Top things to do in Washington DC if you’re a politics fan


Brush up on your presidential history on the ultimate power trip to dazzling DC: Seven secrets and tips that bring the US capital alive

  • A visit to Washington DC is the ultimate for politics fan, says Neil Simpson 
  • Wait until night falls before touring (for free) the big political monuments
  • See paintings of Barack and Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery

Every week our Holiday Hero Neil Simpson takes an in-depth look at a brilliant holiday topic, doing all the legwork so you don’t have to. This week, he delivers an intriguing guide to Washington DC.

A visit to Washington DC is the ultimate for politics fans – and a year that begins with an impeachment and ends with an election is the perfect time to explore. Hop-on, hop-off open-top bus tours with firms such as Big Bus (£38 a day) take you to sights including Pentagon City. Then dig deeper to see the city like a local. 

Here are seven secrets and tips that bring the US capital alive.

Imposing: The White House, with the Washington Monument in the background

ONE: White House tours are offlimits to all but Americans getting tickets through their member of Congress. But twice a year anyone can see the South Lawn, the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden and more on a White House Garden tour. The next weekend opening is expected to be in April (whitehouse.gov) and free tickets are handed out on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s also possible to beat the rule that says only US citizens can reserve passes to watch the House of Representatives or the Senate at work in the Capitol building. Overseas visitors can get seats if there are cancellations. Ask at the Capitol Visitor Center.

TWO: Don’t assume the awesome architecture of the Library of Congress can be seen only on daytime research trips. You can re-enter the complex at night for free concerts or film screenings. The latest schedule includes classics such as Bonnie And Clyde and The Graduate. You can also get a theatrical thrill seeing Guys & Dolls, opening soon at Ford’s Theatre. It’s where John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln in 1865, and it’s impossible not to look at the Presidential Box when you take your seat. Take a daytime tour and you’ll get to go on stage and see the back alley where Booth escaped.

THREE: Check out paintings of Barack and Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery – even though they’re not together. Michelle is upstairs in the 20th Century Americans gallery, while her husband is below in the America’s Presidents section. The free museum has a stunning courtyard with a stylish cafe.

FOUR: Get a refresher course in presidential history from the information sheets on the lobby walls of The Mayflower hotel. It’s where Presidents from Calvin Coolidge to Ronald Reagan held inauguration balls, where J. Edgar Hoover loved to lunch, and where Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton infamously hugged at his 1996 fundraiser.

FIVE: Step back in time in The Mansion On O Street, a building that shares an architect with the Capitol and contains lots of its left-over tiles and wood carvings. It has more than 100 rooms and 70 secret doors (the Hidden Doors Tour helps you find them).

Wait until night falls before touring (for free) the big political monuments. Pictured is The Lincoln Memorial

Wait until night falls before touring (for free) the big political monuments. Pictured is The Lincoln Memorial

SIX: Bookshops thrive in DC and favourites are Politics & Prose and Kramerbooks on Connecticut Avenue. Carry one of their bags to look like a local. Both stores host author talks and political discussions. Kramerbooks also has a bar and stages jazz nights.

SEVEN: Wait until night falls before touring (for free) the big political monuments. The vast figures in the Jefferson, Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr Memorials look spectacular under spotlights, and park rangers patrol until about 11.30pm.

Add in the Washington Monument and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and you’ll walk about three miles. Set aside two hours to see them all.

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