If you’ve never been to Washington, D.C., your mission is clear: Get thee to the National Mall and Capitol Hill. Within this roughly 2 1/2-by- 1/3-mile rectangular plot lie the lion’s share of the capital’s iconic attractions, including presidential and war memorials, the U.S. Capitol, the U.S. Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, most of the Smithsonian museums, the National Gallery of Art, and the National Archives.
In fact, even if you have traveled here before, you’re likely to find yourself returning to this part of town, to pick up where you left off on that long list of sites worth seeing, to visit new ones, like the National Law Enforcement Museum, and to revisit favorites, which in the interim have often enhanced and updated their exhibits in most captivating ways. Come summer 2019, for instance, you’ll want to tour National Fossil Hall, the smart re-presentation, 5 years in the making, of the old dinosaur exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. In spring 2019, the International Spy Museum relocates to L’Enfant Plaza, just south of the National Mall, into a much larger and more wide-ranging version of its former Penn Quarter self. And you’ll want to know about the spring 2019 reopening of the Washington Monument, now equipped with a new and fully functioning elevator as well as a steel-and-glass security-screening building.
Beyond the Mall and its attractions, iconic or otherwise, lie the city’s charming neighborhoods, standalone museums, historic houses, and beautiful gardens; you don’t want to miss those, either. Tour national landmarks and you’ll gain a sense of what this country is about, both politically and culturally. Tour off-the-Mall attractions and neighborhoods and you’ll get a taste of the vibrant, multicultural scene that is the real D.C.
Security precautions and procedures are a post-9/11 fact of life everywhere in America, but especially in the nation’s capital, thanks to the preponderance of federal structures and attractions that are open to the public. What that means for you as a visitor is that you may have to stand in line to enter a national museum (like one of the Smithsonians) or a government building (like the Library of Congress). At many tourist sites, you can expect staff to search handbags, briefcases, and backpacks, either by hand or by X-ray machine. Some sites, including the National Air and Space Museum, require you to walk past metal detectors. During the busy spring and summer seasons, you may be queuing outside as you wait your turn to pass through security. So pack your patience, but otherwise carry as little as possible, and certainly no sharp objects. Museums and public buildings rarely offer lockers for use by visitors.
Call Ahead and Check Online
Here’s a crucial piece of advice: Call ahead or check the websites of the places you plan to tour each day before you set out. Many of Washington’s government buildings, museums, memorials, and monuments are open to the general public daily, year-round—except when they’re not.
Because buildings like the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and the White House are offices as well as tourist destinations, the business of the day always poses the potential for closing one of those sites, or at least sections, to sightseers. There’s also the matter of maintenance. The steady stream of visitors to Washington’s attractions necessitates ongoing caretaking, which may require closing an entire landmark, or part of it, to the public, or changing the hours of operation or procedures for visiting. Washington’s famous museums, grand halls, and public gardens sometimes double as settings for press conferences, galas, special exhibits, festivals, and even movie sets. You might arrive at, say, the National Museum of American History and Culture on a Sunday afternoon, only to find some of its galleries off-limits because a movie or TV shoot is underway. (Did you catch the 2018 series finale of hit show Scandal, by the way? Yep, the real African American History & Culture museum makes an appearance.) To avoid frustration and disappointment, call ahead or check online for up-to-the-minute information.
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