Two years of social and political chaos have taken a toll on the nation’s capital city of Washington, DC. Homeless encampments and vagrant encounters have grown, as have crime and drug use. All of these are visible to visitors even to the richest parts of the city.
Yet a Washington DC trip is often a rite of passage for Americans, and now may be the best time for a visit until some other mass turmoil roils around. With the city finally lifting its mask mandate for all but children attending its public schools, and the U.S. Capitol finally open for constituent tours after two years of lockdown, here are some ways to make the most of the newly reopened city as we speed past spring 2022 and into the summer.
A couple of months ago, the longest I could endure in a DC museum was one hour. After that, a mask-induced headache would inevitably follow. Now that the public museums are finally mask-free, here are a few definitely worth visiting.
The National Gallery houses a stunning array of fine art. It’s certainly one of the finest collections in the United States, and possibly the world. The current star exhibition–on display until June 1–is a collection of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings, titled “Clouds, Ice, and Bounty.” Highlights include beautiful landscapes from Adam van Breen and Jan van Goyen.
A few rooms down, discover Dutch Golden Age works in the permanent collection from Dutch painters Johannes Vermeer and Charles Rembrandt. A single visit to the Gallery is never enough. Each time I return, there is always more to see. Free admission, open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. A great place to take children as well!
The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History is a family favorite. It’s filled with interactive and exciting exhibits, such as the Hall of Fossils and the Fossilab, where you can watch museum staff unpack and prepare fossils for conservation. My personal favorite is the dazzling Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals, where you can see more than 2,000 gems and minerals, including the infamous Hope Diamond. Free admission; open daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
The Smithsonian Museum of American History is also wonderful, but with a caveat: by all means skip some of the contemporary exhibits, in particular one called “Girlhood (It’s Complicated).” “Girlhood” claims to “engag[e] the audience in timely conversations about women’s history.” In reality, it clearly promotes an entirely political agenda: certain sections openly advocate birth control and transgenderism, and the entire exhibit is targeted toward children and young adults.
I encourage families to focus on less openly political exhibits: “American Enterprise” houses inventions like Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephones; “The First Ladies” displays Inauguration Day gowns from over two dozen of America’s First Ladies; “The Price of Freedom” gives an in-depth view of major American wars and battlefields. Free admission; open Friday through Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is another great option, although parts of the building are currently closed due to construction. If you have the time, I recommend driving out to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport. As the companion to the National Air and Space Museum, it houses historical aircraft such as the “Enola Gay” and the space shuttle “Discovery.” Free admission; open daily 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Finally, the Museum of the Bible has a wealth of sacred art, ancient artifacts, and interactive exhibits. The building is beautiful and the sixth-floor level boasts a splendid view of the city. Also be sure to check out Manna, the on-site restaurant! Open every day except Tuesday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Adult tickets are $19.99, youth tickets are $13.99. Children 4 and under are free.
On a typical weekend day, you will see dozens of joggers down the long stretch between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, all the way down to the Smithsonian and the Capitol. But it’s not just for joggers — walking along the National Mall is a great way to take in the sights, especially before the summer temperatures begin to hit DC.
Spring is arguably the best time of year to visit. The weather is ideal given the southern city’s muggy summers. While the cherry blossoms peaked early this year, the local temperature and scenery are still lovely this spring.
Another beautiful outdoor excursion is Arlington National Cemetery. Cherry blossoms can be found here as well, and the view of the city from Arlington House—the former residence of Robert E. Lee—is magnificent. Be sure to also visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and watch the Changing of the Guard. The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial is also a short walk away.
If you prefer transportation other than walking, DC has plenty of bicycles and electric scooters you can rent for an hour or two. There are more than 10,000 scooters in the district, and bike tours of the monuments and Arlington Cemetery are available.
For history buffs who wish to explore other notable landmarks near the DC area, there are many attractions to be found within an hour or two of the city. Two of my favorites are Mount Vernon, President George Washington’s estate, and Harpers Ferry.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon is just 30 minutes from DC, and it is unique in that it is not a government-owned historical landmark. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased the deteriorating estate to restore it in 1860, and they still maintain the property relying entirely on private contributions.
It is the perfect destination for children, with an intriguing museum, tours of the historical mansion, outbuildings, a farm, a gristmill, and so much more. To top it off, the mansion sits atop a hill and has a breathtaking view of the Potomac River. Adult tickets are $28 and youth tickets are $15, with an additional $2 if you wish to tour the mansion. Open 365 days a year, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Finally, Harpers Ferry is one of my favorite destinations if I have a bit more time on the weekend. Yes, part of it is because I can never resist a beautiful view, and it is difficult to top the scenery at Harpers Ferry, where the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers meet amid “misty mountains.”
But it is also rich in historical significance. This is the location where John Brown’s raid occurred, which accelerated the onset of the Civil War. The drive to Harpers Ferry is 1-1.5 hours from DC, depending on traffic, but there are also affordable (and scenic) Amtrak train rides available from DC’s Union Station, which is convenient if you want to take a weekend trip and have enough time to hike the Appalachian Trail!
This is certainly not a comprehensive list, but hopefully it can give you a few ideas for how to take advantage of DC’s most beautiful season, which we can appreciate all the more now that Covid seems to be in the rearview mirror.