Tour the Nation's Capital

Take a tour of Washington, DC, hitting both tried-and-true tourist attractions and under-the-radar landmarks, from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to the US National Arboretum.
By: Hannah Prince

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National WWII Memorial

Between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial is one of DC’s newer landmarks. It opened in 2004 to honor the 16 million people who served in the country’s armed forces during World War II. The fountains, pillars and plaques form a circle that’s particularly impressive when it’s lit up at night. Don’t miss the obvious photo op: you in front of the pillar with your home state’s name engraved on it.


Read all about it at this museum, whose new building near the National Mall opened in 2008. It examines both world events through the eyes of the media and the history of journalism itself. Among its 15 galleries are sections of the Berlin Wall, stories about First Amendment rights, multimedia exhibits on the digital revolution, and front pages from American and international newspapers. In the Interactive Newsroom, visitors can test their own reporting skills to create a newspaper story or a TV news broadcast.

Jefferson Memorial

This monument for the author of the Declaration of Independence and third president cuts a fine silhouette from across the Tidal Basin. The view is especially beautiful in the spring when the cherry trees around the water’s edge are in bloom. Don’t start the trek around to the memorial unless you’re wearing comfortable shoes — the walk is longer than it looks. But on the way, you can also check the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, which opened in 2011, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial off your list. Or get a different perspective in the summer by renting a paddleboat on the Tidal Basin.

National Zoo

Bao Bao may be growing up, but it’s still exciting to see the young panda and her parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. The cub, born Aug. 23, 2013, will eventually be sent to China, but in the meantime, visitors are lining up to catch a glimpse of her playing or eating. While Bao Bao is the main attraction, she isn’t the only baby at the free Smithsonian zoo: The big cats exhibit features a pair of Sumatran tiger cubs, also born in August 2013, and 6 African lion cubs, born in 2 litters in early 2014. And of course, you can’t miss the gorillas, orangutans, Asian elephants, American bison and hundreds of other animals.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The reflective, black granite wall honors American soldiers who died or went missing in the Vietnam War, and it is inscribed with more than 58,000 names. Even if no one you know is listed there, take a contemplative moment to grasp the enormity of it all. For those who are looking for a specific name, there are alphabetical catalogs at the memorial entrances that give a panel and row number for each person.

Eastern Market

This is not your typical neighborhood farmers market. While Eastern Market, located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, does offer fresh produce and flowers, it also lines up vendors selling everything from furniture and jewelry to cakes and pottery. The indoor section is open every day except Monday, but on the weekends, the market moves outside, too, and becomes a gathering place with live music and local food. Why bother with one of those “I Heart DC” T-shirts when you can shop for a unique, handmade souvenir?


There’s plenty to explore in one of DC’s oldest and most famous neighborhoods. Stroll along cobblestone sidewalks and imagine all the history that has been viewed through the windows of those row houses. Go on a shopping spree on M Street, where you’ll find both big-name retailers and intimate boutiques. But don’t spend all your money: You’ll need to have some left so you can indulge in the amazing dining and nightlife options in the area. Start with appetizers and cocktails on the waterfront while enjoying a beautiful view of the Potomac.

Washington Monument

The 555-foot obelisk dedicated to George Washington towers over the city and can be spotted even from Virginia. It was closed for repairs after being damaged in a 5.8-magnitude earthquake in August 2011, but the landmark finally reopened in May 2014. Free tickets to go inside and ride to the top are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Or you can simply bask in its glory with a picnic or a game of catch on the surrounding lawn.

International Spy Museum

Examine all the evidence as you make your way through the largest collection of international spy-related artifacts on public display. Visitors will learn about the role espionage has played throughout history, from Moses to Stalin, and see the tools of the trade, including tiny cameras, hidden messages, concealed weapons and more. Wannabe agents can sign up for Operation Spy, an interactive experience that challenges participants to find the clues and crack the case.

East Potomac Golf Course

Even if you can’t hit the fairway to save your life, at least you’ll get a great view of the monuments when you tee it up at East Potomac. Its 36 holes, split among the appropriately named Red, White and Blue courses, crisscross an island right next to the Tidal Basin. The site is also a great place to work on your swing on the heated driving range in the winter, see the cheerful cherry blossoms in the spring, or bring the family for a round of mini-golf in the summer.

Museums on the National Mall

The great thing about the National Mall is that you can roam in and out of the 10-plus museums as you please — entry to them is free. Check out an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art (pictured); pop into the Air and Space Museum to see the Wright brothers’ plane; and swing by the Museum of American History to examine the flag that inspired the national anthem, Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, and Michelle Obama’s 2009 inauguration dress. Spend as much or as little time as you want in each spot without wasting the cost of admission. And in between, find a grassy spot to sit and people-watch under the imposing shadow of the Capitol.

Old Ebbitt Grill

When you’re ready to refuel for more DC adventures, stop for a meal or a drink at the city’s oldest saloon. The Old Ebbitt Grill was established in 1856 on the edge of Chinatown. The current location on 15th Street is just a block from the White House. It’s a popular spot for politicos, and even presidents including Ulysses S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt are said to have frequented the bar. The restaurant is known for its oysters, but it also serves breakfast and a wide selection of entrees and sandwiches.

Kennedy Center

Long day of sightseeing? Sit back and soak up some culture at one of several venues inside the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra, free shows on the Millennium Stage, blockbuster Broadway tours such as Wicked and The Book of Mormon — the schedule has something for everyone. After the last curtain call, make sure to venture up to the roof deck, where you can get a panoramic view of the city all lit up. 

US National Arboretum

This 446-acre site features a number of gardens and collections that can be traversed via car, bike, bus tour, tram or foot. Escape the city life among the dogwoods, azaleas, ferns and magnolias — you’re even allowed to bring your dog. Don’t miss the bonsai museum or the Capitol columns, 22 pillars that became part of the Capitol building in 1828. They were removed 30 years later because they couldn’t sufficiently support the dome, which was built bigger than planned. The columns didn’t make their way to the arboretum until the 1980s, but they have become the site’s most photographed feature. 

Ford’s Theatre

Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865. Visit the on-site museum, which details his presidency and assassination, and the Petersen House across the street, where he was taken for treatment and ultimately died a few hours later. Ford’s Theatre is also still a working performance venue, so if you like a little entertainment with your history lesson, get tickets for a show.

Supreme Court

For visitors who are interested in the law and the actual procedures of the federal government, a stop at the US Supreme Court is a must. If you’re lucky, you’ll be there on a day of oral arguments, which are open to the public. Regardless, though, visitors can tour the building, view the current exhibitions and, when the court is not in session, check the schedule of courtroom lectures. Just note that the building is closed on Saturdays and Sundays, so leave it off your weekend itinerary.

Arlington National Cemetery

Venture across the river into Virginia to explore this moving site, whose 624 acres honor those who served the United States. The peaceful, beautiful landscape is dotted with more than 400,000 graves, including those of prominent figures such as Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice, and Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who designed the layout of Washington, DC. You’ll also want to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Eternal Flame burning at the gravesite of John F. Kennedy, one of only 2 presidents buried in Arlington National Cemetery (the other is William Taft). 

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