Top 10 history sites in Washington, D.C.

The cherry trees will be blooming soon and Washington is bracing for the spring crowds. I’ve lived in the Washington D.C. area now for nineteen years and love the area’s rich, layered history. If you’re planning a trip to Washington D.C., here is my list of the top ten sites, in no particular order, that any history lover should not miss when visiting America’s capital city. (with links to blog posts about them)

P10402471. Lincoln Cottage -This little-known site owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation opened to the public in 2008 and offers a totally fresh perspective on Lincoln’s life in Washington.

2. Arlington House and cemetery – While most people might visitWP_000411 Arlington national cemetery to see President Kennedy’s grave or the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, they should take the time to visit the house just up the steep hill from Kennedy’s grave. Before it was a cemetery, Arlington was home to Confederate general Robert E. Lee and his family. The recently-restored house is owned and run by the National Park Service.

3. White House – At the epicenter of our nation’s history is the home of the President. It still amazes me that the house is open to the public even though it is a residence. Try to get a tour or go for a garden tour.

Smithsonian Castle 14. Smithsonian Castle – The multi-turreted sandstone castle is the nerve center for the world’s largest cultural institution and its museums lining the national Mall. Completed in 1855, the Castle has seen it’s share of history, from buffalo in the back yard, to a major fire during the Civil War.

5. Ford’s Theater – Few sites offer as much emotional Ford's Theatre exteriorpunch as this theater where President Lincoln was assassinated. It is restored to its 1865 appearance (though mostly reconstructed) and cared for by the National Park Service. A museum in the basement tells the story of that horrific night in April and a new education space across the street is well worth a visit. Visitors can peer into the presidential box and since it’s a working theater, should try to attend a play there.

6. Mount Vernon – You won’t be alone when you visit Mount Vernon, first President George Washington’s home on the P1020920Potomac River south of the city. But recent building projects including a visitor center and museum complex have resulted in an well-rounded site devoted to all aspects of the great man, including farmer and slave owner. You should try to see his mules, too.

7. Alexandria – The eighteenth-century town a few miles down river in Virginia was a booming town, home to Christ Church where Washington worshiped, Gadsby’s Tavern where he danced, and the Marshall house where the first casualty of the Civil War occurred. Restored homes line the city’s streets and are the highlight of an evening stroll.

8. Frederick Douglass House – The famous orator lived in this house high on a hill overlooking the city from 1877-1895.You can see his study where Douglass did much of his writing and learn about this great social reformer. The National Park Service operates this site.

9.Capitol building – The new underground Capitol Visitor Center’s exhibitions do a good job of telling the history of one of the most famous buildings in the world.

10. National Portrait Gallery – Today one of the Smithsonian museums, but built as the U.S. Patent building and the third oldest public building in the city. It served as a hospital during the Civil War and site of Lincoln’s second inaugural ball.

Harpers Ferry hillsideBONUS: Harpers Ferry – An hour or so outside of Washington, this tiny town was a major armory in early America, but is better known for John Brown’s raid on the arsenal there which sparked the Civil War. Today the old town area is interpreted by the National Park Service and the scenic vistas are worth the drive.

What would you add to the list?

Check out my new book A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History to find out many more stories about sites near Washington.

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at or
This entry was posted in 18th century, 19th century, 20th century, art and culture, cemetery/grave, city/town, Civil War, house, national park, President and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Top 10 history sites in Washington, D.C.

  1. barb says:

    Harper’s Ferry also has history of the industrial revolution and black history. It also changed hands about several times during the civil war.

    Shenandoah National Park is west of DC and is a favorite spot of our family. It’s steeped in history as well as beauty.

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