Best Attractions in Washington, D.C.
In a city with dozens of attractions, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time. Here are the highlights for this destination, as chosen by AAA editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”
Things to Do in Washington: Start at Smithsonian
By Greg Weekes
When deciding among things to do in Washington, D.C., consider the Smithsonian Institution museums—all AAA GEM attractions—that are as good a beginning point as any to launch a Washington sightseeing itinerary. There are 11 conveniently clustered along the National Mall. Everyone will have their preferences, of course, but you can't go wrong stopping at the National Air and Space Museum . Displays range from the vintage (the Wright Brothers' 1903 Flyer) to the barrier breaking (lunar surface exploration vehicles and all sorts of rockets).
The latest addition to the Smithsonian lineup is the National Museum of African American History & Culture (just across 14th Street from the Mall). A look at the American story from an African American viewpoint, it showcases the richness and diversity of the African American experience. You'll see everything from Harriet Tubman's personal hymnal to Chuck Berry's red Cadillac convertible at the Smithsonian's 19th museum.
AAA/Photo submitted by Brooke Holt
You might want to tackle the National Museum of American History by concentrating on an area of personal interest rather than trying to take it all in at one time. Definitely see the state-of-the-art display gallery for the Star-Spangled Banner and the American Stories exhibition, a collection of historical artifacts and pop culture ephemera that includes everything from a fragment of Plymouth Rock to Dorothy's ruby red slippers. Also check out the artifact walls, glass-fronted cases displaying a rotating collection of objects (everything under the sun). With such a variety of exhibits, this is a great group travel destination and a must if you're looking for fun things to do with friends.
Butterflies and Art
Next door is the National Museum of Natural History , which offers an equally comprehensive overview of the natural world and human cultures. The nature dioramas are state of the art, and the Hope Diamond is impressively large. Partners in Evolution depicts the mutually beneficial relationship between butterflies and plants and features the walk-through Butterfly Pavilion. The trumpeting African bull elephant in the Rotunda is an obligatory photo op.
Across the Mall is the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden , the Smithsonian's showcase for modern art. The exhibits are as intriguing as the building's drum-shaped exterior; don't miss artist Nam June Paik's “Video Flag,” a third-floor installation of 70 video monitors with flashing images that collectively take the form of the American flag. Behind the museum is an outdoor sculpture garden with some interesting figure studies.
Freer/Sackler: The Smithsonian's Museums of Asian Art offer a double helping of—you guessed it—art from the Asian continent (as well as the Indian subcontinent). The Freer was the Smithsonian's first art museum; it focuses on Egyptian, Islamic, Himalayan, Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian art. Its best-known exhibit, however, is the work of American artist James McNeill Whistler. “Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room” is a London dining room painted in opulent style. An underground connection leads to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, showcasing Mediterranean and Asian art. Nearby restaurants also provide plenty of places to eat when you're ready to take a break.
National Museum of the American Indian, Zoo and Art
The undulating buff-colored walls of the National Museum of the American Indian resemble no other building on the Mall. Inside are exhibits that recall an often tragic history but also recognize the vibrant cultures of Native groups. Many of the objects on display are part of a collection assembled by wealthy New Yorker George Gustav Heye at the turn of the 20th century. You'll see masks, weavings, painted hides and feather bonnets, but the museum's focus is on people, which makes it particularly fascinating.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Smithsonian's 19th museum, tells an American story through an African American lens. The 12 inaugural exhibitions explore such themes as community, cultural expression, music and visual arts, and cover historical periods from African origins and slavery to the civil rights era and into the 21st century.
Courtesy of National Zoological Park
Also part of the Smithsonian is the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute and its crowd-pleasing animal residents; they include tigers, lions, gorillas, elephants and flamingos. The zoo's current stars are Bao Bao and Bei Bei, offspring of giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, who are on extended loan from the China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda. The pandas are a long-standing draw for visitors planning a trip to Washington, D.C.
The National Gallery of Art is another GEM. Visit the classically designed West Building for its outstanding collection of western European paintings and sculpture; the galleries featuring Dutch, Flemish, Italian and Impressionist paintings are particularly noteworthy. The I.M. Pei-designed East Building, linked to the West Building via an underground concourse, presents a striking architectural contrast that is appropriate for the collection of 20th- and 21st-century art. The East Building galleries reopened in 2016 following a major renovation that added a sky-lit fourth level linked to an outdoor sculpture terrace, an expansion that significantly increases the exhibition space.
Monuments and Memorials: Washington, Lincoln, Vietnam and WWII
As impressive as Washington's museums are its monuments and memorials, all AAA GEM attractions. Is there anyone who can't identify the Washington Monument ? This white marble spire rises 555 feet above the city.AAA/Greg Weekes
Just west of the Washington Monument is the World War II Memorial , which has a surprisingly intimate scale given that this global conflict was fought on six of the world's seven continents. There is a stark simplicity in the twin Pacific and Atlantic pavilions and the 56 pillars representing the U.S. states, territories and the District of Columbia, each adorned with a bronze wreath.
From the National World War II Memorial, walk past the two Reflecting Pools and climb the steps of the stately Lincoln Memorial . The statue of Abraham Lincoln, 19 feet tall and 19 feet wide, radiates a quiet awe, and carved wall inscriptions from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address are an eloquent reminder of his dedication to freedom for all citizens.
AAA/Photo submitted by Brooke Holt
The stark black walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial , etched with the names of those killed and missing, retain every bit of their symbolic power more than 4 decades later. Nearby is the Vietnam Women's Memorial; this compelling sculpture depicts a servicewoman cradling a prone soldier in her arms, another holding his helmet, and a third standing with her face turned skyward as if crying out for help.
Monuments and Memorials: King, FDR, Jefferson and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial overlooks the Tidal Basin. A dramatic, 28-foot-tall sculpture of Dr. King carved from white granite seems to be emerging from a solid block of stone. Excerpts from King's “I have a Dream” and other landmark speeches, inscribed on stone walls, underscore the importance of the civil rights leader's life and work.
A short distance away, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial spreads out along the Tidal Basin shoreline. The four open-air “rooms” chronicle FDR's presidency and his two greatest achievements, guiding the nation through the twin challenges of the Great Depression and World War II. From this outdoor setting it's another short walk to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial , a classical dome supported by graceful columns. The dignified, 19-foot-tall bronze likeness of the third president wears a long coat and a button-down vest. The view looking out over the Tidal Basin from the memorial steps is especially lovely when cherry blossoms are at their spring peak.
The permanent exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum , a GEM attraction, is a narrative history depicting how millions of people were killed under the auspices of Nazi Germany. It is an emotionally wrenching experience not soon forgotten. Remember the Children: Daniel's Story presents Holocaust events in ways that younger visitors can understand.
White House, Capitol, Library of Congress
A commitment to freedom stands at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The White House symbolizes the power of the American presidency. The President's Mansion—renamed after British forces burned it in 1814 and the structure was rebuilt and painted white—was periodically enlarged, remodeled and redecorated over the next century. Submit a request for a tour of this GEM attraction in advance through your member of Congress.
Pierre L'Enfant's visionary plan for a new federal city called for the United States Capitol to be its nucleus. The monumental building contains about 550 rooms, although guided public tours of this AAA GEM don't visit all of them. You will, however, be able to see the spacious Rotunda and view artist Constantino Brumidi's fresco “Apotheosis of George Washington,” which decorates the inner canopy of the Capitol dome 180 feet above the floor.
Nearby, the Library of Congress houses a staggering collection of more than 100 million items. As the name implies, it was founded in 1800 to serve the needs of congressional members. The Thomas Jefferson Building is the jewel of this three-building complex, a AAA GEM attraction. Graced with beautifully detailed Italian Renaissance ornamentation, it also boasts a magnificent, octagonal-shaped Main Reading Room filled with sculptures, paintings, murals and mosaics.
National Cathedral, Arlington
Washington National Cathedral stands atop Mount St. Alban in upper Northwest D.C. The exterior of this impressively large structure features thousands of decorative stone carvings—look for the gargoyles—as well as extensive scaffolding, the result of damage caused by the 2011 earthquake (repairs will take years to complete). Inside, enormous flying buttresses and lovely stained glass accentuate the majesty of this AAA GEM.
Arlington National Cemetery , yet another GEM attraction, is just across the Potomac River from Washington. Row upon row of simple white headstones on more than 600 acres of rolling Virginia hills are interspersed with imposing stones and monuments that honor groups and significant individuals. Two presidents, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, William Jennings Bryan, and numerous military leaders and servicemen are buried here.
If you have extra time for sightseeing on your vacation, don't miss AAA GEM attractions in Alexandria, Chantilly, Great Falls, Leesburg, Lorton, Mount Vernon and Vienna (nearby Virginia) and Largo (nearby Maryland), all within a 30-mile radius of Washington.
See all the AAA recommended attractions for this destination.
AAA’s in-person hotel evaluations are unscheduled to ensure the inspector has an experience similar to that of members. To pass inspection, all hotels must meet the same rigorous standards for cleanliness, comfort and hospitality. These hotels receive a AAA Diamond designation that tells members what type of experience to expect.
The District of Columbia's sales tax is 6 percent. Additional increments are attached when purchasing alcohol, restaurant meals, rental cars, commercial parking and hotel rooms. The higher tax rates range from 10 to 18 percent. The sales tax in neighboring Maryland is 6 percent and Virginia taxes range from 4.3 to 7 percent.
311 in Washington, D.C., or (202) 727-9099
MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, (202) 444-2000; The George Washington University Hospital, (202) 715-4000; Howard University Hospital, (202) 865-6100; Sibley Memorial Hospital, (202) 537-4000; MedStar Washington Hospital Center, (202) 877-7000.
1133 21st St. N.W. Suite M200 Washington, DC 20036. Phone:(202)347-7201
Visitors arriving by plane can land at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) or Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI).
Rental car agencies in Washington are numerous; most have conveniently located offices in the city and nearby Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Arrangements should be made before you leave on your trip. Your local AAA club can provide this service or additional information. Hertz offers discounts to AAA members; phone (800) 654-3080.
Trains pull into the
The Greyhound Lines Inc. bus terminal is at 50 Massachusetts Ave. N.E.; phone (202) 289-5141.
Taxicabs in Washington are metered.
Transportation by bus or subway is available in Washington.