When you’re in the city where American history, culture and government intersect, it can be tempting to try to see it all.
But it’s better to divide and conquer.
A bike or Segway tour with local tour guides Bike and Roll DC will take you around the key sights of the National Mall, war memorials including those honouring the Second World War and the Vietnam War, and also provide a glimpse of the White House.
Or you can take the DIY approach, taking yourself through an itinerary of world-class museums and historical attractions clustered along the one-mile-long National Mall.
The Smithsonian Institute – fondly known as America’s ‘attic’ – has 20 museums dotted around the city, and they’re all free to enter. There’s also the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, which recently rolled out an ‘ice cake’ for Bei Bei the panda’s third birthday.
Here’s a curated selection of the best museums and attractions in Washington DC.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
The newest Smithsonian extension opened in late 2016 after more than a decade of planning. In the shadow of the Washington Monument, the David Adjaye-designed museum is dedicated to African American history and culture, with a gorgeous bronze lattice design. It’s organised like a vertical timeline, starting with the Atlantic slave trade in the 1400s and moving up to the Obama presidency. Higher up are exhibitions on African American music, theatre and art. It’s a powerful experience and also very popular: you’ll have to apply for a timed ticket to enter.
The Washington Monument
The 169-metre monument is a classic DC icon. Created to honour first president George Washington, the marble obelisk is built from two different colours of marble. (Look closely about halfway up and you’ll see the slight colour change.) It’s visible from every part of the Mall and looks particularly impressive when looking down at it from the Lincoln Memorial (see below).
Further along Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol is the Newseum, an interactive museum dedicated to journalism and loved for the 800 newspaper front pages from around the world that are hung outside every morning. Inside, there are moving exhibits looking at how seminal historical events have been reported, such as the Berlin Wall coming down and 9/11. Alongside newspaper pages from the day after the attacks, there’s a video exhibit highlighting the work of journalists to report on the Twin Towers falling and a piece of the antenna mast from the World Trade Centre’s North Tower. Elsewhere, there’s a great view of the Capitol from the sixth-floor terrace. A must if you’re interested in journalism.
newseum.org (US$24.95 plus tax for an adult ticket)
National Gallery of Art
America’s benchmark art gallery is an impressive space: two buildings, linked underground, and a sculpture garden next-door. It shows a real mix of art spanning the world and various movements. Inside the light-filled IM Pei-designed East Building atrium there’s modern art, including a roomful of wacky Jackson Pollack murals, Andy Warhol’s Green Marilyn and Roy Lichtenstein’s Look Mickey.
The classical West Building tends to house older artwork: the European impressionists (including a handful of Monets) and Italian Renaissance art (from artists including Da Vinci and Raphael) are two highlights.
Smithsonian American Art Gallery and National Portrait Gallery
American art aficionados can get their fill at the Smithsonian’s American Art Gallery in Downtown, which showcases rotating exhibitions from both American and international artists. It’s connected to the National Portrait Gallery, which has one of DC’s most popular exhibitions: the Presidential Portraits, the only such exhibition outside the walls of the White House.
It’s tradition for each of America’s presidents, from George Washington in 1796 to Obama unveiled in early 2018, to sit for an official portrait. On the second floor of the gallery, you’ll find an abstract Bill Clinton, stately George Washington and Obama, surrounded by a Hawaiian flowers to reflect his childhood home (note: this one also comes with a queue).
The Lincoln Memorial
One of America’s most-loved presidents, Abraham Lincoln, is honoured in the majestic marble memorial at the western end of the Mall. The 175-ton statue of Lincoln overlooks memorable quotes and speeches (including the Gettysburg Address) he made during his time in office. Outside the memorial is the Reflecting Pool, which points directly down the Mall at the Washington Monument.
The Tidal Basin
For a few frenzied weeks in spring, DC’s Tidal Basin is surrounded by flowering cherry blossom (and the rest of the year it’s just a different kind of picturesque). The basin, part of the West Potomac Park, is surrounded by an easy trail that’s perfect for walking, running or cycling. The memorials to Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King Junior are two highlights surrounding the lake.