Washington, D.C., is one of the most important capital cities in the world. It may not be as large as other capital cities, but it still packs a wallop when it comes to seeing and doing things. It is a great place to learn about the history of America, from viewing precious documents to seeing Congress in action. Dozens of museums abound in the central area. An efficient subway system makes it easy to get around the city and see most of the top tourist attractions in Washington D.C.
Best Organized Tours
- Washington DC Monuments by Moonlight Tour by Trolley · 1554 reviews
- Washington DC Hop-On Hop-Off, Arlington National Cemetery Tour · 1354 reviews
- VIP DC: Capitol, National Archives Priority Entry; Sights Tour · 740 reviews
- Washington DC 'Monuments and Memorials' Guided Night Tour · 725 reviews
The U.S. government likes to separate church and state, so it doesn’t have a formal national cathedral, but if it had one, it would have to be the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, which is considered the spiritual home of this nation. More commonly known as Washington National Cathedral, this Neo-Gothic structure is the sixth largest cathedral in the world. Funerals for Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan and Ford were held here. Worship services are free, but admission is charged to tour the rest of the cathedral.
The Library of Congress is today the largest library in the world. But it had more humble beginnings, being founded in 1800 to house early documents of the United States that were transferred from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. For the first 100 years, it was mainly a reference library for Congress, but today is home to 158 million items that include 36 million books in 460 languages and 69 million manuscripts. It has the largest collection of rare books in North America. The library is open to the public, but potential users are asked to check the library’s list of holdings on online before they come to make research materials more easily findable when they arrive. The main reading room is known as the Sacred Room, and is absolutely stunning.
Georgetown is an historic district that was established in Maryland decades before the U.S. government was established in Washington, D.C. It became part of the nation’s capital when Congress created the District of Columbia in 1871. Today Georgetown is a trendy place to live, work and play. It is home to a top university, several embassies and the Old Stone House, the oldest unchanged building in D.C. Located in northwest Washington, D.C., the area has served as home to such notables as Thomas Jefferson, when he was vice president of the United States; Francis Scott Key, who wrote the Star Spangled Banner following a War of 1812 battle; and John F. Kennedy, who left his home there to move into the White House.
Visitors don’t have to be kids to be fascinated by the National Air and Space Museum. Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Air and Space Museum offers plenty of hands-on activities for kids of all ages, from eight to 80. The museum is a treasure trove about America’s air and space programs. Exhibits include everything from the 1903 Wright Flyer to the Apollo 11 moon-landing expedition to exhibits on how scientists are exploring space today. The best part? Admission to the basic museum is free, though fees charged may be charged for features such as IMAX.
The Jefferson Memorial is a tribute to the US’ third president, Thomas Jefferson, and incorporates many of his thoughts on architecture. Its formal style resembles the Pantheon in Rome. This design created a controversy because some felt it looked too much like the Lincoln Memorial. The debate was settled by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who laid the cornerstone in 1939. Located on the National Mall, it features a statue of Jefferson looking toward the White House, and is intended to memorialize Jefferson’s views as a statesman and philosopher. Because Japanese cherry trees had to be torn down for the memorial, it now hosts Washington’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival.
The Lincoln Memorial is a stunning tribute to the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated as he attended a theatre performance. A mammoth statue of the seated president is surrounded by a Greek Doric style temple. The memorial was dedicated in 1922, with Lincoln’s last surviving son, Robert Todd, in attendance. Located at the west end of the National Mall, the memorial is where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech in 1963. It also has been featured in several movies ranging from 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Nixon to an episode of the Simpsons. The memorial is open 24 hours a day, with National Park rangers on hand from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.
The Washington Monument is probably one of the best-known obelisks on earth. Built during the 19th century, it is a monument to the military achievements of George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Standing more than 550 feet (170 meters) high, it is the most prominent structure in Washington, D.C. It’s viewable 24 hours a day, though it’s not possible to get to the top for stunning views of the capital. The monument has been closed since it was damaged in an earthquake in 2011. A reopening date has not been scheduled yet.
The United States Capitol is where Congress meets. Sessions of the Senate and House of Representatives are open to the public when the bodies are in session. Visitors need free passes, which can be obtained from their congressmen’s office. At the same time, they can also get passes to tour the Capitol building, as guided tours do not include visiting legislators in action. The Capitol was one of the first buildings constructed by the fledgling U.S. government following the Revolutionary War. Construction began in 1793, with legislators meeting there for the first time in 1800. Central to the Capitol building is the rotunda, which lies under the dome. This is where honored citizens, such as presidents, lie in state.
The White House serves many purposes. It is where the President works and lives with his family. It is also the symbol of the United States to the rest of the world. It is where the President officially meets with leaders of foreign nations and hosts them at state dinners. The site for the White House was selected by George Washington, first president of this new nation, but President John Adams was the first to live in it. It was burned by the British during the War of 1812, but later reconstructed. Self-guided tours are available for visitors who plan ahead. They must request a tour through their congressman’s office 21 days to six months in advance.
Visitors to Washington, D.C., won’t want to miss a stroll on the National Mall, a greenway that will take them past many of the capital’s important sites. Located downtown, the National Mall stretches on the west from the US Capitol building to the Potomac River and on the east from the Jefferson Memorial to Constitution Avenue. Across the streets from the mall, but still considered part of it, are a variety of Smithsonian museums and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. To the east, nearby attractions include memorials to Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and James Garfield, and the Reflecting Pool. With about 24 million visitors a year, it is the top tourist attraction in Washington.