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For some, their first trip to Washington, D.C. likely took the form of a high school field trip, where classmates craned their necks up in awe at the Lincoln Memorial. No matter your age, your first time in Washington, D.C. is a cause for celebration. You will be in the midst of a place where all the nation’s history is archived, and monuments of the most important and influential historical figures are on full display. There are many places of interest and landmarks to explore, but don’t let that overwhelm you. You are on vacation, so step back, take a deep breath and follow these simple tips for your first time in D.C.
Must Explore During Your First Time in DC
The amount of time allotted for your first trip to Washington, D.C. will determine your sightseeing options. The last thing you want to do is cram too much into too short a timeline where you may wind up seeing a lot, but you walk away feeling rushed and unfulfilled. Make sure to strike a balance during your first time in D.C. so that quantity doesn’t sacrifice quality. With that said, the following is a list of absolute must-see places that should be the foundation of anyone’s first trip to Washington, D.C.
In 1791, President George Washington commissioned French engineer, Pierre L’Enfant, to design the new seat of power for the nascent government. His idea for the Mall was to create a massive, public, tree-lined space that would provide a lively area in the heart of the capital. Fast-forward to the present day, and the essence of L’Enfant’s concept is largely intact. Considered a National Park, the National Mall should be your first stop during your first time in Washington, D.C. The Lincoln Memorial sits to the west, the U.S. Capitol to the east, with the Washington Memorial dividing the area slightly. Within its borders, you’ll also find some of D.C.’s finest museums, art galleries, sculptures and statues.
It would be a shame if you missed out on this iconic home during your first time in Washington, D.C. One of the great things about being in the oldest continuous democracy in the world is that you can pop into the White House whenever you’re in town. This is the working residence of the President and First Lady of the United States. It is where the President’s closest aides, cabinet appointees and chief of staff can be found advising and providing counsel to the most powerful person in the world. If you’re interested in tours of Washington, D.C., a tour of the White House is a must. You’ll be able to see the East Room, where many heads of state are hosted, the Blue Room, where the first couple often receive guests — and where the official Christmas tree is on display — and the lavish State Dining Room. This Washington, D.C. tour is given on a first-come, first-served basis, so keep that in mind for your first time in D.C.
For a deep dive into culture and history, you can hardly do better during your first time in Washington, D.C. than a visit to this family of prestigious museums. Besides having the opportunity to experience the largest complex of museums in the world, you won’t have to account for it in your vacation budget, since admission to all the museums is 100% free. Start your Washington, D.C. tour of the Smithsonian at the visitor’s center, housed in a replica of a 12th-century Norman castle. Here, you’ll also get to stand at the tomb of the man that made it all possible, James Smithson. After that, where you go next depends on your interests. Explore aviation and space travel and see the Wright brothers’ Flyer built in 1903 at the National Air and Space Museum. Head to the Mall and explore the National Museum of Natural History, where some of the world’s most famous artifacts are kept, including the famed Hope Diamond. If nature and wildlife are your thing and you’d like to spend some time outdoors, the 163-acre National Zoo is a great option. The zoo features 300 species and serves as a global research and conservation facility. Since it’s your first time in D.C., read up on all the museums and pick a few that best align with your interests.
Any tour of Washington, D.C. should include a stop at the world’s largest library. Upon setting foot within the palatial Thomas Jefferson Building, with its Gilded Age architecture and massive domed ceiling, your breath will catch as you aim to capture the perfect picture. Consisting of three separate buildings, the Library of Congress houses a mind-boggling 164 million items ranging from books and photos to recordings, maps and much more. The whole of American history, in its multitude of forms, is represented within the hallowed walls of this mighty institution. You’ll also get to see a stunning recreation of the founding fathers’ immense collection of books that founded the Library of Congress. For a Washington, D.C. tour of the library, be sure to reference their event calendar for the full schedule.
Though not technically located in the district, across the Potomac River in Virginia, your first trip to Washington, D.C. should include a reroute to this revered place. The cemetery came to be during the Civil War when Union soldiers buried their dead on Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s plantation. The plantation house, now known as Arlington House, is located on the high ground, providing an impressive view of the cemetery, Memorial Bridge and the Lincoln Memorial. The 639 venerated acres of land are the resting place of the fallen men and women of the Armed Services dating back to the Civil War, as well as others distinguished with the honor of being interred here, including President John F. Kennedy, Thurgood Marshall, Medgar Evers, Robert F. Kennedy and John Glenn to name a few. Time permitting, your first time in Washington, D.C. should also include the Changing of the Guard. The procession occurs every hour by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
When the sun goes down on D.C., a different dimension to the city materializes as its many monuments spectacularly come to life. The best Washington, D.C. tour that accentuates the wonder of this city at night is the Old Town Trolley Monuments by Moonlight tour. You’ll enjoy radiant, panoramic views in a comfortable stadium trolley with unobstructed views that include stops at D.C.’s most popular landmarks, including the World War II Memorial. There are 56 artfully displayed columns surrounding a beautiful fountain opposed by two arches that each symbolize victory in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of battle. The memorial celebrates the 16 million who served in World War II.
When you happen to be the only American President to serve four terms, it only stands to reason that your memorial should also reflect something extra. Located along the Tidal Basin at the National Mall, this extraordinary monument is less something to stand before and more an experience to travel through. Even though it’s your first time in D.C., you’ll notice the difference between this memorial and many others. Composed of four outdoor rooms, each representing a presidential term, you’ll encounter bronze sculptures of FDR, the first lady, and even one of his trusty pup Fala. There are sobering scenes from the Great Depression, along with 21 quotes culled from his famous fireside chats and speeches, all of which reflect the tumultuous and challenging presidency of a man who lifted his country from its knees to the highest glory.
As one of the most brutal atrocities ever committed in recorded history, the Holocaust has touched the lives of generations. The architect of the museum, James Ingo Freed, visited several camps and ghettos in order to incorporate their style and building materials into a place intended to serve as “a resonator of memory.” The limestone and concrete throughout are harsh reminders of isolation and grief while the exhibits within are sure to be among the most powerful you’ll witness on your first trip to Washington, D.C.
Your first trip to Washington, D.C. may feel like your first trip to Europe when you encounter the dramatic Gothic spires that rise from the National Cathedral. As inspirational as any church you would find in Italy or England, this place of worship is roughly the size of two football fields placed end to end. Inside, its timeless grandeur is accentuated by giant vaulted ceilings, sublime stained glass and ornate carvings. The cathedral hosts the swearing in of presidents, national celebrations and state funerals. A Washington, D.C. tour here varies daily to accommodate a robust lineup of events, so check their event calendar for details.
On the evening of April 14, 1865, as the final act of the stage comedy “Our American Cousin” was winding to a close amidst the laughter emanating from the Presidential box at Ford’s Theatre, history was about to be made. Before the final curtain fell, ardent anti-abolitionist and actor, John Wilkes Booth, shot and killed the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Your first time in Washington, D.C. doesn’t necessarily have to include a play, but a visit to this theater and its museum is worth the effort. In the museum, you’ll encounter rare artifacts from the assassination and view a timeline of the conspiracy. In the stately theater, you can see the Presidential box and the theater itself, which is very much as it was all those years ago. During the tour, a ranger will be on hand to answer all your questions. You can also visit the Peterson House across the street, where Abraham Lincoln ultimately met his fate.
Where to Stay in Washington DC for First-Time Visitors
Your first trip to Washington, D.C. should be memorable. Make all the necessary arrangements so that your first time in Washington, D.C. will not be your last. Besides figuring out how much time to spend at any location or which Washington, D.C. tour is the most suitable, you’ve got to find the best accommodations to ensure that you are rested and relaxed for a full day of exploring. Here are some recommendations:
The National Mall is a highly desirable area for travelers during their first time in D.C. because of the easy access to many of the most popular attractions. This hotel is ideally situated a short jaunt away from the Capitol Building. It’s a comfortable place to stay with affordable rooms and a winning staff.
For those willing to pay extra and, who insist on a certain level of extravagance, we’ve got you covered. If you want your first trip to Washington, D.C. to be done in style, the rooms and the lobby here are quite grand, and the service is impeccable. As a bonus, it’s only a five-minute walk to the White House and all the trendy spots downtown.
Tips for Your First Time in Washington DC
When planning a tour of Washington, D.C., do some homework on the various sights you want to visit most. A little research goes a long way toward ensuring that your first time in D.C. goes off without a hitch. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
From September to November and from March to May.
Whether it’s your first time in D.C. or you’re a local, you’ll want to hop on an Old Town Trolley Tour. The vehicles are state of the art, with great sightlines no matter where you sit, the narration is performed by some of the industry’s most knowledgeable guides and you’ll see 100 points of interest, which include virtually every stop on this list. Speaking of stops, the “hop on, hop off” nature of this tour allows you to take as much time as you like at any given stop. When you are ready to get back on the tour, head to one of the stops and get back on the arriving trolley.
The nation’s capital is a fascinating place with plenty to do and see, so get out there and love every minute of it!