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The best Washington DC attractions

An insider’s guide to the best Washington, DC attractions, including the White House, the iconic memorials and monuments, plus other free activities

Photograph: Elan Fleisher

Jaded DC residents sometimes forget how incredibly picturesque their city is, even though it's so crowded with monuments and memorials that it looks like a Hollywood movie set (pre-Armageddon, of course). There are a million things to do in Washington, DC, but if you live here long enough, you get used to seeing Abraham Lincoln peering down at you from his giant marble chair, or the Capitol dome rising over the horizon. Best of all, many Washington, DC attractions are free, including, of course, the impressive collection of Smithsonian museums. So, this weekend, instead of sitting around lamenting the state of the Union, get out there and immerse yourself in the capital’s inspiring sights.

The best Washington, DC attractions

Jefferson Memorial

FDR promoted this 1943 shrine to the founder of his Democratic Party, balancing that to the Republicans’ icon, Lincoln. Roosevelt liked it so much he had trees cleared so he could see it from the Oval Office. John Russell Pope designed an adaptation (sneered at by some as "Jefferson’s muffin") of the Roman Pantheon that the architect Jefferson so admired. It echoes the president’s designs for his home, Monticello, and for his rotunda at the University of Virginia. The Georgia marble walls surrounding Jefferson’s 19ft likeness are inscribed with his enduring words. Alas, the 92-word quote from the Declaration of Independence contains 11 spelling mistakes and other inaccuracies.

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National Mall

White House

Part showplace, part workplace, probably one of the world’s most-recognized buildings, it’s hard to imagine now that until the 20th century the public could walk in freely, and the grounds remained open until World War II. Today, visitors simply get to peek at a scant eight rooms out of the house’s 132, and with little time to linger (the tour can take as little as 20 minutes). The public tour is self-guided (though highly regimented) and there’s not much in the way of interpretation, but the nation proudly clings to keeping its leader’s residence open to the public. 

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Downtown

Arlington National Cemetery

It is the right of anyone killed in action in any branch of military service, or who served for 20 years, to be buried at Arlington, along with their spouse. It’s ironic, then, that the cemetery started almost as an act of Civil War vengeance: in 1861 Union forces seized the estate of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and in 1864 they began burying soldiers close enough to Arlington House to make sure that Mr. and Mrs. Lee could never take up residence again. However, time has worked its healing magic and transformed Arlington into a place of honor and memory.

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Arlington

Martin Luther King Memorial

It’s been a long time coming, but African-Americans have finally found their place on the National Mall. The National Museum of African American History & Culture is set to open in 2015, and the Martin Luther King Memorial was dedicated in late 2011—the result of years of campaigning and fundraising. On the south-west of the Mall, with an official address—1964 Independence Avenue—that references the year of the passing of the Civil Rights Act, the location was chosen to create a symbolic, visual "line of leadership" with the Lincoln Memorial. It was here that King made his legendary "I have a dream" speech in 1963 at the culmination of the March on Washington. 

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National Mall

National World War II Memorial

Dedicated in 2004, the monument that honors America’s "Greatest Generation" is a grandiose affair on a 7.4-acre plot. Designed by Friedrich St Florian, it is a granite-heavy space dominated by the central Rainbow Pool, which is set between two 43ft triumphal arches, representing the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of war. Fifty-six wreath-crowned pillars represent the US states and territories (including the Philippines), while a bronze Freedom Wall displays 4,000 gold stars, each signifying 100 war dead. The ceremonial entrance, descending from 17th Street, passes bas-reliefs depicting events of the global conflict. A Circle of Remembrance garden off to the side fosters quiet reflection. 

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National Mall

Rock Creek Nature Center & Planetarium

Rock Creek is a great place for cycling, skating, horse riding and exploring the old mill and the site of the Civil War battle at Fort Stevens. As well as the Nature Center’s guided hikes, there’s the highly entertaining Creature Feature program (4pm Fri), which takes a close look at the park’s wildlife. Inside Peirce Barn, kids can try on period clothing and play with 19th-century toys. The planetarium (on the park’s western edge) hosts several free shows: check the website for details.

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Northwest

Washington Monument

The Washington Monument was completed in 1884, 101 years after Congress authorized it. It rises in a straight line between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, but is off-center between the White House and the Jefferson Memorial because the original site was too marshy for its bulk. Private funding ran out in the 1850s, when only the stump of the obelisk had been erected. Building resumed in 1876, producing a slight change in the color of the marble about a third of the way up. The 555ft monument—the tallest free-standing masonry structure in the world—was capped with solid aluminium, then a rare material. 

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National Mall

Korean War Veterans Memorial

This monument, which honors the 12 million Americans who fought in the Cold War conflict in Korea, features 19 battle-clad, seven-foot soldiers slogging across a V-shaped field towards a distant US flag. Their finely detailed faces reflect the fatigue and pain of battle, while bulky packs show beneath their ponchos. Reflected in the polished granite wall, these 19 become 38—in reference to the 38th parallel separating North and South Korea. Unlike the wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, this shows a subtle mural sandblasted into rock, a photo-montage of the support troops—drivers and medics, nurses and chaplains.

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National Mall

Library of Congress

The national library of the US, the Library of Congress is the world’s largest. Its three buildings hold some 100 million items—including the papers of 23 US presidents—along 535 miles of bookshelves. Contrary to popular notion, the library does not have a copy of every book ever printed, but its heaving shelves are still spectacular. To get to grips with the place, it’s best to start with the 20-minute film in the ground-floor visitors’ center, excerpted from a TV documentary, which provides a clear picture of the place’s scope and size. An even better option is to join a guided tour. 

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Capitol Hill

United States Botanic Garden

In 1842, the Navy’s Wilkes Expedition returned from exploring Fiji and South America, showering Congress with a cornucopia of exotic flora. The present conservatory was erected in 1930 and recently modernized with state-of-the-art climate controls and a coconut-level catwalk around the central rainforest. The conservatory displays 4,000 plants, including endangered species. Themed displays feature the desert and the oasis, plant adaptations and the primeval garden. The orchid collection is a particular delight. 

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District of Columbia
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