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Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Washington DC

The bustling US capital, Washington DC, bustles with attractions for those craving a look at history, art, and architecture, not to mention a hip nightlife scene. Join a walking or coach sightseeing tour to admire the famous monuments, including the United States Capitol, White House, Washington Monument, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Lounge on the National Mall, and get ready to explore the city’s bounty of museums. Choose from the Smithsonian, National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of Natural History, and National Museum of American History. Small-group tours with knowledgeable guides help you experience the history within all these attractions. Get a glimpse into the city’s contemporary culture on one of the many culinary and brewery tours in DC’s hip neighborhoods, such as Georgetown, Shaw, and Dupont Circle; or cruise down the Potomac River at sunset to see the city skyline light up. Just across the river lies charming Old Town Alexandria; take a walking tour to learn the history of the neighborhood’s Georgian, federal, and Greek Revival buildings. Round out a day trip with a tour of George Washington’s home at Mt. Vernon and a visit the Arlington National Cemetery.
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Potomac River
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From its source in West Virginia to where it empties out in Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac River is an area rich in American history, so much that’s often called "the Nation’s River." George Washington, the first President of the United States, was born along the river, and all of Washington, D.C., the nation's capital city, lies within the watershed. In Washington D.C., the West and East Potomac parks, both downtown and divided by the Tidal Basin, are pleasant, green, cherry-blossomed lined spaces, lovely for walking, picnics, and fishing. West Potomac Park is home to the Constitution Gardens; the Vietnam, Korean, Lincoln, Jefferson, World War II, and FDR memorials; a small island where ducks live; and the Reflecting Pool. East Potomac Park is more of recreational spot, with picnic grounds, tennis courts, three golf courses, a large swimming pool, and biking and hiking paths. Across the river is Arlington National Cemetery.
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Washington Monument
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At 555 ft (170 m) the Washington Monument is not only the tallest building in Washington D.C., it is also the tallest masonry structure in the world. Strangely, this pale obelisk needling the sky near the Mall's west end was originally conceived as an equestrian statue to honor George Washington, the country's first president.

Inside, a glass-walled elevator quickly whisks you to an observation landing with spectacular 360-degree views. Most agree the panoramic green and marble vista of Washington D.C. and her rivers is well worth any wait to get up. On your way down, the elevator descends slowly, allowing passengers to see some of the 192 carved stones inserted into the interior walls.

In the days before September 11, 2001, it was possible to descend the 897 steps. Believe it or not, when the monument first opened the elevator was not considered safe for women so, while men got to ride in style to the top, women had to make the trek on foot!

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U.S. Capitol
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There's nothing quite like the majestic sight of the U.S. Capitol, with its towering 285 ft (86 m) cast-iron dome topped by the bronze Statue of Freedom, ornate fountains, and marble Roman pillars set on sweeping lawns and flowering gardens.

The political center of the U.S. government and geographic center of Washington D.C. itself, the Capitol of the United States overlooks the National Mall and the wide avenues flaring out to the city beyond. It houses the legislative branch of Congress and is home to the Senate and the House of Representatives. Inside the grand halls and opulent chambers you really get a feel for the power-playing side of D.C. - the historical vibe is so strong it can be intoxicating. The centerpiece of the Capitol is the magnificent Rotunda (the area under the dome). A Constantino Brumidi frieze around the rim replays more than 400 years of American history. Look up into the eye of the dome for the Apotheosis of Washington, an allegorical fresco.

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The White House
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Maybe that’s because this is, at the end of the day, a home as well as symbol. Every U.S president since John Adams has made this 132-room mansion his home. Its stature has grown through the years: no longer a mere residence, it's now the central icon of the American presidency.

Inside the house, highlights include the Gold-and-White East Room, where presidential receptions, weddings, and other galas are held; the Green Room, which was Thomas Jefferson's dining room but today is used as a sitting room; and the Oval Blue Room, the setting for the White House Christmas tree. Other rooms are the Red Room, which is used as a reception room, primarily for afternoon teas, and the State Dining Room, where state dinners and luncheons are held.

Getting inside the White House can be tough. The grounds, however, are occasionally opened for special events such as Tee-ball on the South Lawn and the Easter Egg Roll, held every Easter Monday for kids aged three to six.

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Thomas Jefferson Memorial
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Set on the south bank of the Tidal Basin amid the cherry trees, the memorial honors the third president of the United States, political philosopher, drafter of the Declaration of Independence and founder of the University of Virginia -- Thomas Jefferson. Designed by John Russell Pope to resemble Jefferson's library, the columned rotunda of the Jefferson Memorial is similar in style to the Pantheon in Rome.

On the Tidal Basin side, a sculptural group above the entrance depicts Jefferson with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston, all of whom worked on drafting the Declaration of Independence. Inside the domed interior is a 19ft (6m) bronze likeness of Jefferson; excerpts from Jefferson's writings are etched into the walls. Come visit in late March or early April, when the cherry trees blossoms are blazing pink.

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Lincoln Memorial
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Here's a local secret: if you're ever stuck in a thunderstorm while wandering around the Mall, make a dash for the Lincoln Memorial. Thunder seems to rumble like clockwork nearly every 4th of July, and everyone in the know takes shelter under the marble dome, crouching near the foot of the enormous chair in which a gigantic Lincoln holds court.

In a city of icons, the Lincoln Memorial is truly a highlight. It's the classicism evoked by the Greek temple design, or the way the memorial so perfectly anchors the Mall's west end, or maybe just the stony dignity of Lincoln's gaze and the power of his speeches engraved in the wall. Nonetheless, a visit here while gazing over the 600m Reflecting Pool is a defining D.C. moment.

For these are the steps where lovers kiss, protesters gather, and Martin Luther King Jr’s "I Have a Dream" speech seared itself into the national conscience. This stunning location is also a favorite spot for Hollywood fimls.

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National World War II Memorial
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Part of the National Mall and National Park Service, this memorial to American citizens who served in World War II lies at the eastern end of the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool. Designed by Austrian-American avant-garde architect Friedrich St. Florian and dedicated in 2004, this 7.4-acre, oval-shaped site consists of 56 granite pillars, two triumphal arches, and a reflecting pool with two fountains.

Each 17-foot pillar symbolizes a different U.S. state or territory, and the two 43-foot arches are dedicated to America’s victory in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, respectively. On 24 bronze panels at the memorial’s entrance, moving bas-relief scenes depict the process of drafting and training soldiers, sending them overseas and into battle, and welcoming them back home, either alive or dead.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
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The man whose dream changed America lives eternally in Washington DC. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial opened in October 2011, a few months after the 48th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I have a dream speech.” The Memorial occupies four acres of land in West Potomac Park in the greater National Mall area. The Memorial looks out over the Tidal Basin near the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.

The Memorial features a 30-foot statue of Dr. King and a 450-foot granite inscription wall. The design for Dr. King’s statue is from his “Dream” speech: “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” The inscription wall features 14 excerpts from King’s speeches, sermons and other public addresses.

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Vietnam Veterans Memorial
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If not one of the most powerful in the world, the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial is certainly one of the most powerful in Washington D.C. The iconic memorial is comprised of two walls of polished black granite, on which the names of the 58,209 soldiers killed in the Vietnam War are inscribed. It's an eloquent inversion of the Mall's other monuments: rather than a pale, ornate structure reaching skyward, it's dark, austere and burrows into the earth, symbolizing the war's wound to the national psyche. Paper indices at both ends help you locate individual names. The most moving remembrances are notes, medals, and mementos left by survivors, family and friends; some of these are collected by park rangers and displayed at the National Museum of American History. Nearby is the tree-ringed Women in Vietnam Memorial depicting female soldiers aiding a fallen man.
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Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
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Part of the National Mall and National Park Service, this 7.5-acre park dedicated to America’s 32nd president features a series of four outdoor artworks depicting the Great Depression and FDR’s 12 pivotal years in office. Scenes include one of the leader’s “fireside chats” via radio, and waiting for food in a bread line.

The most famous feature of this 1997 memorial is a large-scale bronze sculpture of Roosevelt and his beloved terrier, Fala. The artwork is controversial because it depicts the president, who was wheelchair-bound in real life, sitting in a chair that is almost entirely draped by a cloak.

Park rangers are on site every day to offer interpretive tours between 10 a.m. and 11 p.m. Visitor parking is available for free along Ohio Drive south of the Lincoln Memorial, or just south of the Jefferson Memorial in Lots A, B and C. No Metrorail stations are entirely adjacent to the Memorial, but the Farragut North, Metro Center, Farragut West.

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More Things to Do in Washington DC

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

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One of the most iconic and impressive structures in Washington D.C., the Library of Congress contains a staggering 120 million items, including 22 million books plus manuscripts, maps, photographs, films and prints. But don't expect to see many books: Most are shelved on more than 500 miles of closed library stacks housed in the three different buildings. The Library - the world’s largest - is still nonetheless fascinating.

The centerpiece of the LOC experience is the historic 1897 Jefferson Building, where you can wander around the spectacular Great Hall, ornate with stained glass and marble. The artwork of the Great Hall reflects the beauty that emerges from such amassed wisdom, such as the goddesses and cherubs who represent different fields of knowledge. Multimedia kiosk provide the minutest details of the library’s awe-inspiring collection.

Anyone over the age of 18 carrying photo ID can use the library, and more than a million people do so each year.

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Korean War Veterans Memorial

Korean War Veterans Memorial

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Dedicated in 1995, this memorial to the troops who fought in the Korean War (1950-1953) lies adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial in West Potomac Park, at the south end of the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall. Created by sculptors Louis Nelson and Frank Gaylord, this depiction of a walled triangle intersecting a circle is assembled from over 100 tons of granite and includes 19 stainless steel statues, each over seven feet tall, which symbolize a patrol squad assembled from every branch of the armed forces.

These steel statues, when reflected on the walled triangle, appear to be 38 figures, representing the 38th parallel, Korea’s location on a map. The wall of the triangle itself incorporates over 2,500 sandblasted photographic images depicting scenes from the Korean War. The memorial’s circle encloses a reflecting pool, a grove of trees, and a ring of benches, as well as inscriptions of the numbers of people who were wounded, killed, missing in action, and more.

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Capitol Hill

Capitol Hill

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First-time visitors will be forgiven for assuming Capitol Hill, the geographic and legislative heart of the city, is all about the majestic icon that sits atop its hill. While the U.S. Capitol -- with its towering cast-iron dome topped by the bronze Statue of Freedom, ornate fountains, and marble Roman pillars -- is no doubt the centerpiece of this area, there is more to Capitol Hill than its namesake building.

The Capitol Grounds is a lush landscape of sweeping lawns and more than 4,000 trees. At the base of the hill, the Capitol Reflecting Pool echoes the larger, rectangular pool at the other end of the National Mall. House and Senate office buildings surround the Capitol, while the Supreme Court, the three Library of Congress buildings, and the Folger Shakespeare Library & Theatre lie east.

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The Smithsonian

The Smithsonian

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For under the Smithsonian banner are 19 world-class museums, 9 research centers, and the National Zoological Park. Its collection of some 140 million spans the entire world including artworks, scientific specimens, artifacts, and other objects. So large is the collection that only one percent is on display at any given point.

The Smithsonian Institution includes such popular attractions as the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of African Art, the Freer Gallery of Art, the National Museum of American Indian, the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery.

The Institution also includes low-key but fascinating collections in the Anacostia Community Museum, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and the National Postal Museum. All the museums have stunning permanent collections, but always be on the lookout for temporary exhibitions.

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Supreme Court of the United States

Supreme Court of the United States

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The highest court in the country, the Supreme Court of the United States convenes in an imposing 1935 all-marble building. The stately Corinthian marble palace was designed by Cass Gilbert, best known for his skyscrapers including New York's Woolworth Building.

The seated figures in front of the building represent the female Contemplation of Justice and the male Guardian of Law; panels on the bronze front doors depict the history of jurisprudence. Downstairs is an exhibit on the history of the court and a striking statue of John Marshall, fourth Chief Justice. When court is in session, try to hear an oral argument. On days when court's not in session, you can hear lectures about the Supreme Court in the courtroom (and check out its lofty architecture). Justices hear arguments at 10am Monday to Wednesday for two weeks every month from October to April. The release of orders and opinions, open to the public, takes place in May and June.

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FBI Headquarters

FBI Headquarters

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The J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, also known as the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) Headquarters, is the brain of the FBI’s activities around the world. The building, named after Hoover, who was the first FBI director, is located downtown in Washington DC, within walking distance of many other popular attractions. It also has a unique history, including a story that the famous FBI crime laboratory may have also been used as a smoking lounge.

The FBI has multiple locations, each of which handles various parts of the organization. The headquarters centralizes and coordinates activities at the highest levels. It serves as a hub for intelligence and information gathering. It’s also the location that takes the lead for the FBI during times of crisis or emergency.

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National Archives Museum

National Archives Museum

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The flagship of the U.S. Government’s National Archives and Records Administration, this Greek Revival building in D.C.’s Federal Triangle was created in 1934 to house records of America’s military, civic and diplomatic origins and activities. Home to the Charters of Freedom – the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights – the Archives offers a comprehensive visitor experience that includes the Charters themselves, as well as a film about the relationship between public records and democracy, and a peek into the public research vaults.

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United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

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The somber, sobering Holocaust Museum is unlike any other museum in Washington D.C. In remembering the millions murdered by the Nazis, it is brutal, direct and impassioned. Its exhibits leave many visitors in tears and few unmoved.

The Holocaust Museum uses its collection of more than 12,500 artifacts to reveal the Jewish experience in three parts: Nazi Assault, Final Solution, and Last Chapter. Visitors are given the identity card of a single Holocaust victim, narrowing the scope of suffering to the individual level while paying thorough, overarching tribute to its powerful subject.

Apart from the permanent exhibits, the candlelit Hall of Remembrance is a sanctuary for quiet reflection; the Wexner Learning Center offers text archives, photographs, films and oral testimony available on touch-screen computers. If you have young children in tow (the museum recommends not bringing children 11 and under).

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National Museum of Natural History

National Museum of Natural History

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More than 126 million (yes, million!) specimens of plants, animals, rocks, fossils, meteorites, human remains, and cultural artifacts can be found at The National Museum of Natural History. The museum, opened in 1910 is administered by the Smithsonian Institution, and was one of the first Smithsonian buildings built to exclusively house collections and research facilities. The buildings are also buzzing with almost two hundred natural history scientists. Open 364 days a year, with free admission, this is the most-visited natural history museum in the world—and the most-visited museum of any type in North America. Insider’s Tip: It might go without saying that this museum is always packed, but it’s worth setting aside a day and fighting the crowds to see the incredible collections on display at this family friendly attraction.

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National Mall

National Mall

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Stretching from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall is a wide, tree-lined expanse of open space between the Constitution and Independence avenues. The Mall is the center of D.C. tourist attractions, fringed by the Smithsonian museums and dotted with monuments.

For here is the iconic Lincoln Memorial, fronted by its long Reflecting Pool; nearby is the Washington Monument, the top of which offers some of best panoramic views of the city. Pause to reflect on the fallen soldiers at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, or marvel at the 56 granite pillars at the National WWII Memorial. If you come in late March or early April, the cherry trees at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial will be blazing pink.

You could spend days and days studying the treasures at the Smithsonian museums on the Mall. From the massive collections in the National Gallery of Art and the National Museum of Natural History.

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Old Post Office Pavilion

Old Post Office Pavilion

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Designed by American architect Willoughby Edbrooke, this enormous Romanesque Revival building was the largest office building in D.C. when it opened in 1899. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was far from beloved in its own era. Considered dowdy by the time it opened for business, when architectural fashion had turned to rounded, more romantic Beaux-Arts design, it was soon abandoned in favor of a new mail depot building over by Union Station; 15 years after it was built, it was commonly referred to as the “old” post office.

By the late 1920s, popular sentiment in Washington was that the building should be torn down, but the Great Depression prevented the demolition; instead, the Old Post Office was left to molder for about 40 years. In the 1970s, it was saved by community support and the National Endowment for the Arts, which now has its headquarters here.

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