The White House, the Capitol, the memorials, the monuments—many of the District’s most historic sites are world-famous and often visited. One of the challenges with touring these landmarks, though, are the sizable crowds they draw throughout the year. For history buffs who want to appreciate the D.C. area’s past but avoid the masses, we’ve compiled this map of lesser-known parks, museums, mansions, and even a big chair.Read More
A history buff's guide to the D.C. area's best non-touristy sites
Don’t gloss over these extraordinary places
1. Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens
Washington, D.C. 20008
In 1955, Marjorie Merriweather Post purchased Arbremont, a Georgian Colonial estate. She later decided it would be perfect for a museum. Here, visitors can find a collection of Russian imperial art, a collection of 18th-century French decorative art, and 25 acres of gardens and natural woodlands. Now known as Hillwood, the mansion was built in the 1920s and opened to the public in 1977.
2. Adas Israel Synagogue
In 2019, D.C.’s oldest synagogue was literally moved down the block from its previous location to make room for the Capitol Crossing development. The Adas Israel Synagogue was constructed in 1876 and is now home to the Lillian and Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places.
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3. Washington National Cathedral
Visitors who love architecture will gape at the National Cathedral. Not only is the structure the sixth largest cathedral in the world and the second largest in the U.S., it also has a sense of humor. On the west tower, there is a sculpture of Darth Vader. Why? Why not.
4. Dumbarton Oaks
Washington, D.C. 20007
In Georgetown, guests of this historic estate can study Byzantine, pre-Columbian, and landscape architecture. It was built in 1801 by William Hammond Dorsey and enlarged in the mid-19th century by Edward Magruder Linthicum. Dumbarton Oaks received its current name in 1933, after Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss acquired the property.
5. Old Stone House
Built in 1765, this Georgetown house is known as D.C.'s oldest unchanged building. After a renovation by the National Park Service in the 1950s, the site was converted into a museum. In 1973, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
6. Mount Zion Cemetery
There are plenty of D.C. area cemeteries worth visiting for history buffs, and this is one of them. Founded in 1808, this cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. It was a combination of two separate cemeteries: the Female Union Band Cemetery and the Methodist Burying Ground. After 1849, it predominately served African Americans.
7. Heurich House
The Heurich House, otherwise known as the Brewmaster's Castle, was built around 1892 for German-American immigrant and brewer Christian Heurich. Heurich’s brewery produced 500,000 barrels of beer every year. The home’s first two floors have been preserved along with many of its original furnishings as part of a house museum.
8. Meridian Hill Park
In the early 19th century, the 12 acres of land that is now Meridian Hill Park, also known as Malcolm X Park, were used as a geographic marker. During the Civil War, the area was used as an army encampment. The park was finally designed and constructed between 1912 and 1940, after approval from the Senate Park Commission.
9. Lock Keeper's House
Washington, D.C. 20006
This small structure was constructed around 1836 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. It is the last remaining lock-keeper's house for the old James River and Kanawha Canal system. In December 2016, repairs began on the original stone.
10. Ford's Theatre
This theater was where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865. It first opened in the 1860s and was subsequently used as a warehouse and an office building. In 1968, it reopened as a theatre. The Ford's Theatre National Historic Site includes the Petersen House across the street.
11. Carnegie Library
Washington, D.C. 20001
Built in the early 20th century, this Beaux-Arts structure was the first public library in Washington, D.C. as well as the first desegregated public building in the city. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. For almost 70 years, it served as the District's central public library before Mies van der Rohe's Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library was built downtown. It now serves as a flagship store for Apple and houses the Historical Society of Washington.
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12. Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Behold the largest Catholic church in the U.S. and North America, one of the ten largest churches in the world, and the tallest habitable building in Washington, D.C. The Northeast basilica has been visited by Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Francis, and other Catholic leaders.
13. Sewall-Belmont House & Museum
This historic house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1974. It is now a museum dedicated to women's suffrage and serves as the headquarters of the National Women's Party. Named after suffragists and National Woman’s Party leaders Alva Belmont and Alice Paul, the house was constructed around 1800.
14. Library of Congress
While the Library of Congress certainly attracts big crowds, it's still a worthy choice for any history buff’s tour of the nation’s capital. The library officially serves Congress and is the de facto national library of the U.S. It’s also the oldest federal cultural institution in the U.S. as well as the largest library in the world. The library was established in 1800.
15. National Arboretum
This "living museum" was established in 1927 by an act of Congress. It spans 446 acres and offers a library with 11,000 volumes focused on botanical literature. Along with public artworks, the area also showcases the old East Portico of the Capitol building as well as a nearly four-century-old bonsai tree that survived an atomic bomb.
16. Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens
This beautiful national park offers rare waterlilies and lotuses within the city. It is the only remaining tidal marsh in D.C. and was originally bought by Civil War veteran Walter B. Shaw in the 1880s. The entire area totals 700 acres that have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and also recognized by the Joint Committee on Landmarks of the National Capital.
17. The Big Chair
Washington, D.C. 20020
This piece of public art once served as an advertisement for a furniture store. Located in Anacostia, it stands about 19-feet high and weighs between 4,000 and 4,600 pounds. Since its installation in 1959, it has been recognized in the community as a geographic marker.
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18. Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
In Anacostia, visitors can discover the former home of Frederick Douglass, the African-American social reformer and abolitionist who famously wrote an autobiography. Established in 1988 as a National Historic site, the home, also known as Cedar Hill, is now preserved as a museum.
19. Torpedo Factory Art Center
Alexandria, VA 22314
When this building was first constructed around 1918, it served as a torpedo factory before. Then it was converted into government storage in 1945, housing artifacts from the Smithsonian. The City of Alexandria bought the building in 1969, and it was later renovated to become an art center with studio spaces for artists.
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20. The Awakening Statue
Oxon Hill, MD 20745
"The Awakening" is a sight to behold. This 72-foot statue consists of five separate aluminum pieces buried in the sand. It was created by J. Seward Johnson Jr. in 1980 as part of D.C.’s annual Sculpture Conference. While it was initially located at Hains Point, it was relocated to National Harbor in 2008.