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Washington, D.C. Travel Guide

  • Photo: SFC / Shutterstock
  • Photo: Orhan Cam / Shutterstock
  • Photo: John Keith / Shutterstock
  • Photo: spirit of america / Shutterstock
  • Photo: Orhan Cam / Shutterstock

Plan Your Washington, D.C. Vacation

Given the heightened security concerns of present-day Washington, it might come as a surprise to learn that most government institutions continue to welcome the general public. The Founding Fathers' mandate of a free and open government lives on—just with metal detectors and bag searches. Though security checks are no

one's idea of fun, most people find them a small price to pay for the opportunity to get a firsthand look at the government in action. Being in the famous halls of the Capitol or the Supreme Court is a heady experience. It's one part celebrity sighting and one part the world's best civics lesson.

Although the Capitol, White House, and Supreme Court get the lion's share of the attention, other government institutions hold their own, sometimes-quirky appeal. Art enthusiasts can gaze in wonder at the works on display at the Red Cross headquarters and the Interior Department, while military buffs can retrace the footsteps of four- and five-star generals in the seemingly endless hallways of the Pentagon.

If you're fascinated by finance, you'll want to plan ahead for visits to the Federal Reserve and the Department of Treasury. You need to sign up three months in advance for a tour of the Department of State, but your advance work will be rewarded with a visit to the plush Diplomatic Reception Rooms, where few sightseers tread.

With its neoclassical government buildings and broad avenues, Washington, D.C. looks its part as America's capital. Majestic monuments and memorials pay tribute to notable leaders and great achievements, and merit a visit. But D.C. also lives firmly in the present, and not just politically; new restaurants and bars continually emerge, upping the hipness factor in neighborhoods from Capitol Hill to U Street. Fun museums and tree-shaded parks make it a terrific place for families. You may come for the official sites, but you'll remember D.C.'s local flavor, too.

With its neoclassical government buildings and broad avenues, Washington, D.C. looks its part as America's capital. Majestic monuments and memorials pay tribute to notable leaders and great achievements, and merit a visit. But D.C. also lives firmly in the present, and not just politically; new restaurants and bars continually emerge, upping the hipness factor in neighborhoods from Capitol Hill to U Street. Fun museums and tree-shaded parks make it a terrific place for families. You may come for the official sites, but you'll remember D.C.'s local flavor, too.

Washington is a monumental city. In the middle of traffic circles, on tiny slivers of park, and at street corners and intersections, you’ll find statues, plaques, and simple blocks of marble honoring the generals, artists, and statesmen who helped shape the nation. Of these tributes, the greatest and grandest are clustered west of the Mall on ground reclaimed from the marshy flats of the Potomac—which also happens to be the location of Washington's most striking display of cherry trees.

These memorials now look like part of the landscape, but their beginnings were often controversial. From the Lincoln Memorial to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, they sparked sometimes-fierce debate over how and why America should enshrine its history. Now, they are icons of unquestionable significance.

Visit the memorials on the Mall and Tidal Basin at night for fewer crowds and cooler air. Although you won't get the views, the lighting is particularly beautiful on the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. Inside the Lincoln, lights and shadows play across his face, making him appear even more thoughtful.

Across the Potomac, Arlington National Cemetery has a power all its own. Though it pays tribute to great Americans, including John F. Kennedy and his brothers, what's most striking about the cemetery is its "sea of stones"—the thousands upon thousands of graves holding men and women who served in the U.S. military.

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Updated 1/20/2014

When To Go

When to Go

D.C. has two delightful seasons: spring and autumn. In spring the city's ornamental fruit trees are blossoming, and its many gardens are in bloom. Summ...

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