Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States, is a must-see city if you are visiting the United States! With its many institutions and museums open for free, it is a destination that can be discovered at a lower cost and that allows you to understand how American democracy works.
From the Capitol to the Supreme Court to the National Gallery, there are some great visits waiting for you! So what are the must-sees in Washington? What is the history of this city? How to prepare your stay in the United States and what are the good addresses? Here is all the information you need to organize your trip!
Washington in short
- When to go there? I went in February but the winter can be very cold there. If you are well covered, you can go but you have to pray not to have a cold snap. Summer is known to be very hot so the best seasons are spring and fall. Be careful though: in good season it is better to book your visits to museums and monuments several days in advance at the risk of not being able to enter them.
- How long should I stay? Two days is a minimum to have time to walk around the city and discover the main institutional places. Three or even four days will not be too much to take the time to explore the many museums.
- Who is it for? Washington is a very spread out city, with large spaces! It is therefore preferable to enjoy walking to fully appreciate this destination. Moreover, most of the activities are cultural: museums, monuments, places of memory… for culture and history lovers.
- How to get around? Even if there is a public transport network, the metro stations are quite few and the buses not very frequent. You can also opt for cabs or shared bikes.
Washington, D.C.: An American city like no other!
The city of Washington was created on January 24, 1791 following the Residence Act, which provided for the creation of a federal capital. It was named after George Washington, the first president of the United States. Its official name, however, is “District of Columbia”, hence its common name “Washington DC” or simply “DC” to avoid confusion with the State of Washington located on the west coast of the United States.
Initially designed as a square with 16.2 km sides, crossed by the Potomac River, it was divided by half in 1801 by decision of Congress and is now limited to one bank of the river.
As the federal capital, Washington is not part of the fifty states of the Union and depends directly on Congress. In fact, its inhabitants have neither representatives nor senators. Washington, D.C. is home to the institutions that symbolize the three forms of American power: the White House (executive branch), the Capitol (legislative branch) and the Supreme Court (judicial branch). In addition to these national institutions, Washington is also home to several international institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund).
You may be surprised to learn that, unlike most large American cities, Washington has no skyscrapers. A law limits the height of buildings to the width of the adjacent street + 20 feet (about 6 meters).
What to see in Washington? The 12 must-sees
Washington is a city of history and memory. As the capital of the United States, there are many institutional places, museums and several commemorative spaces. In short, there is no lack of visits, especially since everything here is free! Here is an overview of what to see in Washington.
If in France most of the institutional places are only open on very rare occasions, in Washington it’s the opposite: you can go all year long and for free! All you have to do is book a time slot in advance. These visits are fascinating because, in addition to discovering prestigious buildings, they allow you to better understand how American democracy works.
In the winter, it is not difficult to get seats, but in high season it is best to book a few days or even weeks in advance. Registration links are available in the following article.
A symbol of American democracy, the Capitol houses the two legislative bodies of the United States: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Each of the 50 U.S. states has two senators, while the number of elected officials in the House of Representatives is proportional to the number of state residents.
From the outside, the Capitol is already impressive. Built between 1793 and 1812, the Capitol was burned down two years later, in 1814, by the British during the War of 1812; its reconstruction took four years. In the 1850s, as new states joined the Union, the building was enlarged to accommodate their political representatives and the current dome was built.
Free tours of the Capitol are given daily, including a look at the magnificent dome, which features a painting by Constantino Brumidi of “The Apotheosis of Washington”. It is recommended that you book your tour several days in advance.
The dome shows Washington (center) surrounded by Liberty (left) and Victory (right). Above, the motto of the United States “E pluribus unum” (Out of many one).
Address: 1st St SE, Washington DC
Admission: Free with reservation at https://www.visitthecapitol.gov/
The Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, with over 173 million items! Although this building dates back to 1897, the institution was created in 1800.
In 1814, the first works of its collection were destroyed in a fire caused by the British during the Anglo-American war. To replenish the shelves, Thomas Jefferson sold his personal collection of 6,487 volumes to the library, but another fire in 1851 destroyed two-thirds of them.
Since then, the Library has been searching for valuable books to replace those lost. To date, less than 300 books are missing.
The visit is impressive and allows you to discover the “Great Hall”, an immense entrance hall as well as a space for temporary exhibitions.
Address : 1St and Independence Avenue SE, Washington DC
Admission: free with reservation at https://loc.usedirect.com/LOC/
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States and has jurisdiction over all cases arising under the Constitution and laws of the United States. It is composed of nine members: eight justices and one chief justice, appointed for life by the President with the consent of the Senate.
The building is particularly impressive, symbolically reflecting the role played by this institution.
Address: 1St Street Northeast, Washington DC
Admission: free, hours available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/visiting/visiting.aspx
The White House
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to visit the White House since you have to make a request through your Embassy in Washington, ideally 3 months before your visit… Moreover, depending on the presidential agenda, visits can be cancelled at the last moment. In short, you should not count on it too much! You will have to be content with seeing the White House from the outside, through the gates…
Around the central axis facing the Capitol is a string of museums, all of which are open free of charge. Most of them are managed by the Smithsonian Institution, an institution that came into being thanks to the British scientist James Smithson, who donated his colossal fortune to the United States in order to create an institution dedicated to the growth and dissemination of knowledge.
The National Gallery of Art
Created by the U.S. Congress in 1937, the National Gallery is a particularly large art museum! It is spread over two buildings connected by an underground gallery. Its collections go from the Middle Ages to nowadays and present very varied works: from Da Vinci to Van Gogh through Botticelli, Brueghel, Monet, Degas, Morisot, Seurat, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Klimt, Miro, Kahlo or Canova… In short, there is enough to spend a whole day there!
Address : 6th and Constitution Ave NW, Washington DC
Rates : Free admission
The Air and Space Museum
Here is a museum of XXL size and for good reason: it houses entire planes! The museum looks back at the history of aeronautics, from the pioneers to the present day and the conquest of space. Something to delight all flying object enthusiasts! To see in particular: the part dedicated to the Wright brothers presenting the very first plane.
Address : 600 Independence Ave SW, Washington DC
Rates : Free admission
The Museum of Natural History
This museum was made famous by the movie “Night at the Museum”. Its entrance hall is particularly impressive: you can discover in the center Henry the elephant! All around, and on several levels, you will discover spaces intended to better understand nature. An ideal museum for families, the opportunity to contemplate dinosaur skeletons!
The National Archives
The interior of the National Archives is a bit old-fashioned, the old scenography doesn’t really make you want to spend hours there. However, it is worth visiting to see the originals of the three main founding texts of the United States:
- The Declaration of Independence: a document dated 1776 in which 13 colonies of the British Empire declared their sovereignty over Great Britain to give birth to the United States of America;
- The Constitution: famous for its first words “We the people…” it has been in force since 1789;
- The Bill of Rights which establishes freedom of the press, speech, religion and assembly.
Address: 700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington DC
American History Museum, Asian Art Museum, African Art Museum, Holocaust Museum… many other cultural places are waiting for you in Washington. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to go and visit them but you will have something to do if you spend several days in the city!
In addition to museums and institutional sites, Washington, D.C. is a city with many monuments dedicated to former presidents or Americans who died in armed conflicts. Some of these monuments are particularly worth seeing.
The Washington Monument
Impossible to miss the Washington Monument! This gigantic obelisk of 169 meters high located in the axis of the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial inevitably attracts the eyes. Built in honor of George Washington, its construction was particularly long: nearly 40 years, between 1848 and 1885. A lack of funding caused a 20-year pause in its construction. At its completion, it was the highest monument in the world and kept this title until the construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1889.
This monument can be visited free of charge, by reservation at this address: https://www.recreation.gov/ticket/234635/ticket/193 – Please note that tickets must be reserved at least one month before the date of the visit.
The Lincoln Memorial
Located at the end of the axis facing the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial is a very impressive building! Imagined as early as 1867, it was only in 1914 that it was built. It takes the form of a temple with 36 columns symbolizing the 36 member states of the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death.
Inside, a huge sculpture pays tribute to the 16th president of the United States who succeeded in preserving the Union in the middle of the Civil War. Made by copying plaster casts of Lincoln’s face and hands, this sculpture is particularly realistic.
Located on the other side of the Potomac River (and thus, outside of Washington), Arlington Cemetery is a must-see. It is a military cemetery created during the Civil War. More than 290,000 veterans of the American wars (from the War of Independence to the present day) are buried there. There are also the graves of two American presidents: William Taft and John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Many other commemorative monuments are to be discovered such as the Vietnam war memorial or the one dedicated to the Second World War.
Where to stay in Washington? Find a hotel
I recommend the Phoenix Park Hotel which is located 2 minutes walk from the train station and not far from the capitol. The rooms are spacious and comfortable. There is no breakfast served in the morning but a self-service coffee maker is available throughout the day.
Find other hotels in Washington and their rates by selecting the dates of your stay:
The map of the best places
Find on this map all the addresses mentioned in this article. Use the filters on the right side of the map to display only the themes that interest you.
Now you have all the information you need to enjoy your stay and discover Washington! If you have any questions about this city, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments, I will be happy to answer you.
Have a nice trip!
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