I was a young teenager in the early 1970s when I joined my family exploring the sights of Washington D.C. It wasn’t our first time in the city, but I remember this trip in particular because my dad, not one to care much about the rich and famous, got downright giddy when walking around Capitol Hill he spotted Mo Udall, the liberal Democratic Congressman from Arizona (who later ran for president). Dad reacted to the tall, Lincoln-esque politician as if he had seen Mick Jagger, and even though he didn’t say much beyond a “Hello, Congressman,” Dad talked about the meeting for months.
To many visitors, D.C. is another world — one where politicians are like rock stars and where even the most cynical citizens feel patriotic at the sight of the Capitol Building lit up at night. Washington is also a place where history happens before your eyes. You can see the White House from the outside (or inside if you request a tour in advance). You can visit the Senate and House chambers to see government in action. You can stand where Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. You can visit dozens of monuments dedicated to the people and events who shaped this country.
But history and politics aren’t the only attractions on the menu in D.C. You could spend your entire visit just exploring the 19 museums of the Smithsonian, all free of charge, or wandering through the city’s unique neighborhoods — like Adams Morgan with its ethnic eateries, posh Georgetown with its historic rowhouses, or 14th and U streets, where you can escape the conservative suits of the Hill and explore hip boutiques (a relatively new phenomenon in a city not known for hip). And don’t forget the city’s green spaces; join the local joggers and dog-walkers along the National Mall, or visit in early spring to see the fluffy pink blooms of the glorious cherry trees along the Tidal Basin, a gift from Japan in 1912.
With so much to see, advance planning is a must. If you want to visit the House or Senate in action, it’s best to contact your Congressperson before your trip to get passes to visit the chambers. Same goes for the White House (requests can be made up to three months in advance). You can beat the lines at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and International Spy Museum, but only if you order tickets before you leave home.
Washington is not a difficult city to navigate, once you know the lay of the land. The District of Columbia is 68 square miles, but most government attractions and many of the Smithsonian museums are within an easy walk of the National Mall. The city has four quadrants — Northwest, Southwest, Northeast and Southeast — and you’ll notice addresses designated accordingly (NW, SW and so forth). The U.S. Capitol marks the center where they meet. Numbered streets run north/south, lettered streets run east/west and avenues (which are named for U.S. states) run diagonally. The color-coded Metro is easy to navigate.
Washington D.C. Attractions
The U.S. Capitol is the seat of the legislative branch of the U.S. government. If you would like to visit the House or Senate chambers to see the politicians in action — highly recommended — we suggest you write or call your Congressperson’s office before your trip for passes. However, you may be able to get passes at the last minute by visiting his or her office in person (a directory near the ticket booth will tell you where your representative’s office is located). International visitors can visit the galleries by visiting the House and Senate Appointment Desks in the Capitol Visitor Center.
To see the rest of the majestic building, take a free guided tour, not including the chambers, with guides outlining the history and architecture. Tours can be reserved in advance through your representative’s office or online at the Capitol’s website, but there are a limited number of same-day passes available each day. Get there early.
Washington’s monuments and memorials are some of the most celebrated structures of their kind in the world. They are clustered in and around the National Mall, which about two miles from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol, with plenty of grassy area in between (the setting for festivals, Frisbee matches, rallies, picnics and protests). The space was planned by original Washington designer Pierre L’Enfant as a grand boulevard and place for remembrance, observance and protest.
The Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922 and overlooks the Reflecting Pool, the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol. Inside the Greek temple design, with its 36 columns, is a 19-foot marble statue of the 16th president. The memorial was also an important backdrop for the Civil Rights Movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Located in a structure reminiscent of the Pantheon, the Jefferson Memorial displays a 19-foot bronze statue of the third President of the United States. The memorial was dedicated in 1943, and includes one of Jefferson’s favorite design elements, the rotunda, in its structure.
The Washington Monument stands 555 feet above the Mall, an Egyptian-style obelisk completed in 1884 as a tribute to George Washington. Around the base are 50 flagpoles representing each state. Access to the top is closed until spring 2019 for elevator modernization.
Other memorials and monuments of note include the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, located along the Tidal Basin; the powerful Vietnam Veterans Memorial, near Constitution Gardens; and the National World War II Memorial, on the eastern end of the Reflecting Pool.
The White House has been the home of every U.S. president since John Adams. The White House currently offers tours only for those who make advance reservations through a member of Congress. You can apply up to three months before your trip. Spaces visited on the tour include the the oval-shaped Blue Room, the Red Room with its red satin walls and a spot where you can view the Rose Garden.
The 19 museums of the Smithsonian Institution are free of charge and can occupy several days of your visit. Which you chose to visit is up to your personal interests, but we highly recommend the National Air and Space Museum, where you’ll find such icons of flight as the original Wright Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, SpaceShipOne and the Apollo 11 command module. There is also a touchable lunar rock. IMAX movies, planetarium shows and flight simulators are worth the admission fee.
The newest Smithsonian institution is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which offers a moving, comprehensive overview from the arrival of the first African slaves to the present day. Check the website for ticket policies, as you may need to book in advance.
The giant pandas are the main draw at the National Zoo, also part of the Smithsonian system. In addition, there are thousands of other exotic animals and a re-creation of the Amazon rain forest.
The National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum share a building (at 8th and F Streets NW) constructed in 1836 as the U.S. Patent Office. The Portrait Gallery highlights famous Americans from George Washington (the famous “Landsdowne” portrait) to Marilyn Monroe and Shaquille O’Neal; one newer addition is a portrait of President Obama. The American Art Museum boasts one of the largest collections of American art in the world, including works by Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Art lovers will also want to visit the free National Gallery of Art, which has in its West Wing a collection of international masterpieces from the 13th to 19th centuries and in its East Wing a collection of modern and contemporary art. The Phillips Collection was the first modern art museum in the U.S., and is where you’ll find Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” as well as works by van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, O’Keeffe, Degas and more.
A visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is both rewarding and emotionally harrowing. Plan a half-day to see the museum and then recover from the devastating exhibits on display. The museum traces the history of the Jewish persecution under the Nazis from 1933 to 1945 through artifacts, photos and oral histories. From March through August, timed passes are required to view the permanent exhibition, with free passes given out on a first-come, first-served basis. You can avoid the lines by purchasing passes on the museum’s site in advance for a small fee.
The International Spy Museum uniquely explores the craft, practice, history and role of espionage, and serves up an impressive collection of espionage-related artifacts — like lipstick guns and cufflink compasses. Interactive experiences include Operation Spy, which combines special effects and live action to help participants feel what it’s like to be a spy. Lines to get in can be long during busy tourist seasons, so book your tickets in advance (for an extra fee) to avoid the wait.
For a night out, see what’s on at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the nation’s top performing arts facility. Even if you don’t want to spring for a ticket, there are free theatrical and musical performances offered daily at 6 p.m.
You can still catch a play at Ford’s Theatre, where President Lincoln was assassinated. Or just come by for a tour of this historic site — you’ll walk through the theater itself as well as the house across the street where Lincoln died.
Discover historic newspaper front pages about the world’s key events at the fascinating Newseum, where other artifacts include a sit-in counter from the Civil Rights Movement and the wreckage of the broadcast antenna from the top of the World Trade Center, destroyed on September 11, 2001.
The Washington National Cathedral is notable not only for its stunning stained-glass windows and extensive needlepoint collection, but also for a gargoyle in the shape of Darth Vader (you’ll need binoculars to see it). Another church worth a visit is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Roman Catholic Church in the U.S.
Mount Vernon, George Washington’s mansion and estate, overlooks the Potomac River about 16 miles from the city. George and Martha lived in the mansion after their marriage in 1759. You can visit the 21-room mansion house and more than a dozen outbuildings including the slave quarters, stables and kitchen, as well as a working farm. The gardens offer a lovely setting for a stroll. Just three miles away, George Washington’s Distillery and Gristmill is open seasonally for a look at the first president’s entrepreneurial spirit.
Washington D.C. Restaurants
Washington’s vibrant restaurant scene has been gaining national attention as it moves from meat and potatoes to a more creative environment. At top-end and historic restaurants near Capitol Hill you can dine with the movers and shakers, or head to Adams Morgan (specifically 18th Street NW, south from Columbia Road) for an array of ethnic cuisine. The historic Union Station railway station has a large food court for a quick lunch (everything from Cajun to crepes).
You can carbo-load at Michelin-starred Tail Up Goat, where pastas and breads — all made in-house — take center stage. This Adams Morgan bistro offers unique dishes (seaweed sourdough; lasagna with goat, kale and anchovy) in a laid-back atmosphere.
Ben’s Chili Bowl is a landmark lunch spot — the signature dish being a chili-covered “half-smoke” hot dog. The place has been at its original U Street location since 1960 and was featured in the movie “The Pelican Brief.” (There’s now a handful of other locations, including H Street and Arlington.)
For delicious hot and cold mezze (Turkish, Greek and Lebanese appetizers) perfect for sharing, head to Zaytinya. Construct a meal from small plates like falafel, grilled Mediterranean octopus and lamb kebabs. There are numerous vegetarian options.
A longstanding favorite a stone’s throw from the White House, the Old Ebbitt Grill is the oldest bar in town, established in 1856, and a good spot for breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner amid a display of Teddy Roosevelt’s hunting trophies. Presidents Grant, Cleveland and Harding were also regulars here. Sit in the mahogany and velvet booths, and you may spot politicians and journalists among your fellow diners. There’s a lengthy menu, but oysters are a specialty.
The name of upscale Indian restaurant Rasika is Sanskrit for “flavors.” There are multiple tasting menus on offer, or you can order a la carte from a menu that includes dishes such as tandoori salmon, halibut Goan curry and duck vindaloo. The excellent wine list is a nice bonus.
Discover Balkan cuisine at Ambar, in Capitol Hill. The restaurant’s original location is in Belgrade, Serbia, and the founders have brought those local flavors to diners in D.C. Order the “Balkan Experience” for the table, and everyone can sample unlimited small plates and drinks — such as crispy phyllo meat pies, stuffed sour cabbage and “drunken mussels” (with fruit brandy, garlic and capers).
For a quick and cheap bite in Adams Morgan, the Amsterdam Falafelshop serves falafel and French fries accompanied by a huge bar of condiments and sides including hummus, red pepper sauce, baba ghanoush and tomato/cucumber salad.
Movers and shakers do power lunches and dinners at Charlie Palmer Steak, where the menu includes meat, game and fish, creatively prepared, and the extensive wine list is unusual in that it’s all-American. Views out the windows are of Capitol Hill.
Shopping in Washington D.C.
We like to hang out in Washington bookshops for the scene — politicians hawking their latest tell-all and activists plotting strategy over lattes in the corner. Shopping for souvenirs? Hit the museum shops, particularly those at the National Gallery of Art and the National Air and Space Museum (astronaut food is a cool souvenir). Head to Georgetown for expensive goods, and to Union Station for name brands and knickknacks.
The 14th and U Street district is the center for Washington hip. Here, Home Rule features funky goodies for your home. Busboys and Poets is a bookstore/restaurant and has become somewhat of an activists’ hangout, hosting frequent open mic nights and poetry slams. The place gets its name from Langston Hughes, who once worked in the neighborhood.
In a residential area north of downtown, Politics and Prose is a well-stocked bookstore and coffee shop that attracts politicos and hosts frequent author readings.
Union Station is not only a shopping venue but also a working, historic train station (for Amtrak and Metrorail), beautifully restored with marble floors and vaulted ceilings. Here you’ll find name-brand retailers like H&M and Ann Taylor. A popular place to pose for a photo is at the sculpture of A. Philip Randolph, an organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.
The Eastern Market is a weekend must-do. Join the locals looking for antiques, handmade jewelry and crafts, baked goods, flowers, and more at the open-air market on Capitol Hill, immediately east of the U.S. Capitol.
Georgetown‘s top-end boutiques and galleries make it an excellent spot for window shopping and browsing, especially around M Street and Wisconsin Ave. Designer shoe fanatics should not miss Hu’s Shoes, where you’ll find the latest and greatest. There are several art galleries in the area, including Susan Calloway Fine Arts, with an eclectic collection of antique and contemporary art. Leave some time for browsing Georgetown’s historic side streets too.
–written by Fran Golden