An Art Lover’s Guide to Washington D.C.

One of the things I love most about our nation’s capitol is the wide array of activities to suit everyone’s interests. At work, our donors were incredibly skeptical about taking a curated trip to Washington D.C. that would satisfy their love for art and for our school. However, D.C. has a rich artistic heritage and there is amazing work being done that will be half the cost you would pay to go to New York or Chicago and have the same experiences.

On my work trip, I realized that D.C. is a perfect location for an art lover. There are so many opportunities, and I’m excited to provide the perfect guide for you (and your family if they’re tagging along)!


national portrait gallery, washington dc

I couldn’t resist sharing one of the crazy portraits I saw. My husband has hair like this.

National Portrait Gallery

This was not a planned stop on my trip, but we arrived at our appointment forty-five minutes early. Since it is one of the many free museums in D.C., we decided to take a detour.

To be perfectly honest, I’m glad it was free as I didn’t find it that interesting. If you enjoy reviewing different art styles, you might enjoy it as the portraits are arranged in a chronological fashion. You can see the changes in artistic expression throughout history by walking through the portraits.

I have more of a casual appreciation for traditional art, so I recognize how much talent these individuals have, but it doesn’t really speak to me. I wish I had gone and seen the presidential portraits, but I didn’t really plan ahead and simply wandered around until it was time to leave for our appointment.

Cost: Free
Family Friendly: Yes
Interesting to Little Kids: No
Who Will Love It: Art Enthusiasts

Related: Why Millennials Need Travel

national mall, washington monument, WWII memorial lincoln memorial

National Mall – Lincoln Memorial, WWII Memorial, and Washington Memorial

Our trip was packed, but thankfully I had some time myself to enjoy the National Mall. Something important to keep in mind is that while all the Smithsonian’s museums are free, they are only open for limited hours (10:00 am – 5:30 pm). However, you can access all of the memorials after 5:30 pm, so I wandered around to see what I could find.

The Lincoln and Washington Memorial are iconic and just what you would expect. There were tons of tourists at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, including a hundred kids dressed up for prom. I’m sure their pictures turned out excellent.

The WWII Memorial was new to me. Most of my previous trips did not include time for the National Mall, and so I hadn’t seen any of the changes since 2001. It was a popular destination, with fountains and lots of places to stop at admire the memorial.

Cost: Free
Family Friendly: Yes
Interesting to Little Kids: Yes
Who Will Love It: Everyone


white house, washington dc

The White House

My hotel was a block and a half away from the White House. In fact, the term lobbyist comes from lobby of the Willard hotel. During the early days of American history, those who wanted to influence laws would wait in the lobby of the Willard Hotel, where many politicians and diplomats would stay.

In the morning, I would grab breakfast at Starbucks (I am rather partial to their hot chocolate) and would watch the people come by in the mornings. The best time for a photo-op is early morning (before nine), as there are some groups, but there are plenty of gaps between crowds where you can grab a great picture of you or your family for your DC trip.

Cost: Free
Family Friendly: Yes
Interesting to Little Kids: Yes
Who Will Love It: Everyone

Related: 10 Places to Take Your Family This Year


kennedy center, performing arts, washington dc

Kennedy Center – National Symphony Orchestra

This was our first big event for the trip. Robert Oppelt is the principal bass at the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) and gave us a wonderful talk-back about his 30+ years performing with the NSO since his graduation from UNCSA. Performing with the Symphony has led him all over Europe, Asia, some countries in South America, and all across the United States. He’s a very modest person who loves what he does.

Fun fact: Ben Folds is the Artistic Director of the National Symphony Orchestra (and is from Winston-Salem, North Carolina!).

The performance itself was fabulous. The guest conductor, Sir Mark Elder, picked some more obscure European compositions to perform that were written in response to World War I, so I went in with no prior knowledge of any of the music. As much as I love music, classical is not my favorite genre. However, the first piece was beyond moving and one of the most enjoyable live musical experiences I’ve had to date.

If you enjoy a beautiful piece, I would highly recommend George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad. Butterworth’s story is incredibly sad: he began composing at an early age, but was highly critical of his work. When WWI broke out, he knew he would be drafted and was concerned his works would be published posthumously if he died in the war. Anything that was not to his satisfaction was burned before he left, and, as he suspected, he died in the war.

The Kennedy Center itself is a little dated. You can tell there hasn’t been a major renovation since the 80’s. If you aren’t going for a performance, I would skip visiting the Kennedy Center altogether. It’s a bit out of the way.

However, if there is a performance you want to attend, the acoustics are excellent and the seating arrangement is planned out very well. Practically every seat in the house will give you a full view of the stage.

Cost: Varies per performance. NSO starts at $15 for orchestra seating
Family Friendly: Yes, depending on the program
Interesting to Little Kids: Only if they can sit for long periods of time
Who Will Love It: Music and Theater Enthusiasts


theatre, washington dc

This photo is from the performance I saw and belongs to Theater Alliance.

Theater Alliance – Flood City

Colin Hovde, the artistic director for Theater Alliance, is a 2004 UNCSA graduate who gave us a preview into his work and the performance prior to the play. Colin’s approach to theater is interesting; he is very socially conscious and carefully selects thought-provoking pieces that help community members connect with challenging topics.

The performance we saw, Flood City, highlighted Johnstown, Pennsylvania during its major flood in 1889 (over 2,000 deaths occurred in moments from a dam breaking) juxtaposed against the closing of the final steel mill in 1991. The play touched on themes of corporate irresponsibility (the dam broke from lack of repair on the part of wealthy steel mill owners above the town), exploitation of the poor, and the ability of small rural towns to recover from devastating loss.

The performance was excellent and despite the heavy topics, had moments of levity so you didn’t walk out feeling completely depressed.

Theater Alliance is well-recognized for its achievements in excellence. Just the past year, they received 14 Helen Hayes nominations and 3 wins, the highest regional honor for the theater. It is a good twenty-five minute drive to the Anacostia district, a subset of D.C., but if you’re willing to make the trip, it will be well worth your time and every seat gives you full access to the stage.

Cost: $30-$40 per ticket
Family Friendly: No
Interesting to Little Kids: No
Who Will Love It: Theater Enthusiasts


St. Joan, Folger Theater, Washington DC

This image is from the performance I saw and belongs to the Folger Shakespeare Theater.

Folger Shakespeare Library – St. Joan

If I had to pick one experience I loved most, this is it. I LOVED this production! The company, Bedlam, took a unique perspective on this classic George Bernard Shaw piece by casting four people to fill 15+ characters. To make it even more difficult, the woman playing the lead, Joan, only played that part. The other three male actors covered all 15+ additional roles.

It got to be a little confusing at first, and I’m still not sure of all the names of the characters, but they did an amazing job of changing their body language, looks, and accents at the drop of a hat to fit the character. In one particular moment, an actor was playing a tall British lord, and in snap he put on glasses, hunched over, and played a stuttering French priest.

The production was three hours (!!!), but it was such a memorable experience that I didn’t get antsy until the last twenty minutes. One of the final scenes was the trial of Joan. They placed her at the front of the stage with just a spotlight. The rest of the theater was completely dark. They put the other three actors on different floors, and they would stand in different places depending on which character they were voicing. As a result, the conversation was coming from all areas, making it sound as though there was a room full of people. It was an amazing stylistic choice.

The theater itself was stunning. The library was built in 1932 and is the epitome of beautiful architecture. For the theater, there are two balcony rows and main level seating. Unlike other theaters, though, there are a lot of seats I would avoid.

We sat on the side and a good chunk of my view of the stage was blocked. The main floor dipped down, so those in the front also had a blocked view of the stage. You definitely want to pick seats that are facing the stage and farther back.

For this particular performance, they had some audience members seated on stage. It created a unique experience for them, though they were exposed to a lot of spit as all performers had to project their voices to hide the fact that none of them had a microphone.

It is a smaller stage, seating maybe 200 people. The library also has a museum aspect where you can study Shakespeare’s original pieces, but I really can’t speak to that as I only went for the performance.

This excursion does take some planning as it is off the beaten path from main D.C. attractions (about a five-minute Uber from the National Mall), but I would highly recommend it.

Cost: $20-$49 per ticket for performances
Family Friendly: No
Interesting to Little Kids: No
Who Will Love It: Theater and Classical Literature Enthusiasts


washington dc, national cathedral

National Cathedral

I won’t say much about the cathedral because we drove through the grounds on our way to the Washington Ballet. I do regret we didn’t have a chance to build it in to our schedule. The National Cathedral is a slice of Europe tucked away on the other side of the Potomac. The grounds are exquisite, the building is beyond beautiful, and the most perfect fog in the morning enhanced the splendor of the visit.

From what I can tell from the website, it can accommodate groups of varying ages and interests. I am definitely adding it to my list of things that I want to do when I take a personal vacation to D.C.

Cost: $8-$12 depending on age; children 5 and under are free
Family Friendly: Yes
Interesting to Little Kids: Yes (they have special kid friendly recommendations and a playground)
Who Will Love It: Architecture and Garden Enthusiasts
Kids Activities:

Related: How to Survive a Red-Eye Flight with Kids


ballet, Washington DC

Washington Ballet – Private Rehearsal

This isn’t something just anyone can schedule, but it is a sneak peek into my life as a fundraiser. One of our HS alums, Victor, is the associate artistic director of the Washington Ballet. He spent forty-five minutes discussing his connection to the school and then let us sit in a private rehearsal where he was coaching a leading ballerina in her upcoming role in Giselle.

Victor’s story is exactly what UNCSA hopes to inspire. As a kid, he grew up in rural North Carolina working on his grandfather’s tobacco farm. His older brother attended UNCSA for music, and he decided he wanted to go as well. The only program available at his age was dance, something he had never seen, let alone done.

However, he was an excellent athlete and was head of the baseball and football teams. He walked into his audition at UNCSA without shoes and no knowledge of dance. When asked why he was without shoes, he said he would pay the $7.50 for shoes if he got in the program.

He showed amazing promise, but the school wanted him to attend some lessons over the summer to get him up to speed. He declined the offer because it would interfere with his summer baseball schedule. Yet, the school refused to give up on him and brought him anyway.

Immediately after graduation, he signed on with the American Ballet Theater company and would dance with them for the next FORTY years before transitioning into the artistic director role.

Watching a one on one rehearsal with a professional company is incredibly different. The ballerina practicing knew how to do the moves. What they focused on was bringing a sense of presence to the performance.

Victor discussed how to hold poses just for a moment to create a sense of drama and tension. He discussed where to look to get the audience to follow along, how to create a demanding presence that would lead the music (instead of reacting to the music being played), and much more.

Also, I will readily admit that I had no idea that a man could have such a commanding presence and exude a graceful poise at the same time. Apparently, it must be a ballet thing, as our Dean of Dance has the same air about her when she walks into a room. I would love a lesson on how to create that kind of presence!


art gallery, renwick gallery, washington dc

Renwick Gallery

Did you know there is a free art gallery right on the corner of the White House lawn? I had ABSOLUTELY no idea! One of my donors is friends with one of the museum curators and scheduled a personal tour of the current Burning Man Exhibition.

Even if you don’t enjoy art, it’s nice to know in case you need to use the bathroom. I had the hardest time finding a bathroom or a trash can in that area after eating my breakfast Saturday morning.

Burning Man is an interesting exhibit. While something I would never attend, the exhibit is artistically engaging and somewhat unique. In one room you’ll find a floor to ceiling (20+ feet!) sculpture of a women cast in changing colors. Right after that you’ll walk into a room with a metal dragon car, walk passed a virtual reality exhibit (not for small children as it is of the event itself).

Upstairs is a huge expanse that is an Asian style temple hand carved in the most intricate details. You’ll see metal sculptures with light projected through them, different paper sculptures that move on a timer system, and more. It’s a little out there, but immensely creative and will capture the attention of small children. Just be careful with some of the images of the event itself; clothing is optional at Burning Man. It’s a very visually stimulating exhibit.

Cost: Free
Family Friendly: Yes
Interesting to Little Kids: Yes, but be careful with some of the images
Who Will Love It: Art Enthusiasts and Casual Art Lovers

Now, I really want to take my family on a trip to Washington D.C.!

Is there anything you would add for a family vacation?

Washington DC is full of amazing things to do for art lovers. Learn more in our Art Lover's Guide to Washington D.C., including the National Portrait Gallery, Kennedy Center, Renwick Gallery, Washington Ballet and more!

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