Washington DC, USA

The Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, Washington DC, USA

The Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, Washington DC. Photo by Javier Losa.

Visiting Washington DC (District of Columbia)

As the capital of the USA historic Washington is home to varied, iconic American buildings and monuments including the White House and magnificent memorials.
The world’s largest museum complex containins some of the country’s finest museums (almost all free), there’s plenty of classic US urban life action with vibrant arts and culture scenes both day and night and a mass of outdoor activities are available such as hikes, river cruises, or just strolling the city’s airy parks and gardens.

The city offers excellent public transportation, especially the subway system, but the centre is compact enough to walk almost everywhere and the sights are well marked as a walking tour. In fact Washington was recently voted the US’s most pedestrian-friendly city by the Brookings Institute.

Downsides

• Washington has earned itself a reputation as one of the most dangerous cities in the USA, though if you stick to the tourist areas and hours, you’ll be in elite company with few criminal concerns.
• The city tends to be very cold in winter and very hot/humid in summer.

Washington DC climate

Jefferson Memorial and Washington DC's famous cherry blossoms, USA

The Jefferson Memorial and Washington’s famous cherry blossoms. Jefferson, the White House and the Washington Monument are major attractions in DC’s National Mall – which is a park, not a shopping centre.

Best weather: April (for spectacular cherry blossoms), May-June and September.
OK: March, October-November
Worst: July- Aug, can be unbearably hot and humid and December-February, bitterly cold with a chance of snow.

Length of stay not incl. flights:
Minimum: 1 day for the White House plus Capitol Hill sights. Recommended: 3-5 days for sights plus selective museum visits.
Note that non-Americans may need to apply for a US Visa Waiver if flying to the USA for the first time.

Washington DC main attractions

White House

The White House and The Ellipse, Washington DC, USA

The White House and The Ellipse, Washington DC. Photo by Carol Highsmith.

Located at Lafayette Square, the White House is the most famous building in the US, home to many presidents and yet you may be able to take a tour.
White House Tours can be reserved through your Member of Congress if you are American, or via your embassy in Washington if not. Your request can be made up to six months in advance, but there are no guarantees.
Nearby are the Old Executive Office Building (White House staff), Treasury Building, Octagon House, and Daughters of the American Revolution Museum.

National Mall and Memorial Parks

The Lincoln Memorial. Photo by Javier Losa.

The vast swathes of old, protected parks from Capitol Hill to the river are fringed by great museums such as National Gallery of Art (100, 000 paintings, sculptures and graphic arts including Leonardo da Vinci); the National Museum of American History (displaying the heritage of the USA), the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (one of the country’s most popular museums housing more than 125 million specimens of all kinds of nature including the 45. 5-carat Hope Diamond, the world’s largest African bush elephant, and dinosaurs); enormous collections of varied interest at the globally acclaimed Smithsonian Institute (the world’s largest museum and research complex).

In the central area you can see monuments to American dead, including presidents: the Washington Monument – a huge obelisk; the Lincoln Memorial – a Greek style temple; the Jefferson Memorial – dome; FDR Memorial – president Roosevelt carved in stone; Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Korean War Memorial, World War II Memorial.

Capitol Hill

Washington’s landmark Capitol overlooks the splendid Supreme Court and massive Library of Congress. It is located east of the National Mall. Other sights here are Union Station and the National Postal Museum.

Federal Triangle

Between the Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue is a bureaucratic sink tank with FBI headquarters, the National Archives, the Old Post Office for terrific views across the city and finally Ford’s Theater, where Abraham Lincoln was shot.

National Zoological Park, one of the most popular and kid-friendly of the Smithsonian’s museums, this is houses 2, 000 animals including a giant panda.

Georgetown

Georgetown street, Washington DC, USA

Georgetown street. Photo by Serge Melki.

Situated along the Potomac River waterfront northwest of Washington, is the city’s oldest area with some well-preserved 18th century buildings; it’s favoured for its odd little shops and boutiques, atmospheric cafes, bars and restaurants. This characterful district was once the residence of the young senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his wife Jackie before they moved to the White House in 1961.

Adams Morgan

D. C. ‘s funkiest district run by community of artists, Adams Morgan is renowned for its striking display of arts, colourful murals, world cuisine restaurants and as a primo party-animal destination on weekends.
Try the ‘Adams Morgan Heritage trail’ self-guided walk. This is a short walk from Dupont Circle.
Beware, crime still remains a problem in this neighbourhood.

Dupont Circle

A lively and cosmopolitan district with magnificent historic mansions, foreign embassies and many art galleries/ museums such as The Phillips Collection and National Geographic Society’s Museum at Explorers Hall.

Other Washington DC attractions

Walks and hikes, jogging and cycling

The city enjoys over 200, 000 acres of parkland, jogging trails and biking routes (ranging from 4km National Mall sidewalk to 73km Washington & Old Dominion trail (W & OD). It’s also well worth trying unique walks such as the 2-hour guided ‘Moonlight hikes’ on weekends after a full moon.

Water activities

Activities available along the Potomac River include sailing, canoeing, kayaking and fishing.

Main Festivals and Celebrations

– March-April, National Cherry Blossom Festival. This is Washington DC’s best-known annual event, lasting two weeks, with the blossoming of more than 3, 700 Japanese cherry trees around the Tidal Basin, Hains Point and the Washington Monument. Events including fireworks, concerts, art exhibitions and sports. A grand parade features floats, marching bands, dancers, celebrity guests, and more.
– 4th July, Independence Day. No better place to be on that day than in Washington D. C.
The celebrations include a parade down Constitution Avenue followed at night by spectacular fireworks at the Washington Monument.
– Early December, the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. The president lights the tree at the northern end of the Ellipse, with orchestral and choral music, following 4-week Pageant of Peace, a holiday celebration full of free events such as musical performances.

Art culture, entertainment

High quality live music in Jazz and Blues venues, especially in Adams Morgan and Shaw districts; Chamber Symphony Orchestras and Opera at the Kennedy Centre; also museums, parks and the zoo offer free concerts.

Short Trips Out of Town

Mt Vernon National Historic Site, Virginia: the 18thC estate of George Washington, with house, gardens, farm and his tomb.

Arlington, Virginia: Arlington National Cemetery around Lee’s Arlington House is spiked with thousands of military graves, as well as being the burial place of J F Kennedy and his family.

The Pentagon, headquarters of the US Department of Defence, is also located in Arlington. All guided tours are free. and are available on weekdays to schools, educational organizations and other approved groups, by reservation only.

Maryland Parks offer plenty of nature activities such as Great Falls National Park’s challenging 7-km trail tracing the Potomac River; the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (C & O Canal) National Historic Park with original canal structures attracting more than 3 million visitors every year. Its canal and towpath trail for walking, biking and boating extends 188 miles (300 kms) from Georgetown in Washington DC to Cumberland, Maryland.

Also in the area are the states of Virginia, West Virginia and Marylandcontaining interesting historical attractions including civil war remnants and spectacular outdoor activity areas:

Virginia

The Colonial Parkway Towns

Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jameston, the three most historic towns in the state, come together as a single attraction.
Williamsburg has an excellent historic precinct with many 18th/19thC buildings open to the public and frequent period performances.
Jamestown has a long association with the first English settlers, including ruins and a reconstruction of the 1607 settlement.
Yorktown is where the the English were defeated by George Washington.

Richmond

The state capital is tied strongly to Confederate history with the Capitol Square, White House (of the Confederacy), Museum of the Confederacy as well as the Edgar Allen Poe Museum and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Bizarrely you can raft whitewater on the James River within the Downtown area!

Shenandoah Valley

The Shenandoah River area contains a long section of the the Appalachian hiking trail.
Hike the Washington and Jefferson Forests, visit the caves at Luray and the Natural Bridge Caverns.

Lexington

Offers the Virginia Military Institute and George C Marshall Museum plus Stonewall Jackson House, while Staunton has the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace Museum and Museum of American Frontier Culture.

Blue Ridge Mountains

the Appalachians are for outdoor recreation, including the Blue Ridge Parkway, Mt Rogers National Recreation Area and Cumberland Gap National Historic Park.

West Virginia

Mainly about outdoor attractions due to its massive, lush Appalachian Mountain Range. e. g.
Monongahela National Forest: this region in the Appalachians caters to all kinds of outdoor activities including hiking, mountainbiking, rafting, caving and skiing.
New River Gorge National River: there’s excellent rafting on the New River and hiking, biking and climbing along the gorge.

Maryland

The place for civil war history and sailing, with several coastal towns and opportunities for unhurried relaxation.

Baltimore: a welcoming city for tourists, with good attractions and pleasant water taxis to whisk you around, particularly in the Inner Harbor area. e. g. the excellent National Aquarium, the Maritime Museum and the old civil war battleship at Pier 1. There is also a Civil War Museum, Babe Ruth Museum, Star Spangled Banner Flag House and 1812 Museum.

Annapolis: the state capital of Maryland and sailing capital of the USA, you must see the massive daily formation march at the US Naval Academy. There is naturally a Maritime Museum too and some historic buildings.