What to See on a First Trip to Washington DC

Jason Daniel Shaw

What to See on a First Trip to Washington DC

Washington, DC

First trip to Washington, DC?  Wondering what the must-see spots are for a trip to Washington, DC?  I have put together a list of some places to definitely make sure that you see while in town and the best news is, they are all FREE.  Washington, DC is the capital of the United States and a great place to visit to learn about the history of this great country.


Arlington National Cemetery

Cost:  Free  |  Time:  2 Hours – All Day

Arlington actually sits across the Potomac from Washington, DC in Arlington, Virginia on 624 acres.  It is a military cemetery that is the final resting place for over 400,000 of our military and their family members.  There is a lot to explore and the rolling hills will give you a workout but there are a few spots that aren’t to be missed.

Probably one of the most popular spots in Arlington is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  There is a guard that protects the site and stands guard 24/7/365, regardless of the weather.  People come to see the changing of the guard, which is a highly synchronized process that is spectacular to watch.

Another very popular spot is the grave of John F. Kennedy (JFK) and his wife, Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy Onassis.  The gravesite is marked by an “eternal flame”.  His brothers, Robert F. and Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy are also buried here.

The cemetery has a lot of memorials around the grounds, including ones for the space shuttles Challenger and Colombia.  The simple white tombstones are perfectly placed throughout and represent what it costs for our country to be free.

Jefferson Memorial

Cost:  Free  |  Time:  1 Hour

The Jefferson Memorial is dedicated to the 3rd President of the Unites States and arguably one of the most important Founding Fathers, as he was the main writer of the Declaration of Independence.  The memorial sits on the Potomac River Tidal Basin which makes for great views from across the water.  It is maintained by the National Park Service but it is free to visit.

During the spring, the cherry blossoms bloom along the path that circles the tidal basin and makes for beautiful photos.  Also, while you can sit on the steps and enjoy a sunny day, sunset and night make for great times to visit.  When the wind is calm, the tidal basin becomes like glass and you can see the Jefferson Memorial reflecting with its bright white marble exterior.  If you are in the area of the National Mall, make sure to take the little detour over to check out the memorial.

Lincoln Memorial

Cost:  Free  |  Time:  1 Hour

The Lincoln Memorial is probably one of the most famous memorials in Washington as it has been featured in many movies.  It sits at the west end of the National Mall.  From the top of the steps, you can look down the Mall and see the Washington Monument and its reflection in the Reflecting Pool.  Conversely, from the Washington Monument, you can see the Lincoln Memorial and its reflection in the Reflecting Pool.

The steps have been the site of many pivotal events, including Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  They make a great place to just relax and take in the sights of the Nation’s Capital.  Whether you visit at night or during the day, you are sure to enjoy it.

Smithsonian Museums

Cost:  Free  |  Time:  Days

Eleven of the nineteen Smithsonian Museums sit along the National Mall.  Three of my favorites are the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space Museum.  Obviously, with my love of aviation, the latter is my favorite and I could spend days exploring everything that they have inside but they have also opened an annex that is located at the Dulles Airport, called the Steven F, Udvar-Hazy Center.  I haven’t visited the new site yet, but can’t wait to see what aviation treasures that it holds.

You can spend as little or as much time as you want in the museums and it is nearly impossible to see everything so choose the ones that fit your interest and stick to those.

Vietnam memorial

Cost:  Free  |  Time:  1 Hour

The Vietnam Memorial is on the north side of the National Mall adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial.  It is made up of three elements, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall (which is the most famous part), the Three Servicemen Memorial and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.  The Wall is cut into the grounds and is made of black marble.  The shape is said to represent a wound that is open and healing with one wall pointing toward the Washington Monument and the other toward the Lincoln Memorial.

As visitors look at the 58,318 names on the wall, they see their reflection as well, linking the past and present.  You will often see visitors inscribing the names of a family member on a sheet of paper by placing the sheet of paper over the name and rubbing a pencil lead over it.  If you get the chance to visit, it is an amazing sight to see.

U.S. Bureau of Engraving & Printing

Cost:  Free  |  Time:  1 Hour

The U.S. Bureau of Engraving & Printing was a tour that I had never taken until this last trip to Washington.  It is the one of the places that they print paper currency here in the United States.  They take you through the process as well as let you see pallets of money stacked on the floor, not that you can get anywhere near it, though.  It is very informative and one thing that I learned was that if you graduate from the military academy, your diploma is printed there as well.  In the gift shop, you have the opportunity to purchase lots of money-related souvenirs.  Unfortunately, due to their rules, I wasn’t able to take photos there.

U.S. Capitol

Cost:  Free  |  Time:  1-3 Hours

The United States Capitol is one of the most recognizable buildings in the world and is an impressive place to visit.  The tours take you through the history of the Capitol and let you see the original chambers of the Supreme Court.  The main tour takes about 45 minutes but there are additional tours that you can take, including entering the House and Senate Galleries.  Make sure to save some time to explore the outside grounds of the Capitol as well.  There are lots of photo opportunities inside and out.

Washington Monument

Cost:  Free  |  Time:  1 Hour

The Washington Monument is an obelisk that was built to honor George Washington and sits at the center of the National Mall.  It is hard to miss at just over 555 feet tall and holds the record for the tallest stone structure and obelisk in the world.  Unfortunately, the inside is closed until sometime in 2019 but you can still visit the grounds surrounding the monument.  There are 50 American Flags surrounding the monument to represent each state.  As with most of Washington’s monuments, whether you visit during the day or at night, you are in for a treat.

White House

Cost:  Free  |  Time:  1 Hour +

While entering the White House takes some advanced planning, it doesn’t take much to get a glimpse of one of the most famous residences in the US.  The tours must be booked at least 21 days and up to 3 months in advance through your member of Congress.  I have taken this tour twice in the past (in elementary and middle school) but did not plan enough in advance this past trip to set it up.

For one of the most classic views, you can stand along Pennsylvania Ave, just south of Lafayette Square.  This gives you a look at the north lawn and the “front” of the White House.  You can then make your way around to the south side to get a glimpse of the White House South Lawn.  Security is very tight around the White House now compared to my visits in the past.  We were able to see Marine One coming and going on a couple different occasions while we were around the White House.  I am not sure if there is a way to tell if the President is on board just by looking at it but it was still exciting to see.

I would love to hear about some of your favorite places to visit while in Washington DC.  Tag me on Instagram or leave me a comment/message below.

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