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Washington, D.C. (6 days)

Updated: Feb 4, 2023

Key Points:

  1. Washington is one of the top cities to visit in the world, and is also an important part of travelling in the USA.

  2. WikiVoyage has the original version of travelling in Washington. But we have rewritten and integrated several articles together to create a better version.

According to Wikipedia, "Washington, D.C., formally the District of Columbia, also known as just Washington or simply D.C., is the capital city and federal district of the United States."

Here we quote the best way to travel in Washington D.C. provided by wikiVoyage, a multilingual, web-based project to create a free, complete, up-to-date, and reliable worldwide travel guide. Wikivoyage is hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization that also hosts a range of other project such as Wikipedia. Please edit the articles and find author credits at the original wikiVoyage article on Star articles - Washington D.C. ,Anacostia, Georgetown, National Mall, Capital Hill, Shaw. Content on wikiVoyage can be shared under a Creative Commons License.

Part 1: Understand.

Washington, D.C., is a city born of politics, by politics, and for politics. It wasn't the first national capital: Baltimore, Lancaster, York, Annapolis, Trenton, and even New York City all tried their hand at hosting the national government. For a time, it seemed like Philadelphia would stake a claim as home to the federal government. However, Congress soured on the "Cradle of Liberty" after disaffected American soldiers, with the tacit sanction of the Pennsylvania government, chased the legislators out of the city to Princeton. That incident made clear that the nation's capital would need to be independent from the then-powerful state governments and that the southern states would refuse to accept a northern capital.

Three of the nation's founding fathers, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, agreed in 1790 to a compromise location for a new national capital on largely uninhabited land along the Potomac River in the Mid-Atlantic. This was made famous in the musical Hamilton with the song The Room Where It Happened. The exact location was left up to George Washington, who carved a diamond-shaped federal district out of land donated by the states of Maryland and Virginia, which happened to be near his plantation at Mount Vernon. The new territory also included two existing settlements: Georgetown, on the Maryland side of the Potomac, and Alexandria, Virginia, at the district's southern tip.

Part 2: Get Around

City layout

The city is split into four quadrants of unequal size, which radiate out from the Capitol Building: Northwest (NW), Northeast (NE), Southeast (SE), and Southwest (SW). The NW quadrant is by far the largest and SW the smallest. Addresses in the city always include the quadrant abbreviation, e.g., 1000 H Street NE. Take note of the quadrant, otherwise you may find yourself on the exact opposite side of town from your destination!

City streets are generally laid out in a grid, with east-west streets primarily named with letters (A–W) and north-south streets named with numbers. The street numbers and letters increase as the distance from the Capitol building increases. The numerous diagonal avenues, many named after states, serve as the city's principal arteries. The grid has a few peculiarities that are a legacy from the city's foundation. The City of Washington originally occupied only a portion of the total area of the District. As a result, outside of what is now often called the "L'Enfant City", streets do not strictly adhere to the grid system. However, you will find that many street names were simply extended where practical and, past the letter "W", for east-west streets, two-syllable street names (e.g., Irving Street, Lamont Street) follow the single-letter streets in alphabetical order, followed by three-syllable street names.

There is no "J" St. This is because, until the mid-19th century, the letters "I" and "J" were largely considered interchangeable. Following that same idea, "I" Street is often written as "Eye" Street, to distinguish it from the letter "L" and the numeral "1", and "Q" Street is often written "Que," "Cue," or "Queue."

By public transportation

It is usually easier to use public transportation as opposed to driving in traffic and paying expensive parking rates. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) operates the city's public transportation system. Information about all modes of local public transportation is available on the tourist-friendly website goDCgo. A SmarTrip debit card ($2 cost), which can be purchased and refilled at any Metrorail station, is used to ride the Metrorail and can also be used on Metrobus, D.C. Circulator, and many suburban bus systems. Buses also accept cash, but the SmarTrip card will save you the hassle of carrying exact change. SmarTrip cards also can be used to pay for parking in Metrorail parking lots. The SmarTrip mobile app can also be used to pay fares.

By Metrorail The Metrorail is D.C.'s intra-city train system. It is composed of six color-coded rail lines that run primarily underground within the District and above ground in the nearby suburbs. It's clean, safe, user-friendly, and sports a surprisingly elegant and pleasing brutalist aesthetic. Check the upcoming track work website before traveling, since track work, especially on weekends, may result in long delays and station closures.

By bus

D.C.'s bus system is visitor-friendly and includes access to destinations that are hard to reach by Metrorail.

By Circulator bus

The tourist-friendly $1.00 D.C. Circulator buses operate between main attractions and the city's most popular neighborhoods for visitors. It is useful to print the handy route map. The next arrival time for a bus at any stop can be checked online.

By Metrobus

Metrobus operates hundreds of routes throughout the D.C. metro area. Metrobus will take you places hard to reach via Metrorail or the Circulator, and can be a convenient, comfortable way to travel. In addition, some Metrobus lines operate later into the night than Metrorail. WMATA's website publishes maps and timetables for all routes, as well as system maps for its entire network. Most routes cost a flat fare of $2.00 if paying with cash or SmarTrip card, with a free transfer if paying by SmarTrip card. Seniors pay only $1.00 by showing an identification card to the driver and up to two children ages four and younger ride free per paying adult.

By taxi

There are approximately 6,500 licensed taxicabs in D.C. Unlike ride-hailing services, taxis are able to be hailed from the street.

Roof lights on all D.C. cabs have LED text that explicitly state whether or not the cab is available for hire.

The largest taxi operators are

  • Yellow Cab, ☏ +1 202 544-1212, +1 202 TAXICAB (8294222). in D.C.

  • Barwood, ☏ +1 301 984-1900. in Montgomery County

  • Silver Cab, ☏ +1 301 277-6000. in Prince George's County

  • Red Top, ☏ +1 703 522-3333. In Virginia, is the largest operator in both Arlington County and Alexandria.

Taxicab drivers are required to take passengers anywhere within the D.C.-area. With the exception of rides to and from the airport, it is illegal for cabs to pick up passengers outside the jurisdiction in which they are based.

By ride-hailing services

Ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft are extremely popular in D.C. Base rates are much lower than those of taxis.

By car

Driving in downtown D.C. is difficult, particularly during rush hour, where traffic can make it take 10 minutes to drive a couple city blocks. In addition, limited and expensive parking, ruthless enforcement of complicated parking rules, sadistic traffic circles, fines from automated red light cameras and absurd speed traps, potholes, frequent street direction changes, and street closures without warning make driving in D.C. a headache. A 2012 report showed that D.C. drivers were the most prone to accidents of any city in the U.S.

By bicycle and scooter

The Capital Bikeshare system offers a convenient and affordable way to get around. You'll get to know the city better than you would by traveling underground or behind a windshield.

D.C. is ranked as one of the top cities in the U.S. for bicycling. Many streets, including the iconic Pennsylvania Ave, have dedicated bike lanes and there is plenty of bike parking available. Most of the downtown area is flat, although areas north of downtown are more hilly. The vehicle traffic is slow enough, but helmets are recommended (and required for those under age 16) as drivers in the city are often distracted and do not see cyclists, even when the cyclist is in a protected bike lane. Biking in the street is legal and biking on the sidewalk is legal for non-electric bikes everywhere except downtown. Bicycle maps of the city center are available at this site.

By pedicab

Pedicabs (bicycle rickshaws) are regulated, insured, and licensed and offer tours or pre-arranged rides. Prices per vehicle range from $90-$175/hour. Companies offering services include D.C. Pedicabs, Nonpartisan Pedicab, and Adventure DC Tricycle Tours.

Part 3: Itinerary

Day 1: Anacostia

The principal sights—the ones you have to see in order to lay claim to having visited Anacostia—are the Smithsonian museum, the Frederick Douglass House, and, of course, the Big Chair. The two museums are small but excellent, and the latter attraction is a good photo op! The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens are a destination in their own right, and merit a visit during the summer even if you are otherwise uninterested in visiting Anacostia.

  • America's Islamic Heritage Museum, 2315 Martin Luther King Junior Avenue SE, ☏ +1 202 610-0586. 12-5PM Tuesday-Sunday. Much of the museum's content is displayed on a series of panels covering a diverse set of personalities including Estevanico, Omar ibn Said, Hajj Ali, Yarrow Mamout, and Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb. It makes note of America's unique ethnic groups and migration patterns, including the hard to define Melungeons and the immigration of Bosnian Muslims starting in the 19th century. There is an extensive section on the Nation of Islam with old newspapers, photographs and other memorabilia. Adults $7, Students and seniors $5.

  • Anacostia Museum, 1901 Fort Place SE, ☏ +1 202 633-4820, 10AM-5PM daily. The Smithsonian's least visited museum, far from the Mall, is a small but superbly exhibited tribute to Anacostia and D.C. "East of the River", and also to African-American history. Free.

  • The Big Chair, 2101 Martin Luther King Jr Ave SE. The Big Chair is Anacostia's most recognized landmark, and it sits right in downtown Anacostia on MLK Jr Ave. It was erected in 1959 as an advertisement for the now closed Curtis Brothers Furniture Store across the street, and at the time of its creation, it was reputed to be the largest chair in the world - 19.5 ft (5.9 m) high and 4,600 lb (2,100 kg).

  • Historic Uniontown. The heart of historic Uniontown is bounded by MLK Jr Ave, Good Hope Dr, 14th St, and W St SE. In this community of well preserved, wooden, Gothic houses, look especially for the colorful Rosie's Row of townhouses on the north side of U St just west of 13th, and for the 1879 St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church at 1244 V St SE. The neighborhood is small enough where you could easily cover it on foot from the Frederick Douglass House and downtown Anacostia, and you would race through all there is to see in a car.

  • Fort Stanton Overlook, 1600 Morris Rd SE (parking lot of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church). Fort Stanton was the first of dozens in the "Fort Circle" designed to protect the capital from Confederate attacks during the Civil War. All that remains is a historic marker, but the real attraction is the superb view of the capital from this high, grassy hill behind the church parking lot.

  • Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, 1411 W Street SE, ☏ +1 202 426-5961. 9AM-5PM daily (16 April-15 October), 9AM-4PM daily (16 October-15 April). Frederick Douglass' house in D.C. In addition to the small museum and gift shop, you may visit the house, but only on a tour. Tours are available by RSVP at 9AM, 12:15PM, 1:45PM, 3PM, and 3:30PM daily. Free.

  • Honfleur Art Gallery, 1241 Good Hope Rd SE, ☏ +1 202 536-8994. T-F Noon-5PM; Sa 11AM-5PM. The Honfleur Gallery has one foot in the world of international contemporary art, and one foot in Anacostia. The world inside, with its large, beautiful space stocked with a surround sound system and flat screen TVs, looks like it would be more at home in Manhattan than, well, Anacostia. But it is run by a local nonprofit dedicated to promoting the arts in the world just outside, and in bringing them together with its annual East of the River showcase of local artists' work.

  • Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, 1550 Anacostia Ave NE, ☏ +1 202-692-6080, fax: +1 202 426-5991. 8AM-4PM daily. The only aquatic gardens managed by the National Park Service in the country is a marvelous off-the-beaten-path destination in D.C. The Kenilworth marsh is all that remains of the vast marshlands that once covered the riverbanks of the Anacostia (before being dredged for development), and is the only place where you can really imagine the District before it became America's capital. The prime attraction are the cultivated ponds, full of waterlilies, but it's also a worthy destination for the riverfront trail, greenhouses, and birdwatching. The best time to visit is without a doubt on an early summer morning, when the waterlilies are in full bloom. Free summer garden tours are available Sa-Su 9AM & 11AM (Memorial Day-Labor Day). Free.

  • Saint Elizabeth's Hospital, 2700 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE. Why visit a mental hospital? Because the historic grounds and buildings are beautiful (if a little run-down and creepy). On top of that, you can see some great views from here of the D.C. skyline. The hospital was founded in 1852 as the first major government-run mental institution, and at its peak housed 7,000 patients, which at one point included both President Lincoln's and President Garfield's assassins. The hospital still operates, but on a much reduced scale. The Department of Homeland Security has plans to relocate here in 2021. Construction may have already started, as money for the purpose was requested in the 2016 Federal budget. You aren't really supposed to drive into the facility, but a little smooth talking at the gate may get an architecture buff inside. The east campus, owned by the District instead of the federal government, is being redeveloped. The centerpiece of the east campus is a newly opened arena that became home to the Capital City Go-Go, the NBA G League farm team of the Washington Wizards, in 2018 and the WNBA's (women) Washington Mystics in 2019. (The WNBA season falls during the NBA offseason.) The complex also serves as the practice facility for the Wizards, whose parent company also owns the Mystics and Go-Go.

Day 2: Georgetown

Although Georgetown is known principally for its pretty residential streets, shopping, and dining, it has some of the most historical attractions in D.C. Dumbarton Oaks is a highlight of any visit to the city. A visit to D.C. would also be remiss without a stop at Georgetown University's beautiful Main and Dalghren Chapel quads, the notorious Exorcist Steps, and the C&O Canal.

  • City Tavern Club, 3206 M St NW, ☏ +1 202 337-8770. Built in 1796 as a neighborhood pub, the City Tavern is the oldest commercial structure in the city, and the second oldest building following the Old Stone House. The interior is a beautiful trip back to the 18th century, but it is closed to the public, except for private event bookings.

  • Dumbarton Oaks, 1703 32nd St NW, ☏ +1 202 339-6401. Museum: Tu-Su 2PM-5PM, Gardens: Tu-Su 2PM-6PM (15 Mar-31 Oct), Tu-Su 2PM-5PM (1 Nov-14 Mar). Most famous for its role in 1944, when world leaders convened here to draw up the United Nations charter. But that's not why you should come. The extensive gardens are the biggest draw; they are extraordinarily beautiful—almost palatial—and peaceful, uncrowded. The best time to come is a Spring weekday, when the gardens are practically empty, and the trees are budding with bright pinks and purples. The mansion, built in 1800 for John Calhoun (one of the most powerful senators in American history), houses an extraordinary collection of pre-Columbian and Byzantine art. And rest assured a stroll around the mansion would be worthwhile even without the exhibits. Don't thank Sen. Calhoun for all this though; he was rather a boor. The second owners, the Blisses, a wealthy couple from the U.S. Foreign Service, are responsible for the magnificent landscaping and collections. If you are up for a little homework, look for Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, commissioned by Mrs. Bliss for their 30th wedding anniversary. Museum: free; gardens: $10 for adults, $8 for seniors 60+, $5 for students, and children under 13; free for everyone in the winter (November 1 through March 14, open 2PM-5PM).

  • Exorcist Steps (between 3600 M St and 3600 Prospect St NW). Made famous by the 1973 horror movie, the "Exorcist Steps" run between Prospect and M St just west of where the Key Bridge deposits people into D.C. In addition to grisly ends to men and devils, the steps are popular among Georgetown students looking for a serious workout during their daily jog along the Potomac.

  • Georgetown University Dalghren Chapel Quad (Behind the Main Quad, through Healy Hall). This quadrangle was the original land purchase upon the founding of the university. The chapel (1893) at the south end, beautiful inside and out, is best known to the world for its role in The Exorcist, where the priests discovered the defaced statue of the Virgin Mary. The oldest building on the quad is Old North (1795) on the north side, from which Abraham Lincoln gave his speech in 1861 to Union soldiers stationed here. The best time to visit is undoubtedly at the end of the cherry blossom season, when the petals are beginning to fall throughout the quad.

  • Georgetown University Main Quad (just past the main gates at 37th St & O St NW). It's hard to notice anything on this very large quadrangle other than the enormous Healy Hall (1897), a national historic landmark, whose high-set Flemish-Romanesque towers loom over the neighborhood, and even the city. It is named after Patrick Healy, who had an impressive career of firsts: the first African-American president of a major U.S. university, the first African-American with a PhD, and the first African-American Jesuit priest. During the day you can wander inside the building to appreciate the interior—Gaston Hall at the north end of the third floor should be your main objective, as it is both beautiful and has hosted endless visits by foreign and domestic heads of state. In the summer, these visits are often free to the public and not very well attended, so you might be able to get in and talk foreign policy with a king or two.

  • House of Sweden, 2900 K Street NW (at the east end of Washington Harbor), usually Th-Su 1PM-6PM. A striking, award-winning modern building (2006), it is home to the Swedish Embassy. It bills itself as the "crown jewel of the Swedish presence in the U.S.," hosting a large exhibition space open to the public and devoted principally to current international issues dear to the Swedes. Free.

  • Mount Zion Cemetery, 2701 Q St NW. Mount Zion Church served Georgetown's once large African-American community which once offered free burials for Washington's African-American population. It was very popular since church was legally the only place that large groups of African-Americans were allowed to congregate. The church, at 1334 29th St NW, remains in operation with only a handful of families still living in the area; most of the congregation commutes from other areas.

  • Oak Hill Cemetery, 3001 R St NW, ☏ +1 202 337-2835, M-F 9AM-4:30PM, Su 1PM-4PM. The Gothic chapel and gates were designed by the same architect who designed the Smithsonian Castle. It was the original resting place of Abraham Lincoln's son, Willie, before he was reinterred with his father in Illinois, as well as other figures. In addition to being a cemetery, it is also a botanical garden well set for a leisurely walk. Free.

  • Old Stone House, 3051 M St NW, ☏ +1 202 426-6851. House: W-Su noon-5PM, garden: dawn-dusk daily. Built in 1765, this is the oldest original structure in Washington, D.C. For a while it was a used car dealership, but since the 1950s it has been operated by the National Park Service as a house museum showcasing pre-revolutionary colonial life in Georgetown, as well as a small English garden in the back. Free.

  • Remains of the Potomac Aqueduct Bridge (Water Street - look for the stone archway next to the Potomac Boat Club, then climb the stairs). The bridge opened in 1889 and was used to transport boats between the C&O and Alexandria canals. The bridge was demolished in 1933, after the construction of the Key Bridge and the closing of the canals. Now, it is a grassy, peaceful area with great views of the Key Bridge and some unique graffiti!

  • Remains of the Washington Streetcar System. Remnants are visible on P St, at the façade of "The Shops of Georgetown Park," and at The Georgetown Car Barn (now an office for Georgetown University.) If driving on the insidious rails over the dilapidated cobblestone surface, aim to ride the rails—it's both a fun challenge and easier on your car.

  • Tudor Place, 1644 31st St NW, ☏ +1 202 965-0400. Tu-Sa 10AM-3PM, Su noon-3PM (tours on the hour). A stately mansion built in 1815 by the son of the first mayor of Georgetown, and the step-granddaughter of one George Washington. The manor hosts permanent exhibits of 18-19th century American furnishings, as well as a large collections of items owned by George and Martha Washington. The gardens in the back are lovely, and can be accessed separately from the mansion for $3. Adults: $10, seniors 62+ & college students: $8, students 7-17: $3.

Day 3-4: National Mall

There's a lot to see on the Mall. You can walk the whole Mall on an afternoon to admire the sights and monuments, but note that it is bigger than it looks—over two miles end-to-end (3.2 km)—an illusion that is reinforced by the sheer size of the Capitol Building, Washington Monument, and Lincoln Memorial. What looks like a short stroll can quickly turn into a long, painful march in the sun on a humid D.C. summer day.

Moreover, you will want to budget some good time to visit the museums. Even a month's visit would not be enough to really devour all the Smithsonian's collections, so pick and choose according to your interests. The art galleries are fantastic, but bad for kids, who will on the other hand love the Natural History and Air and Space Museums (as will adults).

A great way to see a lot during a limited stay is to visit museums during the day and monuments at night. The museums usually close at 5:30 PM, so head to dinner after the visit, then take a long walk to visit the monuments in the dark when the air cools, and when the monuments are their most beautiful. It's a popular activity in the summer, so you won't be alone even after midnight.

The Smithsonian is a complex of 19 large museums, the majority of which are on the east end of the Mall, all of which are free, and are open every day except Christmas.

East–west along the north side:

  • National Gallery of Art, ☏ +1 202 737-4215. M-Sa 10AM-5PM; Su 11AM-6PM. The staggering depth and breadth of the world-class collections here are a clear testament to U.S. wealth and power. The east building of this museum is devoted to modern art, while the west building showcases traditional, mostly European, paintings and sculptures. The west wing's impressionist gallery is likely the most popular, although it would be a shame to skip the east wing's fauvist and abstract expressionist galleries. Just west of the buildings is the relaxing sculpture garden, with a foot pool for cooling off tired feet. There are dining options within the Gallery. Among popular options are the Garden Café and various dining options in the area connecting the east and west wings of the museum. Also, food is available in the park on the Gallery grounds.

  • National Museum of Natural History, ☏ +1 202 633-1000. 10:30AM-5:30PM daily, 10AM-7:30PM during the summer. The real show stoppers here are the gargantuan, complete dinosaur fossils, and you won't have to search to find them! Further into the museum you'll find displays of world cultures, meteorites, mineral samples, and the evolution of life from beginnings to today. Don't leave without seeing the overawing precious rock collection, including the Hope Diamond, the enormous blue diamond of legend. A dining area is on the first level of this museum. The food is good, but somewhat pricy.

  • National Museum of American History, ☏ +1 202 633-1000. 10AM-5:30PM daily. There is a lot here in one of the city's most informative museums, covering topics ranging from war to technology, social and political history. The biggest draw, though, is the Treasure Room, with an astonishing set of iconic Americana objects, ranging from the original Star-Spangled Banner and Abraham Lincoln's top hat, to Kermit the Frog and Dorothy's ruby slippers!

East–west along the south side:

  • National Air and Space Museum, ☏ +1 202 633-1000. 10AM-5:30PM daily. The most-visited museum in the U.S., with over 8 million visitors per year, this impressive repository covers the history of human flight, rocketry and space flight. It contains thousands of impressive artifacts, including the Wright brothers' 1903 Flyer, Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, Apollo 11's command module Columbia, and the simulated bridge of an aircraft carrier. Enthusiasts should try to also make it to the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum out in Chantilly near Dulles International Airport; the Center houses full aviation and space aircraft (e.g., SR-71 Blackbird, Enola Gay B-29, Concorde, Space Shuttle Discovery, etc.) that would not fit on the Mall.

  • Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, ☏ +1 202 633-5285. 10AM-5:30PM daily; sculpture garden 7:30AM-dusk. Home to D.C.'s premier collection of international modern and contemporary art, housed in an intimidating brutalist spaceship of a building. The exhibits are wonderfully stimulating and cutting-edge, albeit often not made accessible to casual viewers (a free docent-led tour available noon-4PM can be helpful), and very often not family-friendly with very graphic content. The museum tries to make it clear when you are about to walk into an "adult exhibit," but do not count on this if you are with children. The sculpture gardens, however, are great fun for kids, and a nice quiet escape from the Mall proper. And this modern sculpture collection of several Rodins, a huge Lichtenstein brushstroke, and other famous works, is world-class!

  • Arts and Industries Building, ☏ +1 202 633-1000. This beautiful building was the first major museum on the mall, built as the National Museum in 1881 to house the Smithsonian's earliest collections. The collections have since been moved to the Natural History and American History museums, but the building still does host occasional exhibits (and serves as office space for the Smithsonian).

  • Smithsonian Castle, ☏ +1 202 633-1000. 8:30AM-5:30PM daily. This distinctive brick-red structure was the original Smithsonian museum. The building now presents an overview of the Smithsonian system as well as occasional exhibitions. Just south of the castle, the beautiful Haupt Garden features an ornate parterre as well as some quieter enclaves; it is a great place to stop to rest or eat.

  • Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, ☏ +1 202 633-1000. 10AM-5:30PM daily. Asia is a rather large place, and a tour through these Asian Art museums is a bit like a travel from Japan to Turkey. The Asian galleries, along with the connected African Art museum are a lot quieter and more peaceful than the huge museums to the east, which can be quite a relief! Like their companion museum above, the Freer and Sackler galleries host very frequent events.

West section East–west:

  • Washington Monument, ☏ +1 202 426-6841. open daily except for July 4th and December 25th- regular hours-9AM-4:45PM, summer hours (Memorial Day to Labor Day) 9AM to 9:45PM. No man looms larger over American history than the first president, and no monument looms larger over D.C. than this, both the world's tallest stone structure and its tallest obelisk. When completed in 1884 it was the world's tallest structure, and remains the tallest building by far in D.C. Viewed from either end of the Mall its size may not be evident, but enter the enormous square on which it stands, and you'll realize just how monumental it is. The view from the 555-foot top is great on a clear day, allowing you to see up and down the Mall, and out as far as the Shenandoah Valley. The observation level reopened in September 2019 and is open for viewing with a ticket. Entrance is by timed ticket, which are distributed on a first come first served basis starting at 8:30AM from a National Park Service booth on 15th St east of the monument or online, if booked months in advance. Free.

  • National World War II Memorial, toll-free: +1-800-639-4992. Many of D.C.'s monuments have a simple, sudden, and grandiose impact, and don't require much time to visit. Not so for this new memorial. WWII was the defining event of the twentieth century, in which sixteen million U.S. soldiers served, and 400,000 died—the enormity of the war is hard to grasp in one's mind, and the architect aimed to convey that enormity in this central memorial. To best appreciate it, you will have to walk around and slowly take it in. Kilroy was here—look for the hidden carving behind the Pennsylvania obelisk.

  • Reflecting Pool. The view from the Lincoln Memorial, with the 2,000 ft Reflecting Pool in the foreground and the Washington Monument just behind, and the Capitol Building in the distance, is famous and not to be missed. This was the setting for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech, which he gave from the steps of the memorial over a crowd of 200,000 that didn't fit very well—many of them stood in the pool itself!

  • Declaration of Independence Memorial. A little known memorial stands on the island in the Constitution Gardens Lake, dedicated to the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Not content to reside only on the document itself, their signatures have been reproduced here, etched in large granite blocks.

  • District of Columbia War Memorial. The Mall's only local memorial, and the only memorial to WWI, is this small secluded structure in the form of a Doric-style open-air temple serving as tribute to the 26,000 Washingtonians who served in the Great War. You'll find here the names of the 499 who died engraved at the memorial's base. Recent attempts to re-dedicate the memorial as a national WWI memorial have ironically sparked fierce Washingtonian pride in the monument—the only local monument on the Mall, with locals seeing this as just one more indignity aimed at the city by a Congress for which it cannot vote.

  • Vietnam Veterans Memorial, ☏ +1 202-426-6841. 24 hrs daily. Rangers on duty for questions and interpretive programs: 9:30AM-10PM. Often described as the most moving memorial in the city, the Vietnam Memorial stands as tribute to those who died or went missing, intended to transcend political controversy in remembrance of the soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Its centerpiece is a simple black granite wall engraved with the 58,256 names of each.

  • Korean War Veterans Memorial. This memorial is a little hidden in the woods, and perhaps that's appropriate for the memorial to the one major war of the twentieth century (in which over 600,000 allied troops died) that did not leave such a huge impression in the American mind—the Forgotten War. It's easily one of the city's most powerful, though. The focus of the monument is the nineteen very realistic steel statues of American soldiers moving across the landscape (nineteen, because they total 38—referring to the 38th parallel—when reflected in the water). The lighting at night leaves an especially disconcerting, ghostly impression. The best time to visit might be after a winter snow storm, which will help you remember the worst hardship of the war—the snowy marches through the cruel Siberian winds.

  • Lincoln Memorial. Most of the D.C. memorials, especially those for U.S. leaders, are meant to awe and impress in a very direct manner. None more so than this impressive monument in a commanding location at the end of the Mall. Modeled after the Greek Temple of Zeus, Lincoln sits with a commanding presence overlooking the reflecting pool, straight across the Mall to the Washington Monument and beyond it the Capitol Building. Few monuments in the world can match the simple power of the Lincoln Memorial at night.

Day 5: Capitol Hill

The main attractions on Capitol Hill are all concentrated in the U.S. Capitol Complex, grounds managed by the Architect of the Capitol, covering roughly the three blocks east of the National Mall. These include the Capitol Building and its grounds, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court, Library of Congress, and congressional office buildings.

Capitol Complex

  • Capitol Building, ☏ +1 202 226-8000. M-Sa 8:30AM-4:30PM. The center of the legislative branch of America is home to the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as numerous impressive paintings, statues, historical exhibits, and one magnificent dome. The visitor center features an exhibition of the history of the Capitol and of Congress. Tours of the Capitol building are free and can be arranged online or by same-day walk-in and start from the visitor center. You may not bring food or drinks inside. Only the smallest and thinnest bags will be allowed. If lines for security are long, an alternative is to use the tunnel from the Library of Congress. When you are looking at this beautiful structure, remember that it was built during the era when slavery was legal in D.C., and enslaved laborers were used in the original construction that was completed in 1800 and the expansion that took place in the 1850s. Free.

  • Library of Congress, 10 1st St SE, ☏ +1 202 707-8000. M-Sa 8:30AM-4:30PM. Founded by the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson, this grand building, also called the Jefferson Library, has the largest collection of books in the world. The most popular points of interest are the massive main reading room and Great Hall. On the Winter and Summer solstices, the Great Hall is filled with an odd silver glow that gives the impression you are surrounded by floating clouds, and this makes those days the most crowded. The main reading room is known as the Sacred Room, and is absolutely stunning. You must be 16 or older to use the reading rooms and have a reader identification card, which can be obtained by presenting a driver's license/passport and completing a self registration form. Guided tours will not bring you into the reading room, but will take you up in the dome, where you can see the room in its full glory. There are also a number of rotating exhibitions from the Library's vast collection on display at any one time, as is a Gutenberg Bible. Free.

  • Supreme Court, First St & Maryland Ave NE, ☏ +1 202 479-3211. M-F 9AM-4:30PM. The home of the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, charged with interpreting the Constitution and protecting equality and justice for all. The Neoclassical building, just opposite the Capitol, was constructed in 1935; until then, the Court met in various locations in the Capitol. The imposing facade, with its lofty portico, Corinthian columns, and wide marble staircase, is familiar from TV news as the place where spectators, protesters, and journalists gather to witness the defining rulings of our generation. The court is in session from October to April, with oral arguments heard M-W. If you want to see an argument, you have two options. line up in front of the building to hear the entirety of the day's arguments, but there is another line, often shorter, for those who only wish to hear a three-minute sampling of the case. The rest of the year, public lectures are held every hour in the courtroom. The spiral staircases on the sides of the court room are beautiful and impressive parts of the building not to be missed. Other things to see, besides the courtroom itself, are the Great Hall, with its long line of busts depicting former Chief Justices, and the Lower Great Hall below it, where you can watch a short film about the Court and see a stone and aluminum sculpture of the legendary Warren Court, as well as a statue of John Marshall, the Chief Justice who established the Supreme Court as we know it. Free.

  • United States Botanic Garden (U.S. Botanic Garden), 100 Maryland Ave SW, ☏ +1 202 225-8333. 10AM-5PM daily. The national conservatory is one of the least visited attractions around the Mall, and that is one of the best reasons to visit. The botanical collection is extensive, the climate is often a welcome respite, and the catwalk through the leaf canopy in the jungle room is a favorite. Bartholdi Park, south of the conservatory, is small but majestic, centered around the Bartholdi Fountain. Free.

Capitol Grounds monuments

  • Statue of Freedom. A classical female figure stands prominently atop the Capitol Building's dome. Her right hand rests upon the hilt of a sheathed sword; her left holds a laurel wreath of victory and the shield of the United States with 13 stripes. Her helmet is encircled by stars and features a crest composed of an eagle's head, feathers, and talons, a reference to the costume of Native Americans. She would, no doubt, be an iconic emblem of America, were it not so hard to make her out without binoculars.

  • Peace Monument. A monument in memorial of U.S. naval deaths at sea during the Civil War stands at the northeastern end of the Capitol Reflecting Pool, bearing an assembly of four statues. Grief weeps over History at the top. Facing outwards is Victory, holding a laurel of victory, and flanked by young Mars and Neptune. Facing the Capitol is the statue of Peace, holding an olive branch, and surrounded by symbols of prosperity.

  • James Garfield Monument. In tribute to the tragically slain president, the statue's base is surrounded by three statues of a student, a warrior, and a statesman, representing his distinguished academic, military, and political careers, which preceded his short tenure as the nation's leader. President Garfield is best known for holding the nation's second shortest presidency of little more than six months, ended by his assassination in 1881.

  • Robert Taft Memorial and Carillon. Grandson of the 27th president William Howard Taft, Senator Robert Taft's had a distinguished career of his own in the United States Senate. At the memorial his figure stands in front of an enormous carillon tower with 27 bells. The bells ring every quarter-hour, although the best time to visit is undoubtedly the Fourth of July, when the bells ring to the tune of the "Star Spangled Banner" at 2PM.

  • Ulysses S Grant Memorial. Grant's monument occupies the single most prominent location on the Capitol Grounds, directly over the reflecting pool. His statue emphasizes his cool, calm demeanor in the midst of battle—he is flanked on both sides by artillery and cavalry units clearly in the heat of battle. Grant's tenure as president was marked by corruption and alcoholism. He is better remembered as the Union General-in-Chief during the Civil War, and indeed the monument is solely dedicated to that image.

  • National Japanese American Memorial To Patriotism During World War II.

  • American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, 150 Washington Ave, SW.

Other attractions

  • Union Station, 50 Massachusetts Ave NE, ☏ +1 202 289-1908. Not just a train station or metro stop, the grandiose 1908 Beaux Arts building by legendary American architect Daniel Burnham makes it worth a look—the ceremonial entrance is stunning. Open long after the museums close, it contains shops and restaurants. A large monument to Christopher Columbus stands outside the building.

  • National Guard Memorial Museum, 1 Massachusetts Ave, ☏ +1 202 789-0031. M-F 9AM-4PM. Free.

  • Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument, 144 Constitution Ave NE, ☏ +1 202 543-2240. Free.

  • Holodomor Genocide Memorial, 1 Massachusetts Ave NW.

Day 6: Shaw

Shaw is a neighborhood in north-central Washington D.C. just east of Dupont Circle and south of Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights. Although it has a diverse population, Shaw is distinctive from the adjacent areas due to its African-American heritage. It is popular due to its jazz clubs, bars, high-end bars and lounges, and for the marvelous food, including many Ethopian eateries. As a note, Logan Circle and the U Street Corridor are included for the purposes of this guide.

  • African-American Civil War Memorial, 925 Vermont Ave NW, ☏ +1 202 426-6841. The nation's only monument to African American Civil War soldiers. More than 209,000 names of the United States Colored Troops who fought in the Union Army are inscribed on 157 burnished stainless steel plaques. Arranged according to regiment, the names include those of the 7,000 white officers who served with the African American troops. At the center of the plaza encircled by the inscribed names is a sculpture, The Spirit of Freedom, by artist Ed Hamilton.

  • House of the Temple, 1733 16th St NW (between R St & S St), ☏ +1 202 232-3579. M-Th 10AM, 11AM, 1:30PM, 2:30PM, 3:30PM. A Masonic temple, the headquarters of the Scottish Rite, and a prominently featured location in Dan Brown's 2009 novel, The Lost Symbol. It's almost absurdly grand, pretty easily outshining the similar Supreme Court Building in Capitol Hill, and there's nary a Washingtonian around who hasn't at some point walked by it, surprised by this enormous but unidentified building. The interior is a wild Orientalist fantasy in way that only the Masons could bring to life, and is open to the public for guided tours. Free.

  • Thurgood Marshall Center, 1816 12th St NW, ☏ +1 202 462-8314, M-F 8:30AM-8PM, Sa 10AM-3PM. A Shaw landmark, built as the local YMCA in 1912, and designed by one of the nation's first black architects, W. Sidney Pittman. The name comes from the fact that Supreme Court Thurgood Marshall was a frequent visitor to the Y, and that he wrote portions of his opinion for the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision here. On the first floor, the Shaw Heritage Trust maintains an exhibit portraying the living history of African Americans in the Shaw Community. Free.

  • Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site, 1318 Vermont Avenue NW, ☏ +1 202 426-5961.

  • Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site, ☏ +1 202 426-5961. Th Sa Su 9AM-5PM. Free, but tour reservations are $1.50/ticket.

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