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Washington D.C.

washington dc capital building 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 and 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, the Capitol Guide Service offers free guided tours, 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 Web site, but there are a limited number of same-day passes available each day. Get there early; at peak times, such as spring holidays, there are lines by 7:30 a.m.

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 spans 2 1/4 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.

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washington dc lincoln memorial 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 38 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 obelisk built as a tribute to George Washington. What you see today was not completed until 1884, with 50 flagpoles representing each state installed in 1959. Access to the top (which is reached by elevator), has been closed since August 2011 due to earthquake damage. There is no word yet on when you can once again enjoy the monument's spectacular 360-degree views of the city and beyond.

washington dc white house 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 six months before your trip. The rooms visited on the tour include the East Room, where presidential receptions are held; the Oval Blue Room, where presidential guests are received; and the Red Room with its red satin walls (used for afternoon tea).

The 19 museums of the Smithsonian Institution are open 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 if your stomach can handle it.

The giant pandas are the main draw at the National Zoological Park, 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 the largest collection 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 20th-century 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 Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Degas and more.

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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. One recent addition is an interactive experience called 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, 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.

mount vernon Mount Vernon, George Washington's stately mansion and 46-acre estate, overlooks the Potomac River about 16 miles from the city. The mansion was first occupied by George and Martha 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. Four different gardens offer a lovely setting for a stroll; there are also hiking trails. An orientation center, museum and educational center add to the educational aspects of a visit to Mount Vernon. 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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