Things to Do in Washington DC
The J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, also known as the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) Headquarters, is the brain of the FBI’s activities around the world. The building, named after Hoover, who was the first FBI director, is located downtown in Washington DC, within walking distance of many other popular attractions. It also has a unique history, including a story that the famous FBI crime laboratory may have also been used as a smoking lounge.
The FBI has multiple locations, each of which handles various parts of the organization. The headquarters centralizes and coordinates activities at the highest levels. It serves as a hub for intelligence and information gathering. It’s also the location that takes the lead for the FBI during times of crisis or emergency.
Ford’s Theatre has served many functions since its construction was completed in 1833. Once a church, a warehouse, a theater and then an office building, the landmark is now known as a National Historic Site. By and far, the historical building is most infamously known as the theater where actor John Wilkes Booth shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln on that fateful night of April 14, 1865. Lincoln had been there to see a production of Our American Cousin with his wife, and since that night, Ford’s Theatre has been one of Washington D.C.'s most important historical attractions.
Immediately after being shot, President Lincoln was moved across the street to the Petersen House, where he ultimately died. Nearly 70 years later in 1932, both buildings were designated national historical sites, and today, Ford’s Theatre is overseen by the National Park Service.
Straight off the wire and into the museum, the Newseum makes today’s front-page news part of its exhibits. More than 700 daily newspapers from around the world submit a digital front page to the Newseum and more than 80 are printed for display.
These front pages collaborate to tell the rest of the museum’s stories, too, as most of the major exhibits began as front-page stories. Permanent exhibits include the 9/11, Berlin Wall and First Amendment Galleries; hands-on experiences in both the NBC Interactive Newsroom and HP New Media Gallery; and the awe-inspiring Pulitzer Prize Photographs gallery that shows the world’s largest collection of winning images. And the Newseum doesn’t ignore the struggles and sacrifice that come from covering the world’s biggest stories, either, as the Journalist Memorial Gallery is updated each year with the names of brave journalists, photographers, editors and broadcasters killed in the line of duty.
Open to the public since 1974, this distinctive round building on the National Mall is dedicated to contemporary and modern art in the United States. From the outside, the museum appears to be a solid, windowless concrete cylinder perched on four squat blocks; the interior, though, features a hollow cylinder lined with windows which look onto a central courtyard and allow in natural light.
Designed by an art collector for an art collector, the Hirshhorn was originally conceived by architect Gordon Bunshaft to house a bequest of 6,000 artworks by financier Joseph Hirshhorn. Hirshhorn’s art collection is composed of work by the greatest living artists of his 20th century life: Picasso, Matisse, Willem de Kooning, Louise Nevelson, Jackson Pollock and many more. The museum is surrounded by a four-acre, two-level sculpture garden highlighting works by Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, and more recently, Jeff Koons.
This popular stretch of pavement once known as the Western Plaza was renamed Freedom Plaza in 1988 after Martin Luther King, Jr. His famous “I have a dream” speech was said to have been crafted nearby this space. Today, Freedom Plaza serves as a gathering spot for political protests and rallies—paying an homage to the words and actions of King. While Freedom Plaza does not offer much in the way of a destination, travelers who come to this iconic square can also see the John A Wilson Building and the National Theater, which are located nearby.
Widely recognized as the oldest building in Washington, D.C., the historic Old Stone House was built in 1765 and has remained relatively unchanged since its construction. Today, a knowledgeable park ranger meets visitors as they enter the building and shares the colorful history of the capital city’s oldest structure. Travelers can take an informal tour through Old Stone House and explore the kitchen, bedrooms and parlor, which are decked out in traditional 18th century style. This unique attraction offers a peek into the daily life of early Americans that’s unlike anywhere else. The Colonial Revival Garden, located behind the house, is a popular destination for weddings, afternoon picnics, and quiet escapes from city chaos.
It’s impossible to dress appropriately for a visit to the United States Botanic Garden; each room you enter is a completely different environment. Set one block southwest of the U.S. Capitol Building, the garden nurtures plants from around the world – including subtropical, tropical, and arid regions. There are a variety of gardens and rooms, all connected through intertwining, labyrinthine paths. Two of the most interesting features are the ever-beautiful rose garden and a room designed solely for fragrances. Perhaps the most unique exhibit is Return of the Titan. This exhibit celebrates the titan arum, also known as the corpse flower or stinky plant. The corpse flower can grow up to 12 feet tall. The flower bloomed for the first time in July 2013, and it may be several more years before it does so again.
The United States Botanic Garden is also well known for its holiday displays.
If you've ever wanted to step into James Bond's shoes and live a glamorous spy life, the International Spy Museum is the place to learn the secrets. One of Washington D.C.'s hottest attractions, the museum is flashy, over the top - an engaging, fun museum that illustrates high-tech gadgetry, notorious spy cases, secret methods, and the not-so-pleasant consequences of being an international person of mystery.
The much-acclaimed museum of espionage gives spy fans their fill of cool gadgets and interactive displays. All visitors are invited to play the role of a secret agent by adopting a cover at the start of their visit. Throughout the museum, you can try to identify disguises, listen to bugs, and spot hidden cameras. A lot of the exhibits are historical, focusing on the Cold War in particular (a re-creation of the tunnel under the Berlin Wall is an eerie winner).
More Things to Do in Washington DC
The headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, housed in one of the largest office buildings in the world, is the daily workplace for over 30,000 employees, both military and civilian. Much like the Vatican, the Pentagon is a city unto itself, and lays claim to six zip codes. Its distinctive five-sided building, designed by American architect George Bergstrom and dedicated in 1943, was originally meant to fit a pentagonal-shaped site at nearby Arlington Farms; when Franklin D. Roosevelt had the build site moved to its present location, the design was preserved in order to save both time and money.
On the grounds of the building, the two-acre Pentagon Memorial is a monument to the September 11, 2001 airplane attack on the Pentagon; the attack’s 184 victims are symbolized by illuminated granite benches arranged in order of the victims’ ages – 3 to 71.
Lush green streets and idyllic Victorian houses are just part of what lends the Georgetown neighborhood of D.C. its classic east coast charm. And while there’s plenty to see in this trendy part of town, it’s the well-known Georgetown University that’s the real star of the show.
Founded in 1789, Georgetown University is the oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution in America. This elite college of higher learning is home to the famous Hoyas, as well as some of the best examples of Romanesque revival style architecture on the East Coast. Approximately 7,000 undergraduates and 10,000 post-graduate students attend Georgetown University, and notable alumni include former president Bill Clinton. The school has four distinct university campuses, which include the Law Center, the undergraduate campus, the Medical Center, and the School of Continuing Studies, located in Chinatown.
The nation’s only museum dedicated to female artists, since 1981 the NMWA has featured a permanent collection of 4,500 artworks made by more than 1,000 different women. Spanning the 16th century to today, this collection includes pieces by painters Berthe Morisot and Grandma Moses, photographer Nan Goldin, and sculptor Louise Bourgeois. The museum also hosts several rotating exhibits throughout the year, highlighting exciting, whimsical, controversial and/or thought-provoking female-made work in every medium.
Housed in an elegant Renaissance Revival building, NMWA has a performance space for lectures, a library full of resources on women in the arts, and the on-site Mezzanine Café, serving Mediterranean-style salads and sandwiches in a marble-paved atrium surrounded by art. The Café is open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., and in addition to weekday and Saturday lunches, offers brunch on the first Sunday of every month ($25 per person).
Affiliated with but not a part of the Smithsonian, the National Gallery needs two buildings (connected by an underground tunnel) to house its stunning collections (more than 110,000 objects) of painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the Middle Ages to the present. Kids love the walking escalator that traverses the two buildings and conveniently empties into the airy cafeteria.
The original neoclassical building, known as the West Building, exhibits primarily European works, from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century, including pieces by El Greco, Monet, and Cézanne.
Across 4th Street NW, the angular East Building is where you'll find the Calder mobile along with other abstract and modern works. Across 7th Street from the West Wing sits the National Gallery Sculpture Garden, a beautifully landscaped park of open lawns, a pool with a spouting fountain, and 17 sculptures.
Designed by American architect Willoughby Edbrooke, this enormous Romanesque Revival building was the largest office building in D.C. when it opened in 1899. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was far from beloved in its own era. Considered dowdy by the time it opened for business, when architectural fashion had turned to rounded, more romantic Beaux-Arts design, it was soon abandoned in favor of a new mail depot building over by Union Station; 15 years after it was built, it was commonly referred to as the “old” post office.
By the late 1920s, popular sentiment in Washington was that the building should be torn down, but the Great Depression prevented the demolition; instead, the Old Post Office was left to molder for about 40 years. In the 1970s, it was saved by community support and the National Endowment for the Arts, which now has its headquarters here.
You will see more money printed in one hour-long tour at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing than you may ever see in your lifetime. This federal agency, housed under the umbrella of the United States Department of the Treasury, makes paper money for the country. It does not print coins – that responsibility lies with the United States Mint.
Tours of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing walk visitors through the money-printing process and explain how the U.S. money system works. Visitors also learn about the history of counterfeit money and ways that the government has made paper money more secure. In addition to printing money, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing designs and engraves all paper money. Additional duties include producing Treasury securities and many types of identification cards for government agencies.
Located next to the White House, the Old Executive Office Building houses the majority of offices for the White House staff. The building dates back to 1871, when it housed the State, War, and Navy Departments. The imposing building is also known as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
The Old Executive Office Building represents one of the best examples of French Second Empire architecture in the United States. Its unique style catches the eye, a contrast to the many somber classical revival buildings around the city. The building has played host to an incredible number of high-level events. It housed offices for Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Gerald Ford, and George Bush before they became President. Foreign dignitaries have met with the twenty-four Secretaries of State who have called this building home. The Old Executive Office Building is a must-see attraction in Washington DC.
Situated between the Potomac River and major city roadways is one of the nation’s foremost centers for performing arts, a cultural and entertainment hub for the city of Washington D.C. With more than 2,000 performances annually, it is the busiest performing arts center in the United States. World-class live theater, classical music, ballet, jazz and opera shows all take place at the venue. Three main theaters including a concert hall and opera house ensure a variety of shows offered. Free performances are held on the Millennium Stage in the Grand Foyer daily.
Outside of the performances and stages, the center also has a Hall of Nations and Hall of States to explore, with collections of American and international flags. Also see the many paintings and sculptures gifted to the center from other nations throughout. The building also has great views of the Potomac River and the Georgetown area from its windows and rooftop terraces.
Part of the Smithsonian, the 163-acre National Zoo (as it’s most often called) is home to 2,000 individual animals of 400 species. Most famous for its Giant Panda Habitat and breeding program (which includes current panda residents Mei Xiang and Tian Tian), the Zoo is also home to a huge bird enclosure and over 60 flamingos; African mammals like cheetahs and gazelles; and a family of lowland gorillas.
A 2011 addition to the Zoo is The American Trail, featuring U.S. natives like California sea lions, bald eagles, grey wolves and brown pelicans. Nearby, the 15,000-square-foot Amazonia exhibit mimics the ecosystem of the Amazon Rainforest, with a cascading river, native palms and a 55,000-gallon aquarium; set underneath a soaring dome, the tropical landscape here is full of live creatures like toads, hummingbirds, monkeys and more.
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