Why Washington, DC should be on your US to-do list

The White House

If you’re looking for a trip with a difference on the other side of the pond, the east coast of the USA is a must-see. And the first city on your to-do list and this month’s HotSpot has to be the capital city, Washington, DC.

There is so much more to DC than just politics and The White House, although don’t be surprised if you witness at least one demonstration or protest while you’re there. The city is filled with incredible monuments, which are the star attractions, but if you happen to visit during spring, something else will catch your eye.

In the early 20th century, Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo, Japan, gifted over 3,000 cherry trees to the United States, which were planted across the Washington, DC area. To mark the occasion and the blossoming of the cherry trees, there is now an annual three-week long festival each year, attracting over 1.5 million visitors, that ends in a spectacular firework display over the Washington Channel.

If you don’t happen to be visiting DC during the spring, there are plenty of attractions that are worthwhile seeing, and they’re free!

National Mall isn’t a shopping centre, as the name suggests. It’s a 3km/1.9 mile long avenue with monuments and museums that are free to visit, which is particularly handy if you’re traveling solo to budget. It’s also one of America’s most visited national parks. At one end of the Mall is the United States Capitol building, the other, the famous Lincoln Memorial, with Washington Monument in the middle, so plenty of photograph opportunities!

Capitol Building

With so many museums to see, it needn’t be overwhelming to plan what you see first. Just make sure you schedule enough time out of your trip to see everything on your to-do list. I’d advise spending two days exploring the museums and monuments, and that’s from my experience of only dedicating one day and regretting it! 

Downloading the free app, MapsMe, to your smartphone, is a great way to track which museums are near you without walking the entire length of The Mall.

If you enjoy art, the National Gallery of Art, which is the closest attraction to the Capitol building, will leave you feeling like a child in a sweet shop. As a big fan of Impressionism, I was overjoyed to see an original water lilies painting by Claude Monet, as well as a self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh. Alongside the gallery is a sculpture garden, which now has an outdoor ice skating rink.

Alongside the National Gallery are the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of American History, followed by the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Monet Painting

Once you’ve seen the National Museum of African American History and Culture, you’ll come across Washington Monument and a junction of sorts in the park with The White House supposedly nearby. This is where a downloaded map comes in handy, as The White House isn’t as obvious and noticeable as you’d expect. 

Not only is it hidden behind a hill, it’s actually because the building is really quite small. It’s still a bucket list item, no doubt, but the movies really do present the building as a towering monument when it’s really just a two-storey house with high ceilings.

Back on The Mall, you walk a little further and arrive at the iconic stretch of water that leads to the Lincoln Memorial. This isn’t a park you just walk through without taking time to notice your surroundings. The water is called a Reflecting Pool for a reason. This area has memorials to not just for remarkable Americans, but to three wars as well: World War Two, Vietnam and the Korean War. President Abraham Lincoln sits at the helm, and that structure really is towering. It’s one of the most impressive buildings in DC.

View of the Lincoln Memorial

Arrive early at the statue if you want a picture without having to wait for your turn. The view of the National Mall from the top of the steps at the Lincoln Memorial is iconic, and it’s definitely a postcard home moment.

The other side of The mall are the Smithsonian Castle, the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian. You see what I mean by needing two days!

Another way to see The Mall much quicker than on foot is by hiring a bicycle. This inexpensive form of transport has bike racks at different points across the city, allowing you to check the bike back in when you’re ready to give up the wheels. An easy route using the cycle paths is from the Capitol building, all the way down to the Lincoln Memorial, then around East Potomac Park to see the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and the Tidal Basin. This is another monument that you see in a lot of movies.

The Pentagon is just outside of Washington and is easy to get to. The building is huge, and alongside it is the thought-provoking 9/11 memorial. You can get to the Pentagon using the yellow Metro line, but allow plenty of time to travel. The trains aren’t as frequent as to what we’re used to on the London Underground, so if you’re in a rush, a taxi may be the quicker, albeit more expensive, option.

Arlington National Cemetery, which is across the Potomac River and accessible using the Metro, is a burial ground for military personnel. Although it’s probably more known for being the resting place of President John F. Kennedy, with his brother Robert F. Kennedy and his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis nearby. Tours around the cemetery cost $15.

If you still have time to spare, the historic Georgetown is easily accessible by bus from The Mall. Perhaps more currently known for its university, Georgetown Main Street is well worth a visit, with independent boutiques and a cupcake shop (Georgetown Cupcake) you’ll need to queue up around the block for.

Washington, DC, is perfect for travelling solo, particularly with all the public transport available and hostels costing as little as £25 a night. Hotels are plentiful too, if you want that little bit of luxury and privacy. Don’t stop your east coast tour there. Hop on a Megabus, Greyhound coach or train and head north to Philadelphia, New York or Boston.

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