Discovering the Historical Marvels of Washington DC
Tips and Guides, Historical Attractions and Locations, Washington, D.C.,
There’s no doubt about it. Washington, D.C., capital of the United States of America, is one of the world’s greatest destinations for fascinating historical sites. The USA may be a fairly young country with its founding dating back to 1776, but its capital city is replete with historical attractions that must be visited during your trip. From presidential memorials to public offices, from obelisks to museums, there’s a wealth of history to uncover. So before your next visit to the area on a to the USA, make sure you read our introductory guide to discovering Washington, D.C.’s historical marvels.
The National Mall and beyond
Washington, D.C.’s National Mall is truly a one-stop shop for historical sites, populated with fascinating memorials, monuments, and museums. Before diving deeper into what’s available at the mall, a representative of – DC’s official destination marketing organisation – spoke to us about what’s on offer at the mall and also recommended sites to visit beyond:
“The National Mall is a must for first-time visitors. This is where you can find the U.S. Capitol, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, as well as other monuments. Additionally, this is where you can find nine of the Smithsonian museums including the popular and the newest .
“Off the Mall, I would encourage visitors to visit the city’s unique neighbourhoods or the , home to the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, a stunning collection of legendary, miniature Japanese and Chinese trees. The in Anacostia is also a fascinating place.”
Washington, D.C. features a cornucopia of historical sites revolving around its presidents and politicians and one of the most iconic is the – a monument to the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is a towering figure in US history and it’s fitting that his memorial (completed in 1922) is such a colossal structure.
Lincoln’s most famous speeches (his Second Inaugural Address and the Gettysburg Address) are both etched on the walls of the memorial, adding another fascinating facet to the site. With 36 columns supporting its structure – one for each state of the union at the time – and lit up at night for an even more dramatic experience, the Lincoln Memorial, located at the western end of the National Mall, is a must-visit.
Image credit: Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress
For a little more insight into the importance of the Lincoln Memorial, we spoke to the , who further explained why the memorial has to be visited: “With nearly eight million visitors a year, the Lincoln Memorial is the most visited national park in the nation’s capital. For visitors from around the world, a visit to the memorial to see the enormous statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln and the engraved Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address is a required part of any visit to Washington, D.C.
“But beyond merely a marble and granite monument to America’s 16th president, the Lincoln Memorial continues to resonate with its message of equality for all Americans. From Marian Anderson to Martin Luther King, the message of the Gettysburg Address that we are a nation ‘dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’ has been amplified over the years at this iconic symbol of our nation and our ideals.”
Another world-famous structure that stands tall in DC’s National Mall is the , a giant obelisk dedicated to the revolutionary general, founding father, and the first president of America, George Washington. The world’s tallest stone structure, the Washington Monument stands at 555 feet and is known the world over as a symbol of freedom. Visitors can ride to the top observation deck and experience the incredible 360-degree views of the city. Built between 1848 and 1888 (with pauses in between due to a lack of funds and the American Civil War), this hollow Egyptian-style obelisk is truly a sight to see in person and an essential visit for all those interested in American history. And should you have any questions about the monument, National Park Service rangers are on hand to help throughout the day,
Arlington National Cemetery
The final resting place of more than 400,000 active duty service members, veterans, and their families, is a truly moving and peaceful historical location. Arlington has a fascinating history beyond being a memorial to the many individuals buried there. The cemetery once belonged to George Washington Parke Custis, who was the step-grandson of George Washington. Arlington was willed to his daughter Mary in 1857 who married then U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Robert E. Lee. During the Civil War, troops used the land as a headquarters, constructing forts for DC’s defence – the grounds were eventually sold to the government and became a national cemetery in 1864. Arlington National Cemetery welcomes visitors to explore the grounds and the rich history that resides there. Tours are available, which includes stops at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, Arlington House, and the gravesite of President John F. Kennedy.
National World War II Memorial
Image credit: Friends of the National World War II Memorial and James Shaver
Another important historical site and location of meaning to America’s troops is the National World War II Memorial. Yet another must-see location found on the National Mall, the memorial was opened in 2004, dedicated by President George W. Bush to Americans who served in the armed forces and as civilians during the Second World War. The site consists of 56 pillars and a pair of arches that surround a beautiful fountain.
is an organisation dedicated to honouring the collective national memory of the Second World War and sponsors a number of important lectures and conferences on the subject. Speaking about the memorial, the founder of Friends says that: “Since its dedication in 2004 it has been quietly taking its place as one of the nation’s historic icons on the National Mall with growing warm public acceptance and acclaim from all quarters and especially from WWII Veterans.
“Since its opening, the Memorial has become a ‘must’ destination for visitors coming from all over the country and even from abroad.” Friends’ founder also says that “For Veterans of WWII, the Memorial is a special destination. Official WWII commemorative and celebratory wreath-laying events at the Memorial are held throughout the year. As the National Parks Service’s private partner for the WWII Memorial, Friends has the lead responsibility for planning, staging, and funding these events.”
Continuing in describing the memorial, the founder of the Friends of the National WWII Memorial says that “for many, the glory of the Memorial is its location. From its ceremonial entrance and throughout the Memorial, visitors can see before them, and in the distance, three centuries of American history. To the east down the Mall’s greensward, one sees the white dome of the Capitol, closer the towering Washington Monument, and to the west, down the Reflecting Pool, the Lincoln Memorial in all its majestic glory.”
The White House
Of course, no trip to Washington, D.C. would be complete without first visiting the White House. Perhaps the most famous house in the world, the is the seat of the US’s executive office and has been home to every American president since John Adams in 1800. With construction starting in 1792 and being reconstructed after the War of 1812 when the mansion was burnt by the British Army (the last time the US mainland was occupied by a foreign force), the White House can be found on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Acting as the place of residence for the current First Family and also home to the West Wing (the offices for the president’s staff and location of the Oval Office), a tour of the White House – arranged for foreign visitors via your embassy in DC – is a great opportunity to learn more about perhaps the most important political office in the world.
Image credit: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection
(the place to be in DC for Byzantine and Pre-Columbian history) truly has it all when it comes to historical fascination and being a fantastic place to visit. Not only does Dumbarton Oaks welcome researchers to study its books, documents, objects, and images, but the public is able to visit its historic garden, incredible art collections, museum, and much more. The team at Dumbarton Oaks spoke to us about their history and what people can expect to enjoy upon visiting:
“Dumbarton Oaks is a must-visit site in Washington, DC because of its rich history and the beauty of the Museum and Garden. The Federal-style home was built in 1801 and acquired by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss in 1920. The Blisses were collectors of art and patrons of art, music, and the humanities. Mildred Bliss worked closely with renowned landscape designer Beatrix Farrand to transform the land surrounding the house into a terraced garden with numerous vistas, which is open to the public Tuesday - Sunday, 2 – 6 pm. The Blisses also added to the house to construct the existing museum space, which includes the Renaissance-inspired Music Room, the modernist Pre-Columbian Gallery, designed by Philip Johnson, and the elegant Byzantine Gallery. The museum is open to the public Tuesday - Sunday, 11:30 am – 5:30 pm.
Image credit: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection
“The Dumbarton Oaks contains the Byzantine Collection, one of the finest collections of artefacts from the Byzantine Empire with more than twelve hundred objects from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries. The Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art is housed in the Pre-Columbian Pavilion, designed by architect Philip Johnson. This collection comprises objects from the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica, the Intermediate Area, and the Andes. The House Collection consists primarily of the historic interiors, Asian, European and American artworks, and interior furnishings.
“The Dumbarton Oaks Garden is a stunningly beautiful formal garden, composed of a series of distinct garden ‘rooms’. Our has even more information and images. Farrand designed the Garden to be beautiful in every season and depending on the time of year, visitors will see different plants appropriate to the season. Some highlights include the Rose Garden, which contains approximately nine hundred roses in a scheme that is dictated by colour, and the Herbaceous Border – large flowerbeds exploding with colour the whole year round.”
President Lincoln’s Cottage
Image credit: President Lincoln’s Cottage
As mentioned earlier, Abraham Lincoln is a titanic figure of American history and beyond visiting his memorial, those wanting to learn more about the former president should certainly make the 3.5-mile journey from downtown DC to – a trip that Abe would often make himself via horseback. The cottage acted as Lincoln’s country getaway/summer White House and this is the very location where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation (an executive order that legally freed more than three million slaves).
There’s so much to enjoy at President Lincoln’s Cottage, referred to as a ‘museum of ideas’. With intimate tours available, public programmes, and a permanent exhibit on Lincoln, history lovers are in for a real treat. If you want to learn more about Lincoln, this is a great place to do so as the tours place the president’s ideas and experiences in the context of the conflict that would define his presidency.
Image credit: President Lincoln’s Cottage
Telling us a little more about this fascinating historical location, the team at President Lincoln’s Cottage said: “President Lincoln’s Cottage is a must-see for any Lincoln or history lover. Did you know that Lincoln and his family spent every June to November of his presidency on a shady, green hilltop just three miles north of the White House? It is the only place the public can experience the history of Abraham Lincoln’s public and private life where he lived and worked for over a quarter of his presidency. While in residence at the cottage, Lincoln visited with wounded soldiers and spent time with self-emancipated men, women and children.
“The Cottage was built for banker George W. Riggs, starting in 1842. Architect John Skirving designed the house, situated on a hilltop overlooking downtown Washington, in the Gothic-Revival style popularised by A.J. Downing. In 1851, the estate was purchased by the Federal Government, for the purpose of building a home for veteran soldiers.”
Image credit: Maxwell MacKenzie
Another wonderful attraction that celebrates the legacy of Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C. is actually situated at the scene of the president’s assassination. It was at where Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth in 1865 while attending a play and today the theatre is a must-visit tribute to the man and also a place to catch a performance or two. Ford’s Theatre spoke to us about what visitors can expect to discover:
“Through its inspiring theatrical productions, live historic interpretation and engaging educational programmes, Ford’s Theatre is the premier destination in the nation’s capital for all audiences to explore and celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s ideas and leadership principles. The site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Ford’s Theatre is not only a national historic site and museum but also a functioning theatre exploring the American experience through classic plays, musicals and new works. In addition to our theatrical productions (September - May), we also offer One Destiny, a one-act play about the fateful night of April 14, 1865 (March – June), and Investigation: Detective McDevitt, a walking tour of downtown Washington, D.C., that explores sites related to the Lincoln assassination conspiracy (March – October).
“A visit to our site today begins in our Museum, where visitors can see rare artefacts from the Lincoln assassination, follow Lincoln’s presidency and learn about the conspiracy. Visitors then continue to the historic theatre, where they can hear a National Park Service ranger talk about the events of April 14, 1865, go on a self-guided tour or attend a one-act play about the assassination. Visitors then cross the street to see the Petersen House, where Lincoln died. A visit ends in the Aftermath Exhibits, which explore Lincoln’s funeral train from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, John Wilkes Booth's escape, and the trial of the conspirators.”
Heurich House Museum
Image credit: Heurich House Museum
Preserving the legacy of Christian Heurich, the is a gilded age house in the Dupont Circle neighbourhood of Washington, D.C. One of the very few surviving houses from the time, Heurich House is a remarkable time capsule and a fascinating historical site to visit in order to get a better understanding of how people lived at the turn of the 20th century. Talking to us about what makes it such a must-see DC attraction, the team at Heurich House Museum said:
“The Heurich House Museum tells the history of Washington, DC from the perspective of the people who lived in the city. Christian Heurich was an immigrant to the United States in 1866 and chose to settle in the nation's capital where he built his thriving brewery business and raised his family. The Heurich House Museum gives visitors a chance to see what Washington, DC was like for a hard-working immigrant in the 1800s and early 1900s. Featuring original furnishings and decor, the museum is the most intact Gilded Age home in the area.”
And regarding the home’s history and the specifics of what visitors can look forward to, Heurich House Museum told us: “The Heurich House Museum was built between 1892 and 1894. It is the first fire-proof residence in Washington, DC and features many pieces of advanced technology for its time, such as indoor plumbing, electricity, and a central heating system. Built as the family home of Christian and Amelia Heurich, it served as their residence in the city, where Christian had established the Chr. Heurich Brewing Co. His brewing company would go on to be the last production brewery operating in Washington, DC after Prohibition. Christian himself ran the brewery until he passed away in 1945 at the age of 102.
“ of the museum include the first floor, used by visitors and guests of the Heurich family, the second-floor family bedroom spaces, and the basement level kitchen and beer drinking room. Visitors to the museum can see the home on a guided, docent-led tour or one of our twice-monthly Brewmaster Tours which incorporate a guided beer tasting during your docent-led tour. Other events are held at the museum throughout the year, including Frühlingsfest, Oktoberfest, and a large German-inspired Christkindlmarkt in early December.”
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Image credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
While certainly a sombre location to visit, for those wanting to learn more about the Holocaust and who would like to experience one of the most important historical attractions in DC, spending some time at the is an absolute must. The museum features a number of fascinating and moving exhibitions, including the three-floor, self-guided permanent exhibition called ‘The Holocaust’, which includes personal objects and eyewitness testimonies; the museum’s newest special exhibition entitled ‘Americans and the Holocaust’, which examines America’s response to the rise of Nazism in Germany with never-before-seen artefacts, and also the museum’s primary exhibition for young people and their families, ‘Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story’, which presents a family’s experiences during the Holocaust from a young boy’s perspective in Nazi Germany – suitable for visitors eight years and over.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum spoke to us about the importance of this must-visit historical site: “The Holocaust was a watershed moment in human history. Visiting the museum is not only an opportunity to memorialise the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators - and the millions of other victims of Nazi persecution - but to ask ourselves, ‘Why?’ Why did this happen in the heart of European civilisation, in the most advanced, educated nation in the world at the time? Why did Germany’s young democracy fail? Why did so many people do nothing while their neighbours, co-workers and friends were targeted for persecution and eventually genocide?
“Since its dedication in 1993, the Museum has welcomed more than 43 million visitors, including 99 heads of state and more than ten million school-age children. The Museum provides powerful lessons in the fragility of freedom, the myth of progress, and the need for vigilance in preserving democratic values. These lessons are timeless and continue to resonate today.”
The National Museum of American History
Monuments, summer retreats, and seats of elected office aren’t the only way to discover history in Washington, D.C., of course, as museums also play an important role in showcasing the nation’s journey. is part of the world-famous Smithsonian Institution and is yet another historical treasure trove found at the National Mall. Showcasing more than 126 million artefacts, the museum attracts millions of visitors a year and was opened to the public in 1964 as the Museum of History and Technology before being renamed in 1980. With exhibitions covering topics from food history to religion and from women’s history to innovation, and display items such as a 34 star US flag from the 1800s, and a portrait of John Hancock from 1775, there is something at the National Museum of American History to suit everyone’s interests.
Washington, D.C.’s historical sites
We hope you enjoyed this cursory glimpse into the many incredible historical sites available in Washington, D.C. Of course, there is so much more to discover upon your visit and for a longer list of historical sites available, please see below:
- Lincoln Memorial
- Washington Monument
- Arlington National Cemetery
- The White House
- Dumbarton Oaks
- President Lincoln’s Cottage
- Ford’s Theatre
- The National Museum of American History
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- National World War II Memorial
- Heurich House Museum
- U.S. Capitol and Library of Congress
- Vietnam Veterans Memorial
- National Gallery of Art
- Tidal Basin
- National Archives Museum
- Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
- Washington National Cathedral
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial