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Your Ultimate Guide to Exploring Washington D.C.

When I think of Washington, D.C., visions of The White House and other iconic buildings and memorials come to mind. Having attended college and graduate school in the heart of DC, and with my husband stationed nearby at Andrews Air Force Base, we’ve been eagerly planning a trip back to show our kids a piece of our past. Although life and the COVID-19 pandemic posed challenges, we finally had the opportunity to visit. With two teenagers in tow, one of whom can now vote, I quickly realized their limited knowledge about DC. One daughter even asked if she should pack a swimsuit for the reflecting pool, while the other thought we were going shopping at the National Mall. It became clear that I needed a well-organized plan that combined sightseeing with fun activities to keep them engaged. Since we had only four days, including ten hours of travel time, I wanted to ensure we experienced all the highlights. Drawing from my six years of living in the city, where I had seen everything except Ford’s Theatre, I crafted the perfect itinerary.

Washington, D.C. is a very walkable city, but be prepared for long days on your feet. By the end of each day, my FitBit was celebrating with fireworks TWICE, having recorded over 20,000 steps. To prevent my kids from complaining about their tired feet, we decided to grab scooters on the first day and zip around the city. Although bicycles and e-bikes were available, the scooters won the popular vote within our family. With a simple process of grabbing one, downloading the app, and paying with a credit card, off we went. The experience was truly exhilarating. I cannot emphasize enough how much fun we had scootering around the monuments. Twenty years from now, we will undoubtedly cherish the memories of this unique adventure.

A good thing to know is the scooters do not work in the immediate monument area, as they start beeping to warn you they’re going to stop, but you can get close and then continue exploring on foot. Once the beeping ceases, it’s your cue to hop back on and ride to your next destination. Our journey began at the Washington Monument, and we glided around the tidal basin, marveling at the Jefferson Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Along the way, we unexpectedly encountered a DC bonus, an intersection closed off with an unusual police presence. As a DC resident, I knew what was coming, so I instructed my family to start filming with their phones. They were thrilled and shocked to witness the Presidential motorcade drive by once the roads cleared. Continuing our adventure, we visited the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, and World War II Memorial. While crisscrossing the National Mall, we were also given a glimpse of The White House.

One of my favorite places to visit in all my years living in DC is Arlington National Cemetery. Although some may find it macabre, it is a repository of history and the final resting place for over 400,000 service members and their families. Before becoming a cemetery, it was the residence of George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington and adopted grandson of our first President. To ensure we didn’t miss out on this experience, we purchased tickets a few days in advance. While my family is usually active, I decided a trolley tour would be more engaging for our first visit to the 639-acre rolling hills of Arlington National Cemetery. The trolley not only pointed out notable graves but allowed us to hop on and off, spending as much time as we desired in each spot. We paused at the graves of the Kennedy clan, including John, Jacqueline, Edward, and Robert, witnessed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (a must-see), and toured Arlington House, also known as the Custis-Lee Mansion.

When it comes to museums, Washington, D.C. spoils you with options. The best part? Admission is free! With over 19 Smithsonian museums to choose from, including the zoo, there’s something to captivate everyone’s interest. While I have visited almost all of them, due to our limited time, we focused on the Air and Space Museum, American History Museum, and Natural History Museum. I recommend reviewing the museum list and tailoring your trip based on your personal interests.

During our visit to the National Museum of American History, while admiring the original flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner,” my daughter surprised me with a question: “Where’s the original Constitution?” It dawned on me that I had forgotten about the National Archives Museum, which houses the original 1297 Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. Thankfully, it was a short walk away, and we made an unexpected detour. This museum is an absolute must-see and we were fortunate to meet a volunteer docent who eagerly answered all the historical questions my daughter had about our founding fathers.

Although we strolled around the historic Capitol Hill area without taking official tours or exploring the interior of the buildings on this particular trip, we have already made plans to do so on our next visit. For those interested, you can secure tickets to tour the U.S. Capitol through the Capitol Visitor Center or by contacting your state representatives or senators’ offices. Since we arrived later in the day when everything was closed, we took selfies and walked past the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. We then headed to nearby Union Station, where we enjoyed dinner before taking the metro back to our hotel.

On our way back home, I insisted we make a detour to visit my favorite memorial, which I had only known as the Iwo Jima Memorial. To my surprise, its true name is the Marine Corps War Memorial. When you see it, you’ll recognize it instantly—it’s based on the iconic photo of soldiers raising the U.S. flag on the island of Iwo Jima. While you can reach it via the metro, we opted to drive since parking was available. As an added bonus, the memorial provides a panoramic view of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and the Capitol Building. On our journey back, we also caught glimpses of the Kennedy Center and the Pentagon.

Here are a few suggestions to enhance your visit:

  1. Check the Smithsonian Museums‘ website and reserve timed tickets a few days ahead, even though admission is free. I learned this the hard way and almost missed out on visiting the Air and Space Museum. Fortunately, they offer same-day tickets at 8:30 am, and I managed to secure them in time.
  2. Plan your meals in advance. Dining options in the city can be limited, so it’s advisable to decide on your dining plans for each day and call ahead to make reservations. We learned this lesson when we found ourselves famished and had to wait for over an hour at a few restaurants.
  3. Comfortable shoes are a must! Washington, D.C. is a fantastic city to explore on foot, allowing you to stumble upon random monuments and buildings that you wouldn’t encounter otherwise. So make sure you wear shoes that will keep your feet happy throughout the day.
  4. Witness the magic of the monuments both during the day and at night. Watching the sunset from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and seeing the monuments illuminated in the evening is truly enchanting. Although we didn’t do it ourselves, consider purchasing tickets for nighttime tours of DC for an even more captivating experience.

5. There are various ways to tour the city, including trolleys, double-decker buses, bikes, segways, private SUVs, and walking tours. While my family didn’t require a guided tour due to my previous residency in DC, it might be an excellent option for you. Explore the internet, read reviews, and choose the mode of transportation that suits your preferences best. During our time at the Jefferson Memorial, I had an enlightening conversation with a bike tour guide. If I hadn’t been a resident, I would have definitely signed up.

6. Lastly, remember to take a deep breath and accept that you won’t be able to see everything in one trip. I can’t believe but I still haven’t seen the inside of Ford’s Theatre. But that’s okay, as it gives us something to look forward to on our next excursion.

We recommend Big Bus Tours for your first day in Washington D.C. It gives you the opportunity to see the capital’s legendary landmarks on their Hop-on, Hop-off Washington DC Big Bus Tour! It’s the perfect introduction to the city and you’ll get some great photo opportunities of some iconic landmarks from the top deck of the bus.


For accommodations, the best choice depends on your travel preferences. You can fly into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Washington Dulles International Airport, or Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. We initially considered taking the Amtrak train to Union Station and staying in a hotel in DC to avoid the hassle of parking our car. However, we ended up driving and staying on the outskirts, where we could conveniently park our car in the hotel garage. We chose the Bethesda Hyatt Regency Hotel because it was located just a few steps away from a metro station. The metro became our primary mode of transportation, efficiently taking us to all the places we wanted to visit. When purchasing metro cards, keep in mind that each person needs their own card, as charges are based on the distance traveled. The metro system is user-friendly, and there are always metro employees available at the stations to assist with any questions. However, be aware that the metro does not operate 24 hours, so make sure to check the schedule to avoid being stranded in the city after midnight.

As for dining options, my husband and I follow a vegan diet, which can sometimes pose challenges. We need to research and plan in advance. Since we were driving, we packed a cooler with breakfast foods and snacks, keeping them refrigerated in our hotel room. Each day, we refilled the cooler with ice from the hotel’s ice machine, as we only had a mini-fridge. We also requested a microwave for our room, which proved to be incredibly convenient for heating up our morning oatmeal. This approach worked well for us and helped us save money, considering the expensive dining options we found within the city. For lunch, we often chose the museum cafes as they usually offered healthier choices. On one occasion, we enjoyed a vegan meal from a food cart located outside the museum.

Washington, D.C. offers a wealth of historical, cultural, and educational experiences. With careful planning, comfortable footwear, and an open mind, you can embark on a memorable journey through the nation’s capital. From the iconic monuments and memorials to the renowned Smithsonian Museums, the city captivates visitors with its rich history and vibrant energy. So, take your time, embrace the adventure, and savor every moment as you explore the wonders of Washington, D.C.

July 31, 2023

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