Washington Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

When it comes to things to see and do, Washington sure does pack a wallop. Washington is a good place to learn about the history of America, as well as get entertained by the dozens of museums that dot the central area. There are also many other attractions a bit outside of D. C. but still within Washington State that are well worth a visit.
Washington Travel Guide
Table of Contents

Beyond the traditional DC attractions, you will find fresh food, the arts and nightlife scenes. You can spend your morning perusing the city’s museum with contemporary exhibits and the afternoon taking in the scenery at the National Arboretum, before catching a show at the Queen Anne Hill neighborhood.

The Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum and research complex in the world. No matter what your interest is, you will find a museum here just for you. The National Air and Space Museum is the most popular of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, offering a hands-on approach for visitors to experience and learn the history of flight. Check out the original Wright Brothers airplane; the Apollo 11 command module; as well as the original Star Trek Enterprise model.

The largest library in the world today, the Library of Congress is home to over 158 million items including 36 million books in 460 languages, as well as 69 million manuscripts. It houses the largest collection of rare books in North America. The Sacred Room is the main reading room which is absolutely stunning.

The Olympic National Park is a diverse and unique wilderness preserve and an international biosphere reserve. Visit this park to experience several different ecosystems, including rugged ocean beaches, temperate rain forests and alpine mountain. Plan to spend around 3 days on a multi-day loop around the Olympic Peninsula which will enable you to explore various areas in the park.

Part of the Cascades Mountains, Mount Rainier is a stunning beauty whose presence dominates and demands that all who see it on their horizon visit in person. And the closer you get, the more glorious the view. Mount St. Helens is another attraction in the Cascades Range, an active volcano that’s worth the thrills it elicits.

From amazing art to delicious food, with history on almost every corner, Washington has plenty to offer. The city is blessed with landscapes created by both nature and humans that are not only scenic but also perfect for all sorts of outdoor recreation. Attractions in Washington are all outstanding, certain to leave you with memories that will remain with you for a lifetime.

1. National Arboretum

When most people think of flowers and Washington, the first thing that comes to mind is the romance and gentility of cherry blossoms blowing softly in the early spring breeze along the Tidal Basin. While this is a great sight for early April, a lasting memory can be had at the National Arboretum with its wide collection of blooming flowers visible year-round.

The Arboretum was opened over 80 years ago for landscape and floral research, as well as to solve problems facing agriculture and benefit the country’s food supply. While research on plants and educational projects are still carried out here, most tourists visit to bask in the silence of the gently rolling lands of the Arboretum as they commune with nature, while glancing at an amazing array of seasonal blooms and colors. There is also an abundance of meadow-like grassy areas within which you can have a picnic.

One of the largest arboretums in the world, the National Arboretum in Washington, DC features a display of 446 acres of trees, shrubs and plants. The National Arboretum is however most famous for its collection of bonsai.

Visitors to the National Arboretum can enjoy the Gotelli Dwarf, the slow growing Conifer Collection, as well as various exhibits from formal landscaped gardens. Other special displays include a National Herb garden, aquatic plants and seasonal exhibits. In early spring, the Arboretum is a popular site for viewing over 70 varieties of Cherry Trees.

It is recommended that you take the guided tour, which is the best way of seeing the grounds and learning about the gardens. Visitors can also check what’s blooming so as to plan ahead and see what’s most interesting during the time of year you are visiting.

The Arboretum has cherry blossoms during early spring. However, if you visit 3-4 weeks later in April to early May, you will be astonished by the sight of 15,000 azaleas cascading on the Mount Hamilton hillsides. Brilliant shades of reds, pinks and lavenders mixed in with the white azaleas make for a spectacular floral display. Hundreds of dogwood trees with white flowers provide a canopy for the azaleas. You also don’t want to miss out on the nearby peony, crabapple and rose blooms either.

While spring is the showiest time at the National Arboretum, the other seasons also offer a palette of colors. Visit during the summer to capture the warm-weather magic of water-lily flowers and day lilies in ponds that adjoin the building of the Arboretum headquarters. There is also the Washington specialty of magenta and pink hues of the crape-myrtle trees.

Photographers will enjoy capturing the magic of tulip poplar trees during fall with their vibrant yellows, and bright red leaves of black gum trees and purple-reds of the dogwoods and sweet gums.

During winter, which isn’t generally harsh in Washington except for snowstorms, visitors can find shining red berries on the Arboretum’s holly trees, while the waxy green leaves of the Southern magnolias offer holiday accents, and a great contrast to the occasional snow.

By February into early March, you will spot the initial signs of spring as evidenced by the camellia blooms, Japanese apricots, winter jasmine and other harbingers of the warmer days coming ahead.

In addition to the seasonal floral showcase offered at the Arboretum, visitors should also have a peek at the permanent tiny tree collection at the site’s National Bonsai & Penjing Museum. Some of the specimens you will see here are of horticultural art at its finest, dating from 400 years ago. The miniature potted plants display a prehistoric look, sculpted and shaped in a way that fosters quiet contemplation within the bustle of DC.

If you wish to tour the Arboretum on foot, you can visit the Friendship Garden and the National Herb Garden, which are some of the areas that are easily accessible. Serious hikers are invited to venture out into the other Arboretum trails. There is also a tram available for touring the Arboretum grounds.

Bring a picnic to enjoy on the eastern terrace or at the National Grove of State Trees picnic area. Check the schedule of events to attend the special programs held regularly at the National Arboretum.

2. Queen Anne Hill

The distinct neighborhood of Queen Anne Hill has something for everyone. Here you will find bustling bars, restaurants, quaint shopping streets and quiet parks high up on a hill in Upper Queen Anne. But perhaps the biggest draw to this neighborhood is its colorful historic houses that invite visitors for a pleasant stroll.

In addition to the great historic homes, visitors to the Queen Anne Hill neighborhood can enjoy sweeping views of Puget Sound from the southwestern slope of the site. Be sure to also check out the classic homes that are found further up the hill, as you take advantage of all that the Historical Queen Anne Boulevard has to offer. In Upper Queen Anne, you will find an area chock full of parks and an amazing town center.

Queen Anne Hill became a popular spot for the early cultural and economic elite of the city to build their mansions. In fact, the name derives from the architectural style that is typical of many of these early homes. Whether you are interested in seeing old mansions or beautiful and thoughtful green homes, Queen Anne is one of the nicest neighborhoods in Washington for this.

Other fascinating points of interest include the Old Queen Anne Boulevard, Wilcox Wall and the Betty Bowen Viewpoint. Go here to explore the cobblestone streets of Queen Anne or venture out to discover one of the hundreds of staircases connecting this neighborhood.

There are numerous attractions and events to keep you busy while you’re in the neighborhood, including some cool local bars and restaurants. Queen Anne Avenue is the hub that stretches through the middle of the neighborhood, which is where most important things happen. At the top of the hill are over ten blocks worth of charming and unique places to visit, as well as great places to eat. At Kerry Park, you can enjoy stellar views of Mount Rainier and downtown Seattle.

3. Kubota Garden

A unique urban refuge, the Kubota Garden is a showcase of more than 60 years of vision, effort and commitment by the Kubota family. The Kubota Garden comprises a stunning 20 acres of valleys and hills, peppered with rock outcroppings, streams, ponds, waterfalls, and an exceptionally mature and rich plant material collection.

Fujitaro Kubota started his garden in 1927 on 5 acres of logged-off swampland within the neighborhood of Rainier Beach. Having emigrated from the Japanese Island of Shikoku only 10 years earlier, Kubota would then in 1923 establish the Kubota Gardening Company.

A man with his dream, Kubota was entirely self-taught as a gardener and sought to showcase the natural beauty of the American Northwest in a Japanese way. Soon he was installing and designing gardens all over the area. Some of the public examples of his work include the gardens of the campus at Seattle University, as well as the Bloedel Reserve’s Japanese Garden on Bainbridge Island.

The Kubota Garden grew to 20 acres, serving as the family home, business office, as well as the display and design center. There was also a nursery for growing garden plant materials. The family was generous when it came to sharing access to their Garden which for many years served as the center for cultural and social activities for the Japanese community in the neighborhood.

During the thirties, additions were made to the Kubota Garden. For instance, a natural stream was later enclosed inside a pool and thereafter surrounded with iris, pine, maple and stone.

But during World War II in the 40s, the Garden was abandoned for 4 years while the Kubota family suffered internment at Idaho’s Camp Minidoka. After the war, Fujitaro and his children rebuilt their Garden and landscaping business. During the 60s, Fujitaro added more than 400 tons of stone to create the Garden’s Mountainside which features carved stones, reflection pools, waterfalls and plants.

Fujitaro passed away in 1973. His vision was for the Garden to be open to the public so as to enhance Seattle’s quality of life, as well as increase America’s appreciation and understanding of Japanese culture.

When the property became targeted by developers of condominium, community groups encouraged Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board to designate its 4.5 acre core area as a Historical Landmark. And in 1981, the Kubota Garden was declared a Historical Landmark of the City of Seattle, which then acquired the Kubota Garden from the Kubota family in 1987.

4. The Cascade Mountains

The Washington Cascades are part of the Cascades Mountain Range which extends from southern British Columbia in Canada to Northern California through Oregon and Washington. The Cascades are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a ring of volcanoes and associated mountains around the Pacific Ocean.

The Cascades feature both volcanoes like the High Cascades and non-volcanic mountains such as the North Cascades. The tallest volcanoes in the Cascades are known as the High Cascades and these dominate their surroundings, often standing at twice the height of the nearby mountains. The tallest peaks, like Mount Rainier which stands at 14,411 feet high dominate the surroundings for between 50 and 100 miles.

All of the known historic eruptions in the contiguous United States have been from the volcanoes of the Cascades. One of the most recent eruptions was a major one in 1980 by Mount St. Helens. Minor eruptions on Mount St. Helens have also occurred since, with the most recent taking place in 2006.

Due to the proximity of the range to the Pacific Ocean, there is substantial precipitation, especially on the western slopes. For instance, in 1999, Mount Baker recorded the largest single-season snowfall on record in the world. It isn’t uncommon for certain areas in the Cascades to experience more than 200 inches of snow accumulation such as at Lake Helen which is one of the world’s snowiest places. It is for this reason that most of the High Cascades are white with ice and snow the year round.

The western slopes of the Cascade Mountains are covered densely with Red alder, Douglas-fir and Western Hemlock, while the drier eastern slopes mainly have Ponderosa Pine, with the higher elevations showing Western Larch.

Beyond the Cascade foothills you will view an arid plateau created sixteen million years ago as a series of layered flood basalt flows. In combination, the sequences of fluid volcanic rock make up a 200,000 square mile region out of Oregon, parts of Idaho and Northern California and eastern Washington which is known as the Columbia River Plateau.

The Columbia River Gorge is the only major break in the American part of the Cascade Mountains. When the Cascades began rising thousands of years ago, the Columbia River drained the Columbia River Plateau that was relatively low. As the range began to grow, Columbia kept pace, thereby creating the major pass and gorge you see today here. The gorge exposes warped and uplifted basalt layers from the plateau.

The Cascades in Washington offer dozens of miles of skiing, hiking, snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing trails. There are also numerous opportunities for mountain climbing, backpacking and camping in one of the most accessible and beautiful mountain ranges in the world.

In Washington, this long range of forested mountain landscape is divided into 3 different regions, each offering its own outstanding and unique natural features. The 3 regions include the North Cascades; the Central Cascades; and the South Cascades.

The North Cascades are extremely rugged, with many of its lesser peaks glaciated and steep, while the valleys are rather low relative to its ridges and peaks. The defining features of the North Cascades are the North Cascades National Park, Mount Baker, and a number of National Wilderness Areas, Chelan Lake National Recreation Area and the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. Visitors can enjoy a drive on the spectacular North Cascades Scenic Highway.

The Central Cascades offer an extensive range of recreational activities for the outdoors, which makes the area a popular spot for skiing, hiking, climbing and backpacking in one of the largest metropolitan centers of the Pacific Northwest.

The South Cascades feature 3 volcanoes that are snow-capped: Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier and Mount Adams, all of which rise dramatically above their lesser neighbors, forming the outstanding featured attractions of this popular recreational area in south central Washington.

5. Bloedel Reserve

Situated in Bainbridge Island, the Bloedel Reserve is an internationally renowned public garden and forest preserve. A Northwest treasure, the Reserve comprises 150 acres of a unique blend of natural woodlands and beautifully landscaped gardens that include a Moss Garden, a Japanese Garden, a Reflection Pool and the former estate home of the Bloedels.

The Bloedel family resided here until 1987. The property is today managed by the University of Washington as a public garden. Designed to offer tranquility and refreshment in the presence of natural beauty, the Bloedel Reserve aims at enriching lives through a premier public garden of designed and natural Pacific Northwest landscapes.

Unique among the public gardens of the US, the Bloedel Reserve is the creation of Prentice Bloedel and his wife, Virginia who once lived on the property. Prentice Bloedel devoted himself to creating the gardens which are today known as the Bloedel Reserve. The Bloedels achieved this through advice and assistance from noted landscape architects including Fujitaro Kubota of the Kubota Garden fame.

Bloedel’s collaboration with various landscape architects led to the creation of extensive works such as the Garden of Planes, the Moss Garden and the Reflection Garden. Throughout the Bloedel Reserve you will notice a distinct western interpretation of an Oriental attitude towards nature, with each designer using plants, water and earth in a way that reflects the beauty of the place.

6. Olympic National Park

A truly special wilderness preserve, the Olympic National Park features various unique ecosystems. Part of the international system of Biosphere Reserves, the Park offers plenty of attractions to see and activities to do. Visitors can easily spend several weeks exploring all that the Olympic National Park has to offer.

But if you only have a day, don’t miss out on a visit to the Hurricane Ridge section of the park. If you have a few days to devote to your Olympic adventure, stop by Port Angeles after Hurricane Ridge, and then proceed around the Park in a counterclockwise loop. Along the way you will encounter mossy forests, ancient trees, expansive beaches, picturesque lakes, fairy waterfalls and diverse wildlife.

The Visitor Center should be your first stop at the Olympic National Park. Situated on the south side of Port Angeles, the Visitor Center is where you can obtain information on trail and road conditions of the park. Here you will also get advice on the best hiking and recreational opportunities for your interest and energy level.

You can also view a film and exhibits that will orient you on the history and unique nature of the Olympic National Park. Inside the Visitor Center is the Wilderness Information Center at which you can obtain backcountry information.

Drive up to Hurricane Ridge using the Heart O’ the Hills Road that offers amazing scenery, including panoramic views to Mount Baker across Puget Sound. At the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center situated at the end of the road you will find exhibits, a film, as well as knowledgeable park rangers. The Visitor Center also has a snack bar, gift shop and places to sit back and view the snow-capped Olympic Mountain Range.

From the large parking area, you can access a number of trails from paved nature trails to the more challenging hikes. The Cirque Rim Trail will take you to a scenic overlook where you can enjoy views of the San Juan Islands when the visibility is good, as well as across the Straits of Juan de Fuca to Vancouver Island.

Elwha is a forested river valley situated just southwest of Port Angeles which offers a great playground for nature lovers. Hiking trails branch off from the shores of the Elwha River and Lake Mills, affording visitors the opportunity to view waterfalls, the Olympic Mountain range, as well as old homestead sites. Picnicking and camping facilities are both available at the Elwha River Valley. You can also take a guided river rafting trip while here.

Lake Crescent boasts clear clean waters that make it a wonderful destination for canoeing, sailing or simply sitting by the shore to take in the wonders of nature. Some services are available around Lake Crescent including a restaurant and boat rentals. There are several hiking trails in the lake region, which include the Spruce Railroad Trail with its nice flat trail that skirts the lake’s northern side.

Go on the Sol Duc hike whose trailhead is situated at the Sol Duc Valley campground, with a network of longer and more challenging trails branching off the popular trail. Another highlight of the Sol Duc Valley is the Ancient Groves interpretive nature trail.

Lake Ozette is a destination not a stop along the way. A hiking, camping and paddling paradise, Lake Ozette offers beautiful ocean, lake and beach views.

Rialto Beach is the primary beach in the Mora Area that surrounds the La Push coastal town. Beaches close by include First Beach, Second Beach and Third Beach. Visit this stretch of coastline to engage in all the traditional Northwest beach activities that include exploring tide pools, beachcombing, and checking out the sea stacks and arches.

Hoh Rain Forest is an expanse of old-growth temperate rain forest that offers a wonderland of green. The rich growth of trees, ferns and mosses makes this one of the most popular areas in the park. At the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center, you can learn about nurse logs in a stunning demonstration of the circle of life that you will witness all around you while heading out into the forest.

Also spend some time exploring the trail system around the Visitor Center. The Spruce River Trail and the Hall of Mosses are easy, and you will enjoy the play of light through the fresh green maples and the old mossy giants, as well as the river, pond and stream views. Then check out the campground at Hoh Rain Forest that’s situated south of the Visitor Center.

Kalaloch Beach and the nearby Ruby Beach are very picturesque beaches on the Pacific Ocean that are scattered with driftwood, marine wildlife and sea-tumbled rocks. Camping facilities are available at both the Kalaloch and South Beach campgrounds. In addition to strolling along miles of beach, you can also take the various great trails that overlook the ocean and within the nearby old-growth forest.

Lake Quinault is situated on the southern border of the Olympic National Forest and is surrounded by several resorts with decades old buildings that add to the serene, step-back-in-time ambiance of the area.

Numerous wonderful hiking trails crisscross the region, enabling visitors to experience ancient trees, rushing streams, charming waterfalls, fascinating bogscapes and an old homestead site. Campers can find refuge at the two small Quinault Rain Forest campgrounds.

7. Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum

Situated on Independence Avenue, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is home to the largest collection of historic air and spacecraft in the world. The museum features 22 exhibition galleries that display hundreds of artifacts, including the Apollo 11 command module.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is one of the most visited museums in the world that appeals to all ages, with many interactive exhibits. The museum attracts around nine million visitors each year with its trove of celebrated aircraft including Amelia Earhart’s Vega 5B, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, and Wilbur Wright’s original 1903 Flyer, among many others.

The more recent icons on display here include the Telstar Satellite, the huge Apollo Lunar Module, as well as the model of the “Starship Enterprise” which was used in the Star Trek television series.

There are plenty of great exhibits to see at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, including a flight simulator, a planetarium and an IMAX Theater, as well as one that actually lets you go inside the space shuttle/ station. Visitors can ride in various 4-minute flight simulator rides or take a journey through space or to manmade and natural wonders of the world.

Be sure to visit the Museum’s main hall, the “Milestones of Flight”, an expanded exhibition tracing the interconnected stories of the most significant aircraft and spacecraft in the world, with digital displays and a mobile experience, in a new design stretching from one entrance to the other. The enlarged square footage of the exhibition and its displays taking full advantage of the 2-story height of the atrium.

Visitors can watch a film projected on a 5-story-high screen with 6-channel digital surround sound. Then take a 20-minute tour of the universe at the Albert Einstein Planetarium, with Sky Vision, its high tech dual digital projection system.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum continues to develop new exhibits on science, technology and history of aviation and space flight. A center for research, the Museum offers guided tours and educational programs. Plan to spend at least 2-3 hours at the Museum.

The Museum also features a 3-story gift shop which is an ideal spot for purchasing memorable souvenirs and gift items. You can also grab a snack at the food-court-style restaurant on the Museum grounds.

Flight enthusiasts who still can’t get enough of their fix at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum can visit the Museum of Flight which is also situated in Washington.

8. Library of Congress

Situated in Washington, DC, the Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, which contains over 128 million items, including books, manuscripts, photographs, sheet music, films and maps. The Library of Congress also hosts various exhibitions, interactive displays, films, concerts, lectures and special events.

The Library of Congress was founded in 1800 to house early documents of the United States, which were transferred to Washington from Philadelphia. For its first 100 years, it served mainly as a reference library for Congress, but is today open to the public.

The Library is housed within 3 buildings on Capitol Hill, including the Thomas Jefferson Building, one of the most beautiful buildings in DC, which comes highly recommended to visit on a guided tour. The Thomas Jefferson Building was built in 1897 and boasts numerous unique architectural features.

At the front of the Library of Congress you will see a large fountain with a display of bronze figures of Neptune surrounded by his court. The Great Hall of the Library of Congress is 2-stories high and features many beautiful features. The building has been elaborately decorated with art works from almost 50 American sculptors and painters.

The architecture and art within the Thomas Jefferson Building’s Main Reading Room is also magnificent. Sixteen bronze statues have been set above the galleries of the Main Reading Room. The ceiling of the Thomas Jefferson Building has been ornately decorated in interesting designs and patterns.

In the Reading Room, visitors can marvel at 8 giant marble columns that support 10-foot-high allegorical female figures representing various aspects of civilized life and thought: art, law, poetry, science, religion, history, commerce and philosophy.

Take an hour long tour of the Main Reading Room and the adjacent Galleries where you will learn about the art and architectural features of the building. Visitors can also tour the Thomas Jefferson Library within the Library of Congress, which houses Jefferson’s personal book collection that he donated to Congress.

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Be sure to check out the “Library of Congress Experience” at the Thomas Jefferson Building, which features a series of ongoing exhibitions with dozens of interactive kiosks that offer visitors unique cultural and historical treasures that are brought to life via cutting-edge interactive technology.

The Experience incorporates Exploring the Early Americas, a collection of 3,000 rare maps, paintings, prints, documents and artifacts examining relations between Native Americans and the European settlers. This is an ongoing special exhibition outlining the story of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus, as well as the period of contact, conquest and their aftermath.

Unique souvenirs and gift items are available for purchase at the Library of Congress Online Shop. These include a wide variety of books, posters, calendars, clothing, music, jewelry, toys, crafts, games and much more.

After your guided tour is over, leave yourself plenty of time to also explore the impressive exhibits and amazing treasures found inside the Library of Congress.

You don’t have to have an interest in the book collections of the Library of Congress to enjoy your time there, as many visitors go purely for the architecture. Touted as the most beautiful building in DC, some visitors even go further in saying that the Library of Congress is the most beautiful building in the entire United States.

If you didn’t know better, you could easily mistake the Library of Congress for a European palace or cathedral. Everywhere you look you will be stunned by detail more impressive than the last. A lot of marble was used in the construction of the building, most of which was carved to intricate detail. Even the insides of the elevators at the Library of Congress are beautifully detailed. While the exterior of the building isn’t shabby either, your heart will belong to the spectacular interiors.

9. Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site is dedicated to honoring the life and accomplishments of Frederick Douglass, an African American who freed himself from slavery and helped free millions of others.

Throughout the Civil War, Douglass lived in Rochester, New York. He moved to Washington after the war to serve in the Council of Government for the District of Columbia specifically in international affairs and as US Marshal for the District. He purchased his home in 1877 and named it Cedar Hill, which is today the location of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. The view of the American capital from Cedar Hill is absolutely breathtaking.

Born in Talbot County, Maryland around the year 1818, Douglass would later in life choose to celebrate his birthday on February 14, as the exact year and date of his birth are unknown. Today, his birthday is celebrated with events held at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, as well as several other locations.

The birthday celebration is one of the annual signature events by the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site which features an array of activities and programs designed to increase the knowledge of the public about the life of Douglass.

10. Sky View Observatory

The Sky View Observatory is situated on the 73rd floor of the Columbia Center in DC. At almost 1,000 feet, the Observatory offers the tallest public viewing area west of the Mississippi. Its 360 degree panoramic views include the Olympic Mountains, the Cascade Mountains, Mount Baker, and Mount Rainier, Elliot Bay, Bellevue, the Space Needle and the city of Seattle.

While the Sky View Observatory is open day and night, the best time to visit is at sunset. And if the breathtaking panoramic views get you hungry, stop by the Sky View Café where you can sample an assortment of sandwiches, salads, beer and wine.

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