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This profound monument honoring one of the country’s most revered presidents anchors the west end of the National Mall. Dedicated in 1922, it was designed as a Neoclassical structure with 36 Doric columns, one for each of the states in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death. On the walls are memorable passages from the Gettysburg Address (Lincoln’s most famous speech) and his Second Inaugural Address. A mini museum in the adjoining chamber explores Lincoln's life pre-presidency. But its main and most popular feature: the 19-foot-tall statue of a seated President Lincoln, arguably, the most photographed sight and selfie backdrop in town.
One of the most architecturally impressive buildings in Washington, if not the world, the Capitol is where the often-infamous United States Congress convenes. Visitor access to Congressional chambers and the main workings of the building require advance clearance, but spontaneous tourists should not despair. The Capitol Visitor Center is open to all and serves as a veritable museum of the Capitol, providing multi-media exhibits on the building’s history and function and encompassing the architecturally exquisite Exhibition and Emancipation halls. Also accessible are the Capitol Grounds, an expansive park-like setting, complete with exquisite plantings, a reflecting pool, park benches and the 19th Century Summerhouse, a red brick grotto-like structure that is the physical embodiment of an oasis.
Possibly the most famous landmark in the world, the White House is an iconic symbol of America, stately yet not pretentious—exactly how George Washington wanted the White House (and the country, for that matter) to be perceived. For more than 200 years now, the building has served as home, office and formal reception area for the President and First Family. And while the interior design has changed with the passing fashions of nearly every First Lady, the building’s façade, with its great Neoclassical design, remains unchanged. Access to the White House requires advance planning, for security reasons. So if the front lawn’s fence is as close as you can get, there’s still much to take in. Daytime views of the building and its north and south exposures are exceptional—the most popular photo-ops and selfie backdrops in town. And after dark, the White House, all lit up, practically glows. (To arrange a visit, American citizens are to submit requests through their state’s Congressperson at least three weeks but no more than six months in advance. Visitors from outside the U.S. are asked to go through their respective embassies in Washington.)
One of the most recognizable American landmarks in the world, the Washington Monument is the tallest building in the District, standing at 555 feet. Begun in 1848, the obelisk-shaped stone structure also holds the record for the longest construction (some 40 years, due to lack of funds and the intervening Civil War), having been completed in two phases. Located at the center of the National Mall—which seems only fitting for a towering tribute to the country’s first president—the monument’s best feature is the observation deck at the 500-foot level, which provides spectacular views of the capital from every direction. An internal elevator transports visitors to the top with a stop on the return trip at the museum 10 feet down. Admission is free, but there’s a limit on the number of visitors allowed per day, so book ahead.
The Jefferson Memorial is one of the most stately of the presidential monuments. Which is fitting not only because Thomas Jefferson is one of the most important of the country’s Founding Fathers—principal author of the Declaration of Independence, America’s third president, etc., etc.—but he was responsible for the design of the Federal City, based on Classical style (architecture was one of his fondest passions). His Neoclassical Memorial is the perfect tribute. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Pantheon in Rome, it features a larger-than-life statue of the man with excerpts of the Declaration and other notable Jefferson writings engraved on the surrounding interior walls. The Memorial is prominently situated on the Tidal Basin and flanked by dozens of Japanese cherry trees. As such, the annual Cherry Blossom Festival holds its opening ceremony there—definitely worth catching if you’re visiting D.C. in early- to mid-April.
Prominently located on the Tidal Basin, a stone’s throw from memorials to Franklin Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson, the MLK Memorial is both the most recently added tribute (dedicated in 2011) and the most abstract design. It takes its concept from an idea in Dr. King’s famous I Have a Dream speech: how a “stone of hope” would come from a “mountain of despair.” Visitors enter the memorial through an opening meant to depict the imposing mountain. At the front of the mountain is a 30-foot-tall statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., carved into a granite boulder meant to suggest the stone of hope and not yet fully separate from the mountain. This is the kind of monument that requires some thought and exploration in order to fully understand the sculptor’s intent. Fortunately, there’s a wall full of moving quotes from Dr. King's speeches and sermons to serve as inspiration and enough open space for contemplation.
Perhaps because FDR served longer than any other American president, his memorial is the largest and most evocative of them all. Roosevelt was president during some of the country's most difficult recent history, including the Great Depression and World War II. The memorial is divided into four outdoor galleries representing his 12 years in office (Roosevelt died three months into his fourth term) and designed to walk visitors through his presidency. Poignant works highlight significant events—a haunting George Segal sculpture, The Breadline, recalls the Depression—and different water features, one per gallery, symbolize the country’s various moods. Arguably, the most interesting features are two very different sculptures of the president: one, life-size, seated in a wheelchair (FDR was stricken with polio); the other, larger than life, his wheelchair camouflaged, with his beloved Scottish Terrier, Fala, at his side. Prepare to be inspired.
Arguably, the most popular museum in Washington, D.C. (certainly among aviation and NASA “nerds”), the Air & Space houses some 40,000 related and arcane artifacts. Of special note: the Wright brothers’ 1903 flyer, Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 Spirit of St. Louis and the first Moon landing’s Apollo 11 command module.
The country’s most famous cemetery is as much a powerful lesson in American history as it is a shrine to the nation’s military. Occupying some 620 pristine acres just across the Potomac River, Arlington National Cemetery has served veterans of every U.S. conflict through present day. (Funeral services continue to be held daily except Sundays and holidays.) In addition to the hundreds of thousands of headstones for service members, there are several dozen historically significant memorials on the grounds, including one each for the crews of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the Space Shuttle Columbia. Sights not to miss: Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a solemn white-marble sarcophagus, honoring all unidentified fallen U.S. troops; the gravesite of President Kennedy, an area marked with Cape Cod granite pavers, highlighted by an eternal flame; and the Changing of the Guard—a short, regimented ceremony of the soldiers who stand guard around the clock.
Located just south of the National Mall’s Reflecting Pool, this highly poignant memorial depicts 19 larger-than-life combat figures appearing to be on patrol and meant to represent each branch of the U.S. armed forces that fought in Korea from 1950 to 1953. Surrounding the figures, in the form of a triangle, are long, highly polished black granite walls—and in a sophisticatedly designed optical illusion, the figures appear to double in number when reflected in the walls. There's a Pool of Remembrance, surrounded by trees and benches, and granite blocks imprinted with four numbers, representing the number of soldiers killed, wounded, missing in action and prisoners of war. Possibly the most poignant feature: a low granite wall, inscribed in silver, Freedom is Not Free.
The Museum is famous for an amazing compilation of displays with particular appeal to kids (of all ages), including 46 fossilized dinosaurs in all manner of interaction, an actual insect zoo with regular tarantula feedings, a carcass of a supersize squid and the equally enormous 45-carat Hope Diamond.
The National Zoo, as it's known, is a beautifully designed space in the northwest section of the District. One of the oldest zoos in the country, it was founded in 1889 (acquired by the Smithsonian Institution a year later) with the intent of caring for and showcasing as many nondomestic and exotic animals as could fit within its 163 acres. Today, the Zoo is home to more than 2,000 animals belonging to 400 different species, all accommodated in spacious settings that replicate their natural habitat. Among the animals on site are Lowland Gorillas and Orangutans, Cheetahs, Lions and Tigers, Asian Elephants and the most famous of the National Zoo’s residents, the Giant Pandas. The grounds are also home to an aviary, reptile and amphibian house and a Kid’s Farm. Special attractions: the new American Bison Exhibit, featuring two bison transferred from Montana’s American Prairie Reserve; daily feedings, the schedules for which are posted on a sign at the information center; and the amazing and entertaining Orangutans, swinging 50 feet overhead from steel cables attached to interconnected towers, dubbed the “O Line.”
Unlike many of the memorials on and around the National Mall, the WW II Memorial is abstract in design, wrapped in symbolism and graced with historical images. Sitting on a seven-acre site, the WW II Memorial features a large pool with fountains at the center of an elliptical plaza. Visitors enter through a tall, ceremonial entranceway of granite. There is so much to see and contemplate within the memorial's plaza; but these highlights, together with their explanations, should not be missed: the 24 bronze bas relief panels flanking the entrance; the Freedom Wall, adorned with 4,048 gold stars, each representing 100 fallen American soldiers; and The World War II Registry, a searchable computerized database of names and their contributions and sacrifices to the country. In all, the memorial tells an emotion-filled story of what has been called, The Greatest Generation. It's impossible not to be moved.
One of the most eloquent monuments to American troops in all of Washington, D.C., is actually located across the Potomac River, just north of the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. Based on a now famous photograph taken by a war correspondent, the memorial depicts six soldiers valiantly raising the American flag at Iwo Jima, one of the most dramatic battles of WWII. And while the larger-than-life statue is all in bronze, the flag flying from that flagpole is a real American flag.
In jarring contrast to the gleaming white marble-cloaked monuments on the greater National Mall is an interminably long black-granite wall. Suggestive of a black mark on America’s collective soul, the Vietnam Memorial is comprised of two 250-foot-long panels that form a “V” and are engraved with the names of the more than 58,000 fallen American troops who fought in Vietnam—listed in the order in which they died. At its highest point, the Wall is 10 feet and follows a deep descent to seeming oblivion, ending at a miniscule eight inches tall. Designed in 1981 by architect Maya Lin, when she was a 21-year-old college student, the austerely powerful memorial was added to a few years later by The Three Soldiers statue, depicting three male service members—and again in 1993, by the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, dedicated to the 265,000 women who served in Vietnam.
A most powerful tribute to the darkest time and most gruesome events in modern history, the U.S. Holocaust Museum does an exceptional job of bearing witness. Its permanent exhibition is a texturally rich narrative history, spanning three floors and featuring photographs, artifacts and video footage, starting with the rise of Nazism through to the Allied victory and the liberating of the concentration camps. Many events are captured in haunting three-dimensional detail, and video footage of individual survivors recalling their personal horrors is both heartrending and a testament to the human spirit. Additional exhibits, as well as several ongoing lecture series, are worth checking out. The main exhibition is not recommended for young children, however, the museum offers a separate exhibition and activities recommended for children as young as 8.
The Tidal Basin, a man-made inlet designed to prevent the Potomac River from overflowing, is part of West Potomac Park and the site of several of D.C.’s most famous monuments—namely, the memorials for Jefferson, FDR and Martin Luther King, Jr. But the Basin is perhaps best known as the epicenter of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in early April. That's when the thousands of cherry trees that surround the Tidal Basin are in magnificent, pink-pastel bloom. For Washingtonians, this signals the start of spring—and there's a host of festive and cultural events that take place over the course of the next three weeks, which is about how long the cherry trees remain in full regalia. Still, the Tidal Basin is a great draw the rest of the year, too, for its fantastic panoramic views and photo-ops—on land (a stroll around the banks of the Basin) and on water (paddle-boat rentals are available from late-March through early-October).
Magnificent doesn’t begin to describe the National Cathedral, which looks like it was built sometime in the Middle Ages and later air-lifted to Washington, D.C. In fact, the National Cathedral was a 20th Century project, completed in 1990. Located in northwest D.C., on Mount Saint Albans, the Cathedral is constructed of Indiana limestone in the architectural style of English Gothic cathedrals and features a 53-bell carillon, nine ornate chapels and more than 200 stained-glass windows. The two most notable: the brilliantly colored West Rose Window, often used as the Cathedral’s trademark; and one nicknamed the Space Window, in honor of America’s Moon landing, which includes an actual fragment of lunar rock. There is so much more to see than one visit allows; consider bringing a pair of binoculars for optimal viewing of the carvings on the vaulted ceilings and exterior towers—and plan to come back.
Across the street from the Capitol, in the most spectacular building in all of Washington, D.C., is the Library of Congress. The main building, now called the Thomas Jefferson Building, was the original LOC when it opened in 1897, when clearly, no expense was spared. (Two additions—the Madison and Adams buildings—were added later, when apparently, every penny counted.) Visitors enter through the main doors of the Jefferson Building, at the top of a grand marble staircase, and it’s impossible not to gawp at the elaborately baroque interiors. Ironically for a library, books are the last thing to come to mind—until you see the Main Reading Room. Even with all of its gold-leafed grandeur, stacks and stacks and stacks of books are finally visible. Highly recommended: the excellent, free 60-minute docent-led tour, available at the Visitor Center. Because while there are informative exhibits throughout and even high-tech interactive kiosks, it’s too easy to miss something with your mouth open.
The Portrait Gallery, dedicated to celebrating remarkable Americans, in painting, photography, sculpture, even caricature, occupies the south wing of the architecturally-rich Old Patent Office Building, which it shares with the American Art Museum in the north wing. Worth a visit for its Hall of Presidents, where you’ll see an assemblage of 43 presidents’ portraits, the most complete set (including a few “bloopers”) outside of The White House, as well as the recently added glass-enclosed courtyard—a singularly distinctive piece of architecture and a welcome place in which to take a museum break.
Known as the Castle (for obvious reasons), this landmark building, erected in the mid-1800s, was the original home of the Smithsonian collection. A fantastical notion, considering how elaborate the Smithsonian “empire” has become, now encompassing millions of artifacts and works of art spread over 19 museums and nine research centers. Today, the Castle serves as Smithsonian headquarters, housing administrative offices and the Information Center—definitely worth a stop to get your bearings before embarking on the vast Smithsonian-museums complex. A quick tour of the Castle is fun, but if pressed for time, at least check out the “Views from the Tall Tower” photo exhibition. It offers an initial panoramic view of D.C. in 1863 and the same vantage points in 2012—for a jaw-dropping perspective on a city’s progress and regard for history.
The American Art Museum has the largest collection of fine art made in the United States. Encompassing more than three centuries and illustrating nearly all of the country’s art movements, the collection features one of the most significant selections of WPA-funded projects. More than 7,000 American artists are represented, including Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keefe, John Singer Sargent and Jackson Pollock. The museum is housed in the Historic Landmark Old Patent Office Building, which is itself a work of art for its Greek Revival architecture. Stretching a full city block, the building is also home to the National Portrait Gallery. Last decade, it received an extensive renovation in which its grand interior features—a curving double staircase, vaulted galleries—were restored, and a large and exceptional glass-enclosed courtyard was added. When museum fatigue sets in, this singular piece of architecture is worth a visit for its stunning contemporary counterpoint, free WiFi access and respite offered in the Courtyard Café.
Forever linked to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, the notorious theater seems to have dedicated its ensuing years to celebrating President Lincoln’s legacy. Today, Ford’s Theatre is part historic monument, museum and working theater—and as such, a noteworthy D.C. attraction. Among the most compelling aspects: the museum on the theater’s lower level—which displays numerous items related to the assassination, including the coat the President was wearing, the door to his theatre box and the pistol used to shoot him—and across the street, the restored Petersen House where the President was taken and soon died. The Center for Education and Leadership, a state-of-the-art museum dedicated to Lincoln’s life and accomplishments, opened next to the Petersen House in 2012 and is included in the experience.
Inside this formal, nondescript Neoclassical building, whose roots go all the way back to the Civil War, the U.S. currency is minted. Yes, that's right, this is where money is made! Visitors overlooking the production floor are treated to a fascinating sight: millions of dollar bills being printed while they take the self-guided tour. During the 30-minute visit, they'll also see the various phases of paper-currency production. The tour ends in the Bureau’s Visitors Center, which features a few more informative displays. This is also where you'll find possibly the best souvenir ever: uncut sheets of newly minted currency available for purchase. The BEP is totally riveting—a must-see D.C. attraction. Just remember, you won't be the only one who thinks so. The BEP has free admission, limited weekday hours and none on the weekends, so it pays to plan ahead.
It’s only fitting that the National Gallery would have a remarkable collection both in size (more than 100,000 pieces) and scope (works by the most famous European and American artists, from the Renaissance to today). Plus, the only da Vinci this side of the Atlantic and Calder’s largest mobile.
As its name suggests, this is a museum for newshounds—and anyone interested in the greatest news stories of modern history. There are thousands of objects connected to major events here, such as a mangled broadcast antenna from the World Trade Center ruins. Opened in 2008, the Newseum is probably the most high-tech museum in the District. It’s certainly the largest, at seven levels and more than a mile long. Don’t expect to take it all in during one visit; in fact, admission tickets are good for two consecutive days. To get your bearings, start with the short orientation film on the Concourse level, one flight down and past the news-chopper replica overhead in the Great Hall. Not to miss: the NBC newsroom, where you can record your own newscast, complete with Teleprompters; the interactive journalism-ethics quiz (it’s like Truth or Dare for newspaper editors!) in the Ethics Center on 2; and the gallery of front pages from some 80 newspapers, mounted side by side, that change daily.
Amid all the architectural pomp and memorial monuments on and around the National Mall, the United States Botanic Garden located across from the Capitol is like an oasis of blooming color and beauty. Established by Congress in 1820 as an instructional garden, it’s filled with roses, orchids, endangered florals, medicinal greens, even a carnivorous plant or two. In other words, it’s a flourishing, working spectacle, regardless of the growing season. An indoor garden in the recently renovated Conservatory boasts thousands of tropical and rain-forest exotics. And the National Garden, which opened in 2006, provides additional specialties for the outdoor Botanic Garden, including the ethereal Butterfly Garden and the First Ladies Water Garden.
The Museum of American History is like a continuous time capsule of the United States. Pretty much every artifact connected to the country’s heritage, as far back as the Pilgrims, is here. From the ridiculous to the sublime and beyond: a piece of Plymouth Rock, the first car to drive coast to coast, the kitchen set from Julia Child’s 1950s cooking show, Thomas Edison’s first light bulb, Dorothy’s ruby slippers. And these are the real deals, no replicas. This being a Smithsonian property, it’s not just a museum of “stuff;” the exhibits are arranged by theme, and many are interactive. One of the best: The Original Star-Spangled Banner, featuring the actual 1814 flag about which Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics that became the country’s national anthem. The flag is displayed in a hermetically sealed transparent chamber, while an interactive table with a full-size, digital reproduction of the flag allows visitors to “virtually” explore its details and history.
Located on the National Mall, the museum is dedicated to the history and culture of Native Americans of the Western Hemisphere. Its permanent collection includes one of the most extensive and diverse collections of Native American artifacts, and the museum hosts an active schedule of film and media programs. Even the museum’s architecture bears a connection: The curvilinear building features an exterior of wheat-colored Kasota limestone, evocative of sundried adobe, and is surrounded by indigenous landscaping—all designed in collaboration with Native American communities across the Hemisphere. A part of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum is also affiliated with the New York City outpost.
An extraordinary sight on Michigan Avenue, the Basilica is the largest Roman Catholic church in the country and among the 10 largest churches in the world. Remarkable for its outstanding Neo-Byzantine architecture, with a bell tower inspired by Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, the Basilica of the National Shrine looks at least as old as the country and yet, construction didn’t begin until 1920. The ornately designed interior is in two levels: The upper church features a magnificent, gilded mosaic-tile ceiling with 70 chapels and sacred artifacts flanking its sides. In fact, the Basilica boasts one of the most extensive collections of religious art in the world—including a large mosaic sculpture of Jesus, made from nearly three million tiles. The lower church is comprised of a crypt, numerous chapels and a tomb for the Basilica’s founding Bishop. Six Masses are held daily, and there’s a worthwhile two-hour guided tour of the Basilica and its rich history offered twice a day.
Prepare to be impressed: Everything about the National Archives Building is inspiring—starting with its stately Neoclassical architecture and the fact that it safeguards more than 10 billion of America’s most important records. Then, walk into the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, and it’s practically impossible to not be awestruck. This is where the original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are displayed—the collective making of America, what secures the individual rights of its citizens and basically sets it apart from all other nations. Plan on spending at least two hours visiting the National Archives Museum, which includes three other exhibition galleries chockfull of photographs, documents and other cool and fascinating American artifacts. Book reservations in advance, to avoid having to wait on an incessantly long line outside.
The Kennedy Center is the concert hall for the nation’s capital and one of the premier performance spaces in the world. Built in 1971 on the banks of the Potomac, this graciously sized performance hall houses a collection of theaters, including the Concert Hall, Opera House, Eisenhower Theatre and Film Theater, and is home to several local companies, including the National Symphony Orchestra, Suzanne Farrell Ballet and Washington National Opera. And since 2000, the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage has been offering free performances to the public every night of the week. Once a year, the Kennedy Center honors the lifetime achievements of five individuals in the performing arts—the gala of which is a huge live production that is later broadcast on TV. Tours of the Center give a behind-the-curtain look at the various concert venues, punctuated with lots of insider stories, and ending with a stunning panoramic view of Washington, D.C., from the rooftop terrace.
In telling the history of the U.S. Postal Service, the National Postal Museum ends up providing an interesting perspective on the growth of the country and its industrial progress, as a whole. Appropriately, the museum occupies a building that previously served as Washington, D.C.’s Main Post Office from 1914 to 1986. In its current incarnation, it houses quite a collection of mail-delivering “artifacts"—including a mud wagon, a stagecoach, a variety of early 20th-Century propeller planes and a railway car. Also on display is a huge collection of postage stamps. There’s a gift shop as well as a separate stamp shop, which is so captivating with its teeny-tiny works of art, it could turn any visitor into a serious stamp collector in no time. Fortunately, the museum is under the auspices of the Smithsonian organization, so admission is free.
Located across the Potomac in Fairfax County, Virginia, Mount Vernon is the family estate of America’s very first family. For more than 40 years, George and Martha Washington lived in the plantation-style home, added to over the years to accommodate the needs and number of their extended family, until the President’s death in 1799. Visitors are able to tour the estate, including the mansion (many of the 21 rooms have been authentically restored) and several outbuildings, particularly the slave quarters, open-air kitchen and commercial distillery. Additional highlights: reenactments of 18th Century activities, including sheep shearing and blacksmithing; the gardens, all designed by Washington (there’s a worthwhile guided tour); Pioneer Farm, a re-creation of Washington’s four-acre working farm, featuring the innovative 16-sided barn he designed; and if visiting in December, tour the candlelit mansion, decorated for Christmas as it would have been in Washington’s day.
Like the earlier federal architecture, the Supreme Court Building, which wasn’t constructed until 1935, is Greek Revival, with the same stately styling—except that its design elements aren't only decorative, they relate to the nature of justice. The two most prominent are large statues flanking the entrance: on the left, Contemplation of Justice; on the right, Authority of Law. The building is open to the public on weekdays, and the Court is in session intermittently from early October through late April, also open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis. (Advice: Check the schedule in advance and come early; lines form well before the 10a start.) Visitors not lucky enough to sit in on an oral argument can still get an eyeful of the first two floors, including The Great Hall, a very grand marble corridor leading to the Courtroom that features exhibits on the workings of the Court, plus two impressive spiral staircases. Lining the walls are busts of the former Chief Justices, except for John Marshall. The longest-serving Chief Justice (from 1801-1835), he is honored with a statue.
Since it opened in 2002, the Spy Museum has been one of D.C.’s most popular attractions, and it’s easy to see why. Upon arrival, visitors are each given a secret identity—as much for the cool factor as for testing their espionage skills as they explore the museum. There are interactive exhibits for spotting hidden cameras, identifying disguises, even disarming a missile before time runs out. Among the permanent collection are hundreds of real-life international espionage gear (KGB lipstick pistols, anyone?), including the Enigma machine, subject of the acclaimed film, The Imitation Game. Most of the exhibitions are historically significant, with a focus on the Cold War and an emphasis on the role spies have played throughout history. But there’s a lighter side, too, featuring pop-culture gadgets inspired by such vintage shows as Mission: Impossible and Get Smart, not to mention a replica of 007’s famous Aston Martin from Goldfinger. And then there’s the museum store—filled with more than enough spy stuff to bring espionage buffs to their knees.
The monumental piece of architecture that serves as the Washington, D.C. train station, Union Station has all the pomp and distinction one would expect in a main transportation hub for the nation’s capital. Dating back to 1907, the enormous, and enormously grand, Beaux Arts building features an exterior archway based on the ancient Arch of Constantine in Rome, a gold-leaf coffered ceiling in the main waiting room 96 feet above the marble floor, a series of vaulted bays finished with ornate Guastavino tiles and tons of magnificent nooks and crannies worth exploring. Union Station was restored in the late-1980s and refurbished with an arcade of shops and cafes and an addition of noteworthy restaurants. Intentionally sited to face the U.S. Capitol, Union Station still offers great views of the Capitol building and the monument-dotted National Mall.
A very special art museum, the Hirshhorn opened in 1974 with nearly 6,000 works donated by the museum’s namesake, a financier and passionate collector of contemporary art. With easily twice that number of artwork in its permanent collection now, the Hirshhorn is an exceptional celebration of modernism, starting with its chic cylindrical concrete building. Its coveted holdings include iconic works by de Kooning, Dali, Warhol, Rodin and Calder, which are displayed within the museum’s circular walls and its popular sunken Sculpture Garden.
Depending on the day, Eastern Market, in D.C.’s historic neighborhood, is bustling with different fare. On weekends there’s an open-air farmers market plus an outdoor market of artisans selling handmade arts, crafts and jewelry, as well as some interesting antiques. During the week (except Monday), there's a busy indoor market, the South Hall Market, with 13 popular food vendors—fruit and vegetables, baked goods, cheeses, pasta and meats—and quirky little eateries that are a huge draw for visitors and locals alike.
Not just another estate-turned-art-museum, Hillwood is in a class by itself. The former estate of the late Marjorie Merriweather Post—heiress to the Post cereals fortune, which so happens to have made her the richest woman in America at the time—Hillwood showcases Post’s passion for Imperial Russian art, 18th Century French objets and just the most breathtaking opulence. Among the highlights: bejeweled Fabergé eggs, rare French porcelain tableware belonging to Catherine the Great, furniture designed by the French cabinetmaker for Marie Antoinette and a collection of jewelry from no less than Cartier and Harry Winston. Then there’s the magnificent 36-room Georgian mansion, decorated in Post’s tastefully lavish style, situated on 25 acres of natural woodlands and picturesque gardens. The best times to visit are when you can explore the grounds and see the Japanese-style garden; the formal French Parterre; the Rose Garden, which blooms from spring through late fall; even the tranquil Pet Cemetery. Wear comfortable shoes, and make a day of it; the full-service café also offers afternoon tea.
Home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s decorative arts collection and the first building in the U.S. to be created expressly as an art museum, the Renwick is itself a work of art. Designed in 1859 by the acclaimed architect of the time, James Renwick, and located directly across from the White House, the museum is a stunning example of Second Empire architecture with its double-columned red brick façade, striking mansard roof and ornate interiors noted for a sweeping 10-foot-wide Grand Stair. By contrast, the museum is known for showcasing boundary-pushing contemporary pieces.
Overlooking downtown DC and all the famous memorials, this 12-acre 1930s park is based on the formal gardens of Europe. Complete with a reflecting pool that sports water lilies in summer, an elaborate cascading waterfall, two bowl-shaped fountains, tons of impressive sculptures and statues plus lots of shady spots, this is one of the loveliest parks in all of Washington. Snag a bench near the central green for plenty of prime people watching. When the weather warms, late Sunday afternoons turn lively with an amazing ad-hoc drum circle that’s been gathering here since the 1950s.
Better known as "The Brewmaster's Castle," this 1890s Gothic mansion in Dupont Circle is one of the few palatial residences of its era still standing—and the only one so well preserved. The 31-room home contains most of its original furnishings, artwork and exquisite late-Victorian craftsmanship: 15 hand-carved mantles, each a different design, elaborate paneling and staircases that would make Scarlett O’Hara swoon. Built for Christian Heurich, a German businessman who emigrated to the U.S. in 1866 and founded a successful brewery (which only recently closed), the home also featured the latest innovations of its time, including indoor plumbing, a central vacuum system and an elevator. Highly recommended: the guided house tour, which in tribute to its owner, includes beer tastings at least once a month.
Looking like something straight out of ancient Rome, and feeling like a veritable oasis of serenity, the still active Franciscan Monastery and Church are equal parts architectural marvel and sprawling landscaped jewel. Built more than a century ago on 44 acres of wooded hillside in Northeast Washington and modeled after classical Byzantine churches, the Monastery comprises a host of special attractions: the 14 Stations of the Cross tucked among flowers and trees in the lower garden, more than 1,000 roses planted in the upper garden and impressive replicas of all the famous Holy Land Shrines on the surrounding greater grounds. The church’s exterior is decorated with religious symbols from the Catacombs in Rome and the interior features 15 chapels, each containing priceless religious art—with one, Purgatory Chapel, also containing the actual corpse of a saint—and all strung together by long, lovely details-rich halls tailor-made for contemplative strolls.
Open to the public just since 2008, this rambling mansion with 34 rooms and a veranda, surrounded by 250 acres atop the third highest point in Washington, is where President Lincoln went to escape the heat of summer and, no doubt, politics (it was the height of the Civil War). Four galleries detail the poignant history of Lincoln’s time here, and there’s an interactive exhibit that allows visitors to ponder many of the toughest issues the president and his cabinet had to contend with. The “cottage” later served as the Summer White House for Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur, and the guided tour is chockfull of presidential-family ephemera, but it’s dedicated to the 16th president of the United States because more than anyone, his blood, sweat and tears stain the imagery, tangibly or not.
The Building Museum, dedicated to American architecture and design, is often overlooked. (After all, there are so many other museums!) But not only is the museum known for exceptional exhibits, the building itself is spectacular. Constructed just after the Civil War to be the Pension Bureau HQ, it's quite a departure from the Greco-Roman formality of the other government buildings. Designed by Montgomery C. Meigs, an architect and decorated Army general who was inspired by Italian Renaissance palazzos in Rome, it’s a study in architectural exuberance—famous for the magnificent sculptural frieze around its entire exterior and a Great Hall that more than lives up to its name. (Inaugural balls have been held here since 1885.) Take a docent-led tour for all the juicy details, and don’t miss the museum shop, considered to be the best in town. And that’s saying something!