Although it’s now a city that is politically polarised, Washington DC is still a city that you should visit as a tourist. Not sure what to expect? Here is the ultimate city guide to Washington DC
See and explore
Washington DC is a city of history, which can be seen in the architecture of the buildings. The White House and the Treasury Building are definite highlights and walking around the city is the best way to get the full viewing benefit—it’s a great way to people watch, too.
These are more than just the standard brick pillars or statues seen in other cities, these memorials are eye-catching, as well as an extraordinarily beautiful tribute. For instance, there is a fountain at the centre of one of them. They give those who observe it a chance to reflect on that part of history, as well as to learn more about that time, too.
One of the more infamous landmarks is the Lincoln Memorial, a monument designed to honour the legacy of President Abraham Lincoln. Inside is a large sculpture of the president, with quotes from some of his most famous speeches inscribed around and on the walls. This was also the site for Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech. Directly in front of the memorial you will find the Reflecting Pool; this is a wonderful place to roam, especially during the summer.
If you can spare the time, consider walking past Capitol Hill; this is where the Supreme Court is based, as well as Congress. You may only be allowed to observe rather than enter these places, however every day history is being made. (It would be worthwhile reading up about how the two houses of Congress, as well as how the various branches of governing, work.)
Ford's Theatre is the site where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated; the theatre is still in operation, and when visiting you can find out more about his presidency, his policies, how he died, as well as the hunt to bring the assassin to justice.
While on the topic of presidential assassinations, President John F. Kennedy is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, alongside his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. His wife had a nation full of compassion behind her while organising his funeral, as well as lighting the eternal flame that’s on his grave. You will also find the Tomb Of The Unknown Solider in this cemetery.
The Washington Monument is the perfect place to people watch. It was built to honour President George Washington, the first president of the United States. You can also see, if you look very carefully, where the different stages of building took place which happened for various reasons including problems with funding at the time of it being built.
Finally, make sure you visit the Jefferson memorial. Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration Of Independence, a document that would change history forever; his memorial presents the chance to learn more.
If you have time, make sure to also explore Lafayette Square, which was saved from demolition during the Kennedy presidency.
Be aware that the Washington DC parking scene is infamous for it's difficulty, particularly in the heart of the city and near iconic landmarks so you are better off exploring on foot.
Washington DC is a city that is seemingly devoted to museums and galleries; there is a huge variety, and they cater to every possible taste and interest.
Firstly there is the Newseum. In a climate where members of the press are regularly attacked as being “enemies of the people”, this museum, according to its website, has the mission to “increase public understanding of the importance of a free press and the First Amendment.” (See the case of The Pentagon Papers for a good example of this.) For more information about the upcoming exhibitions, click here.
Make sure you also visit the National Portrait Gallery; there are occasional ‘gems’ of exhibitions here. For example, up until May last year, they had an exhibition dedicated to the life of Sylvia Plath.
The Smithsonian has different branches dedicated to different themes and exhibits. Make sure you see The First Ladies at The National Museum of American History. Their gowns worn to the inauguration of their husbands are on regular rotation; Hilary Clinton’s bejeweled deep purple gown is stunning. The exhibit also explores their roles, and how it has changed throughout history. You can also see Dorothy’s Slippers, an exhibition about The American Presidency.
The National Museum Of Natural History is also a definitive highlight; if you think that diamonds are a girl’s best friend, then you need to visit this museum.
Mount Vernon is the home of George and Martha Washington; this has since been restored, and is open to look around. There is the mansion, a museum, and a lot more to see; it was also used as a location for a state dinner during the Kennedy Presidency, as organised by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Book your tickets here.
There is also the National Gallery of Art, known for (infamously) exhibiting the Mona Lisa, due to a diplomatic exchange with France.
For breakfast and lunch, try Colada Shop, an establishment that describes itself as having “the flare of Cuban flavour and life.” Their menu has a Spanish-influenced omelet, Pastries, Empanadas, themed sandwiches, and Churros. A ‘staple’ is also bagels for breakfast.
When it comes to dinner, keep in mind that restaurants tend to get busy very quickly; to save yourself from walking a long way, you made need to book a table in advance. You could also try a variety of food from different cultures; and be sure to try Pizza at least once.
If you consider yourself to be an American history enthusiast, you could undertake the challenge of eating at establishments which have names attached to American history. For instance, why not try the Federalist Pig?
Travel hints and tips
While travelling around the city, make sure that you have a bottle of water with you; in summer it can get very hot, very quickly. There also isn’t necessarily a lot of shade; there are usually sellers of bottled water, but the price can rack up quickly. Make sure you also have something to cover your shoulders when it gets to midday.
Washington DC is built in a way that all landmarks are located conveniently close to each other, but due to the size and scale, you could be walking for a long time. Make sure that you are wearing comfortable, sensible shoes; trainers are advisable.
And if you are not sure where to begin, why not undertake a guided bus tour? This will show you the different landmarks, and whoever acts as a guide can given you an insight that this travel guide cannot. There are a variety of places who offer bus tours; you may need to shop around.