Indeed, the quality and quantity of attractions in the DC area needs no embellishing.  A quick look at TripAdvisor’s Washington Attractions page reveals nearly 250 places vying for tourist attention.

The Delights and Dilemmas of Student Travel Planning in DC

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In some ways, planning group travel to DC is easy.  There are loads of hotels to choose from in the area and no fewer than three major airports busily shuttling passengers hither and thither.  Foodies know and respect the dining scene.  Arts – both performing and fine – are well-represented.  There are guided tours galore, and plenty of ground transportation options to ferry groups around town.

There’s also what amounts to an embarrassment of riches, at least to the tour planner with a tight two- or three-day trip to schedule.  Do you do the Smithsonian museums?  If so, which ones?  Do you try to see every monument from onboard a tour bus, or do you opt for an unhurried exploration of a couple of the top sights?

Much is going to depend on your group.  For some students, a trip to Washington DC is a milestone in their middle school, junior high or high school careers.  While younger students certainly can find plenty to do and see in DC, it’s usually the older students – high school and college – who appreciate more of the history and significance of what they’re visiting.  Fortunately, many of the top historical and political sites in Washington are clustered in one area:  the National Mall.

In a Hurry?  Visit the Mall

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The National Mall is a one- to two-mile segment of DC that contains many of the country’s most recognizable buildings and institutions.  Why the flexible definition?  The Mall proper is approximately one mile long; it stretches from the Washington Monument to the Capitol Building.  However, the National Park Service and many other sources consider the areas around the Mall – West Potomac Park and the Tidal Basin – to be part of the Mall, too.  Whichever definition you use, the National Mall is a constellation of monuments, museums and gardens – including 10 Smithsonian museums.  For convenience sake, we’ll take the broader definition.

To the majority of visitors, the sight of the Mall is familiar, right down to the green open space in the center.  But what can you actually visit in and around it?

  • Presidential Memorials and Monuments, including those for Presidents Washington, Lincoln, Grant, Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt
  • War Memorials, including those for World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War.  Special groups who fought in the wars – most notably women in the Vietnam War and African Americans in the Civil War – also have their own memorials.
  • Museums and Gardens, including the indoor U.S. Botanic Garden, National Gallery of Art and Smithsonian museums
  • Government Buildings, particularly the Capitol Building, White House, Supreme Court, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, National Archives and Library of Congress

And, finally, the Mall contains over 80 historic structures and more than 150 historic parks, squares, circles and other spaces.  These green spaces are used to host free outdoor concerts in the summer.

Touring DC and the National Mall

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Given that there are so many things to do in such a relatively small area, many tour planners make use of group tour package deals.  For example, CitySightsDC offers bus, bike, boat and Segway tours.  Its most popular tour option is also the most flexible:  a 24- or 48-hour pass for a double-decker bus tour. These hop-on hop-off tours offer groups on a tight schedule some wiggle room, as they can spend as much or as little time as they like at different sites.  (The City Sights DC bus tour comes with a FlexPass, which can get bearers in to two, three, four, or five attractions without advance reservations.)

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Experiencing all that DC has to offer is impossible in one visit, but concentrating your school travel group’s time in the history-rich area around the National Mall lets you can make the most of your time.  And utilizing flexible travel tours allows individual members the opportunity to explore what interests them most.


How did your last trip to the DC area go?  Have any experiences to share about group travel to the National Mall?  Submit a comment below and share the story!