Best Historic Sites in Washington

View History for Yourself in These D.C. Area Sites

You've heard how First Lady Dolly Madison saved George Washington's portrait from the burning White House in 1814, probably written term papers on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln while watching a play at Ford's Theatre and seen grainy news footage of President John F. Kennedy being laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. After studying the facts in history class, why not take a trip to Washington, D.C. to see where the events actually took place?

Practically the entire metro region is steeped in history so when it came time to pick the most outstanding places, we narrowed down our 10Best choices by only selecting locations where historical events took place or where well-known figures lived. 

If you are willing to take a drive, national battlefields are not to be missed. In December, Antietam offers an annual memorial illumination featuring 23,000 candles – one for each solider killed, wounded or missing during the day-long 1862 battle in Sharpsburg, Md. A three-day reenactment is held every July to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. People from all over the world flock to the small Southern Pennsylvanian town dressed in military uniforms.

Be sure to dust off those history books before coming because they are filled with events that happened right here in the Washington, D.C. area.      



When Frederick Douglass was born in 1818 on a plantation in Talbot County, Md., he was a slave. Over the course of his 77 years, he would escape slavery, become a leader in the abolitionist movement, a respected author and beloved speaker. Today, visitors may visit the place he called home for the final 18 years of his life. Known as Cedar Hill, the mansion features 21 rooms with a library filled books on a number of different subjects. While you can't touch the books, go online to the site's website to read what titles the collection includes. METRO: Anacostia

Recommended for Historic Sites because: A great site to learn more about one of the most prominent leaders of the abolitionist movement.

Gina's expert tip: The site is only open during daylight hours so plan accordingly.

Read more about Frederick Douglass National Historic Site →

Once the sun sets, the Antietam National Battlefield is enveloped in darkness. Each December, for one day, the battlefield is caressed in the soft glow of flickering candles. Totaling 23,000, each one represents a solider who was killed, lost or wounded during the Battle of Antietam. Vehicles line up to get the opportunity to drive through the five mile long illumination. You will see six cannon barrel muzzles on a block of stone in the park. Each spot represents where a general fell during the battle – three were Union, three were Confederate.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: A stunning reminder about the cost of war and how many lives were lost or forever changed.

Gina's expert tip: When driving through the illumination, be sure to only use your parking lights.

Read more about Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination →

Photo courtesy of Monticello

Thomas Jefferson began building Monticello when he was 26 years old and would continue to expand and change the property until his death at age 83. Today, visitors may come to admire his house and gardens which are considered by many to be a botanic marvel. Guests may also learn about how the property served as a plantation where free and enslaved people worked. When visiting his tombstone, notice his time as the country's third president isn't even mentioned. Jefferson preferred to be known as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the statute of Virginia for religious freedom and the father of the University of Virginia.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: This destination is worth the drive to discover more about the man who helped to found the United States.

Gina's expert tip: Try to come during the Heritage Harvest Festival in September if you have or hope to one day have a green thumb.

Read more about Monticello →

Gettysburg National Military Park
Photo courtesy of Gettysburg National Military Park

Every July, thousands flock to this tiny Pennsylvania town dawning Union blue or Confederate gray to witness or participate in a three-day reenactment of the battle that is considered by many to be the turning point in the Civil War. If you can't come in July, don't fret because the site is open year round and features many must-see attractions. Take a tour of the historic battlefield or peruse the museum to see multimedia exhibits and artifacts. Make time to see the Soldiers' National Cemetery – the site where President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: With historic statues and facts strewn about the town, this destination is a must-see for history buffs.

Gina's expert tip: Request a licensed battlefield guide to give you a tour. They book fast so plan ahead.

Read more about Gettysburg National Military Park →

Initially owned by President George Washington's adopted grandson,Gen. Robert E. Lee served as custodian of the land until it was seized by the federal government to be used as a military cemetery in 1864. Today, Arlington National Cemetery is home for veterans and those killed in the line of duty from every conflict dating back to the Civil War. U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy and William Howard Taft, Senators Robert and Ted Kennedy, and the Space Shuttle Challenger crew are among those buried there. The Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider is not to be missed. METRO: Arlington Cemetery

Recommended for Historic Sites because: The men and women who rest here gave their lives to help change the course of history.

Gina's expert tip: Try to come around Christmas time when every grave receives a wreath from a nonprofit.

Read more about Arlington National Cemetery →

Ford's Theatre
Photo courtesy of Ford's Theatre

2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln while watching a performance of 'Our American Cousin' at this venue in April 1865. As a remembrance, the theatre has planned several events to honor the fallen leader including a tribute, a show dedicated to artifacts from the fateful night and a play focused on his widow, Mary Todd Lincoln. Be sure to go across the street to Petersen House after you leave the theater because it is where Lincoln spent his final hours. Since reopening in 1968, the refurbished theatre puts on plays and performances throughout the year including an annual performance of "A Christmas Carol." METRO: Gallery Place, Metro Center or Archives/Navy Memorial

Recommended for Historic Sites because: The refurbished theatre pays its respects to Lincoln while putting on enjoyable performances for all.

Gina's expert tip: The theatre's museum has the actual gun used in the assassination on display.

Read more about Ford's Theatre →

National Mall

To serve as a symbol of unity, strength and wisdom, the 16th President Abraham Lincoln is honored with this memorial featuring a statue seated below the inscription, "In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever." Completed 57 years after his assassination, the Greek Doric temple was also the site for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic 'I Have A Dream" speech delivered during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom rally in 1963. While the site is impressive during the day, the view will take your breathe away at night. METRO: Smithsonian

Recommended for Historic Sites because: The backdrop for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have A Dream' speech, the memorial is a must-see.

Gina's expert tip: Look to the frieze to see the names of the 36 states in the Union at the time of Lincoln's assassination.

Read more about Lincoln Memorial →

George Washington's Mount Vernon
Photo courtesy of Mount Vernon

Known as America's first home, George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, just outside of Washington, D.C., features a mansion, outbuildings, gardens, animals, a distillery and gristmill, and a four-acre farm. What was once an active plantation is now a bustling tourist attraction. Visitors may purchase tickets to one of ten tours offered including a cruise down the Potomac River, a visit to the rarely opened basement and see the first president's garden and landscaping designs for the grounds. Washington took his last breath inside the mansion's master bedroom in 1799 and the estate serves as his final resting place. His wife Martha and other relatives are also buried in The Tomb.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: A great place to learn more about the man who helped form and lead the nation during its infancy.

Gina's expert tip: Spring is the busiest season so if you don't like crowds avoid the landmark during March, April and May.

Read more about George Washington's Mount Vernon →

United States Capitol
Photo courtesy of U.S. Capitol

Want to see where bills are endlessly debated and sometimes pass to become laws? Come to watch the House and/or Senate in session at the U.S. Capitol and get a tour of the stunning building too. While you may tour parts of the structure during business hours, you need gallery passes to see the floor where elected officials are so be sure to contact your representative's office far in advance. Special tours are offered throughout the week at set times which require passes obtained at the Visitor Center to attend. Check out the detailed art work by Constantino Brumidi on the first floor of the Senate wing o learn about the Capitol and Congress during the Civil War. METRO: Capitol South

Recommended for Historic Sites because: A stunning building to explore where history is both past and present.

Gina's expert tip: If you are visiting the Senate and House galleries, cameras are not allowed but they have a checkstand where you may safely store it.

Read more about United States Capitol →

White House / White House Visitor Center

Given its name by President Teddy Roosevelt, The White House boasts 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms and six levels in the residence. The 55,000-sq.-foot home has served as a safe harbor for U.S. Presidents since 1800 and welcomed leaders and dignitaries from around the world. Decisions on World Wars, crises and ground breaking policies have all taken place behind these walls. While it is famously missing its cornerstone, the historic site also features a tennis court, jogging track, swimming pool, movie theater, billiard room and bowling alley. White is a tough color to keep clean and it takes 570 gallons of paint to cover the outside walls. METRO: Federal Triangle or Metro Center

Recommended for Historic Sites because: No other site in the nation's capital has as much historical significance as The White House.

Gina's expert tip: If you would like a tour, go through your congressional member's office to receive free tickets. Make sure to call months in advance.

Read more about White House / White House Visitor Center →


Meet Gina Gallucci White

Gina Gallucci White is an award winning freelance writer with articles appearing in such regional publications as Frederick Magazine, The Daily Record, Montgomery Magazine and The Gazette. She...  More About Gina