The Top 10 Places to Visit on Your Trip to Washington D.C.
1. The White House
When most people think of Washington D.C., they think of the White House, the home of the sitting President of the United States. While most people wouldn't consider a visit to Washington D.C. successful without visiting 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the majority of those who visit would likely say that they found the White House "underwhelming" to see in person. In recent years, a fence was put up around the property and the block has been closed to traffic to allow tourists, protestors, etc. to stand outside the North Lawn of the White House.
If you are interested in taking a tour of the interior of this famous building, you should reach out to your local Congressman's office at least 8 weeks in advance of your trip to apply. If you are accepted, you should receive a response approximately 1–2 weeks before your scheduled visit. You will be provided with a confirmation page and an assigned date and time to enter the White House. You will not be allowed to pick your day or time. You will have to go through multiple security checkpoints before being allowed to enter the East Wing. You cannot visit the West Wing. After going through the self-guided tour of the East Wing, you will exit the White House at the North Lawn where you can take photos before exiting the property.
2. The United States Capitol
The United States Capitol is an awe-inspiring landmark in downtown Washington D.C. Visitors are welcome to enter the building through the Capitol Visitor Center, located underground on the east side of the Capitol; however, you probably won't get to see much by just walking in. Advance reservations are strongly recommended if you want to tour the historical areas of the Capitol.
The tours at the Capitol are guided and include headsets. The tour guides are very knowledgeable and try to tailor the tour based on the home states of those in their group. For example, as Indiana residents, our tour guide made sure to point out the "Indiana" statue in the Hall of Columns. (Each state has at least two statues in the building.)
A common favorite aspect of the tour is the National Statuary Hall. The half-dome shape of hall produces an acoustical effect whereby, in some spots, a speaker many yards away may be heard more clearly than one closer at hand. Tour guides will actually demonstrate how this works and give you a chance to try it out yourself during the tour! In actuality, the modern-day echoes occur in different locations from those in the 19th century, when the floor and ceiling of the hall were different. The floor also features signage that notes where key notable historical figures sat in the hall.
3. Arlington National Cemetery
President John F. Kennedy unexpectedly visited Arlington National Cemetery just a few short months prior to his assassination. He remarked that the view from Custis-Lee Mansion (now known as Arlington House) was so beautiful that he could stay there forever. This is the exact reason why the former President was laid to rest at the base of the hill that overlooks downtown Washington D.C.
Arlington is a beautiful landmark and definitely worth a visit when in Washington D.C., no matter what time of year it is. Not only does it contain the burial sites of two U.S. Presidents (John F. Kennedy and William Howard Taft), but it also the home of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, several memorials, and the burial site of over 400,000 people. It is highly recommended that you make the climb up to Arlington House to see the beautiful view of downtown Washington D.C. as John F. Kennedy once did.
4. Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery is by far one of my favorite Smithsonian art museums for the sheer fact that it features the "America's Presidents" exhibit. To date, I have visited the exhibit three different times, and yet I see something new every time.
Within that section of the museum, you can expect to find at least one portrait of every U.S. President, along with commentary next to the painting. Portraits are swapped out here and there, so I've never had the same experience twice. At my most recent visit in October 2018, I had the honor of seeing President Barack Obama's portrait recently added to the gallery.
The rest of the museum has portraits of many famous people and very unique art. There are special exhibits that come and go but you can expect to see many portraits of people you recognize. This Smithsonian actually stays open later into the evening than the majority of the other museums, so you can plan on visiting this museum while you're in Chinatown catching an early (or late) dinner. Spend as much or as little time as you want, but definitely check out the "America's Presidents" exhibit on the second floor!
5. The National Archives
Every American should take the time to visit the National Archives when in Washington D.C. Inside you can view America's founding documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. You will not be able to take photographs of the documents, but you will be able to see them up close. Many are fascinated by how worn the documents are, especially the Declaration of Independence. I first saw these documents in 2012 and can even see a change in them from 2012 to my most recent visit in 2018.
The National Archives also has many other interesting exhibits in the building. Some are permanent exhibits and others are temporary. I would recommend planning to spend at least one hour at the Archives if you want to view the exhibits in addition to the founding documents. It is also highly recommended that you make an online reservation to enter so that you do not have to wait in a long line. Active military members and veterans can use the Special Events entrance just east of the normal entrance to go straight to the front of the line - no reservations necessary. Just make sure you bring a DD-214 or other proof of military service.
6. The Jefferson Memorial
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial is one of the less popular monuments due to its location off of the beaten path, but I find it to be one of the most beautiful. Located on the southeastern bank of the Tidal Basin, the Jefferson Memorial resembles the Pantheon in Rome and is a photographer's dream at just about any light or time of day.
As a logophile (a lover of words) and a history buff, the Jefferson Memorial features many of Thomas Jefferson's quotations all over the interior walls of the dome portion, something that I love. Many do not venture to the underground portion of the Memorial, but if you need to take a trip to the bathroom you will find a plethora of information about the third president's life along with a gift shop. (During my most recent trip in 2018, I actually purchased my own cherry blossom seeds in celebration of my favorite city.)
Many tourists choose to skip the Jefferson Memorial because it's out of the way, but you won't be sorry if you take the time to visit! If you plan on walking all of the monuments, it's recommended that you take 14th Street and start with the Jefferson and work your way back toward the National Mall so that you are in the middle of the city when you are done exploring.
7. National Museum of American History
The National Museum of American History is a must for any first-time goer to Washington D.C. It is my favorite Smithsonian Museum and is highly recommended for all ages and levels of interest in American History.
Not only does the museum contain historical aspects of the United States such as coins, presidential heirlooms, and the original American flag from the War of 1812, but it also contains a lot of neat pop culture items. There are some permanent fixtures to the pop culture collections as well as items that rotate in and out. A new exhibit that is very popular at the museum is called, "First Ladies." It contains clothes, china, and mementos from an assortment of First Ladies since the inception of the United States.
My favorite exhibit in the entire museum is "The Price of Freedom: Americans at War." The exhibit is the best put together exhibit I have ever seen at any museum ever. It traces American history starting with the birth of the country and takes the visitor through every war that America has fought from them until the present day. The World War II exhibit is especially well-done, though it has changed from my first visit in 2012 to my most recent visit in 2018. This exhibit is highly recommended for any American to give him or her a better appreciation of the sacrifices American soldiers have made to preserve our freedom.
Bonus: Be sure to look for George Washington's original military uniform toward the beginning of the exhibit.
8. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
Of all of the monuments, the FDR Memorial is the nearest and dearest to my heart. Like the Jefferson Memorial, it is a bit off of the beaten path. It is not large in scale or one of the more grandeur monuments like the Lincoln Memorial, but it is the most peaceful and symbolic of all of the monuments, in my opinion.
The memorial walks you through Roosevelt's four terms (visible on the ground as you walk through) and touches on aspects of both his personal and political life. The memorial uses water to symbolize the events that took place during the 12 years of his presidency, such as the crash of the economy, World War II, and his death.
Note: If you followed my tip from the Jefferson Memorial and you are walking from the Jefferson Memorial to the Lincoln Memorial, then you will enter the FDR Memorial at the end of his fourth term. It is recommended that you either walk around the outside of the memorial to the far end or that you walk through it until you get to the gift shop. That will give you the best experience when viewing all the memorial has to offer.
Jean Edward Smith's book, FDR
For the best experience at the memorial, it's recommended to know a little bit about Roosevelt's life and presidency before visiting. Having read Jean Edward Smith's book, FDR, I found the FDR Memorial to be absolutely fascinating. I was able to pick up on the symbolism Lawrence Halprin used throughout the memorial and is the reason why the FDR Memorial is my favorite. Full disclosure, those who are not as familiar with FDR's presidency may not find it as fascinating as I do.
9. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial
One of the most moving memorials to visit is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Visiting the memorial on any day of the year—rain or shine—you will see wreaths laid for those who perished in Vietnam. It also common to see letters and other personal effects left behind by family members and friends of those who were lost. Many visitors come to find the names of their loved ones on the wall and maybe even make a "rubbing" of their name. (Rubbing is placing a piece of paper over a name on The Wall and rubbing a wax crayon or graphite pencil over it as a memento of the person.)
If you're lucky, you might have the opportunity to observe an Honor Flight group visiting the memorial. The Honor Flight Program transports World War II, Vietnam War, and Korean War veterans to the memorials to honor the dead and reflect on their experiences. For more information on the Honor Flight Program or to donate, visit their website.
10. Lincoln Memorial
The Lincoln Memorial is probably the most popular and well-known monument in Washington D.C. The Memorial has been the site of many historical events including The March on Washington in 1963 which resulted in Martin Luther King, Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech.
The Lincoln Memorial is majestic in style and one could spend hours exploring the interior and exterior of the monument and taking in all the sights. Sitting on the steps you can easily see the Reflecting Pool, World War II Memorial, the Washington Monument, and more.
If you have time, try to visit the interior of the monument and read more about Lincoln's life. If you only have time for the exterior, you can find some quotations from the Gettysburg's address near the sitting statue of Lincoln. Another thing worth checking out is the engraving that marks the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his historical speech.
Map of Discussed Locations
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Kasey Kolosh