The Capital of the United States radiates ceremony through its vast landscaped spaces and bold, Neoclassical monuments in marble and white granite.
Washington, DC is where you can look under America’s hood, meet its heroes, get to know the mechanisms of its government and find out just what makes this global superpower tick.
For people with a curious mind Washington is nothing less than a feast, as the headquarters of the Smithsonian Institute, for first-class museums in multiple fields from art to science, history, air and space and natural history.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Washington DC.
1. National Mall
A National Park, with park rangers available to answer questions, the National Mall is a vast landscaped park, rich with world-famous landmarks, museums of the highest quality and inspiring monuments to events and figures that changed the course of history.
This grand park starts by the Potomac at the Lincoln Memorial in the west and continues for a little under two miles east to the Capitol steps, spreading across 310 acres.
Smithsonian museums line the National Mall’s north and south sides, while your eye will always be drawn to the iconic Washington Monument.
It’s a place for quiet reflection, reverence and moments of pure wonder.
The National Mall is much more than a panoply of monuments, and remains a vital and dynamic space for public events and protests.
Available tour: Hop-On Hop-Off Trolley City Tour
2. United States Capitol
Crowning Capitol Hill and on a perfect axis with dozens of monuments on the National Mall is a worldwide symbol of democracy, visible across Washington.
The Capitol Building is the home of the Senate and the House of Representatives, and the seat of the legislative branch of the Federal Government of the United States.
For much of its past it has also housed the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court.
Initially completed in 1800 and based on the Paris Panthéon and the East front of the Louvre, the Capitol was given its signature 55-metre-high dome in the 1850s and 60s.
A 60-minute tour of the Capitol is one of Washington’s obligatory things to do.
You’ll stand in the Rotunda where 12 presidents and Rosa Park have lain in state, and gaze up at the dome’s fresco and the oil paintings on the Rotunda’s walls.
The National Statuary Hall has 100 statues, two each from every state, while in autumn and winter you may get to see the old Supreme Court chamber, which has been returned to its mid-19th-century appearance.
3. Lincoln Memorial
The western bookend of the National Mall is the monument to the 16th President of the United States, the “Saviour of the Union”. Raised between 1914 and 1922 the Lincoln Memorial is in the style of a Doric temple and fronted by a reflecting pool, over a third of a mile long and one of Washington’s most famous images.
Approach the ensemble from the east to appreciate the full grandeur of the reflecting pool and memorial building.
The latter is loaded with symbolism: There are 36 Doric columns, one for each of the states when Abraham Lincoln was president, and their names are inscribed on the frieze above.
There are three chambers inside, the central of which houses the famous 170-ton statue of Lincoln, made up of 28 blocks of white Georgia marble.
The north and south chambers respectively feature inscriptions of Lincoln’s two most important speeches, the second inaugural address (to the right) and his epochal Gettysburg Address (to the left).
Included in: Washington, DC 3-Hour Bike Tour
4. Washington Monument
The soaring marble obelisk roughly half way along the National Mall commemorates the first U.S. President and commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.
At just shy of 170 metres this is the tallest predominantly stone structure, and was briefly the tallest structure of any kind in the world until the Eiffel Tower was completed.
The Washington Monument was started in 1848, but work was halted for a few reasons, one being the Civil War, and the finishing touches weren’t made until 1888. When you survey the monument you’ll see that this interruption is marked by a change in the shade of the stone for the upper two thirds as the marble was quarried from a different source.
An elevator will carry you close to the top, and this needs to be done for the best view in Washington, north to the White House, south to the monuments around the Tidal Basin, east to the Capitol and west to the Lincoln Memorial.
Included in: Segway Tour of Washington, D.C. Highlights
5. Jefferson Memorial
A beautiful replica of Rome’s Pantheon is a fitting tribute to the nation’s third president, key member of the Founding Fathers and main author of the Declaration of Independence.
The Jefferson Memorial is on the south shore of the Tidal Basin and its architecture tallies with Jefferson’s personal taste as it bears a lot of similarities to his Monticello plantation in Virginia, a building he designed himself.
The relief in the pediment shows Jefferson flanked by the other signatories of the Declaration of Independence, and within stands a 5.8-metre bronze statue of Jefferson by sculptor Rudolph Evans.
The frieze beneath the dome reads, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”. The memorial project, begun in 1939, was spearheaded by FDR, one of Jefferson’s great admirers, and the statue was in place by 1947.
6. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
When we wrote this article in 2019 the National Air and Space Museum was in the middle of a $1bn update, set for completion in 2024. The museum will remain open throughout, and is a sparkling celebration of mankind’s, but especially America’s, aviation achievements.
There are two massive main hangars, bursting with world-changing aircraft and spacecraft.
Some blockbuster exhibits are the Apollo 11 command capsule, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis, John Glenn’s Friendship 7 capsule, the Bell X-1 which was the first manned aircraft to break the sound barrier and the Wright Brothers’ Wright Flyer, which performed the first manned and controlled heavier than air flight.
Rising almost to the ceiling is a cluster of ballistic missiles, while there’s a Concorde, a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird and a Space Shuttle to marvel at.
Joining these staggering machines are exhibitions delving into concepts like time and navigation, moon exploration and the Space Race (see the SkyLab orbital workshop). You can also catch a show at the IMAX theatre, and gaze at the cosmos at the Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory, open Wednesday and Sunday.
7. National Gallery of Art
A jaw-dropping survey of western art from Medieval times to the present, the National Gallery is rightly held as one of the world’s best art museums.
The sheer quantity of masterpieces, including the only Leonardo da Vinci in the Americas, means you’ll need to allow a few hours to feel like you’ve made a dent.
There are pieces by Titian, Raphael, Frans Hals, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Poussin, El Greco, Fragonard, Turner, Delacroix, Ingres, van Gogh, Manet, Gaguin, Matisse, Monet, Picasso and many more masters than we could hope to list.
These are arranged in nigh on 100 galleries, organised by chronology and nationality.
Make sure to see the renovated East Building, which now has two sky-lit tower galleries, a rooftop terrace and more than 500 works by the likes of Alexander Calder, Jasper Johns and Picasso.
The underground passage between the East and West Building is extraordinary for the Multiverse installation by Leo Villareal, composed of more than 41,000 LEDs.
The 6.1-acre Sculpture Garden is an oasis in summer, and has an ice rink between November and March.
Recommended tour: National Gallery of Art – Guided Museum Tour
8. National Museum of American History
The building for this museum, inaugurated in 1964, was one of the last McKim, Mead & White firm, which made a lasting impression on the cityscape of New York and Washington, DC.
The galleries National Museum of American History are dedicated to the political, cultural, technological, scientific and social development of the United States from colonial times to the present.
There’s no better place to get to grips with American identity than these halls.
Foremost is the original Star-Spangled Banner flag that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. You can view Benjamin Franklin’s walking stick, Lincoln’s pocket watch, a lap desk used by Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence, microphones from FDR’s fireside chats, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone from 1876, the John Bull steam locomotive from 1831, Dorothy’s red slippers from the Wizard of Oz, a restored helicopter from Vietnam and a piece of the lunch counter from a sit-in protest at F.W. Woolworth in Greensboro, N.C. in 1960.
9. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
The first monument on the National Mall to pay tribute to a man of colour is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the north-west shore of the Tidal Basin.
The centrepiece is a 9.1-metre statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement that led to “separate but equal” laws being overturned, helped strike down all laws banning interracial marriage and led to segregation being deemed unconstitutional.
The inspiration for the memorial, comprising a big granite rock divided by a ravine, and Dr. King’s likeness emerging from a wall of granite, was a line from his historic “I Have a Dream Speech”: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
You’ll enter through this Mountain of Despair and navigate the memorial in a way that brings to mind the challenges that King faced in his life.
On a 137-metre inscription wall you can read 14 quotes from King’s writings, speeches and sermons, all touching on the themes of democracy, hope and love.
10. Ford’s Theatre
This venue at 551 10th street had been open for less than two years when it was the scene of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by actor John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865. Lincoln had been attending a production of Our American Cousin when he was shot in the head in the presidential box by Booth at close range.
He was then lifted across the street to the Petersen House, also now part of the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, where he died the following morning.
The Ford’s Theatre was turned into a warehouse and office in the decades after assassination, before being reopened to the public for performances in 1968. You can get tickets to new productions, classic musicals and A Christmas Carol, a treasured holiday tradition here.
Under the theatre there’s a museum about the momentous event in American history that took place in this building.
On show is the murder weapon, a Derringer pistol, along with Booth’s diary, the bloodstained pillow from Lincoln’s deathbed and the original door to the theatre box.
11. National Museum of Natural History
In the ten most visited museums in the world, the National Museum of Natural History, under a magnificent green dome, is the size of almost 20 football fields, boasting 22 galleries and maintaining a collection of around 130 million specimens.
If that sounds overwhelming there are a few must-sees to tick off.
Near the top has to be the Hope Diamond in the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals.
This 45.552-carat jewel, insured for $250m, has ownership records going back more than 400 years and previously owned by Louis XIV.
When we wrote this article in June 2019, the National Fossil Hall had just reopened, commanded by the Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, which is joined by more than 700 specimens in an exhibition that sends you through the 3.7-billion-year history of life on Earth.
There’s a butterfly pavilion, accessible with a small fee, an Insect Zoo with daily tarantula feeding sessions and a beloved exhibition of Egyptian mummies, while Q?rius jr is a discovery room just for kids.
Suggested tour: National Museum of Natural History Guided Tour
12. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Equally harrowing, grim and enlightening, this museum to the south-east of the Washington Monument, pulls no punches in its remembrance of one of the darkest moments in human history.
The exhibition leads you from the top floor to the bottom, and at the beginning presents you with an ID card (one of 600) for an actual victim of the Holocaust.
You’ll learn this person’s story at different points through the main tour, simply titled The Holocaust.
This exhibition is a timeline of the tragedy, via Hitler’s rise to power, the outbreak of war, creation of ghettos and “Final Solution”, while making clear the long roots of anti-Semitism stretching back centuries.
This exhibition is reinforced with footage, photography, personal possessions of victims and eyewitness accounts.
Offering a bit of hope are the stories of heroism, like the efforts of King Christian and the Danish resistance groups to smuggle Danish Jews to the safety of neutral Sweden.
There are plenty of compelling side exhibitions, covering more recent atrocities, like Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, or condensing the Holocaust into something children can come to terms with, at Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story.
13. The Phillips Collection
Duncan Phillips (1886-1996), the founder of this fantastic art museum in the Dupont Circle, is credited with introducing modern art to American audiences.
When the Phillips Collection was established in 1921 its raft of Impressionist paintings and works by Fauvists, Cubists and Expressionists was provocative and daring.
At first the gallery was in a purpose built room attached to the family home, but the Phillips family moved out when the collection grew to more than 600 pieces, and the gallery took over the entire building.
The list of names at the Phillips Collection is astounding, counting Courbet, Whistler, Renoir, van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, Modigliani, Braque, Picasso, Paul Klee, Georgia O’Keeffe, Joan Miró, as well as pieces by earlier masters like Goya, Daumier and Delacroix.
Selections from the collection are on show permanently, juxtaposed and changing often to evoke visual “conversations”.
14. National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)
A relative newcomer to the National Mall, the NMAAHC was officially opened by President Barack Obama in 2016, to become the first and only national museum documenting the lives, history and culture of African Americans.
First off, the building by David Adjaye, an inverted step pyramid wrapped in a bronze architectural scrim, is a real wonder, within a few steps of the Washington Monument.
That lattice facade harks back to the masterful ironwork produced by 19th-century slaves, still in place on New Orleans’ gates, fences and balconies.
Calling on a reserve of 35,000 artefacts, only a 10th of which can be displayed at one time, the museum chronicles every aspect of the African American experience, beginning with the earliest days of the transatlantic slave trade in the 1400s and moving through time as you ascend, learning poignant personal stories during momentous periods in history like the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement.
Artefacts elicit different powerful emotions, and include a segregated fountain from the Jim Crow era, a mid-19th-century slave badge from Charleston, manacles for a child, Emmett Till’s glass-panelled casket, Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves and Leah Chase’s chef’s jacket.
Recommended tour: African American History Tour & Museum Entry
15. Library of Congress
The world’s largest library is in three different buildings on Capitol Hill, and in the last 220 years has gathered more than 167,000,000 items, among them books, maps, sheet music, recordings, photographs and manuscripts.
Those three buildings are the Thomas Jefferson Building, the James Madison Building and the John Adams Building, all three of which are open to the public for free.
Dating to 1897, the Beax-Arts-style Thomas Jefferson Building, between Independence Avenue and East Capitol Street on First Street, is the one that holds the most appeal, for its opulent architecture and for the exhibitions and installations that bring the huge collections to life.
Here to Stay celebrates the contributions of George and Ira Gershwin, with manuscripts, lyric sheets, printed music, correspondence and photographs, while at Mapping a Growing Nation you can view the first map of the independent United States compiled and printed by an American.
You can also browse a recreated version of Thomas Jefferson’s own personal library, which was the largest private book collection in North America at the time.
16. The White House
The residence and workplace of the President of the United States is north of the Ellipse, on the downtown side of the National Mall.
In a Neoclassical style, it was drawn up by Irish architect James Hoban and ready in 1800, although a near-complete reconstruction was needed after it was set ablaze by the British in the War of 1812. If you’re just passing by, the Ellipse, scene of the National Christmas Tree, is a good vantage point for the curving south portico, while the famed north portico is best seen from Pennsylvania Avenue.
To get inside, one does not simply walk into the White House! As with the Pentagon, you’ll need to make a request for a tour through your member of Congress, or, if you’re visiting from abroad, your nation’s embassy in Washington.
You’ll also need to apply within 90 days of your visit, allowing more than 21 days.
A self-guided tour will show you around the Blue Room, Red Room and Green Room, as well as State Dining Room and China Room.
All the way, there will be Secret Service members available for any queries.
17. Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Towards the west end of the National Mall, the powerful Vietnam Veterans Memorial honours the dead and missing U.S. armed forces members who fought in the controversial Vietnam War.
The memorial, mostly erected in 1982, is in three main parts.
There are two statue groups, The Three Soldiers and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, the latter commemorating the 265,000 women who served in the war.
The most famous portion is the 75.21-metre-long Memorial Wall, composed of polished black granite bearing the names of 58,320 servicemen in 140 panels.
The names are inscribed in chronological order according to the date of casualty and the wall’s high sheen causes you to see your own reflection as you read the names.
The memorial is open 24 hours a day, and rangers are on duty between 09:30 and 22:00 to answer questions.
18. United States Botanic Garden
The lush botanical garden in the south-west grounds of the Capitol was first set up in 1820, making it the oldest continuously operating botanical garden in the country.
Some of the 10,000 living specimens here are over 170 years old, while the glorious Lord & Burnham greenhouse was built in 1933 and has ten rooms and two courtyards, each synthesising a different habitat.
There’s a space for desert species, orchids, medicinal plants, jungle plants, rare and endangered plants and the plants native to Hawaii.
In the same building the Children’s Garden kindles children’s interest in botany, allowing them to touch and smell plants, use gardening tools and build a vine tunnel.
On the other side of Independence Avenue is the Bartholdi Park, centred on a cast-iron fountain by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the man who designed the Statue of Liberty.
19. Arlington National Cemetery
Over the Potomac and into Arlington County, Virginia, is the most esteemed cemetery in the United States.
A resting place for military personnel, Arlington National Cemetery is on an enormous scale, covering 624 acres and containing some 400,000 graves.
It was established in 1864 during the Civil War on the rolling green grounds of an estate that had belonged to Mary Anna Custis Lee, wife of Confederate General Robert E Lee.
This is the burial place of John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.
Shooting into the distance are precise rows of white marble headstones belonging to soldiers killed in the line of duty or distinguished veterans.
At a high point looking back to Washington is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, completed in 1932 and the resting place of unidentified personnel from each major 20th-century conflict in which the United States was involved.
This has been guarded perpetually since 1937, and there’s an elaborate and meticulous changing of the guard ceremony on the half-hour in summer and on the hour for the rest of the year.
Available tour: Arlington Nat. Cemetery Ticket & Trolley Tour
20. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
Fringed by the row of cherry trees on the Tidal Basin, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is among the most cherished in Washington, fitting for a fondly remembered president.
Over 7.5 acres, the memorial was inaugurated by Bill Clinton in 1997 and is made up of four granite-walled outdoor rooms, one for each of FDR’s terms.
The site is scattered with sculpture evoking the Great Depression, like a bread line and people listening to FDR’s “fireside chat” evening radio addresses.
FDR is depicted with Fala, his Scottish terrier, while there’s a bronze statue for Eleanor Roosevelt in front of the United States emblem, an organisation she championed and for which she was the United States’ first delegate.
Water is ever-present at the memorial, and the ornamental waterfalls become larger and more complex as you move from room to room, symbolising the turbulence of the era, from the Great Depression to the Second World War.
Some 450,000 litres of water are recycled at the memorial every minute.
21. International Spy Museum
Anyone who’s watched the TV show The Americans will know Washington is the spy capital of the world, so it’s the rightful home of an attraction peering into the murky topic of espionage.
The International Spy Museum has just relocated to an ultramodern building at L’Enfant Plaza.
The permanent collection is the most complete on the planet, starting with espionage in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, and leading you through the Medieval period, Renaissance, American Revolutionary War, the two World Wars, the Cold War and up to present day espionage.
As well as perusing hundreds of artefacts, like bugged shoes, a poison-tipped umbrella and the ice-axe used to kill Trotsky, you can listen to first-hand accounts from intelligence officers and experts, and put your own spying skills to the test using RFID experiences and interactive exhibits.
Book online: International Spy Museum Ticket
22. National World War II Memorial
President George W. Bush dedicated the National World War II Memorial in 2004. The space is designed like a plaza, at the east end of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, with a central ovular fountain surrounded by 56 granite pillars and two triumphal arches.
These arches represent the two main theatres, the Atlantic and the Pacific, while the granite pillars, each 5.8 metres tall, represent the 48 U.S. states of 1945, as well as D.C., Alaska and the country’s overseas territories at the time.
On the west end of the plaza is the Freedom Wall, emblazoned with 4,048 gold stars, each one symbolising 100 Americans who died in the war.
On the east side are two rows of 12 bronze bas-relief panels depicting scenes from the war and home front, from newly recruited servicemen getting physical exams and taking the oath to the handshake between the American and Russian armies in Berlin in 1945.
23. National Portrait Gallery
Sharing the Old Patent Office Building (1836-67) with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery could be described as America’s family picture album.
This gallery houses more than 21,000 works recording the nation’s most important figures, be they presidents, poets, activists, actors, visionaries or even villains.
The America’s Presidents gallery has the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House, and includes the feted “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington, as well as its most recent work, Kehinde Wiley’s painting of President Obama, unveiled in 2018. Other permanent exhibitions showcase 20th Century Americans, American Origins, sporting heroes (Champions) and show-business figures (Bravo!), while Explore! is an interactive area allowing children to experiment with portraiture.
There’s always a slew of temporary shows to investigate, zooming in on important characters or themes.
A must-see in 2019 was Votes for Women: Portraits of Persistence, charting the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.
Available tour: National Portrait Gallery & American Art Museum Guided Tour
24. National Museum of the American Indian
Catching the eye on the National Mall for its curving lines, the National Museum of the American Indian was designed after consultation with Native American people, who also fill roles in the museum’s day-to-day operation.
The building is clad with golden-toned Kasota limestone from southern Minnesota and its rippling texture meant to resemble natural rock formations shaped by wind and water.
Just inside the main doors you’ll be standing in the majestic Potomac Atrium, where refracted light from prisms cast beautiful shapes and colours on the walls, accompanied by a Hawaiian boatbuilding exhibition.
The museum has an almost overwhelming variety of artefacts from a multitude of tribes and peoples.
There’s a choice of long-term exhibitions to get stuck into, like Americans, highlighting how American Indians have always been part of the United States’ identity, before it even began, and Nation-to-Nation, which uncovers the difficult history of peacemaking between Indian Nations and the United States.
Our Universes is also riveting, studying cosmologies and the spiritual relationship between mankind and the natural world in indigenous cultures.
25. John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
A performing arts centre for the nation, this concert hall, opera house and ensemble of theatres is on the Potomac river in Foggy Bottom next door to the Watergate complex.
The Kennedy Center is the main venue for the National Symphony Orchestra and holds around 3,500 performances in a single year, for ballet, theatre, opera, orchestral and chamber concerts, folk music, popular music and jazz.
After seven years of construction the Kennedy Center opened its doors in 1971 and was designed by Edward Durrell Stone, who had a hand in the Radio City Music Hall.
Check out the NSO’s much-loved Pops season, including American Standards and music from Broadway, Hollywood, video game scores and even some popular music.
If you’re at a loose end on an afternoon you could come for a daily free performance at the Millennium Stage at 18:00. Tours are also given seven days a week, and offer insights about the events that led up to the Kennedy Center’s foundation, as well as the trove of art in the building.
The tour culminates with a wonderful panorama of Washington from the rooftop terrace.
26. Supreme Court
The highest tribunal and interpreter of the constitution in the United States stands opposite the Capitol in a temple-like Neoclassical white marble building from 1935. The Supreme Court welcomes visitors, and this can be an enthralling experience for anyone who wants to know more about the third branch of government the United States.
From the first week of October to April you can attend court on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays (in two-week intervals) and listen to oral arguments on matters that may affect all Americans.
A calendar of arguments is posted on the website in advance.
There are also plenty of reasons to pay a visit all year round.
The 24-minute visitor film goes into the history of the building and mechanics of the court, with contributions by the Chief Justice and sitting and retired justices.
Courtroom Lectures, held Monday to Friday, introduce visitors to the judicial functions of the supreme court, while there’s a range of self-guided exhibitions, explaining the symbolism of the building and profiling prominent attorneys and justices in the court’s 230-year history.
27. National Archives Museum
The National Archives Building, a little way north of the National Mall, holds more than three billion records.
Among these are the three most crucial documents in the history of the United States: The Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
All three can be viewed in the solemn Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom.
The building, designed by John Russell Pope is in a typically grand Neoclassical style and was the location for the first formal meeting of the Warren Commission in December 1963, investigating the assassination of JFK.
The interactive Records of Rights exhibition in the David M. Rubenstein Gallery explains how generations of Americans have sought to fulfil the promises of the founding documents.
Also in this space is one of only four copies of the Magna Carta from 1297. Meanwhile the Public Vaults in the heart of the archives brim with absorbing materials like audio recordings from the Oval Office and Abraham Lincoln’s telegrams.
Recommended tour: VIP Tour with US Capitol & National Archives
28. Smithsonian American Art Museum
As comprehensive as it gets, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in the ceremonious old Patent Office building (1836-67) holds the largest collection of American art in the world, spanning the colonial period to the present day.
On three floors there’s work by more than 7,000 artists in the collection, from all regions and movements, whether it’s American Impressionism, New Deal art, scenes from the Westward Expansion, African American art or modern folk art.
Georgia O’Keeffe (Manhattan is a high point), David Hockney, Nam June Paik, Edward Hopper, John Singer Sargent and Jenny Holzer are just a handful of the many luminaries represented.
Don’t miss Connections, the ongoing permanent collection, a presentation of contemporary craft at the Renwick Gallery.
Objects in this exciting exhibition are displayed in a sort of loose thematic web, encouraging you to tread your own path.
29. National Zoo
Just like all the Smithsonian museums, the institution’s National Zoo is free to enter.
The main campus is a 20-minute MetroRail ride from the National Mall and keeps around 1,500 animals from 300 species in 163 acres of woodland next to Rock Creek.
The two stars at the National Zoo are the giant pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, who have produced six cubs, most recently Bei Bei who was due to be sent to China as part of a diplomatic agreement in 2019. As well as the Giant Panda Habitat, make time for other standout exhibits like the Cheetah Conservation Station, the American Bison habitat, the Asia Trail, with clouded leopards, Asian small-clawed otters and fishing cats, and Elephant Trails, home to the zoo’s herd of Asian elephants.
There are orangutans and western lowland gorillas at the Great Ape House, and on the American Trail you’ll see famous North American species like bald eagles, beavers, California sea lions and brown pelicans.
As with the best zoos, there are keeper talks, tours and feeding sessions across the park from opening to closing.
30. Washington National Cathedral
The burial place of Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller, the Washington National Cathedral was started in 1907 when the foundation stone was laid in the presence of Theodore Roosevelt using the same mallet with which George Washington laid the cornerstone for the Capitol.
Work wasn’t officially completed until George H.W. Bush witnessed the “final finial” being put in place in 1990. This is the second-largest church in the United States, with a Neo-Gothic design taking cues from English Decorated Gothic architecture of the 14th century.
Outside you can wander in the Bishop’s Garden beside the cathedral’s flying buttresses, and come around to the west front to identify some of the 112 gargoyles and grotesques on the facade.
There’s even one of Darth Vader, and a gargoyle in the form of a hippie.
Inside, the high altar was carved from meleke limestone retrieved from Solomon’s Quarry, near Jerusalem, while the pulpit is fashioned from stone from Canterbury Cathedral.
There are more than 200 stained glass windows in the cathedral, one of which, the Space Window, features a fragment of lunar rock.
Included in: Washington D.C. 6-Hour Sightseeing Bus Tour
31. National Building Museum
Examining the history and impact of architecture, design, engineering and landscape architecture, the National Building Museum is one of the most awe-inspiring edifices in the city, which is saying something for Washington.
This is the former Pension Bureau from 1887, composed of more than 15 million bricks and featuring spectacular 23-metre Corinthian columns inside and a 400-metre terracotta frieze on its facade.
Those columns stand in the Great Hall, which is 15 storeys high and laid out like an outsized Italian Renaissance courtyard, framed by tiers of arcaded galleries.
The museum would merit a visit for the building alone, but there are exhibitions that will keep all ages absorbed.
In summer 2019, Hoops was all about the power of basketball courts to build communities, Animals, Collected showcased a wealth of animal ornaments, while Secret Cities dealt with the planning and architecture of the Manhattan Project.
Meanwhile little ones can get acquainted with building and design at the ongoing, hands-on Building Zone and Play Work Build.
Book online: National Building Museum Entry Ticket
32. Hillwood Estate, Museum and Garden
The sumptuous home of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post (1887-1973) is one of the top museums for decorative arts in the United States.
Post had an eye for 18th-century French and pre-Revolution Russian art, particularly Fabergé eggs, and there are two in the collection, along with liturgical art, porcelain, tapestries, furniture and portraits.
A painting of one of Post’s heroines, Catharine the Great commands the Entry Hall stairway, and the tour will show you through a series of lavish rooms like the French Porcelain Room, Russian Sacred Arts Room and the Post Bedroom Suite.
The Georgian-style house is in 25 acres of grounds made up of woodland, formal gardens and a Japanese garden, a Russian dacha and even a pet cemetery.
In summer the Hillwood Café offers blankets for picnics in the grounds, and serves afternoon tea on Sundays.
Founded for the tobacco trade in 1751, the port of Georgetown was on the map 40 years before the City of Washington and is beloved for its historic cobblestone streets, opulent homes, upmarket restaurants, one-of-a-kind boutiques, scenic waterfront on the Potomac and famous university.
In summer you can rent a kayak or paddleboard at the Key Bridge Boathouse, while Washington Harbour is skirted by restaurants with outdoor terraces and has water fountain for children to play in.
The old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, for shipping tobacco, starts right here in Georgetown and the towpath is very picturesque.
Among the neighbourhood’s many plush residences is Tudor Place (1816) home to the descendants of Martha Washington for six generations.
For movie buffs, the stairway linking M Street and Wisconsin Avenue are the Exorcist Steps, scene of the death of Father Damien Karras in the namesake movie from 1973.
Recommended tour: 3-Hour Taste of Georgetown Walking Food Tour
34. Tidal Basin
Encircled by marvellous memorials to Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr. and FDR, this reservoir to the south of the Washington Monument was excavated in 1880 to replenish the Washington Channel, a long harbour extending to the south-east and emptying into the Potomac.
The Tidal Basin covers 107 acres and for a brief time in spring is the most beautiful place in Washington, when 3,750 mostly Yoshino cherry trees are in bloom on its banks.
These were a gift to Washington by Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo City in 1912 and are the basis for the National Cherry Blossom Festival, mostly taking place around the Washington Monument in March and April.
Over the course of several weekends there are events like the Blossom Kite Festival and a Firework Festival.
Come in April to amble under the blossoms and to rent a pedal boat any time in spring and summer.
35. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
The great Gordon Bunshaft conceived the landmark cylindrical building for this modern art museum established by collector Joseph H. Hirshhorn.
Set halfway between the Washington Monument and the Capitol, the Hirshhorn was ready in 1974 and houses one of America’s best collections of modern and contemporary art.
Think Picasso, Matisse, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock, Edward Hopper and Franz Kline, just by way of introduction.
“What Absence is Made Of” analyses the concept of loss, with a mix of new groundbreaking acquisitions by the likes of Annette Lemieux, along with longstanding mainstays by Joseph Beuys and Ana Mendiata.
When this post was written in 2019 there were also shows for Enrico David and Rirkrit Tiravanija, accompanied by Barbara Kruger’s ongoing Belief + Doubt installation.
The museum’s sculpture garden is integral to any visit, and has pieces by Alexander Calder, Rodin, Jeff Koons, David Smith, and Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree for Washington, DC installation, hanging wishes on paper by people from all over the world.
36. Rock Creek Park
Hugging the banks of Rock Creek on its meandering route down to the Potomac is a big urban park, spreading over more than 2,000 acres and drawn up in 1890. Previously this land had been the site of a chain of batteries defending Washington in the Civil War.
The valley is often steep, and blanketed with beech, oaks, dogwoods and cedars, while some of Washington’s favourite historic bridges cross the creek, like Lauzun’s Legion, the Duke Ellington Bridge, the Daft Bridge and the Dumbarton Bridge.
Rock Creek Park is looked after by the National Park Service, and is a haven for walking, cycling horseback riding and all sorts of sports, from golf to tennis.
The Carter Barron Amphitheatre seats 4,200 and is a venue for plays and concerts, also hosting the Citi Open tennis tournament in July, while Peirce Mill is a grist mill dating way back to 1829.
37. Freer and Sackler Galleries
Less frequented than many of their Smithsonian siblings, the Freer and Sackler Galleries behind the castle shine for their sublime collections of Asian masterpieces, across two connected museums.
The Freer Gallery of Art is sprinkled with Buddhist sculpture, Japanese and Chinese handscroll paintings, Indian shrines, Korean pottery and a great deal more.
Much of this art was amassed by the industrialist Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919), who also assembled the world’s largest collection of works by the Tonalist James McNeill Whistler, which is also a big part of the museum’s appeal.
The Freer Gallery is joined by an underground passage to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which owes its existence to a big donation by the eponymous polymath in the early-1980s.
This houses some 15,000 pieces, including ancient Chinese bronzes, lacquerware and jades, Near Eastern metalware and a trove of painting from China, India and Japan.
38. United States National Arboretum
Also removed from downtown Washington, the United States National Arboretum grows a wonderful collections of plants and trees on the west bank of the Anacostia River.
In almost 450 acres on the slopes of Mount Hamilton you can ramble around Native Plant Collections, from prairie to coastal plain, Aquatic Plants, Asian Collections incorporating Japanese, Chinese and Korean species, a classical Chinese Garden, the National Herb Garden, a Flowering Tree Collection and the National Grove of State Trees.
The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum has specimens gifted to the United States by other nations, including a Japanese White Pine dating back to 1625 that survived the Hiroshima blast.
Spring is a joyous time to be here, when the magnolias, irises and daffodils are in flower.
One remarkable manmade sight is the National Capitol Columns, 22 Corinthian columns from the east portico of the United States Capitol, removed in 1958 during a reconstruction.
39. Dumbarton Oaks
A historic estate in Georgetown, Dumbarton Oaks has delightful gardens and a house going back to the early 19th century, enriched with collections of Byzantine, Pre-Columbian and European art.
These many works were gathered by former resident, the diplomat Robert Woods Bliss (1875-1962) and his wife Mildred (1879-1969). Most compelling are the Aztec, Mayan, Olmec, Veracruz, Teotihuacan carvings in stone and jade, ceramics from the Wari, Moche and Nasca culture and splendid gold, silverware and textiles from the Inca, Chimú and Lambayeque cultures.
The finest single room in the house is the Renaissance-style Music Room overflowing with fine art (including an El Greco), tapestries, furniture and sculpture from the 1400s to the 1700s.
Among the Byzantine artefacts are jewellery, icons and illuminated manuscripts from the 300s to the 1400s.
Give yourself plenty of time to wander in the grounds to visit the orangery, walk the hedge-lined alleys and admire the formal gardens.
From spring to fall there’s always something in flower, whether it’s the cherry trees and bluebells early in the season or the dahlias in August.
40. Smithsonian Castle
The institution behind the world’s largest museum and research complex is a fascinating in its own right and you can call in at their headquarters and visitor centre at the dramatic Smithsonian Castle.
This is a mid-19th-century building is in a Neo-Gothic style that has some Romanesque elements in its square towers and slender round-arched windows.
“America’s Treasure Chest” is an exhibition showing off art, artefacts and natural history specimens from across the Smithsonian.
Just inside the Mall-side entrance there’s a crypt for James Smithson (1865-1929), the English chemist and mineralogist who was the institution’s founding donor.
“Welcome to Your Smithsonian” in the Schermer Hall delves into the institution’s history, while you can take a guided tour to get the inside track on this historic building.
41. Korean War Veterans Memorial
To the uninitiated, it might come as a jolt to learn that the Korean War (1950-53) claimed more than 30,000 American lives so soon after the Second World War.
The memorial, on the south flank of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, was dedicated on July 27, 1995, 42 years to the day after the armistice that brought the war to an end, dividing the Korean Peninsula in two.
There’s a memorial wall, 50 metres long and in the form of a triangle intersecting a circle.
Sandblasted into it are images of soldiers, equipment and important figures in the war.
Within the triangle are 19 stainless steel statues, larger than life-sized at 2.2 metres and representing a platoon on patrol.
In the circle is a black granite pool of remembrance encircled by pleached linden trees, while another granite wall close by bears the inscription, “Freedom is Not Free”.
42. Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
The tenth largest Catholic church in the world has received some exalted guests since it was dedicated in 1959. Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis have all come to this mammoth Neo-Byzantine building, which was only officially completed in December 2017 when the Trinity Dome mosaic was realised.
Able to hold 10,000 worshippers, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is also the tallest inhabitable structure in Washington, at 100 metres and is graced by a cafe in the basement, hidden public access speakers so people can hear sermons at the far reaches, air-conditioning and what was the largest radiant heating slab in the world when it was installed in 1959.
When you come, peruse some of the 70 chapels to the Virgin Mary around the nave and in the crypt, all rich with mosaics and statuary (the sculpture of India’s Our Lady of Fatima is memorable). The formidable Christ in Majesty mosaic in the apse is more than 335 square metres, while the crypt contains treasures like a golden rose laid on the Shrine by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 and Pope Paul VI’s coronation tiara from 1963.
43. Union Station
In true Washington style, the magnificent Union Station borrows from one of the great monuments from classical antiquity.
In this case, Rome’s Baths of Diocletian and the Arch of Constantine.
When this edifice was completed in 1907 it was the largest railway station in the world.
Take a minute to behold the vaulting arches and sturdy Ionic columns of the facade from the Columbus Circle.
Above, on the frieze, are six sculpted figures, modelled on the Dacian figures on the Arch of Constantine.
Here they represent Prometheus (for fire), Thales (for electricity), Themis (for freedom and justice), Apollo (for imagination and inspiration), Ceres (for agriculture) and Archimedes (for mechanics). Step inside to marvel at the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Main Hall, 30 metres high, and the theatrical murals and marble-effect decor of the East Hall.
Union Station is a necessary diversion, for its amazing dimensions and architecture, but also for a surprising choice of shopping and food options.
Claire’s, Victoria’s Secret, H&M, Shake Shack, Chipotle and Le Pain Quotidien are all here.
44. Hop-on Hop-off Trolley City Tour
The Old Town Trolley Tour has been hailed by Forbes as one of the best city tours in the world.
If you need to squeeze Washington into just a few hours then just buy a one-day pass, via GetYourGuide.com, and you can tailor your own journey of discovery through the Capital of the United States.
Including a trip on the Potomac Riverboat Water Taxi and a visit to the Arlington National Cemetery, the trolley buses conduct you to spots like the Lincoln Memorial, White House, the big Smithsonian museums and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
On the journey you’ll hear plenty of anecdotes and mind-boggling facts and figures from a cheerful guide who knows Washington inside and out.
45. National Postal Museum
Right beside Union Station, the National Postal Museum charts America’s thrilling postal history, from colonial times to the present.
You’ll discover just how vital letters were to America’s fabric, learning the many different ways the mail was transported and observing the evolution of the postage stamp.
You’ll see uniforms, flags, a prototype bag, a bus, important correspondence, vintage perforation machines, postal railcars, stagecoaches, wagons, handstamps, an air-mail plane suspended from the ceiling, and hear the story of services like the Pony Express (1860-61) between Missouri and California.
The museum also possesses John Lennon’s childhood stamp collecting album, with 565 stamps on over 150 pages, and put on show periodically.
The museum’s regal building, with a facade of Ionic columns, was Washington’s former central post office, from 1914 to 1986.
46. National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA)
A temple to the achievements of women in fine art, sculpture and decorative art, the NMWA is the only museum of its kind on the planet.
There’s an inspirational variety of work on display, from painting to botanical prints from the 1700s, silverwork from the 1600s to the 1700s artists’ books, sculpture and installations by more than 1,000 artists.
If there’s an unmissable work it’s Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait (the only Kahlo painting in Washington), but the line-up of woman artists is sensational and includes Mary Cassatt, Barbara Hepworth, Lavinia Fontana, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell and Louise Bourgeois.
The venue is a former Masonic temple from 1903, and the central space is the striking Grand Hall, where marble stairways convey you to the galleries on the floors above.
47. Eastern Market
The last public market building in Washington still used for commerce, Eastern Market (1871) is in the heart of the historic Capitol Hill neighbourhood.
Every day of the week except Monday it’s a place to come to the South Hall Market for fresh fruit and vegetables, seafood, meat, poultry, dairy, baked goods and flowers.
There’s also an enticing range of vendors offering Louisiana-style po’ boys and gumbo, Filipino streetfood, tacos, soups, buckwheat pancakes (in the mornings at Market Lunch), stuffed dates and snowballs.
On weekends the space outside the historic building is thronged with farmers’ market stalls (also on Tuesday afternoons) and a wide variety of outdoor vendors specialising in jewellery, pottery, sculpture, painting, furniture, wood-carving, leather items, photography and fabrics.
On these days Eastern Market has a festival atmosphere, helped by the live bands that entertain the crowds.
48. Nationals Park
The Montreal Expos relocated to Washington in 2005 and within three years the team dubbed the Nationals settled into this 41,339-capacity ballpark.
Nationals Park was the first LEED-certified sports stadium in the United States, and staged the All-Star Game for the first time in 2018. The Nationals are post-season perennials, led by all-stars like pitcher Max Scherzer and right-fielder Bryce Harper (until 2018), even if they haven’t quite managed a World Series Title.
Stadium tours are available from March to November, on non-game days but also on days when the games start after 16:00. Food is at the core of the MLB ballpark experience, and each year the Nationals are known for introducing fare that diverges from the classic hotdogs, pretzels and peanuts.
In 2019 you can get bao bao, steak sandwiches, lobster rolls, oyster po’ boys, Korean fried chicken, kielbasa and bone-in short rib.
49. National Geographic Museum
Headquartered in Washington, the National Geographic Society (founded 1888) is famed for its magazine and television channel.
This is one of the largest non-profit organisations of its kind in the world, oriented towards education in fields like archaeology, historical conservation, world cultures, natural science and geography.
At the permanent “Exploration Starts Here” exhibition you discover the many exciting places the society has been, for inside stories about Machu Picchu, the wreck of the Titanic and Jane Goodall’s research camp.
You can see pottery recovered from a shipwreck by Jacques Cousteau and the camera used by Arctic explorer Robert Peary.
Recent temporary exhibitions have featured dazzling wildlife photography, gold and silver artefacts from pre-Incan Peru, Ancient Greek carvings, in-depth info on the Curiosity Rover, dinosaur fossils and 3D imagery from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
50. The Pentagon
One of the last places in the world that you’d expect to be able to visit, the Pentagon, just over the Potomac in Arlington VA, does indeed accept guests although there are some strict guidelines that might be tricky to work into a holiday if you’re visiting from abroad.
Overseas visitors have to apply for a place on a tour via their Embassy, while domestic tourists can make a tour request online no fewer than 14 days and no more than 90 days before the intended date.
If you manage to get past these hurdles you’ll be treated to an hour-long trip through the world’s largest low-rise office building, possessing three times the floor space of the Empire State Building.
You’ll pick up yet more stats about this immense complex, find out about the history of the four branches of the military and visit the indoor memorial and chapel close to the 9/11 crash site.
51. East Potomac Park
To go for a picnic by the Potomac or just escape the crowds, you can set off down the long and narrow man-made island that runs from the Jefferson Memorial to Hains Point where the Washington Channel and Anacostia River join the Potomac.
The public, 18-hole East Potomac Golf Course is here, complete with a driving range and blessed with superb views of the city’s monuments.
By common consent, the course’s Potomac Grille cafe makes some of the best burgers in all of Washington.
On the Potomac and Washington Channel, the course is hemmed by the quiet Ohio Drive, which has lots of parking spaces and picnic benches where you can contemplate the water and city.
There’s also a public pool and several sports fields, while the cherry blossoms tracing Ohio Drive are a joy in April.
A celebration of the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of the press and freedom of speech, the Newseum relocated to its current building just north of the National Mall in 2008. What will strike you about the design is the giant rectangular aperture over Pennsylvania Avenue, intended as a “window on the world”. The Newseum is scheduled to close for good in 2020, but makes it onto this list for some remarkable exhibits that need to be seen while there’s still time.
The Berlin Wall Gallery holds eight 3.6-metre panels from the wall, the largest unchanged section on show outside of Germany.
On the sixth floor there’s a terrace with a view to behold of Pennsylvania Avenue, accompanied by 25 metres of information panels detailing the history of this prestigious thoroughfare.
The NBC News Interactive Newsroom lets budding journalists break a story and become a live reporter in front of a video backdrop.
And as you enter the Newseum you’ll be met by the Front Page Gallery, with screens showing up-to-date newspaper front pages from around the world.
Book online: Expedited Entry Ticket to The Newseum
53. Monuments by Moonlight Tour
Washington’s solemn monuments look even better after sunset when their granite and marble glows in lights.
The Monuments by Moonlight Tour, available through GetYourGuide.com, is a 2.5-hour trolley tour around unforgettable sights like the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Memorial and the Capitol, all in the company of a knowledgeable guide shedding fresh light on these icons.
On the tour you’ll pick up the kind of stories and factoids that only a long-term student of Washington’s past could share.
You might learn about the rumoured curse of the Hope Diamond, or the story of a Medal of Honor winner who would visit his own amputated leg on display at a museum.
54. Adams Morgan
A funky, cosmopolitan neighbourhood with thumping nightlife, Adams Morgan is where 18th Street NW meets Columbia Road in Northwest DC.
This is a fine place to be a pedestrian, especially on 18th street, which has picture perfect Victorian rowhouses and no lack of sidewalk cafes and restaurants.
If you have an adventurous palate you’ll be glad to know that the spectrum of cuisines available is insanely international.
In the space for a few hundred metres you’ll come across Ethiopian, Brazilian, Vietnamese, Peruvian, Ghanaian, Nepalese and Dutch, together with more familiar ramen, empanadas, pizza and American fare.
There are vintage clothing stores and second-hand bookshops, while after dark you can sample the talent at live music venues like Madam’s Organ and Songbird Music House & Record Cafe.
Jack Rose stocks 2,600 different scotches, whiskey and bourbons, and has 20 beers on draft, while for songbirds, Muzette is a Korean restaurant/karaoke bar, with more than 70,000 songs on file in seven languages.
55. Odyssey Dinner Cruise
The Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial look even better from the Potomac River where you can appreciate them in your own time.
You could book a table on the Odyssey, a sleek cruise ship serving a three-course evening meal (think braised short rib or romesco-crust salmon), accompanied by music from a live band.
You can pick from three glass atrium dining rooms, and watch Washington’s skyline scrolling by in the most romantic way possible.
Setting sail from Gangplank Marina at 600 Water Street SW, the cruise will last around three hours and entails attentive tableside service, a curated music selection and after-dinner dancing if you want to cut a rug.
Book online: Washington DC Odyssey Dinner Cruise