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First time in Washington DC: where to go and what to see

by | Destinations, USA | 28 comments

It was our first time in Washington DC. We knew very little about the city other than that it was the capital of the USA and that it had many famous landmarks which we had seen on television over the years. Until we had a “discussion” on the drive to Washington, I had never even realised that Washington DC is not in a State! Fun fact: the District of Columbia was created from a section of Maryland and Virginia to form the capital; it is on the border of these two States and belongs to neither.

And of the city itself? We were thoroughly impressed, so impressed that we extended our visit (twice) and felt we had barely scratched the surface. There is so much to see! In addition, almost everything has free admission and free tours. We only paid an entry fee once. This was our first visit to Washington DC, but it will certainly not be our last!

So what were the highlights on our first visit to Washington DC?

The National Mall

The city is as interesting and as it is beautiful. We walked the city, starting with The National Mall and this is definitely one of the highlights of Washington! It is not a shopping mall; it is a thoroughfare through a park, which has wide open, green spaces and is teeming with remarkable buildings and historical monuments. Here are some….

Presidents’ Memorials

Where to start? Well, just about wherever you look in Washington, you will see the iconic Washington Monument. It is tall and elegant and is a fitting memorial to America’s first President. Unfortunately,  restoration work was taking place when we visited so we were unable to go inside.

A view of the Washington Monumment, a must see on a first time in Washington DC

We worked our way round to the Jefferson Memorial on the edge of the tidal basin of the Potomac River. This is much more of a traditional monument, a domed temple with a huge statue of the man himself. Quotations from Jefferson’s speeches and from The Declaration of Independence with which he is credited as author, are written large around the inside of the temple. (You may wish to read about our visit to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia. We learned a great deal more about the man on this visit!)

The Jefferson Memorial, one of the iconic landmarks in Washington DC

The Jefferson Memorial

The Declaration of Independence on the wall inside the Jefferson Memorial

 

Walking further round, we came to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial. This is very different from the first two we visited. It consists of a series of fountains cascading over large rocks and several sculptures depicting the difficult issues of the Depression and World War 11. Again, many of the man’s words of wisdom are inscribed in this monument. The statue of the man himself portrays him as in his later years in his wheelchair.

The FD Roosevelt Memorial, another iconic landmark in Washington DC

The Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial

Franklin Roosevelt sculpture

FD Roosevelt Memorial Sculpture depicting the depression years

Another sculpture from the FD Roosevelt Memorial

Inscription on the wall of the FD Roosevelt Memorial

Sculpture of Roosevelt in his wheelchair

 

We then came to another iconic landmark in Washington DC:  the memorial of  Martin Luther King. The memorial is symbolic of his most famous speech, ” I have a Dream…”, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln memorial in 1963: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” The memorial presents Dr. King as the “stone of hope” and the two pieces of granite placed behind him as the “mountain of despair.”

Martin Luther King Memorial

Martin Luther King Memorial

 

Finally, we arrived at The Lincoln Memorial. This is large and impressive, looking out over The Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool to the Washington Monument. Again, the words of the man are inscribed on the walls inside the monument:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation,
conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…..

The Lincoln Memorial, another of the iconic landmarks in Washington DC

The Lincoln Memorial

Statue of Abraham Lincoln

 

View of the Washington Monument on our first time in Washington DC

Looking over to the Washington Monument across the Reflecting Pool from the Lincoln Memorial

 

Reading the words of these former leaders in these various monuments, their eloquence struck me. The words are familiar because they are memorable and they are memorable because they are wise and insightful and in many instances, poetic. One cannot help but compare the eloquence of these men with that of the current leader.

War Veterans’ Memorials

Several War Memorials are also situated along the National Mall and it has to be said, they are works of art in their own right, fitting tributes to those who have given their lives for their country.

The Korean War Memorial is beautiful and moving.  A patrol of nineteen life-size figures of soldiers make their way through the undergrowth, their reflections captured in the wall behind.

The Korean Veterans' war memorial

The Korean Veterans’ War Memorial

An iconic landmark in Washington DC: the Korean Veterans' War Memorial

 

By contrast the Vietnam Memorial is very stark in its simplicity, but again deeply moving. The names of all those who died etched on the black marble walls of this monument.

The Vietnam War Memorial

The Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial

The National World War 2 Memorial with the water feature is also remarkable and honours the service of all those who served overseas in the war. They came from every state and territory and this is reflected in the stone monoliths around the perimeter.

The World War 2 War Memorial in Washington DC

The National World War 2 Memorial

The White House

Leaving the National Mall we headed to The White House, the official home of the US President and one of the best known landmarks in Washington DC. It is as impressive at the back as it is at the front. The White House has been re-modelled  several times, but despite this remains a beautiful building.

First time in Washington DC at The Whitehouse

The White House, north side

The White House, south side

The White House, south side

It is possible to take a tour inside The White House, but we did not manage it on our first visit to Washington DC. Next time!

The Capitol

The Capitol is another iconic landmark in Washington DC. We see it so often on the news and here it is!

The Capitol in Washington DC

The Capitol

First time in Washington DC at The Capitol

The Capitol, one of the highlights of Washington DC

 

Tours of The Capitol are free, well organised and definitely recommended on a visit to Washington DC. The tour starts with a video presentation about the history of America, which led to The Capitol being established. After the video, we were escorted by our guide to the public areas of the building. Headsets are provided so it is easy to listen to the tour guide, who was interesting and well informed.

The rotunda in The Capitol is a very impressive space. The frieze around the base of the dome is beautiful and depicts significant events in the history of America, from the landing of Christopher Columbus to the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight.

The frieze around the rotunda in The Capitol

 

Each state is allowed to send two statues for display in the Capitol. They do not always send a statue of a President, even if one was elected from that state!

Statue of Abraham Lincoln in The Capitol

Statue of Abraham Lincoln in The Capitol

I was delighted to see that Rosa Parks was duly honored, but disappointed when I learned that hers is the only full-length statue that was not donated by a state. It was commissioned by Congress. Alabama what are you doing?!

Statue of Rosa Parks in The Capitol

Rosa Parks, who won the right to sit wherever she wanted to on the bus

Our guide took us through the history of the building and how it is used. The general tour did not include the Senate or the House Chambers, but it is easy to acquire a free ticket for admission to these chambers. Unfortunately, after we acquired our tickets, the queue for admission was moving so slowly that we ran out of time. Something else for the next time we visit!

The National Library of Congress

Situated directly behind the Capitol, is the National Library of Congress. We probably would not have considered visiting had someone we met not insisted that it was a “must see”. They were right: this was definitely one of the highlights of our first time in Washington DC.

The National Library is the most beautiful and elaborately decorated building. After the original library was burned by the British in 1814, Thomas Jefferson sold his entire personal collection to the nation to start a new library.  Another fire in 1851 destroyed the collection again but Congress assigned funding to restore the collection. The building, the Thomas Jefferson Building, in which the new library was eventually housed was completed towards the end of the century.

The main reading room in the National Library of Congress

The main reading room in the National Library of Congress

Tours of the Library of Congress are free and excellent. The guide pointed out aspects of the library that we would have missed had we not taken the tour.  He also explained a lot of the symbolism behind the artwork. The library, this seat of learning, was built to showcase American superiority in areas of technology and engineering. The founders were also keen to demonstrate that Americans possessed artistic talent to rival any that came out of Europe! Consequently, when the library opened in 1897, it had electric lighting and running water. It was also beautifully decorated with artwork by American artists. The theme of the library is the importance of knowledge and lifelong learning. This theme is conveyed through much of the artwork which adorns the library.

Figure holding light lit by electricity in the National Library of Congress

Her torch? Electrickery of course!

No expense was spared. The floors are marble with brass inlays; the mosaic on the wall is made of Murano glass; the exquisitely painted ceiling and murals resemble those in the Sistine Chapel; and what was once thought to be sliver leaf adornment, turned out to be aluminium leaf, which was far more valuable than silver in the nineteenth century!

The Murano glass mosaic

Murano glass mosaic

 

Detail on the staircase in the National Library

Even the cherubs are hard at work here

 

The exquisitely decorated ceiling

The exquisitely decorated ceiling

Many important books and documents are housed in the library. The first map known to feature the word “America” is here. Our guide pointed it out. There is also a Gutenberg Bible.

The National Library really is a must see. I can only provide a flavour of it here, but would highly recommend making time for it on a visit to Washington DC.

The National Archives

The National Archives, an important landmark in Washington DC

The National Archives

Another iconic landmark in Washington DC is the National Archives. This magnificent building houses the most important documents in the United States – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. The originals of these documents are very faded and delicate, but it is quite remarkable to see them set out in glass cases in the rotunda in the archive building. The dimmed lights, hushed atmosphere and the high domed ceiling of the rotunda serve to emphasise the importance of these documents. No photography is allowed anywhere in the National Archives building.

On the ground floor, there is an exhibition which traces the history of citizens’ rights as they are encapsulated within the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Fittingly, there is a 1279 copy of the Magna Carta. The exhibit also traces the development of civil rights, the abolition of slavery, the fight for an end to discrimination, the fight for equal rights for women…..

The history within this building is important and humbling.

Entry is free and tours are available, although on this occasion, we did not take the tour as the timing did not work.

The Smithsonian Museum

We could not visit Washington DC without going to The Smithsonian Museum.  The Smithsonian consists of 19 separate museums and galleries, each with a separate focus. We intended to visit several, but it did not work out that way as we got waylaid by the first one! Many of the exhibits in the collection have been donated. Many of the people who work in the Smithsonian are volunteers. Our guide in the Air and Space Museum was one such volunteer and his knowledge and enthusiasm were excellent.  

The Castle

We started out in The Castle, the original Smithsonian Institution Building and one of the famous landmarks in Washington DC. It was created to honour James Smithson’s wishes when he bequeathed a large sum of money to the city of Washington. The legacy was to be used “to found at Washington, under the name of the Simthsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge”. It took several years for the great and the good to decide how Smithson’s instructions were to be interpreted, but the cornerstone for this magnificent building was laid in 1847 by President James Polk.

The Castle on the National Mall

The Castle

The building stands out in Washington. The majority of buildings are white and classical in style. The Castle, as it is now known, is Gothic and red sandstone. It is stunning inside.

Inside The Castle

Me chatting with Pepper, the robot tour guide in the Smithsonian Castle. The real tour guides are far superior!

The Castle now hosts the visitor centre for the Smithsonian and provides an overview of the whole institute. 

Why did Smithson, a British scientist, bequeath his fortune to the United States, a country he had never visited? No one knows for certain but there is some speculation. Could it be perhaps because he was illegitimate and never completely accepted by his scientific peers and the English establishment? Was this his way of thumbing his nose, leaving his fortune to this fledgling republic which had turned its back on the British rule?

The National Air and Space Museum

After we left The Castle, we headed for the Air and Space Museum, one of the Smithsonian museums. We did not emerge until closing time. This museum is packed with some really cool stuff! I cannot recommend this highly enough. It was definitely one of the highlights of this first visit to Washington DC.

We joined a free tour and it was excellent. Our volunteer guide was knowledgeable and engaging. The hour long tour lasted two hours because he had so much to say and the audience was completely with him as he traced first of all the development of space exploration and then the development of flight. Staggering to consider that the first powered flight took place in 1903 and a man landed on the moon in 1969!

The museum has some amazing exhibits, which have been donated over the years. In the case of the space programme, a back-up unit would often be made, and if it was not needed, it ended up here.

The original capsule in which John Glenn orbited the earth in 1962 is here. Tiny!

The Mercury Capsule

The Mercury capsule Friendship 7 in which John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth in 1962.

A second lunar module for the moon landing was made for testing, but the tests ran so well on the first one that it was not required. It was donated to the Smithsonian.

Lunar module and Spirit of St Louis

Lunar module – with Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis suspended above!

 

After the Apollo missions were cancelled, the Stage 2 sections from the rockets were not needed. They were turned into the space lab. One is here and it is possible to go inside.

The Space Station in the National Air and Space Museum

Inside the Space Station

 

Apollo Module docking with a Soviet Soyuz 19.

The last Apollo Module docking with a Soviet Soyuz 19. This took place in 1975, a symbol of the policy of detente. (These are the “spares” of course, which were not sent into space to be burned up on re-entry!)

 

Below is the original Wright Flyer flown by the Wright brothers in 1903. The museum also has several other prototypes in what is an extensive and fascinating Wright brothers’ exhibition.

The Wright Flyer in the National Air and Space Museum

The Wright Flyer which took off from Kittyhawk in 1903

 

The original Spirit of St Louis flown across the Atlantic by Charles Lindbergh in 1927 is here.

The Spirit of St Louis in the National Air and Space Museum

The Spirit of St Louis

Aeroplanes in the National Air and Space Museum

A multiplicity of aeroplanes!

Chuck Yeager's plane in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC

The Bell X-1: Chuck Yeager’s ride through the sound barrier in 1947 (the orange one); and the Bell X-15 which flew to the edge of space.

 

Of course, no space exhibition would be complete without Star Trek and the Starship Enterprise!

Model of the Enterprise from Star Trek

 

This museum is in the heart of the city so transporting some of the exhibits is difficult, if not impossible. Consequently there is a second facility, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, outside the city and this is where some of the bigger exhibits are on display. Unfortunately, we did not have time to go there on this first visit to Washington DC. Yet another reason to return!

 

The National Gallery of Art

Our next port of call was the National Gallery of Art. We meant to spend a couple of hours there and then check out another of the Smithsonian museums. We never got there!

The National Gallery is wonderful. We barely scratched the surface in a day, so setting aside a couple of hours is not going to work – except for the fact that like all the exhibitions in Washington, entry is free so if you have several days you could visit on several occasions for shorter periods of time.

The gallery is divided into two wings: the west wing houses classical and traditional works of art; the east wing is home to modern art. The two buildings, linked by a fabulous underground LED tunnel, complement the works of art they contain. The west wing is classical in style – high ceilings with marble floors, garden courts and tall columns; the east wing is modern, open and asymmetric.

Standing in the atrium in the National Gallery

A garden atrium for classical art

In the National Gallery of Art on a first visit to Washington DC

A classical canvas for classical art

A modern setting for modern art

The Gallery of Modern Art

There are thousands of works of art from across the globe within the gallery and many have been donated.

We wandered around the different sections of the gallery and kept finding new treasures. There is little point in posting photos of wonderful paintings and hoping to capture the magic of them; it is impossible to do them justice, so I will just include here a few snaps of iconic works and some personal favourites.

Impressionist paintings in the National Gallery

Lots of Impressionist paintings – my favourites

Van Gogh paintings in the National Gallery

Vincent!

Sculpture: The Thinker by Rodin

Rodin – The Thinker

Sculpture of The Kiss in the National Gallery

Rodin – The Kiss

Mural by Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock – Mural

Andy Warhol self portraits in the National Gallery

Andy Warhol

Warhol's picture of Marilyn Monroe

Gotta love Marilyn!

Soap and Chocolate sculptures in the National Gallery

‘Lick and Lather’ by Janine Antoni. Busts sculptured in chocolate and soap. Quirky!

 

Lichtenstein picture in the National Gallery

Roy Lichtenstein

There really is something for everyone in this gallery and it is definitely worth checking out on any visit to Washington DC.

The Newseum

The Newseum was the only gallery or museum in Washington for which we paid an entry fee. It is, however, well worth visiting and was one of the highlights of Washington DC for us.  Again, we did not allow sufficient time to fully explore, although we did spend several hours in the Newseum. Interestingly, our ticket would have given us entry the following day, as well as the day we visited.

The Newseum on our first time in Washington DC

View of the Capitol from the top floor of the Newseum

The Newseum is a museum of news and was created to honour the First Amendment, which safeguards freedom of speech and the freedom of the press.   The Newseum traces the dissemination of news as technology developed, from printed sheets, through radio and television to instant news on the internet and everything in between. Yes, it is possible to pore over news-sheets from 19th Century and before, but more interesting for us was the news form the 20th and 21st centuries, some of which we can remember.

A section from the Berlin Wall in the Newseum

A section from the Berlin Wall

How was the news reported during the Civil Rights Movement? When JFK was assassinated? What about Watergate and the Nixon years? The moon landing? News footage and front pages reporting all the key events which are within living memory are there to peruse. Every Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph is on display; many are iconic; some are very moving. Is there anyone who has not seen the photograph of the naked Vietnamese girl running down the road to escape the napalm which had been rained down on her village?

Inevitably, as much of what is newsworthy is bad news – disaster, tragedy, terrorism, warfare – many of the exhibits are deeply moving.

Perhaps the most poignant, however, is the extensive display about how the news was reported on 11th September, 2001. Journalists and photographers were there in the thick of it. It is impossible not to get emotional in this exhibition. Tissues are on hand.

The twisted antenna from the top of the Twin Towers

The antenna from the top of one of the Twin Towers and all the front pages from the following day.

 

Photographs of the antenna as it used to be atop the Twin Towers

Photographs of the antenna as it used to be, atop the Twin Towers

 

There is also an excellent section on “fake news”, explaining the dangers of politicians claiming that something is “fake news” simply because the news is unflattering to them or does not support their agenda.

All in all, the Newseum is a fascinating and thought-provoking place to explore, an absolute must on any visit to Washington DC.

Goodbye Washington DC – for now!

Our first visit to Washington DC was very memorable. There really is so much to see and this is certainly not an exhaustive account of everything this wonderful city has to offer. We shall definitely return.

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28 Comments

  1. A great read…*hurriedly books flights to DC*!

    Reply
    • Thanks Carly. I really had not expected Washington to have so much to offer.

      Reply
  2. Wow your trip looks like it was so cultural and interesting! I never knew Washington wasn’t a state and I had no idea how much cool stuff there was to see and places to visit. I hadn’t planned on visiting Washington before but you’ve definitely made me reconsider! Thanks for sharing x

    Reply
    • Yes, Washington exceeded all expectations and we will definitely return as there is still so much more to see!

      Reply
  3. Wow- you saw a lot! My husband has been many times but I never have. I hope to take our boys someday soon!

    Reply
    • I would highly recommend it!

      Reply
  4. I just got my Florida driver’s license yesterday so I am a Floridian now. As a Floridian, I have to wonder about our choice of statues for the hall of statues. Our contribution was the inventor of air conditioning. Maybe no Rosa Parks, but after my first summer here, it is starting to make sense. If you get a chance you’ll have to check out the Holocaust Museum. It is outstanding.

    Reply
    • Yes, there are some curious choices of statues! Will make a note to visit the Holocaust Museum. We shall definitely be returning to Washington as there is still so much to explore.

      Reply
  5. Wow! How long were you there? It looks totally amazing. We sure love following your adventures ????

    Reply
    • Thanks Joanne. We were in Washington for five days and loved it. The whole roadtrip was about 10 weeks. There are more posts drafted about the trip, but I could not post en route because of internet access. Loved seeing your photos of the river cruise btw. We will definitely be doing this!

      Reply
  6. Thank you Ruth. We were blown away by Washington. Hope you are too when you get there!

    Reply
  7. I need to revisit DC. The last time I went was over 15 years ago and I think I would have a very different experience the second time around. I agree that the words of past leaders are memorable and sound poetic…unlike, someone, we know today 🙁

    Reply
    • I know: I could not resist commenting on this. The words of Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt are so eloquent.

      Reply
  8. It is a little confusing for non US citizens to always hear “50 states” and then find out that yes, there are 50 states and a DC. A District of Columbia that is the capital of the US but not one of its states! That tiny space does have a TON of free things to do, you’re right. I’ve been countless times and still haven’t done all of it! My favorites are the Korean War Memorial, Lincoln Monument, Vietnam War Memorial and WW2. You definitely need to tour the White House next time you come. It’s beautiful and quite interesting! I had no idea that Rosa Parks’ statue was the only one not donated by a state. I was born in Montgomery where that took place and I’m sad to learn my state didn’t donate it!

    Reply
    • I learned so much on this trip and definitely need to go back as there is still so much to explore. Interestingly, we actually came across the bus on which Rosa Parks was arrested when she refused to move in Montgomery. It is in The Henry Ford in Detroit.Have you seen it? I found it really quite emotional sitting in the seat in which she was arrested.

      Reply
  9. Your perspective on Washington is enlightening! I have been many times for various reasons, mostly leisure trips, and I still learned many new things from your post, like how each state donates statues to the Capitol! I want to look and see what my state decided to donate now.

    Reply
    • I learned so much on this visit Kelly. My knowledge of American history before was sketchy to say the least and whilst I am no expert now, I feel I am so much better informed.

      Reply
  10. More to do in Washington than I thought.

    Reply
    • Absolutely!

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  11. The architecture and monuments in Washington are amazing. My kids would love the National Air and Space museum. I had no idea the Washington Monument was so tall!

    Reply
  12. This brings back so many fond memories. I have been to D.C. two times. I think I have seen everything in your post except for the Newseum (will have to add that one to my list for next time). I agree that you could spend so much time in the Capitol and still not see it all. My favorite is the Library of Congress. I also really enjoyed the Smithsonian Sackler Gallery (which features Asian Art). My father served in the Vietnam War, so that memorial was very moving to me.

    Reply
    • I can imagine how poignant that would be. I find this memorial very moving and have no personal connection, other than recalling the pictures on TV as a child and not really understanding what was going on. I can definitely recommend the Newseum.

      Reply
  13. Therese and I have visited the Newseum several times. The first, we walked up to the ticket counter and inquired about how long we needed to plan to see the museum and the man told us “2 to 3 hours is about right.” We then told him we were journalists and he responed “oh my, well, you can come back tomorrow too and you’ll need the time.” And we did. And even two days the first time was not enough. One of our favorite museums in Washington D.C. and we’ve been to most all of them.

    Reply
    • I agree. There is just so much to see and much of it is very moving,especially when you actually remember the events taking place. I shall definitely return.

      Reply
  14. Such a detailed post! I’ve yet to visit the capital but it’s definitely on my list. There are so many things to do and see and I’d definitely love to check out the museums. Love that there are so many free things to do as I’ve heard that eating and accommodation in DC can be quite expensive. It definitely sounds like a perfect cultural learning experience.

    Reply
    • Absolutely! We were actually staying in our RV just on the outskirts of the city and this worked really well. The public transport into the city was excellent.

      Reply
  15. I’m in DC this weekend, and we have been to must of the museums in the area. Every time we come here we find new things to do and see. I love visiting the city.

    Reply
    • Absolutely agree. I feel we only just scratched the surface and there is still so much to see!

      Reply

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Hello

Hello!  I’m Jane. I live in the Lake District in the north of England with my husband, Peter. We love to travel, but this is a great place to call home.

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