Museum- and monument-hopping is effortless along the National Mall, a grassy “boulevard” heavily salted with some of the country’s most revered institutions and icons.
The National Mall packs more culture and history into a two-mile strip than most cities do in their entire urban sprawls. If you visited every site along the entire expanse, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol, you’d probably need to extend your vacation. The hallowed grounds features some of the country’s most cherished landmarks (Washington Monument) and tributes to American presidents (Lincoln, Jefferson, FDR), heroes (Martin Luther King Jr.) and veterans (World War II, Vietnam and Korean wars). The Smithsonian also commands a large chunk of real estate for its more than half-dozen museums, including the newest addition to the family: the National Museum of African American History and Culture, set to open in 2015. If you happen to wander off the grassy path, the Mall will never be far from sight or mind.
To take a guided tour of the most iconic political building in the Western world, you’ll need to make arrangements well in advance—by submitting a written request to your senator or state representative at least a month before your visit. The VIP tickets you’ll receive, though, allow you to wander through some of the grandest parts of the 132-room mansion, like the Green, Red, Blue, North, and East rooms (which are hung with imposing portraits, and which often host presidential press conferences). You’ll also see hordes of Secret Service agents murmuring into their walkie-talkies and, if you’re lucky, a bold-faced-name politico striding along the hallways.
Tip: The list of items you’re not allowed to bring into the White House is extensive—and includes purses or shoulder bags of any kind. Leave everything but your wallet, keys, and cell phone at the hotel before your morning tour. The gift shop offers whimsical souvenirs, such as earrings of the presidential pets.
National Air and Space Museum
Celebrate the history of flight at the National Air & Space Museum. The museum’s original location on the National Mall offers exhibits on the Wright Brothers and the early days of flight, as well as military aviation, and the Apollo moon landing. Meanwhile, the museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia boasts a massive hanger showcasing the likes of the Space Shuttle Discovery and the Enola Gay bomber plane.
The Willard InterContinental has been a DC institution and icon of luxury since 1850. Here you’ll find a Red Door Spa, doctor on call, private limousine services, and the old-school Red Robin & Scotch Bar (which has served politicos for more than 100 years)—all located just adjacent to the White House and National Mall.
Mitsitam Native Foods Café
The National Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Native Foods Café—translated as “Let’s Eat” in the language of the Delaware and Piscataway tribes—prepares traditional dishes from five Native American regions. Dine on snapping turtle soup with cherry compote at the Northern Woodlands station, buffalo chili on fry bread from the Great Plains, and chocolate tamarindo rice pudding at the Mesoamerica table. Diners with big appetites and adventurous palates should order the five-region sampler, which comes with grilled buffalo, cedar-planked salmon, and a choice of three sides.
Established in 1932, the two-acre park is named after French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, whose classical fountain (which predates his iconic Statue of Liberty) rises among the mini-landscapes of flowers, plants and secluded benches. Among the theme gardens: therapeutic, romantic, palette, rock and heritage.
Pavilion Café at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
The museum takes the art outside, creating a fanciful playground of oversize sculptures including an XXL spider by Louise Bourgeois and a cartoonishly large typewriter eraser by Claus Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. On Fridays in the summer, the garden hosts free jazz concerts; in the winter, skaters take to the ice rink.
National Mall Ranger Events
Follow the ranger on a National Park tour that goes beyond the surface of the monuments and memorials. The free walking and biking excursions cover unexpected and unusual topics, such as the Jet Age in Korea, held at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the manmade and natural disasters that have roiled the city.
East Potomac Golf Course
The historic golf course, part of the National Park system, comprises three courses: red (nine holes), white (nine) and blue (18). Or play a round on the oldest continually operating mini-golf course in the country, built in 1930. Greens fees start at a reasonable $10 for 9 holes.