Things to Do in Washington DC
Set out front of the National Academy of Sciences Building, this whimsically enormous memorial of Albert Einstein contemplating the universe was dedicated on April 22, 1979 to mark the centennial of the scientist’s birth.
The 4-ton bronze statue of Einstein depicts him holding a paper inscribed with his three most important contributions to science: the photoelectric effect, the theory of general relativity, and the equivalence of energy and matter (e=mc2). The uniquely mottled texture of the statue’s bronze is the signature style of its sculptor, Robert Berks, who also created the famous bust of JFK found in the lobby of the nearby Kennedy Center. The memorial’s 28-foot-wide black granite base is inlaid with over 2,700 metal studs, which were mapped out by astronomers from the U.S. Naval Observatory and meant to represent the stars, planets and more as they appeared on the dedication date.
Centered along F Street from 5th to 10th Streets NW, and set North of Pennsylvania Avenue and south of Mount Vernon Square, between the White House and the Capitol, Penn Quarter is one of the most commercially-condensed areas of the city. This entertainment district in the east end of downtown unfurls around the Verizon Center, a sports, concert and events arena. Blending almost seamlessly with D.C.’s thriving Chinatown, Penn Quarter features a wide variety of its own nightlife, art galleries, restaurants, shops and more.
Some of the most popular attractions in Penn Quarter are the Newseum, a museum dedicated to the history of news-gathering and reporting around the world; the interactive International Spy Museum; the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum, which inhabit the same building; and Ford’s Theatre, where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.
Better known for nightlife than tourist attractions, this diverse, funky neighborhood is proof that D.C. has a soul. Once an exclusively African-American part of town, Adams Morgan was formally named in 1958 for two then-recently-desegregated elementary schools in the area: Thomas P. Morgan and John Quincy Adams. Now home to a large cross-section of the city’s Latino populations (including Mexican, Salvadorean and Brazilian), as well as African restaurants and hopping jazz clubs, this is an area chock-full of flavor, color, and independently-owned businesses.
Centered around Columbia Road and 18th Street, it can make an excellent end to a day’s exploration of nearby Dupont Circle, the U-Street Corridor, or both. In the evenings, check out Habana Village for salsa dancing and Cuban food; Ghana Cafe for West African cuisine and, on the weekends, live African music; or local landmark Madams Organ for live jazz, blues and soul food.
Housed in a 19th-century brick building, Eastern Market hosts a busy farmers' market and flea market. On weekends, artisans and antique dealers also station themselves just outside. It’s all located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, too, which makes it an easy spot to visit while exploring the many nearby monuments, memorials and parks.
Eastern Market is now on the National Register of Historic Places. With the exception of a two-year renovation project due to a devastating fire in 2007, the market has been in constant operation since 1873. In fact, it was the first city-owned market aimed to help urbanize Washington and is now the lone surviving one as well. Grocery store chains nearly forced Eastern Market to board its windows, but local residents fought to keep the market open.
First opened in 1907, the D.C. area’s largest train station is the headquarters for Amtrak, the busiest station on the Metrorail’s Red Line, and a shopping and dining destination. Set just five blocks from the U.S. Capitol Building, this sprawling warren of specialty boutiques, food courts and elegant restaurants beneath soaring, gilded ceilings and Grecian arches makes for an easy stop amidst sightseeing in Federal Triangle, on Capitol Hill, and in Chinatown and Penn Quarter.
Union Station reached its peak in popularity during and immediately following World War II, but after a failed attempt to turn it into a popular National Visitors Center in the 1970s, it was refurbished and re-launched in its present form in 1988. Since then, the train station has been used by an average of 1o,000 Amtrak travelers per year, headed to and from destinations all over the country.
Designed in 1818 for the War of 1812 naval hero Stephen Decatur, Decatur House holds the honor of being the first and last house on Lafayette Square to be occupied as a private residence. Decatur is best remembered for his skills fighting Barbary pirates; sadly these failed him when he was killed in a duel a year after moving into his new home.
Architecturally, it’s an interesting mash-up of austere Federal and wedding cake Victorian influences. Inside, the house museum displays a permanent collection of Federalist and Victorian furnishings. You’ll also learn about the lives of its most famous tenants - including Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay - and the slaves who waited on them. In the southeast corner of Lafayette Square, check out the likeness of Marquis de Lafayette, who became a revolutionary war general at age 19. Although Lafayette was branded a traitor in his native France, he was considered a hero in young America.
Stretching over nine miles long and one mile across through the center of the city, this 1,754-acre forest park is one of the most distinctive and beloved features of Washington, D.C. Encompassing a leisurely, winding, and sometimes creek-side drive and numerous paths for walking and biking, Rock Creek Park provides a series of relaxing opportunities to sidestep a purely urban experience of the Nation’s Capital.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Rock Creek Park is home to a few of D.C.’s best-preserved historical buildings and smaller parks: the water-powered Pierce Mill, built in the 1820s; the elegant Meridian Hill Park in Columbia Heights, which features a 13-tier manmade waterfall; and Georgetown’s 18th-century Old Stone House, a small museum and the oldest building in the city.
More Things to Do in Washington DC
Designed by Italian architect Luigi Moretti in 1962, this distinctive five-building apartment and business complex beside the Potomac River was home to the political scandal that caused the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. However, as this tall, modern compound was partially funded by the Vatican, approved by the nation’s first Catholic president (John F. Kennedy), and thought to mar the city’s elegant riverfront, Watergate had been controversial for years before this scandal ever happened.
In 1972, high-level officials from the Nixon administration were sent to headquarters of the Democratic National Committee –then located on the sixth floor of the Watergate Hotel and Office Building – to burglarize the office, photograph documents and tap the phones. A subsequent investigation by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post revealed the break-in, and in 1974, Richard Nixon was forced to step down as president.
This historic Episcopal church, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the British-born architect of the U.S. Capitol Building. Called the “Church of the Presidents” for having hosted every president since James Madison in its pews, this Neoclassical place of worship was the second structure built on Lafayette Square – after the White House.
Completed in 1816, St. John’s features dozens of intricate stained-glass windows, as well as a wooden steeple with an almost-1,000-pound bell cast by Paul Revere's son, Joseph, at his Boston foundry in 1822; reminiscent of Revere’s bell during the American Revolution, St. John’s bell once served as an alarm for the surrounding neighborhoods.
One of the first homes ever built in the Nation’s Capital, the historic Federal-style Octagon House was designed in 1799 by William Thornton (initial architect of the U.S. Capitol Building) for wealthy Virginia landowner Colonel John Tayloe III. During the War of 1812, Tayloe volunteered the house as a French embassy in order to save it from destruction, and two years later, when the White House was set ablaze by the British, he offered it to President James Madison as a temporary executive mansion. Madison used a second-floor room of the house as his study, and it was here that he signed the 1815 peace treaty that ended the war with England.
Madison and his wife, Dolley, moved back into the White House in 1817, and Tayloe and his family lived on at Octagon House until 1855. Later used as a Union hospital in the Civil War, the building had fallen into decay by 1899, when the American Institute of Architects purchased it for use as its headquarters.
The National Theatre first opened in 1835, supported by some of D.C.’s wealthiest patrons, who wanted their city to have a world-class theatrical institution. In the wake of the 1922 collapse of the nearby Knickerbocker movie theater during a snowstorm, the vintage limestone building was redesigned and reinforced for safety; its interior remained largely unchanged until a full-scale renovation in 1984. This renovation, quite fittingly, was overseen by a theater production set designer.
Since its original opening, virtually every great theater star has performed at the National, and a box on the left side of the stage has hosted every president and his wife; Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt were particular fans of the plays presented here. Today, the stage at this elegant, 1,676-seat theater hosts some of the biggest productions on Broadway.
Home to the local baseball team, the Washington Nationals (and its bald eagle mascot, Screech), this LEED-certified stadium can seat over 41,ooo fans. The Nationals, formed by the transfer of the Montreal Expos in 2005, is D.C.’s first baseball team since the Washington Senators folded in 1971. The East Division team played its first three seasons in D.C.’s RFK Stadium before moving into its own dedicated stadium in 2008.
Set in the formerly scruffy Navy Yard neighborhood by the Anacostia River, Nationals Park jumpstarted urban renewal and a thriving commercial district full of independently-owned shops, bars, and cafes; as a nod to its more historic and maritime Navy Yard surroundings, a submarine horn blares after every Nationals home run and win.
Founded in 1807, the Congressional Cemetery is the only “cemetery of national memory” founded before the Civil War. The Congressional Cemetery occupies nearly 36 acres and has been designated a National Historic Landmark, while serving as the final resting place for more than 65,000 people, including many notable founders of the United States and the city of Washington in the early 1800s.
The cemetery honors 171 members of Congress who died in office with cenotaphs, or tombstones at empty graves. Some of the most notable individuals interred at the Congressional Cemetery include Vice Presidents Elbridge Gerry (the only signer of the Declaration of Independence who is buried in Washington DC) and George Clinton, J. Edgar Hoover (the first FBI director) and Tom Lantos (the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress).
At its peak bloom from late May to early September, this Anacostia River wetland full of lotuses, lilies and forest wildflowers is accessible either by boardwalks or – only at high tide - by canoe or kayak. The gardens are adjacent to a large athletic field surrounded by woods and flowering bushes, and to a restored 30-acre marsh rimmed by walking paths.
Summer garden tours are offered at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. One of the tour’s highlights, only possible in late summer or early fall, is a swath of enormous Victoria water lilies, which have pads as many as four feet across. Whether or not you come for a tour, if your goal is to see blooming water lilies, it’s best to come as early in the morning as possible.
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