Last spring, I spent three days in Washington with my family. I didn’t have high expectations for this city, but it managed to fascinate me with its blooming magnolias, orderly center, and peaceful atmosphere that makes you forget the fact that it’s the political center of one of the world’s major superpowers.
The name Washington doesn’t just refer to the capital of the United States, but also to the District of Columbia. Washington DC, in fact, includes not only the city itself, but also some counties of the two neighboring states: 7 in Maryland and 5 in Virginia. An agglomeration that according to the latest government data has almost 700,000 inhabitants.
Touristic Washington is mainly developed along a long avenue that sees the main tourist attractions of the city concentrated around it. This is the National Mall, a large avenue delimited to the north by Constitution Avenue and to the south by Independence Avenue. At one end of this avenue, about three kilometers long, stands the Capitol while at the other end (towards the west) is the Lincoln Memorial. Between the two great attractions, museums, government institutions, and, a few steps away, the White House are arranged.
What to see: the main attractions
The visit to the city can only start from its emblem, the Capitol Hill on which stands the Capitol, home to the US House and Senate. With its white dome, 86 meters wide, it’s impossible not to notice it. All roads in Washington lead to the Capitol, making this monument the centerpiece of the city.
Visitors can access the Capitol only through the Capitol Visitor Center. Inside, you can admire the Crypt, the Capitol Rotunda, whose ceiling is frescoed with the work of the apotheosis of George Washington, as well as various paintings and statues. For groups of less than 15 people, it’s not mandatory to book a visit, but it’s recommended (here’s the necessary information).
Near the Capitol, you can find the largest library in the world, the Library of Congress, which boasts a collection of 128 million documents, written in 470 languages. Of these, 28 million are books. An invaluable heritage. Also near Capitol Hill, don’t miss the Botanical Garden.
Smithsonian, or the main museums of the city
Starting from the Capitol and heading west, you can find the main museums of the city.
Most of the museums in Washington are managed by a research institute run by the US government: the Smithsonian. In reality, this institute also oversees other US museums, a total of 19, but 11 of these are located on the National Mall, between the Capitol and the obelisk dedicated to George Washington.
The museum offerings in Washington are truly vast. There are a number of museums managed by the Smithsonian, including the Natural History Museum, the American History Museum, the American Art Museum, the African American History and Culture Museum, and even a Postal Museum. Visiting all of these museums in just a few days is quite a challenge, and visitors will have to make some difficult choices about which ones to prioritize.
If you are traveling with children, you shouldn’t miss a visit to the National Air & Space Museum. And if you’re interested in architecture, make sure to check out the National Museum of the American Indian, which features not only exhibits on the history of Native Americans, but also a beautiful dome worth admiring.
Here’s a map of all the museums in the area.
The White House
The White House, the residence of the American presidents since 1800, can currently only be admired from the outside by anyone who is not an American citizen. With the arrival of Trump, some things have actually changed. The White House website invites all foreigners who want to organize a visit to contact their embassy in Washington. However, this is the message reported on the website of the Italian embassy in Washington:
“Regardless of what is reported on the White House website, we point out that visits to the White House continue to be suspended until further notice. Therefore, requests for visits for non-American citizens cannot be submitted at the moment until new instructions are provided by the White House.”
From the outside, to the eyes of a European, this building may seem not very large for a governmental residence, accustomed as we are to the majestic European palaces. Yet, the neoclassical architecture of this villa has a European flavor. In fact, it is inspired by the works of the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio. You cannot miss taking a selfie in front of the main façade.
The patriotic monuments.
Along the path that goes from the great obelisk, namely the monument dedicated to George Washington, to the Lincoln Memorial, you are immersed in American patriotism with two other monuments: one dedicated to World War II and the other to the Vietnam War.
A pleasant walk to take in good weather, thanks to the large green lawns, is the one along the famous reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, a lake that we have come to know in many American movies and TV series. If you have seen Forrest Gump, you will understand that I am talking about the lake where Forrest reunites with his beloved Jenny after a long time: https://youtu.be/bLvqoHBptjg?t=2m4s
Like the White House, the Lincoln Memorial is also neoclassical in style, dedicated to the 16th American president, famous for ending slavery and an icon of American values.
Walking from Washington to Virginia across a bridge
From the Lincoln Memorial, the Arlington Memorial Bridge starts and crosses the Potomac River, leading from the center of Washington directly to Virginia. Arlington County is actually located in the state of Virginia, on the other side of the river, directly facing Washington.
Arlington is home to the headquarters of the Pentagon and also to the Arlington National Cemetery, whose entrance is located at the end of the Arlington Memorial Bridge. Inside the cemetery, in addition to military graves, there are also the tombs of various US presidents, actors, and even astronauts.
The solemn ceremony of the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is quite impressive. The ceremony takes place every hour. The cemetery can be reached from Washington by subway.
Crossing the bridge that leads from Pennsylvania Avenue to M Street, you find yourself catapulted into a neighborhood with a European flavor. This is Georgetown, a picturesque residential area of Washington that is home to a university of the same name (Georgetown University), a zoo, various parks, and gardens.
Georgetown used to be the city’s old black ghetto, but over time it has transformed into an exclusive area. With its low houses, it resembles some towns in old England. The main street, M Street, is full of shops and bars, but it’s by venturing into the side streets that you discover the cool soul of this neighborhood. The area is full of quaint shops and houses, and it comes alive at night with its ethnic bars and restaurants. Don’t miss the Georgetown Waterfront Park, which overlooks the Potomac River.
Interesting things I found while wandering around the city
What impressed me most about Washington in the spring were the magnolias. The flowers of these trees color the city center pink, brightening up the austere appearance of some buildings. Walking in the area of George Washington University, not far from the Lincoln Memorial, you can notice the characteristic student houses. They are recognized by the playful decorations on their windows.
Washington (at least in the downtown area) is orderly, clean, and organized.
It seems like everyone in Washington loves to go jogging and biking.
Washington is full of squirrels, apparently accustomed to humans. They approach fearlessly if you offer them nuts or peanuts.
One thing that struck me were the homeless people. Not as numerous as in other cities, but I still saw them in Washington. It’s something I’ll never get used to. People who lived a “normal” life, and then suddenly found themselves on the streets without welfare or family to protect them. Life around them goes on as if nothing’s happening, simply ignoring them.
We stayed at the Melrose Georgetown Hotel. This elegant hotel is located halfway between downtown Washington and Georgetown.
The Melrose Georgetown Hotel is conveniently located within walking distance of the Lincoln Memorial and just a stone’s throw away from M Street in Georgetown. It’s an excellent location for visiting the city center and its monuments during the day, and for dining or grabbing a drink at the various venues in Georgetown at night. The Foggy Bottom metro stop is not far away either. The hotel is clean, and both the lobby and the spacious rooms are well furnished. In the lobby, there is a corner with coffee and tea available for all guests, even if breakfast is not included in the reservation.
We stayed at the Melrose Georgetown hotel during Easter week, and the hotel organized an egg hunt for all the children staying there. The staff was incredibly kind and helpful, and the kids had a great time and received small prizes. The only downside for us was the very limited vegetarian options at the hotel restaurant. Other than that, we highly recommend the hotel.
Recommendations on where to eat
Whether in the city center or Georgetown, there is a wide variety of options. There are restaurants and eateries for all tastes. In front of the museums, you can even have a quick meal at the various food trucks.
A must-try is the American breakfast at Founding Farmers on Pennsylvania Avenue, near Foggy Bottom. This restaurant is well-known for its breakfast and brunch. It is advisable to make a reservation, even a day before, to avoid a long wait before finding an available table. You can enjoy the classic American breakfast with eggs, toast, and pancakes, but also much more. There are also many vegetarian options available.e.
Great food and fair prices. A fun experience is eating directly at the counter and watching the bartenders at work.
For transportation, we used both Uber, taxis, and the metro. Of the three services, the taxi is obviously the most expensive. Uber works very well and is widely used. You can even spot Uber cars lined up in front of the museums.
We used the Metro only once from Arlington to the city center. To use the Metro, you need to get a SmarTrip card, which costs $2. You can get it directly from the machines at the entrance of the metro stations. The card needs to be recharged and can be refunded. Here are all the information and an explanatory video.
This is what we managed to see in three days, but Washington has much more to offer…