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.
The internationally renowned collections of the Smithsonian—140 million objects, specimens, and artworks displayed in the world's largest museum complex—make Washington one of the great museum cities. The holdings of the 19 Smithsonian museums range from a 65-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton to masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso, the Hope Diamond, the original "Star-Spangled Banner," and the space shuttle Discovery—and all are on view for free. Add in the legendary art treasures of the National Gallery, Portrait Gallery, the Phillips Collection, and Dumbarton Oaks, and Washington, D.C., becomes a true feast for the eyes.
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.
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.