Holding the visitor’s guide leaflet in my hands it says “Welcome, a powerful place”. I was inspired the moment I stepped out of the Union Station, overlooking the crossroad of politics and culture, and history and style. Washington D.C., the capital of the United States, was fashioned after Paris and stand by the bank of Potomac River, in a location chosen by George Washington. It is a place where the United States flags are flying everywhere, manifesting the value of freedom of the country. Most famous landmarks of the city are clustered around the National Mall (or simply, “the Mall”) and Memorial Parks, stretching over 4 kilometers long. In my opinion, it takes at least 3 days for a first-timer to have an overview of what the cities have to offer (Not to mention the time required to complete visiting all the Smithsonian museums), and at least a week to soak in the power the city imposes. The volume of information might be a little bit overwhelming but here is a list of the must-sees in the city and that’s what I did. I hope it would give you some ideas for your visits, too!
Washington DC has three airports and it is also serviced by Amtrak and regional rail service. It is interesting to know that the city is in a grid pattern and the streets are named alphabetically from south to north, and numerically east to west. Let say C Street NW is in the north of Pennsylvania Avenue NW, the next street in the north would be D Street NW, E Street NW, and so on. The city is pedestrian-friendly and the city metro is easy to use as well.
Actually, there are some free walking tours that would take you through the National Mall, covering attractions including Washington Monument, White House, WWII Memorial, Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, and much more… Google “DC Free Walking Tours” and I am sure you will find a lot of information. 🙂 I visited DC on a very hot summer day and like anywhere on the east coast when it’s hot, it’s really hot. Instead of walking from one place to the other under immense heat, tourists may consider taking the Hop-on-hop-off double-decker bus that takes passengers to all the major attractions in the city. However, check out the bus schedule because sometimes it might take about 30 minutes to wait for a bus!
The White House
The White House would be the most well-known and symbolic site in the city. It has been the scene of many events in the history of the United States. Here the President holds meetings and decides national and international policy, signs new legislation, and carries out the many duties of the office. Here, too, the President and First Family entertain guests and live their private lives, as every President, except George Washington, has done.
The site was officially called “White House” since 1901, named by the late President Teddy Roosevelt. Before that, it was known as “Executive Mansion”, “President’s House”, or “President’s Palace”. It’s the only private residence ahead of a state that the public can visit for free. Therefore, the building receives approximately 6,000 visitors in a day; For touring the White House, you may have to book your tour sometimes at least 6 months in advance. The Libray, the Vermeil Room, the China Room, the Diplomatic Reception Room, East Room, Blue Room, Green Room, and Red Room are just so distinctive that you would recognize immediately once you got in there.
(You may need to contact a congress representative for that!) However, viewing the president’s residence in the Ellipse is open. There is always a big crowd trying to take a photo of the White House here through the fences.
United States Capitol
The U.S. Capitol is located at the end of the National Mall and dominates the skyline of the city. It is a large building and the amount of artistic works and statues inside the United States Capitol is impressive. The Capitol’s rotunda is the tallest part of the building and described as its “symbolic and physical heart.” The structure is beautiful inside and out, and tourists are allowed to visit the inside of the Rotunda, and I got in by signing up for a Capitol guided tour. I was impressed by its sheer volume and majestic finishing of the entire structure.
A large fresco, “The Apotheosis of Washington”, was at the top of the ceiling of the Rotunda, depicting George Washington sitting exalted amongst the heavens. The Frieze of American History is painted around the belt of the Rotunda depicting 19 historic scenes in American History. On the wall around the Rotunda, there are 8 giant framed paintings depicting important events in the country.
The Smithsonian Institution is a group of museums and research centers administered by the Government, aiming to increase and diffuse knowledge. And wow, the Institution has 19 museums that would take days to visit every single one. Lots of the collections in each of the museum are donated by different sources since its establishment in 1849, It has a collection of 156 million pieces of artworks, artifacts, and specimens. The Smithsonian Institution Building, a.k.a the castle, is the first building of the Institution and still its headquarters. The major (or the most popular) Smithsonian Museums include the National Museum of Natural History, National Air and Space Museum, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens. For me, I really love the National Museum of Natural History where visitors could see the Hope Diamond, Human origins, dinosaurs, live butterflies, & the world’s largest African bush elephant!
National Gallery of Art
Located in the cluster of Smithsonian museums through the National Gallery of Art is not part of the Smithsonian Institution. The Museums are divided into east and west wings and the volume of artworks housed in these buildings is spectacular. The gallery has a collection of 137 million objects which includes not only Western European Fine Arts but also American Art from the 18th-century beyond. The list of notable artists could go on and on…, with French and British classical artists to some modern big names, plus American artists like Edward Hicks, Thomas Cole, John Singleton Copley, Edward Savage, and much more! You must at least recognize some well-known paintings in there, like Johannes Vermeer’s “Woman Holding a Balance” in 1664, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Ginevra de’ Benci” in 1478, and Raphael’s “Portrait of Bindo Altoviti” in 1515…
More, the galleries and garden courts of the museum are just stunning and make the visit so much more pleasurable.
Now let’s move on to the iconic monuments – and I bet the Washington Monument is the most photographed monument in the city. The monument is the focal point of the Mall and it was built to commemorate George Washington. The obelisk is 170m tall and the tallest monumental column in the world! The building is not solid, but it has an elevator and an observatory at the top.
Another famous monument is the Lincoln Memorial. White, clean, and neat, the monument is a giant hall located on the opposite side of the Mall. The Memorial looks like a classic Greek temple made by Yule marble from Colorado. Inside, it’s the majestic statue of Abraham Lincoln sitting in solitude with inscriptions on the walls that portray the principles seen as evidence of Lincoln’s life.
Thomas Jefferson Memorial
Thomas Jefferson Memorial is located on the edge of the Tidal Basin and it looks much more soft and subtle as compared with the Lincoln Memorial. The neoclassical Memorial building is also white with a bronze statue of Jefferson added in the center of the structure in 1943.
Georgetown is a historic neighborhood in northwest Washington, D.C. while Thomas Jefferson and John F. Kennedy once lived there. It’s also a commercial and entertainment district filled with shops, boutiques, and restaurants. Check out the number of historic buildings and landmarks like Oak Hill Cemetery Chapel and Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.
The Tomb of the Unknowns
Lastly, the Tomb of the Unknowns is a cemetery dedicated to American service members who have died without their remains being identified (and that’s how it was named “unknown”). It’s heart-wrenching, like any other cemeteries, to learn about the importance of peace for those who would be sacrificed in fights. The changing of guards in meticulous precision is something to see as well.