After the Revolutionary War, the newly independent states needed a capital city and just about everyone had an opinion on which state deserved the honor.
Among the hotly-debated competitors were New York and Virginia. And while Philadelphia served temporarily as the capital for nearly a decade, it was a stretch of land along the Potomac River, favored by George Washington, that was ultimately agreed upon, becoming modern-day Washington D.C.
If it sounds a little too much like high school history to serve as a vacation destination, then you’ve seriously underestimated what a cultural, cosmopolitan city this is, with countless things to see and do.
Many are free, starting with the Smithsonian. Founded in 1846, it is the world’s largest museum, with 19 individual museums and galleries, along with the National Zoo. Most are open every day of the year except for Dec. 25.
The latest addition is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in September. The absolutely stunning 400,000-square-foot museum near the Washington Monument is currently the only national museum exclusively dedicated to documenting the history and culture of African American life.
Because of the high volume of visitors, timed passes are required for entry, and they can be difficult to come by. However, same-day passes are available online daily beginning at 6:30 a.m., as well as a limited number of walk-up passes available weekdays at 1 p.m.
The Air and Space, Natural History and American History museums are among some of the other popular attractions, along with the National Gallery of Art, which after a three-year renovation, recently reopened its East Building with 12,000 additional square feet of exhibition space and a rooftop sculpture garden.
Unaffiliated with the Smithsonian, but a must-do, is the Newseum. Located between the White House and Capitol, the state-of-the-art museum features seven levels of interactive exhibits, all centered around promoting free expression and the freedoms of the First Amendment.
Among other things, visitors can view the broadcast antennae that once stood atop the World Trade Center, an impressive swath of the Berlin Wall, the largest assembled collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, as well as an incredible collection of print news pieces dating back nearly 500 years.
There’s also a humbling, two-story display of the front pages from 127 newspapers, worldwide, in the aftermath of 911.
Admission to the Newseum is $24.95 and includes readmission for the next day.
Home of the Constitution, Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, the National Archives Building is another do-not-miss. Beneath the hushed rotunda are the original documents that serve as the basis for our country, and seeing them up close is both a patriotic and unforgettable experience.
Lines can get long, so consider visiting shortly before closing time (5:30 p.m.) to beat the crowds. Admission is free and the last entrants are admitted 30 minutes prior to closing.
Spring is an especially good time to visit D.C. Aside from avoiding the city’s oppressive summer heat, it’s also when the renowned cherry blossoms are in bloom.
The National Cherry Blossom Festival is an annual festival commemorating the city’s 3,000 cherry blossom trees, gifts from the mayor of Tokyo in 1912. Included among the events are fireworks, a parade and a dazzling kite festival held on the grounds of the Washington Monument.
This year the festival runs from March 20 through April 16, and while the seasonality of the blossoms varies from year to year depending on weather conditions, peak bloom typically occurs sometime around the end of March and first week of April.
In May visitors are invited to learn more about D.C.’s international diplomatic community through the Passport DC program. The monthlong event promotes cultural awareness through a host of events, including an Around the World Embassy Tour on May 6, which allows visitors a rare glimpse inside more than 40 embassies.
Cycling enthusiasts can register to participate in the DC Bike Ride on May 14. More than 20 miles of D.C. streets will be cleared of cars for the annual event, providing a picturesque and safe place for an all-ages bike ride.
For something a little shorter, consider doing one of the city’s bike tours. Bike and Roll DC offers both bike rentals and tours.
Its Monuments tours, offered by day or night, are a great way to see some of Washington’s most impressive sights, including all the monuments and memorials along the National Mall and Potomac Tidal Basin, without blistering up your feet. Bike and Roll DC also offers biking trips out to Mount Vernon, via boat or bus, and Segway tours, too.
If something with four wheels is a little more your style, the DC Circulator provides affordable bus transportation throughout the city with rides costing only $1 (exact change required).
There are five different routes, including National Mall service, which takes riders on a loop that starts at Union Station and ends at the Capitol, with stops at many of the Smithsonian museums, as well as monuments and memorials.
Georgetown, in northwest D.C., was founded in 1751, predating the federal district by more than 40 years, and is about as exclusive as you can get.
High-end shops and restaurants are prolific and worth checking out. But if you’re seeking more insight behind some of its grand properties, consider taking the Ghosts of Georgetown tour offered by Free Tours on Foot.
Chances are you probably won’t encounter any actual ghosts, but the history alone is worth taking the 90-minute tour and movie aficionados will appreciate the final stop at the infamous steps used in the end of the film, “The Exorcist.”
Despite the name, the tour isn’t free; the cost is $20 per person.
Finally, the D.C. food scene alone is worth a visit.
With an abundance of diverse restaurants, you may find it difficult to choose.
However, if you want to feel like an insider, make sure you do brunch on a Saturday or Sunday.
Some of the best brunch spots in town include Le Diplomate, a brasserie serving up omelets and excellent pancakes; Maketto, a Taiwanese hot spot for hipsters; The Diner (on 18th Street), which offers traditional breakfast platters around the clock, and Tico, a Spanish-influenced restaurant serving up sexy small plates and make-your-own mimosas.
To get a sampling of some of the city’s local flavors, take a food tour with DC Metro Food Tours.
The Capital Hill Culinary experience is a three-hour, guided tour through some of the Capitol-area’s diverse neighborhoods and the Eastern Market.
The experience is a fun combination of history, political stories and eclectic eating.
Poets and Busboys (with several D.C. locations) is another local eatery worth a mention. More than just a restaurant, it’s a book store, a performance space, a gathering spot and, overall, totally cool.
Its colorful menu offers a wide selection of vegan, gluten-free and vegetarian options, as well as unique dishes like lamb sliders and sweet potato hash.
Finally, the National Museum of the American Indian should also be on your list, not only because it houses one of the largest and most diverse collections of its kind, but also for its well-known restaurant, Mitsitam Cafe.
It offers indigenous cuisine and native foods like a wild rice and acorn squash chowder, elk mincemeat pie and smoked bison loin.