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12 Washington, DC Highlights For An Impactful Experience

The Politics, the History and the Military that make the city

Established well over 200 years ago (circa 1790), Washington, DC is easily the epicenter of the nation’s attention. Cultivated through it’s political, historic and educational opportunities, this core of Americana draws curious visitors from around the world. And what a world class destination to visit!

Sight-seeing in Washington brings rich architecture, monumental sights and an educational richness that piques the imagination and inspires thoughts of greatness. Explore our top 12 highlights that bring Washington greatness alive.

A dozen Washington, DC sights meant for imagination and inspiration

One thing I will say is Washington, DC is best explored on foot. From walking the National Mall lots of inspiration along the National Mallthrough it’s many political or ghost walking tours, the grand revelations build step by step.

1. National Mall – as the most visited National Park in the United States, the National Mall encompasses the area of many of our other highlights. Roughly 2 miles in length, this green space centers what ties Washington DC visits together. With its walking trails, monuments and museums, this public open space has been home to epic history-changing marches, presidential inaugurations and all manner of public gatherings. Bring a picnic lunch and spend an entire day exploring its rich attractions.

US Capitol Building (click photos to enlarge)2. Capitol Buildings – Edging the east end of the Washington Mall sits the nations Capitol Buildings housing the House of Representatives and the Senate. Atop “Capitol Hill” it’s neoclassical style with legendary domed roof stands as a beacon to the lawmakers of the land. The sheer scale and grandeur of the structure stands testament to it’s importance to the US. The Capitol’s domed rotunda allows a palatial stateliness within the public space that allows for ceremonial events as when the need for a worthy space for presidents to lie in state.

Washington Monument on the National Mall3. Washington Monument From pretty much any vantage of the National Mall sits the grand obelisk of the Washington Monument. This imposing 550ft monument honors George Washington as the first President of the United States. Rooting the creation of the United States and commemorating his 2-term inaugural presidency, this monument stands as his legacy in the center of the Mall.

White House from the South Lawn4. White House – the center of attention for president-spotting, the White House’s iconic palladian/neoclassical mixed style has housed 44 presidents over the past few centuries. From the National Mall the White House is seen as visible from the South Lawn, but you can get a closer view of the White House from Lafayette Park on the north side. Understandably, both areas are highly restricted for security and are amply guarded. A did-you-know from the White House stats … there are 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, and 6 levels in the Residence. There are also 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases, and 3 elevators.

Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pools5. Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pools – a dramatic positioning at the western end of the Washington Mall, the Lincoln Memorial is constructed in a Greek temple design with a landmark seated statue of Abraham Lincoln centering the inscriptions of two of his well-known speeches – the “Gettysburg Address” and his Second Inaugural Address. Outside the Lincoln Memorial sits another impressive feature, the Washington Memorial Reflecting Pool - the largest of the many reflecting pools with a perimeter of nearly a mile around (0.8 miles). Viewing from the Lincoln Memorial, the pool’s reflection offers a grand perspective of the Washington Memorial. Symbolic of race relations, the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool has been important in hosting historic events like Martin Luther King Jr’s  “I Have A Dream” speech and Obama’s Inaugural Celebration to a crowd estimated at 400,000. A perspective not to be missed!

6. War Memorials – designated as Memorials of National Significance, all three memorials - the National WWII Memorial and the Korean and Vietnam Veterans Memorials - commemorate the Americans who served in these wars. Each are fitting tributes to the scope of the wars and the social effect on our consciousness.

National World War II MemorialThe National WWII Memorial is a grand edifice prominently displayed between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Two triumphal arches, each representing the Pacific and Atlantic war arenas are flanked in semi-circular formation by 56 granite pillars and surrounding a large plaza and water feature. An epic memorial commemorating the scope and impact of World War II.

National Korean War MemorialSitting southeast of the Lincoln Memorial is the haunting Korean War Memorial. With 19 stainless steel statues of servicemen coming out of a forested area, you get a feel of the heavy conditions and weighted experience these soldiers lived. A black granite mural wall frames the memorial with depictions of Korean war images supporting those who fought in the war, leading the pathway to a sombre Pool of Remembrance.   

National Vietnam War MemorialNortheast of the Lincoln Memorial sits the poignant Vietnam War Memorial. Built of reflective black granite, this 2-walled structure, recessed into the ground, lists the names and dates of each serviceperson that perished during the war. The Memorial really is comprised of 3 parts – the joined granite Memorial Wall, the Three Soldiers Statue and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial – honoring the brave contribution of all who served.

7. The Smithsonian Institute Museums – unparalleled in the reach and involvement of the world’s foremost museums, the Smithsonian Institute offers 11 of it’s 19 museums on the Washington Mall – all for free! From the grand museums of learning, Smithsonian greats like:

there is no shortage of learning opportunities across a wide swath of topics. We suggest you start at the Smithsonian Castle to simply get a taste of the many exhibit opportunities and choose your 1, 2, 3’s to visit … days of engaged learning.

Remembrance Hall at the Holocaust Memorial (courtesy DesertNews)8. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum – a special shout out to this Smithsonian Museum that simply moves you. Begin your journey with an individual holocaust passport – their story then woven through the exhibit. Ride an overcrowded elevator (mimicking the camps overcrowded conditions to the top floor) and begin working your way down the exhibit space. From the early fervor that gave rise to the conditions enabling the Holocaust, through the daily experiences and conditions to the remembrances of the lives of those who died, this Museum is done very well and will certainly move you.

Newseum Pullitzer Prize Gallery (courtesy Newseum)9. Newseum – who wants to go to a museum of news? Well, we seriously recommend it for consideration as it was entertaining, eye-opening and an engaging walk down the corridors of the world’s most important events that shaped or changed the course of history. With visual exhibits, theatres and epic touchstones of the past, the Newseum reminds us those important points of our history. I was most moved by the Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery and most engaged with the News History Gallery featuring over 400 historic newspaper front pages detailing important moments in history.

Arlington National Cemetery10. Arlington National Cemetery – across the Potomac from the Washington Mall sits the vast military cemetery paying tribute to the sacrifices of our fellow service men and women. Home to more than 400,000 service personnel, some dating back to the Civil War, the rolling hills lined with uniform military tombstones offer an awe-inspiring somber homage. Among the rows of tombstones sit many important monuments and memorials, several US Presidents (most notably visited is John F. Kennedy’s eternal flame), and the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with it’s hourly Changing of the Guard ritual. Young and old alike will be stirred by the solemn magnitude of this site.

11. Tour of either the White House, the Pentagon or Capitol buildings – central to what makes Washington, DC such a draw is the political and military importance within the Capital Region. Planning well enough ahead of a visit to Washington, begin early the process of making a tour reservation in consider a Pentagon touradvance:

I had the pleasure to tour the Pentagon on a recent visit to Washington to see the five branches of the Armed Services, the Medal of Honor Hall of Heroes, the Pentagon Chapel and Memorials, the massive 9/11 Memorial quilt hanging in the entry and walk the miles of interlinked corridors that make this building such a military powerhouse. An amazing insight into the importance of the Pentagon and the efforts of the many branches of the Armed Services serving to protect the US and around the world.

Pentagon 911 memorialSpecial Note: Outside the Pentagon on the site of the 9/11 crash of American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon’s southwest wing sits a permanent memorial to the 184 who died in this attack. Individual memorial benches aimed in the direction of the flight crash are sorted and named by the age of the victim. Each bench has a reflecting pool within a garden of Crape Myrtle trees creating a profound place of remembrance. Access to this National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial does not require a tour pass and is open 24/7 all year long.

12. Walking tours – I know … more walking? There’s one thing to see the sights and experience them live and in person, then there’s the guided walking tours that offer deeper insight, regale you with interesting stories for context and thematically engage you with tales of the haunted, or the scandalous political intrigue. We chose a ghost tour in Old Alexandria one night and the political scandals walking tour at The White House the second night to hear the stories behind the institutions.

  • Free DC Tours by FootWicked Georgetown – tragedy and scandal in this historic presidential residence community.
  • a spooky stop at the Exorcist StepsGet Your GuideWashington tours with a local guide
  • GPS My City – a digital app guide right on your phone pointing out historical sites as it guides you through the city. We tried it in DC, GPSmyCITY had lots of great content!
  • Minimize some walking with a Hop-on, Hop-off Bus tour
  • Walking Tours by Viator or Expedia

Note: While in Georgetown visiting the old Canal neighborhood, consider a climb of the Exorcist steps and grab a dinner at the Tombs Restaurant and Pub.

Logistical considerations for a Washington DC visit

Where can I park near the Washington Mall?

Washington Monument and National Christmas TreeParking is abundant along Madison Dr. and Jefferson Dr. within the Washington Mall but so too are the hundreds of visitors seeking spots (free but a 2-hr maximum). Head a few blocks further and you can find a parking garage for the day and save the waiting game.

Where to eat near the Washington Mall attractions?

The Washington Mall area often has food truck vendors on weekends with some great selections from simple to gourmet, but if you’re looking for some serious nourishment after walking the day away head to the area just north of Pennsylvania Ave between 6th St NW and the White House. Here you will find a wide assortment of restaurants (fast food to gourmet) to enjoy. A few of our DC favorites we enjoyed were the MXDC Cocina Mexicana on 14th SW and Carmine’s Italian Restaurant on 7th St. NW.

There’s too much walking, can I ride a scooter?

make sure you get to see all anglesThere really is miles and miles of walking to see it all. Gaining popularity are two-wheel ride share motorized scooters. With the scooter company’s app, for $1 to unlock the scooter and about $0.15 per minute to use, 30 minutes of leg relaxation costs about $5 – pretty good if your balance is sturdy and you need to get from one end of the mall to the other!

If you’re traveling with an older parent or someone with mobility challenges, Washington has available motorized (and standard) wheelchairs to rent through ScootAround. Simply call ahead to reserve one and arrange delivery.

Whether your passions run inspirational with the incredible monuments to see, or educational with the Smithsonian selection of museums to visit, or impactful with the White House or Arlington Cemetery visits, Washington DC will leave you moved from the new sights and perspectives you’ve seen. Bring along a young person and let them see American history in the making.

Visit Washington, DC’s Destination DC tourism site for in-depth planning of your next visit. 

Have you explored the National Mall and the important sights of Washington, DC? What moved you most? We’d love to hear. Drop a comment below and connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.

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