|Highlighted Sites||Nearby Destinations||When to Go?||Tour Logistics|
Below are highlights of what could potentially be an endless list. For the sake of simplicity, we’ve listed sights in groupings of how they are typically visited and how much time groups typically spend at each. It will help to think of your tour day in blocks: 3 hour mornings, 4 hour afternoons, and 2-3 hour evenings. Of course, no tour is typical, and we don’t want any of our groups to feel that they are typical, but these suggestions serve as a solid frame upon which to add your own uniqueness.
Capitol Hill (one full morning or afternoon)
The Presidential and Military Memorials (2-3 full evenings)
As these memorials are typically visited based on proximity to each other and while they can be visited at any time, we typically go in the evening while most of the other buildings and museums are closed.
This is the final resting place of honor for over 300,000 military personnel who dutifully served our country. It is a place of honor for Two US presidents—John F. Kennedy and William Howard Taft are buried here. The crew of the Challenger space shuttle, civil rights leader Medgar Evers and film star Audie Murphy are among the many honored here. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, containing remains of unidentified soldiers from World Wars I, II, and the Korean Conflict, is guarded 24 hours a day. The changing of the guard ceremony is a moving tribute to them. Arlington house, the home of Robert E. Lee until the outbreak of the Civil War, is located on the cemetery grounds.
Mount Vernon (one full morning or afternoon)
George Washington’s preserved home and plantation is an ideal tribute to the practical man who spent many years away from his beloved home in service to the country as commanding General and first President. Managing his estate was what he excelled at and preferred over the entanglements of power and politics. A tour of the house, grounds, historical interpreters and education center provide an intimate and hands-on look into Washington and his world of the late 1700’s. Nearby, the recreated Gristmill and Distillery can also be added to a Mount Vernon visit.
The Smithsonian Institution (a half day, ha-ha)
There are 20 museums and 9 research centers that make up the Smithsonian, but most groups find their interest and energy exhausted just by sticking to the big ones on the National Mall. A half day is barely adequate to see The Museum of American History, The Natural History Museum, and The Air and Space Museum, but if one is so inclined, they could also poke their head into the Museum of the American Indian, the Hirshhorn Museum of Modern Art, The Arts and Industries Building for temporary exhibits, The Smithsonian Castle, African Art Museum, International Gallery, and Sackler and Freer Galleries of Asian Art. If more time is allowed on the schedule, there are more museums located off the beaten path (not on the National Mall): American Art Museum / Portrait Gallery in Chinatown, the National Zoo in Rock Creek Park, the Renwick Gallery by the White House, or the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space museum located about one hour outside DC at Dulles Airport.
The White House (1 hour)
A walk around the perimeter of the secure grounds of the most famous home in the world will afford up close views of the North Front and Lafayette Park on one side, and the South Portico, South Lawn and Ellipse on the other. To get inside is another story; that must be arranged by limited availability with your Representative or Senator. About a quarter of our groups get it. So good luck!
Ford’s Theatre (1 hour)
The site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination is both memorial to the man and working theater with rotating shows. Timed tickets permit entrance into the museum and into the theatre to see the balcony as it was decorated in 1865. Across the street, the same ticket permits entry into the Peterson House where Abraham Lincoln died.
National Archives (1 hour)
Our nation’s safe house for preservation of important documents and records has on permanent display The Declaration of Independence, The US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Magna Carta. Long lines and security make this a hard one to time.
Holocaust Memorial Museum (1-2 hours)
Depending whether the group visits one of the smaller exhibits like Daniel’s Story or visits the Permanent Exhibit which requires reservations or tickets, this could a short or long visit, and it could be a tamed or graphic visit. Either way, it is an essential example of how knowing history helps us know how to make a better future.
Bureau of Engraving and Printing (1 hour)
An internal tour of the BEP allows visitors to see the process by which our paper currency is printed. The bullet proof glass enclosed platforms let you see and smell the money, but the only money you get to touch is that which is in your own pocket when you get to their gift shop (which sells you money for more than it’s worth). By reservation only for groups.
Newseum (2-3 hours)
This museum of news and media uses film footage, photography, and historic printed materials to show the importance of free press and free speech. But more than just a review of how great events are reported, the Newseum is very interactive. Visitors can experience the 4-D film, act the news anchor in front of green screens, and play computer challenges.
Washington National Cathedral (2 hours)
Though built entirely in the 20th Century, the National Cathedral transports one into the 14th Century gothic and it’s sculpture and stained glass tell the stories the Bible and American history. A tour of the world’s sixth largest church is by appointment only, and the trip there and back takes in the Embassies along Mass Ave and some of DC’s nicest residential neighborhoods.
This basilica, the largest Roman Catholic Church in the Western Hemisphere, is a mix of Romanesque and Byzantine styles with modern décor, and is located by Catholic University.
Pentagon (2 hours)
Tours of the headquarters of the Department of Defense and the world’s largest office building are by reservation only.
Law Enforcement Memorial (30 minutes)
This memorial is encircled by marble walls containing the names of officers who have died in the line of duty. Each mid-May is Law Enforcement week when the new names of the fallen are added.
National Gallery of Art (1 hour)
For the more “sophisticated” travelers, the traditional West Building, modern East Building, and outdoor Sculpture Garden contain works by all the big names of European and American art. Located on the National Mall, it can be done in conjunction with the Smithsonians.
Museum of Crime and Punishment (1 hour)
Several interactive floors review the history of crime, detective work, and penalty. America’s Most Wanted is filmed in the basement.
The International Spy Museum (1 hour)
This museum covers the role and history of espionage, from the Revolution to the Cold War, and from Hollywood to DC.
There are many more memorials, museums, and statues to visit in DC, most of which probably won’t be specifically included in an itinerary, but as time and traffic permits, can be added as they are relatively brief stops that typically do not require reservations:
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Albert Einstein Memorial, Union Station, Japanese American Memorial, Canadian Embassy, US Botanical Gardens, National Building Museum, Old Post Office Pavilion, Freedom Plaza, Washington Navy Yard, George Mason Memorial, African-American Civil War Memorial, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Theodore Roosevelt Island and Memorial, Old Town Alexandria, George Washington Memorial Masonic Temple, Georgetown University, Constitution Gardens, Folger Shakespeare Library, DC’s World War I Memorial, National Harbor Maryland, National Geographic Society.
Let us know if there’s something we didn’t list here that you’re interested in. We love groups that surprise us with something out of the ordinary.
Many groups make Washington DC the core of a larger trip by adding one or more other historic destinations in the East. While three full days are needed to do DC justice; the destinations below are listed with their driving time one way from DC and extra days needed to experience them.
Colonial Virginia (3 hours drive, 2 days)
A great way to begin a trip as this is where the nation began, at Jamestown. Williamsburg takes you back to the 1770’s for a nice pace and hands-on rustic experience for a group before hitting the bustle of DC. Yorktown is where our Independence was won. Also make time for Richmond or Charlottesville on the way to/from DC
Civil War Battlefields (within 2 hours, day trip from DC)
Gettysburg, PA was the deadliest battle and turning point of the Civil War and now is the most monumented battlefield on earth. It is the most popular day trip out of DC, but even closer there are Antietam, MD, Harper’s Ferry, WV, Manassas, VA, and Fredericksburg, VA.
Philadelphia (3 hours, 1-2 days)
Original buildings abound where our founding fathers walked, slept, worshipped, argued and birthed our nation. Sites include Independence Hall, Liberty Bell, Franklin Court and the Constitution Center. Nearby is Valley Forge and a little further Lancaster (Amish Country)
New York City (5 hours from DC, 2-3 days)
While NYC has it’s own treasures of American history, a trip here from DC will definitely take on a whole new pace and energy. Canyons of sky-scrapers, lights of Broadway, famous shopping, film sets, and an international nexus for both the poor, the posh, and the powerful; it truly is the Capital of the World.
Boston (9 hours from DC, 4 from New York, 2 days)
Walk the Freedom Trail in the footsteps of the Revolutionaries in downtown Boston. Follow the footsteps of the Minutemen and hear the “Shot heard ‘round the World” at Lexington and Concord. Join the first New England settlers at the Mayflower II and Plimoth Plantation.
Crowded sites, long lines and sweltering humidity often prompt our groups to ask us, “When is the best time to go to DC?” While there is no set-in-stone “best” or “worst” time to go, there are trade-offs with every season.
The best balance of less crowds and agreeable weather would be the Fall (October – mid November with late October typically being the peak of fall foliage) but there’s a reason less groups come then. It’s early in the school year and it’s hard to work around sports schedules. If you’re able to do it, we highly recommend the fall.
Conversely, Spring is a more convenient time for school groups to come, and come they do. You can expect heavy school crowds from mid-March to mid-June. Early April is particularly crowded with Spring breakers and Cherry-Blossom gazers. Weather is particularly unpredictable in the spring; but you should expect at least one day of rain on your trip. The trees start blooming in late March, and the heat and humidity set in around late May. In May and June the various military bands do free concerts and demonstrations around the city. Consider coming Memorial Day weekend; while the city is crowded, it’s more from families and veterans than from school groups, so the city takes on a more ceremonial and reverent air, particularly at Arlington, but also in the parades and concerts.
Some groups try to beat the crowds in January and February when day temperatures linger between 30 and 50 degrees. Weather usually is not a big deterrent and most kids are excited if it does snow, and it’s nice to be able to waltz into many of the buildings without lines or reservations. The biggest drawback is the outdoor scenery: Many of the fountains in the memorials are not turned on until mid-March. The landscape is more gray with leaf-less trees and the daylight shorter (but conversely, some of our June groups are disappointed that they didn’t get to visit the memorials at night when it doesn’t get dark till 9:30).
So, weigh your own schedule with the pros and cons, pick your dates, but even then take nothing for granted. Prepare yourselves for the wonderful mystery of weather and the fluctuations of a living, security-conscious government that can both thrill and frustrate our best-laid plans.
TOUR LOGISTICS: Guides, Ground Transportation, Meals, and Hotels
Our guides maintain a 24 hour presence with the group from the time you arrive till the time you leave, so in addition to being your educational expert, they will also be navigating you through the logistics of transportation, meals, and hotels. While each guide has their own style and strengths, they strive to be flexible to the group’s needs and maintain the difficult balances between reverence and fun, promptness and leisure, information and action, being decisive and being accommodating. Some sites only allow their resident guides or rangers to lead/talk to groups, but other than that our guides are available to instruct as much or as little as you desire (Yes, sometimes our guide’s passion for the subject outlasts the mental energy reserves of the group).
There will be a guide for each motor coach, should the group size require more than one coach. We use only experienced drivers in newer model coaches that come with AC, DVD/TV, reclining seats, and restrooms. While the motor coaches will greatly cut down on the time and walking one would have to do using Metro or driving and parking their own vehicle, there are many restrictions on where coaches can drop, pick-up and park, and as many buildings and monuments are near each other, walking will still be a necessity and usually a pleasure.
Our hotels are also high quality, with such familiar names as Marriott, Sheraton, and Doubletree. As much as possible, we use centrally located hotels to avoid lost time waiting in suburban traffic in the mornings. Privately hired night security will monitor the floor or floors where the group is sleeping so the group leaders can sleep with more peace of mind that no one is disturbing the group, nor are they disturbing each other or leaving their rooms.
We pride ourselves on using meals of high caliber in both food quality and setting. Breakfast is typically hot buffet-style at the hotel before departure. Lunches are usually more flexible and often are not specifically scheduled in the itinerary, allowing the guide and group leaders to choose the timing and location of lunches as the itinerary unfolds, and letting the group rub shoulders with DC’s bustling locals. Dinners are typically by reservation with reserved group seating and options within a set menu to expedite service. Depending the location, dinners are often in historic inns or event-themed dining.
For more information regarding packing lists, preparations, academic goals, fundraising, hometown connections, teacher tips, and other logistics of group travel, please visit our Traveler Resource Center.
|Return to Destination Main||Return to Top|
Read More +
Tracy Hale, Tour Manager and Guide, completes her dream goal of running the Marine Corps Marathon.
Read More +
Come Explore Noblesville, Indiana: Featuring some of our travelers as Hometown Tour Guides
Read More +
Come explore the educational and scenic richness of our US National Parks in the American Southwest.
Read More +
After years of experience in student travel, we’ve created Discovery Expeditions for all types of travelers and destinations.