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What to See and Do in Washington, D.C.

By Edited Feb 20, 2015 1 2

Washington, D.C. is one of the top travel destinations in the United States. Every year millions of visitors come from all over the world to visit the U.S. Capital. The District is exciting for people who seek to see famous places and landmarks, learn more about U.S. history and see how the government works. 

One of the unique features of D.C. is many of the tourist attractions are free. This is not to say other amenities, such as accommodations and food, aren't pricey, but the majority of the attractions themselves are free for the public to explore.

Here are some of the best features visitors should consider when planning a vacation or long weekend to the U.S. Capital:

National Mall

A trip to Washington isn't really complete without catching a glimpse of, or better yet seeing up close and personal, the monuments and memorials stationed in the National Mall and along the Tidal Basin.

The monuments and memorials are run by the National Park Service and charge no admission. Visitors can see the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, FDR Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, National World War II Memorial, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and more, all located on the National Mall. Nearby there is also the District of Columbia War Memorial, a lesser known memorial which is dedicated to citizens that served in WWI.

Lincoln Memorial
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

The Lincoln Memorial, there is also a museum housed beneath this monument

Visitors who want to see the memorials on the National Mall should keep in mind if they want to go up inside the Washington Monument, tickets are required, but these are free. You might want to get these earlier in the day as, in the past, they have "sold out" quickly.

Washington Monument
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

A view of the Washington Monument from across the Tidal Basin

Museums

One of the biggest tourist attractions in D.C. are the magnificent museums. Washington D.C. is home to the Smithsonian Museums, which have no charge for admission (although you can donate in one of the boxes). The Smithsonian museums provide visitors with amazing exhibits and a wealth of information regarding history, culture, technology and most other facets of society.

There are literally several museums in the vicinity of the National Mall including the Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History, the Museum of Natural History, Freer & Sackler Gallery, National Museum of the American Indian, National Museum of African Art and the National Portrait Gallery, to name a few. In addition, there's also the National Zoo. You can learn more about the many museums and research centers of the Smithsonian system on its website2. There are a handful of exhibits in some museums that do charge a fee, but signs will be posted.

Butterfly Landing (Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History)
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

A butterfly lands at the Butterfly Pavilion located in the National Museum of Natural History

Entertainment

There are plenty of entertainment venues in Washington, D.C. For visitors who are yearning to see a classical concert, ball game, rock concert or a live performance of a play there's the Verizon Center, Nationals' Stadium, FedExField (Redskins' Stadium), Kennedy Center for the Arts and Ford's Theatre; the latter also is a museum and offers tours. The Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center has free performances daily.

Capitol Building and White House Tours

Another highlight visitors can opt to do is tour the U.S. Capitol Building and White House. These two tours are open to the public, but it's not just a walk in. These are scheduled only, and specific procedures must be followed in order to be permitted on a tour. You can visit the Capitol Building by either getting passes from your Congressperson or you can book a limited number of tickets online, free of charge. For the White House, you'll have to reserve tickets through your Congress rep or, if not a citizen, your embassy1. You can request tickets up to six months in advance with a minimum of three weeks prior to your visit. I've yet to do a White House tour, but the Capitol Building (and adjacent Library of Congress which is easily accessible when you finish your Capitol visit) is a terrific tour. Also, you can see the U.S. Supreme Court while in the vicinity.

Capitol Building interior/2012
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Taken inside the Capitol dome in 2012

Northern Virginia

Visitors who are traveling from afar who may not get the chance to see the Washington D.C. Metro area again may want to consider venturing out a bit and exploring nearby Northern Virginia. Just across the Potomac are important and noteworthy places such as Arlington Cemetery (and Arlington House which is on the cemetery grounds), Mount Vernon, Woodlawn Plantation and Gunston Hall, to name a few.

The Old Town section of Alexandria, also located in close proximity to the District, is deeply rooted in early American history and there are many small museums to see in this part of Alexandria. History and architectural buffs will enjoy what Old Town has to offer. There are many amazing things to see and do in Old Town, not to mention the charm of the city offers and a certain ambiance. For lunch or dinner, there are many charming  restaurants, and if you love to shop, plenty of choices here too.  I love history, and Old Town is one of my favorite places to explore in the area, I try to head over there several times a year.

[Related reading: Historical Places to Visit in Old Town Alexandria]

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary is one of a number of terrific museums in Old Town.

You can find Alexandria's Visitor's Center at the Ramsey House on King Street where you can obtain brochures, maps and other useful information

Get Directions
221 King Street, Alexandria, VA 22314, USA

Another great feature for visitors to the District is the ability to travel by Metro. The Metro system goes to most of the aforementioned attractions and is relatively cheap in comparison to renting a car or using taxis. Visitors who choose to go Metro won't have to waste time with parking, which can be expensive and/or hard to get in the high traffic and heavily-populated downtown areas.

Visitors to Washington, D.C. can choose to self-guide and tour the great attractions on their own, or can book an organized tour of the city. There are pros and cons to both, but it is important to note that organized tours are a bit on the pricey side, so if you're traveling on a budget, self-guided tours may be the better way to go. In my opinion, the best way to see the city is on foot, but you can do this through either a professional tour or exploring on your own.

You may also be interested in: Springtime Means Its Cherry Blossom Season in Washington

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National Mall, Washington, DC, USA
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Comments

Nov 2, 2014 5:42pm
conevrob
I would love to have a few days to visit Washington DC. I have heard so many good things about all there is to see, but have never had the opportunity to explore. We´ve driven through there several times, but have never gotten out of the car. Maybe one of these days!
Nov 3, 2014 3:27pm
LeighGoessl
Thanks so much Connie for reading and commenting.
With traffic here, I don't blame you for not getting out! (lol). In all seriousness though, it's a great city. If you do find the time, I recommend it. After all these years since I moved here, I'm still having fun exploring the city (and its suburbs).
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Bibliography

  1. "Tours & Events." WhiteHouse.gov. 15/09/2014 <Web >
  2. "Museums." Smithsonian. 15/09/2014 <Web >

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