Named after our Nation’s first President, Washington DC was founded in 1791, and since then it has done all it can to preserve the fascinating, age-old landmarks that continue to instill a sense of pride and passion in all who come to visit. While many of its historical gems remain, a few new treasures have surfaced, making our Washington DC bucket list an exciting, and eclectic, mix of the old and new.
1. An obvious must-do sits in our #1 spot, as no visit to DC is complete without seeing the many monuments and memorials that surround the National Mall and the paddle-boat speckled Tidal Basin. Plus there’s something surreal about seeing the many images that filled your 5th grade Social Studies text books come to life! Here are a few of ones you mustn’t go without:
Climb to the top of the Washington Monument:
We highly recommend reserving your tickets online as far in advance as possible, otherwise if you want to journey to the top of this iconic structure, you are forced to get in line as early as 6am to wait for the 8:30am ticket distribution, during which time they will hand out all of the available tickets for the day. And if you don’t get tickets, you can always nap, picnic or just enjoy being in its grand presence:
Watch the sunset at the Jefferson Monument, and be sure to look for the elevator that takes you inside to learn more about the incredible man who authored our Declaration of Independence.
For an even more special experience, visit the monuments at night (Historic Tours of America even offers a Monuments by Moonlight tour).
Search for the misspelling of the word “future” in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (on the north wall) at the Lincoln Monument. Don’t forget to bring a $1 bill and a penny for some fun and creative photo ops:
Don’t ignore the lesser-known monuments and memorials, as each of them will undoubtedly find a way to pull on your heartstrings in their own unique ways. There’s the Titanic Memorial (we have an entirely new understanding of Jack’s “King of the World” move on the bow of the ship), the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, Iwo Jima and many more.
Service started at 6:30am, but we arrived at 5:30 to score a spot on the historic marble steps, while others continued to fill in any open spaces they could find.
3. Time for something sweet? You really just have to go to Baked and Wired to eat the scrumptious, well-sized “cakecups” and drink the smooth and well-caffeinated coffee. I don’t use the word scrumptious often, but it seems highly appropriate here. We were so into eating them that we didn’t feel like getting the big camera out to photograph them… there was simply no time for that, so this is what you get.
4. It really was a treat being able to be in DC as the city bloomed into Spring. Before we knew it, the bold and wintery city had transformed into a pastel spotted, light-pink dusted fairytale land. Next on our list, make a beautiful memory and see Cherry Blossoms bloom (beauty-full post here).
6. Learn more than all of your years of elementary history class combined. Usually Drew and I are against anything that keeps us from navigating the streets by bike or on foot, but we have truly begun to appreciate the rest, wisdom and enjoyment that comes from navigating the streets of town in a sweet, little trolley narrated by one of the friendly, fact-filled Historic Tours of America guides:
The best part is that it’s a hop on, hop off tour, so you can use it to get from one destination to another and if your tour guide points out something interesting, you can go for it! They also have amphibious Duck Tours that literally drive into the Potomac!
7. Visit the White House. Though it’s pretty much as you would imagine it, it’s white and it’s a house, there is something to be said about being able to see the home of your country’s President.
We wanted to take a tour inside the White House, (which is wonderfully free like just about every tour in DC) but after we arrived we learned that tour requests must be submitted through one’s Member of Congress up to six months in advance and no less than 21 days in advance. Though we still enjoyed peering over from the famous sidewalks of 1600 Pennslyvania Avenue, which has been the residence of every U.S. president since John Adams in 1800!
8. For a guaranteed chance to meet the President and his First Lady, hold your tourist card high and head on over to Madame Tussauds where they have wax figures of every US President, ever! It’s actually a lot of fun. You can learn random tidbits like how the White House has 6 levels that contain 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, 147 windows, 412 doors, 28 fireplaces, seven staircases and three elevators! And that George W. Bush was the first US President to ever run in a marathon!
We were shocked to learn that Madame Tussauds (history here) has been around since the 1700’s! Her first wax museum was in London and now there are branches in cities all across the globe, each exhibit reflecting the unique personalities of each destination. It’s a fun place to be a kid… and a big kid too!
9. Our favorite adventure of the entire trip was biking to Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington’s plantation estate, built in the 1600’s, situated along the serene banks of the Potomac River, filled with years of American history and fascinating facts about our country’s first President.
We started from Gravelly Point (free parking!) in Arlington, which offers a lovely view of the city’s monument-adorned skyline, but more notably is situated just 400-feet from the Ronald Reagan Airport runway, making it an epic spot to watch the airplanes land and take off any time of day!
If you don’t have a car, you can start your journey from downtown DC and rent bikes at any one of the many locations, making this a 40-mile journey, along which you can visit Arlington National Cemetery as well. Otherwise, starting from Gravelly Point makes it a relatively level, 30-mile roundtrip adventure, which was just right for us… and by just right we mean pretty near to exhausting (trail map):
The last mile of the trip to Mount Vernon is completely uphill and depending on your stamina, it’s worth noting that there are several Metrorail stations within close proximity to the trail should you need a possible bail-out option for the ride back.
We ended the day watching the sparkling lights of the planes fly over us and Gravelly Point.
10. Even locals have to appreciate the National Mall and the abundance of culture, art, wisdom and entertainment that ooze from the 19 museums, galleries, the National Zoological Park, and nine research facilities that make up the world’s largest museum, The Smithsonian Institution:
See the Hope Diamond, “the most famous diamond in the world” (below) at the National Museum of Natural History, step back in time at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, visit the world’s most visited museum (second only to the Musée du Louvre in Paris) the National Air and Space Museum and admire the incredible collection of ancient masterworks at the National Gallery of Art, famous for being the former site of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station, where 20th president James Garfield was shot in 1881.
Another thing you can’t miss is the unique opportunity to see the Giant Pandas at the National Zoo!
Here’s a fascinating list of Travel and Leisure’s Most visited Museums in the World, including a number of DC gems. If you have the time, another museum that we were told to see is the Newseum.
Bonus: Ending our list with a bang, you have to visit DC during one of it’s many celebrations and watch the fireworks sparkle over the Tidal Basin.
We happened to be in town during the Cherry Blossom Festival, and had front row seats near the Southwest Waterfront Park (where the Titanic Memorial is located). There are a ton of great spots to view the glittering show from, including the aforementioned Gravelly Point, but whatever you do don’t try to bike and watch the show at the same time (the video below gives reason why)….
Hopefully that gave you a good chuckle 🙂 In all honestly, it’s difficult to fit all of the awesomeness that is afforded in Washington DC into one list. So, here are some additional lists we used during our visit and a few things we didn’t have time to fit in that would have loved to:
Eating an iconic bowl of chili at Ben’s Chili Bowl
Exploring and enjoying Virginia’s stunning wine country
Not For Tourists list of the best restaurants in DC by category and price range, SO helpful.
There certainly is no lack of things to do in DC, and hopefully our list will help inspire some monumental moments that will go down in your own personal history, forever.