Washington, D.C. is a captivating destination that stands testament to the rich tapestry of American history and democracy. Nestled along the east bank of the Potomac River, this iconic city is the capital of the USA, and a vibrant hub of politics, culture, and heritage.
Founded on 16 July 1790, the city was chosen by, and indeed named after President George Washington, a Founding Father and the first president of the United States. The district is named for Columbia, the female personification of the nation.
From the grandeur of the iconic monuments and memorials that line the National Mall, to the bustling corridors of Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. is a treasure trove of iconic historical landmarks waiting to be explored.
There are an absolute abundance of historical sites to see in Washington D.C. which would take any visitor multiple trips to see. Here we explore just 10 of some of the top historical sites America’s capital has to offer.
The White House has been the seat of the United States government and home of US Presidents for over 200 years. The name ‘The White House’ was actually only coined in 1901 by Theodore Roosevelt. Today, tours of what is undoubtedly the most iconic residence in the US are a precious commodity. Nonetheless, the visitors centre and surrounding area give a sense of the White House’s role within US history.
Original construction of the White House began in October 1792 after President George Washington chose what is now 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as the location for the new home of the federal government, designed by architect James Hoban.
The White House was not yet completed when, in 1800, it housed its first ‘first family’ President John Adams and First Lady, Abigail Adams. Since then, the White House has been the home of every President and first family, each of whom renovated it to different degrees to suit their tastes and lifestyles. Famous rooms in the White House include the Blue Room and the President’s Oval Office.
The US Capitol is the seat of the United States Congress, made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives, and, with its famous neoclassical façade and dramatic dome, is an iconic building in its own right.
Construction of the first incarnation of The US Capitol began in 1793 and the US Congress first met there in November 1800. Now, the House of Representatives uses the south wing, whilst the Senate uses the north wing. Since 1800, the US Capitol has been the setting for many important national events such as presidential inaugurations, which still happen there today.
Following the 1814 burning of Washington, the Capitol was restored, and underwent a series of renovations and additions – primarily in the 1850s – as well as reconstructions and restorations. The dome has similarities to that of Les Invalides in Paris, which inspired the architect of the Capitol dome: made of cast iron, it’s said to weigh over 4 million kgs. A visitor centre was added in the early 2000s, and today, The US Capitol is both the home of the US legislature and a museum of American history and art.
The Lincoln Memorial is a Greek temple style monument in Washington DC’s West Potomac Park honouring the 16th President of the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln, who served during the American Civil War and was assassinated on 14 April 1865.
Whilst a committee for the establishment of a memorial to Abraham Lincoln was first incorporated in 1867, authorisation for the monument was not given until 1911 and construction only began on 12 February 1914. The build was also a lengthy process and the memorial was finally dedicated on 30 May 1922. The Lincoln Memorial was designed by the architect, Henry Bacon, who also sculpted the statue of Lincoln which visitors can see within its walls.
As the site of many important political speeches and events, the Lincoln Memorial has a history of its own, independent from its original purpose. In particular, it was the site where Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech on 28 August 1963 – the spot is marked with an engraving. Today, the words of the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural speech are carved into the wall behind the monument.
Standing at 555ft high, The Washington Monument is a staggeringly large monument which honours and memorialises George Washington, the first president of the USA and considered to be the ‘Father of the Country’. It was designed by architect Robert Mills, and is made out of marble, granite, and sandstone – completed on 6 December 1884, almost 30 years after Mills’ death.
The shape of the Washington Monument is that of an Egyptian obelisk to convey a sense of ancient civilisation and timeless awe which the nation felt towards its most essential Founding Father. At a height of 555 feet, 5 and 1/8 inches, it was once the tallest building in the world, and remains the tallest obelisk.
The cornerstone was laid in July 1848, with upwards of 20,000 people in attendance.
It was in Ford’s Theatre on the night of 14 April 1865 that well-known actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln. A Confederate sympathiser and spy, Booth had originally planned to kidnap Lincoln, but instead shot the President in the back of the head as he watched Ford’s Theatre’s production of Our American Cousin from the state box (box seven). (Across the street is Petersen House, where Lincoln was taken after being shot, and was where he died).
Following Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Ford briefly considered continuing to use the building as a theatre, but outcry from the American public forced him to abandon the idea. The still-unfinished building was seized in July of 1865 by order of the Secretary of War, and its interior torn-out in August of 1865.
The building was subsequently converted into a three-story office building, and rather than being recognised for its historical significance, the building was used for a variety of government purposes. Ford’s Theatre was transferred to the ownership of the National Park Service in 1931, and in 1967, the building was restored to its 1865 appearance. Currently, the building continues to stage plays and operate as a theatre, in addition to hosting a museum relating to Lincoln’s assassination.
America’s oldest federal cultural institution, The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, with over 164 million items on more than 500 miles of bookshelves, including around 37 million books, 69 million manuscripts, and an extensive collection of music, video and audio recordings, films, photographs, newspapers and maps in its collections. The Library is the main research facility for the US Congress and the home of the US Copyright Office.
Housed across three buildings on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (the Thomas Jefferson Building, the James Madison Memorial Building and the John Adams Building) as well as the Packard Campus in Culpepper, Virginia, the Library also serves as a museum, with numerous exhibits inside the Thomas Jefferson Building.
A bill transferring the seat of government from Philadelphia to the new capital of Washington mentioned the creation of a reference library for use by Congress. This became The Library of Congress, founded on 24 April 1800. After British troops burned the Capitol building (housing the original Library), retired President Thomas Jefferson offered his personal collection as a replacement. Congress paid $23,950 for the 6,487 books, forming the foundation of the Library today.
Collectively called the Smithsonian Institution, this renowned museum and research complex (the world’s largest) consists of 17 museums and galleries in Washington D.C. including America’s National Zoo. Its aim is to preserve heritage, discover new knowledge, and share their resources with the world.
The Institution was founded in 1846 through a financial bequest by British Scientist James Smithson (1765–1829), and The Smithsonian Institution was officially created by an act of Congress in 1846. Its first building was the Smithsonian Castle, completed in 1855, which initially held the entire institution. Although initially focused on scientific research, the Smithsonian expanded to encompass a vast range of disciplines, including history, art, and anthropology.
Today the Smithsonian collections contain over 155 million objects, works of art and specimens – from the origins of man at The Natural History Museum, to the future of space travel at the Air and Space Museum. Which museums you visit clearly depends on your interests. Highlights include the American History Museum, America’s National Zoo, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, America’s National Portrait Gallery, and the American Indian Museum.
Washington National Cathedral is the sixth-largest cathedral in the world, and an architectural masterpiece. It is a listed monument on America’s National Register of Historic Places, and is also the designated House of Prayer of the USA, serving as the “spiritual home for the nation”, welcoming people of all faiths from around the world.
Throughout the years the cathedral has hosted many national memorial services, celebrations and funerals, including services such as those for the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the funerals of two presidents – Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, as well as many historic moments, including the final Sunday sermon delivered by Martin Luther King.
Construction began on 29 September 1907, when President Theodore Roosevelt helped lay the foundation stone, and the cathedral was finally completed 83 years later when President George H.W. Bush oversaw the laying of the final stone (the ‘final finial’), in 1990. The cathedral features Neo-Gothic architecture, closely modelled on the English Gothic style of the late 14th century, complemented by ornate wooden carvings, gargoyles, mosaics and more than 200 stained glass windows.
Whilst not technically located in Washington D.C., Arlington National Cemetery is just a short trip across the Potomac River in Virginia, and is America’s iconic burial site. The site began as a house built in memory of President George Washington, which later became a Union army base during the American Civil War. In January 1864, the government purchased Arlington House and, later that year, desperately in need of space to bury the increasing number of war casualties, it was designated a national cemetery.
Over the years, Arlington National Cemetery has come to represent a memorial to all US soldiers who have died for their country and is still an active cemetery. There are approximately 400,000 graves at Arlington National Cemetery, neatly aligned and each with a white headstone, along with numerous monuments.
Arlington National Cemetery is also the home of The Tomb of the Unknowns, a burial place for one unidentified soldier from each of World War One, World War Two and the Korean War. Many famous Americans are also buried at Arlington National Cemetery, from military heroes to astronauts such as John Glenn and leaders such as President John F. Kennedy.
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C.’s West Potomac Park was built in 1939 to honour President Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA and its third president. With its white facade, imposing columns and circular silhouette crowned by a dome, the Jefferson Memorial is reminiscent of the Roman Pantheon, as intended by its architect John Russell Pope.
The concept of building a memorial to Thomas Jefferson was first encouraged by President Franklin Roosevelt – an admirer of Jefferson – and construction of the memorial began on 15 December 1938. The Memorial was dedicated by President Roosevelt on 13 April 1943, the 200th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth. The bronze sculpture of Jefferson inside the memorial, made by Rudulph Evans, was added in 1947 and stands next to inscribed excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, which Jefferson co-authored in 1776. The inscription even used Jefferson’s phrasing in his draft, saying ‘inalienable’ rather than ‘unalienable’.