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Historic and Vibrant Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C., tells the stories of America like no other place can.

Since its founding in 1790 as the nation’s capital, this vibrant, vital city has been on the frontlines of American history. From Ford’s Theatre, the site of the Lincoln assassination, to Mount Vernon, where George Washington grew his wealth and ended his days, the D.C. area offers a bonanza of landmarks to visit.

And as befits its status as the seat of the federal government, D.C. is also home to institutions that chronicle our country’s heritage, including the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Together, the following four attractions offer an unparalleled look into our national past in a city that shapes the future every day.

Ford’s Theatre

There are a number of ways for groups to experience Ford’s Theatre’s lovely auditorium and heart-breaking history. They can see plays and musicals throughout the year, including an annual production of the beloved classic “A Christmas Carol.” Groups may also walk through the theater where, on April 14, 1865, Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln as he watched a performance of “Our American Cousin.” An on-site museum has artifacts such as the Derringer pistol Booth used that fateful night. Across the street, the Petersen House and “Aftermath” exhibits detail the days following the assassination. Lincoln died at the former boarding house the morning after he was shot.

According to Theresa Belpulsi, senior vice president of tourism, sports and visitor experience at Destination D.C., the Investigation: Detective McDevitt tour, which can be booked through Ford’s Theatre, is a must.

“McDevitt was the investigator for the assassination, so they do a walking tour through downtown that is led through his eyes, which I think is absolutely fabulous,” she said. “It dives a little deeper than the museum. Groups can book it as a private tour.”

The National Museum of African American History and Culture

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016 to widespread acclaim, perches on the National Mall next to the National Museum of American History. It’s also free, but groups are asked to split into clusters of 10 or fewer and reserve timed-entry passes. Tours are self-guided, and, according to Belpulsi, leaders should block out at least two hours for a visit.

“It’s packed full of things for everyone,” she said. “It walks you through the beginning of slavery, around the world and here, and then through African American history all the way up through pop culture today — everything from sports to music to film.”

The only national institution dedicated exclusively to detailing the Black experience, this superb Smithsonian museum houses some 40,000 artifacts. They include soul-stirring items such as abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s shawl, given to her by Queen Victoria; an invitation to President Obama’s 2009 inauguration; and Jesse Owens’ track shoes, which he wore when he won four gold medals during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The 665,000-square-foot building is itself is a work of art, its exterior wrapped in bronze-hued lattice, a tribute to the ironwork crafted by enslaved African Americans in the South.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon

For more than four decades, George Washington, “the Father of His Country,” lived an 8,000-acre Virginia plantation graced by a 21-room mansion. Today, the property, on the bucolic banks of the Potomac about 15 miles south of Washington, is a must-visit for groups.

“Obviously, people who are coming here for history can’t forget about George Washington’s home,” Belpulsi said. “And what’s really great is, groups can grab a water taxi in D.C. and take it to Mount Vernon, and then the bus can pick them up to come back.”

Groups can make a whole afternoon out of a trip to Mount Vernon, taking tours led by first-person character interpreters or evening walks by candlelight through the house and grounds or visiting the working reconstructions of Washington’s gristmill and distillery. Other options include a wreath-laying ceremony at Washington’s tomb and a flag-raising event at the front gate. A museum and an education center, where a 4D film about the Revolutionary War is screened, share more stories and history. For a special treat, leaders might want to plan a group lunch at the Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant with an interpreter who will portray a character from the president’s life.

National Museum of American History

For an exhaustive but energizing look at our nation’s past, the National Museum of American History may have no rivals. Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum covers 300,000 square feet of exhibition, programming and public space. Its 1.7 million objects are a wide mix, everything from  Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” and the original Star-Spangled Banner, which inspired our national anthem to the Alexander Graham Bell telephone and a robe and gloves worn by boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

Groups will want to linger over thought-provoking, poignant exhibitions such as The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, an 18,000-square-foot look at U.S. military history, and The American Presidency, which surveys the triumphs and tribulations of the men who have led our country since its inception. Admission is free, but the museum is not currently offering private group tours.

“Leaders should give their groups no less than two hours to explore so they can spend a little more time in the different parts of the museum that interest them most,” Belpulsi said. “They also have an on-site restaurant, so you can schedule lunch for there, too.”