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There are so many iconic sites in D.C. that it's impossible to visit all of the superstars, let alone explore the lesser-known gems, in one visit. The good news is that most of the hot spots are free—a distinction that D.C. holds over most cities in the world. With monuments, museums, government buildings and mansions, the best things to do in D.C. are often based on government and often centrally located. Washington D.C. is the second most visited in the United States, due in large part to the impressive amount of things to do situated in such close quarters. From Capitol Hill to Georgetown to Downtown the city is full activity, culture and history. Be sure to see The White House, Library of Congress and National Mall, a few of the best things to do in Washington D.C. There is so much to do and see, but here are the quintessential D.C. attractions that you absolutely shouldn't miss.
Neighborhood: Mount Vernon
It's a bit of a trek outside of D.C. (16 miles south of the city in
nearby Alexandria), but George Washington's 500-acre estate is worth the
detour. The property is a fascinating ode to our nation's father and
reveals as much about the man as it does the way of life in his era, for
instance, George was so generous with his property that he also allowed
passing travelers to use it as a hotel free of charge, a practice that
wasn’t unusual in his day. Explore the mansion, farm, garden, a
16-sided barn for processing wheat (George's invention) and final
resting place of Washington and his wife. From the home's vantage point
you'll also experience breathtaking views of the Potomac—too bad that
they don't allow food because the gardens would be the perfect setting
for a picnic. It's not the end of the world though, because Old Town
Alexandria, a ten-minute drive from Mount Vernon, is full of charming,
riverside restaurants. Mount Vernon is one of the top things to do in
Washington D.C. if you're looking for a quick break from the hustle and
bustle of the city and want a true glimpse into the beginnings of our
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Neighborhood: Capitol Hill
The Library of Congress is the mother of all libraries (literally). It contains an almost unfathomable 145 million items in 470 languages and it adds approximately seven items per second to its shelves (that's 11,000 per day). It's not strictly a print-on-paper affair either, the shelves are stocked with books, recordings, photographs, maps, manuscripts and, most recently, Twitter logs. The building is a testament to American ingenuity and, back when it was completed in 1897 was meant to prove to the world that the U.S. was capable of the same grandeur that was de rigueur in Europe. The Beaux-Arts structure is breathtaking, inside and out. The Library of Congress is one of the best things to do in Washington D.C. to appreciate the history and importance of this city to our country. Take the free tour to get a grasp on all of the symbolism built into the decorative murals and sculptures. The Main Reading Room and the Great Hall are the two areas worth seeing and both are located in the library’s Jefferson building. Free tour Mon-Sat 10:30, 11:30, 1:30, 2:30, 3:30 (no 3:30 tour on Sat).
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Holocaust Memorial Museum
Neighborhood: National Mall
The Holocaust Memorial Museum is one of the most shocking, touching and thorough recollections of the Nazis. The haunting exhibits detail the Nazi rise to power and the brutal murder of six million Jews. Board a freight train like the ones victims would have ridden in on their way to concentration camps, hear survivors recount life in the camps on tape, and see the cramped barracks where the victims slept. Offering at least a ray of hope amidst all of the gloom are the exhibits that demonstrate how a brave few assisted the persecuted during the Nazi era. The museum is free, but you'll need to show up early to get tickets to get in (we recommend getting there right at 10am when the museum opens, though they usually don’t run out of tickets until around 3:30pm).
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Joseph Hirshhorn was a Latvian immigrant, a stockbroker, and a uranium magnate. He also had excellent taste in art. The museum named in his honor began with 4,000 paintings and 2,600 sculptures, all of which he donated to the Smithsonian in 1966, forming the world's largest personal collection of modern art. What started as a collection of late 19th century and 20th century works when the museum opened in 1974 has since expanded to include the 21st century in a collection of over 12,000 pieces. The sculpture garden is a must see, with works by greats like Rodin, Matisse, Carpeaux and Koons placed thoughtfully amidst the manicured grass and reflecting pools. The third level has contemporary classics by artists like de Kooning, Man Ray and Warhol, while the second level is reserved for rotating exhibitions (check the website for schedules), and the first floor is reserved for the newest acquisitions. The other things we love about the Hirschorn are the free guided tours (daily on the hour from 12-4PM) and the art films held in the evenings in the Ring Auditorium. It's just too bad that the building looks like a giant concrete doorknob!
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International Spy Museum
Neighborhood: Chinatown/Gallery Place
Channel your inner James Bond and head to the first-ever espionage museum to see how information has been obtained spy-style throughout history. You'll have to pay a hefty entrance fee ($18 for adults, $15 for children) for the privilege, but it's worth it to explore the largest collection of international spy artifacts on public display. Way up there on the cool scale are the camera-harnesses used to put on pigeons during WWI to take pictures of enemy positions, and the cigar pistol—a single shot .22 caliber that doubles as a stogie.
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The most famous building in the U.S. and the epicenter of D.C. is also one of the most difficult to get inside. Tours can be arranged, but only for groups of ten or more through a US citizen's member of Congress or a foreign visitor's embassy. Only a select number of rooms are open to the public, including the Blue Room, the Green Room, and the Gold-and-White East Room, and the whole experience lasts less than an hour, which is a let down considering how long it takes to set up the whole affair (quite frankly, unless you’ve been dreaming of touring the white house since Grammar school it’s not worth the effort). In our opinion, the biggest rush comes from viewing the legendary building from the outside. Visiting the White House is always one of the top things to do in Washington D.C. and we definitely recommend seeing it at least once in your lifetime. The design for the First House was selected by competition (Thomas Jefferson entered anonymously…and lost, although he did add to the building after moving in). James Hoban, an Irishman won, which explains why the property is modeled on an Irish country house. Luckily, he was still around to redesign the structure after the British tried to burn it to the ground during the War of 1812.
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Neighborhood: Foggy Bottom
The FDR Memorial is well worth a visit for its interesting sculptures (including one of the president in a wheelchair) even though it's a bit farther out on the shores of the Tidal Basin. There's also the semi-circular, neoclassical Thomas Jefferson Memorial between the Tidal Basin and the Potomac River and the black, angular Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Unless you have a penchant for waiting in long lines early in the morning (you have to be at the memorial at 7AM to pick up free tickets to go inside), you can pretty much skip the Washington Monument—it's best enjoyed by postcard. Plan on at least a day of exploration and pack a picnic—the grassy fields and paths of this famous park just beg for a relaxing afternoon spread in between monument hopping.
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Neighborhood: National Mall
The National Museum of the American Indian, unveiled in 2004, is the newest addition to the Smithsonian Institute and one the largest museums dedicated to Native American history in the U.S. Over 800,000 artifacts (including 300,000 images) tell a story of indigenous lifestyles from pre-U.S. right through to today. The most compelling exhibit is Our Peoples in which tribal communities share their histories in their own words. We wouldn't normally recommend a museum café, but the Mitsitam is worth a visit too (try the buffalo chili).
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The National Gallery's 100,000 works are divided between two buildings—the refined, neoclassical West Building which houses classical French, Italian, German, Flemish, Dutch and American works from the 13th to 19th centuries, and the starkly modern, H-shaped I.M Pei-designed East Building, which holds 20th century masterpieces, including the deservedly popular Picasso, Vermeer, Rembrandt and Matisse collections. Come on weekday mornings—the museum is too crowded in the afternoons and on weekends to be comfortable. The free tours are a great way to put all of these masterworks into perspective—timing varies, so stop by the gallery info desk on the main floor at the Mall Entrance for tour schedules on your way in to the museum. Contrary to popular belief, this museum is not part of the Smithsonian institution.
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Neighborhood: National Mall
This is the most popular museum in D.C., with ten million visitors per year (be warned, the throng can sometimes taint the experience, even on the weekdays which tend to be quieter than evenings and weekends). The National Air and Space Museum is one of the top things to do in D.C. if you're traveling with kids. The biggest crowd pleaser is the Apollo to the Moon gallery, which celebrates the first and last missions. You can also see Neil Armstrong's space suit, a Lunar Roving Vehicle, and an astronaut survival kit. Other highlights include famous flying machines throughout history, WWII aviation vehicles and flight stimulators. Whatever you do, don't waste your money on the underwhelming IMAX movie.
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Neighborhood: Dupont Circle
Art-lovers Duncan Phillips and his wife Marjorie were so enmeshed in the art scene, having acted as patrons to artists like Georgia O'Keefe and Marsden Hartley, that they decided to turn their home—a striking 1897 Georgian Revival mansion—into a museum in 1921 (they later moved so that they could use the entire building for their collection). In so doing they beat New York's MoMa by eight years and became America's first museum of modern art. The stunning compilation of European and American artworks from the 19th to 21st centuries reads like's a who's who of French impressionists with works by Picasso, Monet, Degas, Matisse, Cézanne, and, most impressively, Renoir (the crown jewel of the collection is his famous painting Luncheon of the Boating Party). That's not to downplay the influence of American artists—Duncan's modus operandi in his lifetime was to put U.S. artists on par with their European counterparts and he was friends with Richard Diebenkorn, Mark Rothko, and Arthur Dove. If you like a little wine and live music with your modern art, come on the first Thursday of every month from 5-8:30PM for the “Phillips after 5” event—they're fun, educational, and, if you're single, a great way to meet people.
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What began as a hodge-podge collection that didn't quite fit into any of the Smithsonian art museums is now three million items strong and represents 400 years of American (and pre-American) life. After a two-year, $85 million renovation the museum reopened in 2008 and is a great deal more focused than it once was. Most people come to see highlights like the Star-Spangled Banner that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the National Anthem, and Dorothy's ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz, but our favorite part is the room that holds every dress worn at inauguration by First Ladies (Michelle Obama's splashy crystal-bedecked creation is by far the most stunning) and Julia Child's kitchen. It's also a great place for kids, with hands-on exhibits like the Spark! Lab where young scientists can conduct experiments and explore inventors' notebooks.
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As the name suggests, the Newseum is a seven-story showcase of everything you've ever wanted to know about the news. It's one of the coolest museums in the city and manages to hit the mark with both kids and adults (it also happens to be a favorite of the Obama girls). A series of well-organized exhibits tell the story of the journey news takes from the reporter who records it to the TV anchor who breaks it. The scope is impressive—you can see everything from an antique microphone to every photograph that's ever won a Pulitzer Prize. The interactive newsroom is cheesy, but kids love playing reporter on camera. The 90-foot atrium where breaking news from around the world is broadcast is cool, but we find the Berlin Wall Gallery, with its portions of the original wall and stories of how news helped topple it, fascinating.
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Neighborhood: National Mall
The National Mall is part of the trifecta of iconic D.C. landmarks, right up there with the Capitol and the White House. Most of the city's famous monuments are here and, conveniently, they're grouped together at the western end of the mall. If you're pressed for time, the two that you shouldn't miss are the Lincoln Memorial with the towering marble sculpture of Lincoln and the steps where Martin Luther King stood to deliver his "I have a dream speech", and the National World War II Memorial which pays tribute to the 16 million soldiers who served in the war with a compelling combination of granite pillars, bas-relief sculptures, and central fountain (it's also our favorite memorial for kids who love exploring the structure). Speaking of kids, the historic carousel outside the Arts and Industry Building (900 Jefferson Drive SW) is another must for the under-ten set (bathroom alert—there's clean restrooms in the red Smithsonian building right across the street).
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Neighborhood: Capitol Hill
D.C. has one of the oldest continuously operating botanical gardens in North America, and we have Lieutenant Charles Wilkes to thank for that. Lt. Wilkes may have been sent out to chart sailing courses for whaling merchants, but we're thankful that he spent his spare time gathering plants. When he returned in 1842, his collection of rare plants from Fiji, New Zealand and South America jumpstarted the garden. The 40,000-square-foot attraction, with its glass greenhouse and charming stone orangeries, is a refreshing respite from the museums. There are 13 viewing areas which span borders and history (see everything from jungle to desert to primordial forest), but we're especially fond of the orchid collection. The centerpiece of the garden park is the Bartholdi fountain—one of the first monuments to have been illuminated at night (it was lit by gas lamps in 1877). If you're on a budget, this is a great place to hunker down for a picnic.
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Neighborhood: Capitol Hill
Up until 2008, we would have told you to skip the U.S. Capitol altogether (not worth the hours of waiting in line sans restrooms or restaurants), but the introduction of the Capitol Visitors Center changed everything. Now, you can see where the Senate and the House of Representatives have been meeting for almost two centuries in a way that’s both accessible and exciting. All visits include a guided tour through the lobby rotunda, the Emancipation Hall (so named in honor of the slaves who built the Capitol), the National Statuary Hall, and the Chamber of Congress. The tours give context into the fascinating history surrounding the Capitol (did you know, for example, that the Congress met in eight different cities before settling down here?). You'll need to schedule your tour in advance (we recommend reserving at least one month ahead) either through the office of your Representative or Senator or online, but the reward is well worth the effort.
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In a city of fantastic art galleries, the Corcoran stands out not only as an art museum (and the city's first at that—it opened in 1869), but as a center of learning and social life. As a gallery, it's the place to see American art. The second floor is where you'll find most of the goods, including works by late 19th-century art celebrities John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt and, our favorite, Edward Hopper. The highlight of the portraiture room is Hiram Powers’ The Greek Slave, not only because it's a beautifully rendered nude, but because it was so controversial when it was unveiled in 1846 that women and men weren't allowed to view it at the same time. The school is the only art college in D.C. and is where promising talent come to study everything from ceramics to photojournalism. Maybe it's the beautiful Beaux-Arts building or maybe it's the serene setting across from the White House, either way, the property is also the setting for numerous parties, including the annual Corcoran Ball in April.
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You really don't need to spend a lot of time at the National Archives unless you have a thing for government records (the Archive has all federal records since the 1700s)—in fact, an hour is more than enough time. The biggest reason to visit is for those most famous of documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights (collectively known as the Charters of Freedom). While you're here you might as well take a look at the sketches of the Great Seal of the United States—appreciate them—it took the Continental Congress a whopping six years and three committees to agree on the design (and you thought things were simpler in the good old days).
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Jessie Cohen, Smithsonian's National Zoological Park
Neighborhood: Adams Morgan
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The National Zoo, a 163-acre park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (the man who charted Central Park), is immense but feels intimate and easy to navigate thanks to the wide paths and well-organized exhibits. Best of all, it's totally free. The pandas are always a big draw but we’re especially fond of the Great Ape House and its youngest addition, Kibibi the gorilla. A great place for a game of "double-triple-dare-you" is the touch tank where you can handle sea stars, horseshoe crabs, and even giant tarantulas. The National Zoo tops the list of the best things to do in Washington D.C. with kids, the nearly overwhelming amount of exhibits will keep you occupied for hours. There's no way you'll see all of the 400 species here, but give yourself at least half a day to catch the main attractions: leopards, sloth bears, giraffes, and lions. Come before 1PM—any later and the crowds are overwhelming and the animals are likely to be napping (they’re the most active before 10AM).
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