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Top 9 things to do in Washington DC

Where else on Earth can you find a park that's home to a spaceship, the world's tallest stone structure and a six metre-tall president?

Sightseeing is easy in Washington DC – almost all of the major attractions, from the US Capitol building to the Lincoln Memorial, are laid out along a park running through the centre of the city. There’s even a spaceship a few hundred metres from the White House.

But really getting to know the city means striking off the beaten path to find some local hangouts, whether that’s sampling some craft beer or tracking down the best burrito in town. Here’s our guide to getting the most out of the US capital.

1. Stare up at Abraham Lincoln

The Lincoln Memorial stands at the far western end of the 3km-long National Mall, and the enormous (5.8m-high) statue of Abraham Lincoln is suitably imposing, especially since he appears to be pointing directly at you with his left hand. Some scholars explain this by suggesting that the sculptor, Daniel Chester French, intended for Lincoln to be spelling out his initials in sign language with his two hands; credence is given to the theory by the fact that French had a son who was deaf.

Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC

If you can bear to turn your back on Lincoln, then you’ll see he has a magnificent view down the Mall with the famous reflecting pool directly in front. It was from this spot that Martin Luther King delivered his historic ‘I have a dream’ speech to thousands of marchers on 28 August 1963. An inscription marks the spot.

Reflecting pool, Washington DC © Lewis Packwood

2. Climb the Washington Monument

Appearances are deceptive on the National Mall. The buildings and monuments are so huge and your line of sight is uninterrupted, meaning that everything seems closer together than it actually is. You’ll notice this most when walking towards the Washington Monument; at first it feels like it’s not getting any closer, but when you _finally _reach the base you’ll be astonished by how enormous it is. At 169 metres it’s the world’s tallest stone structure and, when it was finished in 1884, it was the tallest building in the world – at least until the Eiffel Tower was completed five years later.

If you look carefully you can see that the lower part of the monument is a slightly different colour from the upper half – this is the result of an approximately 20 year hiatus in construction due to lack of funds, political infighting and the eruption of civil war, and when work resumed the marble was obtained from a different quarry. It’s free to go up the monument – a lift whisks you to the top – but you’ll need to arrive early to nab a ticket. It’s first come, first served, and tickets disappear quickly in peak season.

Washington Monument © Lewis Packwood

3. See a spaceship up close

There are several free museums along the Mall, but the National Air and Space Museum is by far the best and also the most popular. The entrance hall houses a remarkable collection of historic vehicles as part of the ‘Milestones of Flight’ exhibition. These include the Spirit of St. Louis (the first plane to fly non-stop from New York to Paris), the Bell X-1 (the first plane to break the sound barrier) and, most exciting of all, the Apollo 11 command module, intact from its trip to the Moon. There are plenty of other remarkable exhibits further inside too, including Second World War fighter planes and some US and Soviet ballistic missiles.

Apollo 11 Command Module

Photo: Cliff, CC BY 2.0

4. Investigate spies

Unlike the museums on the National Mall, the International Spy Museum isn’t free and there’s often long queues for a ticket (top tip: you can reserve tickets online to ease the wait somewhat). The tone is also somewhat different from the more austere Mall museums – here the emphasis is on glamour and fun. You’ll see all sorts of spying accoutrements, such as a lipstick pistol and a pigeon camera, and you also have the chance to take part in several interactive experiences where you can pretend to be a spy yourself. It’s more James Bond than Kim Philby, but enjoyable nonetheless.

International Spy Museum, Washington DC

Photo: urbanbohemian, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

5. Probe the workings of government

The White House looks surprisingly small when you pull up out front, largely because the other buildings along the Mall are so freakin’ massive! You can peer through the railings around the gardens and get close enough to take a decent picture of the building, but if you want to go inside you’ll need to plan way before your visit: tours can only be arranged through your country’s embassy a minimum of one month and a maximum of six months in advance.

White House, Washington DC © Lewis Packwood

By contrast, it’s much easier to get inside the US Capitol building thanks to the new Capitol Visitor Center in the basement. Entry is free, and you can learn all about the history of the building and the US Congress as well as get a glimpse of the famous dome.

US Capitol Building, Washington DC © Lewis Packwood

6. Wander through Georgetown

Georgetown is now a neighbourhood of Washington, but it actually pre-dates the city by some 40 years, being founded in 1751. The oldest building in Washington can be found here – the Old Stone House, which dates from 1765 – and the various colourful constructions make for a refreshing change from the acres of white marble in the centre of the city. There are tons of great places to eat, including the rustic 1789 restaurant, and there are some interesting walking tours too, such as Spies of Georgetown.

Georgetown streets

7. Eat a burrito in honour of the burrito guy

For 20 years Carlos Guardado sold burritos from a metal cart on the corner of Farragut Square. The ‘burrito guy’ became a famous local fixture who knew his customers by name and was always up for an extended chat. Apparently, he also made the most amazing burritos ever. In 2010 he passed away suddenly from a heart attack, and over a hundred mourning customers attended his funeral. Mexican food will never quite be the same again in Washington DC, but Pedro and Vinny offer a pretty decent burrito from their van on 15th Street – order one and spare a moment’s thought for the burrito guy.

Pedro and Vinny's cart

Photo: Chris Mulligan, all rights reserved

8. Contemplate the memorials

If there’s one thing Washington isn’t short of, it’s memorials. The World War II Memorial is on the Mall between the Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, and consists of 56 pillars representing the US states and other US territories. See if you can spot the two ‘Kilroy was here’ inscriptions…

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is more austere, consisting of a sloping wall inscribed with over 58,000 names; by contrast, the Korean War Veterans Memorial is more expressive, featuring 19 stainless steel statues of an army squad on patrol. The poses are uncannily realistic and you almost expect them to start moving at any moment.

Korean War Veterans Memorial. Washington DC © Lewis Packwood

Perhaps one of the less sombre memorials is a cheery Franklin Roosevelt in his wheelchair. The statue was added to the Roosevelt memorial because there was so much controversy surrounding the original one which covered up his disability.

Roosevelt Memorial, Washington DC © Lewis Packwood

9. Enjoy a craft beer

The craft beer scene in Washington is booming and there are plenty of local brews for you to try. The Bier Baron Tavern (previously the Brickskellar) is a wonderfully atmospheric place to go for a tipple thanks to its bare brick walls and live music, not to mention the 50 draft beers on tap and over 500 bottles from across the globe. Smoke and Barrel, on the other hand, tends to specialise in local brews, and newcomer City Tap House focuses on microbreweries.

Posted by The Bier Baron Tavern on Friday, 4 May 2012

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