What to see in Washington DC - top attractions and sights

The capital of the United States holds a special place amongst the most the country’s most popular tourist landmarks. Although not as vibrant as New York or as bohemian as San Francisco, Washington DC has an aura of sophistication, typical to places of extreme political - both historic and present - importance.

Home of the three branches of the US government, Washington breaths the American ideals of freedom and democracy, patent in the city’s most iconic monuments.

Washington Monument
The Washington Monument. © Photo: Find-cheap-car-hire.co.uk.

Simultaneously, a wide selection of world-class museums - with no admission fee to a vast majority of them - adds up to a more complete tourist experience in the American capital.

Depending on your interests and how thoroughly you would like to get to know the city, touring of Washington DC can take from about a week to nearly an infinity. Below, we present the absolute must-see’s of the city during a short, 2-3 days stay.

The National Mall – where everything happens
Washington DC is an extremely walkable city and nearly all of its major landmarks are concentrated at the National Mall, a public park stretching over a mile in the very centre of the city. Bring comfortable walking shoes and be prepared to be overwhelmed by the number of attractions featured here.

The National Mall was designed in the late 18th century when the architect Pierre Charles L’Enfante was given a task of designing the layout of the capital of the newly created nation. Lined with gardens and lawns rectangular park is delimited by the United States Capitol on east and the Lincoln Memorial on the west. The iconic Washington Monument rises roughly in between (slightly west from the exact middle) being faced by the White House in the north. The White House is, however, not considered a part of the National Mall.

See a detailed map of the National Mall.

The National Mall is a venue for the most important political events, such as inaugurations of the U.S. president, but also to political rallies and protests. It is on its lawns and elegant alleys that Americans express their views, be it support or criticism, towards the government’s politics.

The National Mall is frequently featured in American movies. Here is one of the most iconic National Mall movie scenes from Forrest Gump:

The U.S. Capitol –a  lesson in democracy
Tourism is Washington’s second largest industry and visitors are welcome to most important governmental institutions, without neglecting, of course, strict security measures. It I important while visiting some of the DC’ s sights that you are not in an ordinary ‘museum’ and failing to follow the instructions of the security staff may get you in serious trouble. Be prepared for a nearly airport-like security check both when entering and exiting some sights.

If you are interested in history of the United States, start your visit at the U.S. Capitol. The characteristic dome of the seat of the seat of the United States Congress dominates over the National Mall.

The Capitol
The Capitol seen from afar. © Photo: Find-cheap-car-hire.co.uk.

The admission to the Capitol is free and so are the guided tours inside. During the tour you will be have a chance to learn about the tumultuous history of the impressive building itself as well as about the structure of the American government. Engaging guides will take you through some of the most interesting parts of the building, amongst them the Capitol Rotunda (a round room situated directly under the dome).

The beautiful dome of the Rotunda which divides the Senate and the House of the Representative, two chambers of the United States governmental body.

The Rotunda is lined with the statues of the most important figures of the American history. The tour guides will provide you with plenty of information about the famous Americans featured and answer your questions.

You will need the guide to point your attention, for example, to a barely unnoticeable compass star inlaid in the floor of the Capitol’s crypt. The lines radiating from the star divide Washington into four quarters (NW, NE, SW, SE) which made the part of the original urban layout, even though the future development shifted the city centre closer to the White House area.

Compass star

The Library Of Congress
Once in the Capitol, take the opportunity to visit another exquisite monument, the nearby Library of Congress. Although located in a separate building, the library can be accessed directly from the Capitol via an underground tunnel.

Hosting a collection of over 48 million books, the Library of Congress is the largest in the United States and claims to be the biggest in the world. The building of the library is an example of the Beaux Arts, characterised by lavish ornamenting, murals, marble halls and columns as well as stained glass ceiling.

Library of Congress

Amongst the most precious items on display during the tour of the Library is a Gutenberg Bible, one of the 12 remaining complete copes printed on vellum (calf skin).

The library can be toured individually but, once again, in order to make the most of your visit, it is worth to join one of the free and very informative tours provided.

The admissions to both Library of Congress and the Capitol are free of charge.

The Botanic Gardens
If in need of a break in a relaxing environment, stop at the United States Botanic Garden, at the southeastern corner of the Mall, just next to the Capitol. The historic, over 150 year old greenhouse contains thousands of plant species, including orchids, cycads, carnivorous plants, cacti and ferns. Haven for botanists, the garden is also just an extremely pleasant place to spend time, among the lush greenery and relaxing nature sounds.

A tropical jungle right in the city centre - Washington Botanic Gardens.

Washington Monument
America’s love of greatness, also in size, is very visible in what is, possibly, the most iconic landmark of its capital. The Washington Monument, a marble and granite obelisk visible from pretty much anywhere in downtown D.C. is the world’s tallest stone structure of the kind, measuring just over 169 meters.

Reflecting pool Washington DC
Washington Monument reflecting in the reflective pool. © Photo: Find-cheap-car-hire.co.uk.

The construction of the monument, dedicated to the first American president and the commander in chief of the continental army during the American Revolutionary War, George Washington, started in 1848 and finished only in 1888, due to a halt caused by the lack of funds.

The monument can be visited inside, where stairs and a lift allow access to an observation platform. In early 2017, however, the visits to the Washington Monument were suspended due to the elevator modernization works.

Washington DC memorials
Several of the city’s most famous sites are memorials honouring important political figures of the American history, as well as some of the most significant chapters of the world history. Most of them are located in vicinity from each other, being, however, spread on a very vast area. Visiting the Washington memorials can easily take a day of sightseeing.

Lincoln Memorial
On the western edge of the National Mall raises  the impressive Greek temple style monument honouring the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

The Lincoln Memorial is located opposite the Washington Monument, having the over 600 meter long reflective pool in between.

Lincoln Memorial
The imposing Lincoln statue inside the memorial building. © Photo: Find-cheap-car-hire.co.uk.

Inside the temple, there is a large dimension statue of Abraham Lincoln. The walls bear inscriptions with quotes from the Gettysburg Address.

The stairs leading surrounding the monument were a stage of many important public appearances; Martin Luther King gave here his famous ‘I had a dream’ speech and a commemorative stone was place in the exact place where the civil rights activist stood.

Vietnam Veterans and Korean War Veterans Memorials
On the extensive loans on both sides of the reflective pool and neat the Lincoln Memorial are located two monuments dedicated to the armed conflicts where the Americans suffered most casualties.

Vietnam Veteran Memorial

The Vietnam Veterans memorial (to the left from Lincoln Memorial when facing the Washington Monument) is listed on the American National  Register of Historic places.

Southeast of the Lincoln Memorial a mural wall and 19 steel statues commemorate the American soldiers who fought in the Korean War.

World War II Memorial
Roughly half way between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument you will find the World War II Memorial. It consists of 65 pillars arranged in semi-circles, two arches, a water fountain and the Freedom Wall bearing 4,048 gold stars to represent the American soldiers who died in combats of WW II (if multiplied by 100).

World War II Memorial
The columns of the memorial represent the American states and territories. © Photo: Find-cheap-car-hire.co.uk.

Martin Luther King Memorial
One of the most iconic figures of the black people rights, Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated in 1968, is remembered honoured through quite a spectacular monument, located on the shoe of the Tidal Basin.

Martin Luther King Memorial

The memorial consists of three granite sculptures and a 140 meter-long inscription wall quoting the most important passages from King’s speeches.

Roosevelt Memorial
Not far from the Martin Luther King Memorial, also on the bank of the Tidal Basin, another interesting structure evokes an important American statesman,  the 32nd U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, often referred to as one of the three greatest American leaders, together with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Jefferson Memorial
The principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the country’s 3rd President, Thomas Jefferson, holds a special place in the history of the United States and in the cityscape of Washington D.C. The Jefferson Memorial, raising on the southern shore of the Tidal Basin is one of the most beautiful monuments of D.C.

Jefferson Memorial
Jefferson Memorial seen from across the Tidal Basin. © Photo: Find-cheap-car-hire.co.uk.

The neoclassical, domed structure contains a bronze structure of Jefferson and excerpts from the Declaration of Independence.

Washington D.C. cherry blossom is a must!
If your time allows it, plan your visit in Washington in spring, when you have the grates chance to witness the spectacular nature show: the cherry blossom.

Cherry trees are found in several places in Washington, their largest concentration is found however around the Tidal Basin, a man-made reservoir for the Potomac River. The over 3000 Japanese cherry trees which line the banks of the Tidal Basin were an offer to Washington D.C. from the Mayor of Tokyo and were planted between 1912 and 1920.

Cherry Blossom Washington

Every year, the National Cherry Blossom Festival is held in Washington around the time of the tree’s blooming. Apart from the obvious and extremely picturesque spectacle of the trees covering in white and different shades of pink, the festival brings a large choice of activities, open air concerts and events.

Given the changeable weather during Washington spring, it is not always easy to predict when exactly the trees will be blossoming and for how long. Usually you can count on only around 10 day window between late March and early April to see this prodigy. Look up for the updates from the Cherry Blossom Watch

The White House visits – only by appointment
The visits to the residence of the U.S. President used to be one of the most popular attractions of D.C., especially during the presidency of Barack Obama. The First Family made it a habit to surprise visitors by greeting them, in person. As per early 2017, with the election of the new president, the visits have been temporarily suspended by the Trump administration. A glimpse of the southern façade of the White House is all you can get at the moment.

In any case, be aware that public tours of the White House always require a previous appointment. You have virtually no chance for a spontaneous visit to the White House.

Requests should be submitted up to three months in advance and no less than 21 days prior the visit to the office of the local Member of Congress, in case of the U.S. citizens or, in the case of foreign visitors, to the embassy of their country in Washington DC.

Previous reservation is required also when  visiting the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense, Pentagon. The request to tour Pentagon should be placed between 14 to 90 days in advance, directly on Pentagon’s website.

Washington DC museums – free admission!
in the capital of the United States you will be spoiled for choice, when it comes to the cultural attractions. On the edges of the National Mall alone there are over 10 museums and art galleries, requiring at least 2-3 days to visit.

Most of Washington museums belong the Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum complex. Founded in 1846, the Smithsonian Institution was originally founded by the wealth of the deceased British scientist, James Smithson who made his nephew, Henry James Hungerford the sole heir of his fortune. Having died childless, Hungerford indicated in his last will that the estate should be used to found an institution dedicated to the ‘diffusion of knowledge amongst men’.

The Smithsonian Institution relies nowadays on federal support, corporate and private support, membership fees and concession revenues, which allow the over 30 million annual visitors to access the Smithsonian museums and galleries free of charge.

Main hall of the Natural History Museum known from the blockbuster 'Night At The Museum 2'. © Photo: Find-cheap-car-hire.co.uk.

Apart from the museums, the Smithsonian runs also several research centres across the world, as well as the Washington Zoo.

The Smithsonian museums at the National Mall are:

It is also possible to visit at the Mall the building of the Smithsonian Institution, where the visitors centre is located.

Outside the National Mall area, do make time to see the very interesting National Portrait Gallery. It is situated a 10 minute walk away from the Mall, at 8th/F St NW.

Please note that the National Gallery of Art, also at the Mall, which contains an exquisite collection of paintings, especially from the impressionism period, is not a part of the Smithsonian Institution. The admission is, nevertheless, free. 

Daytrips from Washington DC
As stated before, the location of the most important attractions of Washington invites for visiting on foot. If your time in the American capital allows, however, a variety of other interesting places of historical and/or cultural importance are located within a short driving distance.

Rent a car in Washington - compare car rental deals at Washington Dulles Airport

Just across the Potomac River from downtown DC is the Arlington Cemetery, a memorial site honouring American soldiers fallen at the battlefields across the world.

West of the city centre, and perfectly accessible by the public transportation is Georgetown. This once an autonomous settlement on the bank of the Potomac River was incorporated into the rapidly spreading Washington city centre. Today it is a major commercial and entertainment district of the capital, known for its charming historic architecture and a picturesque waterfront.

Colourful façades of townhouses in Georgetown.

Monticello, 117 miles southwest of Washington, in Virginia, is well worth a daytrip. This plantation and family estate of Thomas Jefferson breaths history. Visit the stately house designed and furnished by Jefferson himself, beautifully landscape gardens as well as the slave quarters and other buildings of the former cotton plantation for a comprehensive tour of the 19th century America.

Gettysburg, 86 miles north of Washington (Pennsylvania) is a must for the history aficionados. The place of the one of the decisive battle of the American Civil War offers an insight not into the Battle of Gettysburg itself, but also into all of the war which resulted in end of slavery in the United States.

The abolitionist movement is also the leading theme in the Harpers Ferry historic site, located in West Virginia, 64 miles northwest of Washington. In 1859 the abolitionist John Brown, assisted by freed slaves, led a raid on the local armoury in attempt to gain weapons and take control of the strategically positioned ferry port on the Potomac River. Although the raid failed, it is believed to be a catalyst to the outbreak of the Civil War.

What to see in Washington DC - top attractions and sights
Article: What to see in Washington DC - top attractions and sights
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