Historic Sites In Washington D.C. More Than Just Parks has 10 incredible must-see sites for you.
I’ve been to so many of these amazing places since retiring from teaching in 2018. Did I mention that I taught history? I spent a lifetime teaching about the history behind these momentous sites. Then I got to see them firsthand. And now I’m sharing the stories of these incredible places with you. It doesn’t get any better than that!
I taught history for over a quarter of a century. Now I enjoy researching and writing these articles for More Than Just Parks.
I’m going to give you my list of the Top 10 Historic Sites in Washington D.C. that you’ll want to see. These are our top 10 sites which we will provide in reverse order. We’ve got amazing monuments, fascinating exhibits, historic museums, legendary figures and so much more.
Why Trust Us About Historic Sites in Washington DC?
You should probably know that we don’t just make this stuff up out of thin air. My sons have spent their entire adult lives exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands.
As for me, I’m a retired lifelong educator and a proud dad of these two wonderful guys who are hopelessly obsessed with the national parks. I taught history for over a quarter of a century. Now I enjoy researching and writing articles for More Than Just Parks. I’m always on the hunt for topics where nature and history intersect so please feel free to share any ideas that you might have with me.
We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues. Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
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We’re Jim Pattiz and Will Pattiz, collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers (and sometimes the Parks Brothers) and we absolutely LOVE the national parks.
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Historic Sites In Washington D.C.
#10. African American Civil War Museum
We begin our top 10 countdown of the best historic sites in Washington D.C. with the African American Civil War Museum.
Dedicated in July of 1998, the mission of the African American Civil War Memorial & Museum is to correct a great wrong in history which pretty much ignored the heroic role of 209,145 US Colored Troops in ending slavery and keeping America united under one flag.
The Museum uses a rich collection of artifacts, documents, primary sources, and technology to create a meaningful learning experience for families, students, Civil War enthusiasts, and historians about the period from the American Civil War to Civil Rights and beyond.
It’s worth noting that over 200,000 African-American soldiers and sailors served in the U.S. Army and Navy during the Civil War. Their service helped to end the war and free over four million slaves. The African American Civil War Memorial honors their service and sacrifice.
The African American Civil War Memorial is a self-guided experience.
#9. Theodore Roosevelt Island
At #9 on our list of Best Historic Sites In Washington D.C. is Theodore Roosevelt Island.
As University of Virginia Professor of Politics Sidney Milkis noted, “Theodore Roosevelt is widely regarded as the first modern President of the United States. The stature and influence that the office has today began to develop with TR.”
As a former history teacher, I must confess that Theodore Roosevelt was one of my favorites. He was a progressive leader who was not afraid to stand up to the powerful interests of his day when he believed it was in the best interests of the American people.
If you love historic sites and the national parks, and I assume that you do or why else would you be reading this article, then you are likely aware of his impact on conservation. Some would argue that he was and remains the greatest conservation president of all time.
9 Interesting Facts About Theodore Roosevelt
- As a child, Theodore Roosevelt witnessed Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession.
- Theodore Roosevelt was a prolific writer who wrote about 35 books including his autobiography.
- He Was America’s First Cowboy President-Given his time as a rancher in North Dakota, he was the “real deal” when it came to embodying the west despite his eastern origins.
- Roosevelt was the “Father of the Modern American Navy.” He wrote the definitive naval history of the War of 1812, served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and built the U.S. Navy into one of the largest in the world.
- He was the first president to win a Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation efforts in the Russo-Japanese War.
- In response to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Roosevelt pressured Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906.
- He was the inspiration for the Teddy Bear. His decision to spare a bear on a 1902 hunting trip inspired a candy store owner in New York to make a black bear doll which he named the “Teddy Bear.”
- He helped to save the game of football. It had become too violent so TR met with coaches and officials to help bring about the rule changes which saved the sport.
- Roosevelt was the first president to go after big corporations and created a Bureau of Corporations to protect the public from price-fixing.
- And let’s not forget conservation. Roosevelt protected 230 million acres of public land, which included the creation of the U.S. Forest Service and the unveiling of five new national parks.
Things To Do At Roosevelt Island
In the 1930s, landscape architects transformed Mason’s Island from neglected, overgrown farmland into Theodore Roosevelt Island, a memorial to America’s 26th president. They conceived a “real forest” designed to mimic the natural forest that once covered the island.
Today you can hike miles of trails through wooded uplands and swampy bottomlands honor the legacy of a great outdoorsman and conservationist. And if Theodore Roosevelt were here then I suspect he would say, “Bully.”
#8. World War Two Memorial
Coming in at #8 on our list of best historic sites in Washington D.C. is the World War Two Memorial.
I taught World History for over a quarter of a century. I used to tell my students that World War II was the most significant and influential event of the twentieth century. The devastation is almost incalculable: total military and civilian deaths are estimated at 70 to 85 million, about 3% of the global population during that time. World War II also saw the dawn of the nuclear age.
The Story Behind The World War Two Memorial
Designed by Austrian-American architect Friedrich St. Florian, the World War Two Memorial was built on top of the existing Rainbow Pool at the western end of the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial. This area had long been considered appropriate for a memorial since at least the 1901 McMillan Commission Plan for the city.
Three terraces lead down to the memorial from 17th Street NW. The terraces are flanked by white granite walls, along which are bas-relief bronze sculptures depicting typical scenes from the war. The central portion of the memorial is in the shape of a north-south running oval surrounding a pool. The pool has a large fountain on its north and its south ends, and the edge of the pool is defined by 100 small jets of water which constantly trouble the waters.
Fifty-six 17-foot-high pillars ring the outer plaza, one for each state that existed in 1945 as well as the several territories (Hawaii, Alaska, D.C., Guam, Puerto Rico, etc.). Bronze wreaths hang from each pillar. Two granite arches or pavilions anchor the north and south ends of the oval.
Historic Sites In Washington D.C.
#7. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
At lucky #7, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial pays tribute to one of America’s greatest leaders.
This is one of my personal favorite historic sites in Washington D.C. As historian William E. Leuchtenburg, professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill concluded, Franklin D. Roosevelt may have done more during the twelve years he served as president to change American society and politics than any of his predecessors in the White House, save Abraham Lincoln.
Roosevelt led the nation through the twin crises of the Great Depression and World War Two. In the process, he transformed the role of the federal government.
The programs unleashed by FDR’s New Deal sought to insure that the economic, social, and political benefits of American capitalism were distributed more equally among America’s large and diverse populace.
FDR also transformed the American presidency. Under his leadership, the President’s duties grew to encompass not only those of the chief executive—as implementer of policy—but also chief legislator—as drafter of policy. He greatly increased both the powers and the responsibilities of the office.
The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is located along the western shore of the Tidal Basin, taking visitors on a walk through time as FDR’s four terms in office are chronicled through quotes carved in stone and fascinating bronze artwork.
#6. Washington Monument
We conclude the bottom 5 of our top 10 historic sites in Washington D.C. with the Washington Monument.
It is the substantial consensus among historians that Washington’s tenure in office set the nation on a path that has endured now for over 200 years, longer than any other republic in history. He established precedents that would last for generations and did more to flesh out the skeleton of the presidential office than anyone could have expected or predicted.
As one scholar has said, he “invented tradition as he went along.” His actions, more than those of any other Founding Father, became a part of the “unwritten Constitution. Like Dwight Eisenhower, however, George Washington had a monument impact on history before being elected President as the man who led the colonies in their successful bid for independence.
The Washington Monument, designed by Robert Mills and eventually completed by Thomas Casey and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, honors and memorializes George Washington at the center of the nation’s capital.
The structure was completed in two phases of construction, one private (1848-1854) and one public (1876-1884). Built in the shape of an Egyptian obelisk, evoking the timelessness of ancient civilizations, the Washington Monument embodies the awe, respect, and gratitude the nation felt for its most essential Founding Father. When completed, the Washington Monument was the tallest building in the world at 555 feet, 5-1/8 inches. (Source: NPS)
Today visitors can take the elevator to the 500 foot observation deck and get a spectacular view of the nation’s capitol.
The Top 5 Historic Sites In Washington D.C.
#5. President’s Park (The White House)
Kicking off our list of the top 5 historic sites in Washington D.C. is what many consider to be the most famous address in the world–1600 Pennsylvania Avenue otherwise known as the White House (a.k.a. President’s Park).
Believe it or not, the President of the United States lives in a National Park. Our first president, George Washington, selected the site for the White House in 1791. The following year, the cornerstone was laid and a design submitted by Irish-born architect James Hoban was chosen. After eight years of construction, President John Adams and his wife Abigail moved into the still-unfinished residence.
In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt began a major renovation of the White House, including the relocation of the President’s offices from the Second Floor of the Residence to the newly constructed temporary Executive Office Building (now known as the West Wing).
Today you can take a tour of our nation’s most famous and recognizable building. The National Park Service advises that if you are interested in attending a public tour of the White House be sure to secure your reservation well in advance of your arrival to Washington, D.C.
#4. Thomas Jefferson Memorial
We’re on to the final four best historic sites in Washington D.C. At #4 we have the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.
Thomas Jefferson will always be celebrated for articulating the American national creed, the fundamental and universal principles of self-government that he set forth in the Declaration of Independence.
At key points in his life Jefferson had drawn up lists of his achievements, and on the verge of death he designed his own gravestone and epitaph: “Author of the Declaration of Independence [and] of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.”
Construction on the Jefferson Memorial commenced on November 17, 1938. One year later, on November 15, 1939, a ceremony was held in which President Roosevelt laid the cornerstone of the memorial.
Within the circular colonnade, a 19 foot tall statue of Thomas Jefferson stands holding the Declaration of Independence and peering out to the Tidal Basin.
Historic Sites In Washington D.C.
#3. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
At #3 on our top ten list of historic sites in Washington D.C. is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.
Dr. King advanced the cause of Civil Rights through nonviolence. His marches and protests helped to build pressure to bring about landmark civil rights and voting rights acts.
Nobel Peace Prize
On October 14, 1964, Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work in combating racial discrimination and injustice. He was one of two influential Georgians to receive this honor.
Things To Do At The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
As you explore the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, you will have views of quotes from throughout King’s lifetime and of a striking sculpture of the civil rights leader.
There is a bookstore located near the memorial, offering visitors a wide variety of products to commemorate your visit and learn more.
#2. Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Coming in at #2 on our lit of the best historic sites in Washington D.C. is one of the most visited historic sites in our nation’s capitol–the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The Vietnam War was a long, costly and divisive conflict that pitted the communist government of North Vietnam against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States. More than 3 million people (including over 58,000 Americans) were killed in the Vietnam War, and more than half of the dead were Vietnamese civilians.
For any American, visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., can be one of the most powerful and emotional ways to honor the more than 58,000 Americans who gave their lives in service to our country. For Vietnam-era veterans, a visit can provide closure and reinforce the importance of their sacrifice.
Since the Wall officially opened in November 1982, people have left tributes there in honor of veterans such as dog tags, medals and other special remembrances. Some people leave more — the cremated remains of veterans. As the age of the remaining population of Vietnam veterans increases, so has the leaving of remains.
1. Lincoln Memorial
At #1 on our list of the top ten historic sites in Washington D.C. is the Lincoln Memorial.
In 2021, C-SPAN asked a group of distinguished presidential historians to rank our nation’s presidents from worst to best. At the top of their list, with a total score of 897 points, was Abraham Lincoln. George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt came in second and third respectively.
Why is Abraham Lincoln considered the greatest president of all time? Simply put, he saved the Union. In the process of saving the nation, Lincoln managed to define the creation of a more perfect Union in terms of liberty and economic equality that rallied the citizenry behind him.
Visiting The Lincoln Memorial
No trip to Washington D.C. is complete without a visit to the Lincoln Memorial. The interior is divided into three chambers (north, south, and central). The north and south side chambers contain carved inscriptions of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and his Gettysburg Address.
It took nearly 60 years to erect the Lincoln Memorial. In 1867, Congress passed the first bill to incorporate a commission that would oversee a memorial to America’s 16th President. Nothing happened, however, until the turn of the century. Construction began in 1914 on Lincoln’s birthday, February 12th, and slowed during World War I. It was finally completed in 1922.
The original plans for the Lincoln Memorial were more similar to an Egyptian pyramid. While the pyramid would have complemented the Washington Monument, an Egyptian-style obelisk, the original idea lost out to Henry Bacon, who ultimately designed the neoclassical monument.
List Of Historic Sites In Washington D.C.
- Lincoln Memorial
- Vietnam Veterans Memorial
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
- Thomas Jefferson Memorial
- President’s Park (White House)
- Washington Monument
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
- World War II Memorial
- Theodore Roosevelt Island
- African American Civil War Museum
Map Of Historic Sites In Washington D.C.
To learn more about the difference between the various National Park Service designations check out our article that explains everything!
National Parks In Washington D.C.: 36 EPIC National Parks In Washington D.C.