With its imposing snow-white buildings in typical Federal Style, perfectly maintained streets and squares and omnipresent tranquility, Washington D.C. just breathes patriotism. Even a simple walk through the streets of the Mall is impressive. A huge difference from New York, where I’d been just before, but definitely not less pleasant. Highlights are the Capitol, the Library of Congress, the many memorials around and close to Tidal Basin and the museums of the Smithsonian Institution. Almost all museums and sights are free of entrance, so you can easily spend a couple of days here without spending a dollar on entrance fees.
Day 1 (afternoon): White House Visitor Center, White House, Tidal Bassin and memorials
Day 2: Capitol, Library of Congress, National Museum of American Indian and National Air & Space Museum
Day 3: US Holocaust Memorial Museum, National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of American History
TIDAL BASIN & MEMORIALS (Washington Monument open daily 9am-10pm, other monuments open all day, free entrance)
The views around Tidal Basin are most beautiful in the late afternoon and at sunset. Start at World War II Memorial and follow the Reflecting Pool towards Lincoln Memorial. From here you have a magnificent view of Washington Memorial, with its reflection in the Reflecting Pool. You can also visit Washington Memorial (at the beginning or the end of your tour), after buying tickets at the ticket office which you’ll find a little bit further on 15th Street NW.
Walk past the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and from here, take the path right next to the water. You’ll have a nice view of Jefferson Memorial, which is located almost completely at the opposite side of Tidal Basin. On the way there lies FDR-Memorial, which is also worth a visit. The whole tour (start at WWII-Memorial, end at Washington Monument) is about 4 km long and took us about 2 hours, without the visit of Washington Monument.
WHITE HOUSE & WHITE HOUSE VISITOR CENTER (Visitor center open daily 7.30am-4pm, free entrance) The White House can only be visited after obtaining a special permission. The White House is one of those places you think you absolutely MUST see but that are not that spectacular all together, mostly because you only see a very small part of it. On the other hand, it’s close to the visitor center (+-500m) so if you go here for a visit, you might as well walk to the White House as well. In the Visitor Center you’ll find a lot of information about the history of the house and the many presidents that have occupied it since its construction.
CAPITOL (Monday-Saturdag 8.30am-4.30pm, free guided tour must be booked in advance) Make sure to arrive at least 15 minutes before the start of your tour. The visit starts with a film of about 15 minutes – even though we sometimes had the feeling to be trapped in a huge commercial spot for America and its values- left quite an impression on us. Afterwards you visit a small part of the building with a tour guide. Ours was excellent, she told us a lot about the building and answered all our questions, even the ones about sensitive subjects, without any hypocrisy, which we much appreciated! After the tour (or before if you come early), don’t forget to visit the small museum.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS (Monday-Saturday 8.30am-4.30pm, free entrance) There’s a tunnel between the Capitol and the Library of Congress, ideal when the weather’s hot or rainy. Don’t miss this magnificent building. You can walk around the different floors and finish with the absolute highlight: the main reading room. The room itself isn’t open for visit but you can admire it from a balcony on the 2nd floor, which gives you a view of the whole room. The balcony is completely closed with glass walls and a glass ceiling, to guarantee the silence in the reading room, but this doesn’t affect the greatness of the experience.
US HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM (Open daily 10am-5.30pm, free entrance) We left this museum full of all kinds of emotions and with tears in our eyes… Of course this is no ‘fun’ museum, but you really shouldn’t miss it!
NATIONAL AIR & SPACE MUSEUM (Open daily 10am-5.30pm (7.30pm june-august), free entrance) This is really a nice museum, for al ages! There are lots of different rooms, about the beginning of aviation, military aircrafts, the Apollo space program and space travel in general, etc. There’s a lot to see in here and a lot to learn. Highly recommended! Count 2 to 3 hours for a full visit.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY (Open daily 10am-5.30pm (7.30pm june-august), free entrance) We mainly visited this museum for 1 reason: the Hope Diamond and the collection precious gems. The rest of the museum is more suited for children and for them quite educational. The museum is quite old-fashioned and some renewal would be necessary.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY Stop by if you have some time left. The rooms about ‘America on the move’, the presidents and first ladies and the ‘Star spangled banner’ are worth a visit.
Distances inside the Mall are quite far but if you organise your visits around the same area, you can take the metro in the morning and do the rest on foot.
The metro will take you near all the important tourist attractions. It’s the most easy to use metro I’ve ever taken in my whole life. The price per ride depends on the distance covered. You can buy a metrocard and charge it with any amount you wish. For information about metro, metrobus and transportation from and to the airports (Dulles and Reagan), you can visit this website.
It’s very hard to find a cheap hotel close to the tourist attractions (the Mall), so we booked a hotel in Arlington (Virginia), right on the other side of the Potomac river. We found a room with private bathroom for €95 per night (without breakfast) at the Radisson hotel near Reagan Airport. The room was clean, spacious and fully equiped. Check-in and check-out were really fast and personnel are friendly and helpful. You can take the metro at Crystal City, which is only 500m from the hotel. From here, you can reach all the important sights in only 20 or 30 minutes. Arlington Cemetery or Reagan Airport are only a few minutes away.
You won’t find many restaurants near the Mall and only a few museums have one. For a quick lunch you can eat at one of the food stands you’ll find near most of the important museums. They all propose the same menu: slices of pizza, hotdogs, etc. Obviously, it’s too expensive for what you get but for about $15 you can get a hotdog and a soda. If you’re close to the Capitol, you can walk to Pennsylvania Ave SE or 8th St SE (or metro Eastern Market). No fancy restaurants here but you’ll have plenty of options to chose from.
Close to the Mall, at the corner of 11th Street NW and E Street NW, you’ll find Harry’s & Harriett’s. In the bar it’s all about football but there’s a terrace as well. On the menu you’ll find burgers (vegetarian as well) and other typical American dishes. There’s a large choice of salads as well. For breakfast we usually went to the small shopping center right next to Crystal City metro stop. There’s a Starbucks and a Dunkin’ Donuts and a couple of restaurants that serve a ‘real’ American breakfast. On a rainy night, when we didn’t feel like walking around the city, we also found delicious pizza’s at ‘We, the pizza’ and great ice cream at ‘Cold Stone Creamery’.