14 Places Around DC That History Fans Should Put On Their Bucket List

Soaring columns and exquisite marble floors make the Library of Congress especially photo-worthy. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith.
Washingtonian Recommends

Our Washingtonian Recommends lists bring you the best places to eat, drink, and be entertained—all selected by Washingtonian editors.

Updated on December 27, 2016.

National Museum of American History

Where else in the world can you find Dorothy Gale’s ruby slippers, John Bull’s train, the original Star-Spangled Banner, and Bob Dylan’s jacket in one place? This monument to all things American reopened in 2008 after an $85-million renovation. The museum’s three floors hold rotating special exhibitions and artifacts on display.

The first floor focuses on transportation, technology, science, and innovation. Inside the exhibition “America on the Move,” 340 objects showcase the evolution of transportation in America, from the first car ever driven across the country, a 1903 Winton, to an interactive model of a Chicago commuter train.

On the second floor, don’t miss the Star-Spangled Banner exhibition, which displays in a climate-controlled chamber the flag sewn by Mary Young Pickersgill. Also on the second floor are Thomas Edison’s 1879 light bulb and the original Greensboro lunch counter from the 1960 sit-ins. On the east side of the second floor, “American Stories” includes the aforementioned ruby slippers and jacket.

14th St. and Constitution Ave., NW; 202-633-1000; Free.

Library of Congress

Right next to the Capitol sits the largest library in the world, housing books, photographs, maps, and other items on more than 500 miles of bookshelves. The library itself takes up three buildings in DC and the Packard Campus in Culpeper, Virginia, and has more than 158 million items in its collection, including 36.8 million books, 69 million manuscripts, and an extensive collection of music, photographs, and film.

The Thomas Jefferson Building has plenty to offer visitors, including free, docent-led one-hour walking tours four to six times a day. Inside, murals, statues, and mosaics adorn the walls and domed ceiling—you can take a peek into the gorgeous domed reading room from a balcony on the third floor. And if you want to access any of the library’s books, you can sign up for a research card (as long as you have a photo ID).

Jefferson Building, 10 First St., SE; Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave., SE; 202-707-5000. Free.

DC Museums, Historical Places around DC
Photo of the 9/11 gallery courtesy of the Newseum.

Newseum

This seven-level, $450-million complex opened in its current location by the Mall in 2008. Fifteen main exhibition galleries cover major events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the attacks on September 11, 2001, while the News Corporation News History Gallery compiles newspapers, archival footage, and other documents from more than 500 years of reporting.

Outside the Newseum, glass cases are updated first thing each day with front pages from 80 different newspapers, including one from each state and other international publications. Don’t miss the Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery, which displays staggering shots of prize-winning photojournalism; or the NBC News Interactive Newsroom, which allows guests to read the news themselves from a teleprompter. A 3,000-square-foot terrace on the sixth floor offers outstanding views of the Mall, the Capitol Building, and the monuments.

555 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 888-639-7386. $22.95 (for a two-day pass).

National Archives

The government’s vast store of papers, photos, audio, video clips, and other historical records includes three crown jewels of the collection: the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. Open since 1935, the building informally known as Archives 1 has the Charters of Freedom on display in the rotunda, as well as two large-scale murals by Barry Faulkner; the David M. Rubenstein Gallery holds one of the original copies of the 1297 Magna Carta. In the Public Vaults permanent exhibit gallery, you’ll find telegrams composed by Abraham Lincoln and more.

Constitution Ave. between Seventh and Ninth Sts., NW; 202-357-5000. Free.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

This heart-wrenching museum explores the history of the Holocaust, from the beginning of the Nazi party through liberation, as well as the continuing occurrences of genocide in the modern world. Opened in 1993 by President Clinton, the museum was designed by Holocaust survivor and architect James Ingo Freed and integrates different architectural traditions into a stark, evocative whole. The Hall of Remembrance serves as a tribute to the 11 million victims and survivors of the Holocaust; the permanent exhibition deals with the rise of Nazism, Kristallnacht, concentration camps, war crimes trials, and more.

The museum is not recommended for children under age 11 due to its serious themes and subject matter.

100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl., SW; 202-488-0400. Free.

Smithsonian Castle

Informally known as the Castle thanks to its Norman-style turrets and Gothic Revival facade, the Smithsonian Institution Building is sandwiched between the Hirshhorn, the shuttered Arts and Industries Building, and the Freer Gallery on the Mall. The Castle makes a good base from which to start sightseeing trips; its adjacent S. Dillon Ripley Center hosts exhibitions, and the Discovery Theater hosts performances. Don’t miss Smithsonian’s Crypt by the north entrance to the Castle, the final resting place of Smithsonian founder James Smithson.

1000 Jefferson Dr., SW; 202-633-1000. Free.

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Historical Places around DC
Photo of the National Archives by Jeffrey Reed.

National Museum of the American Indian

This dramatic limestone museum focuses on the diverse cultures of Native Americans. The museum’s smooth, flowing exterior is designed to help it blend into the environment around it, which includes more than 40 grandfather rocks, 25 native shrub species, 27,000 herbaceous plants, and a water feature. Inside, its four floors of exhibitions represent 12,000 years of history and 1,200 indigenous cultures through historic artifacts, clothing, bowls, weapons, artwork, tools, and more.

Fourth St. and Independence Ave., SW; 202-633-1000. Free.

National Building Museum

“Architecture, Engineering, and Design” is the tagline of this Penn Quarter museum, which explores buildings and the art of creating them. Housed in the former Pension Bureau building, the museum is worth a trip for its architecture alone, with dramatic 75-foot-high interior columns in the Great Hall (some of the largest in the world). Features include a popular children’s section in the Building Zone, where kids ages two to six can do hands-on construction projects.

401 F St., NW; 202-272-2448. $10.

National Postal Museum

Open to the public since 1993, this Smithsonian museum lives in the Old Post Office building next to Union Station and features interactive displays and exhibitions about the mail. Inside, rotating stamp collections, wartime letters, and other items detail the history of the mail service since before the American Revolution. 2 Massachusetts Ave., NE; 202-633-1000. Free.

Historical Places around DC
Photo of Arlington National Cemetery by Rachel Kramer.

International Spy Museum

This Penn Quarter museum was founded by Milton Maltz, a codebreaker during the Korean War, to offer the public some insight into the spy trade. Discover the tricks of the world’s most famous spies, including a coat with a buttonhole camera and a shoe with a heel transmitter. In “Operation Spy,” an hourlong interactive experience, visitors become US spies searching for a missing device that triggers a nuclear bomb.

800 F St., NW; 202-393-7798. $21.95.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

The facade of this new museum alone is worth a trip. The structure, in the shape of a bronze-colored “corona,” or crown, features exterior metal latticework that takes on a lustrous glow at night. The soon-to-be-installed landscaping will feature a a reflecting pool at the south entry with “calm waters meant to invite all to approach.”

101 14th St., NW; 202-633-1000. Free.

Arlington National Cemetery

Some 400,000 people are buried in the 624 acres of America’s most famous cemetery, including President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; Pierre L’Enfant, the architect of Washington; boxer Joe Louis; author Dashiell Hammett; and former chief justice William Rehnquist.

Arlington National Cemetery Visitors Center. 1 Memorial Ave, Fort Myer; 877-907-8585. Free.

Folger Shakespeare Library

This independent research library has the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare’s printed works, and hosts exhibitions on the writer’s life and times, including one of his first folios, accompanied by a touchscreen display. Open since 1932, the building features a Tudor-style interior and an Elizabethan theater.

201 E. Capitol St., SE; 202-544-4600. Free.

Historical Places around DC
Photo of the Washington National Cathedral courtesy of Washington National Cathedral.

Washington National Cathedral

The nation’s second-largest cathedral has hosted the funerals of countless presidents and Washington VIPs. There are multiple services daily, but the cathedral also hosts concerts, organ recitals, lectures, and tours of its Gothic architectural elements, including stained-glass windows, carvings and metalwork, and a grotesque of Darth Vader on the northwest tower. Reservation-only Tour & Tea offerings include a tea in the Pilgrim Observation Gallery, which offers great views of the city. 

Massachusetts and Wisconsin Aves., NW; 202-537-6200. $10.

This article appears in Washingtonian’s Welcome Guide.

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