June 11th, 2021

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DC Travel Guide - Part 4: Things to Do

Part 4: Things to Do

Around the National Mall:

The Mall is the heart of Washington, DC, and has been described as the Nation’s front yard. It is lined with museums and monuments, but also has plenty of open space for sports and kite flying (and, in normal times, festivals). It is bounded by the U.S. Capitol on the east, Lincoln Memorial (or Potomoac River, depending on who you ask) on the west, Constitution Avenue on the north and Independence Avenue on the south. Starting from Union Station, walk south on 1st Street to the back of the Capitol, then turn right along the southern side of the mall to follow this tour:

U.S. Botanic Garden - This is the oldest continually operating botanic garden in the United States. While the Conservatory and gated outdoor gardens are closed, Bartholdi Park and the Terrace Gardens are open from dawn to dark. Admission free. Bartholdi Park is just across Independence Avenue from the Conservatory and has a stunning fountain, as well as a wide variety of plants.

National Museum of the American Indian - This is part of the Smithsonian. Open Wednesday through Sunday 11 am to 4 pm. It requires a timed entry pass. Entrance is at 3rd St and Maryland Ave SW.

National Air and Space Museum is currently closed (but see their Udvar-Hazy Center below).

Across Independence Avenue from the Air and Space Museum, at Sixth St SW, you can check out the new Eisenhower Memorial.

The Hirschhorn Museum (Smithsonian modern art museum, located at 7th and Independence Ave) is currently closed. However, their sculpture garden is open daily 10 am to 4:30 pm, with no tickets required.

Arts and Industries Building - Historic Smithsonian building has been closed to the public since 2004, but is scheduled to reopen in November 2021. There are a rose garden and a carousel on the mall side of the building, which should be open, though it is not clear whether or not the carousel is operating.

Smithsonian National Museum of African Art - currently closed

Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art - currently closed. The Moongate Garden in front of the building should be open.

The Smithsonian Institution Building (normally referred to as “The Castle”) is closed. The Haupt Garden is next to the Castle and is open daily from dawn to dusk, with no tickets required.

The Freer Gallery is currently closed.

Continuing down Jefferson Drive SW, you will pass the Smithsonian metro station. The Department of Agriculture will be on your left. There is a farmer’s market there (Independence Ave and 12th St) on Fridays from 9 am to 2 pm in normal times. Current status is uncertain.


Continuing west, you will pass the Washington Monument (currently closed) and then reach the World War II Memorial on the other side of 17th St. You may wish to turn south to the Tidal Basin and see the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and/or the Jefferson Memorial. This is also where the famous cherry trees are, though they are not blooming in July. It’s also the spot that Fanne Foxe jumped into after an argument with her lover, Representative Wilbur Mills, in an incident that is on several lists of top 10 sex scandals in the U.S.

West of the World War II Memorial, there’s a reflecting pool leading to the Lincoln Memorial. You used to be able to go under the Lincoln Memorial to see stalactites growing from the memorial’s limestone, but that area has been closed off for a long time. You can still look for the quote on the steps that marks the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Continuing past the Lincoln Memorial to the Potomac River, you can see the Watergate Steps, leading down towards the river and providing a nice view across to Virginia.

You can also walk across the Memorial Bridge to Arlington National Cemetery (see below) from there. Turning north, you can see the Kennedy Center (an arts complex) and the Watergate Complex (famous for the top scandal of 1972.

Walking back from the Lincoln Memorial, there’s a statue of Albert Einstein at 2101 Constitution Ave, in front of the National Academy of Sciences. People like to sit in his lap.

Back on the mall, you can visit the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. Continuing east, there’s Constitution Gardens, a carp pond with a small island containing a memorial to the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and the German-American Friendship Garden leading back to the Washington Monument. Across Constitution Avenue is The Ellipse, the northern edge of which has the Zero Milestone, from which road distances from Washington, DC are measured. It also has a good view of the South Lawn of the White House.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture - back on the mall, at 15th St and Constitution Ave, this is a Smithsonian Museum. Tickets appear to be sold out, but check back for additional availability, including same day tickets.

National Museum of American History - This is across 14th Street from the African American History and Culture Museum and is also part of the Smithsonian. It includes the gowns of the First Ladies and Julia Child’s Kitchen among other exhibits. Tickets are sold out for WashingCon dates right now, but continue checking for additional availability, including same day tickets.

National Museum of Natural History - This Smithsonian Museum is between 12th St and 9th St NW. It is reopening on June 18th. It’s open Wednesday through Sunday 11 am to 4 pm, with free passes required. The most famous exhibit is probably the Hope Diamond.


The National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden is between 9th St NW and 7th St NW. It is free and open from 11 am to 4 pm daily with no tickets required.


Crossing Constitution Ave, you can visit the National Archives. Currently, only the Rotunda is open for viewing of the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and Bill of Rights. From June 18th on, hours are Friday through Monday, 10 am to 2 pm. Timed reservations with a $1 service fee are required.


The National Gallery of Art, which is not a Smithsonian museum, is across 7th Street NW from the Sculpture Garden. The West Building is open from 11 am to 4 pm daily, and the East Building, which stretches to 4th Street NW, is reopening on June 18th. Free timed tickets are required and are released each Monday at 10 am for the following week.

You can then continue down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the northern edge of the reflecting pool, to get back to the Capitol.

For ticketing:

Smithsonian Museums - https://www.si.edu/visit
Note that you need to click forward to July on the calendar for each museum to select July dates. Clicking on a July date from the June calendar will not work.

National Archives Museum - https://www.recreation.gov/ticket/facility/234645

National Gallery of Art - https://www.nga.gov/tickets.html


Other Museums:

National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum - This is located at 8th and G Streets NW (Gallery Place / Chinatown metro station) and is open Wednesday through Sunday 11:30 am to 7 pm. The gallery of Presidential portraits is a highlight. Free timed tickets required (see Smithsonian link above) and there is some availability during con.

Renwick Gallery - This Smithsonian Museum, focused on craft, is located at Pennsylvania Ave and 17th St NW, essentially across from the White House. It is open Wednesday through Sunday 10 am to 4 pm, but appears to be sold out during WashingCon.

National Zoo - This is also run by the Smithsonian and is located at 3001Connecticut Avenue. You can take the metro Red Line to the Woodley Park station, but if you go one more stop to Cleveland Park, the zoo is downhill. The zoo is open daily from 8 am to 4 pm. Free timed tickets are required. If you want to see the pandas, including some chance of seeing the new baby panda, you need a separate panda pass, available only from kiosks inside the zoo.
Tickets are sold out for July 3rd, but available for other days of WashingCon

Artechouse DC - This is a somewhat futuristic exhibit space with immersive experiences including art and music. It’s located at 1238 Maryland Avenue SW (Smithsonian metro station). The current exhibit, called Renewal 2021, is inspired by cherry blossoms, and is open daily 10 am to 10 pm. Tickets cost $24.

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum - Located just south of Independence Avenue, between 14th and Raoul Wallenberg Place (15th Street) next to Smithsonian metro station. The museum is open Thursday through Tuesday from 11 am to 4 pm. Tickets are sold out for the dates of WashingCon, but there should be same day tickets available each day at 11 am. See ushmm.org for more information.

National Building Museum - 401 F Street NW, across the street from the Judiciary Square metro station on the Red Line. Open Friday through Sunday 11 am to 4 pm. Tickets are $10 (available on-line, but walk-up tickets are available at the Visitor Center), but you can visit the Great Hall, Gun Memorial Project, and Museum Shop for free. There’s also interactive lawn art outside. The Building Museum is a great favorite with children. It’s also known for their summer installations, which have included miniature golf courses, a maze, and a giant ball pit. This summer has a wooden maze filled with books. Their museum shop is also among the best in the city.

National Museum of Women in the Arts - Located at 1250 New York Avenue NW (Metro Center station, about a 15 minute walk from the Westin), This is the only art museum in the world dedicated exclusively to art by women. It’s open Monday through Saturday 10 am to 5 pm, Sunday from noon, $10 admission. There’s a particularly notable collection of artist’s books. The museum will be closing for two years for renovations in August, so catch it while you can.

Planet Word - Located at 925 13th St NW (entrance on K Street), about a 10 minute walk from the Westin. Open Thursday through Saturday 10 am to 5 pm, open Sundays after June 20th. Admission is free, but they suggest a $15 donation. This is a new interactive museum of language. Since there’s going to be a WashingCon event there on Saturday night, most con attendees will probably wait for that to visit.

International Spy Museum - 700 L’Enfant Plaza SW (L’Enfant Plaza metro, about 2 blocks south of the National Mall, west of 9th St). Open Monday through Thursday 9 am to 7 pm, Friday through Sunday to 8 pm. Tickets are $25 for adults, $17 for ages 7 through 12. Highly interactive and particularly popular with children.

Ford’s Theatre - Located on 10th Street NW, between E and F Streets (Metro Center metro station), this is, of course, the site where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 am to noon, and 2 to 4 pm and theatre walkthroughs are also available, but other exhibits are closed. Tickets are $3.

Hillwood Estate - Located at 4155 Linen Avenue NW, about a mile walk from the Van Ness / UDC metro station on the Red Line. (There is bus service that gets closer, routes L1 and L2 on Connecticut Avenue.) Open Tuesday through Sunday 10 am to 5 pm. Admission is $18. Tickets are no longer required in advance. This was Marjorie Merriweather Post’s estate and has a large art collection, as well as extensive gardens.

Museum of the Bible - Located at 400 4th Street SW (L’Enfant Plaza metro). Open Thursday through Monday 10 am to 5 pm, Admission $20 in advance, $25 walk-up. Extensive exhibits of bibles and information on biblical archaeology.

Phillips Collection - 1600 21st St NW at Q St (Dupont Circle metro, about a 22 minute walk up Massachusetts Ave from the Westin). Open Tuesday through Sunday 11 am to 6 pm, tickets required in advance, Admission $16. This was the first modern art museum in the U.S., opened in 1921. The collection includes works by Renoir, Matisse, Van Gogh, Klee, Miro, etc. Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party is the most famous painting there

National Arboretum - 24th and R Street NE. Open daily 8 am to 5 pm. Take metro to Stadium Armory station and transfer to metros B2 to Bladensburg Rd, then walk 2 blocks to R St and turn right to the arboretum gates. It is, however, much easier by car. In addition to a number of gardens and tree collections, the original columns of the Capitol are here.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens - 1550 Anacostia Ave NE (about a 20 minute walk from Deanwood metro on the Orange Line, or U7 metrobus, but much easier by car). You can also get there by canoe or kayak from the Anacostia River! Known primarily for their collection of water lilies.


President Lincoln’s Cottage - 140 Rock Creek Church Rd NW (Green Line metro to Georgia Avenue, followed by H6 bus, but much easier by car). This is on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home and identification is required to enter. Open daily 9 am to 5 pm, tickets are $15 and should be purchased in advance.

Museum of American Jewish Military History - Located at 1811 R St NW (Dupont Circle metro station). Open Monday through Friday 9 am to 5 pm, admission free. Permanent collection is focused on Jews in the American military and includes a hall of American Jewish recipients of the Medal of Honor.


For Future Reference:

A number of interesting sites are currently closed, but are worth a visit if you come back to DC. Those include the Library of Congress, the Frederick Douglass Historic Site, National Postal Museum, the George Washington University / Textiles Museums, DAR Museum, the Kennedy Center, and several of the Smithsonian museums on the mall. You can also in normal times arrange a number of tours, including the White House, the Capitol, and the Pentagon, via your Congressional representative.

Outside DC (but transit accessible):

Arlington National Cemetery - Take the metro Blue line to Arlington Cemetery station. Open daily from 8 am to 5 pm, they currently have a security checkpoint at the visitor center, so you need to show a photo ID. You can take a tram tour for $15 or just walk around the cemetery. The most visited sites are John F. Kennedy’s gravesite and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee memorial, has reopened recently with new exhibits emphasizing the story of enslaved people.

Mount Vernon - 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Mount Vernon, Virginia. Metro Yellow Line to Huntington Station, followed by Fairfax Connector bus #101. An easier (but pricier) option is a sightseeing cruise, which departs from the Wharf in southwest DC at 9:30 am and returns from Mount Vernon at 3:15 pm for $50 round trip. This is George Washington’s estate. You can see George and Martha’s tombs, the house, and an interpretive center.

Old Town Alexandria - Take the metro Blue or Yellow Line to King Street. There are a number of historic houses and museums in the cobblestoned historic district centered around King Street and Washington Street. There are also lots of restaurants and shops, including one of the best yarn stores in the region (Fibre Space at 1319 Prince Street). It’s all very cute and worth a couple of hours of wandering around.

Udvar-Hazy Center - This is the larger branch of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and is located near Dulles Airport. It is easiest to get there by car ($15 for parking), but there is bus service (Fairfax Connector bus 983 from the Wiehle-Reston metro station on the Silver Line). It's open 10 am to 5:30 pm and free timed entry passes are required (see Smithsonian ticketing information above). Tickets are currently sold out for July 2-4, but available on July 1st.

Tours:

Big Bus Tours offers hop-on hop-off bus tours that cover most of the essential sites, though don’t really go anywhere you couldn’t get to on your own. They also have packages including night tours and sightseeing cruises, as well as a free one hour bike rental.

Washington Walks offers a number of different two-hour walking tours for $25 a person. In person tours are just starting up, so check their website for details.

If you’d like interesting free walking tours, Cultural Tourism DC has put up historic plaques and information signs at a number of sites. You can get booklets at their office at 700 12th St NW or download PDFs from their website (culturaltourismdc.org). Topics include African American Heritage Trails, as well as Heritage Trails for several DC neighborhoods. A few have audio tours available.


Oddities:

George Washington Masonic Memorial - Located on a hill next to the King Street metro station in Alexandria, this is dedicated to George Washington’s life as a freemason. It’s open 9 am to 5 pm daily, with tickets ($18) required in advance. There are good views from the top.

The House of the Temple - Located at 1733 16th St NW (north of R St), this is another Masonic site. It’s a striking building from the outside. One can apparently take a tour, offered Monday through Thursday at 10 am, 11 am, 12:30 pm, 2 pm, and 3:30 pm. Admission is free.

The Big Chair - 2101 Martin Luther King Ave SE (a 10 minute walk from the Anacostia metro station on the Green line, follow signs for Howard Rd.) This is exactly what it sounds like - a giant Duncan Phyfe Chair, erected as an advertisement for a furniture company. It’s not really worth a special trip for, unless you happen to be driving by that area.

The Exorcist Steps - Located at Prospect St and 26th St NW in Georgetown, leading down to M St. This set of stone steps was featured in the movie The Exorcist and is popular among runners looking for a steep workout. There is a plaque at the bottom.

Boundary Stones - There are a series of monuments that mark the original boundaries of the District of Columbia. They tend to be tricky to find, especially as many are on private property. But if you would like to hunt them down, there is a complete list of locations at boundarystones.org.


Day Trips:
There are any number of interesting historic towns within about two hours by car of Washington, DC. A few suggestions include Harper’s Ferry (West Virginia), Leesburg (Virginia), Manassas (Virginia), Fredericksburg (Virginia), Frederick (Maryland), Gettysburg (Pennsylvania), Elliott City (Maryland), Annapolis (Maryland), and Saint Mary’s City (Maryland).



Shopping:

There are several areas with concentrations of shops, including Capitol Hill (especially around Eastern Market), Georgetown, Dupont Circle, and the Wharf. If, for some reason, you are looking for a shopping mall, try Pentagon City (on the Blue line metro) or Tyson’s Corner (Silver line metro), both in Virginia.

The best independent bookstore in the area is Politics and Prose. Their main store is at 5015 Connecticut Ave NW, about a 20 minute walk from the Van Ness / UDC metro stop on the Red line (or accessible by the L2 bus service up Connecticut Ave). They also have branches at the Wharf and at Union Market. By the way, the Connecticut Avenue location is next to Comet Ping Pong, the pizza place at the heart of the QAnon Hillary Clinton child-sex ring conspiracy theory.

Kramer Books (1517 Connecticut Ave, at Q Street in Dupont Circle) is another good independent bookstore.

If you’re looking for used books, try Second Story Books at 2000 P Street (corner of 20th Street, Dupont Circle metro).

Labyrinth Games at 645 Pennsylvania Ave SE (Eastern Market metro station) has a good selection of board games, card games, roleplaying games, and puzzles, with friendly service.

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