Things to Do in Washington DC
Designed by American architect Willoughby Edbrooke, this enormous Romanesque Revival building was the largest office building in D.C. when it opened in 1899. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was far from beloved in its own era. Considered dowdy by the time it opened for business, when architectural fashion had turned to rounded, more romantic Beaux-Arts design, it was soon abandoned in favor of a new mail depot building over by Union Station; 15 years after it was built, it was commonly referred to as the “old” post office.
By the late 1920s, popular sentiment in Washington was that the building should be torn down, but the Great Depression prevented the demolition; instead, the Old Post Office was left to molder for about 40 years. In the 1970s, it was saved by community support and the National Endowment for the Arts, which now has its headquarters here.
One half of the Smithsonian’s Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture (along with the adjacent American Art Museum), the National Portrait Gallery was established by a 1962 Act of Congress, dedicating it to depictions of people who have made significant contributions to the history, development and culture of the United States. The museum’s collection includes 19,400 works ranging from paintings and sculpture to photographs and drawings.
Highlights among the permanent exhibits are Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington, paintings of civil rights leaders like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., a bronze bust of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and photos of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Shaquille O’Neal. You can take a break from viewing the Gallery’s works at the Courtyard Café, which opens with the museum and closes at 6:30 p.m.
Part of the Smithsonian, the 163-acre National Zoo (as it’s most often called) is home to 2,000 individual animals of 400 species. Most famous for its Giant Panda Habitat and breeding program (which includes current panda residents Mei Xiang and Tian Tian), the Zoo is also home to a huge bird enclosure and over 60 flamingos; African mammals like cheetahs and gazelles; and a family of lowland gorillas.
A 2011 addition to the Zoo is The American Trail, featuring U.S. natives like California sea lions, bald eagles, grey wolves and brown pelicans. Nearby, the 15,000-square-foot Amazonia exhibit mimics the ecosystem of the Amazon Rainforest, with a cascading river, native palms and a 55,000-gallon aquarium; set underneath a soaring dome, the tropical landscape here is full of live creatures like toads, hummingbirds, monkeys and more.
Centered around an elegant traffic circle at the intersection of Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts Avenues, this upscale yet urban neighborhood is full of refined pursuits, as well as much of the city’s gay community. While here, be sure to soak up the people-watching scene around the fountain at Dupont Circle itself, and stop into the unique Kramer Books & Afterwords, a combination café and well-curated bookstore.
Dupont Circle’s graceful marble fountain was designed and built by the same architectural team behind the Lincoln Memorial. Installed in 1921, the fountain replaced a memorial statue of Civil War rear admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont that was moved to the prominent Du Pont family’s estate in Wilmington, Delaware. In the neighborhood surrounding the traffic circle and fountain, you can feast your eyes on Impressionist masterpieces at the elegant Phillips Collection; tour the 19th-century Anderson House.
Largely geared toward children but still enjoyable for adults, this small museum at National Geographic’s headquarters offers a handful of rotating exhibits combining the magazine’s exciting photography with discoveries in history, science and/or technology. Past exhibitions have included technology gleaned from the ancient Muslim world, and photos of the sunken Titanic.
Situated between the Potomac River and major city roadways is one of the nation’s foremost centers for performing arts, a cultural and entertainment hub for the city of Washington D.C. With more than 2,000 performances annually, it is the busiest performing arts center in the United States. World-class live theater, classical music, ballet, jazz and opera shows all take place at the venue. Three main theaters including a concert hall and opera house ensure a variety of shows offered. Free performances are held on the Millennium Stage in the Grand Foyer daily.
Outside of the performances and stages, the center also has a Hall of Nations and Hall of States to explore, with collections of American and international flags. Also see the many paintings and sculptures gifted to the center from other nations throughout. The building also has great views of the Potomac River and the Georgetown area from its windows and rooftop terraces.
Giddy up for the Pony Express at the National Postal Museum. This quirky, interesting museum takes visitors on a journey through the history of the mail transport system – from land, sea, air, and even space. It has replicas of early airmail planes that delivered mail, as well as details on the short-lived but often romanticized Pony Express. Some of the artifacts on display include a 1390 Silk Road letter and Amelia Earhart’s leather flight suit. An interactive stamp exhibit delves into aspects of stamp design and production, as well as stories behind some of the most famous, historical stamps. Visitors can create their own stamp designs and watch videos from stamp designers. Another, related exhibit shows off stamps from around the world.
National memorials, more than 1,600 Japanese cherry trees and the beautiful Constitution Gardens make West Potomac Park a great place to explore when visiting Washington, D.C. It’s a rarity as a national park, because although it has a national history theme, it is located smack dab in the center of a major city.
Servicemen and -women are commemorated at the Vietnam, Korean War Veterans and the World War II memorials; Presidents Roosevelt and Jefferson are celebrated in monuments; and important historical figures are remembered at the George Mason and Martin Luther King, Jr. memorials. There are various other statues and monuments found throughout the park, too, but nothing is more recognizable than the iconic view between two presidential memorials: from the Washington Monument across the reflecting pond to the Lincoln Memorial.
More Things to Do in Washington DC
The esteemed Phillips Collection houses one of the most prized collections of artwork in Washington DC. The collection features work from such renowned artists as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Mark Rothko. The collection is known for its intimate feeling, as though visitors are stepping into a home, rather than a museum.
Founded by Duncan Phillips and Marjorie Acker Phillips in 1921, The Phillips Collection is known for its role in bringing modern art into the mainstream in America. It is America’s first museum of modern art. It began as a small, well-curated collection of family art and has grown to include more than 3,000 works of art by American and European impressionist and modern artists. The museum hosts a variety of events every year, including special displays and exhibits. There is a coffee shop on the premises to enjoy before or after perusing the museum.
An iconic Chinese Gate called the Friendship Arch greets visitors as they enter Chinatown, a historic neighborhood near downtown Washington DC. Chinatown has about 20 Chinese and Asian restaurants, some of which are well known and loved. Chinatown Express, for example, makes homemade noodles daily. Patrons and passersby pause to watch the proprietors cut and cook the noodles through a glass window. An annual Chinese New Year’s parade is held in Chinatown every year; it’s the most famous event in the neighborhood.
Today, Chinatown is primarily known as a commercial shopping and entertainment neighborhood. New condo buildings give way to mid-range clothing stores like Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie. The Verizon Center – the largest arena in DC – by and far draws the most crowds to Chinatown. The Verizon Center is home to the Washington Wizards basketball team, the Washington Capitals hockey team, and the Georgetown University men’s basketball team.
This seven-acre public park, named in 1824 for a French marquis who fought in America’s Revolutionary War, is surrounded by some of D.C.’s most historically significant buildings. In addition to the White House, the Square is adjacent to the Old Executive Office Building, the Department of the Treasury, and the Renwick Gallery.
Set directly across the street from the White House, the park here was part of the White House grounds during Thomas Jefferson’s administration, but set apart when John Adams approved the plans for Pennsylvania Avenue. Formally landscaped in 1851, the Square features walking paths and formal hedges, as well as four horse-mounted monuments to foreign heroes of the American Revolution. The Square’s proximity to power turned it into a fashionable 19th-century address for political luminaries like Martin van Buren, John Milton Hay, and Henry Brooks Adams.
Colorful rowhouses, trees, and foreign embassies line Massachusetts Avenue near Dupont Circle in Washington DC. This area, dubbed “embassy row” for the sheer number of embassies, stretches between Scott Circle and Sheridan Circle. The area was once known as DC’s most elite zip codes because of the size and decadence of the residences. Today, many of the old mansions and residences have been converted into embassies.
There are more than 170 embassies in Washington DC with occasional events and festivals held at the various embassies, allowing the public an opportunity to experience various cultures and communities represented. Some of the larger embassies – such as the embassy of Indonesia – occupy buildings with over 40 rooms, while smaller embassies occupy former apartment buildings and other residences. The presence of embassies increases the allure of Dupont Circle, making it a popular destination for sightseeing in DC.
The retirement home for President Woodrow Wilson his wife Edith, this Georgian Revival house on Embassy Row earned its National Historic Preservation Site status for both its inhabitants and its architect. It was designed in 1915 by Waddy Butler Wood, the man behind a slew of D.C.’s finest private homes, as well the Masonic Temple, National Museum of Women in the Arts, and headquarters of the Department of the Interior.
Washington’s only presidential museum, the home has been maintained much as it looked at the time of Wilson’s death here in 1924; Edith continued to live in the house until her own death in 1961. In addition to an 8000-volume library and a slew of personal artifacts and memorabilia, Woodrow Wilson House features an elevator installed to accommodate the former president, who had suffered a semi-paralyzing stroke in 1919.
Set out front of the National Academy of Sciences Building, this whimsically enormous memorial of Albert Einstein contemplating the universe was dedicated on April 22, 1979 to mark the centennial of the scientist’s birth.
The 4-ton bronze statue of Einstein depicts him holding a paper inscribed with his three most important contributions to science: the photoelectric effect, the theory of general relativity, and the equivalence of energy and matter (e=mc2). The uniquely mottled texture of the statue’s bronze is the signature style of its sculptor, Robert Berks, who also created the famous bust of JFK found in the lobby of the nearby Kennedy Center. The memorial’s 28-foot-wide black granite base is inlaid with over 2,700 metal studs, which were mapped out by astronomers from the U.S. Naval Observatory and meant to represent the stars, planets and more as they appeared on the dedication date.
First opened in 1907, the D.C. area’s largest train station is the headquarters for Amtrak, the busiest station on the Metrorail’s Red Line, and a shopping and dining destination. Set just five blocks from the U.S. Capitol Building, this sprawling warren of specialty boutiques, food courts and elegant restaurants beneath soaring, gilded ceilings and Grecian arches makes for an easy stop amidst sightseeing in Federal Triangle, on Capitol Hill, and in Chinatown and Penn Quarter.
Union Station reached its peak in popularity during and immediately following World War II, but after a failed attempt to turn it into a popular National Visitors Center in the 1970s, it was refurbished and re-launched in its present form in 1988. Since then, the train station has been used by an average of 1o,000 Amtrak travelers per year, headed to and from destinations all over the country.
Built in 1849 by William A. Petersen, this historic home located in northwest Washington, D.C. gained its place in history back in 1865, when President Abraham Lincoln died inside its doors after being shot at the Ford’s Theatre the night before. Today, American history buffs can explore the historic museum maintained by the National Park Service and get up close with one of the most notorious moments in our nation’s history.
Visitors can check out a recreation of the scene of Lincoln’s death, which includes replicas of his bed and the bloodstained pillow he slept on. Travelers say that while the Petersen Boarding House is definitely worth a visit, tourists should check it out in conjunction with the Ford Theatre for a complete look at its historical context.
This moving monument that features a bronze sculpture of two Japanese cranes trapped in barbed wire pays homage to the Japanese Americans, veterans and those who were kept in internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Visitors will find a massive granite wall with names of the 10 camps where more than 120,000 people were held captive on American soil, as well as three panels covered in names honoring Japanese Americans who died while fighting World War II. There are also dozens of quotes from Japanese American writers gracing the unique memorial.
Travelers say this small gem, hidden among more epic D.C. structures is a sad but moving memorial that serves as a reminder of the horrors of war, the ugliness of humanity and the power of the human spirit to overcome even the most difficult adversities.
Housed in a 19th-century brick building, Eastern Market hosts a busy farmers' market and flea market. On weekends, artisans and antique dealers also station themselves just outside. It’s all located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, too, which makes it an easy spot to visit while exploring the many nearby monuments, memorials and parks.
Eastern Market is now on the National Register of Historic Places. With the exception of a two-year renovation project due to a devastating fire in 2007, the market has been in constant operation since 1873. In fact, it was the first city-owned market aimed to help urbanize Washington and is now the lone surviving one as well. Grocery store chains nearly forced Eastern Market to board its windows, but local residents fought to keep the market open.
Centered along F Street from 5th to 10th Streets NW, and set North of Pennsylvania Avenue and south of Mount Vernon Square, between the White House and the Capitol, Penn Quarter is one of the most commercially-condensed areas of the city. This entertainment district in the east end of downtown unfurls around the Verizon Center, a sports, concert and events arena. Blending almost seamlessly with D.C.’s thriving Chinatown, Penn Quarter features a wide variety of its own nightlife, art galleries, restaurants, shops and more.
Some of the most popular attractions in Penn Quarter are the Newseum, a museum dedicated to the history of news-gathering and reporting around the world; the interactive International Spy Museum; the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum, which inhabit the same building; and Ford’s Theatre, where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.
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