One of my vivid childhood memories is crossing the Potomac River on Memorial Bridge on the way to my father’s office in downtown Washington, D.C. Behind us was our apartment in Arlington, Virginia. Ahead was the Lincoln Memorial.
I was too young to know anything about Abraham Lincoln, but the sight of the gleaming colonnaded building that bore his name was planted in my memory. It was big, solid, majestic, and simple and complex at the same time.
Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination DC, would say that the mental picture I took that day was simultaneously unique to me and in common with virtually everyone’s first visit to this relatively compact, attraction-filled, historic, visual and newsmaking city. Washington has that memory-making effect on people, and that’s a big reason it is ever-popular as a group destination.
“Washington is always of interest because it is the nation’s capital and it is full of monuments, memorials and museums,” Ferguson said. “It’s a world-class city filled with free attractions, and it’s a truly interesting city filled with activities many people don’t expect.”
Ferguson encourages group tour leaders to explore other corners of the city beyond the famous Smithsonian museums on the National Mall and iconic structures such as the U.S. Capitol and the Library of Congress.
You can find many inspirations at the “Discover the Real DC” section of washington.org, but Ferguson’s top-of-mind suggestions include the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, the 25-acre urban retreat of Marjorie Merriweather Post that among other treasures showcases the most comprehensive collection of Russian imperial art outside Russia; the 446-acre National Arboretum, just 10 minutes from the Capitol; the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site; and the emerging collection of restaurants, shops and theaters in the area known as the Wharf.
A probably unexpected excursion in this urban environment is an outing with Anacostia River Explorers, boat tours for up to 20 passengers to learn about the river’s revival and perhaps to see a nesting bald eagle. Another natural retreat is Theodore Roosevelt Island, which is accessible from Arlington, an 88-acre island in the Potomac just across from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The island offers nature; the Kennedy Center has a free performance of some nature every day at 6 p.m.
Here are four major and mostly new Washington attractions to consider for your group’s next visit.
International Spy Museum
Learn about the charms of Mata Hari, the secret Glomar Explorer ship built to raise a sunken Soviet submarine, a fake dog dropping figures in Cold War clandestine operations, why George Washington was deemed a masterful spy and much more at the International Spy Museum. This commercial attraction, opened first in 2002 and relocated and substantially expanded in 2019, is as professionally presented as the nearby Smithsonian museums and can capture your attention for hours. It tosses in some wry humor, too, such as the parting voiceover message “Enjoy the rest of your day. Remember that we’ll be watching you.”
National Museum of African American History & Culture
Much more somber, at least in part, is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. It was an idea launched in 1915 that did not come to fruition until 2018. It is in high demand, and instruction for group access is precise. Passes are free for groups of 10 or more but must be secured beforehand. Be prepared for a powerful history lesson on the museum’s lower three floors, where the stories of slavery, emancipation, Jim Crow and current issues unfold. Three upper floors explore topics such as entertainment, sports and family history.
National Law Enforcement Museum
The real lives of America’s law enforcement personnel, everyone from the traffic officer and the police detective to the wildlife office and the 911 dispatcher, are the focus of the National Law Enforcement Museum, authorized by Congress in 2008 and opened in 2019. The underground museum is part of a Judiciary Square campus that includes the nation’s memorial to law officers killed in the line of duty. Several museum exhibits are highly participatory, including one in which you play the role of a police trainee thrust into realistic training videos. The entire experience reinforces how those police shows you enjoy so much on TV barely touch real life.
Arlington House and Arlington National Cemetery
One of the Washington region’s most visible sights is in Virginia: Arlington House, built by enslaved laborers between 1802 and 1818. It’s the colonnaded house that overlooks Arlington National Cemetery. The mansion closed in early 2018 for a $12.35 million restoration and aims to reopen this spring. Across more than two centuries, it has been a memorial to George Washington, home to Robert E. Lee, a Civil War Union military headquarters and the site of America’s most famous National Cemetery. Restoration included taking the house back to its 1860 appearance, telling the story of the enslaved people forced to live there and adding a museum and bookstore.