How do you eat an elephant? The answer, you all know, is one bite at a time. Visiting Washington, D.C., can feel just as overwhelming. So once you’ve visited the White House, the Capitol, and the presidential memorials, your trip will be more manageable if you narrow your focus, whether it’s on food, art, or history.
Being retired military, I usually visit military museums, war memorials, and monuments to great American leaders. The sheer volume of military attractions and my failure to plan my spur-of-the-moment trip meant I navigated the city like a ricocheting pinball. Some who wander really are lost.
To help you enjoy your visit and have time to wander just for the fun of it, here are a few tips for visiting the city, followed by popular military attractions listed by neighborhood.
1. When To Visit
Spring and fall are ideal times to visit. The weather is mild and crowds thinner than during the summer.
Cherry blossom time adds to the city’s beauty. They usually bloom sometime between March 15th and April 18th. The National Park Service keeps tabs on the predicted peak blooming days on the bloom watch page on their website.
2. Leave Your Car Behind
Traffic and parking make for challenges in the city and will eat into the time you have to actually visit attractions and experience the city.
The Washington Metro will get you anywhere you want to go with a combination of subways and buses. Their website has a trip-planning tool as well as fare information.
A second bus line, the DC Circulator, has convenient stops around the National Mall. The red and yellow ADA-compliant buses and stops are easy to spot.
Pro Tip: The Metro is also ADA compliant. For riders needing an elevator to reach a platform, a phone app sends an alert if a station’s elevator is out of commission.
3. And We’re Walking
The National Mall, called “America’s front yard,” is two miles from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol, but worth every step, since many monuments are in and around the mall. Some paths are gravel, some paved. All are level and wheelchair accessible.
You’ll log a few miles visiting the attractions, especially in the National Mall. You’ve heard it before: Wear comfortable shoes. After my zigzagging, crisscrossing route through the National Mall, my new, cute shoes and I had a falling out. We officially parted ways when I found a Skechers store.
4. Take A Tour
Bus and trolley tours run the gamut from full-day tours that guide you through the Capitol, the National Archives Museum, and the World War II Memorial with USA Guided Tours, to the Old Town Trolley’s 90-minute tour with one stop at the Lincoln Memorial. With a Big Bus Tour, you hop off to explore on your own and hop on to travel from place to place. Narration is ongoing.
Buses face the same traffic snarls as you would in a car, so be prepared for schedule changes.
Bicycle and Segway tours with Bike and Roll are a great option and immune to traffic jams. They have hybrid and electric-assist bikes in their fleet. Guided tours highlight attractions around the National Mall by way of the sidewalks and paths within the green space, so there’s no dodging cars. Segway driving instructions and practice are part of the program, as are helmets. Just in case.
Pro Tip: Bicycle and Segway tours often sell out. I recommend reserving a tour in advance.
Free walking tours with DC by Foot cover the National Mall, Arlington Cemetery, the site of Lincoln’s assassination, and spots known for ghosts and scandals. Reservations are required. If you want to join a virtual tour before your in-person visit, they have video tours on their website.
5. Monuments And Memorials After Dark
Bus, bicycle, and walking tours take in Washington, D.C.’s monuments and memorials after dark. Attractions are open 24 hours a day and make for some striking photos at dawn, dusk, and when they’re lit at night.
6. Focus On An Era, Branch, Or Neighborhood
Military-related museums, monuments, memorials, and statues spread out from the National Mall to Dupont Circle, Embassy Row, and Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery, covering everything from the first militia in colonial America to the present day. Here they are, organized by neighborhood:
The mementos left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall may break your heart -- boots, flowers, and flags. More than 58,000 names are etched in the black granite with a diamond next to those confirmed dead and a cross next to those still unaccounted for.
The wall lists eight women, and the nearby Vietnam Women’s Memorial honors women serving in support roles.
The DC War Memorial is situated between the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Memorial. It names 499 Washington, D.C., residents killed in World War I.
Korean War Veterans Memorial’s most recognizable feature is the group of soldier statues walking through a “rice paddy” wearing backpacks and ponchos. Adjacent, images from 2,400 photographs are etched on a black granite wall.
Heading east, the World War II Memorial is full of symbolism. Tom Hanks narrates a great video describing the significance of each part of the monument, from its bronze wreaths to the Freedom Wall stars that each mark 100 American lives lost.
The Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, the largest equestrian monument in the U.S., honors the Civil War General and two-term President overlooking the east end’s reflecting pool.
North Of The National Mall
Pennsylvania Avenue’s Grand Army Of The Republic Monument commemorates a Civil War veterans’ group that helped make Memorial Day a holiday.
The National Guard Memorial Museum showcases the role of the National Guard from its first muster in 1636 to its role in the fight against terrorism since 9/11.
For a look at home life during our nation’s conflicts, the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum showcases 31 period rooms dating from 1690 through the 1930s.
Also on Pennsylvania Avenue, the United States Navy Memorial Plaza is home to the largest map in the world, the “Granite Sea.” The visitor center has interactive exhibits on the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marines.
Pro Tips: All are ADA compliant. Allow one hour each for the museums and plaza visitor center.
South Of The National Mall
Dedicated in 2020, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial leads visitors through his life with statues of him as a boy, a general, and the 34th president against the backdrop of a 447-foot-long stainless steel abstract depicting the beaches of Normandy.
The glass and granite American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial contrasts the vulnerability and strength in veterans whose disabilities are obvious and not.
The Nuns of the Battlefield statue commemorates the nuns who cared for Civil War soldiers.
The National Museum of American Jewish Military History highlights the contributions by Jewish men and women in the Armed Forces through all of our wars, with the greatest focus on World War II.
The Larz Anderson House on Embassy Row is a fully furnished Beaux-Arts mansion and home to the nation’s oldest private patriotic organization, the Society of the Cincinnati. It’s limited to first-born sons descended from colonial and French men who fought in the American Revolution. A docent tells the history of the organization while touring the mansion decked out with priceless antiques and artwork. It’s a gem.
Pro Tips: The Metro Red Line has a station at Dupont Circle. All of these sites are ADA accessible. Allow one to two hours for each museum.
U Street District
The African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum pays tribute to the 200,000 African American soldiers and sailors that fought in the Civil War. A statue, In the Spirit of Freedom, marks the entrance.
Pro Tip: Use the Green or Yellow Metro line and allow an hour for your visit.
Washington Navy Yard
The National Museum of the United States Navy has artifacts covering the Navy’s 240-plus years of service to the U.S. It’s located on an active Navy base, so bring a photo ID with you.
Pro Tips: It’s nearest the Navy Yard - Ballpark Station of the Metro Green Line. Allow one to two hours for your visit. The museum is ADA accessible.
Across the Potomac River, Arlington National Cemetery is home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and graves of John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Robert F. Kennedy, along with Spanish-American War, Coast Guard, and Space Shuttle Challenger memorials. The Navy-Merchant Marine Memorial and the Marine Corps War Memorial that commemorates Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima are nearby.
While there, watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; it happens hourly, except in the summer when it happens every 30 minutes.
Pro Tips: Cemetery staff will shuttle you to a loved one’s grave. Inquire at the visitor center. Allow one to two hours for your visit. Those with mobility issues can drive into the cemetery.