We believe that Washington, D.C. is a must-see for every American traveler. The centerpiece of American history and politics is a destination where you will always learn something new. Unlike many American cities, the sites are almost always free and your best bet is to explore the city by foot or rail.
Washington, D.C. is a planned city, designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant and amplified by the McMillian Plan of 1901. You will find that the National Mall, often called America’s Front Yard, is a good centerpiece for most of the close-in places you want to visit. Can you see the major sites in one day? That depends on how fast you move, and how crowded the city is. We think a week is a better length of time to really enjoy all of the main features of the city.
Before you go, familiarize yourself with the location of the main sites you wish to visit. Plan your time so that you can enjoy as many as you are able, while building in some time for meals and unscheduled discoveries.
The Washington Monument
The Washington Monument stands as the centerpiece of the National Mall and the tallest landmark in the nation’s capital. At 555 feet, it was for many years the tallest structure in the world, from its completion on December 6, 1884, until the completion of the Woolworth Building in New York in 1912. It is the recognizable symbol of the city. Can you go up it? Not at present, as the elevator is being renovated. Nearby, is the WWII Memorial, an impressive oval design representing all who served and the theaters of war.
The White House
Home of the Presidents and headquarters of our executive branch of government, the White House is a result of a national design competition, won by James Hoban and modified over time by Pierre Charles L’Enfant and others. It is painted white to cover the scorch marks from when it was burned by the British in 1814. The White House is filled with a superb collection of furnishings and art, thanks to the efforts of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and many who have followed her example. You can tour it, but you must go through your congressman or senator to apply; so, plan well in advance of your trip. You may take only your ID. While there are security guards in each room, they are not docents.
To enjoy your visit, it is best to read about each of the state rooms beforehand, and have some awareness of what you will see. All the art and furnishings of the best historic quality. Don’t miss the paintings of George and Martha Washington, which Dolly Madison rescued as she fled the White House while the British troops were practically on the doorstep; they are among the oldest items in the house. Four Sundays a year they open the garden for a tour. If the First Lady doesn’t issue you an invitation, you can dine near the White House at the Old Ebbitt Grill.
The Lincoln Memorial
The Lincoln Memorial forms the westernmost feature of the Mall. It was designed by architect Henry Bacon and dedicated in 1928; among the dignitaries who were present was Lincoln’s only surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln. There are thirty-six columns around the memorial, one for each of the 36 states in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death. The heroic seated stature of Lincoln was created by Daniel Chester French.
Allow yourself time to read the inscriptions that fill the interior walls, and to stand looking through the colonnade at the Washington Monument and the Mall. Nearby, the minimal, elegant Vietnam War Memorial, and the hauntingly beautiful Korean War Memorial are moving tributes to those who served and died in these conflicts.
The Smithsonian Institution is a repository of our national treasures. Sometimes called The Nation’s Attic, it is a vast collection of museums, all free and impressive from the lunar lander at the Air and Space Museum, to the Calder mobile at the East Gallery. Here you can see the Star Spangled Banner, “Ginevra de’ Benci” the only painting in the USA by Leonardo da Vinci, Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers, the Hope Diamond, and the Fénykövi Elephant, to name just a few. A week’s worth of exploring all of the museums would only scratch the surface of what they contain.
The Cascades Cafe between the original and East Wing of the National Gallery of Art has a great ambiance with the view of the waterfall fountain. The National Museum of the American Indian has the best food on the Mall. Other good dining choices include Cups & Company, a New York Korean-deli-style eatery in the Russell Senate Office Building, and the cafeteria in the Library of Congress.
The National Archives allows you to see the three formative documents of our country, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and The Bill of Rights, housed in a gorgeous building by John Russell Pope. One of the favorite DC dining spots is just a few steps away, The Capital Grille. Ford’s Theater is the setting of the tragic assassination of Abraham Lincoln on the night of April 14, 1865. The theatre is thoughtfully restored. A visit will help recreate the events of that fateful night, as well as showcase items owned and worn by the president and his party.
The Capitol, Supreme Court and Library of Congress
The United States Capitol, Supreme Court and Library of Congress are all clustered at the easternmost end of the mall. The Capitol dome is the centerpiece and symbol of our legislative branch of government. The north wing houses the Senate and the south wing the House of Representatives. Your tour includes the Capitol Rotunda. Do not miss the Supreme Court, the judicial branch of the government. Next door, the Library of Congress is the repository of every published book in the USA. The glamorously ornate interior never fails to impress.
Jefferson and Roosevelt Memorials
The Jefferson Memorial and Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, are located at the southernmost reaches of the National Mall. The Jefferson Memorial is a domed Palladian style neoclassical structure reminiscent of works designed by the architect President, the rotunda library at the University of Virginia, and Jefferson’s home, Monticello. The graceful curves echo the curves of its Tidal Basin setting. The best time to visit is when the famous cherry blossoms are in bloom. The FDR Memorial is a series of outdoor “rooms” that offer vignettes from FDR’s life. Favorite among them is the larger than life statue of Fala, the president’s Scottish terrier.