For your first visit two full days will allow you to take a look at most of the major sights; visiting various museums can easily extend the time by another couple of days.
Distances are walkable around the National Mall; transport will be required to reach other destinations.
Worthy attractions: The Mall with all of its memorials and museums; Capitol; Georgetown; National Cathedral.
Last visit: December 2018.
The capital city of the United States is a monumental metropolis whose wealth of attractions can sustain a several-days long stay in the city. Symbols of the federal government, memorials to presidents and key figures in history, superb museums – which are largely free to enter – all of that combines in an eye-catching ensemble of unparalleled impact.
My familiarity with Washington goes back to 1993, and since then I have taken multiple intraday excursions to the city. Most of the dedicated sightseeing was done on that first – and the sole multi-day – visit, so any practical information I can offer may be dated, therefore I will not include much of it here. What follows is a brief rundown of the major points of interest.
Places to See
Any first visit to Washington, DC, will revolve around the National Mall ♥♥♥, where a large portion of museums and memorials is concentrated. If you decide to visit every point of interest situated along the two-mile-long park, you could easily fill two-three days of itinerary.
The US Capitol ♥♥ building dominates the Mall at its eastern end. Inside, you can tour the rotunda and a few corridors of power, including a peek into one of the chambers of Congress, if not in session.
At the other end of the Mall is one of the most popular – and arguably the most sacred – memorials, that of President Lincoln ♥♥♥. In addition to its historical significance, it is also reputedly a prime location for catching sunrise in the city, but I have only been here in the middle of the day, when the place is remarkably busy.
The Washington Monument ♥ is another dominating feature of the Mall. On my most recent trip to the city it was closed for repairs until further notice; ascending to the top for views over the city will be possible again when it reopens.
Three poignant war monuments are located in the western third of the Mall. The Vietnam War Veterans Memorial ♥♥♥ has three parts to it: the well-known somber black wall bearing names of Americans who lost their lives in the conflict, and two statue groups, of the servicemen and of the women who took part in the war efforts. The Korean War Veterans Memorial ♥♥♥ combines an evocative statuary depicting a platoon on patrol with a marble wall full of reproductions of photographs of the time. The World War II Memorial ♥♥ is the newest of all and the grandest in execution, better visited in summer when its central fountain is turned on.
Along the edges of the Mall stand several museums of the Smithsonian Institution. The most popular of them are the National Gallery ♥♥♥, the National Museum of Air and Space ♥♥, the Museum of Natural History ♥, but there are quite a few others. The building that most frequently catches the eye – the Smithsonian Castle – is actually not a museum at all, but rather the Mall visitor information center.
One other Smithsonian museum that I have visited and consider to be worthy of attention is the National Portrait Gallery ♥, which never gets the amount of traffic of the more prominently located museums, itself being located a few blocks north of the Mall.
The Holocaust Memorial Museum ♥♥ is half a block south of the Mall. It is one of the most somber and harrowing museums of its kind.
The White House is set back off the northern edge of the Mall, and in this day and age can be viewed only from a fairly significant distance. I have never worked into my schedule the actual visit to the premises.
To the south of the mall level with the White House and the Washington Monument, lies the Tidal Basin ♥♥♥, a very photogenic body of water. It is one of the prime locations to partake in the cherry blossom festivities in the early spring.
Around the edge of the Basin sit several impressive memorials. Jefferson Memorial ♥♥♥ is a stunning Palladian rotunda, seen from afar from various directions and offering a good view to the White House in return. Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial ♥♥♥, conversely, is somewhat hidden and not grandiose; it is executed as a vast rock garden, with a number of sculptures, and a number of quotes from FDR speeches immortalized in stone. I believe it is the most thought-provoking and impactful presidential monument of all. Martin Luther King Jr Memorial ♥♥ is also impressive in its white granite statuary.
Majority of memorials in DC are to the former US Presidents – there are only a handful of exceptions. MLK is one, and the one that I especially like is that to Albert Einstein ♥, on Constitution Avenue not far from the Lincoln Memorial.
To the northwest of the Mall lies Georgetown ♥♥♥, the lively university town that is one of the most attractive shops-and-restaurants areas in DC.
Further to the north of Georgetown, not a trivial distance from the center of the city, stands the Washington National Cathedral ♥♥♥, a grand basilica that would not be out of place in Old Europe.
Across the Potomac river to the southwest of the Mall are the Arlington National Cemetery, which I never had the privilege to tour, and the Pentagon, which I once toured with a group over 25 years ago. I do not recall that tour as offering anything exceptional.
Several miles to the south, in Alexandria, one other local attraction that I once toured is the George Washington Masonic Temple ♥, which offers a pretty good overview on the history and impact of Freemasonry.