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Washington D.C.

us capitol building sunset

The U.S. Capitol is the seat of the legislative branch of the U.S. government. If you would like to visit the House or Senate chambers to see the politicians in action -- highly recommended -- we suggest you write or call your Congressperson's office before your trip for passes. However, you may be able to get passes at the last minute by visiting his or her office in person (a directory near the ticket booth will tell you where your representative's office is located). International visitors can visit the galleries by visiting the House and Senate Appointment Desks in the Capitol Visitor Center.

To see the rest of the majestic building, take a free guided tour, not including the chambers, with guides outlining the history and architecture. Tours can be reserved in advance through your representative's office or online at the Capitol's website, but there are a limited number of same-day passes available each day. Get there early.

Washington's monuments and memorials are some of the most celebrated structures of their kind in the world. They are clustered in and around the National Mall, which about two miles from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol, with plenty of grassy area in between (the setting for festivals, Frisbee matches, rallies, picnics and protests). The space was planned by original Washington designer Pierre L'Enfant as a grand boulevard and place for remembrance, observance and protest.

The Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922 and overlooks the Reflecting Pool, the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol. Inside the Greek temple design, with its 36 columns, is a 19-foot marble statue of the 16th president. The memorial was also an important backdrop for the Civil Rights Movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

Located in a structure reminiscent of the Pantheon, the Jefferson Memorial displays a 19-foot bronze statue of the third President of the United States. The memorial was dedicated in 1943, and includes one of Jefferson's favorite design elements, the rotunda, in its structure.

The Washington Monument stands 555 feet above the Mall, an Egyptian-style obelisk completed in 1884 as a tribute to George Washington. Around the base are 50 flagpoles representing each state. Access to the top is closed until spring 2019 for elevator modernization.

Other memorials and monuments of note include the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, located along the Tidal Basin; the powerful Vietnam Veterans Memorial, near Constitution Gardens; and the National World War II Memorial, on the eastern end of the Reflecting Pool.

The White House has been the home of every U.S. president since John Adams. The White House currently offers tours only for those who make advance reservations through a member of Congress. You can apply up to three months before your trip. Spaces visited on the tour include the the oval-shaped Blue Room, the Red Room with its red satin walls and a spot where you can view the Rose Garden.

The 19 museums of the Smithsonian Institution are free of charge and can occupy several days of your visit. Which you chose to visit is up to your personal interests, but we highly recommend the National Air and Space Museum, where you'll find such icons of flight as the original Wright Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, SpaceShipOne and the Apollo 11 command module. There is also a touchable lunar rock. IMAX movies, planetarium shows and flight simulators are worth the admission fee.

The newest Smithsonian institution is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which offers a moving, comprehensive overview from the arrival of the first African slaves to the present day. Check the website for ticket policies, as you may need to book in advance.

The giant pandas are the main draw at the National Zoo, also part of the Smithsonian system. In addition, there are thousands of other exotic animals and a re-creation of the Amazon rain forest.

The National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum share a building (at 8th and F Streets NW) constructed in 1836 as the U.S. Patent Office. The Portrait Gallery highlights famous Americans from George Washington (the famous "Landsdowne" portrait) to Marilyn Monroe and Shaquille O'Neal; one newer addition is a portrait of President Obama. The American Art Museum boasts one of the largest collections of American art in the world, including works by Edward Hopper and Georgia O'Keeffe.

Art lovers will also want to visit the free National Gallery of Art, which has in its West Wing a collection of international masterpieces from the 13th to 19th centuries and in its East Wing a collection of modern and contemporary art. The Phillips Collection was the first modern art museum in the U.S., and is where you'll find Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party," as well as works by van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, O'Keeffe, Degas and more.

A visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is both rewarding and emotionally harrowing. Plan a half-day to see the museum and then recover from the devastating exhibits on display. The museum traces the history of the Jewish persecution under the Nazis from 1933 to 1945 through artifacts, photos and oral histories. From March through August, timed passes are required to view the permanent exhibition, with free passes given out on a first-come, first-served basis. You can avoid the lines by purchasing passes on the museum's site in advance for a small fee.

The International Spy Museum uniquely explores the craft, practice, history and role of espionage, and serves up an impressive collection of espionage-related artifacts -- like lipstick guns and cufflink compasses. Interactive experiences include Operation Spy, which combines special effects and live action to help participants feel what it's like to be a spy. Lines to get in can be long during busy tourist seasons, so book your tickets in advance (for an extra fee) to avoid the wait.

For a night out, see what's on at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the nation's top performing arts facility. Even if you don't want to spring for a ticket, there are free theatrical and musical performances offered daily at 6 p.m.

You can still catch a play at Ford's Theatre, where President Lincoln was assassinated. Or just come by for a tour of this historic site -- you'll walk through the theater itself as well as the house across the street where Lincoln died.

Discover historic newspaper front pages about the world's key events at the fascinating Newseum, where other artifacts include a sit-in counter from the Civil Rights Movement and the wreckage of the broadcast antenna from the top of the World Trade Center, destroyed on September 11, 2001.

The Washington National Cathedral is notable not only for its stunning stained-glass windows and extensive needlepoint collection, but also for a gargoyle in the shape of Darth Vader (you'll need binoculars to see it). Another church worth a visit is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Roman Catholic Church in the U.S.

Mount Vernon, George Washington's mansion and estate, overlooks the Potomac River about 16 miles from the city. George and Martha lived in the mansion after their marriage in 1759. You can visit the 21-room mansion house and more than a dozen outbuildings including the slave quarters, stables and kitchen, as well as a working farm. The gardens offer a lovely setting for a stroll. Just three miles away, George Washington's Distillery and Gristmill is open seasonally for a look at the first president's entrepreneurial spirit.

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