Uncovering the Past: The Best Historical Sites in Washington DC

By: Sascha Zuger

July 18, 2013

With its endless museums and house tours, DC is a haven for history buffs. Here are just a few ways to enjoy the best historical sites in Washington DC

Arts Club of Washington

Arts Club of Washington

Arts Club of Washington © Arts Club

An excellent option for a rainy day, this 1808 Federal town house which became President James Monroe’s home – acting as National Executive Mansion while the White House was being rebuilt after British Troops burned it in the War of 1812 – is now the Arts Club of Washington. Located a four block stroll from the White House, the historic home has promoted visual, performing and literary arts for nearly a century. Friday noon concerts are a longstanding tradition and free to the public (most events at the club are free or carry a small fee). Daily events vary, with art workshops, book readings, classes in ballroom dancing, performances of original plays, and panel discussions with the currently exhibited artists.

Old Town Alexandria Food Tour, Washington DC

Old Town Alexandria Food Tour

Old Town Tour © Sascha Zuger

A little walking tour, a little history, and a whole lot of delicious food. This informative taste of Old Town Alexandria gives a great overview of the historic town an easy metro ride from D.C. proper. Between sit-down respites at a number of family-owned eateries, the guide highlights architectural details among the stately mansions and row houses, offering stories from colonial times and pointing out spots of import – such as the Ice Well outside Gadsby’s Tavern (a favoured pub-turned-museum frequented by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Lafayette) and the 1918-built Torpedo Factory, which now houses the studios of over 100 working artists.

Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, Washington DC

Kenilworth Aquatic Garden

Kenilworth Aquatic Garden © Jennifer Boyer

It’s a bit of an adventure to reach Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, but summer visitors and photographers who arrive in the morning will be well rewarded by views of the metres-wide lily pads and blooms (the flowers close to the heat once it climbs to the upper 80s) as well as a resident Great Blue Heron and plenty of wildlife you’d never expect to encounter in the heart of the city. Cultivated and hand-planted by one-armed Civil War vet, W.B. Shaw, what became one of the largest lily farms in the world shipped over 63 varieties grown in the farm’s 35 different soils from 1912 to 1938, when it was taken over by the National Park System for preservation. Those wishing to avoid the traffic can canoe into the park where Coolidge and Woodrow once strolled.

Moonlit Monument, Washington DC

Jefferson Memorial at night

Jefferson Memorial at night © Destination DC

Though a visit to Washington D.C.’s many monuments is impressive by day, the night view of these famed historical memorials is truly striking when dramatically backlit against the D.C. skyline. Nicely illuminated are the Iwo Jima Memorial, FDR Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Constitution Gardens, Jefferson Memorial, U.S. Air Force Memorial, Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, and Korean War Memorial. (While at the Lincoln Memorial, look for the engraved spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on this 50th anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech.)

Under-the-stars options for exploring are nearly as plentiful as the monuments themselves. For those wanting a more private wander, simply download one of many available trail maps based on your interests. If you’d like a little more guidance then presidential tidbits and local legends are shared by experienced guides on a three hour Monuments@Nite Bike Tour for a nominal fee. Or ride through the streets of D.C. by trolley in a two hour tour from D.C.’s Union Station.

National Museum of American History, Washington DC

National Museum of American History

Aerial view of National Museum of American History © Carol M. Highsmith

Though it might seem obvious, the immense Star-Spangled Banner alone makes the National Museum of American History a must-see, if only for a quick pop in (there is no admission fee and the museum’s design allows for easy navigating to cherry pick among the endless options). From the special exhibit celebrating the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation to the 1963 March on Washington and the pop culture artifact walls — the museum highlights the major moments in the American experience. Whimsical collections like the Doll’s House and the ‘Taking America to Lunch’ historical lunchbox exhibit make this a great stop for families.

Virgin Atlantic operate daily direct flights to Washington DC. Book your flight today.

Are you a history buff? What are your favourite historical sights in Washington DC?


Sascha Zuger

Sascha Zuger is the author of several Moon Handbook and Spotlight guidebooks. Her work has been seen in National Geographic Traveler, The Washington Post, The LA Times, Food Network Magazine, Parenting, SELF, Gourmet, WIRED, and a number of other national magazines. She also writes novels for teens under pseudonym, Aimee Ferris.

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