In the first part of our travel series on Washington, D.C., we learned about the city’s founding and early African-American history. Now, we’re getting out and about to explore the myriad of exciting, educational and impressive sites and attractions the city has to offer.

The first thing that almost everyone, resident or visitor, will tell you about visiting D.C. is that you can find lots–and by that I mean close to 100–free and almost-free things to do in and around town, which makes it a very family-affordable vacation for people of all income levels. However, visitors should note that some attractions require timed entry tickets due to the large number of visitors.

There are so many wonderful things to do, in fact, that I couldn’t possibly do them all justice here. So I’ll start with many of the attractions our family visited during our vacation here last summer.

If you come to D.C. by bus or train, your first tourist attraction will be front and center as you arrive at Union Station. Opened in 1988, Union Station is a true D.C. hub–an estimated 90,000 visitors traverse it daily. In addition to accessing the facility for transportation purposes (car rental services are available here, and it is also Amtrak’s corporate headquarters), both visitors and residents alike flock here to the over 100 specialty shops, 35 dining establishments and a wide range of other services.

It is impossible to visit D.C. without first understanding its biggest tourist attraction–the Smithsonian Institution. Many people think it is just one place–“The Smithsonian”–but it is actually the world’s largest museum and research complex, encompassing 19 museums and galleries, nine research facilities and the National Zoological Park. Among these are the African American History and Culture Museum, the Castle, the Postal Museum, the Natural History Museum, the African Art Museum and the Freer Gallery of Art, just to name a few.

One of our favorite attractions was the National Air and Space Museum (if your kids saw “Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian,” they will be particularly enthralled), home to the largest collection of historic air and spacecraft in the world. The exhibits and artifacts are amazing, offering a great deal for all ages on the history, science and influence of aviation, astronomy and space flight.

If mystery and intrigue float your boat, you will love the International Spy Museum. We could have literally spent all day in there, exploring the downright fascinating world of espionage presented via spectacular state-of-the-art interactive exhibits, both permanent and temporary.

From spy-related artifacts to historic photographs, audio and video surveillance presentations–including the personal stories of spies from around the world, an air vent you can crawl through to “spy” on a top-secret encounter and more–it’s no wonder that the museum is billed as “the first and only public museum in the United States solely dedicated to espionage and the only one in the world to provide a global perspective on this all-but-invisible profession.” A visit here is an absolute must–and they even have separate spy adventures for older children that give them the opportunity to engage in their own clandestine espionagic (I just made up that word) escapades.


Like I said before, there is so much to see and do in D.C., you could literally spend about two weeks taking in just a little bit each day and still not cover it all. So the next time around, we would definitely like to explore many of these fantastic historic sites and attractions:

To learn more about the history of the creative contributions of women worldwide, past and present, visit the National Museum of Women in the Arts. In addition to a collection of over 4,500 objects, the museum also presents a number of world-class exhibitions annually.

Another of D.C.’s most popular attractions is the Library of Congress, located in three buildings on Capitol Hill. Founded in 1800 and, today, the oldest federal cultural institution in the country, it is home to more than 66 million manuscripts; 34 million-plus cataloged books and other print materials in 470 languages (on an estimated 838 miles of bookshelves!), the world’s largest collection of sheet music (6.5 million pieces). sound recordings (3.3 million), maps (5.4 million) and legal materials and films, and the largest rare-book collection in North America.

More than just explaining the atrocities of the Holocaust, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum presents a wide range of exhibits, programming and events that, according to the museum, inspire “citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide and promote human dignity.” (Note: According to friends, some aspects may be too intense for young children.)

Originally founded in 1861, Ford’s Theatre has always been a D.C. mainstay for musical and theatrical productions, in addition to being the infamous site where President Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth in 1865. Although closed for over 100 years after that event, it officially reopened in the late 1960s as a theater and national historic site.

“Huge” doesn’t begin to describe the National Museum of Natural History, encompassing an estimated 18 football fields’ worth of exhibition and public space that shares the history of the natural sciences, animal and marine life and a great deal more.

To get a look at some of this country’s most influential and historic documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, stop by the National Archives. The building is also home to the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery, William G. McGowan Theater and interactive exhibits inside the Public Vaults.

News junkies will be in their element at the Newseum, featuring 15 major galleries and 15 theaters brimming with the world’s greatest news stories. Among them are the 9/11 Gallery, Watergate Door, Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery, Journalists Memorial, Berlin Wall Gallery and the Unabomber’s Cabin, just to name a few.

And last but not least–the opportunity to pay tribute to some of our country’s most illustrious personalities at Arlington National Cemetery. The cemetery is not only the final resting place for thousands who valiantly served our country in the armed forces, but also for the many other heroes and heroines in the fields of medicine, politics, sports, exploration and space and other fields.

Next up, the city’s great monuments and memorials.

Resource List

  • Arlington National Cemetery, 877-907-8585,
  • Ford’s Theatre, 202-638-2941,
  • The Crime Museum, 202-621-5550,
  • The International Spy Museum, 202-EYE-SPYU,
  • Library of Congress, 202-707-5000,
  • National Air and Space Museum, 202-633-1000,
  • National Archives, 202-357-5000,
  • National Museum of Natural History, 202-633-1000,
  • National Museum of Women in the Arts, 202-783-5000,
  • Newseum, 888-639-7386,
  • The Smithsonian Institution, 202-633-1000,
  • Union Station, 202-289-1908,
  • U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 202-488-0400,
  • Washington, D.C., Convention and Visitors Bureau, 202-789-7000,