Capital Ideas for a Washington DC Visit

Washington DC Things to Do

Bill Clinton was President of the United States when I took a White House tour on my second Washington DC visit. I’m not telling who was in office when I visited the nation’s capital for the first time, but I can assure you that it wasn’t Teddy Roosevelt. In the past several months, I’ve been lucky enough to have taken two more trips to the United States Capital, most recently in May. Each time I found new places to visit in Washington DC to inform, inspire, or amuse me. You might like to have these experiences, too.

Presidential Portraits at Occidental Grill and Seafood

Portraits of Presidents at Occidental Grill and Seafood

Let’s Start With Lunch

As many of you know, eating out in places with good food, ambiance and local significance is a priority with me when I travel. A favorite of mine has become the landmark Occidental Grill and Seafood just one block from the White House. The walls are filled with photographs of the famous and powerful people who have dined there for over 100 years including Amelia Earhart, Robert Frost, statesmen and presidents. I like to sit on the large outdoor patio, but at a table inside the restaurant there’s an interesting piece of 1960s history. A plaque at the table reads, “At this table during the tense moments of the Cuban missile crisis a Russian offer to withdraw missiles from Cuba was passed by the mysterious Russian ‘Mr. X’ to ABC-TV correspondent John Scali. On the basis of this meeting the threat of a possible nuclear war was avoided.”

Occidental Grill and Seafood

Occidental Grill and Seafood, Washington D.C.

Go Undercover

What sort of subterfuge is this man engaged in?

International Spy Museum

The International Spy Museum was a big hit with me since I fantasized about being a spy when I was growing up and still enjoy films and books with international intrigue. There are extensive exhibits, interactive displays and in-depth historical information about espionage (the world’s “second oldest profession”) and the role that intelligence plays in current events. Many of the artifacts, such as a lipstick pistol, tear gas pen, disguise kit, and wristwatch microphone seem like they’re straight from the movies. You really can go undercover in a one hour experience, “Operation Spy”, by taking on the identity of an intelligence officer on a mission that is based on actual cases.

Celebrate Freedom of the Press

Newseum in Washinton D.C.

Inside the Newseum, Washington D.C.

The impressively-designed Newseum with a 90 foot high atrium has wide-ranging exhibits emphasizing the freedoms of the First Amendment: Press, Speech, Religion, Petition and Assembly. The galleries showcase the history and evolution of news gathering, Pulitzer Prize photographs, a journalists memorial, world news, new media technologies and major events. There’s also a full studio where ABC and (you might be surprised to hear) Al Jazeera do live broadcasts.

Engine Parts from September 11th Planes

Most memorable for me were the FBI Exhibit, much of which is focused on the role of the organization in fighting terrorism, and the 9/11 Gallery. I really wasn’t expecting to see some of the World Trade Center artifacts in this exhibit — engine parts of planes that crashed into the twin towers, cell phones found in the debris and items belonging to airplane passengers.

Sections of the Berlin Wall at Newseum, Washington D.C.

Berlin Wall and Guard Tower at Newseum, Washington D.C.

For those who haven’t seen remnants of the Berlin Wall in Germany, they can see eight sections of the original wall and a guard tower at the Newseum.

Contemplate Modern Art

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.

For extensive and eclectic modern art exhibits when you visit Washington DC, spend some time at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, located on the National Mall. There were many paintings and sculptures that I liked, including this one by Giacomo Balla below. I previously posted about other interesting installations in Round Rainbow and Four Artists, Four Photos. (Check with the museum for information on current exhibitions.)

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Boccioni by Giacomo Balla

Picture Early American History

My introduction to the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum was an excellent walking tour guided by Katie Wood Kirchoff of Context Travel.

A Dog Swap by Richard Norris Brooke

A Dog Swap (1881), Richard Norris Brooke

The tour took us through galleries of selected works depicting the people who influenced and shaped America from its founding. We examined American art from the Revolution, through westward expansion, the Civil War and other crucial periods in American history — each painting telling stories of struggle, hope, social consciousness and everyday life.

Landsdowne Portrait of George Washington

Landsdowne Portrait of George Washington

The famous Landsdowne portrait of George Washington is at the entrance to the gallery’s collection of 43 presidential portraits (not to be confused with the portraits at the landmark Occidental Grill in the first photo).

Explore the Neighborhoods

DuPont Circle

Getting around to Washington’s neighborhoods is easy on the Metro system. One of the areas that I particularly like is DuPont Circle for shopping, dining and nightlife. I love the international feel of the neighborhood’s Embassy Row which is home to many foreign embassies. Within walking distance of DuPont Circle are other popular districts such as historic Georgetown and Adams Morgan.

Pay Tribute

Korean War Veterans Memorial

Korean War Veterans Memorial

People around the world are familiar with the iconic images of Washington’s many monuments and memorials, particularly the towering Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol building. There are statues and monuments everywhere in Washington from honoring, presidents, generals, prominent individuals and powerful leaders. There are also three memorials honoring our war veterans World War II, Vietnam and Korea that I visited just before Memorial Day and photographed for Remembrance in Washington D.C.

Venture Farther Afield

Old Town Alexandria from Gadsby’s Tavern

Besides places in Washington DC itself, nearby Alexandria, Virginia is definitely worth a visit, even for just an afternoon of walking in the footsteps of George Washington in Old Town Alexandria. Lunch at Gadsby’s, where George often dined, is a good place to start your tour of some key sights, such as Christ Church, the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum and the many historic homes of Alexandria.

Of course, there are many more places to explore on your Washington DC visit and the surrounding area. So plan your dates, book your flights, check out hotels and vacation apartments in Washington, and see D.C. during the Obama administration. A capital idea!

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51 thoughts on “Capital Ideas for a Washington DC Visit

  1. Leigh

    I’ve yet to make it to Washington – except the airport but that doesn’t count. I love the sound of lunch at the Occidental Grill and anything spy like would resonate with me. A great post Cathy.

    1. Cathy Post author

      I swear, I’m becoming a regular at Occidental Grill. 🙂 Great location for people-watching — never know who might come by.

  2. Lisa @ Gone With The Family

    It’s been years since I’ve been in Washington as well but we are hoping to get there soon now that both of our girls are old enough to appreciate the museums and the historical and political attractions. These are great suggestions for things to do!

  3. Lisa

    Cathy, I had no idea that there was a museum with pieces of the engines, cell phones and personal items of the passengers who died in 9/11. That would be deeply moving and sad to see. I would love to experience that restaurant and see all those famous presidential and historical photos, especially Amelia Earhart.

    1. Cathy Post author

      I was completely surprised to see those exhibits. I had only heard very general things about the Newseum. Very moving, indeed.

  4. Mary @ The World Is A book

    Such a great round-up of fun activities. I would love to visit the Spy Museum. It’s been years since my husband and I visited. We’re still waiting a bit until the kids can fully appreciate all the history and museums. Thanks for the tips, Cathy.

    1. Cathy Post author

      You’re welcome. I think that you and the kids would love the Spy Museum. Interesting information and fun activites!

  5. Sophie

    Great idea for DC. I spent a week there many years ago, but only managed to get to know Georgetown and the Smithsonian. Of course, that easily takes a week in itself.

  6. Jenna

    I’m late commenting this week on TPT posts… Washington, D.C. has so much, especially in terms of museums and historical significance. I would not have thought of going to museums about spying and news, but I’m sure they are very interesting! The last time I was there, I went to the Holocaust Museum and found it to be very well done, very moving.

  7. Jools Stone

    Some interesting looking museums there. I like the sound of the spy one too. I wonder how they decide what they can allow us to see there and what’s still under wraps? I’m just back from Leipzig’s Staisi museum which was very chilling.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Good question, Jools. I can only imagine what gear they’ve got available now. The Staisi museum must have been fascinating, but like you said, “chilling”.

  8. Annie - FootTracker

    I love the Spy Museum!! I went there a couple years ago, and love how you can have lots of hands on experience there =D (I got good at the surveillance camera recognizing people part ~)

    Reading your post I realized there are still a lot in Washington that I missed out though~ next time next time.

  9. Andreaq

    I’m still so sad I missed out on the real sights of DC when I was there. I was helping a family friend and she only took me to Georgetown for dinner one night…I really have to go back. This looks like my kind of day out!

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks so much, Marianne! You’d LOVE the Spy Museum if you like those shows. By the way, I’ve been addicted to the whole MI-5/Spooks series recently and just watched the very last episode last night. Sad it was the last one!

  10. Andrew Graeme Gould

    A good amount of activates in this comprehensive list, Cathy. I like how you started out with lunch, too. Good to get your priorities right! I’ll certainly keep this post in mind for a future visit, so many thanks.

  11. Dave Bagley

    HI Cathy. Great post. I realize now my family and I missed a lot of interesting sites when we visited. I hope we can make it back again sometime. Thanks for the information.


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