Thanks to my combined knowledge of travel and my own city, I think I do a pretty good job of showing people around this place. There’s a lot to see, and sadly I think most visitors never step foot beyond Capitol Hill and the National Mall, so they really only get a sense of the part of the city the politicians who aren’t from the area and aren’t involved in the area hang out in. But after sharing my insights on Facebook travel boards and being a sherpa to study abroad students and newly moved in locals, I decided it was the right time to share my favorite places to visit with you guys. After all, who would know D.C. travel better?
Washington, District of Columbia, Capital of the United States, home. Call it what you like, but to me Washington DC and the surrounding area is where I was born, and it is what I plan to call home for the rest of my life. I love to travel with the best of them, of course- I’m still working on my goal of visiting all the continents before I turn 30 in my proffered slow travel style- but the home base I will return to over and over again I hope will always be in my home town.
Be sure during your trip to visit at least one sculpture garden, like the Hirschhorn or the very convenient Reflecting Pool while you are in the area. Modern sculpture is probably what DC is best known for, artistically speaking. Everyone has a favorite sculpture. It feels like every public building has at least one sculpture inside or outside. It’s like the city’s signature.
Take a look at the city’s sculptural offerings. It’s quite possible that after your trip, you will have a favorite too!
Why is DC a Great Place for an Art Tour?
One of the great things about touring through DC in general is that the majority of the museums are free admission. I was really shocked the first time I tried to go to a museum in another country, and they actually charged admission! Even worse, it was a very expensive admission, about $20! In DC there are a few great paid museums that charge around $15 for admission, and the rest of the also great museums are completely free of charge.
The goal is to make museums accessible to people of all income levels and classes, which I love!
But I do worry that people will take advantage of the system. Free admission doesn’t mean you should necessarily choose not to give any money at all. It’s considered polite to pay-what-you-can, so people with no money can pay nothing but if you have a few or many spare bucks it is more polite to give that.
Art Scavenger Hunt
For fun, I also included a great scavenger hunt guide. It should get you, your family, your friends, and whoever else you are traveling with a great glimpse into a few of the most noteable artistic places in The District itself.
D.C. Travel for Art
If you plan to visit these artsy places as part of the scavenger hunt, I recommend you start hitting up the DC locations in the morning because the sidewalks start to get really congested around lunch time (12 noon).
Other Great Places To Visit
- Hirschhorn Sculpture Garden
- If you are visually impaired, be sure to register for the June 2nd touch tour
- The Library of Congress
- The biggest library in the World, and stuffed with art both in the collections and in the cool carvings and art that make up the building itself. Don’t miss the stained glass ceilings or carved marble stairs in the Jefferson building!
- National Museum of The American Indian
- Sackler and Freer Galleries
- A Gallery That’s Literally an Alley
- National Museum of African Art
- National Museum of Women in the Arts
A note on food in DC
Food is freaking expensive in DC. Keep in mind, there are very few miles that make up the district itself, so real estate is at a huge premium. That means restaurants really jack up their prices. Which is really a bummer if you are doing D.C. travel of any kind, not just an art tour. If you want an affordable meal, you will need to hitch a ride on Metro and go out just one or two stops into NoVa, like the stop Pentagon City’s mall food court.
Alternatively, growing up on a fairly small budget, my family used to pack a picnic lunch into our tourist backpacks whenever we planned to spend a day visiting museums. You’ll need to be careful to pack in insulated lunchbags to fight the horrible humidity and heat in the city and plan to eat an early lunch so things don’t go bad.
Another word of caution, if you do pack a lunch be sure to avoid packing anything beyond those cheap plastic knives. DC takes security very seriously, and you will go through a metal detector at each museum, so just don’t bring anything you wouldn’t bring through a TSA security scan. And please, pretty please, do not joke about explosives. You will have a very negative experience visiting the city if you make yourself get flagged as a security threat.
NoVa Travel for Virginia Art Touristing
Why limit yourself just to the few miles that make up the District of Columbia itself? Why not pop into all the best art places? That’s really the only way to get the full experience of D.C. travel.
If you want to just enjoy art while you are visiting the city, then I recommend you also spend some time in NoVa. NoVa is not part of D.C. itself according to maps and guidebooks, but any local you ask will tell you that Southern Maryland, D.C., and Northern Virginia are all part of the DC Area. Cutting NoVa out of your trip would be a little like visiting NYC and only stopping in Manhattan- you could do it and still enjoy the trip, but why would you only get half the experience of a city like that?
I’ve listed some of my favorite artsy places in NoVa that bustle with creative spirit.
- Arlington Museum of Art
- Arlington Arts Center
- Cassatt’s Cafe and Gallery
- Because you need somewhere to eat during your travels! Cassatt’s is a New Zealand themed cafe that sells local artist’s work. Arlington is slightly more budget friendly than the district, and the pricing here is reasonable.
- The Torpedo Factory Art Gallery
Other Great Spots
For a bite to eat I’d recommend checking out Union Street Pub. It’s not on a street named Union at all, but it has great gluten free options, my favorite brunch menu in the whole area, and great flare to the decor that certainly feels like a work of art if you sit on the upper floor.
Other Noteable NoVa Art Places
This combination gallery, studio, and learning space is installed in the former DC prison. Criminals have long since been cleared out years ago, though, and ever since the miles of space in the main buildings have been used to host all sorts of local art pieces and some of the artists who make them.
While you are on the property, you can also check out the museum on the prison’s history, which includes a decent display about the many suffragists and other early feminists who were imprisoned there.
If you go for a hike on the grounds you will run into some interesting displays about the history of railroads and an aged caboose and other relics as well. Kids (and my parents) go nuts for trains.
Maryland Travel for Art Places
I’ll admit, I don’t go to Maryland super often. Traffic gets pretty gnarly in the area, so it can take hours to go from one end in NoVa to the other in Maryland. But there are a few areas that I’m really familiar with, and one of them stands out as a great place to visit for art and fun. But, while I personally am more connected to D.C. and NoVa, the South of Maryland is also an integral part of the region, and you shouldn’t strike it off your itinerary for D.C. travel.
“The Awakening” is probably the most famous sculpture in all of the area. Which is kind of funny considering how different it is from the very modern and abstract style of the glossy steel geometric forms in the district itself.
National Harbor has a lot of other statuary dispersed through the city. It makes for a great combo of eating tour and art tour, which is really all I can dream of when I go traveling.
Be sure to visit the beloved local sandwich chain Potbelly’s during your tour.