A beginner’s guide to Washington, DC
Washington, DC requires no introduction. Its monuments, buildings and landmarks have been seen on television sets across the world and are instantly recognisable. But every television broadcast in the world can’t prepare for you for how fascinating the city is in real life. We recommend that everyone should visit at one point in their lives. Here’s our guide to making the most of it.
If it’s historical monuments and museums you want to visit, then you need to head to The National Mall. It’s a lot longer than most people anticipate and it’s a good idea to schedule aside a whole day just to explore. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to visit everything, so here are our top picks.
Honour the legacy of the 16th President of the United States, and the man who ended the American slave trade. Found at the western end of National Mall, the famous 19-foot statue of Lincoln attracts the most attention. But remember to admire the neo-classical architecture and visit the museum inside. On the steps, you’ll also find the words “I Have a Dream” engraved on the exact spot where Martin Luther King Jr presented his famous and powerful speech.
Lying at the other end of the Lincoln Reflection Pool is the tallest structure in all of Washington, DC. It stands at 555ft and took so long to build that the original quarry ran out and you can see the change in colour two-thirds up. Currently, the monument is closed for renovations until 2019, but when it does re-open, you’ll need a ticket to get in and it is generally recommended that you book in advance.
The Smithsonian Institution is a world-renowned museum and research complex that consists of 17 museums, galleries and the National Zoo. Access to all of these museums is completely free. Several of them are dotted along the National Mall – including the Smithsonian National Museum of Air and Space, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and National Museum of the American Indian.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
While this is a must-see on National Mall, it is humbling and sometimes difficult to take. The main exhibition starts with the identity cards of Holocaust victims, then their harrowing story is gradually revealed. You also find The Hall of Remembrance, the museum’s official memorial to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust.
If you’re visiting with children, there’s instead Remember the Children: Daniel's Story. It’s lighter than the main exhibition and tells the story of Daniel, a fictional child based on a collection of true stories about children during the Holocaust.
National Gallery of Art
Found on the National Mall, between 3rd and 9th Streets, lies one of North America’s largest art museums. It is comprised of two buildings – that are connected by an underground passage – with the original neoclassical building showcasing European art and the modern East Building exhibiting contemporary pieces. Entry is free, but you’ll need to set aside a good chunk of your day if you want to get around everything.
Since 1800, this is where both the lower House of Representatives and the Upper Senate meet to debate and write legislation. There’s an underground visitor centre below the East Plaza, which includes a tour of various chambers. In order to watch Congress in Session, however, you’ll need to take your passport to the House and Senate Appointment Desks on the upper level.
Welcome to Washington, DC’s newest neighbourhood. Set along the waterfront, here you’ll find a mile-long stretch of restaurants, retailers, nightlife, sports and activities for kids. It’s also home to local events, including concerts, food markets, and outdoor yoga sessions. You’ll find it only a few streets along from The National Mall.
Food & Drink
Washington DC’s foodie scene has a reputation for focusing on power breakfasts and colossal steaks. While these two cuisines are readily available within the city, the city is much more eclectic than its reputation.
Many TV chefs have restaurants in the city, and famous-faces are not a rare sight. Washington, DC’s most famous chef is José Andrés and you need to make sure you stop by one of his restaurants - whether it’s Jaleo, Zaytinya, or the upscale Barmini.
It also probably comes as little surprise that Washington, DC is also home to 14 restaurants that have earned Michelin Star status. This includes minibar by José Andrés (which specialises in molecular gastronomy), Blue Duck Tavern (featuring a rotating seasonal menu focusing on farm-to-fork), and Métier (a 36-seat restaurant with a $200 seven-course tasting menu).
There’s also a diverse mix of international cuisine, including flavours you may not have stumbled upon before. Try Lao food for the first time at Thip Khao, or even Ethiopian at Dukem and Etete. But perhaps the most unique dining experience in Washington, DC is the Mitsitam Café at the National Museum of the American Indian. The menu contains foods that are indigenous to the Americas from wild salmon and forage mushrooms to bison chilli and fry bread.
If you’re unsure where to start, Washington, DC boasts a selection of culinary tours. These range from brewery tours, to trips around different Farmers Markets.
With the Family
Washington, DC is also a great place to visit with children. Across the city, you’ll find child-friendly museums, open spaces and restaurants with kids’ menus. Here are our top picks!
International Spy Museum
Kids will love pretending to be their favourite spy character at this interactive museum. There’s an immersive experience called Operation Spy, where the kids play the part of a secret agent who has to retrieve critical intelligence and escape from a high-security compound. Children ages 6 and up get in for free.
U.S. Botanic Garden
The U.S. Botanic Garden is already a great day out anyway but is extra enjoyable with little ones. Firstly there’s a scavenger hunt where kids have to find specific plants. There’s also a Children’s Garden where your mini-me can jump around in the playhouse, pump water, dig with shovels, water plants and, on occasion, help the staff plant flowers.
The National Zoo
You can spend an entire day wandering around this 163-acre park that is home to over 2,000 animals (25 per cent of which are endangered). You’ll find it in the residential area of Woodley Park neighbourhood, with the entrance on Connecticut Avenue. It’s part of the Smithsonian Institution, so admission is free.
The National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian Institution, a world-renowned museum and research complex that consists of 17 museums, galleries and the National Zoo. Access to all of these museums is completely free.
Madam Tussauds requires no introduction, but at Washington, DC you’ll find more historical and political figures than usual – including all 45 U.S. Presidents (alongside your favourite A-list celebrities, like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé).
The Daily Grill
When it’s time to fuel up, take your little ones to this All-American restaurant. In addition to its extensive kids' menu, it also offers healthy options for the adults. There’s a restaurant in both Dupont Circle and Georgetown.
How to get there and finding your way around
There are direct flights from the UK to Washington, DC that run multiple times a week – including a non-stop route from Edinburgh to Washington Dulles International Airport with United Airlines. Once you’re there, the Metrorail and Metrobus are the most convenient ways to get around Washington, DC. Though there’s also The DC Circulator bus– which is only $1 per ride and runs six specific routes designed for easy-on, easy-off access to popular sites. But saying that, Washington, DC is a very flat and walkable city.
Other important information
- Summers are hot in Washington, DC and the capital is on the same latitude as southern Europe
- Many consider spring to be the nicest time of year to visit due to the cherry blossoms.
- The currency used is the US Dollar
- English is the national language and widely spoken