My wife and I lived in Alexandria, VA, for almost fifteen years during the last part of my military career and at the beginning of my second career as a high school teacher. Despite the traffic congestion and often ridiculous work commutes, DC is an awesome place to live. We know that because of all the visitors who stayed with us over the years. Metro transportation is pretty simple and convenient, and most of the great things to do and see in the area are free. The expensive thing is lodging, which was free to our friends and family who stayed with us.
We had to laugh, however, that folks would come for a weekend to “see DC.” We would tell them they couldn’t even do one of the major museums over a weekend. The best thing to do, we would advise them, is to research ahead of time and visit one or maybe two things right. Honestly, it would take a solid, exhausting, mind-numbing week to do DC the way a tourist should do DC, and even then, they would just hit the major sites.
Although there are many meaningful museums, if you have a week, this is my short list of the must-see stops for most tourists.
The National Air and Space Museum is what most visitors think of first when they think of The Smithsonian. Turn in any direction in any place in the museum and witness history firsthand. This museum along with Natural History are two favorites to bring grandchildren. But don’t be surprised if they are even overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the displays. Sensory overload can happen quickly. It might be best to research ahead of time and focus on a few displays, exhibitions, or activities rather than attempting to take it all in.
The Museum of Natural History is a kid favorite. There are far too many permanent and temporary exhibits to even begin listing them. Their website provides a little scale: “The main building on the National Mall contains 1.5 million square feet of space overall and 325,000 square feet of exhibition and public space; altogether the Museum is the size of 18 football fields, and houses over 1000 employees.” Whether you or your grandchildren are interested in gems, dinosaurs, or butterflies, you will find something here that will thrill and fascinate you and them.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum should be a required stop for everyone who visits DC. It is not simply an account of what happened to the Jews and other victims of the Nazis, but also a warning that genocide is still happening. It goes without saying that the subject matter is serious. If you are accompanying children or teenagers, a gentle reminder to them beforehand that this is a solemn place is encouraged. Admission is free. Tickets are needed from March through August to visit the Museum’s Permanent Exhibition, which tells the history of the Holocaust from 1933 to 1945. Tickets are not required to enter the Museum or to view any other Museum exhibitions.
New to the area is Museum of the Bible. It is within short walking distance from the Mall and on the same block as the Federal Center metro stop. The Bible is still the most read book in the world and the most influential book in history. The museum has numerous permanent and temporary exhibits with many artifacts on loan from major collections around the world. Whether you are interested in the Jewish texts, Bible translations, or research, this world-class museum is one of a kind.
For anyone who has visited galleries in Europe and around the ancient world, the National Gallery of Art will not disappoint. However, it is a reminder that the United States is a young country compared to the rest of the world, and much of the great art is from these older cultures. So, if you would like to see Titians or Van Goghs without travelling abroad, the National Gallery is a fabulous place to visit. Tip: If you find galleries overwhelming, select a specific exhibition or artist beforehand. Research a bit, and then focus your attention on that exhibit or artist. You could find your experience much more rewarding.
My wife wanted the American History Museum on this list, but, honestly, there are so many amazing places to visit in our Nation’s capital, I could easily list a dozen. Do a little research. Go with a plan. Don’t be too surprised or disappointed if your teenage grandchildren would rather throw a frisbee on the Mall than walk through a museum.
How to get around town: If you can’t get there on the Metrorail system or with Uber, you probably don’t want to go there anyway. Another DC travel tip is that the Metrorail goes to Reagan National Airport. If you get a hotel near the rail system, you don’t need a car, because if you think driving in DC is confusing, try finding a place to park.
Next – Free activities in DC that only locals know about.
About the author: Bob Poliquin is our managing editor and a ten-year resident of Sun City Carolina Lakes. He is also a frequent contributor to and editor of Living @ Sun City Carolina Lakesmagazine.
Photos courtesy of Alexa Gaul (Cherry Blossoms) and Roberto Nickson (Museum of Natural History).