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Washington, D.C. See And Do

Corcoran Gallery of Art
500 17th Street N.W.
Washington , D.C.
Tel: 202 639 1700

NOTE: The Corcoran Gallery of Art will be closed for roof renovations from January 26 through March 13, 2009.
The city's first art museum, housed in an extravagant Beaux Arts building across from the White House, contains an encyclopedic assortment of American art, from portraits from the 18th century to modern works of the 20th century. It's not exclusively American, though, having benefited from the eclectic bequests of several wealthy collectors. The Clark Landing wing contains an extensive display of European paintings, sculptures, tapestries, rugs, and an entire Louis XVI salon belonging to Senator William Andrews Clark, who donated his possessions to the museum in the 1920s. A more recent addition is the photography collection belonging to the noted lensman Gordon Parks.

Ford's Theatre National Historic Site
511 10th Street N.W.
Washington, D.C.
Tel: 202 426 6924

Reopened in 2009 after an 18-month, $50 million restoration, Ford's Theatre National Historic Site is a working theater that doubles as a memorial to Abraham Lincoln, who was mortally wounded here on April 14, 1865, by John Wilkes Booth. Original artifacts on display include Lincoln's Brooks Brothers overcoat and Booth's derringer pistol. The Petersen House, directly across 10th Street, where the stricken president was taken after the shooting and died the following morning, is also open to the public. The 2011–12 theatrical season begins September 23 with the Tony Awardwinning musical Parade. While you can tour the theater for free, you'll have to pay, of course, for theatrical performances.—Chris Cox

Hillwood Museum and Gardens
4155 Linnean Avenue N.W.
Washington , D.C.
Tel: 202 686 5807

Hillwood was heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post's Washington residence from 1955 until her death in 1973. Today, the 25-acre estate in northwest Washington displays her estimable collection of 18th-century French decorative arts and Russian imperial art, such as 19th-century Fabergé eggs, along with more personal items, such as her designer wardrobe. The botanical attractions, including a formal French landscape and Japanese gardens, are also worth the trip. And since the gift shop sells replicas of many of her priceless objects (brooches, the Fabergé eggs), it's one of the most interesting museum shops around.

Closed Sundays, Mondays, and the month of January.

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International Spy Museum
800 F Street N.W.
Washington , D.C.
Tel: 202 393 7798

The only facility dedicated to the study of international espionage, this museum has a permanent collection of artifacts and spy gadgets (such as a pistol disguised in a lipstick case that was used by the KGB). There also are rooms devoted to spy work during World War II, the spy-versus-spy world of the Cold War, and the dangers that we face today. Fittingly, the museum is near the FBI headquarters, just north of the National Mall.

John F. Kennedy Center For the Performing Arts
2700 F Street N.W.
Washington , D.C.
Tel: 800 444 1324 (toll-free)

Located on the Potomac River next to the Watergate complex, Washington's premier performing arts venue (dedicated to arts advocate JFK) has nine stages and is the home base for the National Symphony Orchestra and Washington National Opera. It hosts more than 2,000 performances each year, including touring plays, Broadway musicals, and dance programs. Free performances, from Japanese koto recitals to family-friendly theater, take the Millennium Stage daily at 6 p.m. (tickets are not required). The building itself is also worth a look: There's artwork on display (gifts from other nations), an impressive bronze bust of JFK in the Grand Foyer, and panoramic Potomac River views from the building's outdoor terraces. Guided tours are available.

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The Mall and Its Monuments
Washington , D.C.
Tel: 202 426 6841

Most of Washington, D.C.'s must-see monuments are clustered on the western end of the National Mall, so it's possible to see them all in one day. Construction of the Washington Monument progressed in fits and starts throughout the 19th century, which is why the stone on the top half of the tower is a different color than that on the bottom. (Editor's Note: Due to structural damage from the earthquake on August 23, 2011, the interior of the Washington Monument has been temporarily closed to the public.)

At the eastern end of the Reflecting Pool, the National World War II Memorial pays homage to the 16 million who served, and a wall of 4,000 gold stars marks the 400,000 soldiers who gave their lives in this war. Fifty-six granite pillars signify the unity of the states and territories, and 24 bas-relief sculptures recall significant battles in the conflict (17th St. and Independence Ave. N.W.). Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial design, chosen in a national competition, comprises two black granite walls angled into a V inscribed with the names of the 58,000 soldiers who died in the nation's longest war. Families and friends make pilgrimages here to touch their loved ones' names or to make rubbings on paper.

At the western end of the Reflecting Pool, Daniel Chester French's imposing marble sculpture of Lincoln is the focal point of the Lincoln Memorial. Flanking the statue are murals depicting Lincoln's achievements and inscriptions from his Second Inaugural Address and the Gettysburg Address. It was on the second step here that Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963; look for an inscription on the spot where King stood (Independence Ave. and 23rd St. N.W.).

On the shores of the cherry tree–lined Tidal Basin sit the FDR Memorial and the adjacent Martin Luther King Memorial. The former remembers Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration with sculptures spread throughout a garden, including one of the president in a wheelchair, a rare image even now. The latter, opened in 2011, honors the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a 30-foot granite statue of the civil rights hero and a wall inscribed with excerpts from his famous speeches (W. Basin Dr. S.W.).

Farther south on the Tidal Basin, the Jefferson Memorial commemorates the author of the Declaration of Independence (and the nation's third president) with a towering statue in a rounded neoclassical structure, along the lines of the Pantheon in Rome (Ohio Dr., between the Tidal Basin and Potomac River).

National Archives
Constitution Avenue N.W. (between 7th and 9th streets)
Washington , D.C.
Tel: 866 272 6272

The National Archives and Records Administration collects millions of documents, but you're probably familiar with at least two of them already: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Between 2001 and 2003, these founding documents were painstakingly cleaned, repaired, and vacuum-sealed in state-of-the-art encasements to preserve them for posterity and make them easier to read. During the day, they're displayed in a neoclassical rotunda, and at night, they're locked in an underground vault for safekeeping. In the public vaults, visitors can research their genealogy, view original patent drawings (like the pencil), and listen to recordings of White House conversations during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Touring the exhibits takes approximately 90 minutes. Reservations are recommended (202-357-5450); otherwise, expect to wait an hour or more outside of the building.

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National Gallery of Art
4th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W.
Washington , D.C.
Tel: 202 737 4215

On one side, the West Building is a splendid example of neoclassical architecture, complete with a rotunda; on the other, the East Building is a cool, modern, geometric structure with glass walls, designed by I.M. Pei. (The styles reflect the type of art contained within.) Together, they display a wealth of significant paintings, statues, and graphic arts from the Middle Ages to the present (over 100,000 works in all), including Rodin sculptures; masterpieces acquired from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia; three French and Italian period rooms; and a selection of drawings from da Vinci and Picasso contributed by Armand Hammer. The museum is located on the eastern end of the National Mall (closest to the Capitol). Visit on a weekday morning to avoid the densest crowds

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National Portrait Gallery
8th and F streets
Washington , D.C.
Tel: 202 633 1000

When the National Portrait Gallery, located in the former Patent Office Building in Penn Quarter, emerged from a six-year, $283-million renovation in July 2006, it gained 57,000 square feet of additional space for its extensive collections. There are portraits of every American president (including Gilbert Stuart's Lansdowne portrait of George Washington and Pat Oliphant's caricatures of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon). But the gallery also displays photos, portraits, and videos of notables who have made contributions to American culture, from Charlie Chaplin to Shaquille O'Neal. The American Art Museum (202-633-7970; shares the historic building.

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National Zoo
3001 Connecticut Avenue N.W.
Washington , D.C.
Tel: 202 633 4800

Always a hit with kids, the National Zoo was founded in 1889 and absorbed into the Smithsonian Institution one year later. The leafy, 163-acre Frederick Law Olmsted–designed grounds in northwest Washington are home to over 400 species—from tiny leaf-cutter ants to four-ton Asian elephants. Late spring, when there are adorable baby animals to coo at (and before the swampy humidity sets in), is the best time to visit. Each April, the zoo celebrates all things panda with films, costumed characters, and keeper talks, but watching bamboo-eating Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and their cub, Tai Shan, is a big draw year-round. In the Invertebrate Exhibit's touch tank, you can tickle the backs of sea stars, horseshoe crabs, and sometimes shoulder up to giant tarantulas (if you're gutsy enough). Parking is limited, but the Woodley Park–Zoo stop is just a 20-minute metro ride from downtown on the red line.

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555 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W.
Washington, D.C.
Tel: 888 639 7386

Does the location of the capital's newest attraction—directly across from the National Gallery of Art—mean Americans equate the fourth estate with the Great Masters of Art? Perhaps not these days, but the Newseum, dedicated to the history and future of journalism, certainly provides visitors with an in-depth look at how news is gathered and made. Start by scanning the day's front pages of newspapers from around the country and the world, or by looking at every photograph that's ever won a Pulitzer Prize—a terrific visual history of the 20th and 21st centuries. There are displays of antique microphones and other broadcast equipment, a real TV studio where you can see how a news program gets put together, and exhibits on the First Amendment and international reporting. The museum also houses a portion of the Berlin Wall, and part of the broadcast tower that once graced the top of the World Trade Center. After you've explored the museum, grab a bite to eat at The Source, Wolfgang Puck's on-site restaurant. Two caveats: Skip the "be a reporter" activity in which you can be filmed reading sample stories from a teleprompter, and the 4-D movie, which shows historical re-creations of journalists from the past in 3-D with 4-D special effects. The idea is great but the execution is cheesy, and both will add to the already expensive-for-D.C. entry fee. Still, the museum is very much worth a visit. Those who want to experience more about the news than sound bites and bickering pundits will come away enlightened.

Open daily 9 am to 5 pm; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.

Phillips Collection
1600 21st Street N.W.
Washington , D.C.
Tel: 202 387 2151

The nation's first contemporary-art museum, the personal collection of Duncan and Marjorie Phillips is housed in a Georgian Revival mansion near Dupont Circle, giving it more of a residential than gallery setting. The Phillipses had good taste: The paintings are major works by Cézanne, Renoir, Rothko, Matisse, van Gogh, Kandinsky, and Klee, among others. After a 2006 expansion, the museum has more space to display its permanent collection, including Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party. Between October and May, the museum hosts classical-music concerts (free with museum admission) on Sunday afternoons at 4 p.m. in the museum's Music Room. Arrive early to get a seat.

Closed Mondays.

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Smithsonian Museums
Washington , D.C.
Tel: 202 633 1000

The Smithsonian Institution comprises 17 museums in Washington as well as two museums in New York, which, taken together, truly span the world and the ages. The holdings of the nation's attic are estimated at 137 million objects. Visitors usually start in the institution's first building, The Castle, which holds a general information desk for all the institution's museums and the crypt of James Smithson, a British scientist and the original benefactor (1000 Jefferson Dr. S.W.). Smithson's reasons for bequeathing his fortune to the United States in 1829 to create a facility to expand knowledge have never been entirely explained—especially since he had never been to the country. Many of the Smithsonian's museums are located on the National Mall, between the Washington Monument and Capitol Hill. The museums are mobbed pretty much all the time, especially on weekends in the spring and summer; your best bet is to arrive as soon as the museums open (at 10 a.m.) on a weekday.

The newest addition to the stable (opened in 2004) is the National Museum of the American Indian, which studies and chronicles the culture and traditions of indigenous populations in the Western Hemisphere and Hawaii. Four permanent exhibits explore Native American beliefs, history, contemporary life, and people native to the Chesapeake region. A 20-foot totem poll, carved by American Indian artist Nathan Jackson, is hard to miss (4th St. and Independence Ave. S.W.; Next door, the National Air and Space Museum, along with its Virginia satellite, the Udvar-Hazy Center (14390 Air and Space Museum Pkwy., Chantilly, VA;, tracks the history of flight with the world's largest collection of aircraft and spacecraft, from the Kitty Hawk to the Apollo 11 command module. Hands-on exhibits, like flight simulators, allow armchair pilots to experience flying a plane (7th St. and Independence Ave. S.W.;

On the north side of the Mall, closer to the Washington Monument, the Natural History Museum explores the natural world through fascinating specimens of insects, plants, and animals; fossils; rare gemstones; and cultural artifacts (10th St. and Constitution Ave. N.W.; The National Museum of American History reopened in late 2008 after a two-year, $85-million renovation. The architectural overhaul better showcases the museum's more than three million artifacts, especially the Star-Spangled Banner—the tattered flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the National Anthem—which now has its own state-of-the-art gallery. Other items on display include domestic items such as the first hand-powered vacuum cleaner, and iconic items of American entertainment—Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and Julia Child's kitchen (14th St. and Constitution Ave.;

The African Art Museum, Freer and Sackler galleries for Asian art, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden of modern and contemporary art are also located on the Mall. The American Art Museum, which includes the Renwick Gallery for American crafts and Portrait Gallery, Anacostia Community Museum, Postal Museum, and the National Zoo are further afield.

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U.S. Capitol
First Street and East Capitol Street N.E.
Washington , D.C.
Tel: 202 226 8000

Once upon a time, in order to see the legislative branch in action or how Congress was divvying up your tax dollars, you had to wait outdoors for hours with no bathrooms, seating areas, or restaurants in sight. But with the 2008 opening of the Capitol Visitors Center, touring Congress has become an of-the-people, for-the-people experience. In addition to providing restrooms, coat checks, and a family-friendly cafeteria, the center allows you to reserve tour times online or by phone (you still need to contact your senator or representative to attend a session of Congress—see below). More significantly, the new center provides visitors with a historical context for the tour they're about to embark on. The main gathering place, Emancipation Hall, pays homage to the role that slaves played in building the Capitol, whose soaring dome is visible through the hall's skylights. The neighboring exhibition space has interactive computer stations, a touchable 11-foot model of the Capitol dome, TVs with live feeds from both chambers of Congress, and a rotating collection of historical artifacts and documents.

The guided tours of the Capitol itself start with a surprisingly moving 15-minute film, Out of Many, One, that traces the establishment of the U.S. government, explains the role of Congress, and depicts the construction of the Capitol. The tour, which takes about an hour, goes through the lobby rotunda, the National Statuary Room, and a crypt built for Martha and George Washington (it was never used—the couple is buried at Mount Vernon). U.S. citizens can view a session from the gallery only if they get passes from their senators or members of congress. Foreign tourists can obtain a pass by presenting their passports at the Visitors Center.

A word of warning: You will not be allowed to bring food, drink, weapons, aerosol cans, sharp objects, or pepper spray into the Visitors Center or the Capitol itself. Electronic devices, cameras, recording devices, creams, lotions, and strollers are prohibited for those viewing sessions of the House or Senate. (Items can be checked.)

Open Mondays through Saturdays 8:30 am to 4:30 pm. Passes required for most tours, but a limited number are available for walk-ups.

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United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
100 Raoul Wallenberg Place S.W.
Washington , D.C.
Tel: 202 488 0400

This museum, which opened in 1993 next to the National Mall, tells the story of Holocaust victims in a personal, harrowing way. Visitors board a freight train, the way victims en route to the concentration camps did, and hear recordings of survivors' recollections of life in the camps. Exhibits track the rise of the Nazi machine and the mass murder of six million Jews and countless European minorities. A more positive display traces the heroic efforts of others in Europe to shelter and save Jews. Tickets are given out in the morning (starting at 10 a.m.) for that day's visit, but since the lines are often long, it's best to reserve in advance on or by calling 800-400-9373.

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The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W.
Washington , D.C.
Tel: 202 456 7041

The most famous address in the nation, this grand white mansion modeled on an Irish country house (the designer, James Hoban, was an Irishman) has been the home of every American president, with the exception of George Washington, who oversaw its construction but spent much of his time at Mount Vernon. Each administration has made its mark, but in recent decades no one has had more influence than Jacqueline Kennedy, who embarked on an extensive restoration project that returned the house to a bygone grandeur and brought original objects and furniture back into the fold. Tours are arranged for groups of ten or more through the offices of a U.S. citizen's member of Congress or an overseas visitor's embassy and can be requested up to six months in advance. Tours take place Tuesday through Saturday mornings and generally include a visit to several reception rooms, including the gold-and-white East Room—the site of weddings, JFK's funeral, and Richard Nixon's resignation.

Information may have changed since the date of publication. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.