Must-See Attractions in Washington DC

See the Jefferson Memorial in spring when the cherry blossoms bloom
See the Jefferson Memorial in spring when the cherry blossoms bloom | © Sean Pavone / Alamy Stock Photo
Aparna Krishnamoorthy

The number of historic buildings and monuments in Washington DC can be overwhelming, with the US Capitol and the Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials just three of many classic places to see in the US capital city. Worried you might miss something? Here’s our guide to the must-see attractions in Washington DC.

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Washington Monument and the National Mall

Memorial

The National Mall is the most recognizable area of the city, highlighted by the 555ft (169m) tall Washington Monument in the center. Take the elevator and whizz up to the observation deck at 500ft in just over a minute for the best views in the city. Then, as you make your way down the Mall from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, stop at the Lockkeeper’s House, which dates from 1833 and was picked up and moved to its current location as part of renovations in 2017.

US Capitol

Building

© Ozerkina / Alamy Stock Photo

Take a guided tour of the legendary building that houses the American legislature. The US Capitol Visitor Center has a ton of information about the operations and history of this house of government. You can see the suffrage banners used in the fight for women’s right to vote on display in Emancipation Hall, along with an iron table used in President Lincoln’s second inauguration, made with metal left over from the construction of the Capitol Dome. Head to the visitor center to see how each state is represented by a statue of a notable person.

Library of Congress

Library
The largest library in the world, the Library of Congress houses more than 170m items. It is also the oldest federal cultural institution in the US and is spread across three buildings, the Thomas Jefferson Building and neighboring James Madison Memorial and John Adams buildings, on the library’s Capitol Hill campus. Regular events explore the vast collection, including the National Book Festival, which features everything from author readings and debates to cookbook demonstrations.

US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Memorial, Museum
Adjacent to the National Mall, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum provides somber and deep documentation and interpretation of the Holocaust in Europe. There is a permanent exhibition providing a narrative history, including personal stories and objects, plus footage from the period. The museum also examines the American responses to Nazism and puts the genocide in the context of the civil rights struggle in America at that time.

Supreme Court of the United States

Building

© Sean Pavone / Alamy Stock Photo

Supreme Court decisions impact the lives of people both in the US and around the world. See the judges in action when the courthouse is open from Monday to Wednesday between October and April, when you can get a free spot to watch a case being argued (arrive early). Visitors can also attend a free lecture about the history of the building and the proceedings of the court.

Georgetown and the Waterfront

Park

© Sean Pavone / Alamy Stock Photo

The Georgetown neighborhood, founded in 1751, has the oldest European-style home in DC – the appropriately named The Old Stone House built in 1765 – and Georgetown University. Movie fans can get a picture with The Exorcist steps at the corner of Prospect Street and 36th Street NW, used to film the death of the character Father Damien Karras in the 1973 horror. Once you’ve relived the gory scene, stroll through the Georgetown streets, filled with shopping destinations and restaurants, then head to the Georgetown Waterfront to enjoy a meal at one of the dining venues overlooking the Potomac River. Wander off the main area to see some of the most expensive real estate in the city, or take a hike along the leafy Capital Crescent Trail, which follows the river.

Lincoln Memorial

Memorial

© Mira / Alamy Stock Photo

The neoclassical Lincoln Memorial is a tribute to the 16th American president; it’s best seen at night, when the columns and Abraham Lincoln statue are lit up. Lincoln led the US through the American Civil War, keeping the north and south states together and eventually abolishing slavery. His statue was designed by sculptor Daniel Chester French to represent its subject’s leadership qualities – one hand is in a fist, representing strength and determination, and the other is more open, representing compassion. Found at the western end of the National Mall, the views from the memorial alone make it one of the most spectacular places to visit in Washington DC. Walk around all sides to get the perfect shot.

Thomas Jefferson Memorial

Building, Memorial
With marble steps and iconic columns, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial is a smaller version of the Roman Pantheon, and its interior walls contain inscriptions from the Declaration of Independence, of which Jefferson was the main author. Like many historical figures, the third president of the US is complicated, having owned enslaved people while also advocating for their gradual emancipation during the 1700s. It’s perhaps best to visit the memorial during the cherry blossom season in spring, but still a worthy stop any other time.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Museum

© Have Camera Will Travel

Take a look at historic aircraft and space vehicles including the Apollo Space Module at the most out-of-this-world attraction in Washington DC. As well as the big-ticket exhibits (a Space Shuttle Discovery model, a Mercury Capsule, the Lunar Module LM-2, rockets and space suits) you can see how a space toilet looks and peer through a giant telescope.

National Gallery of Art

Art Gallery, Building
Browse through the National Gallery of Art exhibits, featuring pieces from numerous countries, artists and eras. There is also a sculpture garden with 21 contemporary pieces – handy if you have little ones who need to let off some steam outside. Go to the rooftop for a fabulous view of the Capitol, and take the tunnel between the East and West Buildings, which is lit up with Leo Villareal’s moving light show installation.

The Kennedy Center

Theater

© Matthew Hodgkins / Alamy Stock Photo

Visit The Kennedy Center, a performance arts space, to see a free show (daily at 6pm) or another current performance, and stop by the rooftop terrace for DC views. Inside the rather formidable building on the Potomac River are several stages include an opera house and a concert hall, which present the best in music, dance, theater, international and children’s programs. The center was opened as a memorial to President John F Kennedy in 1971.

World War II Memorial

Memorial
Flanked by the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, the World War II Memorial pays tribute to the 16m people who served in the US Armed Forces during the war, including those who were killed and those who served at home. It also recognizes the victory of the Allies. One of the newer memorials in the city, it opened in 2004 and is designed around an oval plaza. Scenes from the war are rendered in bronze, including the physical exams undergone by servicemen and members of the American and Russian armies shaking hands at the end of the conflict.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

Memorial, Park

© Zachary Frank / Alamy Stock Photo

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial pays tribute to the best-known civil rights movement leader. The stone sculpture of the social activist and Baptist minister includes a number of his quotes engraved in the memorial, including: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” Find the sculpture at 1964 Independence Avenue SW – a reference to the year the Civil Rights Act became law.

Ben’s Chili Bowl

Diner, American, $$

© Mark Summerfield / Alamy Stock Photo

No trip to DC is complete without the renowned half-smoke at the original location of Ben’s Chili Bowl. Founded in 1958, the restaurant is a celebrity favorite, and was the place DC mayor Adrian Fenty took president-elect Barack Obama in 2009 to welcome him to the city. To add extra oomph to your half-smoke, order it as a “chili half-smoke” and it will be smothered in chili and topped with onions and mustard. Before founders Ben Ali and Virginia Rollins opened the restaurant, it was the first silent movie theater in DC, the Minnehaha.

US National Arboretum

Park
Commune with nature at the US National Arboretum, which houses multiple gardens, a gorgeous bonsai exhibit, a koi pond and original columns from the Capitol building. Bald eagles have been known to nest at the park – the pair that set up home there in 2014 were known as Mr President and The First Lady. Away from the tourist crowds, this is on many a local’s list of what to do in Washington DC – pack a picnic if it’s a lovely day outside.

National Cathedral

Cathedral
This gothic-style cathedral is a majestic building decorated with more than 200 gargoyles and grotesques – look out for the Darth Vader sculpture, which was carved following a competition for kids in the 1980s. The cathedral also features more than 200 stained-glass windows, mosaics, artistic metal work, wood carvings and more. This is where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his final Sunday sermon in 1968, a few days before his assassination on April 4.

Arlington National Cemetery

Cemetery

© Susan Candelario / Alamy Stock Photo

The final resting place for thousands of service men and women, the Arlington National Cemetery is home to the graves of President Kennedy; the astronauts on board the Space Shuttle Challenger, which exploded just after take-off in 1986; and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which has had an uninterrupted guard since 1937. The white headstones that seem to stretch to the horizon are a striking and somber tribute. Part of the cemetery was formerly Freedman’s Village, a community of previously enslaved people, and one of its oldest sections contains the remains of thousands of African-Americans, including freed people and those who served in the United States Colored Troops.

Where to Stay

Looking for a place to stay in Washington DC? Check out our guide to where to book a stay in Washington DC for a local experience.

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