Downtown Washington, DC: What to See & Do + Where to Eat, Drink & Stay

Heading to the District of Colombia to explore the capital of the United States? Downtown Washington, DC, should be your first stop! The vibrant core of the US capital city, Downtown DC has an eclectic arts and culture scene, world-class museums, and top-notch dining.

Defined by swanky hotels, high-end boutiques, and outstanding museums, this cosmopolitan neighborhood oozes grandeur and elegance. Pennsylvania Avenue is home to the most famous address in the world, while the surrounding tree-lined boulevards are home to an array of museums and cultural institutions.

Buzzing Downtown DC offers a mix of sophisticated bars and restaurants for evening entertainment. Foodies will find everything from power dining restaurants to see-and-be-seen hot spots to places for a perfect pre-theater meal.

Need some help planning your adventure in The Capital Region USA? Check out this excellent guide for what to see & do, where to eat & drink, and where to stay in Downtown Washington, DC.

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What to see & do

National Museum of Women in the Arts

Celebrate women in art with a visit to the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Established in 1981 by Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, the museum is the only one of its kind that honors women’s achievements in the literary, performing, and visual arts.

Explore the impressive collection of over 5,000 works of art at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Works date back to the 16th century, and you can admire pieces by famous artists such as Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe.

National Museum of Women in the Arts

Located on New York Avenue, the National Museum of Women in the Arts is set in an elegant Renaissance Revival-style building designed initially as a Masonic temple in 1908. The building was converted into a museum in 1987 and now features over 30,000 square feet of exhibition space spread across five floors.

Grab something to eat at the Mezzanine Café and pick up a few souvenirs in the museum store, with a portion of your sales going to future exhibitions.

* The National Museum of Women in the Arts is currently closed for renovation *

National Geographic Museum

Take a virtual walk through the pages of a National Geographic magazine on a visit to the eponymous museum. Based in the headquarters of the world-famous magazine, the National Geographic Museum presents a spectacular representation of our world through outstanding exhibits.

Stroll around the museum’s exhibitions focusing on cultural heritage, natural history, and scientific discoveries. Travel back in time to ancient Egypt, discover Peruvian gold, and enjoy interactive experiences like seeing frogs in their natural environment.

National Geographic Museum

Don’t miss the National Geographic Photo Ark exhibit, which features some of the most awe-inspiring images from the magazine’s archives. Created by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, the display boasts breathtaking photographs of the world’s most endangered species to raise awareness about the importance of conservation efforts.

Keep an eye on the museum’s calendar for hosted events such as film screenings, workshops, and lectures by famous explorers and researchers.

* The National Geographic Museum is currently closed for renovation*

Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site

If you’re a history buff, head to the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site on Vermont Avenue in Northwest Washington, DC. Forming part of the Logan Circle Historic District, the museum honors the life and legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune, an African American educator and civil rights leader.

Based in a beautifully preserved 19th-century townhouse, the museum details Bethune’s life as a civil rights activist and trusted advisor to several US presidents. Discover the history of the National Council of Negro Women founded by Bethune and her role as one of America’s most influential civil rights leaders.

After your visit, stroll around the Logan Circle Historic District and admire exquisite examples of late-19th-century residences built in the Late Victorian and Richardsonian Romanesque styles.

DC Improv Comedy Club

There’s no better place in Washington, DC, to go for laugh-out-loud stand-up comedy than the DC Improv Comedy Club. This decades-old underground comedy club on Connecticut Avenue has entertained audiences since 1992 and is hailed as one of the country’s best comedy clubs.

You can enjoy several weekly shows at DC Improv, ranging from stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy to open mic nights. The club’s line-up showcases up-and-coming talent and established comedians so that you may see one of your favorite comedians in action.

During the show, relax over dinner and drinks from the full-service bar and restaurant. Be sure to book in advance as this is one of Downtown Washington’s hotspots and is often a full house.

Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle

Love sacral architecture? Be sure to add a stop at the beautiful Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle into your Washington DC itinerary. Also known simply as St. Matthew’s Cathedral, the church is an exquisite example of Romanesque and Byzantine-style architecture. The best features include stunning stained-glass windows, intricate mosaics, and a grand pipe organ.

Completed in 1895 and named in honor of the Apostle Matthew, the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle is the current seat of the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. It’s also been the site of several significant events in American history, such as royal and political funerals and a mass held by Pope John Paul II in 1979.

Join one of the regularly scheduled guided tours and gain a deeper insight into the history and architecture of the church. Don’t miss the magnificent works of art, sculptures, and tapestries adorning the cathedral’s interior.

If you love architecture, history, or religious art, visiting the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle is a must.

Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Located just steps from the White House in the heart of historic federal Washington, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum is one of the country’s best contemporary American crafts and decorative arts museums and one of the must-see tourist attractions in DC.

Designed by James Renwick Jr. in 1858, the gallery was the first to be built specifically to be an art museum. Originally constructed to house Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, the building was renovated in 1972 to become the Renwick Gallery.

Renwick Gallery

A branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Renwick Gallery is home to an exceptional collection ranging from traditional craft objects to mixed media works. Explore one of DC’s most popular museums on your own or join a regularly scheduled guided tour that delves into the museum’s history and impressive collection of over 7,000 objects.

* The Renwick Gallery is currently closed for renovation. *

Franklin Park

Take time out from exploring and escape the hustle and bustle of the city with a stroll or picnic in Franklin Park. Set in the heart of Downtown Washington, DC, the historic public park dates back to 1832 and is one of the oldest parks in the city.

Wander through tree-lined avenues dotted with monuments and statues, including one of Benjamin Franklin, for whom the park is named. A tranquil fountain plaza at the heart of Franklin Park has comfortable seating and charming views of the surrounding city.

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Lovely green lawns are perfect for relaxing with a picnic, and a new children’s garden is a wonderful way for them to explore the beauty of nature. Franklin Park also hosts a variety of activities and events throughout the year, from outdoor markets to festivals.

The Phillips Collection

The Phillips Collection is a must-visit for art lovers! Located in Dupont Circle, the art museum features an impressively modern and contemporary art collection, including works by famous artists such as Renoir, Rothko, and Van Gogh.

Founded by Duncan Phillips and Marjorie Acker Phillips in 1921 as the Phillips Memorial Gallery, the Phillips Collection has a wonderfully intimate atmosphere with the personal touches of its founders. Spend time admiring the incredible art and reflecting in the spaces designed specifically for retrospection.

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Browse the Phillips Collection Gift Shop for a unique art-related gift or souvenir, and enjoy a light lunch in the Vradenburg Shop and Café.

Where to eat & drink

Downtown Washington, DC, holds its own when it comes to great places to eat, and you’ll find plenty of eateries and restaurants to explore.

Enjoy a taste of the Big Easy in the nation’s capital at Dauphine’s. Elegantly intimate without being stuffy, Dauphine’s serves traditional New Orleans cuisine with classic dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, and po’boys. Try the Fried Hog’s Head Cheese with tarragon-crab remoulade for a more creative option.

Tucked away in the Dupont Circle neighborhood is a hidden Mediterranean-inspired gem where you can savor delicious Italian and Greek plates in a tranquil courtyard. Housed in a beautifully restored 1900s building, Iron Gate Restaurant is a romantic night-out spot. Mouthwatering handmade pasta dishes and grilled lamb chops are the order of the day, and the wine list is sublime.

Looking for a vibrant and bustling spot for brunch, lunch, or dinner? Head to the Commissary in Logan Circle. Book a table on the restaurant’s spacious outdoor patio and people-watch while you tuck into crispy chicken and waffles, quinoa bowls, and juicy lamb burgers.

Look no further than The Dabney for fantastic farm-to-table fare and some Michelin-star magic. Tucked into a former row house in the Shaw neighborhood, this rustic eatery oozes coziness with an open kitchen and wood-fired oven. Feast on inventive, straight-off-the-farm dishes like Charred Blue Oyster and Maitake Mushrooms and Autumn Olive Farm Pork with Red Russian Kale.

Street Cafe in Downtown DC

Get a taste of the city’s political history over a glass of wine at the popular Off the Record bar. Unwind in an elegant, sophisticated ambiance with dark wood paneling, plush leather chairs, and a cozy fireplace. Admire the bar’s collection of political cartoons and caricatures that pay tribute to the many famous politicians and journalists who have visited the hotel over the years.

Prefer something more laid-back? Lost and Found DC is an eclectic bar and lounge with cozy seating areas and colorful murals. An extensive selection of craft cocktails, local beers, and wines is on offer, and there’s always something on, like live music, trivia nights, and DJ sets.

Hidden away in the Eaton DC’s Progress Library, Allegory brings art, literature, and craft cocktails together in fine form. Moody and atmospheric with dim lighting and art-adorned walls, this is the place for imaginative cocktails like the Jabberwocky Part Dos and the Unicorn.

Another secret speakeasy just a few blocks from the White House, the Mirror is sultry and sexy with a dark wooden bar, low lighting, and classic cocktails. Perfect for a date night, if you can find it!

Where to stay

As it’s the heart of the city, Downtown is one of the most popular places to stay in DC. There’s a wide selection of accommodation options here, from hotels to vacation rentals. With its central location, expect to pay higher prices here than in other areas around the city.

Hotel Madera

Hotel Madera

Just a mile from the White House and the Lincoln Memorial, Hotel Madera offers bright, stylish rooms with premium cable, free Wi-Fi, and iPod docks. Enjoy in-room spa services, work out in a fitness center, and sip cocktails on the rooftop terrace against beautiful city views.

Canopy by Hilton Washington DC Embassy Row

Canopy by Hilton Washington DC Embassy Row

Set on a tree-lined avenue in Downtown DC, Canopy by Hilton Washington DC Embassy Row is an excellent base for exploring the city’s many attractions. Stylish rooms have Nespresso machines and minifridges. Enjoy a complimentary breakfast every morning and use the hotel’s loaner bikes to discover the city’s charms.

Hotel Zena, a Viceroy Urban Retreat

Hotel Zena, a Viceroy Urban Retreat

Original artwork and exterior murals abound at the elegant and eclectic Hotel Zena, a Viceroy Urban Retreat. Relax at the hip lobby bar/lounge and enjoy a game of billiards or unwind on the rooftop sundeck and swimming pool with drinks from the poolside bar.

The Hay - Adams

The Hay-Adams

Exuding elegance and grandeur, the Hay-Adams is a historic luxury retreat near the White House with exquisitely appointed accommodations and high-end amenities. Soak up spectacular views of the city’s landmarks from your suite and dine at the award-winning restaurant, The Lafayette. Some deluxe guest amenities include in-room spa services, 24-hour concierge services, and a complimentary Mercedes house car.

The Jefferson Hotel

The Jefferson Hotel

Set in a magnificent 1926 Beaux-Arts building, The Jefferson Hotel is a posh and luxurious retreat close to the White House. Sophisticated rooms have four-poster beds, fireplaces, and marble baths. Indulge in the luxe spa and opulent fine-dining restaurant, and sip cocktails in the upscale bar with terrace seating.

Treksplorer

Ryan O'Rourke is a seasoned traveler and the founder & editor of Treksplorer, a fiercely independent guide to mid-range luxury travel for busy people. With over 20 years of extensive travel experience, Ryan has journeyed through over 50 countries, uncovering hidden gems and sharing firsthand, unsponsored insights on what to see & do and where to eat, drink & stay. Backed by his travel experience and in-depth research, Ryan’s travel advice and writing has been featured in publications like the Huffington Post and Matador Network. You can connect with Ryan on Twitter/X at @rtorourke.

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