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Molly McArdle
July 25, 2017

Famous for its iconic monuments — and its powerful inhabitants — Washington, D.C. is more than just the seat of the federal government.

A thriving artistic and cultural center, D.C. is the home of historic and present day luminaries from Frederick Douglass to Mary McLeod Bethune, Duke Ellington to Marvin Gaye, Anne Beattie to Taraji P. Henson.

Here are some points of interest in the nation's capital that you won't want to miss.

The National Mall

America’s front lawn, the Mall’s roughly two miles of museums and monuments, trees and grass, have been the backdrop to historic inaugurations, protests, and Fourth of July celebrations. The monuments — all worth visiting — are open, and very impressive looking, day or night.

The Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum and research complex, with 11 museums and galleries on the National Mall, five museums and a zoo in D.C., two museums in New York City, and one in Virginia.

On the Mall, the hottest ticket around is to the superbly designed and curated National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Air and Space and Natural History remain tried and true crowd pleasers. (Who can say no to touching a moon rock, or ogling at dinosaur bones?)

The best part of the Smithsonian is that all its D.C. location are free of charge.

The National Gallery of Art

Though it is one of the largest museums on the Mall (and indeed in North America), the National Gallery of Art is not affiliated with the Smithsonian.

Founded by Andrew W. Mellon in 1921 with the gift of his art collection to the people of the United States, its collection focuses on Western art from the Middle Ages to the present. Also free to enter, the National Gallery houses the only Leonardo da Vinci painting in the Western Hemisphere.

Arlington National Cemetery

Though not in the District of Columbia, Arlington National Cemetery is just across the Potomac River in Virginia. (Plus, it offers a great view of the city.)

The former home of the Custis family, related by marriage to George Washington, the mansion on top of the property, Arlington House, was eventually inherited by Robert E. Lee, who married a Custis daughter. The United States army took control of Arlington in 1861 less than a month after Lee left its ranks to join the rebellion — its position overlooking the federal city was too valuable to leave unoccupied — and they buried the first Union soldier on Lee’s front lawn just over three years later. Since then, it’s become the most hallowed of burial grounds for American service members. No visit is complete without a stop at Arlington House to look down across the river to the Lincoln Memorial.

Library of Congress

The largest library in the world, the Library of Congress is the national legislature’s research arm as well as the oldest federal cultural institution in the country.

With millions of books, pictures, recordings, maps, newspapers, and more, the institution is as dedicated to sharing knowledge as it is to preserving it. Take a free guided tour of the stunning 1890 Thomas Jefferson building, an elaborate example of Beaux-Arts architecture and interior design.

The National Arboretum

Though off the beaten track, the National Arboretum is one of the most stunning, and special, places in DC. A little more than two miles northeast of the Capitol, it feels like a world away: 446 acres of trees, gardens, and art.

Particularly stunning are the orphaned columns (circa 1828) of the U.S. Capitol’s old East Portico (they were donated to the arboretum after a 1958 renovation), which sit in front of a reflecting pool and only hold up the sky.

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

Abolitionist, statesman, and great orator Frederick Douglass lived the last two decades of his life in Washington, where he came to be known as the “Sage of the Anacostia.”

His home in southeast D.C., which Douglass named Cedar Hill, is now a National Historic Site. Behind the gracious Victorian mansion is a reconstructed stone cottage, which Douglass called his “Growlery” — a place for him to read and write and, presumably, growl.

Food

Washington, D.C. received its first Michelin Guide in 2016, a testament to the city’s increasingly sophisticated and adventurous food scene. Spanish chef José Andrés, an elBulli protégée, has reigned over D.C.’s fine dining since the early 1990s; his restaurants are reliably excellent.

Along the historic U Street corridor, check D.C.’s soul food credentials at Florida Avenue Grill, open since 1944. Just down the street is another civic institution, Ben’s Chili Bowl, which has served up half smokes (half-pork and half-beef smoked sausages) and a red, smoky chili since 1958. Head to Dukem for Ethiopian, El Rinconcito for Salvadorian, and Vace for a slice of D.C.’s best pizza.

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