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Discover the Best of Washington, D.C.

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© Photograph by Grant Faint, Getty Images Visitors to D.C. often take advantage of its many free museums, including the National…

By Troy Petenbrink, National Geographic

As the capital of the United States, Washington, D.C., offers travelers a bounty of world-class attractions and cultural diversity. Here are ten great ways to spend your time.

Natural Wonder

Only 15 miles from Washington, D.C., is the 800-acre Great Falls Park. Its centerpiece is a series of waterfalls on the Potomac River shaped by large, jagged rocks. The park also includes viewing platforms, hiking trails, and picnic areas.

Archaeological Site

Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum of Natural History sits on the National Mall and is dedicated to sharing information and inspiring learning about the natural world. A preserved 12-ton African elephant greets visitors in the museum’s rotunda. Other must-see displays are the Hope Diamond, the live insect zoo, and the dinosaurs.

Located two and a half hours south of Washington, in Charlottesville, Virginia, Monticello and the University of Virginia’s Academical Village together are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Monticello was the plantation home of President Thomas Jefferson, and the Academical Village is part of the original construction of the University of Virginia. Jefferson designed both.

Best Day Trip

Annapolis, Maryland, is a direct 45-minute drive from Washington. The historic city is the capital of Maryland and home to the U.S. Naval Academy. Its downtown cobblestone streets are lined with quirky retail outlets and restaurants, ranging from “ye olde” to Caribbean, serving fresh seafood from the adjacent Chesapeake Bay.

Off the Beaten Path

Often overlooked by visitors (and locals), the National Arboretum is a tucked away on the eastern edge of D.C. It occupies nearly 450 acres and is managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. Visitors can explore more than a dozen distinct gardens and unique attractions including a display of 22 Corinthian columns from the U.S. Capitol.

Most Iconic Attraction

Visitors to the Lincoln Memorial are able to stand at the exact spot where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. That fact, along with the memorial’s captivating design as a tribute to the assassinated 16th American president, are what make it the most visited attraction in Washington, D.C., and easily among the top National Park Service sites in the country.

Local Quirk

The Sunday afternoon drum circle at D.C.’s Meridian Hill Park has been a warm-weather tradition for more than half a century. Local lore ties it to the time immediately after the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X. It has retained its black-empowerment roots, but has expanded to encompass the evolving culture and ethnic diversity of the surrounding Adams Morgan/Columbia Heights neighborhoods.

Late Night

A recently revitalized section of D.C. with a one-and-a-half-mile stretch of bars, restaurants, art galleries, and live entertainment venues, the H Street Corridor neighborhood is one of D.C.’s top spots for evening fun. No-cost streetcars run the length of the corridor.

Neighborhood to Explore

D.C.’s 14th Street Corridor is a mile-long artery bordering multiple neighborhoods. Many of the historic auto showrooms that brought people to the area in the early 1900s are now home to top restaurants, boutique retail outlets, and art spaces. The bisecting U Street Corridor was once known as “Black Broadway” for its famed black entertainment venues.

Cultural Experience

The most recent museum addition to the National Mall, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is designed to document African-American life, history, and culture. Its exhibits range from information on the dawn of the slave trade to the election of the first African-American U.S. president.

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