In honor of Lonely Planet naming Washington DC one of the “Top 10 Cities to Visit in 2020”, and the upcoming celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, I thought I’d give you a little introduction to my all-time favorite destination in the United States. If you’re thinking of going in 2020, many Washington DC museums will be offering special exhibitions honoring the law that granted women the right to vote. You’ll also have the prospect of a wild ride in this upcoming election year.
But let’s back up a little and talk about 11 reasons why you should visit Washington DC museums, memorials, galleries and more. I’ve been there many times and now that I live just a few hours away, I go as often as I can. In fact, my husband and I moved to the east coast a few years ago and I consider the proximity to DC as one of the best perks of living in Virginia. Here are 11 reasons why you’ll love America’s capital too!
1. The Smithsonian Institution is There
Did you know the Smithsonian Institution was founded in 1846 with funds from an Englishman named James Smithson who never set foot in America? It’s the largest museum and research complex in the world, consisting of 19 expansive museums and galleries, the National Zoo and 9 research facilities. You’ll find places relating to Art & Design, Science & Nature, History & Culture, as well as the National Zoo.
2. Museum Admission is FREE
FREE - all the Smithsonian museums, galleries, the zoo and national
memorials are free to visit. Free museum and gallery admission makes for big money savings on entry fees, especially for families. See below for links to just a few of the specific museums and attractions you’ll want to visit when you’re there. Also, don’t think that if you’ve been there once you’ve seen everything. Every museum is constantly changing, updating, renewing and offering unique limited-time exhibits.
[One item of note: The African American Museum is free as well, although they require timed-entry passes for certain peak times. This is only because the museum is so new and very popular with visitors.]
Do you want to learn more about one of my very favorite Smithsonian sites? Check out this post about the Renwick Gallery. It’s just steps from the White House and such a hidden gem.
3. DC is Dripping with History
Now I’m not as much of a history fanatic as my husband, whose favorite reading material is the biography of a past president, but history comes to life and smacks you in the face in Washington DC. You can smell it, touch it and stroll through it unlike any other place on earth — events like the many protest marches on the National Mall, the assassination of President Lincoln, all the experiences recounted in the many history-related museums or the history being made on a daily basis in the White House and Capitol Building. The sheer magnitude of significant events that continue to change our country and the world in Washington DC are staggering.
4. The Architecture is Spectacular
Have you ever toured the Library of Congress or the National Archives? Those are just two of the lesser-known buildings with gorgeous architecture. Think about the U.S. Capitol Building, the White House or any number of well-known sites. The city is filled with exquisite examples of a variety of architectural periods. See below for links to more info about them.
5. Get in Your Steps — It’s a Walkable City
So many Washington DC museums are within such close proximity, especially on the National Mall, don’t fight the traffic and parking issues. Either stay near where you want to go or get a Metro Pass to use from your hotel to your destination for light rail, bus or the subway as far as you can. Then walk the rest of the way. Or maybe change things up with a Segway tour or a bike ride. You’ll also find awesome seasonal walking tours of all kinds in the area. You can even tour the most infamous haunted buildings in the city. See links to tour ideas here.
6. You Can Tour the White House
Not exactly defined as a traditional museum, but imagine strolling through the home of the President of the United States free. White House Tours can be requested up to three months in advance and no less than 21 days in advance. You’re encouraged to submit your request as early as possible since passes are limited. Each request must be made through your member of Congress from a U.S. citizen’s home state or district.
Even citizens of foreign countries can request a tour through their embassy. Fortunately, if you’re visiting DC soon or aren’t able to secure a ticket for the actual White House tour, you can visit the White House Visitor Center where you’ll find out about its history, see presidential artifacts, archival footage and a detailed model of the building.
7. See Our Government in Action
Another non-traditional museum, of sorts. If you have an interest in the political process and all the latest developments in what sometimes seems like a roller coaster ride in our government, the Senate and House of Representatives galleries are open to visitors many weekdays throughout the year. Note: the galleries are not included as part of the U.S. Capitol Building Tour.
You’ll need a Pass to enter either gallery at any time. When either legislative body is in session you can watch the action. Even when Congress is in recess you can see where the “magic happens”, even though you won’t likely see members of Congress. Pick up gallery passes from the office of one of your Senators or Representatives. The offices are right across the street from the Capitol Building. International visitors can find out about gallery passes at the House and Senate Appointment Desks on the upper level of the Capitol Visitor Center.
8. Remember Our Heroes
Some of my most emotional moments in DC were spent remembering those who gave their lives for our country. The various war memorials are museums of honor. Sobering reminders of the price of war and how thankful we should be for the men and women who sacrificed so much to protect our freedoms.
The National Park Service oversees the area called the National Mall and they offer walking tours of all or some of the Memorials often, depending on the season. Find out more on their website or ask a ranger, when you see one. I’ve had times when I asked a ranger if there were walking tours coming up and they took 4 of us on an unscheduled tour right then. Sadly with budget cuts to the National Parks, staffing has been reduced. If there’s no ranger-led tour available when you’re there, you can also download a free narrated walking tour of the National Mall area which covers many of the memorials.
9. Pledge to “Never Forget” at the Holocaust Museum
One of the most impactful of the Washington DC museums is the Holocaust Museum. This sobering historical memorial should be experienced by every citizen of the world at least once. The sacred space commemorates and educates about the horrific genocide that occurred in Nazi Germany and some surrounding countries in the 1930s and 40s.
Most of the museum is geared toward adults and children 11 and older. There is a special exhibit called “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story”
that is appropriate for ages 8 and up. The museum isn’t recommended for children younger than eight years old because of the emotional and graphic nature of the topics.
I would recommend that every child, even those older than 11 should be prepared with some conversation before going and a chance to process what they’ve seen afterward. While many of the images are graphic and could be troubling, it’s still important that the next generation understands what was allowed to occur in the not-so-distant past, so it can be prevented from happening ever again.
Tickets are free and only needed from March 1 to August 31 to regulate the higher number of visitors to the Museum’s Permanent Exhibition. You won’t need a ticket to enter the rest of the Museum or to view any of the temporary exhibits.
10. Classes, Sleepovers and Summer Camps
As if the millions of artifacts throughout the city are not enough to keep you busy for years, visitors can choose unique and focused Study Tours on subjects as varied as Horses, Henry VIII, and Horticulture. The Smithsonian Sleepovers make me wish that I had younger children again. Can you imagine staying overnight in a museum? How cool would that be? Or maybe you’d like to enroll your youngster in one of the week-long, half or full-day Smithsonian Summer Camps so you’ll have time to do some grown-up-only exploring during your time there.
11. It’s a Great Place to Enjoy Nature
The outdoor spaces are works of art as well. Visitors can explore the many parks and Smithsonian Gardens throughout the city in every season. The Botanic Garden, located close to the Capitol Building is a great place to get out of the rain or snow and enjoy a tropical paradise in the heart of the city.
Or hop on the Metro and head north to visit the US National Arboretum. There you can see the largest designed herb garden in America, a grove of trees that includes a State Tree from each state and Washington DC. Spring and summer bring blooms of Azaleas, Dogwoods, and a host of perennials. The gorgeous reds in autumn on the Maple trees and golds of the Yellowwood trees are also worth a visit.
So we’ve just scratched the surface of Washington DC museums, memorials, gardens and other fun things to do. If you come away from a trip to our nation’s capital without learning bucketfuls of new information and being awed by the beauty, it would only be because you didn’t set foot outside your hotel room.
Please plan to take some time before you visit to check out the Smithsonian website so you can customize your trip to your interests. Or maybe you should plan to spend at least a year exploring there. That’s my dream.
What’s your favorite part of Washington DC? Do you have questions that I could help answer? I also shared more detail about the Renwick Art Gallery on my blog. Are there any other hidden gems that we should be checking out?
Originally published at https://travelingwithpurpose.com on November 13, 2019.