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Enjoy a Washington DC overnight to explore the United States Capitol and nearby gems including the Newseum, Library of Congress, and Supreme Court, at a relaxing pace. While the museums and monuments along the National Mall get more of the attention, the Capitol area is full of sites that are often less visited and more manageably sized.
Here are six of our favorite things to do on a Washington DC getaway to the U.S. Capitol area.
The Newseum, which moved to the east end of the Mall in 2008, is a short walk from the Hotel George, and takes at least half a day to explore. On the sixth floor balcony, you can enjoy incredible views from the Capitol down Pennsylvania Avenue. Every floor includes interesting and moving exhibits and artifacts that tell the story of important events through the perspective of journalists and media coverage.
One exhibit features the images and stories behind every Pulitzer Prize winning photo since 1942. The 9/11 Gallery includes wreckage of the broadcast tower from the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Newspaper covers from around the world deliver the horrible news. In another exhibit, a segment of the Berlin Wall highlights the stark difference in experience between West and East Germany.
On a lighter note, everyone can see what it’s like to be a reporter; recording a segment in front of the green screen, then watching it back on TV.
The US Capitol is just a short walk from the Hotel George. Head to the Capitol Visitor Center to get oriented and pick up timed entry tickets.
Even on a busy summer day, we had no wait for tickets to the 45-minute tour of the Rotunda and National Statuary Hall. Check out the exhibits and statuary in the Visitor Center before or after your tour, including an 11-foot tall touchable model of the dome. When you’re finished, head to the 2nd floor of the Capitol Visitor Center and take the tunnel to the Library of Congress.
It’s also fun to walk around the Capitol grounds in the evening, when the dome and walkways are illuminated. During our Washington DC overnight, we were fortunate to catch a rehearsal for the July 4th Capitol Concert with Barry Manilow singing and a full moon rising overhead.
The Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress is a must-see on a Washington DC overnight. The elaborate Italian Renaissance-style building is decorated to honor learning, literature, knowledge, creativity, and intellectual achievement. From the seventy-five foot vaulted, stained glass ceiling, to the rose compass inlay in the marble floor, you’ll find beautiful and interesting detail to examine. We took a self-guided tour, but docent-led tours are also available.
Be sure to walk up the stairs, past the statue of Minerva, to the Reading Room overlook (you may have a short wait in line).
Also, don’t miss the Thomas Jefferson’s Library exhibit. Jefferson sold his personal library to Congress to replace the collection destroyed by the British in the War of 1812. Sadly, nearly two-thirds of Jefferson’s collection burned in another fire, and the library is now working to reassemble Jefferson’s library as it was originally sold to Congress.
When you leave the Jefferson Building, check out the Court of Neptune water fountain down at street level, then head next door for a look at the Supreme Court. With limited time during a Washington DC overnight visit, we visited just long enough to see the Grand Hall, climb the interior marble staircase, and view the Courtroom.
We also enjoyed the dramatic walk down the front steps on leaving the court (you enter through the lower level and can not walk up the front steps). With more time, you can also see a film and exhibits about the court, and attend a docent-led Courtroom Lecture when available.
Just a block away from the Hotel George, and next door to Union Station, the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum is convenient to visit during a Washington DC overnight. The museum explores America’s postal history and philately (aka stamp collecting and study) from colonial times to the present. We are not stamp collectors and expected to be through in half an hour, but the displays are so extensive, and so interestingly organized, that we spent over two hours here.
Two floors of displays and artifacts put the history and importance of stamps and mail delivery in context. Interesting artifacts include a letter mailed aboard the Titanic and a mailbox from 9/11. An envelope stamped on the moon during the Apollo 15 mission includes a moon dust smudge from astronaut Dave Scott’s flight suit. Downstairs, exhibits explore American postal service history, and the importance of mail delivery in tying a growing nation together.
The Postal Museum is an interesting destination for families, with several fun, interactive exhibits. Kids and adults can test their zip code sorting speed, make a custom stamp, explore the inside of a railway car used for sorting mail, and climb into the cab of a mail truck.
When you finish exploring, or if you want to break up your visit, Union Station is a good spot for breakfast, lunch, or a snack. It’s also worth visiting to check out the beautiful Beaux-Arts architecture of the main hall. Union Station is also the place to join many bus, duck boat, bike, and other DC tours.
Fun Fact: The 36 Roman legionnaires around the balcony were originally cast as nudes. Railroad officials, fearing the public would be offended, ordered shields be strategically placed on each statue.
Kimpton’s Hotel George: A Perfect Base for a Washington DC Overnight to Explore the Capitol Area
We’re big fans of Kimpton hotels for their boutique quirkiness, so we were happy to score a room at the Hotel George for our trip. Just two blocks from Union Station and the U.S. Capitol, the hotel location was ideal for our Washington DC overnight (which we extended to two nights).
The George is family-friendly, pet-friendly, bike-friendly, and well, just friendly. Like all Kimpton Hotels, they offer comfortable rooms and quirky decor—in this case, art featuring George (and sometimes Martha) Washington.
The Washington feel extended to the decorative pillows on the bed, and the rather sultry pictures of Martha and George on the wall.
In the lobby, George in bandana watches over guests enjoying the evening complimentary wine hour (too sweet for us, but the sangria was good). Just past the elevator, you’ll find a larger George created by Andy Warhol protégé Steve Kaufman.
A yoga mat and tiger robe in our room, a limited number of free bikes in the lobby (first come, first served), and a boatload of history just down the street, made a perfect home base.
There is so much to do in DC, that it’s easy to exhaust yourself, and your family, trying to pack too much in. Treat yourself to a little Washington DC overnight, and you can take things at a slower pace and really enjoy your visit. If you have more time, plan a longer stay with the Lonely Planet Washington DC City Guide.