Everyone knows about the White House - but Washington DC is also home to some of the USA's most impressive and interesting museums
If you're visiting Washington, DC for the first time, your must-see list is a no-brainer: the White House, Capitol Building, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, National Gallery, the Smithsonian and several other world-famous locations.
If you're already familiar with America’s capital, explore the secondary museums and architectural treasures on offer - there are enough of them to keep you busy for days on end. And don’t be deceived by their B-list status. Some are not well known only because they are new. And some are first-rate attractions that are obscure only because they follow a large array of hard acts.
One of the best-known newbies is the massive glass-fronted Newseum, a high-tech museum devoted to the news business. Opened in 2008, this seven-level modernistic structure contains 15 theatres, 14 major galleries, two state-of-the-art broadcast studios and a 4-D time-travel experience. 4-D? That is ordinary 3-D (yes, you wear those funny coloured glasses) combined with environmental effects such as motion, air gusts and water.
The ambitious museum’s offerings include a gallery of newspaper front pages that changes daily; artefacts from major news stories (including a chunk of twisted wreckage from the North Tower of the World Trade Center); and hour upon hour of audio and video (served in bite-sized chunks). As an added bonus, the upper storeys offer panoramic views of major sites in the city, including the Mall, the Capitol and Supreme Court buildings, and the Washington Monument.
Panoramic views are also on the menu in another deserving but often overlooked treasure, The Old Post Office. This multi-purpose venue might be just what the tired traveller needs: a compact postal museum in a building that also contains a gaggle of shops and eateries. The cathedral-like building’s clock tower soars 315 feet high, accessible via a glass elevator.
One of the capital’s most imposing architectural treasures is hidden from normal view. A trip to the National Museum Building is worth it just to see it. The NMB’s imposing Great Hall is tall and wide enough to easily accommodate eight breathtaking Corinthian columns. Among the tallest interior columns in the world, they stand 75 feet high, are 25 feet around, and contain 70,000 bricks each. They resemble Siena marble, thanks to a good paint job.
The building’s original architect/engineer was Montgomery C Meigs, inspired by Roman palaces, including the monumental Palazzo Farnese, which itself was designed in part by Michelangelo in the 16th century. From the outset, the NMB was to serve two main functions: the offices would be home to the U.S. Pension Bureau, and the central court would provide a vast and resplendent space for social and political functions. Presidential inauguration parties are held here, including one for the White House’s newest occupant, Barack Obama.
Another newbie is the National Museum of Crime and Punishment, actually part of an old institution, the Library of Congress. Featuring many interactive displays, it surveys the full range of historical and modern criminality: pirates, the Wild West, serial killers, gangsters and even white-collar crime aided and abetted by computers.
Spies have a museum exclusively dedicated to them: the International Spy Museum. Opened in 2002, the museum displays a 1777 letter from George Washington, authorizing a New York spy network. You can also see a 1980s coat with a camera concealed in a button. If you are curious about the skills and tools used by spies, this place has the answers.
Washington is a four-season city, although summer usually brings high humidity, and winter weather can be cold and snowy. Spring and early summer offer the best weather. In early spring, Washington hosts the National Cherry Blossom Festival, timed to coincide with the blossoming of the city’s 3,000 cherry trees. In late spring, many embassies participate in Passport DC and open their doors to the public.
And if you just want to wander, head for Washington’s venerable and tree-lined Georgetown district, which boasts narrow cobbled streets with historic homes and churches – and a wide array of restaurants, watering holes and shops.
Where to stay
Excellent Dupont-Circle location is convenient for shops, restaurants and much else.
Moderately convenient for many museums and sites; wonderfully convenient for travellers using Union Station.
The hotel is centrally located and has a rooftop swimming pool.
Where to eat
Art and Soul Restaurant (Liaison Hotel)
Modern regional/southern cuisine from an award-winning chef.
Cork Wine Bar
Large selection of excellent vintages, and good food to match.