Holding the visitor’s guide leaflet in my hands it says “Welcome, a powerful place”. The city is a crossroads of politics and culture, history and style. I was so stoked and also inspired by the thought of a line of national monuments that stood one right to the other alongside a perfectly groomed green lawn. The moment I stepped out of the Union Station, I was overlooking a crossroad that has a mix of politics, culture, history, and style. Can’t believe that I have finally arrived in Washington D.C., the capital of the United States! The city was fashioned after Paris and stands by the bank of the Potomac River, and this is a location chosen by the first president of the United States – George Washington.
While the capital is also named after the first president, DC is usually how people call it these days. This is a place where the United States flags are flying everywhere, manifesting the value of freedom of the country. For visitors, especially first-time visitors, the most famous landmarks here are clustered around the National Mall (or simply, “the Mall”) and Memorial Parks, stretching over 4 kilometers long. Flanked by dozens of museums and memorials, this grassy space plays host to festivals, protests, gatherings, and performances. On summer evenings, the Mall is a terrific place to catch on an open-air concert, movie screening or jazz performance. In the winter, visitors head to the Mall to glide on the National Gallery of Art’s skating rink. In my opinion, it takes at least 3 days to have at least cover the highlights of what the city has to offer (Not including the time required to visit all the Smithsonian museums). Ideally, stay here for at least a week to soak in the power the city imposes. The volume of information might be a little bit overwhelming but I have a list of some of the must-sees in Washington DC – these are the places that you should not miss, and I hope it would give you some inspiration to plan your trip, too!
Washington DC is knowns as the District of Columbia and it’s the capital city of the United States. It’s located on the east coast of continental America with an area of 177 sq. kilometers and a population of about 700,000, but it hits 6 million in its metro area. The city is founded in 1791, named for George Washington, the first president of the country and a Founding Father, and Columbia refers to a female personification of the nation. It is truly a powerful place because it is not only a political center to the United States, but also for the world. The center of the city is filled with government institutions and therefore a large part of the population here is working for the government.
The design of the city is tidy and quite straightforward. The center of the city is divided into four parts, with the Capitol Building in the center, and the streets are named from A to Z, Capitol Street is at the center of the axis, and each street in the south is named A Street South(east/west), B Street SE, C Street SE, and so on; while in the north is named A Street North(east/west), and so on. Street in parallel with the Capitol is named by numbers, starting from First Street, 2nd Street, and so on. Therefore, it’s quite easy to navigate the city. Interestingly, J Street is not on this list though because I and J are very similar in old English, and they were often interchangeable. To avoid any confusion about the addresses, J Street was taken out from the equation and only I Street exists.
Apart from its political importance, DC also has strong cultural and historical influences. Do you know that people in DC drink more wine per capita than any other US state?
Getting to and around Washington DC
Washington DC has three airports and it is also serviced by Amtrak and regional rail service. The city is laid out in a grid pattern, with numbered streets running north-south, lettered streets running east-west, and avenues named for states running diagonally, coming together at traffic circles and squares. As you travel further out from the city center, lettered streets become two-syllable names, then three-syllable names. Addresses are marked by the quadrants that divide the city (Northwest, Southwest, Northeast, and Southeast) and come together beneath the Capitol dome. The city is pedestrian-friendly and the city metro is easy to use as well. To complement Metro, the DC Circulator is a sleek and stylish bus service that offers easy access to neighborhoods like Georgetown, Adams Morgan, and Capitol Hill.
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!
When to visit Washington DC
DC buzzes with events and activities year-round. Hotel rates are generally lowest on weekends and during the summer and winter. Museums and attractions are quieter during the winter but stay busy throughout the summer with vacationers.
Where to stay in Washington DC
You can’t beat the experience of staying in the heart of the city, within the footsteps of famous landmarks, awarding-winning restaurants, shops, and nightlife. If you choose to stay in the suburbs, be sure to look for a property with Metro access.
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” in 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 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 them 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.
Keep an eye of the latest arrangements of the White House Public Tours as the policies and requiremnets changes from time to time.
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 is 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 the sheer volume and majestic finishing of the entire structure.
There were bathtubs in the Capitol installed in 1859 to keep the senators from stinking; during that time, they lived in boarding houses that had no running water. The building features a number of private elevators, and miles and miles of tunnels were built underground that are never seen by the public.
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 museums 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. As 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!
The list of museums
- Anacostia Community Museum
- Discovery Theater
- Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
- Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- National Air and Space Museum
- National Air and Space Museum
- National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
- National Museum of African Art
- National Museum of American History
- National Museum of Natural History
- National Museum of the American Indian
- National Portrait Gallery
- National Postal Museum
- National Zoological Park
- Penwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
- Smithsonian American Art Museum
- Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building
- Smithsonian Enterprises
- Smithsonian Institution Information Center in the Castle
National Gallery of Art
Located in the cluster of Smithsonian museums 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 and beyond. The list of notable artists could go on and on…, from 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 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.
Check out My Top 10 Classical Art Galleries in the World
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 to 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. where 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 cemetery, 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.