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National Gems in Washington, D.C.

In the nation's capital, our shared story comes alive through art, artifacts, and even food.

  • Abraham Lincoln's top hat, image
    Photo caption
    Abraham Lincoln added the black silk mourning band to his top hat in remembrance of his son Willie.
  • Capitol building in Washington, D.C., image
    Photo caption
    The Capitol building's lights glow against a dark periwinkle sky.
  • Cymbidium (Clarisse best pink), image
    Photo caption
    In the Orchid Room at the U.S. Botanic Garden you'll find gorgeous Cymbidiums, similar to this Clarisse best pink.
  • East Building at the National Gallery of Art, image
    Photo caption
    Chinese American architect I.M. Pei designed the modernist East Building.
  • fiddlehead fern salad at Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe, image
    Photo caption
    Fiddlehead fern salad entices at the Mitsitam Native Foods Café.
  • license plates spell out the Constitution's preamble, image
    Photo caption
    License plates spell out the Constitution's preamble at the Smithsonian.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, image
    Photo caption
    The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial stands between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials.
  • Rosa Parks statue at the U.S. Capitol, image
    Photo caption
    The statue of Rosa Parks was unveiled in the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 27, 2013.

Americans still come to Washington, D.C., as they always have, to see the monuments and memorials that recount the country's heritage. Hurtling through history one great granite slab at a time, a visitor can miss the narrative web that unites these national treasures. But it's that bright weave of artifact and idea that makes the nation's capital a tale worth telling. And seeing. Here are seven wonders that are worth the trip—and in a stirring example of your tax dollars at work, they are all free of charge.

1. Abraham Lincoln's top hat at the National Museum of American History
At six foot four, the Great Emancipator stood tall when he freed the slaves and preserved the Union, and taller still when he donned his top hat. On April 14, 1865, the president wore the hat to Ford's Theatre, where John Wilkes Booth shot and killed him. That top hat is displayed here, among other artifacts related to presidential assassinations.

2. Preamble at the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Our national love affair with democracy takes artistic license in the lingua fracture of DMV vanity plates. Artist Mike Wilkins took eight months to assemble 51 license plates—one from each state and the District of Columbia—spelling out the Constitution's preamble in "licensese." "In order to form a more perfect union" becomes innor dur 2 4m a mor pur fec une none.

3. Rosa Parks statue at the U.S. Capitol
In a building filled to the dome with iconic representations of our history, few statues are more sought out than that of Rosa Parks, a towering figure in the civil rights movement and a recent addition to Statuary Hall. Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., when told to relinquish her seat to a white passenger. For taking her stand and keeping her seat, Parks was arrested and became a symbol of civil disobedience. The sculpture of Parks is the hall's first full-size statue of an African American woman, and the first Congressional commission since the Civil War.

4. East Building at the National Gallery of Art
In a city designed primarily by the French-born Pierre L'Enfant, I.M. Pei's modernist mega-gallery is further evidence that the country is built on immigrant diversity. The Chinese American architect designed the East Building within the nation's art museum as adjoining triangles, and the razorlike 19.5-degree wedge that forms the building's southwest corner has been an irresistible touchstone. Literally. Oil from visitors' hands has left a mark on the marble facade. As the building neared the end of an $85 million project to bolster its marble panels, gallerygoers voiced concern that the "knife's edge" would be cleaned and polished to dull perfection. But museum officials say they won't obliterate the corner's hand-honed character.

5. Native American food at the National Museum of the American Indian
You can savor more than displays of Tlingit cutlery and Pueblo water dippers here. Plan to arrive in time for lunch at the Mitsitam Native Foods Café. Among its five regional cuisines is the Great Plains grill, where you may find ground buffalo burgers and fiddlehead fern salad. The galleries of this Smithsonian-run treasure provide a time line of American Indian history. There's a video installation on Mohawk ironworkers who helped build the World Trade Center, and then—following 9/11—returned to help remove the wreckage.

6. Orchid room at the U.S. Botanic Garden
This conservatory highlights the continent's passage from primeval wilderness to the full flowering of the information age. The most striking section is the orchid room, where flowers have flesh and lips, and sometimes sport spurs. For all but the coldest months, there's lawn furniture and a windmill out front: America's patio.

7. Chiseled words at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
Half a century after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the nearby Lincoln Memorial, the world is again gathering at his feet. In a 30-foot monument dedicated in 2011, King appears ready to burst forth from the granite and lead another march on Washington. In August, sculptor Lei Yixin chiseled off a controversial abridgement of King's remark about being called a "drum major for justice," rectifying a distortion that poet Maya Angelou and others said made King sound arrogant. Fortunately, plenty more of his words are correctly captured in stone—useful reminders that as long as his ideas live, so can the dream.

Photography courtesy of JJ Harrison/Wikipedia (Cymbidium); by David Coleman (Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial); by Sandra Baker/Martin Falbisoner/Wikipedia (capitol); courtesy of Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (top hat); courtesy of Smithsonian's American Art Museum (license plates); by Zuma Press, Inc./Alamy (Rosa Parks); by G. Jackson/Arcaid/Corbis (National Gallery of Art); courtesy Renée Comet Photography/Restaurant Associates/Smithsonian Institution (National Museum of the American Indian)

This article was first published in November 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.