As the nation's capital, D.C. brings in loads of tourists, patriots, and people like you - students. From grade school field trips to post-graduation getaways, Washington, D.C. has the makings for a brilliant, educational, and unforgettable student trip.
So what can you do in the capital as a student? Basically everything. The District of Columbia was built with history and government in mind, making it a civics/social studies lesson in and of itself. That's not all though; D.C. also has a collection of museums (the Smithsonian) that ranks as the largest museum conglomerate in the world as well as a number of other destinations that would make for interesting lessons.
The key to any student trip is to make it interesting and inviting. It doesn't bode well if the students are alienated by the attraction or subject right out of the gate, although sometimes that can't be helped. However, D.C. has plenty of destinations that are sure to amaze even the toughest students.
Let's start with the monuments, memorials, landmarks, and such. Most groups like to start at the National Mall at the Washington Monument, a skyrocketing marble obelisk that reaches a staggering 555 feet in the air built in honor of our first president. Situated around the monument are a number of landmark features including the Reflecting Pool which leads to the iconic steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. Travel up the steps and visit Mr. Lincoln or hop to the other side of the Mall to see the Capitol building. Tours are available of Capitol Hill and the cabinets as well as the underground museum directly below the Capitol. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is also located on the Mall as are several of the Smithsonian museums.
The White House is, of course, a given with any student trip. It would be a shame to miss seeing the iconic white mansion on your tour - so don't. Make the White House, even a short glimpse, a priority. Tours are given every Tuesday-Saturday at varying times that are subject to change depending on the President's schedule.
Other historic attractions include Ford's Theatre, where President Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth, and the Petersen House where he later died. Both are open for tours and are included in the price of one ticket. Also included is access to the Center for Education and Leadership next door where you can find exhibits on the president's assassination.
On to museums, shall we? As a gigantic collection of museums, the Smithsonian institutes have an amazing array of artifacts on a variety of subjects. Some of the top Smithsonian museums to visit include the National Museum of Natural History, the National Air and Space Museum, and the National Museum of American History. The art museums are fantastic but these buildings hold stories of the human race from prehistory to the future. The Natural History Museum has a stunning collection of dinosaur bones and fossils while the Air and Space Museum holds Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis and the Apollo 11 command module. Furthermore, as you are in the central result of American history, it makes sense to visit the museum that puts all of the nation's stories together in one place. Plus you get to see General George Washington's military uniform at the American History Museum which is pretty cool.
Non-Smithsonian museums are also fantastic and offer a greater variety of topics for you to enjoy. Newseum is an interactive museum dedicated to the history and culture of the Freedom of Speech, particularly in regards to news and journalism. Internationally lauded as a first-class collection, Newseum presents stories that changed the world and the journalists who brought those stories to the public's attention.
The International Spy Museum is another bright spot on anyone's touring schedule. No one can resist a true spy museum especially when you learn it was designed with the help of several former directors of various secret operations including the CIA and MI-5. Exhibits range from real life spies to the technology they used, civilians as spies during war, and even an exhibit on James Bond villains.
Whether you are leading a group of young students or you are part of a high school or university student trip, I think everyone can agree that animals are awesome. There won't be a single straight face in the crowd if and when you visit the Smithsonian National Zoo. As the zoo that holds the distinction of being the "national zoo," it doesn't disappoint. Better yet, it's free! See your favorites from all over the globe like cheetahs, sea lions, elephants, giant pandas, and even a family of western lowland gorillas. It's truly a beautiful park and perfect if you're looking for an educational attraction that doesn't look too much like school.
Depending on the age of your student group, you may consider visiting the Arlington National Cemetery or the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Both can be very sobering attractions, even for older students, but they capture significant moments in history. President Kennedy's grave is located at Arlington as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which is guarded 24/7 by a soldier holding vigil. Likewise, the Holocaust Museum is, understandably, a somber museum remembering the horrors of WWII's international genocide. This definitely is not a museum for young children but older students may better understand the importance of empathy and social acceptance when they see firsthand the effects of the Holocaust.
Everyone should experience D.C. at least once in their lives. Whether or not your group is focused on education, a visit to any or all of these destinations is recommended for their inherent value if nothing else. The city was founded by American leaders, built with the future of the country in mind, and continuously maintained as the center of operations for one of the world's largest powers. Visit with your student group and experience the heart of American government.