Things to Do in Washington DC
The somber, sobering Holocaust Museum is unlike any other museum in Washington D.C. In remembering the millions murdered by the Nazis, it is brutal, direct and impassioned. Its exhibits leave many visitors in tears and few unmoved.
The Holocaust Museum uses its collection of more than 12,500 artifacts to reveal the Jewish experience in three parts: Nazi Assault, Final Solution, and Last Chapter. Visitors are given the identity card of a single Holocaust victim, narrowing the scope of suffering to the individual level while paying thorough, overarching tribute to its powerful subject.
Apart from the permanent exhibits, the candlelit Hall of Remembrance is a sanctuary for quiet reflection; the Wexner Learning Center offers text archives, photographs, films and oral testimony available on touch-screen computers. If you have young children in tow (the museum recommends not bringing children 11 and under).
Straight off the wire and into the museum, the Newseum makes today’s front-page news part of its exhibits. More than 700 daily newspapers from around the world submit a digital front page to the Newseum and more than 80 are printed for display.
These front pages collaborate to tell the rest of the museum’s stories, too, as most of the major exhibits began as front-page stories. Permanent exhibits include the 9/11, Berlin Wall and First Amendment Galleries; hands-on experiences in both the NBC Interactive Newsroom and HP New Media Gallery; and the awe-inspiring Pulitzer Prize Photographs gallery that shows the world’s largest collection of winning images. And the Newseum doesn’t ignore the struggles and sacrifice that come from covering the world’s biggest stories, either, as the Journalist Memorial Gallery is updated each year with the names of brave journalists, photographers, editors and broadcasters killed in the line of duty.
You will see more money printed in one hour-long tour at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing than you may ever see in your lifetime. This federal agency, housed under the umbrella of the United States Department of the Treasury, makes paper money for the country. It does not print coins – that responsibility lies with the United States Mint.
Tours of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing walk visitors through the money-printing process and explain how the U.S. money system works. Visitors also learn about the history of counterfeit money and ways that the government has made paper money more secure. In addition to printing money, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing designs and engraves all paper money. Additional duties include producing Treasury securities and many types of identification cards for government agencies.
Designed by American architect Willoughby Edbrooke, this enormous Romanesque Revival building was the largest office building in D.C. when it opened in 1899. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was far from beloved in its own era. Considered dowdy by the time it opened for business, when architectural fashion had turned to rounded, more romantic Beaux-Arts design, it was soon abandoned in favor of a new mail depot building over by Union Station; 15 years after it was built, it was commonly referred to as the “old” post office.
By the late 1920s, popular sentiment in Washington was that the building should be torn down, but the Great Depression prevented the demolition; instead, the Old Post Office was left to molder for about 40 years. In the 1970s, it was saved by community support and the National Endowment for the Arts, which now has its headquarters here.
The larger-than-life Star Spangled Banner gallantly streams from the walls of the National Museum of American History in Washington DC. This top-rated museum showcases the best of American memorabilia and memorializes iconic eras, events, and people in American history. The most popular exhibit is the original Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that was raised at Fort McHenry in Baltimore on September 14, 1814 to celebrate a victory over the British forces in the war of 1812. Another popular exhibits showcase dresses American First Lady’s have worn. Other significant artifacts include Archie Bunker’s chair, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, and a replica of an 18th-century Massachusetts home.
Situated between the Potomac River and major city roadways is one of the nation’s foremost centers for performing arts, a cultural and entertainment hub for the city of Washington D.C. With more than 2,000 performances annually, it is the busiest performing arts center in the United States. World-class live theater, classical music, ballet, jazz and opera shows all take place at the venue. Three main theaters including a concert hall and opera house ensure a variety of shows offered. Free performances are held on the Millennium Stage in the Grand Foyer daily.
Outside of the performances and stages, the center also has a Hall of Nations and Hall of States to explore, with collections of American and international flags. Also see the many paintings and sculptures gifted to the center from other nations throughout. The building also has great views of the Potomac River and the Georgetown area from its windows and rooftop terraces.
The headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, housed in one of the largest office buildings in the world, is the daily workplace for over 30,000 employees, both military and civilian. Much like the Vatican, the Pentagon is a city unto itself, and lays claim to six zip codes. Its distinctive five-sided building, designed by American architect George Bergstrom and dedicated in 1943, was originally meant to fit a pentagonal-shaped site at nearby Arlington Farms; when Franklin D. Roosevelt had the build site moved to its present location, the design was preserved in order to save both time and money.
On the grounds of the building, the two-acre Pentagon Memorial is a monument to the September 11, 2001 airplane attack on the Pentagon; the attack’s 184 victims are symbolized by illuminated granite benches arranged in order of the victims’ ages – 3 to 71.
More Things to Do in Washington DC
Open to the public since 1974, this distinctive round building on the National Mall is dedicated to contemporary and modern art in the United States. From the outside, the museum appears to be a solid, windowless concrete cylinder perched on four squat blocks; the interior, though, features a hollow cylinder lined with windows which look onto a central courtyard and allow in natural light.
Designed by an art collector for an art collector, the Hirshhorn was originally conceived by architect Gordon Bunshaft to house a bequest of 6,000 artworks by financier Joseph Hirshhorn. Hirshhorn’s art collection is composed of work by the greatest living artists of his 20th century life: Picasso, Matisse, Willem de Kooning, Louise Nevelson, Jackson Pollock and many more. The museum is surrounded by a four-acre, two-level sculpture garden highlighting works by Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, and more recently, Jeff Koons.
Located next to the White House, the Old Executive Office Building houses the majority of offices for the White House staff. The building dates back to 1871, when it housed the State, War, and Navy Departments. The imposing building is also known as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
The Old Executive Office Building represents one of the best examples of French Second Empire architecture in the United States. Its unique style catches the eye, a contrast to the many somber classical revival buildings around the city. The building has played host to an incredible number of high-level events. It housed offices for Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Gerald Ford, and George Bush before they became President. Foreign dignitaries have met with the twenty-four Secretaries of State who have called this building home. The Old Executive Office Building is a must-see attraction in Washington DC.
The flagship of the U.S. Government’s National Archives and Records Administration, this Greek Revival building in D.C.’s Federal Triangle was created in 1934 to house records of America’s military, civic and diplomatic origins and activities. Home to the Charters of Freedom – the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights – the Archives offers a comprehensive visitor experience that includes the Charters themselves, as well as a film about the relationship between public records and democracy, and a peek into the public research vaults.
It’s impossible to dress appropriately for a visit to the United States Botanic Garden; each room you enter is a completely different environment. Set one block southwest of the U.S. Capitol Building, the garden nurtures plants from around the world – including subtropical, tropical, and arid regions. There are a variety of gardens and rooms, all connected through intertwining, labyrinthine paths. Two of the most interesting features are the ever-beautiful rose garden and a room designed solely for fragrances. Perhaps the most unique exhibit is Return of the Titan. This exhibit celebrates the titan arum, also known as the corpse flower or stinky plant. The corpse flower can grow up to 12 feet tall. The flower bloomed for the first time in July 2013, and it may be several more years before it does so again.
The United States Botanic Garden is also well known for its holiday displays.
Widely recognized as the oldest building in Washington, D.C., the historic Old Stone House was built in 1765 and has remained relatively unchanged since its construction. Today, a knowledgeable park ranger meets visitors as they enter the building and shares the colorful history of the capital city’s oldest structure. Travelers can take an informal tour through Old Stone House and explore the kitchen, bedrooms and parlor, which are decked out in traditional 18th century style. This unique attraction offers a peek into the daily life of early Americans that’s unlike anywhere else. The Colonial Revival Garden, located behind the house, is a popular destination for weddings, afternoon picnics, and quiet escapes from city chaos.
Lush green streets and idyllic Victorian houses are just part of what lends the Georgetown neighborhood of D.C. its classic east coast charm. And while there’s plenty to see in this trendy part of town, it’s the well-known Georgetown University that’s the real star of the show.
Founded in 1789, Georgetown University is the oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution in America. This elite college of higher learning is home to the famous Hoyas, as well as some of the best examples of Romanesque revival style architecture on the East Coast. Approximately 7,000 undergraduates and 10,000 post-graduate students attend Georgetown University, and notable alumni include former president Bill Clinton. The school has four distinct university campuses, which include the Law Center, the undergraduate campus, the Medical Center, and the School of Continuing Studies, located in Chinatown.
Affiliated with but not a part of the Smithsonian, the National Gallery needs two buildings (connected by an underground tunnel) to house its stunning collections (more than 110,000 objects) of painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the Middle Ages to the present. Kids love the walking escalator that traverses the two buildings and conveniently empties into the airy cafeteria.
The original neoclassical building, known as the West Building, exhibits primarily European works, from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century, including pieces by El Greco, Monet, and Cézanne.
Across 4th Street NW, the angular East Building is where you'll find the Calder mobile along with other abstract and modern works. Across 7th Street from the West Wing sits the National Gallery Sculpture Garden, a beautifully landscaped park of open lawns, a pool with a spouting fountain, and 17 sculptures.
Open to all faiths and creeds, the Washington National Cathedral conducts services for many faiths and peoples. Martin Luther King Jr gave his last Sunday sermon here; now it's the standard place for state funerals and other high-profile events. It’s often considered the country’s most beautiful church.
The building is elegant, but also powerfully Neo-Gothic. With its pale limestone walls, flying buttresses, intricate carving and exquisite stained glass, it is intended to rival Europe's great cathedrals. Take the elevator to the tower overlook for expansive city views; posted maps explain what you see. Chapels in the main sanctuary honor the Apollo astronauts, Martin Luther King Jr, Abraham Lincoln, and abstract ideas like peace and justice. The endearing Children's Chapel is filled with images of real and imaginary animals. Famous folks like Helen Keller and Woodrow Wilson are buried downstairs in the crypt.
If you've ever wanted to step into James Bond's shoes and live a glamorous spy life, the International Spy Museum is the place to learn the secrets. One of Washington D.C.'s hottest attractions, the museum is flashy, over the top - an engaging, fun museum that illustrates high-tech gadgetry, notorious spy cases, secret methods, and the not-so-pleasant consequences of being an international person of mystery.
The much-acclaimed museum of espionage gives spy fans their fill of cool gadgets and interactive displays. All visitors are invited to play the role of a secret agent by adopting a cover at the start of their visit. Throughout the museum, you can try to identify disguises, listen to bugs, and spot hidden cameras. A lot of the exhibits are historical, focusing on the Cold War in particular (a re-creation of the tunnel under the Berlin Wall is an eerie winner).
Centered around an elegant traffic circle at the intersection of Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts Avenues, this upscale yet urban neighborhood is full of refined pursuits, as well as much of the city’s gay community. While here, be sure to soak up the people-watching scene around the fountain at Dupont Circle itself, and stop into the unique Kramer Books & Afterwords, a combination café and well-curated bookstore.
Dupont Circle’s graceful marble fountain was designed and built by the same architectural team behind the Lincoln Memorial. Installed in 1921, the fountain replaced a memorial statue of Civil War rear admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont that was moved to the prominent Du Pont family’s estate in Wilmington, Delaware. In the neighborhood surrounding the traffic circle and fountain, you can feast your eyes on Impressionist masterpieces at the elegant Phillips Collection; tour the 19th-century Anderson House.
This seven-acre public park, named in 1824 for a French marquis who fought in America’s Revolutionary War, is surrounded by some of D.C.’s most historically significant buildings. In addition to the White House, the Square is adjacent to the Old Executive Office Building, the Department of the Treasury, and the Renwick Gallery.
Set directly across the street from the White House, the park here was part of the White House grounds during Thomas Jefferson’s administration, but set apart when John Adams approved the plans for Pennsylvania Avenue. Formally landscaped in 1851, the Square features walking paths and formal hedges, as well as four horse-mounted monuments to foreign heroes of the American Revolution. The Square’s proximity to power turned it into a fashionable 19th-century address for political luminaries like Martin van Buren, John Milton Hay, and Henry Brooks Adams.
This popular stretch of pavement once known as the Western Plaza was renamed Freedom Plaza in 1988 after Martin Luther King, Jr. His famous “I have a dream” speech was said to have been crafted nearby this space. Today, Freedom Plaza serves as a gathering spot for political protests and rallies—paying an homage to the words and actions of King. While Freedom Plaza does not offer much in the way of a destination, travelers who come to this iconic square can also see the John A Wilson Building and the National Theater, which are located nearby.
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