By Jim Ferri
From Andorra to Zimbabwe, every country has a capital city.
Their common denominator is often pomp and pageantry, history and intrigue, power and prestige.
What sets them apart, however, is their beauty and how fascinating each city is to travelers. In this respect, Washington DC arguably surpasses them all.
Washington, DC, more than many other capitals, is a city of great beauty and interest. It’s a city of marvelous memorials and neoclassical buildings, where broad avenues and green spaces cut swatches across the landscape.
It’s also a city of great excesses, as well, with countless monuments, museums and other places of interest. Best of all for travelers, however, is that almost all are free to visitors.
Everything in Washington, DC seems to be undertaken on a grand scale. The renowned Smithsonian, for example, is the largest museum complex in the world. It alone houses more than 140 million objects and pieces of art in its 19 museums and galleries.
11 of these institutions are on the National Mall, the beautiful, sprawling green space considered the center of Washington. (It’s here you’ll also find some of the most iconic monuments in all of America).
And it’s not only museums that are exceptional. Not far away, near the Capitol building anchoring the east end of the Mall, is the beautiful Library of Congress. It’s the largest library in the world.
With so much to see – and some sites not even within the city – the question is where to begin?
The answer is to start with these top 10 sites, which alone will take you several days.
The White House
Arguably the most famous residence in the world, the White House is a symbol of the power of the US President. It’s located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the most famous address in America, although visitors can only approach it on foot. Stand in front of it on Pennsylvania Avenue, and you’ll inevitably find a large group of tourists and protesters, all kept away from the fence by the U.S. Secret Service.
The 132 rooms in the house display culture of both present and past America. The most important rooms are the Oval Office and the adjoining West Wing, the operation center of the executive branch. Another famous room, the Lincoln Bedroom, is misnamed. Lincoln never slept in the room but used it as an office.
Public tours of the White House are available, but you must request them in advance. For American citizens tickets for the popular tours must be secured through one’s Member of Congress. Non-Americans should make their request through their Embassy.
The U.S. Capitol has stood as an enduring symbol of America for more than 200 years. In fact, it survived being burned down by the British during the War of 1812, and another conflagration in 1851.
In addition to housing the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, the building itself is a virtual museum containing several notable works of art.
The west side of the Capitol that faces the Mall is the site of the presidential inauguration. Atop its much-photographed dome is the Statue of Freedom, a female figure in flowing robes. On the interior of the dome is a beautiful rotunda covered with the fresco “The Apotheosis of Washington.”
To tour the historical areas of the building, you must participate in a guided tour, which you can book online. Enter the building through the Capitol Visitor Center, located underground on the east side of the Capitol.
National Gallery of Art
The collection of the National Gallery is one of the most notable art collections in the world. It is in two buildings, the Neo-Classical West Building and I.M. Pei-designed East Building. Also, there is also an attractive six-acre Sculpture Garden for monumental sculpture.
The collection includes superb western art from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. Visitors can see works by da Vinci, Fra Angelico, Raphael, Vermeer, Calder, Winslow Homer, and much, much more. Thankfully, there are many places to sit and relax while viewing the vast collection.
National Air and Space Museum
On The Mall on Independence Avenue, this is a fascinating museum and one of the most popular in Washington. You’ll find things at the National Air and Space Museum that will satisfy the entire family.
Its collection includes the Wright Brother’s original plane as well as the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia. Also, see Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed 5B Vega and several airliners.
If possible, don’t miss the other much-larger “half” of the Museum at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport. Its outstanding collection of aircraft includes the Concorde, the Enola Gay, the Discovery Space Shuttle and the SR-71 spy plane.
National Museum of American History
The National Museum of American History is another that has something for everyone in the family. Among many other artifacts, it is home to the original flag that was the inspiration for The Star Spangled Banner. It’s also now home to Kermit the Frog, the John Bull Locomotive, and a two-story colonial house from Massachusetts.
Interested in Inaugural gowns of the First Ladies or a gunboat from the American Revolution? They’re here. As is Lincoln’s top hat and the desk on which Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence.
It’s the story of America that’s guaranteed to keep you enthralled for hours, if not days.
Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is an incredibly amazing place and exquisitely beautiful. Enter its elegant interior, and you’ll feel you’re in a grand European palace, it’s that beautiful.
Divided into four buildings scattered about Washington, it’s the largest library in the world, with 650 miles of bookshelves. They hold everything from the papers of U.S. presidents to a rare Gutenberg Bible.
But it’s the art and architecture of its Jefferson building that’s the most mesmerizing. Located next to the Supreme Court, don’t miss the main reading room and the various exhibitions hosted in the library. On the second-floor, there’s a high-definition touchscreen that provides a plethora of information.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is a phenomenal experience for all races, not just Black Americans. Yes, it is a deeply moving exhibit about racism in America. But it also celebrates the contributions of Black Americans in numerous walks of life. In television, movies, music, and art, as well as on the battlefields and many other places.
It’s so interesting, in fact, that since opening in September 2016, it continues to be the hottest “ticket” in Washington. Tickets are free, but attendance is limited to avoid overcrowding of this now-famous museum. Go online to https://nmaahc.si.edu/visit/passes to print a timed entry pass. (Since Mondays and Tuesdays are the slowest days, however, you can often gain entry then without a pass.)
Regardless of your race or nationality, this is a place you’ll most likely find spellbinding. Don’t miss it.
The Newseum is a unique cultural institution that focuses on freedom, specifically, freedom of the press throughout the world.
The Newseum has 15 galleries and as many theaters, two broadcast studios, and 100+ interactive game stations. There’s a fascinating gallery with Pulitzer Prize photographs, another showing how the FBI fights crime in an age of terrorism.
An additional gallery is devoted to the fall of the Berlin Wall, complete with a guard tower and section of wall. There’s also a section dedicated to comics, and an area is showing the daily front pages of U.S. and foreign newspapers.
It’s a great museum for the entire family, although its entrance fees are relatively expensive. Your ticket, however, is good for two days if you haven’t seen all of its fascinating exhibits.
Arlington National Cemetery
Only minutes from Washington, DC, Arlington National Cemetery is in Virginia across the Arlington Memorial Bridge.
White tombstones cover the rolling hills of this 624-acre cemetery, the best know military cemetery in the U.S. It is also the final resting place of President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie, and brother Robert. Many other notables are also buried in Arlington, and 25-30 burials continue to take place every day.
In addition to the JFK gravesite, visitors are also drawn here by the pageantry at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Unknown soldiers from both World Wars and the Korean War are interred in the tomb, which is guarded 24 hours a day by the Old Guard. The Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place every half-hour in summer, once per hour in winter.
Although it’s technically not in Washington, DC, Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate, is a popular site for visitors to the Capitol. In fact, after the White House, it is the second most-visited historic house in America.
George Washington’s mansion sits on a hill overlooking the Potomac River in Virginia, about an hour’s drive from the White House. It’s a beautiful setting you can enjoy while sitting on the porch overlooking the valley, just as Washington likely did.
Washington lived in the mansion for 40 years, and the house and farm provides an insight into his character. Be sure to tour the entire property and outbuildings and speak with workers in period costume.
The tomb of Washington and his wife Mary are also on the property.