Washington DC is home to more free attractions than any other American city. The Smithsonian Institution alone has 17 museums, galleries and a zoo and that’s just a fraction of the incredible things to see and do in the city. This is as it should be for the nation’s capital, a city FOR all of the people in the United States. It can be overwhelming especially for first-time visitors. Here’s a primer of “don’t miss” attractions, including museums, monuments and other great sites.
Arlington National Cemetery — More than 300,000 Americans heroes have been laid to rest on this hallowed ground, which is home to the grave of President John F. Kennedy, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Robert E. Lee Memorial.
National Portrait Gallery — If you think this is just a boring display of painting of past presidents, think again. The gallery is home to cool exhibits of celebrities, sports stars and other notable Americans . . . and the way the past presidents are portrayed in images is a riveting history lesson.
The White House — Whether or not you agree with the current resident, this is the “people’s house” and you owe it to yourself to plan ahead so you’re seeing more of it than the view through the wrought iron fence (which is impressive in itself). All you have to do is put in a request to one of your members of Congress at least five months before your visit to score a self-guided tour of the country’s most important residence.
The National Zoo — The Smithsonian’s 163-acre National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute is home to more than 1,500 animals.
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum — The popular Air and Space Museum is home to thousands of fascinating objects such as the 1903 Wright Flyer, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia, and a lunar rock you can touch. The museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA, has even more great stuff, such as a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, a Concorde, and the Space Shuttle Discovery. The Center also offers the Airbus IMAX® Theater and the Donald D. Engen Observation Tower, which gives you a 360-degree bird’s-eye view of Washington Dulles International Airport and the surrounding area. Udvar-Hazy Center is also home to the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar where preservation of the National Air and Space Museum’s collections takes place. A glassed-in mezzanine provides a view of restoration projects in progress.
The National Gallery of Art –Get lost in the hundreds of pieces of art on display. Through July 5th, 2020 “Degas at the Opera” will be on display. The 6.1 acre Sculpture Garden is the perfect place to stroll on a warm spring day.
The National Museum of African American History & Culture – The free museum is open from 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily (except Christmas Day). While free, the museum may require advanced time or online passes. More info on that can be found here.
The Kennedy Center Millennium Stage – End your day in DC at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. There are free performances every evening at 6 p.m.
Memorials on the National Mall — The heart of the city is home to many “must see” memorials, including the Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, FDR Memorial, WWII Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
–Kate Oczypok updated this article in March 2020.