The Mall and museums
En español | Eleven Smithsonian museums and galleries line “America’s Front Yard” like sentinels. Two are family favorites: the National Air and Space Museum, the most popular museum in the country (closed for renovations until fall 2022), and the National Museum of Natural History, whose dinosaur bones are guaranteed kid-pleasers. You can see two dozen inaugural gowns in the First Ladies’ Collection and Julia Child's kitchen in the National Museum of American History.
All Smithsonian venues accommodate visitors with mobility, hearing and sight impairments. You can even reserve free sign-language tours with a trained docent at least two weeks in advance. Wheelchairs are available for rent on the Mall, and you can download an accessible entrance map.
While the Mall boasts several art museums — notably the landmark National Gallery of Art with its I.M. Pei–designed East Building (the East Wing is due to open in June 2022 after renovations), the modern-art-filled Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the National Museum of Asian Art. Locals have favorites beyond the Mall. In Dupont Circle, the Phillips Collection has an impressive collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art (feast on Renoir’s famous Luncheon of the Boating Party). In a Georgetown mansion, Dumbarton Oaks boasts America’s premier collection of pre-Columbian art (timed tickets are required). Lovers of folk art and crafts enjoy the Renwick Gallery, across from the White House. Those who favor decorative arts adore late heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens overlooking Rock Creek Park, with its 13 acres of impeccable landscaping and rare, gold-and-jewel-covered Fabergé eggs.
History gems are scattered all over, such as the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, (though it’s closed to the public for renovations until 2023), the Seward House Museum (known as Mr. Lincoln’s White House) and George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the first president’s restored estate in a Virginia suburb. For guaranteed entrance, buy tickets online in advance. (Mount Vernon is wheelchair accessible, except for the mansion’s upper floors, and provides handheld devices for the visually and hearing impaired.)
In a city devoted to memorials, you can hardly turn a corner without running into one, even beyond the Mall. Three are located in Virginia: the soaring Air Force Memorial, the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, and the iconic Marine Corps War Memorial (better known as the Iwo Jima memorial), just outside Arlington National Cemetery — the country’s largest military burial ground. Don’t miss the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, every half hour during peak tourist times. There’s also the new World War I Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue.
In the National Archives Rotunda, you can see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; just be prepared to wait in long lines to enter (wheelchairs are available).
And many visitors haven’t heard the word about Planet Word Museum, at 925 13th St. NW, a popular interactive experience where you can learn about the English language, solve word puzzles, sing karaoke and read famous speeches into a teleprompter. Reserve online and name your price for admission. A mouthwatering bonus: It’s home to a branch of the highly rated Immigrant Food restaurant, open for lunch or dinner.
Ways to save: Talk about the land of the free! All the Smithsonian museums are gratis, as are others on the Mall, including the National Gallery of Art and the National Archives, and most other public venues around town.
Visitors 62 and older save $4 on admission to the Phillips Collection, Dumbarton Oaks is free, and Hillwood has a suggested donation ($12 on weekdays for those 65 and older). Veterans and those 65-plus get discounted tours of Arlington National Cemetery, and the disabled can ride the interpretative bus at no cost (with one companion). The cemetery offers free shuttle service to visit individual gravesites.
Adults 62 and older get discounted tickets to Mount Vernon, additionally discounted if bought online.
The city’s tourist areas are compact, with many popular attractions clustered together. It’s easy to get in your 10,000 daily steps on the grassy, tree-lined National Mall. Stroll on paths along alongside the Potomac River. Hike in the oldest and largest urban park in Rock Creek Park (D.C.’s version of Central Park), which weaves through the city along a more than 30-mile trail system that draws joggers, bikers and horseback riders. It’s home to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo (panda central!), which is free and great for family outings and is only a short Metro ride from downtown. In the early mornings and late evenings, you may hear a lion’s roar.
To get your bearings: The city is laid out in four quadrants — Northwest, Northeast, Southwest and Southeast. Each houses walkable neighborhoods, each with its own character and identity.
Wander past Capitol Hill’s stately historic town houses in the shadow of D.C.’s political epicenter, and you could run into a member of Congress. There and in downtown, you’ll witness the unique D.C. bustle of congressional staffers, journalists on deadline, lobbyists and activists on their way to work. After getting lost in the stacks of the Library of Congress and the Folger Shakespeare Library, come up for air in revitalized Barracks Row, where Marine barracks have given way to shops and trendy restaurants.
Many neighborhoods are within walking distance of the Mall, such as D.C.’s tiny but vibrant Chinatown (part of what’s called Penn Quarter). It boasts such landmarks as the National Portrait Gallery (don’t skip the larger-than-life portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama when they’re back from a national tour in early November), which abuts the Smithsonian American Art Museum, as well as Ford’s Theatre and the Capital One Arena.
South of the Mall you’ll find the District Wharf, a newly revitalized mile-long waterfront along the Potomac River that has hotels, hip eateries and shopping, plus shuttle boats to Old Town Alexandria.
Dupont Circle is home to the Phillips Collection and a landmark fountain surrounded by chess players and bench sitters (great for people-watching). Sample local cheeses, craft beer and baked goods at the hopping Sunday farmers market, one of an estimated 200 in the city. Then count the flags of many countries as you stroll along elegant Embassy Row (on Massachusetts Avenue).
Not far away are Georgetown’s historic streets, some cobblestone, featuring shopping and elegant Federal-style brick row houses, such as the one where John and Jackie Kennedy lived (3307 N St.). Take a quiet respite at one of the loveliest gardens in the city at Dumbarton Oaks. Or saunter along the path-lined C&O Canal, abutting low-slung brick buildings that recall Georgetown’s colonial past. (Grab a coffee and pastry, including fantastic gluten-free cupcakes, at Baked & Wired on Thomas Jefferson Street, while you’re at it.)
Just a few miles north, get a 360-degree view of the city from its highest point at the Washington National Cathedral, site of funeral and memorial services for nearly all U.S. presidents since 1893. Stop and smell the roses in its tranquil Bishop’s Garden, dotted with benches and a shady gazebo. (The cathedral is wheelchair accessible, but the garden paths have uneven stones with some steps.) Adults 65 and older save on admission ($10 instead of $15) to Cathedral observation areas.
Befitting a city steeped in political intrigue, fascinating stories and history tidbits abound, and a guided tour is the best way to get schooled. Narrated, hop-on hop-off tours, like Big Bus Tours and Old Town Trolley Tours, show you a lot in a short time, such as the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court, the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans and World War II memorials, and several Smithsonian museums.
You can find walking tours of the Mall and major attractions, plus themed tours around Abraham Lincoln, architecture, military history, African American history and more. Consider taking a “monuments at night” tour. Not only are they spectacular while bathed in light, but crowds thin out. High-rated walking tour companies include DC Walkabout and DC Insider Tours.
Boat tours of the Potomac, offered by the Potomac Riverboat Co. and Capitol River Cruises, provide panoramic views of the city and the monuments. Potomac Riverboat also takes you to Mount Vernon, in Virginia. City Cruises offers popular dinner outings, such as a fireworks-viewing sail on the Fourth of July.
Bike-tour companies such as Bike and Roll DC (which also features Segway tours) are popular as well.
Foodies can indulge their passion, too. DC Metro Food Tours, Carpe DC and Mangia DC all put a unique spin on classic neighborhoods, with a healthy helping of history, culture, music and, of course, tastings. There are hidden culinary gems everywhere.
Ways to save: Reserve a free tour of the Mall and monuments with a National Park Service ranger. Free Tours by Foot offers name-your-own-price walking tours of the National Mall, Arlington National Cemetery, Capitol Hill, Embassy Row/Dupont Circle, Georgetown and more, as well as self-guided audio tours. Name your price on DC by Foot’s food tours, which lead you to the best places to sample. A tip is a small price to pay for a full stomach.
You can create your own tour hacks if you can live without the guided commentary: Water taxis (wheelchair accessible) are cheap and available at Georgetown and the District Wharf. Snag a window seat on the Circulator National Mall bus route (wheelchair accessible and 50 cents for seniors), which hits many of the spots the bus tours do.
D.C. proper has more live theaters than movie theaters. The Kennedy Center, a 3,700-ton marble testament to John F. Kennedy’s advocacy of “the human spirit,” is an international beacon for performing arts and home to the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera. You can catch anything from a Tony-winning musical to an intimate jazz set. Ford’s Theatre is not only the site of the most infamous assassination in American history, but it is also still an active playhouse that focuses on American classics and historical dramas. Pair a guided investigative tour with a one-act play that deconstructs the crime. The National Theatre has been putting on hit shows for nearly 200 years. And it has something for the grandkids, too: It invites the whole family for puppet shows, dancing and performances every Saturday at 9:30 and 11 a.m.
Other theaters host top-notch performances across the city, including the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Studio Theatre, Arena Stage (exclusively American productions), Warner Theatre (music, dance and plays) and the Folger Theatre (part of the Folger Shakespeare Library). All are wheelchair accessible and offer assisted-listening devices.
Ways to save: Thursdays through Saturdays at 6 p.m., the Kennedy Center offers free performances on its Millennium Stage. It also has a limited number of tickets at 50 percent off for people 65-plus on a first-come, first-served basis. The center’s adjacent Reach venue screens films for free on Wednesdays at 6 p.m. Ford’s Theatre gives those 60 and older discounted fares to many weekday and weekend matinees. Adults 62 and older receive a $5 discount at Studio Theatre, and those 65-plus get $10 off at the Folger Theatre. Ticket discounters include Goldstar and TodayTix.