Nobody does patriotism like the American people, and Washington DC is their flag-waving, Stars and Stripes a Singin', Yankie Doodling, capital city - the Holy Land of American patriotism. You're probably already aware of all the main sites - the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial etc. But with suburbs that pre-date the country's independence and a vibrant nightlife scene, there's plenty about the city that will still surprise you. One of the most amazing things about DC is how well-geared it is to receiving the 15 million+ tourists who visit every year. And all that pride for the country is neatly packaged into the city features: the transport, its immaculately preserved monuments, the clean streets and the easy access points to all of these. It's a city that celebrates its vast collection of national treasures and focuses on keeping it that way; there are no sky-scrapers by law, which is a good thing because there's plenty to see.
Get Your Metro Ticket
Start your day by going to the nearest Metro Station and purchasing a day pass for $14. This allows you unlimited access on the Metro, which services the entire city and surrounding suburbs. If you whip out a metro map, you'll find it similar to a tube map of London, with each line marked by a different colour. It's easy to figure out, safe to ride, reliable and quick - and most of all, cheaper and less stressful than driving or taking cabs.
Eastern Market And Weekend Flea Market
While the museums and monuments will be crowded with tourists 365 days a year, the Eastern Market on Capitol Hill is a popular local hotspot. People come here for the good vibe and quality food. There's an eclectic selection of local farmer's produce, including meat, poultry, vegetables and flowers, plus a top-notch Eastern grocery, delicatessen and dairy. The food stalls are where you'll find the biggest traffic jam - the crab cakes and crepes are legendary, as you'll be able to see from the lines of people waiting to get lunch there. We'd highly recommend getting brunch here for two reasons: (1) To avoid the lunch hour rush and (2) to fill up, because you've got a busy afternoon ahead. For visitors staying in self-catering accommodation, it's also a great place to stock up on good, wholesome food and snacks for your stay.
Over weekends, the parking lot directly opposite the market becomes an arts and crafts fair, where you'll find everything from leather handbags to locally-crafted furniture and almost-forgotten antiques. There's also live music every Sunday, which goes on until 5pm. The market is only closed on Mondays, so keep that in mind if this sounds like your cup of tea.
Washington National Cathedral
Washington's neo-gothic cathedral is the sixth largest of its kind in the world and the second largest in the United States. As far as design and structure goes, the stained glass windows, flying buttresses, murals, statues and other features have been crafted with mesmerising attention to detail and artfulness. One of the more quirky features is the Darth Vader grotesque, perched high on the west tower, just past the doorway where Abraham Lincoln's statue stands. Even if you're not religious by nature, it's an interesting place, which has hosted presidential funerals, late night vigils during times of crisis and continues to encourage a healthy dialogue about the country's more pressing issues, like gun violence.
The Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue is a must-see. This 25,000 square-foot museum of news and journalism covers the biggest events in modern history, like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the assassination of JFK and 9/11. There are 15 theaters and 14 galleries, offering a wide range of audio-visual experiences, from 4D interactive shows that take you on a thrilling journey through history, to exhibitions that showcase original newspapers from the Civil War. It has been voted one of the 12 Coolest Museums in the world for good reason - it's immensely cool. For anyone interested in the history, significance and trajectory of the media in society, it will blow your mind.
The White House
Much like Buckingham Palace, visiting the White House is an activity most often enjoyed from afar. Don't expect to be invited in for tea. Unless you're part of an organised tour group, you'll probably be taking pictures from the pavement, behind a big fence, which is guarded by men with guns and stern instructions. But also like Buckingham Palace, you'll want to see it anyway. It's luckily on Pennsylvania Avenue, which means that you'll be within walking distance of a long list of other great places. Tours of the White House are not totally out of the question, although they do need to be pre-arranged through a congressman, which is somewhat more tricky than contacting your local travel agent.Back to top
Visit The National Mall
All the other sites in Washington DC lead up to the national Mall, which realistically could take up several trips; there's more than enough to keep you busy for weeks at a time. In a red-blooded American sort of way, 'National Mall' is the perfect name for an area that hosts several of the nation's most hallowed monuments, museums and gardens - it's like a one-stop destination for everything you need to know about the country's history, leaders, heritage, relationship with the world and its long-term ambitions. Every bus and train stops at Constitution or Pennsylvania Avenue, both of which are fine entry points to start your tour.
Not only is the National Mall the highlight of any DC trip, it's also free. That makes it a winner in everybody's books. The trick is going when the crowds aren't in full flood. Those 15 million tourists we mentioned earlier are mostly there to see the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials, the Washington Monument and all the other famous landmarks that are part of this historic national park.
National Mall Highlights: The Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, The Washington Monument, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism during World War II, and then all the museums - which brings us to the next point.
The Smithsonian Institution Museums
The Smithsonian Institution is the world's largest research complex, comprising of nineteen museums and a zoo. The DC metro area is home to most of them and they're free to visit, which is always great for families looking to do something fun, stimulating and worthwhile with the children. There's one for just about every interesting field of study: Air and Space, American Art, American History, Arts and Industries, Natural History and more. The best place to start your tour is The Castle: the main building where you'll find the information centre. This red sandstone building was built by James Renwick Jr., the architect who is also responsible for St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.
Bike Through The City
One of the best ways to see the city is from the seat of bicycle. Bike And Roll offer a series of 2,5 and 3 hour tours through various routes, including the National Mall, the Mount Vernon Trail that takes you under the Cherry Blossoms, which line the Potomac River, and a tour of the Capital sites by day or night. If you're on a tight time budget, this is a great (and healthy) way to acquaint yourself with the city and pick out a few standout places to come back to. There is also the option of biking the city without a tour guide, which is cool for people who enjoy touring without a plan.
The National Mall, as we mentioned earlier, is made up of too many sites to fully appreciate in one day. A bike tour of the sites gives you the chance to sample a bit of everything, as Catharine Pear, Marketing Director of Bike and Roll, explains: "With so much to see on the National Mall in such a short time, guided bike and Segway tours are a unique and fun option for covering ground quickly and stopping at many sites along the way. We offer both types of tours daily (March to November) from our main location just one block north of the National Mall. Our bike tours are designed for all levels so its an ideal and safe way for families to explore the city".
Arlington National Cemetery
Technically, Arlington National Cemetery is in Virginia, but it's only a short drive over the Potomac River away - less than 10 minutes from the National Mall on the metro's Blue Line. It's an unusual tourist attraction, but one you won't forget. There's no easy way to describe what it feels like to look at the remains of 300,000 deceased soldiers (a simple headstone for each life). It's a sobering lens to view the USA's (and the world's) history through, but one that really puts a price tag on the cost of going to war.
International Spy Museum
From arm-chair James Bond fans to hardened conspiracy theorists, the International Spy Museum will appeal to anyone who's ever taken an interest in anything espionage related. It's home to the largest collection of original 'spy' artefacts in the word and dedicated to unveiling, explaining and providing insight into the role that these invisible agents play in our world. Things get really interesting and creepy when the stories link up with historical events. The museum has a number of interactive 'Spy Experiences' that kids and adults will love, as well as video exhibitions, galleries and a Spy Shop full of accessories, books, souvenir and more. Like the Newseum, it's not one of the Smithsonian venues, but it's immensely interesting and significant in terms of content.
Ford's Theatre and The National Historic Site
Ford's Theatre was written into the American history books when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated there in 1865. After the trauma of Lincoln's death, the theatre went through a very dark period that included government administrative use (far less glamourous than theatre) and a tragic partial collapse, which killed 22 workers. Its spell of bad fortune ended during the 1960s when restoration work began. It was re-opened in 1968 and has continued to shine as a symbol for non-violence ever since, honouring the legacy of Lincoln's life. Even if you don't have time to watch a show at the newly renovated theatre (it was renovated again in 2007), you can still visit the Ford's Theatre Museum, which contains the actual pistol used in Lincoln's assassination and the door to his box-seat where the shooting took place. Together with the Peterson House (where Lincoln was taken), these two buildings make up the Ford's Theatre National Historic Site.
Shopping And Sundowners In Georgetown
A walk through Georgetown feels more like stepping into an 18th century European village than one of the United State's most revered University districts. Located further North along the Potomac River (from the National Mall), the district is known for stunning views, cobblestone streets and vintage homes. It's also where you'll find a selection of the best retail and boutique shops, along M Street and Wisconsin Avenue. It's got everything from knock-vendors along the pavement to Big Label designer stores. Once you've browsed and shopped and generally tired yourself out, move on to the Georgetown Waterfront, where a wide selection of trendy bars and fine-dining restaurants awaits you. One of the interesting things about the waterfront is its connection to the origins of the area. Georgetown was initially established as a port and commercial district in 1751, before Washington DC as we know it today even existed; some good food for thought while you're watching the sunset, over a cold beer or a glass of wine.
Capitol City Brewing Company, New York Avenue
Capitol City Brewing Co. is an all-American bar/restaurant, which happens to make a selection of very decent beers. It's conveniently located downtown and serves a fun menu that includes mini turkey corn dogs, Barbeque pulled pork and fish tacos, amongst other classics. You're not going to have the fine-dining meal of your life here, but it'll taste amazing and fill you up properly. The vibe is great, especially when there's a good American football game on the telly. As their slogan says though, it's all about the beer. Their pale ale 'Pale Rider Ale', is fantastic; it's smooth and tasty and well-priced. The 'Capitol Kolsch' and 'Prohibition Porter' are also top-class beers that are well worth trying and far superior to most of the standard labels you'd find in a shop. On top of these, you'll find a selection of seasonal and revolving beers to choose from throughout the year. For the atmosphere, the service, the experience and the beer, it's definitely worth it.Back to top
Watch A Show At The 9:30 Club
The 9:30 Club is Washington DC's premium live-music venue, bringing a mix of top national and international acts every week. While plenty of venues make similar-sounding claims, 9:30 actually follows through and delivers week after week, all months of the year (even in February, at its most chilly). Almost unbelievably, you'll find a selection of famous, infamous and touted artists on the ever-revolving schedule. The venue is within walking distance of the metro station on U-Street and has a maximum capacity of 1200, so advanced bookings are advised if you're planning to see an act like Radiohead or Fatboy Slim.
Go Out In Dupont Circle
By day Dupont Circle is another exquisite area that is characterised by beautiful old buildings, antique shops, great bookstores and restaurants, and its very trendy population. There's also a wide selection of historical sites and monuments, as well as parks and leisure areas you wouldn't expect to find in a city as big as DC. Once the sun goes down, however, it's the city's main hub for nightlife. Head there on the first Friday of the month, as art galleries are known to offer free wine during exhibitions - a great way to get the evening started. As the night rolls on, you'll find a wide and varied selection of clubs, bars and late-night cafe's to visit, which are open till late.
Mucheez Mania, Georgetown
If you find yourself in Georgetown during the late hours of the night (which wouldn't be in any way abnormal) and need something to eat, Muncheez Mania is the brightly coloured oasis of hope you're looking for. We mean this quite literally: the walls are decorated by painted murals, pop-artsy images and UV lighting. The owners have put together a unique Lebanese-French infused menu that offers a selection of wholesome and delicious sandwiches, flatbread, falafel and salads, using fresh ingredients. If you're so ravenous that you can't make it inside, there's a Crepe-Sale window that opens onto Wisconsin Avenue, their Nutella/banana crepes are notoriously irresistible and morish. This is not your standard kebab shop that you don't even want to know about the next day. Besides servicing a large percentage of Georgetown's hungry party-goers, it's also a very popular lunchtime venue, so don't be limited to late visiting hours. It's always good.
Visit The National Mall (By Night)
If the daytime crowd at the National Mall puts you off, head back there late at night, when everything is quiet and illuminated. Guaranteed it'll be eerie if you don't take a friend (or three) with you, but you'll see the monuments in a totally different setting. Better yet, if you can stay up until dawn (or wake up for it), the sun rising over the Potomac River with the National Mall in the background is worth the wait.
Last Updated: February 2013