent tributes to some of the most devastating wars in recent history. The most recent veteran’s memorial, dedicated in 2004 and located right between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, is the World War 2 Memorial which honors the 400,000 American soldiers who died in combat. Located around the Rainbow Pool, this memorial encourages quiet contemplation.
Just on the outskirts of the National Mall is the most famous and perhaps the most heart-wrenching tribute to our troops, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, also known as The Wall. As you scour the black granite wall for the names of fallen troops, you must also confront your own reflection. A short walk from The Wall is the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, the first tribute to women’s contributions and sacrifices during the war. It features three uniformed nurses caring for a wounded soldier.
Another short walk from the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial is the Korean Veteran’s Memorial, which features 19 stainless-steel soldiers. Though some of these memorials are more famous than others, all of these memorials remind us of the sacrifices brave American men and women have made in service to our country.
3. The White House
The building that houses the President of the United States is undoubtedly the most famous both nationally and internationally. You can always visit the Visitor’s Center in which you can learn about the architecture, past presidents, and their families. If you want a guided tour of the White House, however, then you must reserve your tour at least 21 days in advance.
4. The U. S. Capitol Building
The most iconic building in Washington, D. C. is without a doubt the Capitol Building located on Capitol Hill. Many prefer just to stroll the grounds and take pictures of the classic Greco-Roman architecture, but you are allowed to take a tour inside without prior booking. If you want to see Congress in action, you will have to book in advance.
The best part about the Capitol building for most visitors is the unbeatable location. Capitol Hill is within sight of both the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, so you are able to take some beautiful photos. While there you can also check out the Library of Congress, which is known as the largest library in the world.
5. The U. S. Supreme Court
If you are really interested in seeing democracy in action, then you can’t miss seeing the Supreme Court of the United States. While the Supreme Court is in session, you can actually hear cases being argued. Seating is limited, however, so if this is something that interests you then you have to arrive early.
Even in seasons when the court isn’t in session, you can still take a guided tour of the building and learn about the court process and the building’s architecture. It is still recommended to arrive earlier in the day, as there is a cap on visitors.
6. The National Archives
One of Washington, D.C.’s most valuable treasures is The National Archives, a tribute to our nation’s democracy. Be prepared for long lines, but admission is free and the experience to come face to face with the United States’ founding documents is well worth the wait times.
One of the first stops once inside is one of the few surviving copies of the Magna Carta, a British document that served as an inspiration for the American Declaration of Independence. You also get to read the Emancipation Proclamation, though perhaps the most awe-inspiring are the Declaration of Independence, the American Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The Declaration of Independence is much more faded than the movies would suggest, but you can still make out John Hancock’s brazen signature. The Constitution itself is still wonderfully preserved, and you will feel chills upon seeing those famous words “We the People” up close and in person.
Within the National Archives, you also have the opportunity to visit the different galleries which house documents such as landmark court cases that have shaped the United States into the one we know today and take a tour of the Public Vaults of America, a history of records-keeping in America. You will leave the Archives with a clearer understanding of where we were and how we have become who we are today.
7. The National Gallery of Art
If you enjoy art or are interested in learning more about it, then you can’t miss the National Gallery of Art. Like most attractions within Washingon, D. C., admission into the gallery is free and you could easily spend a day wandering the numerous exhibits on display. The East Building houses the Gallery’s more modern works such as Monet and Van Gough, while the West Building houses classics such as Rembrandt. The National Gallery of Art also holds the distinction of housing the only Da Vinci in the Western Hemisphere.
If you need a break from so much exploring, you don’t have to worry, since the National Gallery of Art also contains four cafes. If you venture outside, you can also explore the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Gallery. For those who don’t know much about art history, guided tours are also available.
8. The Smithsonian
You probably know that there are many Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., so you may be asking which Smithsonian are we referring to. The answer is, all of them! These museums are national treasures of history, science, investigation, wildlife, and the future. Within the National Mall and in the greater capital area you can find more than a dozen museums, galleries, and the Smithsonian National Zoo.
When it comes to the Smithsonian, there truly is something for everybody. For history buffs, you have the American History Museum, the African American Museum, the American Indian Museum, and the Natural History Museum. Science buffs will prefer the Air and Space Museum, art aficionados will enjoy the African Art Museum, the American Art Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Archives of American Art, and nature lovers can pay a visit to the Smithsonian Gardens and the zoo.
These are only the tip of the iceberg, so if you don’t know where to start, you can always start with the Smithsonian Castle which doubles as the Smithsonian Visitor’s center. There you can learn all about the Smithsonian and its branches. You most likely won’t have time to visit all of the Smithsonian locations, as most are quite large, so you can take advantage of the experts who work there to plan your visits. The best part is admission to all Smithsonian locations is free, so your only limit is however much time you have to spend in the D.C. area.
9. Mount Vernon
If you really want to step back into the days of our Founding Fathers, you can visit Mount Vernon, the plantation where our nation’s President George Washington lived and spent his final days. The 500-acre Mount Vernon estate is located on the banks of the Potomac River, just a short distance from Washington, D.C. Though it suffered from disuse in the 19th century, the mansion has since been restored and serves as a tribute to a great American hero’s life and death.
During your visit to the Mount Vernon estate, you will be able to take a tour of the 14-room mansion and learn about George Washington’s life at the estate as well as his final hours. You will also be able to take a tour of the plantation’s extensive grounds, which includes outbuildings, gardens and livestock, a distillery and gristmill, and a museum and gift shop.
On the more solemn side, you will also have the opportunity to pay tribute to the slaves whose work was so integral to constructing the estate at the slave memorial and burial ground. As a natural conclusion to your visit, you can visit the tomb where George and Martha Washington currently lay at rest and spend a few moments of quiet reflection.
10. Arlington National Cemetery
Also located a short distance outside of Washington, D.C. is Arlington National Cemetery, the country’s most famous burial ground. The cemetery is actually situated just across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital. This 624-acre stretch of land has been the final resting place for American soldiers ever since the Civil War, and as such, it is a place to honor our nation’s history and those who have given the ultimate sacrifice to protect it.
The cemetery itself is divided into 70 sections to honor soldiers from different eras as well as a Nurse’s Section and a Chaplain’s section, which honors those who weren’t soldiers but still gave their lives in service to their country. The biggest draw, however, is the Tomb of the Unknowns, which is located just outside of the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater.
The Tomb of the Unknowns is the final resting place of unknown soldiers from both World Wars, the Vietnam War, and the Korean War. The tomb proudly overlooks Washington, D.C. and has been continuously guarded by a member of the U. S. Army since 1937. Make sure to stay long enough to witness the Changing of the Guard, and take a moment to thank these unknown soldiers for their service.
There is so much to do and see around the D.C. area that deciding on an itinerary can seem intimidating at first. After all, what if you miss something important? That being said, we hope this list of top 10 things to do in Washington, D.C. has helped you start to plan for your upcoming visit to the nation’s capital. No matter where you go or what you see, you will be immersing yourself in our nation’s history and participating in its present and future. More than anything, you will make memories that will last you and your family a lifetime.