The nation’s capital is one of the most history-filled cities in the United States. Almost as old as the country itself, Washington, D.C. was founded in 1791 in honor of President George Washington. Over two centuries later, the District still houses the nation’s key federal government buildings as well as a collection of free-to-visit museums, monuments, and memorials.
If you’re new to the area (or if you’ve lived here your whole life), check out our list of top places to visit in Washington, D.C.
Originally constructed between 1793 and 1812, the United States Capitol Building houses the legislative branch of the U.S. government made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Free tours of the Capitol Building run Monday through Saturday from 8:40 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. starting every ten minutes.
Cool fact: The Capitol Building’s iconic, cast-iron dome roof was based off famous European designs including the Pantheon, St. Peter’s Basilica, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Monuments and memorials
George Washington isn’t the only founding father memorialized in D.C. as Thomas Jefferson also has a memorial in his honor. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial features a 19-foot statue of Jefferson surrounded by a circular walkway of Ionic order columns. Around the memorial are excerpts of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s most influential written work, carved in marble.
Cool fact: Located on the south side of the Tidal Basin, the Jefferson Memorial is a prime location to see a cloud of pink flowers during the annual Cherry Blossom Festival.
Completed in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial houses a 19-foot marble statue of Abraham Lincoln sitting down. The 16th president of the United States is surrounded by 36 columns representing the 36 states that existed at the time of his death in 1865.
Cool fact: In 1963, over 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to listen to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I have a dream…” speech.
In 1775, Benjamin Franklin became the first U.S. mail postmaster general. Two centuries later, the Smithsonian and United States Postal Service opened the National Postal Museum. Located opposite Union Station, the museum displays stamp collections, vintage airmail planes, and a 1931 Ford Model A postal truck.
Cool fact: The Smithsonian National Postal Museum was opened in the same building used as the Washington, D.C. post office from 1914 through 1986.
The United States is relatively young at just 241 years old. However, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History is full of American social, political, cultural, scientific, and military history. The Clara Barton Red Cross ambulance, the first ever Red Cross ambulance, is a signature artifact at the museum. Like most Smithsonian museums, American History Museum is free and open year round.
Cool fact: The most popular artifact at the National Museum of American History is the original Star-Spangled Banner that Francis Scott Key used as his inspiration to write the National Anthem.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is a living memorial of the Holocaust. With over 10,000 artifacts, 80,000 historical photographs, and 49 million archival documents, the museum teaches around three million people each year about the need to stop genocide around the world and the risks of rampant discrimination.
Cool fact: When you enter the permanent exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a staff member will give you an ID card recounting the experience of a specific person who lived during the Holocaust.
From 1862 to 1864, President Abraham Lincoln and his family used the Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home from June to November to escape the summer and political heat of downtown Washington, D.C. The cottage also served as the “Summer White House” for James Buchanan, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Chester Arthur.
Cool fact: While living at the Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home during the summer of 1862, Lincoln penned the preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Washington, D.C.’s premier open-air museum is the National Zoo. Nearly 2,000 different animals, about a quarter of which are endangered, live in habitats at the zoo. Some of the most popular habitats include the Sumatran tigers, western lowland gorillas, Asian elephants, and cheetahs.
Cool fact: The most popular animals at the National Zoo are the giant pandas. In 1972, China gifted Richard Nixon and the National Zoo with Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing as a start to an initiative to learn more about the Chinese bears.
Food and drink
Probably the most well-known restaurant in Washington, D.C., Ben’s Chili Bowl has called the nation’s capital home since 1958. The restaurant is known for its chili dogs and milkshakes as well as its popularity with celebrities like Chris Tucker.
Cool fact: In 2009, Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty took then-President-Elect Barack Obama to Ben’s Chili Bowl as his welcome to the city.
A non-descript black door functions as the main entrance to Washington, D.C.’s modern-day speakeasy, The Gibson. Like speakeasies of the 1920s, this modern-day reinvention is quaint, seating only 40, so reservations are a must! With 20 official drinks on the menu, the expert bartenders at The Gibson actively encourage patrons to go off-menu.
Cool fact: A popular drink at The Gibson is the Salad Days Sour, which is made with celery-infused Macchu Pisco, lemon, celery bitters, and burnt cinnamon.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts houses the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera. Named after the 35th president of the United States, the Kennedy Center puts on shows year round.
Cool fact: Tickets for shows at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts can be expensive, but there are free performances at the Millennium Stage every single day of the year.
Just one hundred years after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, Ford’s Theatre reopened as a theater. Visitors can purchase self-guided tours of the museum, theater, and the Petersen House as well as for performances on the stage.
Cool fact: Just after Lincoln’s assassination, Ford’s Theatre became a facility for the War Department with the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office and the Army Medical Museum kept on the second and third floors.
A staircase is typically, just a staircase. However, if you’re into scary movies, then the stone steps at the corner of Prospect Street and 36th Street leading down to M Street in Georgetown are more than just a staircase: they’re the stairs used in the 1973 film “The Exorcist.” And now, thanks to Mayor Muriel Bowser, The Exorcist Steps are an official D.C. landmark and tourist attraction.
Cool facts: During the movie, Father Damien Karras tumbles down the Exorcist Steps and dies. And during the filming of that scene, Georgetown University students allegedly charged people $5 to watch the stunt from their rooftops.