Washington, D.C., is a fabulous city to explore on your own. I should know. I came to college not knowing a soul in the nation’s capital. Since then, I’ve spent many hours exploring the city’s unique landmarks.
First, the basics: Washington is a museum lover’s paradise, with more than one per square mile. The Smithsonian venues and the National Gallery of Art are free of charge to explore, so they’re great choices if you have only a couple of hours. When I worked as a Cabinet speechwriter, I’d sometimes slip across Constitution Avenue to the NGA for a few moments of escape and inspiration (and maybe a treat at the Gallery’s fabulous gelato bar).
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And there are even more monuments and memorials. These are especially lovely at night, when they’re lit up, and their white marble quietly glows. But I don’t recommend walking around Washington alone after dark, especially if you’re not familiar with the area. Fortunately, you can take a moonlight trolley tour that will show you the most popular monuments and memorials.
But if you really want to connect with the stories of America’s home town, I recommend a walking tour. The best way to explore a city is on foot, and Washington has dozens of tours. Here are a few options:
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865 came out of the most significant, and possibly worst carried out, conspiracy of the 19th century.
On April 14, President Lincoln, along with his wife and two friends, attended a play in the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theatre. At about 10:10 p.m., actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth burst into the box and shot the President in the back of the head; he then jumped out of the Box down to the stage and escaped out to his horse, leading to a 12-day man-hunt, which ended when Booth was caught and killed in Port Royal, Virginia.
Meanwhile, a mortally wounded Lincoln was carried across an alley to Petersen’s Boarding House, where he died on April 15.
Booth’s co-conspirator George Atzerodt, a Confederate sympathizer from Germany, was supposed to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson at his home, a couple of blocks from Ford’s, but lost his nerve.
Conspirator David Herold, a pharmacist’s assistant, led Lewis Powell, a Confederate spy and deserter, to the home of Secretary of State William Seward in the fashionable neighborhood of Lafayette Square in order to kill him. But Powell’s revolver misfired, and he took his knife to Seward and other members of the household. All were severely wounded but survived.
Herold fled to a boarding house owned by Mary Surratt. She was a widow and a Confederate sympathizer, and the conspirators had met at the boarding house several times. Powell, who did not know the city well, turned up there three days later, still in bloody clothes, while the police were searching the establishment.
Surratt, Atzerodt, Powell, and Herold were quickly tried and convicted. All four were hanged on July 7, making Surratt the first woman to be executed by the U.S. government. (There’s some debate among historians about whether Surratt was involved in the conspiracy, but most agree that she was guilty.)
This outdoor tour visits Ford’s Theater, Peterson’s Boarding House, and the sites of the Johnson and Seward homes. It begins at St. John’s Church, known as the Church of the Presidents. During the Civil War, Lincoln would occasionally slip unobtrusively alone in and out of the last pew for evening service. During the 2020 riots, “law-enforcement” personnel tear-gassed protesters, clearing a path for Donald Trump to strut across Lafayette Park and hold up “A Bible” at a photo op in front of the Church’s parish house.
You may explore these sites on your own if you prefer. Ford’s Theatre is a working venue; I saw 1776 there. The Ford’s Theatre Museum displays artifacts related to the assassination, including the Deringer pistol with which Booth shot Lincoln. You may see the Theatre with a Museum ticket if it is not in use for a performance. Also included with the museum ticket is a visit to the Petersen House, where you may see three rooms decorated with period furnishings. There is also a Visitor Center with exhibits about Lincoln’s legacy.
You may worship at St. John’s Church; just don’t sit in Pew 54, because it’s reserved for the sitting President. The Johnson home was demolished; an office building now occupies its site. The Seward home was also razed; a federal court replaced it. The Surratt boarding house in Washington is now a Chinatown restaurant and karaoke bar called Wok and Roll. Mary Surratt also owned a tavern in Clinton, Maryland; it is now the Surratt House Museum.
Hotels within walking distance of Ford’s Theatre include:
- Riggs Washington D.C.
- Kimpton Hotel Monaco Washington D.C.
- Waldorf Astoria Washington D.C.
- Willard InterContinental Washington
Embassy Row is a stretch along Massachusetts Avenue in northwest Washington. It passes through Dupont Circle, where I went to grad school, and the Kalorama neighborhood where Barack and Michelle Obama live. (In college, I lived a little further up Mass Ave, in an apartment I shared with two other girls.)
It’s home not only to the majority of the District’s diplomatic buildings but also to several Gilded Age mansions.
The period between Reconstruction and World War I saw a lots of opulent homes built along Massachusetts Avenue. During this time, the flamboyant style of l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris greatly influenced American architecture — and perhaps nowhere was this more evident than on Massachusetts Avenue, where the nouveau riche challenged the old-money set of Lafayette Square.
One of these cathedrals to conspicuous consumption typically featured a grand entrance and stairway, a library, a ballroom, a conservatory, and several drawing rooms. They would host musicales, dinner parties, ladies’ teas, and other gatherings, especially during the Christmastime to Lent social season. This winter lifestyle simmered down during World War I and finally dried out with the Great Depression.
This outdoor tour takes visitors by dozens of opulent embassies and residences and introduces you to the international side of our nation’s capital and to the glamour of Washington in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
If you prefer to visit inside a Gilded Age mansion, I highly recommend Anderson House in Dupont Circle. You may take a complimentary docent-led tour of the 20th-century winter home of Larz and Isabel Anderson. The House is also the headquarters of the Society of the Cincinnati and its American Revolution Institute, which offers excellent lectures on historical topics; most of them are free of charge to attend.
If you want to go inside an embassy, well, your best bet is probably to come in early May, when they hold open houses. Usually the non-EU embassies open up to the public on the first Saturday of the month, with their EU counterparts following suit on the second Saturday. I’ve gone, and it’s a blast: tasting cultural foods and drinks, hearing music, and meeting others who enjoy the same things. And this year, the British Embassy gave out pieces of Coronation cake.
Hotels on or near Dupont Circle include:
The Cold War was a decades-long period of tension between the United States and our allies and the Soviet Union and its satellites. It began in the aftermath of World War II, when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. effectively divided Europe between themselves.
Its most prominent symbol was the Berlin Wall, which East Germany began building in 1961 to stop residents from escaping to the West. Two years later, President John F. Kennedy visited West Berlin and declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner“, translated generously as “I am a Berliner” and ungenerously as “I am a jelly doughnut.” The Wall remained, an ugly scar on the world’s hope for peace and freedom.
When Ronald Reagan became President in 1981, he began building up America’s military defenses, understanding that the Soviet planned economy could not possibly produce enough growth to keep up. On June 12, 1987, President Reagan stood in West Berlin and demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” On November 9, 1989, the Wall began tumbling down.
On December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. After nearly half a century, America had won the Cold War.
This outdoor tour takes you by the homes of six colorful women who were prominent in the fashionable Georgetown neighborhood during the Cold War:
Polly Wisner Fritchey hosted a “Sunday Night Supper Club”, where ambassadors, politicians, and journalists would discuss Cold War concerns, among other matters. Her first husband, Frank Wisner, was chief of covert action at the Central Intelligence Agency; he committed suicide in 1965. Her second husband, Clayton Fritchey, was a Washington Post syndicated columnist named on Richard Nixon‘s enemies list; he died in 2001 after a fall at home. She died a year later.
Evangeline Bell Bruce worked in London during World War II for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA. The head of the London office at the time was David Bruce, who divorced his wife in 1945 and married Evangeline Bell three days later. He continued on a long diplomatic career, serving as Ambassador to France, West Germany, and the United Kingdom, spanning every President from Harry Truman to Gerald Ford. She wrote a book titled Napoleon and Josephine: an Improbable Marriage and hosted glittering parties attended by other socialites like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. He died in 1977; she died in 1995.
Mary Pinchot Meyer was a pacifist painter and daughter of a wealthy socialist. In 1945, Mary Pinchot married fellow one-worlder Cord Meyer. In 1951, he joined the CIA. Two years later, he was accused of being a communist; Frank Wisner defended him, and he remained with the Agency. In 1958, the Meyers divorced. Mary Meyer moved to Georgetown and became friendly with Jacqueline Kennedy. At some time around 1961, she began an affair with John F. Kennedy. She was mysteriously murdered in Washington less than a year after his assassination.
Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman was a 19-year-old British aristocrat who worked as a translator at the Foreign Office in London. There she met and married Randolph Churchill, son of future Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in 1939. A few years later, she began an affair with married American envoy Averell Harriman. She filed for divorce from Churchill in 1945. Over the years, she had affairs with countless men including American journalist Edward R. Murrow, Persian Prince Aly Khan, and French Baron Elie de Rothschild. In 1959, she met married theatre producer Leland Hayward, whose Broadway shows include Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific and The Sound of Music. The two married the following year, one day after Hayward’s divorce from his fourth wife. He died in 1971. Six months later, she married the then-widowed Harriman. That same year, she became a U.S. citizen. Averell Harriman died in 1986. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Pamela Harriman as U.S. Ambassador to France. She died in February 1997, a day after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage while swimming at the Ritz at the Place Vendôme.
Lorraine Rowan Cooper hosted a fashionable Monday afternoon salon during the 1960s. She had married John Cooper in 1955 after her two previous divorces. John Cooper served several terms as a U.S. Senator from Kentucky, and Lorraine Cooper became president of the Senate Wives Club. They were among the first to entertain the Kennedys after the 1961 Inauguration. In 1974, President Ford appointed John Cooper as the first U.S. Ambassador to East Germany. The couple hosted dinner parties that brightened the mostly dreary life of East Berlin. They returned to Washington in 1976. He resumed practicing law; she continued hosting parties. She died in 1985; he died in 1991.
Katharine Meyer Graham was born in New York City in 1917, to Eugene and Agnes Meyer. In 1933, Eugene Meyer bought the Washington Post at auction. In 1940, Katharine Meyer married Philip Graham. Six years later, Eugene Meyer appointed Philip Graham as publisher of the Post. In the early 1960s, Graham had an affair with a stringer for Newsweek, which the Post owned. In 1963, he committed suicide. Katharine Graham became publisher of the Post. In 1971, the Post and the New York Times published parts of the top-secret “Pentagon Papers”, which revealed the government’s efforts to deceive Americans regarding U.S. actions in Vietnam. In response, the Nixon White House established a Special Investigations Unit, colloquially called the “Plumbers” because their job was to stop leaks. A year later, when President Nixon was running for re-election, the “Plumbers” twice broke into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at The Watergate complex. Thanks to their clumsiness, the shoe-leather reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and the support of Katharine Graham, the Post broke what remains the biggest story of its 145-year history, ultimately resulting in the first and only resignation of a U.S. President. Nearly 30 years later, in 2001, Katharine Graham died in Idaho after a head injury resulting from a fall.
The tour doesn’t stop at any of the homes where Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis lived, but it does include time for a bite at Martin’s Tavern, where John F. Kennedy proposed to her in 1953.
None of the homes on the tour is open to the public. But if you would like to see pieces of the Berlin Wall, there are a few in Washington that you may visit:
- There is a large panel of the Wall at the Ronald Reagan Building near the Federal Triangle Metro Station.
- There is a small chunk of the Wall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History on the Mall.
- The base of Ronald Reagan’s statue in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda incorporates fragments of the Wall.
If you would like to get a feel for Berlin during the Cold War, the International Spy Museum in L’Enfant Plaza has a fabulous immersive exhibit Berlin: City of Spies.
Hotels in or near Georgetown include:
- the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown, Washington D.C.
- Four Seasons Hotel Washington D.C.
- Fairmont Washington D.C. Georgetown
Resources to help plan your trip to Washington, D.C.
Find flights. The most convenient airport to Washington is Reagan National, just across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia; its code is DCA. If you are coming from overseas, you will most likely fly into Dulles International, further out in Virginia; its code is IAD.
Make dinner reservations. The Washington area has 120 Michelin restaurants and 119 Bilt restaurants.
Join Lyft. It’s convenient for ground transportation.
Join Priority Pass. The program offers members access to lounges and discounts on restaurants at airports. At Dulles, you have access as follows:
- Concourse A: Air France | KLM Lounge and Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse
- Concourse B: Turkish Airlines Lounge and Lufthansa Business Lounge
Join Rakuten. The program pays you cash-back for booking through its portal. As of this writing, Rakuten is offering up to 6 percent cash back at Booking and TripAdvisor.
Use the right rewards credit cards. Some good options that pay you cash-back or travel points:
- Bilt pays 3 points/dollar on dining and 2 points/dollar on travel.
- Capital One Quicksilver pays 1.5 percent cash-back on all spending.
- Capital One Savor pays 4 percent cash-back on dining and entertainment.
- Capital One Venture X pays 2 miles/dollar on purchases.
- Discover pays 5 percent cash-back on categories that rotate quarterly and 1 percent cash-back on other spending.
Protect your peace of mind with:
Read reviews. Not sure about something? Tripadvisor has lots of real-people reviews for things to do in Washington.