There are so many amazing Washington DC Monuments, parks, and attractions in the DC area that it can be hard to narrow down what you’d like to do. At the same time, the Mall is the primary section of the city that tourists flock to. This guide will help you both narrow down the locations that you’d like to see, as well as help you plan for an in-depth itinerary that will allow you to thoroughly explore the United States capital. In particular, national park service geeks will appreciate the focus of this guide. Anyone collecting stamps will amass a new section of their collection following our itinerary.
- 1 Day 1: Museums and the Washington DC Mall
- 2 Day 2: Theodore Roosevelt Island, Arlington Cemetery, and Georgetown
- 3 Day 3-5: Outlying Washington DC Monuments and Parks
- 4 A Mini-rant About the Old Post Office Tower
- 5 A Couple Other Places to Consider
- 6 Conclusions
- 7 For those Pinterest Pins:
Day 1: Museums and the Washington DC Mall
Stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to the State Capitol building, the Mall is the most famous part of Washington DC. If you take the time to stroll from one end to the other you will pass by most of the Smithsonian museums, the White House, and many Washington DC monuments.
If you start at the State Capitol, and head east, you can begin your day with the Smithsonian museum that is most interesting to you. I always love to visit National Museum of Natural History. As an environmental scientist, I find all of the massive collections and endless opportunities to learn more about the nature of Earth fascinating. My inner space nerd also really enjoys the National Air and Space Museum. But you honestly can’t go wrong with any of these, as they are all free.
After spending the first part of the morning in the museums, snap a picture of the beautiful Smithsonian Castle, and then work your way out into the memorial section of the mall.
The White House, Washington Monument, and the Holocaust Musuem
If you want to see the White House, you should plan far ahead. You will need to request tickets from your house or senate representative at least 21 days before the date that you want to visit. During the spring and fall, there are also certain weekends in which the public is invited into the gardens. In both cases, the tours are free.
I would normally say that the other exclusive option for this area is a trip to the top of the Washington Monument. Sadly, however, the monument is indefinitely closed. The National Park Service (NPS) has been working on modernizing the monument’s elevator system, but they have not been able to fix the problems that they were dealing with as of yet. It is unknown when they will open the elevator again at the time of this writing.
In any case, you will have plenty to see without either of these. The United States Holocaust Museum is a must-see for all visitors. This is a very sobering experience, but I believe that we must never allow ourselves to forget the atrocities of WWII. Tickets to the museum are free, but if you visit DC during the high season, you will want to get yours as early as possible. You can do this online day-of and advanced.
Walking the Monuments
Cap off your day with a thorough exploration of the many Washington DC monuments on the eastern edge of the mall. No matter the war or (male) historic figure that you are interested in, there is likely to be something in this area for you. If you are collecting stamps, be sure to stop by the NPS visitor center in front of the Washington Monument for many stamps, and find more in the giftshops attached to the larger monuments. If you just have time to see a few, I would suggest prioritizing the Lincoln Memorial, the Martin Luther King Jr and FDR Monuments, and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. Doing all of these will be a bit of a walk, however, so come prepared with water, snacks, and good shoes.
Day 2: Theodore Roosevelt Island, Arlington Cemetery, and Georgetown
Technically speaking, Arlington Cemetery and Theodore Roosevelt Island are not part of DC, but I consider them Washington DC monuments due to their proximity and importance. Arlington Cemetery is a sober place, of course. It is a beautiful area to walk, and it’s a powerful reminder of the true cost of war. The changing of the guard is probably the most famous daily event for visitors. From October 1-March 31, this ritual happens once an hour; from April 1 to the end of September, it is doubled during the day.
Next up, more walking. Theordore Roosevelt was one of the first US presidents to want to protect the nature of the country. Due to this, it is absolutely fitting that he is memorialized in the beautiful little island along the Potomac River. The Theordore Roosevelt Island is a great place for a leisurely stroll, and it can also be a wonderful area to go birding in the city. For anyone who loves nature, this is a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding urban areas.
Finally, it isn’t a Washington DC monument, but Georgetown is a place that most people enjoy visiting when they are in the DC area. The buildings in this area will bring you back to a simpler time, but you won’t be able to escape the crowds here. Georgetown is the place to shop among some small (but sometimes very pricey shops). More fun for people not looking to spend too too much money are all of the great places to get food in the area. For me, I went in search of dessert while visiting this part of town.
Here are some of the places that I discovered: Pie Sisters is a place for wonderful tiny pies, and for cupcakes- Georgetown Cupcakes and Baked and Wired. Finally, a little tea shop called Ching Ching Cha has such good tea that I can’t seem to forget my lovely experience there. A good tea house is hard to find in the US. Do note, however, that this place is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Day 3-5: Outlying Washington DC Monuments and Parks
For the following section, you won’t be able to do all of these monuments and parks in one day. So, it would be best to select two to three per day and choose based on what really speaks to you. There is no end to the rich history that you can learn about as you explore and many of these will also give you a good dose of nature. The outlying attractions within the NPS include the Ford Theatre where President Lincoln was shot, many many beautiful parks, and some homes of historic figures.
Ford’s Theatre is an absolute must for any history buff and national park geek. It is one of the most powerfully historic places in the city, in my opinion. Of course, the theater where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated is horrendously tragic, but being able to stand there in the place where it happened connects you to the past in a way that nothing else can. When you explore the theater itself, you will learn more about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.
Eventually, you will make your way to the room where Lincoln was brought after he was shot, and explore a post-assassination museum. Unless you already know all there is to know about the event, you are bound to learn something. The park gives out tickets for this site, and you can’t always walk yourself through. So, I would highly suggest that you plan ahead for this stop. Look at the hours for the theater and get your tickets as early as you can, especially during the busy season.
Parks of DC
East of Capitol Hill, of the edges of DC are an array of beautiful parks that are owned and maintained by NPS. Pick which ones to visit based on the different elements of the park that you’d like to experience. For instance, Marion has some great places for kids to play. While Lincoln park is more of an extension on the memorials in the Mall area. In any case, visiting at least one would be a great way to experience some of the quieter places in DC while sticking to the beauty that the NPS is hard at work protecting for all of us.
Keeping with the theme of parks, Fort Dupont Park is 300+ acre large wooded park. It is home to an earthen fort, but also just provides a great place to take in some vibrant greenery while visiting the city. Rock Creek is even bigger at 1700 acres. Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens is another beautiful place to visit. As a desert dweller myself, I really love seeing the aquatic gardens. There is just something endlessly enchanting about water to someone who lives where it is so scarce. Plus they have a lotus and lily festival in July! Could there be anything cooler?
For historic homes, some of your options include Fredrick Douglas’ home, Mary McLeod Bethune’s townhome where she made waves for the rights of African American women, and Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s home. There is also a preserved and protected home for women’s equality called the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality monument. You will notice that all of the above Washington DC monuments commemorate people that you will rarely see acknowledged throughout the rest of DC- African Americans and women. So, I would really highly suggest giving a couple of these some time.
A Mini-rant About the Old Post Office Tower
The Old Post Office Tower is an exceptionally beautiful building in the heart of downtown DC, that has some NPS personnel inside provided interpretation for the building. However, I have never been able to figure out how to find them… and this is partially because the building is currently home to a gaudy hotel. It’s really sad to see such a beautiful historic building defaced in this way, but I can only hope that the future will bring brighter things for this place. If you’ve been on an NPS tour, let me know how it went!
A Couple Other Places to Consider
For any animal lover, the free Smithsonian’s National Zoo is a great place to spend half a day. All the popular favorites are there, and you can also explore some very interesting in-door exhibits. My personal favorite spot in the zoo is the Amazonia exhibit. This is perfect for cold days, as it is balmy and warm inside. The best part of it all, however, is being able to immerse yourself in the built jungles inside and to meet some of the cutest little froggies in the world. There is also a bird house on-site, and I love birds… so honestly, you can’t go wrong with this zoo. It is free and they are active conservation partners. Check it out.
Finally, if you enjoy Asian food, clothing, art, and culture, the Washington DC Chinatown is worth a look. I wouldn’t say that I think it is the most authentic Chinatown that I have ever been to (Starbucks with a sign in Mandarin isn’t sufficient, DC), but there is some VERY good food in the area. It’s a great place to wander for a nice evening with friends, trying new foods or old favorites. It’s also a lovely part of town with beautiful old buildings and a vibrant dragon gate and gardens.
As usual, no matter what your kind of travel is, or what you want to see most, Washington DC is a place with a little something for everyone. The history buff will find endless places to visit and learn more about. The nature lover can explore some massive, green parks. And families will find many wonderful museums, parks, and a beautiful zoo to experience together. Depending on the time of year, you might also catch a beautiful bloom of Cherryblossoms, or get to attend the Lotus and Lily Festival.
For those Pinterest Pins: