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The Great Tours: Washington DC

Walk through the streets of Washington, DC in the company of those brilliant history-wizards at the Smithsonian.
The Great Tours: Washington DC is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 91.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from VERY informative! Great speaker We finished this course months ago but everyday I remember something from it. The museums and the history behind everything was fascinating and so well presented. I will never get to go physically to Washington, D. C. this late in life but I sure enjoyed seeing the inside of buildings, monuments, etc. along with all the history. Wonderful.
Date published: 2023-02-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fabulous course and guide! I was wary of this course since I've been to DC over 20 times and my wife once lived in DC. But not to worry. I rate this as (without a doubt) the best course I have ever taken. It was not just the guide's knowledge of history, culture, politics and people but all the new and fascinating stories. It literally covered every single aspect and the interviews with the various guests really enhanced the experience. Discussing this course we have decided to return with one of our grandchildren, stay at the Hyatt with its own Metro and once again venture out to learn about our nation's capital.
Date published: 2023-01-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Washington D.C.Tours Recently bought. Will buy other titles in the future.
Date published: 2022-12-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding professor The professor is amongst the best I’ve seen. He has sincere but at time dramatic delivery of stories about the history of the US relevant to DC. Starts with geology, geography, city planning and marches through the mall and monuments. I have been to DC > 10x and learned a lot. It helped prepare for my recent trip and allowed me to fill out the experience on the way home. Production including maps, photos and interviews were great.
Date published: 2022-11-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great info that few of us have an opportunity to s I bought a set for myself, and like it so much I ordered two more sets for Christmas gifts!
Date published: 2022-09-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fantastic for trip planning! I got this course because I am travelling to Washington DC, and I'm glad I did. I got lots of ideas for things to do and see, and have planned a better trip as a result. There's lots of history too, and I'm sure I'll annoy my travel companions with my newly acquired knowIedge.I enjoyed the interviews as well. I'd definitely recommend this course if you're planning a trip to DC!
Date published: 2022-06-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great learning experience I caught a few episode on PBS and wanted to see the whole lot. I have lived in the Washington ,DC area all my life. I was amazed at how much I didn’t know….and how much I learned. This is a fabulous guide to the area. So easy to maneuver through the different sections. I recommend this course to anyone local or visitor.
Date published: 2022-04-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best This course is comprehensive, informative, and full of useful information. It is helpful for an upcoming trip, and for armchair trips too. The Professor is very good and knows about all facets of the city and the history of our nation's capital. Recommended!
Date published: 2022-04-20
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Take a detailed look at the fascinating history and culture of Washington, DC in this Smithsonian-sponsored, insider's tour.


Richard Kurin

Objects have an amazing ability to connect us to history in a powerful, emotional, visceral way.


The Smithsonian

Dr. Richard Kurin is the Smithsonian's Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. In this position, he oversees most of the Smithsonian's national museums, libraries, and archives, as well as several of its research and outreach programs. Dr. Kurin holds a B.A. in Anthropology and Philosophy from the University at Buffalo-The State University of New York. He earned both his M.A. and his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago.

Dr. Kurin has worked at the Smithsonian for almost four decades, starting with the Bicentennial of the United States in 1976. For decades he directed the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, representing the diversity of America's cultural traditions at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall, in Folkways recordings and other publications. He has produced programs on American history and culture for several presidential inaugurations and for the Olympics, as well as the National World War II Reunion for the opening of the World War II Memorial. Before becoming Under Secretary, Dr. Kurin directed the Smithsonian's National Programs, sending exhibitions and educational offerings across the United States. Dr. Kurin has served on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, and drafted an international treaty on safeguarding the world's living cultural heritage. He represents the Smithsonian on the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, as well as the White House Historical Association. He has been awarded the Smithsonian Secretary's Gold Medal for Exceptional Service and numerous other honors.

Dr. Kurin has taught at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and frequently lectures at The George Washington University, as well as at universities and museums across the country and around the world. He regularly blogs for Smithsonian magazine and Smithsonian Journeys, has given hundreds of speeches, and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs.

Dr. Kurin is the author of scores of scholarly articles and several books, including Hope Diamond: The Legendary History of a Cursed Gem; Reflections of a Culture Broker: A View from the Smithsonian; and Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Culture of, by, and for the People. His latest book is The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects, a national bestseller that provides the basis for this Great Course

By This Professor

Experiencing America: A Smithsonian Tour through American History
The Great Tours: Washington DC
The Great Tours: Washington DC


How Washington DC Came to Be

01: How Washington DC Came to Be

To begin your journey to this world-class city, uncover the origins of the District of Columbia and how the location for our national government was chosen. Learn about the original design and vision for the city by artist/engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Then trace the creation and colorful history of the National Mall, and the building of the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.

37 min
The White House and the Presidency

02: The White House and the Presidency

Track the history and the dramatic fortunes of the White House, from its building, expansion, burning, reconstruction, and further expansions down to the present. Then visit the White House, beginning with the Oval Office and Cabinet Room and following the route of a White House tour. Also visit the parks adjoining the White House, and the Jefferson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorials on the National Mall.

30 min
The Capitol Building and the Legislature

03: The Capitol Building and the Legislature

At the seat of the U.S. legislature, learn how the Capitol building was designed, constructed, and expanded in the early years of the nation. Tour the architectural and artistic wonders of the building, from the Capitol Rotunda to the Statuary Hall, Brumidi Corridors, Hall of Columns, and other key features. Conclude with the House and Senate Chambers, and the surrounding parks and gardens.

36 min
The Supreme Court and the Law of the Land

04: The Supreme Court and the Law of the Land

Study the founding and history of the Supreme Court, from its early era as an itinerant legal body to the completion of the Court building in 1935 under William Howard Taft. Tour this extraordinary structure, its interior features, court facilities, and artistic decoration. Then explore the Court in action, encompassing courtroom procedure and how cases are selected, adjudicated, and ruled upon.

34 min
The Nation’s Knowledge: Library of Congress

05: The Nation’s Knowledge: Library of Congress

Visit the stunning premises of the world’s largest library, starting with the story of the library’s creation in the 18th century. Begin your tour with the monumental Jefferson Building, with its glorious Beaux Arts décor, followed by the remarkable facilities of the Adams and Madison buildings. Also visit the extraordinary Folger Shakespeare Library, and DC’s beloved Eastern Market.

30 min
The State, Treasury, and Justice Departments

06: The State, Treasury, and Justice Departments

Look into the origins and functions of the State Department, and visit the United States Diplomacy Center, as well as the stellar Diplomatic Reception Rooms. Continue with the Treasury Department’s Federal Reserve buildings, the beautiful Treasury Building, and the operations of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Then take in the fascinating history and headquarters of the FBI.

31 min
Veterans Memorials on the Mall

07: Veterans Memorials on the Mall

At the first of three iconic war memorials, learn the poignant story behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, and how this once controversial monument is now considered a masterpiece. From there, take account of the artistically conceived Korean War Veterans Memorial, and finally the World War II Memorial, and its moving tribute to the “Greatest Generation.”

33 min
Arlington Cemetery and the Pentagon

08: Arlington Cemetery and the Pentagon

Grasp the historic connections between Arlington National Cemetery and the American Civil War. At the Cemetery, begin by visiting some of the gravesites of famous citizens, and the former mansion of Robert E. Lee. Among landmark sites at Arlington, see the Memorial Amphitheater, the Tomb of the Unknowns, the Marine Corps Memorial, Air Force Memorial, and the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial.

43 min
George Washington’s Mount Vernon

09: George Washington’s Mount Vernon

At the home and estate of George Washington, trace Washington’s early life, and his inheritance and expansion of the plantation now known as Mount Vernon. Tour the estate, highlighting the impressive interior features of the mansion, a major focal point of social and political life in Virginia. In nearby Alexandria, visit historic sites associated with the life and career of George Washington.

30 min
Ford’s Theatre and Lincoln’s Washington DC

10: Ford’s Theatre and Lincoln’s Washington DC

This lecture considers how the Civil War and the Lincoln presidency transformed the city. Among key sites of the era, explore the historic Willard Hotel and its dramatic connection with Lincoln; Fort Stevens and its wartime role; the Clara Barton National Historic Site; and President Lincoln’s Cottage, the “summer White House.” Then visit Ford’s Theatre, the site and memorial of the Lincoln assassination.

30 min
Washington’s Civil Rights Landmarks

11: Washington’s Civil Rights Landmarks

Witness the impact on Washington of the civil rights movement, beginning with the life and work of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and the national historic site of his home. As the focus of the lecture, take an in-depth tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, its major galleries, and 36,000 artifacts that tell the nation’s story through the lens of the black experience.

35 min
The Holocaust Museum

12: The Holocaust Museum

Study the background of the extraordinary United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, its mission to preserve the history of Nazi atrocities against Jews and other persecuted groups, and the movement to memorialize these events through a museum and education center. Observe how the museum poignantly evokes pre-war Jewish experience, the horror of the Holocaust, and its aftermath and legacy, through images, personal objects, and oral histories.

27 min
Museums on the Mall: Smithsonian and Beyond

13: Museums on the Mall: Smithsonian and Beyond

In a panoramic overview of the Smithsonian Institution, begin at the National Museum of American History, and its collection of historical treasures. Continue with the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the phenomenal collections of the National Air and Space Museum. Conclude with the wealth of art museums on the National Mall.

36 min
Washington, City of Scandal

14: Washington, City of Scandal

Delve into the history of political scandals in Washington, and how the nation has come to terms with them. Learn first about the 19th-century Burr Conspiracy, focusing on former Vice President Aaron Burr. Then take stock of the scandals under President Ulysses S. Grant, the infamous Teapot Dome scandal, and finally the Watergate scandal, finishing at the Newseum, a media history museum.

28 min
The Kennedy Center and the DC Arts Scene

15: The Kennedy Center and the DC Arts Scene

Within Washington’s hotbed of live entertainment, visit the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, with its multiple performance spaces. Then learn about the National Theatre, The Shakespeare and Folger theatres, DC’s outstanding regional theaters, and music offerings from the National Symphony Orchestra to venues featuring jazz, rock, folk, bluegrass, blues, and alternative music.

41 min
Neighborhoods of Northwest DC

16: Neighborhoods of Northwest DC

DC’s Northwest Quadrant is home to some of the city’s oldest and most historic neighborhoods. Take in the beautiful architecture of Embassy Row, and that of two magnificent nearby mansions. Visit the Dupont Circle neighborhood and its extraordinary museums, as well as those of The George Washington University. Finish with a first look at the history and cultural richness of Georgetown.

25 min
Washington’s Historic Homes and Gardens

17: Washington’s Historic Homes and Gardens

Washington’s private homes provide a fascinating window into the city’s history. Begin at the pre-Revolutionary colonial building of the Old Stone House, which shows how early DC citizens lived. Then discover three grand and storied mansions in Upper Georgetown. Visit the remarkable Octagon House; the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Garden of Marjorie Merriweather Post; and Woodlawn Plantation, which became a “free labor colony” with lots owned and farmed by free African Americans.

30 min
Spiritual DC: The National Cathedral and More

18: Spiritual DC: The National Cathedral and More

Take account of the plethora of religious institutions in Washington and consider the role of faith in the city’s history. Stop first at St. John’s Episcopal Church, closely associated with the presidency, and DC’s architecturally rich Catholic churches. Visit Jewish and Muslim houses of worship, and finally take in the historic and artistic treasures of the Washington National Cathedral.

39 min
Smithsonian’s National Zoo

19: Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Trace the history and mission of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, a Smithsonian institution now housing 300 animal species. Learn about the National Zoo’s remarkable exhibits of zoological rarities, from the clouded leopard to the giant panda. Take note of the National Zoo’s approach to recreating natural habitats, and the institution’s deep involvement with animal research and conservation of endangered species.

34 min
Dining Out in Washington DC

20: Dining Out in Washington DC

Washington offers an astonishing wealth of dining experiences, from historic to contemporary. First discover two of DC’s longstanding food traditions: seafood and soul food. Visit treasured historic restaurants around the city, and delve into the city’s world cuisine, from Ethiopian and Mediterranean to global fusion. Also take note of food festivals that take place in DC throughout the year.

36 min
Washington’s New Waterfront

21: Washington’s New Waterfront

Investigate the history of DC’s riverfronts on the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, and the outstanding revitalization programs now underway. Stop at Kingman and Heritage Island Park, and Anacostia Park, featuring trails, boat tours, and wildlife watching. Then visit National Harbor, District Wharf, and the Georgetown waterfront, with their many dining, shopping, and cultural offerings.

22 min
Washington for Sports Fans

22: Washington for Sports Fans

Sports have a longstanding place in the history and culture of DC. Track the backstory of baseball, football, and basketball teams in Washington, and learn where to watch and play these highly popular sports now. Delve also into DC’s hockey and soccer scene, and the abundance of “imported” sports in the capital, from rugby and cricket to Irish hurling and Gaelic football.

24 min
Exploring Washington’s Great Outdoors

23: Exploring Washington’s Great Outdoors

DC contains an array of beautiful green spaces, offering an alternative to the urban landscape. Among many, discover the story and the amenities of historic Rock Creek Park, and the riverfront walks and outdoor activities along the Potomac Heritage Trail. On the Anacostia River, visit Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, with its plethora of wildlife, and the botanical riches of the United States National Arboretum.

28 min
The National Archives and the Future of DC

24: The National Archives and the Future of DC

Finally, learn about the treasures within the National Archives, including original copies of America’s founding documents, historic murals, and the poignant “Records of Rights” exhibit. Revisit the history of DC, and consider city plans that were never realized, “disappeared” Washington, and proposals for the city’s future. Conclude with thoughts on the dynamic, changing environment of DC.

42 min
General Colin Powell

25: General Colin Powell

Although not a native to D.C., there is no doubt that General Colin Powell has made an impact on the city. Follow his path through his years of military service to eventually becoming the number-one person in the United States Armed Forces: the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During his interview, you’ll get an insider’s perspective of what it’s like to work in the Pentagon and insights into the monuments and museums in D.C. that mean the most to General Powell.

34 min
Lonnie G. Bunch III, Smithsonian

26: Lonnie G. Bunch III, Smithsonian

As the founding director of Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, Lonnie Bunch III has played an enormous role in the museum’s 4.5 million visitors, the museum’s overwhelmingly positive critical acclaim, and the museum’s numerous awards garnered. He shares the challenges he faced in getting the museum from its planning stages to its fruition as a completed structure. Plus, he provides fascinating insights into what the unique and symbolic design choices for the museum building represent, and what it took to obtain the robust collection of artifacts that it houses.

26 min
Ellen Miles, Smithsonian

27: Ellen Miles, Smithsonian

Ellen Miles, Curator Emerita at the National Portrait Gallery for the last 39 years, shares some amazing insider information about art, artists, and must-sees in the museum. In this insightful interview, she provides a deep dive into the history of one of the most recognizable paintings in America: the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. She’ll also take you through highlights of the Gallery, including a special guest portrait that brought lines of visitors to the museum.

25 min
Yo-Yo Ma

28: Yo-Yo Ma

One of the most talented cellists and musicians in the world, Yo-Yo Ma, discusses what it’s like to perform in the nation’s capital and why art and culture is such an imperative part of D.C. Hear his perspective on the Kennedy Center as the nation’s platform for performing arts and how his own history is intertwined with this iconic institution.

34 min
Joseph Alonso, National Cathedral

29: Joseph Alonso, National Cathedral

The head stone mason at the National Cathedral, Joseph Alonso, provides first-hand insights into this iconic cathedral. He shares a perspective on the history, creation, architecture, and design that you won’t get anywhere else—including getting up close and personal with the unique gargoyles and sharing how the mid-Atlantic earthquake of 2011 affected the structure.

18 min
Brandie Smith, National Zoo

30: Brandie Smith, National Zoo

Brandie Smith, the associate director for Animal Care Sciences at the National Zoo, discusses one of the most popular attractions: the pandas. Hear some adorable stories of these lovable and unique residents—how the Zoo came to have pandas, how they are taken care of, what their personalities are like, how they play, and so much more.

22 min
José Andrés, Chef and Philanthropist

31: José Andrés, Chef and Philanthropist

José Andrés has brought a whole new concept of food and cooking to Washington, D.C., and is using food to change the world. Hear how his travels influenced his culinary styles, in turn, influenced the way D.C. views food. Further, hear how he has taken his passion for cooking to create philanthropic endeavors and to help D.C become one of the food capitals of the world.

27 min
David M. Rubenstein, Philanthropist

32: David M. Rubenstein, Philanthropist

David Rubenstein is the chair of the Smithsonian Board of Regents and the Chairman of the Kennedy Center. He also is an amazing philanthropist, having given millions of millions of dollars to the Washington Monument, the National Zoo, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the White House Historical Association, and various other causes. Hear directly from him why he is a champion of American history and what D.C. means to him.

26 min