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Best Local History & Culture in Washington DC

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The Smithsonian American Art Museum takes you on a journey of discovery of iconic American art and the artists that created it from the 17th Century to the present day. The building itself is of heritage value and designated a National Historic Landmark. The expansive collection is spread out over multiple levels and there is a spacious courtyard where you can take a break. Discover the works of Edward Hopper and Georgia O'Keefe on the first floor; the works of Gilbert Stuart and Albert Bierstadt on the second, and Franz Kline and Andy Warhol on the third. Various art movements and periods are well demonstrated in the carefully curated exhibits, like New Deal Art, and provide an engaging narrative for the visitor to follow. Docent-led tours are a great way to discover the highlights in an interactive way. The Renwick Gallery, the main building's sister wing, is also worth a visit.

Designed by architect James Renwick, who also designed the Smithsonian Castle, this gallery was the home of the Corcoran Art Collection until it outgrew the building. Currently, the Renwick is among the foremost craft museums in the country. It includes a full array of the art form, from handwoven rugs to Shaker furniture. The museum shop is a treasure trove of art and books honoring fine craftsmanship. The place reopened in 2015 after undergoing 2 years of renovations.

The Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum is housed in the oldest surviving synagogue in Washington which was built by German-Jewish immigrants. Its dedication in 1876 was attended by President Ulysses S. Grant. Saved from the wrecking ball in 1969, the museum was moved three blocks to 3rd and G streets and restored as a museum exploring the Jewish contributions to the nation's capital. The permanent collection includes letters, scrapbooks, oral histories, photographs, ritual objects and textiles documenting the history of local Jewish families and organizations.

Take a trip back in time and explore the much celebrated American history at the National Museum of American History. Rich in displays that depict the American journey through the ages; it resides inside a gallery that portrays the emergence of the American national anthem along with other innovative and cherished artifacts. Housed within this multi-floor building are exhibition halls and rooms that illustrate significant events pertaining to the past of America.

Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument formerly known as Sewall House till 1929, Alva Belmont House till 1972 and Sewall-Belmont House and Museum till 2016. Built in 1800, it is one of the oldest houses in Capitol Hill. It is dedicated to National Woman's Party leaders Alva Belmont and Alice Paul. Since 1929, it was the headquarters of the Party whose sole focus was engaging in the fight for women's suffrage. It has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places and designated as a National Historic Landmark, and later designated as a National Monument by President Barack Obama in 2016.

Rare books, paintings and other memorabilia, such as musical instruments, costumes and films, make this library and popular research center a treasure trove of valuables worth perusing. Home to a Conservation Lab, Elizabethan-style theater, and the Grand Hall, several special events take place here, including concerts, plays, literary readings and more. The library also boasts the largest collection of Shakespeare materials.

Arlington House once belonged to Confederate General Robert E. Lee, whose wife, Mary Custis, a great-granddaughter of George Washington, inherited the home. During the Civil War, Union troops made the house their headquarters. The home is furnished as it was when the Lees raised their seven children here. Park rangers dressed in period costume help dramatize the era. Enjoy a stunning view of Washington from the front of the hillside mansion. As the mansion is located within Arlington National Cemetery, visitors must either walk from the Visitor Center or join the Tourmobile Sightseeing tour of the cemetery.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass purchased this 21-room home, making him the first African-American to buy a home in that area. Known as Cedar Hill, the home became the nation's first Black National Historic Site. The original furnishings are in large part the ones Douglass himself owned. They include the 1200-volume library of this self-taught man. Also on display are gifts given to Douglass by such contemporaries as Mary Todd Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

From beneath the 90-foot (30-meter) portico, lies an expanse of sloping lawn along the Potomac River as it flows past Mount Vernon. This 17th-century plantation house was once home to the first President of the United States, George Washington. The property was originally owned by Washington's father, Augustine, and George replaced a smaller, more modest home with Mount Vernon when he came into the property, beginning in 1758. Today, costumed guides narrate the history of the elegant mansion and of the surrounding buildings, which have been preserved to reflect the days when the first president resided here. The state also features tours around the 500-acre (200-hectare) estate, including its surrounding buildings, and historic exhibits that recreate farming techniques and colonial games. Awash in elegant semblances of Palladian architecture, Mount Vernon is a treasured centerpiece of history and culture.

An iconic theater, Ford's Theatre is recognized as the place where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14th, 1865. A century later on January 1968, the theater was reopened again for a performance after being under the management of numerous government organizations including the United States Department of War and National Park Service. Also found within the Ford's Theatre is a Lincoln Museum that displays artifacts from the assassination, including the gun Lincoln was shot with. Mementos from Lincoln's life are also on display.

At this lesser-known Smithsonian museum, the spotlight is on African-American culture, community and issues. There is no permanent collection, but the museum provides innovative, special exhibits. They tend to be current and interactive, with many suited to children. Admission is free.

The former home of George and Martha Washington's granddaughter, Tudor Place Historic House & Garden offer formal gardens and a house full of artifacts from the Washington family. The mansion was designed by Dr. William Thornton who also engineered the U.S. Capitol. For those with an interest in early American history, but without the time to travel to the more-famous Mount Vernon, this museum within the city is ideal. Docents lead the frequent tours for a nominal price while the tours to the gardens are free of cost.

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