And there’s a lot to see when visiting this country’s capital and it can be hard to narrow down what’s a necessity and what’s not. As a local and continual visitor (my family lived within an hour of the district most of my life), it can be hard to determine what’s important and what’s not because I’m so accustomed to it all. I forget what’s particularly interesting to those who have never seen any of it before.
But, I do remember what’s been impressive to me. At least I know what I go back to see again, and again, and again.
My friends and I took a trip to D.C. once and ended up seeing “all the good stuff,” so it is possible. I knew the city fairly well (compared to non-Virginia-born friends, which isn’t saying much since some of them weren’t even sure where Washington D.C. is located on a map of America), so I helped with a lot of the geographic planning. My main tips are to learn the district geography (watch out for traffic lights, because they’re weird here) and to remember Constitution Avenue, since most of the things you want to see are along this street.
Anyway. Here’s my compilation of D.C.’s finest attractions…
Number 1 – Memorials and Monuments
Okay, so, duh. You know you’re going to see the memorials when you visit D.C. because they’re iconic, you want the photographic evidence, and how could you not? But there are so many memorials that you want to be sure you’re smart about it and you see what you want to see. Most of them can be walked to if you have some good shoes and you’re up for walking (people like me and my friends were all for not paying multiple parking meters, but maybe you’re interests are broad and you’d rather not add 100,000,000 steps to your FitBit).
At any rate, these are the memorials and monuments that are (in my opinion) most impressive:
- The Washington Monument (you know it, the pencil building. It’s actually really cool and you can walk right up to it when there hasn’t been a recent earthquake. Pictures here at night are epic).
- The Lincoln Memorial (that’s the one you see in movies, with Abe Lincoln and his sign-language hands, and it’s where people like to sit to watch the fireworks on July 4th [there are lots of smelly armpits if you go for the 4th]).
- The WWII Memorial (This one is in-between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. It’s sunk into the earth so the view isn’t disturbed).
- The Vietnam Veterans Memorial (this is one commonly overlooked, but there’s something incredibly powerful about this wall of names. Don’t underestimate it).
- The Thomas Jefferson Memorial (I don’t usually go to see this one because it’s more out-of-the-way, but if you have the time and you’re up for it, it is worth your time).
Number 2 – Museums
Again, duh. And again, plan. You can’t just expect to have time for it all, or patience for all the lines, or a willingness to go through yet another security check. You should decide what you’re interested in and follow through. You should research what museums have fees and what museums don’t (spoiler: most do not, but some do require [free] tickets beforehand and the Spy Museum charges you). Most museums take hours to get through, so be sure you account for that and don’t rush your time.
Here’s my list of musts:
- The Holocaust Museum (not to be a downer or to ruin your tourism mood, but this museum is really eye-opening. You should go and better understand history because of it).
- The Museum of Natural History (this one is just fun. There are multiple levels and rooms upon rooms of animals and science facts. I really enjoy it every time I go. It is, however, the most popular museum in the district for families, so prepare for some crowds).
- The National Gallery of Art (even if you’re not into art, this museum is still pretty spectacular).
- International Spy Museum (this museum, as I said, chargers you–but it’s really fun and entirely different from most other museums that you’ll come across. Check out their website for more information and pricing).
- National Air and Space Museum (do you like air and space? Enough said. This is also one of the district’s most popular museums [but aren’t they all, really?], so you will have lines to wait in and crowds to press through)
There are obviously more museums, but these are my top favorites.
Number 3 – The Botanical Garden
This is such a strangely wonderful place to be. You may not care about plants, gardens, or flowers, but a walk through this place could take as little as 10 minutes if you so chose. It’s near the Capital and Library of Congress, so just make a quick stop-by and you’ll not be disappointed (I hope). (Also, you can see I’m out of photos.)
Number 4 – The United States Capital
Even if you just drive by , or take some photos on the front steps, this site is so iconic that you’d just be sad to miss it. (Tours of the Capital are available at no charge. It’s definitely a historical experience.) Find out more information about the Capital here. Unlike The White House (which, as you can see is not on my list), the Capital is an accessible place for tourist. Just be prepared for security checks.
Number 5 – The Library of Congress
Some people don’t care about this site, but I like it. There are limitations for what you can and cannot see, but even a quick tour around what’s easily accessible is worth it to me (ran outta pictures again).
Number 6 – The Cherry Blossom Festival
Late March and early April are peak times for the Cherry Blossom trees in Washington D.C. to bloom. It’s always wildly busy at that time of the year and an absolute headache to get into the city, around the city, or out–but it truly is lovely. It’s so lovely, in fact, that the Cherry Blossoms have their own website: National Cherry Blossom Festival. People come from all over the world to see this festival (or to see anything in Washington D.C.–you’ll encounter foreigners no matter when you go).
In the end, go with people you like, see things you find interesting, bring a good pair of walking shoes, and plan out a place for food (also, bring water, because you’ll get thirsty after looking at so many exhibits).
(And go to the White House if you get a chance, but don’t expect to get anything better then a street-eye view of the place.)
(And be prepared to pay extreme parking fares.)
(And be prepared to drive 5 miles before finding a parking space.)