Confused by what sights to see on your short visit to Washington DC?
There are so many monuments, memorials, and museums. Where do you even start?
If want to know the absolute best of the best things to see in Washington DC, keep on scrolling. This guide is for you!
I’ve lived in the Washington DC area my entire life and in that time I’ve gotten to know the city very well. It has changed so much in the past few years that it may be hard to keep up with all the new and fun things to see. Sometimes I even think it’s hard to keep up with all that is going on. There have been new museums, memorials and points of interest that would be fun for a solo traveler as well as families all at the same time.
So in this guide, I will share some highlights of my favorite sights as a Washington DC native and photographer.
My 7 Favorite Must-See Sights in Washington DC:
The Lincoln Memorial
Let’s get down to business. First off, the memorials are a must. If you’re visiting Washington DC for the first time, you have to visit the National Mall and I highly suggest starting off at the Lincoln Memorial. But this suggestion comes with a caveat, go at sunrise. Or as early in the morning as you can.
I know it may be difficult but it is so worth it.
With over 25 million visitors to the National Mall each year, the Lincoln Memorial is the most popular memorials to visit. That means it can get super crowded. I’m talking elbow-to-elbow with other visitors in the afternoons and evenings. But it is a completely different story in the early morning hours. You almost have the entire memorial to yourself. Don’t worry, it’s still safe. Park Police are always around plus you will never actually be alone. Runners, photographers, and other skywatchers will always be there but there is no other time of day when you will feel this free to roam at the memorial.
The Lincoln Memorial is my top suggestion because it’s beautiful with so much history, but it is also centrally located to the other points of interest. For instance, the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool is right in front, Vietnam Veterans Memorial to the left and the Korean War Memorial on the right-hand side. It makes it easy to scratch off 4 DC highlights all at once. So go early, you won’t regret it.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
If museums are your thing and you love art, then you will love the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. It’s a free museum located on the National Mall right next to the Smithsonian Castle. Its distinctive circular architecture will let you know you’re in the right place. Inside you’ll find a mixed medium of contemporary art and culture that will leave you wanting more. The Hirshhorn is also good about having at least 1 new exhibit every few months. So every time I visit, I’m excited to see something new and awesome.
But don’t forget to check out the sculpture garden and plaza right across the street with 60 unique pieces of art. It’s pretty cool to see how some of these pieces interact with the weather like snow and rain.
Other free museums to visit on the mall: National Gallery of Art (who also has its own sculpture garden), National Museum of Natural History and the newest Smithsonian Museum on the mall: the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
If you’re interested in exploring outside of the National Mall, one of the newest gallery spaces is the Artechouse. A combination of art and technology, this space is one of a kind! It’s super interactive meaning you can use your hands or body to contort the art displayed on the walls plus there’s always something new to see since they switch out the exhibitions every season. Most of the time the exhibitions are relevant to the time of year, but regardless of that, it’s a really cool space. If I had to choose a personal favorite, I love what they do during the Washington DC cherry blossom season.
Warning: You do need to reserve tickets to go and there is an entrance fee. Don’t just show up at Artechouse without tickets because they will probably turn you away. Tickets can be found on their website.
Other off the National Mall museums to visit: Newseum (closing at the end of 2019 so go before it’s too late), National Portrait Gallery, and the brand new Spy Museum. Note both the Newseum and the Spy Museum have an entrance fee as well but you can purchase them when you arrive.
Library of Congress
So if we’re going to talk about architecture and interiors, then you HAVE to visit the Library of Congress. The interior is jaw-droppingly amazing. I’ve gone over 10 times and I still can’t get enough of this place. It’s so detailed and the ceiling will give you a crick in your neck but it’s worth it. A great place to visit if you’re on Capitol Hill and it’s completely free.
Plus it still acts as a library to this day. However, the main library is reserved for the United States Congress. On special holidays, the public is allowed to enter the actual library, just be sure to check the website before you go. In the past, it has been on Columbus day and President’s day but they don’t seem to be those specific holidays every year. But if you aren’t visiting during that time of the year, you will be able to see the main library through a plane-glass window from the second floor.
Since you’re on the hill, sign up for a free tour at the United States Capitol. It’s right across the street from the Library of Congress and they run every hour where you will learn about our nation’s government and history. Plus the views of the dome and some of the rooms are really cool to see. As an added bonus, there’s an underground tunnel you can take from the Library of Congress to the United States Capitol in case you don’t feel like going outside to cross the street. Tickets are free but it’s probably best to reserve them online. If you’re lucky and you have a small group, you may be able to show up and tag along on the next tour.
A few blocks down both the Library of Congress and the US Capitol is Union Station. Another amazing interior AND exterior to see. A great place to catch the Amtrak train, buses or even the metro but an even better place to people-watch or grab a cup of coffee. May I add that Magnolia’s Bakery from New York just opened a shop in Union Station and their banana pudding is amazing.
Pod DC Hotel
Rooftops are popping up all over the District and I love it. Hotels, restaurants, and even office buildings provide some of the best views of the city. But my personal favorites are the rooftops at hotels. What’s better than a nice view with a cold drink in your hand?
Fun Fact: The Washington Monument is 555′ high and the tallest structure in Washington DC. So it’s not surprising to see at least the tip of the Washington Monument from rooftops all over the city.
This particular image was taken from the Pod DC Hotel in Chinatown. A pretty cool view of the Washington Monument and the Friendship Gate of Chinatown if you ask me. Plus their bar is really trendy and the appetizers are delicious. It’s one of those places that anything you order is going to be good.
Other rooftops to check out: The POV Lounge at the W Hotel, DNV at the Donovan House in Thomas Circle, or head to Rosslyn, Virginia at the View of DC for an amazing view of the Washington DC skyline from above.
Arlington, Virginia is just across the river from Washington DC but it still feels like you a part of the hustle and bustle of the District. This made the must-see list due to the fact that there are even more iconic memorials outside of the city. For example, Iwo Jima, the US Marine Corp War Memorial is a do-not-miss. It’s larger than life and a great place to just sit and reflect.
Within the grounds of Iwo Jima is Netherlands Carillon. The carillon marks the spot on top of a hill with breathtaking views of the Washington DC Memorials (Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and the US Capitol). Just a bit further is a small entrance to the Arlington National Cemetery where you can see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, President John F Kennedy’s eternal flame, and the recognizable white headstones.
If you’re feeling even more adventurous, the newly opened Air Force Memorial on the other side of Arlington National Cemetery is unlike any other memorial in the area. Soaring spires in the sky make this a great place to visit any time of the day.
Great Falls, Virginia
And if you’re looking to get out of the city for a breath of fresh air, check out Great Falls Park. It’s hard to believe this is just 15 miles outside of the city because it makes you feel like you’re in a totally different world. The park is filled with different viewpoints to see the waterfall or if you would like to spend a little more time in nature, the Billy Goat Trail is a nice hike along the Potomac River. Just note that there is a Virginia side and Maryland side to Great Falls. My preference is Virginia.
For more nature walks, check out Scott’s Run Nature Preserve just a bit further down on Georgetown Pike. A short hike but a rewarding waterfall at the end. For a beautiful botanical garden, I enjoy Meadowlark Botanical Garden in Vienna, Virginia. Obviously, it’s the best in the spring time but my favorite part is the variety of cherry blossoms that they have. They often peak a week or so after the cherry blossoms in DC and it is a whole lot less crowded. Note: Meadowlark Botanical Garden has an entrance fee.
As you can see, Washington DC is a fantastic place to visit whether you’re by yourself or have a big family to please at any time of the year. There’s a little bit of something for everyone to see and do. I hope you enjoyed this guide to my top 7 must-see sights of Washington DC but I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what the city has to offer. So if you think I have left anything out, let me know in the comments below or if you have any questions about anything, feel free to ask. I’ll try my best to answer them.
For even more detailed photography suggestions, any time of the day, year or even how to get around Washington DC, check out my book, Snap DC: Your Guide to Taking Extraordinary Photos of the National Mall and Beyond… It was created for any level of photographer from mobile to DSLR, who wants to cut down the research time and spend their time out doing what they love- shooting.
Available on Amazon:
- Angela B Pan
- Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
- Edition no. 1 (04/26/2018)
- Paperback: 210 pages
I hope you enjoy your visit to Washington DC and Happy Snapping!