Essential Washington, DC attractions

An insider’s guide to the capital’s must-sees: the White House, the iconic memorials and monuments, plus other free Washington, DC attractions

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© 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.

First, mosey on down to Pennsylvania Avenue, past the White House, one of the most iconic residences in the world. Although there are 132 rooms, only eight are open to the public as part of a self-guided tour. But it's still worth it to see the North Lawn, gawp at the building, and take a few selfies in front of one of the most recognizable homes on the planet.

Other must-see Washington DC monuments and memorials include the Jefferson Memorial, inspired by the Roman Pantheon and Jefferson's own architectural designs, the Lincoln Memorial, featuring a 19-foot marble sculpture of Lincoln at its center, the Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial, with its 30-foot statue of King, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, inscribed with over 58,000 names of Vietnam vets, and the National World War II Memorial, spanning a 7.4 acre plot.

If you're more of a nature boy or girl, take the Red Line to Woodley Park and the pleasantly shaded National Zoo, which is free to the public and home to a wide variety of creatures, including two pandas on loan from China. After the Zoo, it's a quick walk or bike to Rock Creek Park, DC's epicenter for biking, walking, skating, and running.

For the more indoor-inclined, the National Archives never disappoints. It contains such revered and fascinating historical documents as an original copy of the Magna Carta, the Watergate tapes, and the Charters of Freedom (the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights). It’s hard to feel overly cynical about our great nation after seeing John Hancock’s famous signature in person.

Jefferson Memorial

  • Free

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

  1. Southern end of 15th Street, SW, (at the Tidal Basin & East Basin Drive)
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White House

  • Free

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

  1. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, (between 15th & 17th Streets)
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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

  1. Across the Memorial Bridge from DC, Virginia side of the Potomac River
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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

  1. The Mall, 1964 Independence Avenue, SW
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National World War II Memorial

Dedicated in 2004, the monument that honours 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,

  1. The Mall, 17th Street, (from Independence to Constitution Avenues)
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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

  1. 5200 Glover Road, NW, Upper Northwest, (Military Road)
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Washington Monument

  • Free

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

  1. The Mall, (between 15th & 17th Streets, & Constitution & Independence Avenues)
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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

  1. The Mall, SW, (at Daniel French Drive & Independence Avenue)
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Library of Congress

  • Free

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

  1. Visitors’ Center, Jefferson Building, First Street & Independence Avenue, SE
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United States Botanic Garden

  • Free

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

  1. 245 1st Street, (at Maryland Avenue)
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United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

  • Critics choice
  • Free

Since its opening in 1993, the Holocaust Museum has attracted legions of visitors to its permanent exhibition, The Holocaust. The three-floor exhibition, containing over 900 artifacts, many video screens and four theaters showing archive footage and survivor testimony,

  1. 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, SW, (at 14th Street)
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Lincoln Memorial

  • Critics choice
  • Free

Despite its appearance on the penny and the $5 bill, the Lincoln Memorial is perhaps most recognisable as the site of historic demonstrations. In 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution barred the African-American contralto Marian Anderson from singing in

  1. The Mall, 23rd Street, NW, (between Henry Bacon Drive & Daniel French Drive)
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National Zoo

  • Critics choice
  • Free

The free-admission National Zoo offers a diverting escape. Particularly during the off-season, when the paths are not cluttered by pushchairs, the zoo offers a perfect (albeit hilly) stroll, away from the bustle of Connecticut Avenue. Tree-shaded paths wind through the

  1. 3001 block of Connecticut Avenue, NW, (at Rock Creek Park)
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Vietnam Veterans Memorial

  • Free

The sombre black granite walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial have become a shrine, with pilgrims coming to touch the more than 58,000 names, make pencil rubbings and leave flowers, letters and flags. In 1981, 21-year-old Yale University senior Maya Ying Lin won the

  1. West Potomac Park, just north of the Reflecting Pool, (at Henry Bacon Drive & Constitution Avenue, NW)
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Supreme Court

  • Free

The ultimate judicial and constitutional authority, the United States Supreme Court pays homage in its architecture to the rule of law. Justices are appointed for life, and their temple reflects their eminence. Designed by Cass Gilbert in the 1930s, its classical

  1. 1st Street & Maryland Avenue, NW
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United States Capitol

  • Critics choice
  • Free

French architect Major Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, hired by President Washington to plan the federal city, selected Capitol Hill—a plateau, actually—as "a pedestal waiting for a monument". Indeed it was. In 1793, George Washington and an entourage of local masons

  1. Capitol Hill, (between Constitution & Independence Avenues)
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National Archives

  • Free

The vast collection of the National Archive & Record Administration (NARA) represents the physical record of the birth and growth of a nation in original documents, maps, photos, recordings, films and a miscellany of objects. The catalogue resonates with national

  1. Constitution Avenue, (at 9th Street)
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