Washington DC: where politicos play, tourists wander and everyone is in a rush to somewhere. Serve to Travel heads back to the (2nd) homeland to re-visit memories of living and visiting in Washington DC. As a former Washingtonian, I will always come back to this city, traveling as a local… and sometimes as a tourist.
Despite our political persuasions, we can all agree that Washington DC contains a ton of must see sights, history and food. These are my suggestions for when you come to DC as a tourist.
Tour the Monuments
A visit to Washington DC is not complete without touring the monuments. OldTown Trolley tours do the best monument tours in my opinion. They offer tours during the day, at sunset and after dark. As any Washingtonian will tell you, the monuments are even more magical after dark. The tour also stops at several of the monuments and memorials, allowing you to explore more extensively. Guides are knowledgable about the facts of the sites and city and make for a fun tour. After the tour, the driver will even drop you off at your hotel. $35-37 for standard packages
White House Tour
The White House and US Capitol are the unwavering symbols of Washington DC. They are also some must sees during your time in the Capital. White House tours are more difficult to secure, but worth the effort. A few months before your visit, touch base with your House Representative or Senator. They are the only ones able to secure tickets for you to the White House. Offices receive only a certain amount of tickets each month by the White House and give them on a first come, first served basis. Contact your representatives within 6 months of your visit, but no later than 1 month before. Free, but tickets need to be reserved through your representatives office.
Capitol Tours are much easier to secure. Don’t do a tour through the visitor center. Make sure to receive a Capitol tour from someone in your representative’s office for a much more personalized visit. They will also likely point out interesting facts specific to your state. Contact your representative for a tour and they will provide you with available dates and times during your visit. Pro tip: Ask if you can have a dome tour or a tour with access to the back hallways. These are not common nor usually available for security reasons. But, from a former staffer, they are very cool if you are able to secure one. Free, but a time needs to be reserved with your member’s office.
Visit the Museums
Washington DC’s Smithsonian museums are some of the best museums in the nation and are completely free. These sprawling museums are huge, so I suggest only doing two a day. There are 19 museums total and most of them are along the National Mall. There is the Air and Space Museum, several museums of art, Native American History, African American History, American History, Natural History, National Portrait Gallery and the Zoo. My personal favorite is hands down the American History museum. Dorothy’s ruby slippers call the museum home along with an amazing presidential collection and the original Star Spangled Banner. The presidential collection houses the presidential china, first lady’s dresses and an exhibit on presidential assassinations. Plan to do a little bit of research beforehand to choose which museums you’d like to focus on. Free!
The Cherry Blossom festival in DC is famous. Next year, the festival will officially run from March 20th – April 16th, ideally in line with when the cherry blossoms will bloom. However, the trees are fickle and very dependent on the weather. Meaning, they are not always guaranteed to bloom in that time frame. Regardless, the trees are a must see sight. The blooms are a beautiful soft pink and a sweet fragrance fills the air. The largest collection of trees are around the tidal pools, off to the side of the National Mall. During the festival, many people congregate in this area. For the least amount of people traffic, get out to watch the sunrise come up over cherry blossoms. There will be fewer people and better photo ops, plus awesome views of the trees and monuments. Free!
Arlington Cemetery is a solemn visit that I feel is a must during your trip to DC. The cemetery was established during the Civil War on the estate of Robert E. Lee and is now the final resting place of approximately 400,000. The endless rows of white head stones is breathtaking and very reflective. The cemetery contains several memorials. However, the most famous is the tomb of the unknown solider. The tomb has been guarded continuously since 1937. You can witness the changing of the guard ceremony every 30 minutes or hour depending on the time of year.
Take the metro for easy access to the cemetery, it has its own metro stop. I also recommend dedicating several hours at the cemetery if possible. The welcome center provides maps that make a self-guided visit easy. There are also several companies that offer guided tours of the site. I personally have never done this, but it is intriguing because you have someone who knows all the history of the cemetery (and there is a lot!), as well as to ask questions. If going this route, read reviews to make sure that it’s not a circus and maintains a respectful attitude while walking through the cemetery. Pro tip: there is lots of walking, wear comfy shoes. Self-guided tours are free. Tour prices vary
Washington DC contains an abundance of restaurants, some headed by acclaimed chefs. 14th Street NW and U St have some of my favorite restaurants. Nearby Dupont Circle continues to be a restaurant hotspot. Barracks Row near Capitol Hill has now transformed into a foodie mecca. DC has the reputation of being an expensive city. But, that doesn’t need to be the case. The city has high quality restaurant offerings at all different price points without sacrificing atmosphere or food quality. Pro tip: weekend brunches are a DC staple. Make sure to make a reservation if brunching. Prices vary
DC is the unoffical capital of cupcakes. There is an ongoing hot debate on which cupcakes reign supreme: Georgetown Cupcakes, Baked and Wired or Red Velvet Cupcakery. The line for Georgetown Cupcakes usually runs around the block and fans of Baked and Wired and Red Velvet Cupcakery are very vocal. While the fascination for cupcakes is, unfortunately, lost on me, join in on the debate by visiting one or all of the top DC cupcakeries. Prices vary
With all of the government employees in the city, coffee is a staple. Naturally, coffee shops have sprung up all around the city. DC now boasts some of the coolest and best coffee shops. Tryst in Adams Morgan, named the best coffee shop in DC, has wonderful coffee and delicious food. Big Bear Cafe in Bloomingdale has been a DC staple for years. The Royal is a newer addition to the coffee scene. They offer some of the best lattes and breakfasts I’ve had in DC. When I worked for the Senate, my morning ritual was to stop at Cups in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building for a coffee and sausage, egg and cheese croissant. You may even see some Senators!
DC is my favorite place to be when not with family or abroad. The city has so much to offer, whether your thing is history, food or anything in between. As the capital of the US, DC is a must visit location for any traveler and is packed to the brim with things to do.
What are your favorite things to do in DC?