The Great Tours: Washington D.C.

In partnership with
Professor Richard Kurin, Ph.D.
The Smithsonian
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Course No. 8609
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What Will You Learn?

  • Uncover the history—big and small—of Washington DC, from its earliest colonial days through the 21st century.
  • Experience little-known places that everyone should visit.
  • Get a deeper appreciation of people and places you learned about in school.
  • See how Washington DC fits into the larger history and geography of the United States.

Course Overview

As a political epicenter, Washington DC is a major national and international crossroads, attracting visitors from all corners of the Earth and being featured in the global news on a daily basis. But beyond the glamour and glare of high-profile politics, it is a city on par with some of the greatest in the world, brimming over with remarkable history and culture, and offering a multitude of unforgettable sights and experiences.

Throughout this intriguing city, you’ll find some of the world’s most beautiful and extraordinary national monuments—of which the iconic Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial are only the beginning. You’ll also find some of the world’s finest museums of history, science, and art, from the phenomenal Smithsonian museums to the National Gallery of Art, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, and more. You will experience masterpieces of civic architecture such as the National Mall and the Library of Congress, as well as monumental government facilities, from the U.S. Capitol to the State and Treasury Departments. Along the way, you will also encounter beautifully landscaped parks and gardens; a wealth of extraordinary historic homes; a rich and varied performing arts, entertainment, and culinary scene; and innumerable lesser-known focal points to surprise and delight.

Now, in The Great Tours: Washington DC, The Great Courses partners once again with the Smithsonian, the nation’s premier repository of U.S. history and world culture, to bring you a deep and multi-faceted look at this amazing city.

With this course, you will get to know Washington DC and the spectrum of treasures it contains. Your in-depth experience will allow you to better appreciate:

  • A one-of-a-kind urban environment containing stunning public buildings, works, and spaces;
  • The American people’s historical efforts to embody the U.S. Constitution and our founder’s ideals;
  • A thoroughly remarkable window into modern history;
  • The history, the workings, and the dimensions of our government in action; and
  • A vibrant, cosmopolitan city that resonates with people from all nations and cultures, as well as an intimately livable city that 700,000 people call home, and 5 million in the Metro region regularly enjoy.

Discover Washington DC through the Expertise of the Smithsonian

This exciting 24-part travelogue—lavishly illustrated with thousands of historic images, animated maps, and substantial location footage—rests on the vast historical and administrative resources of the Smithsonian, and on the brilliant and engaging commentary of Dr. Richard Kurin, Smithsonian Distinguished Scholar and Ambassador-at-Large. Dr. Kurin brings both his 40 years of experience at the Smithsonian—overseeing most of the institution’s national museums, libraries, and archives—and his own decades of exploration of his beloved home city to these content-rich videos.

In this unique, insider’s tour of Washington, Dr. Kurin leads you on a dazzling journey through the many layers of history and human endeavor that created DC’s extraordinary urban environment. Along the way, he takes you beyond the most visible and well-known sites to uncover hidden gems that visitors usually don’t know about, offering fascinating perspectives on DC’s history, from the 18th-century origins of the District of Columbia to the 21st-century city we know today. Throughout the course, lectures are arranged by site and activity, making it easy to go directly to specific subject matter or special interests.

Dr. Kurin rounds out your view of DC with a series of special interviews with expert guests interspersed throughout the lectures, drawing on his remarkable resources and contacts developed over a four-decade-long career. Among others, you’ll get special insight into the meaning of military memorials from General Colin Powell himself, look into the Kennedy Center and arts in Washington with renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma, and explore the relationship of food and American history with celebrated chef José Andrés.

Legendary Sights and Hidden Treasures

In a comprehensive view of the city and its history, you’ll delve into the incredible range of Washington’s riches, including:

  • Landmarks and Departments of the U.S. Government. Make a detailed visit to the White House, taking account of its construction, rebuilding, and dramatic history. Take in the architectural magnificence of the U.S. Capitol building, and visit its legislative chambers. Dig into the history, lore, and imposing facilities of the Supreme Court; the spectacular Library of Congress; the departments of State, Treasury, and Justice; and the unmissable National Archives;
  • Majestic Monuments and Memorials. Among DC’s most revered sights, visit and study the background of the great presidential memorials to Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Explore the National Mall’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and its particular significance, and contemplate the meanings of the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the World War II Memorial, and the extraordinary memorials at Arlington National Cemetery;
  • A Spectrum of World-Class Museums. Within the city’s astounding wealth of museums, learn about the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of Natural History, and National Museum of African American History and Culture, among others. Explore the artistic splendors of the National Portrait Gallery; The Phillips Collection; and the Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens; and sample the wonders of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park;
  • Lesser-Known Historic Gems. Discover a range of extraordinary sites overlooked even by many locals. Among these, visit the historic mansion of General Robert E. Lee, uncover the history of Abraham Lincoln’s “summer White House,” study the life and work of abolitionist Frederick Douglass at his preserved home, learn about presidential connections with the historic Willard Hotel, and visit locations associated with humanitarian and Red Cross founder Clara Barton.
  • Storied Neighborhoods and Homes. Venture beyond the famous sights to explore DC’s colorful and elegant neighborhoods: Savor the architecture and cultural richness of Embassy Row; the revitalized DC waterfront; and the neighborhoods of Dupont Circle, historic Georgetown, and nearby Alexandria, Virginia. Get to know George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and other grand mansions, plantations, and humble homes that memorably reveal the city’s history.

Experience the Numerous Facets of This Living City

In the course’s second half, Dr. Kurin takes the tour far beyond politics and history, to give you a vivid view of contemporary Washington and its wide range of appealing activities, events, and lifestyle choices. Within these, you’ll explore DC’s:

Arts and Entertainment Scene:Review the huge diversity of Washington’s performing arts offerings, spanning the multi-venue Kennedy Center; a plethora of distinguished live theater and dance; and seemingly countless music venues offering live performances of popular, classical, and world music.

Dining and Food Culture: Learn about DC’s traditional food culture, historic restaurants, contemporary fine-dining options, food festivals, and wide array of world cuisines.

Sports:Investigate the lore of DC’s sports teams, past and present, and find out where to see (and play) sports from baseball, football, and basketball to imports such as rugby, Gaelic football, and cricket.

Outdoor Activities:Discover DC’s many nature sites, and note Dr. Kurin’s suggestions for where to enjoy beautiful scenery, abundant wildlife, and outdoor pursuits from hiking and boating to nature and heritage sites.

In these visually sumptuous lectures, Dr. Kurin and the Smithsonian profile the diversity and the many layers of Washington DC—as a beloved national symbol; a vital seat of government; and a living, thriving metropolis. Whether you’re planning your own visit to Washington or would simply like to explore the nation’s capital from where you are, The Great Tours: Washington DC offers you a detailed, insider’s view of one of the world’s most exciting and culturally rich cities.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 32 minutes each
  • 1
    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. x
  • 2
    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. x
  • 3
    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. x
  • 4
    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. x
  • 5
    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. x
  • 6
    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. x
  • 7
    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.” x
  • 8
    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. x
  • 9
    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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x

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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 200-page printed course guidebook
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  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

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  • 200-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
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Your professor

Richard Kurin

About Your Professor

Richard Kurin, Ph.D.
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...
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Reviews

The Great Tours: Washington D.C. is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 24.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great background information about Washington DC I have been to Washington DC before, sticking mostly to the Mall and the Memorials. Watching these videos before our recent trip was not only interesting, but helped us get the most out of our trip and helped us adventure beyond where we'd been before. I enjoyed learning about both the history of DC and hints about visiting the sites.
Date published: 2019-08-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very informative and easy to follow I have been to DC at least 50+ times as a leader of school groups. I thought I had read and knew a good deal about Dc, the government, memorials and etc. Now I realize that I can always learn a good deal more that is actually fact. Thank you.
Date published: 2019-08-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative This course is especially helpful if you plan to visit Washington. But it is also informative, telling you extra things about Washington. The lecturer, working in DC is very knowledgeable
Date published: 2019-07-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Way to see D.C. This was the course I did not known that I needed but man am I glad that I bought it. I have already been to the Nation’s capital on at least three occasions but there is so much more to this city than its government buildings and museums. Washington D.C. is a vibrant city and Dr. Kurinm did a fabulous job in telling me about the history and culture. He is the best person to teach us on this place. Probably the best part about this course was the interviews that he conducted with important leaders in D.C. That was a most unexpected pleasure of this course, especially when he interviews such luminaries as General Colin Powell and Yo-Yo Ma. I mean, can it get any better than that? No! Halfway through this course, I have made up my mind to go back and visit Washington D.C., hopefully in the next year. Dr Kurin has given me some great suggestions about what to see on this trip. As American citizens, I feel that it is our duty and responsibility to visit this city and learn not only about our past but also see how we can teach and preserve it for future generations of Americans.
Date published: 2019-07-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Perfect discription of this Great Course My husband and I are enjoying seeing this Great Course. We are learning things about the capital we never knew. It makes us want to go there and see all the things discussed. I think every American should see this course!
Date published: 2019-07-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Presentation I can't say enough about how excellent Professor Kurin is for this tour. I enjoyed it immensely. Now I have to go back to D.C. and see everything I missed the other times.
Date published: 2019-06-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Great Tours: Washington Wonderful Course! I especially enjoyed the personal interviews, which are available nowhere else. As someone who has lived in Washington and later visited many times, I feel like I have a totally new perspective on the city. Definitely one of my favorite courses.
Date published: 2019-06-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from it's an OK title. I have not finished the entire tour, but what I have seen is excellent. the information is great, the photos of the locations is outstanding. Sooo interesting.
Date published: 2019-06-03
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