Both the capital of the United States and a strange district in neither Maryland nor Virginia, Washington, D.C. is the hub where all branches of the federal government operate. This political city center is filled with historically significant sites that are generally free to visit and instill a sense of wonderment in you. However you might feel about the U.S. government, this diversely cultured city rich in history and full of life should definitely be on your bucket list to visit.
I (fittingly) happened to visit this city for the very first time over Presidents’ Day weekend in February, taking a redeye flight on Friday after work to arrive early on Saturday morning and leaving first thing on Monday. Because winter is not peak season for D.C., we found affordable roundtrip tickets and were able to crash with some friends that lived in Virginia (I’ve heard that sakura blossom season is AMAZING, but crowded and expensive!). Here are some of the things we loved seeing during our jam-packed weekend in the nation’s capital!
1. THE MONUMENTS
I’m not even sure where to begin with these. Each one is amazing in its own remarkable way, and they’re all FREE to visit. But let me walk you through all the places we went to:
The very first thing we did off the plane at 6:30am was hop in our friends’ car and head straight to the Lincoln Memorial. Not only is this national monument an incredible historical location that honors one of the most beloved U.S. presidents and has been the site of many famous speeches (e.g. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech), but this spot is also a BEAUTIFUL place to watch the sunrise. I would highly recommend coming here early in the morning so that you can peacefully take in the sights in all its glory.
PHOTO TIP: The view of the Washington Monument from across the Reflecting Pool is truly something to behold. Another prime photo spot is from inside the memorial looking out at the Washington Monument through the pillars!
I have to say—the Jefferson Memorial moved me far more than I expected it to. I found myself tearing up as I read the excerpts of Jefferson’s writings in the interior of the memorial. I’ve also heard that this spot (sitting just across the water from the Washington Monument) is an incredible place to watch the sunset.
This obelisk might be the most quintessential and recognizable D.C. building. Chances are you’ve seen it in some book, film or TV show (we missed HANDMAID’S TALE filming here by just a day). Apart from how notable its structure is, the Washington Monument is obviously a hugely significant historical symbol. The monument is currently closed, but should reopen in Spring 2019.
VIETNAM VETERANS MEMORIAL
This 2-acre memorial honors the service of those who fought in the Vietnam War. There have certainly been some controversies around the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but it is a beautiful tribute to visit, and really stands out in my memory of places we visited in D.C.
NATIONAL WORLD WAR II MEMORIAL
Usually, this memorial is accompanied by a beautiful fountain. But even in the dead of winter when it’s silent and eerie, the WWII Memorial is still a beautiful and significant site to see and take in somberly.
There are many other incredible monuments we unfortunately did not have time to see (e.g. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Albert Einstein Memorial, Peace Monument, American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, etc.)
WHAT: National Monuments
WHERE: Scattered around the National Mall and elsewhere
WHEN: Generally open 24 hours
2. SMITHSONIAN MUSEUMS
Okay, I will be the first to admit that I did NOT realize that when people said “the Smithsonian,” it wasn’t just ONE museum. The Smithsonian Institution Museums are 19 (YES, 19) museums, galleries, gardens and a ZOO. Two of the museums are in New York, but the others are in D.C.—11 of which are on the National Mall.
(Oh, I also did not realize that when people referred to the “National Mall,” it wasn’t an actual mall. Yes, I know. I’m going to blame it on the fact that I did not grow up in the U.S.)
But, anyway! These museums are incredible, and they are FREE. We barely made a dent (we visited the museums of American History, Air and Space, American Art and the Hirshhorn), but I definitely fell in love with the American History Museum. Seeing the original Star-Spangled Banner that inspired our national anthem was surprisingly moving, and left me in awe. There are some fascinating presidential exhibits here as well.
WHAT: Incredible Museums
WHERE: Scattered around the National Mall
WHEN: Generally open 10:00am – 5:30pm(ish), but check the specific museum’s hours ahead!
3. THE NATIONAL ARBORETUM
Admittedly, this spot would be far more beautiful in the spring. Or summer. Or fall. But hey, it’s still a truly breathtaking spot in the winter! The U.S. National Arboretum is a 446-acre wonderland filled with beautiful trails, gardens and even a captivating bonsai museum. But the most magnificent thing here is the National Capitol Columns—22 Corinthian columns that supported the U.S. Capitol building in 1828.
WHERE: 3501 New York Ave NE, Washington, DC 20002
WHEN: Open 8:00am – 5:00pm (except for Christmas Day)
4. CAPITOL BUILDING
I unfortunately don’t have much to say about the Capitol Building except that we came, we saw it and we took photos. We were here for sunset, but I honestly wouldn’t recommend it as a prime sunset-viewing location (as stated earlier, if I could do it over again, I’d probably go to the Jefferson Monument and watch the sunset there). If we were to return, I may make a reservation for a tour—which you can do for free and in advance here.
WHAT: Capitol Building
WHERE: First St SE, Washington, DC 20004
WHEN: 9:00am – 5:00pm
It’s hard to express in words how much I love this entire area. There are so many adorable shops and facades, it’s impossible to walk around without taking a million pictures. Oh, the university is also pretty cool to check out. But in general, the town part is the cutest. There are also tons of adorable cafes and bakeries (Georgetown Cupcakes and Baked & Wired come to mind!).
6. THE WHARF
Did you know Washington, D.C. is home to the nation’s longest continually operating open-air fish market? …Yeah, I also had no idea until I started writing this. BUT! We stumbled upon this District Wharf after eating lunch at Toastique (which is an AMAZING Australian brunch place and you must go), and we had so much fun wandering around here together. Forgive me for not taking photos of the adorable wharf with its swings and fireplaces, but please accept these delicious toast shots instead.
7. THE BLIND WHINO
This 19th century church is a super colorful, fun building that tends to host rotating exhibits, whether art or hip-hop. But, admittedly…to me, Blind Whino is pretty much just a photo spot. So stop by, snap your photos and then head back to the National Mall!
8. DUPONT CIRCLE
Dupont Circle is a super cute area to walk around with lots of adorable coffee shops, bookstores and bars. Enough said.
PLACES WE DIDN’T GO THAT WE WANTED TO VISIT
I am very proud of all that we visited in our two days, but this list of places we DIDN’T make it to is also rather long. Certainly makes me sad, but also happy because it means that we have many (MANY) reasons to return to D.C. someday:
- National Archives Museum (The Declaration of Independence, Constitution AND Bill of Rights are all here!!)
- Library of Congress
- Chinatown (I particularly would love to get a photo with the Friendship Archway)
- Washington National Cathedral
- The Kennedy Center
- The Watermelon House
- The Observation Deck at CEB Tower
- Blagden Alley
- Union Market
- The White House
- Ford’s Theatre
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
- United States Botanic Garden
- Korean War Veterans Memorial
- Supreme Court of the United States
- Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception