Our Nation’s Capital is a great place to visit and hopefully my decade of experience living here will benefit the casual traveler who wants to check it out for a few days.
DC is a special mix of really smart, generally Type-A folks, a lot of history all its own, and it revolves around the workings of government and politics. If you’re interested to see and experience the things you learned about in 8th-grade civics class, boy have we got a deal for you! Even better, most of the attractions are “free” because you already paid for them with your tax dollars!
DC is also one of the few places in the world I’ve found where it’s acceptable to talk about politics or religion over drinks and not be frowned upon for doing so. So we have that going for us…
I’ve broken this guide up into sections and tried to add as much detail as possible to ensure you have a great visit. Consider it a continual work in progress. Use as much as you need and forget the rest!
The first thing to know about the District of Columbia is that was a 10 x 10-mile square of land set-aside for the “Federal City” back in the day as our founding fathers literally built our country. Then later, Virginia’s portion was returned to the state, so it looks like there’s a big chunk missing across the river if you look at the map.
To symbolize the vision of a government “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” everything is oriented around the Capitol Building right in the center. The result of this street plan is four quadrants that you need to be aware of when moving around the city. The streets count upward numerically and alphabetically out from the Capitol in the four different directions. The largest of these is Northwest where you’ll probably spend most of your sightseeing time, but you should be aware that there are two intersections like 7th and H Streets that are actually two separate places unless you specify the quadrant!
Taxis, Uber, and Lyft are all good options and all take credit cards these days. When in doubt $20 cash can generally get you safely back to your hotel without much fuss.
For all its faults, the DC Metro is still the cheapest and easiest way to get most places around town. Go to the nearest station to purchase a SmartTrip Card for around $20 and that will last for a few trips of travel. Then take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with this map:
- Rail lines run as various colors which identify where the trains are headed
- Trains travel in the direction of their last stop on the line; you catch the one headed the direction you want to go from where you are. For example if you’re at the Smithsonian stop and want to go to Capitol South you take a either an Orange Line train to New Carrollton or a Blue Line train to Largo
- Trains generally run no less than every 20 minutes and a lot more often during weekdays and rush hours
- When you swipe your card at the turnstiles, the readout will show you the remaining balance on your card; and you’re only charged when you leave a station, not when entering it. Always keep a couple of bucks handy in case your balance is unexpectedly zero
- Yes, it’s confusing and yes we could do better. But don’t be afraid to ask for help or directions! Most locals are accommodating enough.
Walk Left; Stand Right
Which brings me to a particularly annoying thing we do in DC that you should be aware of: when you’re actively walking up a moving escalator: do that on the left side, otherwise you stand on the right. If you notice that locals are getting huffy with you on an escalator, this is probably why. Like I said, we’re generally Type-A and have terribly important places to be (in our own mind)!
By far the easiest and most cost effective way to see all the highlights in DC is to purchase a two-day ticket for the Big Bus that makes the rounds about town. This is a hop-on, hop-off type of bus you can catch at any stop, at any time, and it’ll take you around to 48 stops around town that cover all the things you want to see! It’ll save you tons of walking, cover all the highlights, and also let you spend as much time at each stop as you like. You can purchase tickets online, at Union Station, or usually at your hotel concierge. Prices are around $54 per adult and $34 for kids at the time of this writing. It’s well worth the money.
Now, on to the things to see!
The Capitol Hill Area
When Pierre L’Enfant drew up plans for the new federal city for President Washington to approve in 1791, he placed particular emphasis on the “congress-house” by situating it at latitude/longitude 0, 0 (in terms of Washington Meridians) and high upon what was then called Jenkins Hill. This reflected the founders importance of Congress and deriving power from the people of the United States. So the Capitol is central to everything in DC and where you should begin your tour for a proper experience of things.
Starting on Capitol Hill, you‘ll be able to tour the Capitol, Supreme Court, and Library of Congress all in a half-day; and you should plan to cover all three together since they’re so close to each other.
The Capitol is the #1 attraction in town and is a must-see. This building houses the legislative branch and is split into two parts: the Senate on the north side and the House of Representatives on the south side.
Generally, you can just show up any time at the Visitor’s Center and get the public-access tour. But if your schedule allows, contact your representative or senator’s offices to see if they can offer a staff-escorted tour you can join.
Highlights of the Capitol include:
- The Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome (she’s classical Greek or Roman, not Native American!)
- The grand Rotunda room featuring the grand Apotheosis of Washington on the inside of the top of the dome
- Statuary Hall, which used to be the old House of Representatives chamber. Each state gets to send two statues to reside here at the Capitol. One of my favorites is the Okie, Will Rogers, who is placed facing the House chamber so he can “keep an eye on Congress!”
- The Old Senate Chamber that is largely used for ceremonial swearing-in of new Senators these days
- The Old Supreme Court Chamber which was housed in the Capitol Building for years before moved to it’s own across the street
- The Crypt, on the ground floor where you can see the exact center-point of Washington DC. Originally this was to be the entrance to the tomb of President Washington until they thought better of it and moved him to Mount Vernon
A couple of other fun facts about the Capitol building: there are visual indicators to quickly tell you if the houses of congress are in session by simply looking at the main flagpole atop each respective chamber. If the flag is up, they’re in session; if down, they’re not. And after dark, if the “Convene” (or Session) light in the Tholos atop the dome is lit, that means one or both of the houses are still in session.
The Supreme Court
Right across the street from the Capitol is the Supreme Court. Docents offer tours every hour on the half hour when the Court is not in session. You’ll get to peek inside the main Courtroom, explore plenty of cool exhibits to learn all about the history of our third branch of government, and see the statue of our first Chief Justice: John Marshall.
This building is the youngest of the three main building, having been completed in 1935 when the court moved from across the street in the Capitol Building where they had worked in two different chambers since 1810.
Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is opposite also across from the Capitol. Docents here also offer tours every hour on the half hour. The Jefferson Building is one of the most ornate in DC with marble arches in the Grand Hall inside, a fountain of Neptune out front, and plenty of artwork worth checking out. Your tour will also take you up top for a look inside the astounding Main Reading Room in the center of the building. You should try to see both the Court and the Library back-to-back if you can since they’re so close.
If you have time after the rest of Capitol Hill, checking out the Botanic Gardens can be a nice break. It’s right down the hill from the Capitol and can be essential in the wintertime if you need a place to duck indoors and warm up. It’s open year around 10–5pm and depending on the season might surprise you with some of the best floral displays in the world!
Monuments and Memorials
In DC we love our neoclassical buildings and monuments! They are American-sized, grand, and spread out all over the place. Trying to walk to most of them on the National Mall isn’t advised, I recommend the Big Buses again to quickly move around to these and save your feet the mileage.
But if you’re not going to take the bus, here’s my recommended walking approach to cover all these in about a half-day:
- Start at the Washington Monument
- West to the World War II Veterans Memorial
- West along the Reflecting Pool and then North to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
- South to the Lincoln Memorial
- South to the Korean Veterans Memorial
- South across Independence Avenue and east to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
- South to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial
- South and east around the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial
The Washington Monument is the huge obelisk in the middle of the National Mall and dominates the DC skyline for miles around. It’s 555-feet tall and is the tallest stone structure in the world. And for a minute it was the tallest structure in the world, period, until France one-upped us with the Eiffel Tower in 1889!
If you want to go up to the top for a truly spectacular view of DC, I recommend booking advanced tickets online. Or you can show up for first-come-first-serve tickets on the same day if you wish to try your luck. (Note: Unfortunately the monument is currently closed until 2019 for elevator repairs.)
Take a walk due west of the monument to find the Jefferson Pier which marks the the second Prime Meridian of the United States and the intersection of lines east-west between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial and north-south between the White House and the Jefferson Memorial.
World War II Memorial
D-Day June 6, 1944
You are about to embark upon the great crusade toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle.
-General Dwight D. Eisenhower
The World War II Memorial is a quick walk down the hill from the Washington Monument on the way to the Lincoln Memorial. It is an impressive granite memorial divided into two sections for the Atlantic and Pacific theaters around a large fountain with memorial wreaths for all the states and territories that sent soldiers to fight in the wars.
At the western end of the National Mall is the Lincoln Memorial where President Lincoln perpetually gazes out at the Capitol. His statue is flanked by engravings of some of his most famous speeches, including the Gettysburg Address.
Out on the steps in front of the building you can stand in the exact spot as Dr. Martin Luther King when he delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech. Standing on those steps is probably one of the most quintessential experiences one can have in Washington.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Flanking the Lincoln Memorial are both the Vietnam and Korean War Veterans Memorials on the north and south sides of the Reflecting Pool.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the iconic black volcanic rock “wall” of names of the fallen from the war. A solemn and reverent area from the outset, the somber effect is fully reinforced by the subtle physical layout of the structure. You descend on a pathway down into the hill alongside the wall and while you’re just a couple of blocks from busy Constitution Avenue the sound is dampened and the atmosphere is one of quiet, contemplative reflection.
Near the entrance to the memorial is the powerful Three Soldiers statue.
Korean Veterans Memorial
Opposite the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the south side is the Korean War Veterans Memorial. A troop of 19 exaggerated stainless steel statues of soldiers appear to be walking out of the jungle in the rain. The effect is quiet powerful, especially at dusk or after dark. Other aspects of the memorial are the reflecting pool and a granite mural wall.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
The newest memorial, dedicated by President Obama on October 16th, 2011, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial sits on the Tidal Basin between the FDR Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial.
Dr. King stands apart “Out of despair, a stone of hope” gazing across the basin to the Jefferson Memorial.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial
The FDR Memorial doesn’t feel like a memorial at all but more like a sculpture garden. Set back from the Tidal Basin a bit and broken up into four sections representing the various terms of his Presidency, the memorial is a quiet place that lends itself to thoughtful stroll to think back on the struggles of the Great Depression and World War II.
I never forget that I live in a house owned by all the American people and that I have been given their trust.
-Franklin D. Roosevelt
The Jefferson Memorial sits at the south end of the Tidal Basin due-south of the Washington Monument as a large, rounded granite memorial surrounding a statue of Thomas Jefferson who is situated with his gaze fixed upon the White House. He is surrounded by various passages from his writings and speeches.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men.
The Jefferson concludes a decent half-day walking tour of the National Mall. For everything else you likely need the bus, metro, or taxis to get there.
Arlington Cemetery is across the river from the Lincoln Memorial. And it requires a fair bit of walking and time to see everything there. The Big Bus will take your there or it’s a couple of stops outside DC on the Blue Line. On the way in you might want to check out the Women in Armed Services Memorial.
Then hike just up the hill behind it and pay your respects at President Kennedy’s grave site and eternal flame.
He once remarked that Arlington had “the best view of the city” and it’s fitting that he’s laid to rest here.
On up the hill to the west is the Amphitheater and the Tomb of the Unknowns. Second only to the Capitol Building, I recommend the Changing of the Guard ceremony every hour above almost everything else you could see in DC. Rain or snow, the Tomb Guard keep vigilant watch over the fallen and the ceremony is quite a solemn one that demands you honor the sacrifice of those who gave “the last full measure of devotion” to protect our country.
Back atop the hill is the Robert E. Lee house, where Pierre L’Enfant, architect of the DC city plan is laid to rest.
There are many, notable graves at the cemetery and you could easily spend a good amount of time checking them all out and paying your respects.
The National Cathedral
Optionally, if you have time, the National Cathedral is worth the visit. It’s a bit longer ride on the bus or destination trip on it’s own as it’s high atop the hill up Wisconsin Avenue overlooking the rest of the city. The church was built in neo-gothic style in the 20th century and: “is dedicated to serve as a house of prayer for all people and a spiritual home for the nation.”
You can tour it almost any time and admire the artwork all over the outside and inside of the church. Be sure to check out the Darth Vader Grotesque if you can spot it! You can also take the elevator up to the observation decks for some truly stunning views of DC, or go down to the crypts for a subterranean experience.
I recommend trying to catch Evensong on a weekday or Morning Worship on a Sunday for the full effect.
All of this should add up to a good day or two of non-stop sightseeing. You should be able to comfortably do Capitol Hill and the National Mall in a single day, with visits to Arlington or the Cathedral taking generally another half-day. When in doubt, prioritize your time and don’t be afraid to take a Lyft to see it all!
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