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Top 20 (mostly free) things to do in Washington DC

If you love politics, history and museums, Washington DC, the capital of the United States, is a fantastic destination for a city break. There is SO much to do and see there, so we have made a list of our top 20 things you need to include on your Washington DC itinerary.

Wave at the White House: Probably the most famous address in US History (apart from Gettysburg? I'll show myself out...), the White House is home to the President of the United States. The elegant white building with its columns and famous curved Truman balcony somehow looks smaller in real life than expected, but the significant security and snipers on the roof leave you in no doubt the power vested in this office!

The Lincoln Memorial: Awe inspiring is the best way to describe the colossal statue of Abraham Lincoln. Sitting in his chair and surveying the reflecting pool and distant Capitol Hill through a row of enormous columns, the memorial made us think of Zeus in an ancient Greek temple. In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr stood on the steps of the memorial in order to deliver his famous "I have a dream" speech, and a carved paving stone marks the very spot.

Go up the Washington Monument: This enormous obelisk is one of Washington's most famous landmarks, dedicated to Founding Father and the nation's first president, George Washington. Set within a park and surrounded by a ring of American flags, the monument can be seen from all over the city. You have great views of the Capitol building and the White House from the base, and you can also go up inside the monument by elevator to an observation deck 500ft high! From the windows on all four sides at the top you can see the whole of Washington and into Maryland and Virginia. Back when it was completed in 1884, the Washington Monument was the tallest structure in the world... until 1889 when the Eiffel Tower was built.

At the moment, tickets to go up the monument have to be booked online and become available at 10am the day before. Have your phone or computer ready to go at 09:55am because as soon as those tickets go live, they go fast! The tickets themselves are free but there is a $1 booking fee per ticket.

See the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution at the National Archives: Set back one street from the National Mall on Constitution Avenue, head upstairs to the National Archives rotunda where you can see the three most important documents in the United States displayed in dimly lit glass cases. There is a noticeable security presence in the rotunda, but all of the guards are friendly, hugely knowledgeable about the Founding Documents and very happy to volunteer information and answer questions.

Timed entry tickets need to be booked in advance online (dates are released a few weeks at a time) and like with the Washington Monument, you pay $1 reservation fee for a free ticket. Bargain!

Vietnam War Memorial: This black wall inscribed with more than 58,000 names commemorates the Americans who died in the Vietnam War between 1955 and 1975. It is heartbreakingly long, and you can often see flags, flowers, photographs and drink miniatures left beneath the panels from relatives and friends.

WWII Memorial: You'll find this magnificent memorial at the opposite end of the reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial. It's a vast oval shape with a triumphal arch at either end and 56 columns, each with a bronze wreath dedicated to one of the United States/ US territories.

Ford's Theatre: On April 14 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in this theatre. Today, the venue still produces live performances, and for only £3 you can take a tour and visit the historic site and a small museum, which displays the actual gun used by John Wilkes Booth to murder the President.

Martin Luther King Memorial: We loved this memorial. Looking out across the Tidal Basin is a huge statue of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, emerging from a block of granite, a reference to a line from King's I Have A Dream speech: "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope." On either side of the statue are long walls carved with quotes from some of King's most famous speeches, and the address of the memorial is 1964 Independence Avenue, commemorating the year that the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.

Eat in the Mitsitam Café at the National Museum of the American Indian:

This awesome cafe serves food inspired by traditional Native recipes cuisines from five regions of the Western Hemisphere, from Meso America to the Pacific Northwest and the Great Plains, such as buffalo burgers, Indian fry bread, roasted turkey, tamales and soups. We had the turkey chilli with corn bread which was really good!

Georgetown: not just home to a famous university, this historic part of Washington DC is well worth setting aside a day for. As well as trendy shopping and a lively restaurant scene, you can wander cobblestone streets or the pretty canal towpath, admire rows of 18th and 19th century mansions (spot the green door of 3307 N Street where a young Senator Kennedy lived with his new wife Jackie - it was from this address that he announced his Presidential campaign, and the home they left from for JFK's inauguration) and seek out spooky Exorcist filming locations.

FDR Memorial: Walk anti clockwise around the tidal basin from the MLK memorial and you'll reach this extensive monument dedicated to the legacy of the 32nd president. Franklin Delano Roosevelt led his country out of the economic crisis and through WWII, and the memorial is divided into four "rooms", each representing a different term of office. There are numerous waterfalls, and multiple bronze statues, including two of FDR, scenes from the Great Depression and one of his wife, Eleanor. The largest statue shows the president seated with his dog, his wheelchair hidden beneath a heavy cloak, while a newer one near the entrance to the monument shows Roosevelt clearly seated in his wheelchair. This one was installed in 2001 after some disability advocates felt that by hiding his wheelchair it was implying a stigma about having a president with physical disabilities.

Korean War Memorial: I personally found this memorial the most moving of all. 19 soldiers make their way through a rice field, dressed in rain capes and helmets. It seemed so human, and along with a granite wall inscribed with "Freedom isn't free", this memorial serves as a really effective visual representation of the humans who sacrifice everything in the name of their nation.

Visit a Smithsonian Museum or three: this enormous institution looks after 21 museums and a zoo (more on that next) and has something for everyone. Even better, all they're all completely free! You can't possibly do all the museums in one trip, so have a look at the Smithsonian website and choose the ones you would most be interested in. We would recommend Air and Space, the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of Natural History.

The National Zoo: Also run by the Smithsonian Institution, also free. The zoo has some amazing animals to see including orangutans, gorillas, elephants and the most popular residents, 3 pandas!

Union Station: Just a few blocks away from the Capitol is beautiful Union Station. Completed in 1908, the neoclassical building boasts a Main Hall with a soaring 96 ft high ceiling. The Main Concourse is 760 ft long, 45 ft high and was once said to be the largest single room in the world! If you're exploring Capitol Hill it's well worth dropping in to view this grand building, and it's also where you'll catch an Amtrak train from if you're moving on - we took the Cardinal sleeper to Chicago!

Jefferson Memorial: Another very classical looking monument, the Jefferson Memorial looks like a Greek temple crossed with the pantheon in Rome, with dramatic steps, a colonnade of ionic columns and a domed roof. A large statue of the author of the Declaration of Independence looks out across the tidal basin towards the Washington Monument and the White House. There is a small museum underneath the memorial, and in late March/early April, this is a gorgeous place to see cherry blossom trees in full bloom.

National Portrait Gallery: This gallery is part of the Smithsonian Institute and like the other members, is free to visit. It contains the only complete collection of Presidential portraits outside of the White House.

Arlington National Cemetery: Walk over the Arlington Memorial Bridge behind the Lincoln Memorial into the state of Virginia to visit America's most sacred shrine, Arlington National Cemetery. Originally, this land was an estate belonging to George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington, and then his daughter Mary Anna who was married to Robert E Lee. After the civil war ended with Lee's surrender, the land was designated a national military cemetery. Today, approximately 400,000 veterans and their eligible dependents are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, dating from the Revolutionary Wars to the present day, and the row after row of neat white tomb stones are very moving.

One of the most frequently visited burial sites is that of President JFK and his wife Jackie, who are buried with two of their young children beside an eternal flame and a wall inscribed with a section of Kennedy's inaugural speech: "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." Other notable graves at Arlington include Supreme Court Justices Feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg and civil rights champion Thurgood Marshall, the memorials for the crews of space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where an armed guard marches beside stone crypts containing the remains of unidentified servicemen from the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War. The Vietnam War crypt is empty after the remains were in fact identified in 1998 and reburied in the soldier's home town in Missouri.

To plan your day, check out our complete guide to visiting Arlington Cemetery!

The US Capitol: Standing proud at the end of the National Mall, the huge white domed Capitol building is an iconic symbol of democracy. As the legislative seat of the United States, this is where the House of Representatives and the Senate meet to debate and pass federal laws. Post COVID, you are now able to book public tours of the building again.

While you're there, pop round to First Street -just behind the US Capitol is the elegant and imposing Supreme Court of the United States (or SCOTUS), the highest court in the federal judiciary of the United States of America, and the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world.

Marine Corps War Memorial - the Iwo Jima statue: Probably one of the most recognisable military statues in the world, the Marine Corps War Memorial was inspired by the iconic photograph of six United States Marines raising the U.S. flag at the top of Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. The Memorial is across the Potomac River in Virginia, and is about a 15 minute walk from Arlington National Cemetery or about a half hour walk from Georgetown through Rosslyn.

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