Things To Do In Washington D C

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The National and political capital of the United States is more than just the center of government. Washington D.C.  (or just “DC”,  short for “District of Columbia”) is a vibrant, exciting, cultured and bewildering city. It is a city that is steeped in tradition, yet it is on the cutting edge of technology.  Some of the most famous museums, art galleries and monuments in the world are found in Washington DC. And yet it is a city with an energetic night life, fantastic restaurants, scandals, intrigue, history…There is so much to see and do, it’s hard to know where to begin.

 Washington DC

 

 When to go:

Summers  in 'D.C.c an be hot and humid, and winters can be cold and snowy. Springtime, with the cherry blossoms and the mild temperatures is probably the best time to visit this beautiul city. And Fall, with milder termperatures and the leaves turning beautiful colors is a good time to visit as well. If you can deal with the heat, and you want an experience like the one in the picture above, then visit on the 4th of July for the best fireworks display and party in the United States.

 

Here's a list of great places to visit in Washington DC:

National Mall

Washington DC

Most people visiting Washington DC want to see the National Mall. This 1000 plus acre reserve in the middle of DC is actually a National Park – or, rather, a series of parks -  The National Mall and Memorial Parks. In and along the National Mall you find some of the best known American monuments: The Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.  In “recent “years, the World War II Memorial, Korean War Veteran’s Memorial,  Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial  and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial have been added to the Mall. Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was shot, is also part of the park. 

The very best thing about the National Mall is that it’s all free. You need a timed ticket for the Washington Monument (which is open again after being shut down for repairs after the 2011 earthquake) – but that’s about it. (Note: touring any government and most historical buildings in DC means a trip through a metal detector and a search of your backpack and/or purse. It’s just a fact of life in the Nation’s Capital).

 The Mall is open 24 hours a day (though the Washington Monument closes at 5:00) and  it seems like something is always going on at the park. One of the most famous and well-attended annual events is the Cherry Blossom festival, which occurs more-or-less in late March (or whenever the blossoms are out). Of course, every national holiday is celebrated on the National Mall, which hosts approximately 3000 events a year.

Parking at the National Mall is limited and problematic, and the Mall – from the US Capital Building to the Lincoln Memorial – is huge. On a summer day, when the heat is in the 80’s and the humidity is 100%, it can be a looong walk. So a good way to see the Mall would be to take a Hop-on-Hop Off bus or Trolley tour. These two tour groups allow you to get on or off the “tour” at any point. So you can see the Jefferson Memorial, then jump on the bus instead of walking to the next site, which might be a bit of a hike.  This service is equally welcome in winter when there might be a foot of snow on the ground, or it’s windy and raining. A day pass will cost you about $35.00 for the trolley tours, and $47.00 for the bus tour. Public transportation is also quite good at the Mall, with several Metro stops in the area. And, for the more industrious, bicycling is a great way to see all the sights. The Mall is very bicycle friendly, with ample bike parking.

 Washington DC

  

The White House

Washington DC

When you are at the Washington Monument, take a glance to your North (or, look to the right if you are facing the WWII Memorial) and you will see one of the most famous residences in the world: The White House. Home to the President of the United States and seat of power, this symbol of democracy is remarkably accessible. And it looks so small!  But it really isn’t – it just looks that way from the Washington Monument.  So, wander across Constitution Avenue and the Ellipse and take your picture in front of the White House. Of course there are restrictions, but you can still get close enough to have a good shot of this most sacred American home in the background. Crossing directly from the Washington Monument will give you the best photo view of the White House, but be aware that you may be told to clear the area at any time. Whenever an important person is coming or going, or there is some kind of perceived threat, it is standard operating procedure to clear the public areas around the White House.

  

Smithsonian Institute

Washington DC

 Still part of the National Mall, the Smithsonian Institute is actually a collection of buildings. Spread out over blocks and blocks of prime DC real estate, the Smithsonian has 19 different museums and galleries, a Zoological Park, and a Castle. It is the largest research and museum complex in the world. And the whole thing was started by a British scientist who never even visited the United States!

 The main museums at the Mall are the American History Museum, Natural History Museum, Air and Space Museum, Arts and Industries (closed for renovations at the moment), American Indian Museum and the Hiroshima Museum. The Art Galleries are the Freer Gallery, the National Gallery West Building and National Gallery East Building, Arthur M Sackler Gallery and the African Art Gallery.  Any one of the museums or galleries could easily take a day to get through properly. They are huge and wonderful.  The Natural History Museum, for example, contains entire rooms full of rare gems and phosphorescent minerals. The American History Museum contains an entire house. The Air and Space Museum has Lindburg’s “Spirit of St. Louis”, Tri-Planes, Bi-Planes, Bombers and Spaceships. Exhibits are always changing, and new and exciting exhibits arrive every year. You could spend your entire life at the Smithsonian and still not see everything the Museums and Galleries have to offer.

 All the museums and galleries – even the National Zoo- are free. It was founded, after all as “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.\" Hours for most buildings are 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. If you cannot dedicate days to seeing all the attractions, try to at least give yourself a day or two to see the Museum or Gallery that interests you the most.

 While there are not a lot of places to eat on the Mall (unless there is a festival of some sort going on)  but street vendors and food trucks are plentiful, and good restaurants are only a block or two away.

 

  Washinton National Cathedral

 Washington DC

 Driving in DC is difficult at best, and sometimes downright scary, so, if possible, take advantage of the various tours that are offered, or use the Metro system that is quite reliable and fairly user-friendly once you understand how to buy a ticket. Washington DC is bordered on one side by the Potomac River, is bisected by bridges and surrounded by beltways (ring roads) and traffic is often halted down due to motorcades. In essence, you have a basic driving nightmare. But if you must, then you should take a trip up Embassy Row (Massachusetts Ave) to the National Cathedral.

 Embassy Row is a  a not-to-be-missed experience, representing a microcosm of the world. Embassies large and small stand next to each other along this important Avenue.  You might see a demonstration, a celebration of a national or religious holiday or, if you are very lucky, find a cultural event that is open to the public. Some of the Embassies are discrete and non-descript,while others shout their power and national heritage to the world.  If you can find a place to park and can take the time to sit and do some people-watching, eventually representative from just about every nation in the world will walk or drive past you.

Continue upMassachusetts Avenue, and where it intersects with Wisconsin Avenue, you will find one of the most the most beautiful Cathedrals in the world. Set on a hill high above the City, the Washington National Cathedral is surrounded by beautiful gardens, and is open to all denominations. It is the place where state funerals and high-profile “spiritual” events usually take place, and is often the church of choice for current Presidents and their families.  It is famous for its Neo-Gothic architecture, stained glass, flying buttresses, art, spiritual and historical significance and its gargoyles. Yes-gargoyles. Severely damaged during the August, 2011, 5.8 magnitude earthquake, the Cathedral is still undergoing renovation. Fortunately, most of the famous and quirky gargoyles, including the famous “Darth Vader” gargoyle, were not damaged.

Visits to the Cathedral are $10, but , according to their website, “Worshiping, prayer, and other spiritual visits are free; Sundays are free” . So, if you are going to church, the visit is free.  You can also take several guided tours that have a nominal charge and are worth the price. The Gargoyle tour costs $15, and will take outside to show you all the famous gargoyles and grotesques. It is only offered from April through October, and binoculars are suggested.  The Behind-the-Scenes tour costs $25, and several Art & Architecture Close Up Tours are available at a cost of $20 each.

If you don’t want to pay for an additional tour, however, make sure that you either climb the 333 steps to the top of the bell-ringing tower – or take the elevator. The views of DC from the towers are simply magnificent. Maps are in place to tell you what you are seeing, and, on a clear day, it is a photographer’s dream.If you are tired from all that climbing, you can have a quick bite in the Open City Café (formerly the Baptistery) or take a cooling stroll in the lovely Bishop’s garden.

 

Houses of Government

Washington DC

Another great and free activity is to tour the many Houses of Government in Washington DC. At the US Capital Building, located at the end of the National Mall, visitors can participate in free guided tours, but tickets are required. You might even be able to see Congress in session if your tour passes through the gallery or you obtain a Pass from the office of Senators or the Office of Representatives.  The Supreme Court (located at First Street and Maryland Avenue) is also open to the public, on a first-come, first-served basis. It is open year round from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm. And, believe it or not, people can actually visit the White House. You have to make a request in advance through a Congressional representative (or you have to be a famous person or head-of-state). For those who don’t have time for the six-month wait (or who are not famous people or world leaders) the White House Visitor Center is always a good second choice.

  

Georgetown

Washington DC

Georgetown is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Washington, DC. Because it is on the Potomac River, it actually was a port during colonial times.  It is a lovely part of the city, resplendent with row-houses, fantastic boutiques, enchanting shops, and sidewalks made of cobblestones that came over as ballast from sailing ships. It was founded in 1751 and named for King George II (not after America’s Founding Father, George Washington). The famous C & O Canal runs through Georgetown, and it is home to, Georgetown University. Wonderful and historical eateries are to be found in this district. Taking a stroll along the canal, through the beautiful gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, or indulging in a leisurely cup of coffee at a local café are guaranteed to wash away the tensions of the day.

 Many of the 200 year old row houses are still in use, beautifully restored and perhaps converted to an upscale shop or eatery.  Georgetown in a major shopping area and some of DC’s best restaurants are located here. It has a vibrant nightlife, and some of the most exclusive hotels make this historic section of Washington DC their home. The Metro does not extend to Georgetown, so if you are not staying in the area, find some parking and be sure to read the signs to make sure you won’t get a parking ticket.

 

 International Spy Museum

Washington DC

Ok, so if you’re tired of history and government and colonial buildings, you may want to try this place. The International Spy Museum is part museum and part interactive covert-spy adventure. You can get a General Admissions ticket for $21.95 (tour of museum only), or you can become a spy.  You can be a “Spy in the City” for $14.95 (“high stakes operation outside the International Spy Museum”), indulge yourself with a spy adventure as an “Operation Spy” for $14.95 (a live spy adventure on premises) or you can have the best of both worlds, with a “Spy Combination” ticket ($27.95), which gives you admission to the museum and makes you an Operational Spy. Yikes! Besides the intriguing and educational exhibits, the International Spy Museum is great fun. If you participate in a “mission” you can go as a group, or you might be teamed up with perfect strangers. Who might be spies. Who knows? Trust nobody!

 

Night Life

Chinatown

Washington DC

 Devotees of Netflix’s “House of Cards” should be aware that most of the series is filmed in Baltimore, Maryland, not Washington DC. So you should not wander about Washington looking for landmarks or restaurants from the TV series. They are not there. But DC still has an active and night life and offers culturally diverse dining choices.  From Southern cooking, to BBQ’s to Near East and Far East eateries, DC has it all. For a super fantastic time, wander down to Chinatown just pop in anywhere. You can shop, and eat until you burst.

 

The Kennedy Center 

Washington DC

For entertainment of an artistic nature, the Kennedy Center has almost 3000 performances a year. It is home to the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington Ballet, Washington Opera, and the American Film Institute. Performances at the Kennedy Center include “theatre, musicals, dance, orchestral, chamber, jazz, popular, & folk music; youth and family programs and multi-media shows” (per their website). And, to make things just a little nicer, free performance are held at the center on a daily basis (at the Millennial Stage).

 DC also offers absolutely tons of night clubs and themed bars for one’s dining, drinking and dancing pleasure, and comedy clubs abound (maybe the people need to lighten up after a long serious day doing the Nation’s business).  The Verizon Center on F Street in downtown DC is one of the best and concert and athletic events venues in town, with over 200 events a year. In addition, though not exactly in Washington DC, Wolf Trap Farm Park, also known simply as “Wolf Trap”, is located very close to the city in Vienna Virginia (which means, just across the river).  As one of the premier concert locations in the world, Wolf Track National Park for the Performing Arts (yes, it is a park) hosts “ a wide range of concerts including pop, country, folk and blues, orchestra, dance, opera” at their indoor and outdoor facilities.

 In the end, the best way to find your way around Washington DC without having to deal with the hassle of driving, parking and dealing with Presidential motorcades is to take a tour. So many different kinds of tours are available, with guides who must, by law, be knowledgeable about the city and its history.  You can take a bus, trolley, boat, bike or a Segway tour. Or take one of  the smaller minivan tours. It will take most of the day, but certified guides will take you to all the major sites and give you a history lesson as well. It's well worth the price.

 

 

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