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 the most captivating ways. 

You’ll want to know about the new Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, designed by Frank Gehry and dedicated to commemorating the life and career of the 34th president. Or Black Lives Matter Plaza, 1 block from the White House, where giant letters in the street spell out a reminder that the fight for racial justice continues in this city and country. You’ll also want to tour the Hall of Fossils at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, which recently underwent a complete renovation and representation of its more than 700 specimens, including near-complete skeletons of the T-Rex, triceratops, and a saber-toothed cat. 

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.

Heads Up

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 arrive in Washington. Many of the city’s government buildings, museums, memorials, and monuments closed down to the public as a public health precaution during the height of the pandemic. Many have reopened, but they’re operating on limited schedules or partial closures and things continue to change. 

The good news is most sites are keeping their websites up to date, with regular updates on hours, visitor guidelines such as mask or vaccine requirements, and even which exhibits are open or closed. You can also call, but since hours may be limited, the web is your best bet for getting the latest info.

You’ll also need to go online to actually book tickets to many museums, historic homes, and government buildings. While Washington’s sights are still overwhelmingly free to visit, social distancing and capacity considerations have caused many buildings to require visitors to sign up for a spot in advance. This includes attractions such as the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the National Zoo. 

Because timed ticket availability can be tricky, you’ll need to be a little more thoughtful in your planning; it’s just not as easy to pop into any sight as time opens up in your schedule. 

While docent-led tours are typically available at many sites, they may not be offered when you arrive. If you prefer not to go the self-guided route, websites, such as GetYourGuide.com, Viator.com, and ToursByLocals.com can connect you with a local tour guide at various attractions; they also sometimes offer discounts on high-volume products like bus and boat tours.  

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.