Top Ten Things to do in Washington DC: Part One

Thanks to Alyssa and Eric’s beautiful wedding, we were able to spend a little over five days in Washington DC back in May. We had been looking forward to this trip all winter and spring and couldn’t wait to plan our time there and celebrate our sweet friends. Back in February, I ordered a few travel books from Amazon; Lonely Planet and Frommer’s are always two of my favorites. I also started following a few DC travel blogs and social media accounts to start getting restaurant recommendations. Not going to lie, finding places to eat is probably my favorite part about planning a vacation. We also did some research on different areas for a potential Airbnb before we eventually found a great apartment in Dupont Circle.

Spring came up pretty quickly this year thanks to Fiesta Arts Fair, so despite having read about so many different sites in DC throughout the winter, I really didn’t get to start planning or trying to book things until a couple of weeks before the wedding. I’ll share a little later where this caused a few problems, but overall it all worked out just fine (thankfully we had booked our flights and Airbnb further out). We were able to pack in a ton of sightseeing during our trip to DC, but even five days wasn’t enough time to get to everything we had hoped to see. I guess we’ll just have to go back for another vacation, right? We saw six of the monuments and memorials. Visited eight museums. Walked over 40 miles. Ate at Shake Shack three times. And we loved every minute of it.


I get just a little nerdy about planning trips

Given my love for lists, I’ve decided to share our top ten favorite things to do in Washington DC instead of a day-by-day recap which would take forever to finish (I’m already almost three months behind… whoops). To help make it even easier, I’m actually going to break this down into two different posts so it doesn’t take me two more months to complete it. So here’s the first half of our top ten list, in no particular order.

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1. Visit the monuments, especially at night

We landed in Washington DC’s Reagan Airport on a Wednesday afternoon. We quickly dropped our bags off at our Airbnb apartment, spent some time at the National Portrait Gallery before meeting Alyssa and Eric for some delicious pizza at Matchbox, and then went to see a few of the monuments before calling it a night. Y’all. If I was told I could only see the monuments once during a trip to DC, it would definitely be at night. The lighting around each of them is incredible and gives them an even more majestic air, or at least it did for me. After visiting the National Mall that evening, I’m convinced that nothing beats walking up to the Lincoln Memorial as the sun is setting. We were completely speechless when we first saw this memorial, which was so much larger than we had anticipated. It’s pretty incredible to stand inside a memorial that has been around for almost 100 years, looking up at a 19-foot marble statue of Abraham Lincoln. We spent most of our time that evening at the Lincoln Memorial reading two of his famous speeches inscribed on the walls (Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address) before walking to the Vietnam Memorial and World War II Memorial. Seeing the Vietnam Memorial was very sobering; the simplicity of the design makes you focus on the endless rows of names as the wall grows in height. We then ended the night by the Washington Monument. Honestly, it was the perfect way to kick off our trip to the nation’s capital. It was also extremely safe, there were lots of people around as well as park rangers throughout the area (and plenty of high school kids on field trips running around like crazy). The weather on Friday was absolutely perfect, so we went back out to the monuments to see them on a clear, sunny day.

Another fun way to see the monuments is by paddle boat in the Tidal Basin. We were able to do this on Thursday and loved the views of the monuments from the water. According to my Garmin watch, we paddled around for a mile, which totally justified getting dessert later that evening.

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The Lincoln Memorial


The Lincoln Memorial


I really love the Reflecting Pool placed between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial

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World War II Memorial with the Lincoln Memorial in the background


View of the Lincoln Memorial from the World War II Memorial

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2. Washington Monument elevator tour

The Washington Monument was one of my favorite highlights to our time in DC. I actually got a little choked up when we drove by it one final time on our last day before heading to the airport. It’s a beautiful landmark that you can see throughout the city and became a familiar beacon while we were there. You can even see it from Arlington National Cemetery. At 555 feet tall, the Washington Monument is the tallest building in the city as well as the world’s tallest stone structure and the world’s tallest obelisk. One thing we were really surprised by was the history behind the monument; construction was privately funded and actually came to a stop in 1854. When construction picked back up in 1877, the marble had to be sourced from a new location. If you look carefully (or even not that carefully, it’s pretty easy to see!), you will notice a difference in the color of the marble after the first 150 feet.

While you can walk around the Washington Monument at any time, they also offer tickets for an elevator ride up to the top. On a clear day, you can see into Maryland and Virginia from the observation windows. Tickets are available for timed-entry tours every 30 minutes from 9am to 5pm. You can purchase these tickets for a small fee online (these were already booked when we checked a couple weeks in advance), or you can wait in line the day of and get one of the 500 available tickets for free, which is what we did. The ticket office opened at 8:30, so Chip was there a little before 7:30 and there were already over 200 people ahead of him. Now, each person can get up to six tickets, so there were a lot of tour groups ahead of him in line getting tickets in bulk. This meant that by the time Chip got to the front of the line, all the slots we wanted were booked. Not exaggerating here, but the person right in front of Chip got the last two tickets for the slot we had wanted. We really wanted a late afternoon tour since we were going to spend the first half of the day at the zoo, so the best option he had was getting one ticket for 3:00. Definitely not ideal, but Chip thought it would be better for me to go up on my own and get a bunch of pictures than to try again another day when rain was in the forecast which meant the views wouldn’t be as good. Thankfully, when we got to the Washington Monument for the tour, one of the park rangers saw Chip was having to stay behind and let him come along with me. Seriously, all of the park rangers we interacted with were incredibly kind of eager to share the city’s history with visitors. The views from the top of the monument were incredible, it was definitely worth the effort to get tickets. There was also a lot of information about the construction of the monument on the top floor, including a list of repairs that took place after an earthquake in 2011.

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3.  United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Holocaust Museum was at the top of my list of places to visit in DC. Chip took some convincing, he wasn’t sure he would be able to handle just how incredibly sad that visit would be, but in the end it turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip for the both of us. While almost all of the museums in DC don’t require advanced tickets, this one does for its permanent exhibition. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of our planning took place weeks before this trip. By that point, all of the tickets for the permanent exhibition had been reserved for the five days we would be in town. I can’t tell you how bummed I was about this. We decided to still visit to see which other exhibitions we would have access to as walk-ins and to check if there were any leftover tickets for the permanent exhibition.

We spoke with one of the docents at the museum and shared that we were from out of town and had really hoped to get tickets to the permanent exhibition. We asked if they had any available for us to pick up in person for any of the five days we would be in DC since all of the online tickets had been reserved. This kind old gentleman looked at us and asked if we could go right then. I figured he hadn’t understood us correctly and reminded him that we couldn’t go then since we didn’t have tickets. After a quick “No… Can you go see it now?…” we realized he was holding out two tickets for us to take right then. We were so touched that he was giving us these tickets, we couldn’t take them fast enough. We got in line for the exhibition and spent most of the next two and a half hours in complete silence. The exhibition begins with an identification booklet given to each guest with the name and story of a person from the Holocaust. As you go through each floor of the exhibition, you read the next page of the booklet. By the end of the exhibition, you learn the fate of the individual. I’m so glad this is a ticketed exhibition as it helps keep the size of the crowd under control. I can’t imagine getting to see and read as much as we did if they didn’t limit the number of guests.

The exhibition covers the entirety of the Holocaust. It starts with videos and displays explaining the rise of the Nazi party, which was so chilling to see. It also highlighted the various ghettos people were forced to live in before being transported to concentration camps. We were able to see a cobblestone street from one of these ghettos, as well as read stories about the different ways Jews living in these ghettos would try to revolt against the Nazis. It was so eerie to walk through a dark train car, similar to the ones used to deport Jews from the ghettos to the concentration camps, and then pass under a sign used at an entrance to one of the camps. For me, one of the hardest rooms was one filled with shoes. These shoes were from the 4,000 Jews killed at one of the concentration camps. I couldn’t even wrap my head around the math of it. This room had shoes for 4,000 Jews; that is tragically just .06% (yes, less than 1%) of the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust.

There is a really incredible room towards the end of the exhibition on the last floor. There is a white wall in the middle of the room filled with the names of individuals known to have helped hide and save Jewish people during the Holocaust. Some of these names included stories of the work they did, and after seeing so much darkness in the exhibition, these stories filled me with hope.

We spent about two and a half hours at the permanent exhibition, and even with that amount of time, we had to rush through certain sections. We decided to go back again another day to check out the featured exhibitions. We were able to get a docent led tour for Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story and Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust. While the permanent exhibition was by far my favorite at this museum, these two were also really informative. Daniel’s Story told the experiences of a child who survived the Holocaust through journal entries. It was heartbreaking to read, but also a really relatable way for younger audiences to learn about the Holocaust. Some Were Neighbors was chilling for different reasons. It was frightening to see how the actions of individuals impacted the lives of others; whether someone chose to turn a blind eye to the injustice of the time, or if they chose to help friends or strangers and ultimately save a life.

Following these two exhibitions, our docent actually let us into the permanent exhibition, which allowed us to revisit some areas we had rushed through previously.

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4. The National Museum of American History

The Museum of American History was possibly our favorite of all the Smithsonian museums. There is so much in this museum that covers American history, from the original flag that inspired the National Anthem, to an exhibit of dresses worn by the First Ladies, to pop culture artifacts. There really is something for everyone at this museum. Other highlights included a portion of the Berlin Wall, items family members have left for loved ones at the Vietnam Memorial, a collection of steel from the World Trade Center, Julia Child’s kitchen, the hat Abraham Lincoln wore the night he was assassinated, George Washington’s portrait uniform, Dorothy’s ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz, Muhammed Ali’s boxing gloves alongside Apolo Anton Ohno’s speed skates, and an exhibition on the American enterprise. It was a fun surprise to see in the enterprise exhibition a picture of my former employer, Ernest Bromley.

There was a poster on display for a new exhibition opening up in the summer of 2018. I’m not sure all it will cover, but there was a picture of Celia Cruz so I’ve already told Chip we will be going back!

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5. National Portrait Gallery

We visited the National Portrait Gallery our first night in DC. We spent a little bit of time on the first floor checking out the recent acquisitions hall before going straight up to the American Presidents exhibition. This was another one of our top Smithsonian experiences. We took our time walking through the gallery space; it almost felt like we were traveling through time starting with the first presidents and ending with George W. Bush’s portrait. This exhibition is the nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House, and I have to admit… there were a few presidents I had completely forgotten about. Sorry, Millard Fillmore. It’s nothing personal. In all seriousness, it was inspiring to be reminded of all the presidents who have served our country (whether I personally liked them or not) and also really interesting to see the difference in artistic styles between all of the presidential portraits.

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Part two of our top ten list will be up soon!

2 thoughts on “Top Ten Things to do in Washington DC: Part One

  1. Pingback: Washington DC: Honorable Mentions | the nance familia

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