[Part of an occasional series of FAQs about traveling to Washington, D.C. For more, please click on the “dc-faqs” tag above.]
Unlike other cities, you’re here in Washington not to understand a city, but to understand a country, so there’s no way that I would recommend that someone skip the usual monumental sights. Unlike other cities, I can think of few “tourist traps” here that are filled with visitors, but which locals can easily go a lifetime avoiding; all I can think of is that a single block of chintzy shops across from Ford’s Theater.
Let’s start with what the experts recommend.
- Lonely Planet’s 2 days (the Mid-Atlantic Trips book has an edgier 2-day itinerary)
- Jennifer Barger’s 2 days for National Geographic Traveler
- Neal Learner’s 3 days for United Airlines’ Hemispheres
- The New York Times’ 36 Hours on Capitol Hill
- The Washington Post’s online visitor guide includes three different 3-day itineraries: monuments, city neighborhoods, and suburbs
- TripAdvisor has a comprehensive list of attractions
- AirBNB has an up-to-date photo tour of local neighborhoods
- ASLA’s Landscape Architect’s Guide to Washington DC presents context around lesser-known memorials and public spaces
To which I’d add these personal favorites among the monuments, memorials, and museums — although bear in mind that most people find what I’m interested in to be terribly boring, so you should take the time to find the things that interest you:
- since I volunteer at the National Building Museum, I can vouch for its amazing space, thoughtful (and fun) exhibits, and fascinating museum shop; other architecture geeks might also see what’s in the windows at the District Architecture Center
- the Smithsonian American Art Museum: be sure to spend time curating your own art experience at the library-like Luce Center on the third floor, and stop in to admire the magnificent Renwick Gallery across from the White House
- most assume that the Smithsonian’s collections of Americana would overshadow its collections about the rest of the world, but in fact its connected Freer, Sackler, and African Art museums have some of the finest collections in their respective fields anywhere and are joined by a contemplative garden
- whenever I’m feeling homesick for Chicago, the simulated “L” ride at the American History museum takes me right back to the Loop
- the NMAAHC’s History exhibits can be overwhelming, since they follow a set path–they took me two separate day-long visits to complete. The Community and Culture exhibits upstairs are perhaps more reasonably attempted during a shorter visit.
- the Library of Congress has consistently fascinating public exhibits, and getting a reader card to explore the reading rooms’ vast reference collections — and just maybe request a book, any book — takes just a few minutes
- the National Gallery of Art’s East Wing towers are each given over to immersive installations; one for Alexander Calder mobiles, one for Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, and one for changing single-artist installations
- the the Georgetown / Foggy Bottom waterfront has a cluster of enjoyable outdoor spaces: the Kennedy Center’s rooftop, promenade, and Reach gardens; nearby cinemas (from Hollywood blockbusters at Georgetown AMC Loews to indie documentaries at West End); woodland and wetland trails on Theodore Roosevelt Island; the waterfalls and urban alleys along the C&O Canal; and a waterfront park with, pubs, splash fountains, and boathouses
- if a Hollywood blockbuster is showing at the Smithsonian’s [true] Imax screens, it’s really not worth seeing anywhere else (plus, these are the closest cinemas to my house, not counting the outdoor film fests that have movies every night all summer)
I also find the monuments at the west end of the Mall to be too widely spaced for a comfortable walk. Instead, use bike share and this handy Monuments by Bikeshare route, which uses off-street paths or low-traffic roads. For a great look at the city behind the monuments, the “13 Colonies Ride” is an excellent place to start.