Historic Presidential Attractions in D.C. Beyond the White House

With the upcoming inauguration, learn about the history and lives of our previous commanders in chief by checking out these top presidential attractions in Washington, D.C.


It’s no secret to native Washingtonians that a good bit of the lure of Washington, D.C., is its presidential connection, which will likely draw record numbers to the city next month for the inauguration of President-Elect Barack Obama.

Almost every visitor makes time to sneak a peak at the graceful Georgian mansion known throughout the world simply as the White House. But due to increased security, it isn’t easy to get tickets to tour the presidential mansion. (It is no longer possible to show up and get same-day tickets. Interested parties traveling in groups of 10 or more should inquire with their senator or congressperson about a White House tour six months in advance.)

Nevertheless, if you’ll be in D.C. for the inauguration but didn’t plan that far in advance or don’t have an inside connection to a legislator to secure a peak at the White House, there are other ways visitors can get a taste of presidential power and history. In addition to the scattering of monuments to presidents long-past on the National Mall (e.g., the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the FDR Memorial), here are a few other options to get you and your family closer to the Chief Executive.

Homes of Presidents Past

Mount Vernon (Tel. 703-780-2000, Just down the river from D.C., on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, is the gracious home of George and Martha Washington, which is immaculately restored and furnished in period pieces, many of which belonged to the Washingtons. A lovely arcade of massive trees rim a perfectly manicured bowling green that leads to the white-washed home, where the grounds are studded with lush flower and vegetable gardens. Tour the interior to see recreated bedrooms, a dining room often set for a faux meal and President Washington’s study (check out the small swiveling chair actually used by the Father of Our Country). Be sure to leave time to sit a spell on the back porch, where guests are invited to enjoy the stunning views of the river from a generous row of chairs.

Woodrow Wilson House (2340 S. St., NW; tel. 202-387-4062. Tucked into a gorgeous neighborhood near Embassy Row, this 1925 brick structure was home to Woodrow Wilson and his second wife in the years just after his presidency. The lovely home is very much as the Wilsons left it: 95 percent of the contents belonged to the president and remain in the exact positions they were in when Wilson lived in the home. Ring the doorbell to enter into the foyer, and then, after a somewhat dry 15-minute orientation video, guests can tour Wilson’s personal study (nicknamed the “Dugout” because of his love of baseball), bedrooms with closets full of Mrs. Wilson’s party gowns, and a well-stocked library that also features a movie screen and projector. This is an undiscovered treasure in the city and well worth a few hours. It’s best to make the trip during colder months, however, as the home doesn’t have air conditioning, and the upstairs rooms are stifling in the mid-Atlantic humidity during summer.

Presidential Scandals and Tragedies

Ford’s Theatre and Lincoln Museum (511 10th St., NW; tel. 202-347-4833. This small theater within blocks of the White House is infamous for being the place where John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 while he was watching a play. Out of respect for the fallen president, the theater was closed for more than 100 years. The site reopened to tours in the 1960s and is once again a working theater. Note that tour hours vary because of the requirements of ongoing theatrical performances.

The Watergate Hotel (2650 Virginia Ave., NW; tel.202-965-2300. “Watergate” is more than just a scandal that toppled a U.S. president. The name also refers to the curving steel and glass complex (housing apartments, office buildings, and—after an extensive renovation—a hotel) that sits on the water’s edge of the Potomac River, near Georgetown. As history buffs will remember, this is the site of the infamous 1972 break in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, the subsequent cover-up of which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. In the past it has been home to the likes of Bob and Elizabeth Dole, Condoleeza Rice and Monica Lewinsky. The building is not open for public tours, and the hotel is not currently taking reservations as it’s undergoing a major renovation, but you can get a good look at its exterior from the balcony of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which sits just next door.

Presidential Collections

Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum (1025 F St., NW; tel. 202-942-7300. Wax figures in this somewhat creepy assemblage remind me more of cadavers than their lifelike counterparts. Nevertheless, this is the only place in the city where you’re assured to have the chance to get a photograph with Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al Gore and George W. Bush. The best part of this museum? There is a convincing recreation of the Oval Office, which makes for another great photo opportunity.

National Portrait Gallery (8th and F Sts., NW; tel. 202-633-1000). The National Portrait Gallery is one of the few Smithsonian museums not located on the National Mall. The museum is several blocks away, in the Chinatown/Penn Quarter area. Look for the second-floor gallery that offers the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside of the White House (including Gilbert Stuart’s famous rendition of George Washington). Note that this museum operates on a later schedule than most in the city: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

National Museum of American History (14th St. and Constitution Ave., NW; tel. 202-633-1000). Hands-down my favorite museum in the city, this immense collection of historical and cultural items is open to the public again after a two-year renovation that completely revamped the large gallery that houses the Star-Spangled Banner, the enormous flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem, as well as created a new soaring central atrium and dozens of new exhibit rooms. Included among the 3 million artifacts is a wildly popular exhibit of first ladies’ ball gowns, Abe Lincoln’s top hat and Thomas Jefferson’s bible.

Next Best Thing to Touring the White House

White House Visitor Center (1450 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; tel. 202-737-8292). If you can’t squeeze an official tour of the White House into your itinerary, there’s still hope of experiencing a little bit of the president’s house. The White House Visitor Center offers an exhibit on the architecture of the presidential mansion, as well as displays of White House artifacts and furnishings. In addition, guests can view a 30-minute historical video on the home’s famous residents. There’s also a gift shop that sells items like mugs, T-shirts and china featuring the White House insignia.

Destinations: Washington

Themes: Historical Vacations

Activities: Museums, Sightseeing

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