As an American, Washington DC was always on “the list in the back of my head” of places I should take my kids. Somehow that never happened. Now they are older, living their own busy lives, and I realized that I really wanted to visit for myself! So I booked myself a nice solo trip, looked through all the many many sights to see and whittled the list down to what was interesting to me alone! So self indulgent, but satisfying!
I must admit to being a bit surprised at what a pretty city Washington D.C. is! A common myth is that no buildings in the city can be taller than the Washington Monument, but actually the ordinance is based upon the width of the street, to a maximum height of 130 feet (commercial streets) and 90 feet (residential streets), and 160 feet for parts of Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. Or so I’ve been told by the internet (and a tour guide). 😉 Anyway… the low building heights give it a different feeling than other large cities. Also there is so much green space! It’s really pretty and very pleasant to walk around.
Read on for my 3 day trip report, and hopefully you will be able to use some of these ideas to plan your own Washington D.C. trip! Note that all of these sights were free except the ones with a $.
- What to See
- Where to Stay
- Where to Eat
- Additional thoughts
- In Summary
What to See
Be prepared to jump through some hoops to get a ticket for a White House Tour. For US Citizens, basically within a certain time frame before you visit you need to contact your Senator or Representative to request a ticket. Then you need to wait until about 2 weeks before the date of the tour to find out if you got a ticket or not. This makes things difficult for planning and getting tickets for other activities, but for me at least, it was worth the added stress.
For citizens from other countries contact your embassy in Washington DC. In researching this online I found many articles saying that non-US citizens could NOT tour the White House, but that is not the case now. There were many non-citizens touring the White House when I was there in September 2023.
The tour starts off with going through 3 screening areas/ metal detectors. They are very strict about what you can bring in: only a wallet (not handbag or any bag), glasses and a phone. They don’t have storage there either, but looks like there are nearby places you can find to pay to store your stuff if you need to.
The tour is self guided. You can download an app (WHExperience) and use that to read and/ or listen about the rooms/sights your are seeing. Since it is self guided you can go at your own pace and don’t need to stand in the lines people tend to form, if you aren’t particularly interested in studying every single thing. It was fun seeing how some of the carpets were just rolled up a bit so us tourists weren’t stepping on them (ie. these rooms are still being used now). The thought of so many Presidents and world leaders having been in those very rooms I was standing in was a bit thrilling, felt like I could “touch” history. Also, the thought that this is where all the news continues to happen right now just a few feet away is wild!
The tour took me less than 1/2 an hour from beginning to end.
There is a gift shop right across from the White House, which was pretty good actually: White House Gifts. Large selection of reasonably priced souvenirs. Also, if you spent more than $50 you could get a fun photo taken for free. Here’s mine 😀
The official White House Visitor Center is a few blocks down from the White House and is definitely worth a visit. In fact, if you don’t end up getting a White House ticket plan on spending some time here to get your dose of White House history. It has exhibits about the White House and the First Families and a nice gift shop with high quality prints, jewelry, Christmas ornaments etc.
Be aware that you need to go through a metal detector to enter the White House Visitor Center. I made the mistake of entering the building with a cup of coffee, and had 2 security people YELL at me that drinks were not allowed! I sheepishly slinked outside to throw my coffee away. Jeez!
You can sign up for a tour of the Capitol Building on their web site. If you’d like to visit the House or Senate galleries you can get a pass to do so from your Representative or Senator. I had contacted one of my state’s representatives and stopped by her office on the morning my Capitol Building tour. If you’d rather see the Senate in session instead of the House of Representatives be sure to contact your Senator instead. I heard non-US citizens being instructed to go to the House and Senate Appointment Desk in the Capitol Building to get gallery passes.
The tour starts with a short, but very informative, movie. Then the guide leads you through the Crypt, the Rotunda and the National Statuary Hall. There are many tours going on at once so they have you wear earphones and your guide speaks to you through them. It worked out well. It was a very interesting tour! About 2 hours long.
Moonlit Monuments Tour $
It seemed that everything I read recommended taking a Moonlit Monuments tour while in DC. I am really glad I followed that advice. The tour I took was “Washington DC Moonlit Tour of the National Mall & Stops at 10 Sites” with Signature Tours. It was around $70 for the 3 hour tour. There were about 25 of us on a large, comfortable, air conditioned bus. Our guide, Sally, was wonderful! She spoke over a microphone on the bus, telling us all about the history of what we were seeing. She was so knowledgeable, and could make some possibly dry subject matter feel very alive and interesting. It was interesting to learn all of the symbolism used in each of the monuments. As you may have guessed from the tour’s title it stopped at 10 sites. It was a good number of stops with 10 to 25 minutes to get out and take pictures, look around, use the bathroom etc!
This Smithsonian Museum (no ticket/reservation required) features “artifacts of all kinds—from gowns to locomotives—to preserve an enduring record of our past for the American people.” My favorite exhibits were the “Entertainment Nation”, (items from popular movies and TV shows) and The First Ladies exhibit. The First Ladies exhibit shows many of their inaugural gowns and other famous outfits and accessories. Also on display are the formal China sets each First Lady chose.
The National Archives Museum is where you can see Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. It’s free and tickets are not required, though you can book a timed entry slot for $1. No photos at all are allowed. I lucked out going mid afternoon on a Thursday and the crowd was very light. It was indeed impressive to see these famous documents, in a rather dim room, encased in sturdy cabinets. The Declaration of Independence was so faded I could barely make out the writing. I was surprised how big the pieces of paper were! Probably about 3’x3′.
You can visit the Supreme Court building for free with no reservation. When Court is in session they allow visitors to watch on a first come first served basis. On the day I visited Court was not in session but they offered a 20 minute lecture in the Courtroom for visitors. We sat in the Courtroom and a guide told us all about how the Court works and answered questions. There is a gift shop and you can go to the Courthouse cafeteria. Very interesting to see and to be in the “room where it happens”.
The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world with millions of books, maps, newspapers, etc. It’s the main research arm of the United States Congress. Admission is free but you do need to get a timed entry pass to go in. You can also apply for a library card online, then when you get there you get your photo taken for the library card and you can go into the Reading Rooms.
Look here for the full list of all fun facts about the Library of Congress. My favorite parts were the beautiful design of the Great Hall, Thomas Jefferson’s Personal Library (He sold it to the Library in 1815 after the British burned down the original Library in the War of 1812), and the Gutenberg Bible (one of 3 existing perfect copies of this first mechanical printing of the Bible).
There is a tunnel between the Capitol Building and the Library of Congress, so if you finish touring one you can go through the tunnel to the other. I’d hoped this would be like a creepy, cobweb filled, old-timey tunnel, but it’s just like a long office hallway. 😀 Still, nice to not have to go back out in the weather if it’s not great.
This free, no-reservation-needed, “living plant museum” was a nice break from the heavy government & history sights in which I’d been immersed. Green houses and outdoor gardens representing different plants / climates from around the US (world?) are featured. This is right on the Mall, about a 10 minute walk from the Capitol Building.
This DC Headquarters is an office that primarily handles NASA’s Leadership and “red tape”. They have a few interesting exhibits you can stop in and see for free. The most fun is a real moon rock you can touch! They also have a nice gift shop. This was an unexpected, fun place I stumbled upon.
The Spy Museum ended up being one of my surprise favorites in Washington! I had really wanted tour the FBI, but I missed the time frame for requesting a ticket in advance. So, I ended up going to this museum as a sort of consolation prize. I ended up spending over 2 hours here and I really had fun and found it interesting. (I did want to be one of Charlie’s Angels as a kid, after all!). There are tons of exhibits and artifacts related to real life spies!
When you enter you are given a card with a spy identity. Then in each exhibit room you can choose to use your card at a kiosk to solve little puzzles related to that exhibit in your “spy role”. I thought this might be dumb at first, but I ended up loving it!
There’s a great gift shop full of fun spy things! The entrance ticket was about $30.
Where to Stay
I chose this hotel based on it’s location (near the sights, and a 5 minute walk to a Metro station), cost (less than $300 per night) and because it looked interesting and cool! It is a European Hotel chain, very young, modern and eco-conscious. You check yourself in and out via kiosk in the lobby. There is an employee there to help if needed. The ground floor has a full bar and serves a fairly limited menu. They do serve a buffet breakfast in the morning. There’s a rooftop bar with a great view of the Capitol Building dome.
The rooms in the CitizenM are all exactly the same. All have an XL King size bed, and ensuite shower/bathroom. It was plenty of room for one person. Two people might feel a bit cramped. The room has an iPad to use to control the TV, lights, temperature and blinds. The bed/sheets were very nice and comfortable. I found the pillows way too firm for me and they quickly gave me perfectly soft pillows in exchange. Great shower with a rainforest overhead shower head and a hand-held one.
Where to Eat
Because this was a solo trip, and I was generally exhausted by the end of each day from all the walking, I ended up just grabbing food at my hotel many times. They did have some good sandwiches and pizzas. They also had a breakfast buffet I got once and didn’t think it was worth it.
This restaurant is right across the street from the White House. It is the oldest “saloon” in DC, and through its various incarnations has been visited by The Rolling Stones, Stephen Colbert, and Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Andrew Johnson, George H. W. Bush and Theodore Roosevelt. What’s not to like?
It’s very pretty inside and the food was very good. I went for lunch and got a Turkey sandwich, salad and martini! The clientele was about 1/4 old white guys in suits and 3/4 tourists. One old white guy in a suit walked by my table, closely followed by a young guy in a suit with an earpiece in (like a Secret Service agent!) I couldn’t figure out who he was though. But still…!
One late afternoon I went down to the Wharf area. This is a relatively new area featuring many waterside restaurants. I got a cheeseburger which was delicious! I recommend for a good burger!
After your Capitol Building tour be sure to stop by its cafeteria for a tiny Capitol Building White Chocolate dessert! (They have a good salad bar too.)
I planned my days out to see sights that were in approximately the same area so I was able to walk most of the time. Otherwise I used Lyft from and to the airport, and the Metro and buses. The Metro seem clean and safe. It also looks like a 1980’s version of the “future”.
President is in trouble movies
One weird “fun fact” about me is that my favorite type of action movies are of the “President is in trouble” genre! I’m not sure when this started, but over time I’ve found that pretty much the only time I will choose to watch an action movie is if it involves the President being in trouble. haha. I don’t want the President to actually be in trouble, BTW! There’s something about all of the protocol, urgency, gravity, and I guess, patriotism, that makes these types of movies interesting. Viewing these movies made my trip to Washington more fun in that I felt very familiar with many of the sights I was seeing! Of course I was vigilant while visiting the White House to ensure I was able to help should the Secret Service need me! 😀 I am always on the lookout for a good president is in trouble movie. Here are some that I’ve enjoyed. Please let me know if there are more you can think of that you like!
- Air Force One
- White House Down
- Olympus Has Fallen
- Angel Has Fallen
- Loyal Opposition – this is a 1998 made for TV movie starring Knots Landing’s Joan Van Ark. I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime and it is one of the corniest (and most enjoyable) movies I’ve seen! If you’re in the mood for ultimate 90’s (meant to be serious) camp check it out!
President isn’t actually in physical danger movies
Other movies where the President isn’t in physical danger are also fun! Especially to watch right before or after your visit to Washington DC:
Washington DC is a fascinating, walkable and pretty city! I would love to visit again to be able to explore more museums and different parts of the city. Please let me know of your favorite DC places that I’ve missed! Thanks for reading!