Best Things to Do in Washington, DC

Want to create some momentous memories during your mid-Atlantic travels? Then make time for the nation’s capital: Washington, DC. Just 68 square miles, the District of Columbia is the historic heart and political nerve center of the United States. With its mosaic of rich history, cultural energy, and natural beauty, you’ll discover a multitude of amazing things to do in Washington, DC.

Soak up American history as you walk the hallways of iconic buildings. Experience Washington’s vibrant cultural scene at world-class theatres, top-rated galleries, and trendy restaurants. Get away from the grey and bask in the greenery of DC’s stunning national parks.

Tough choice? Do “The District” right with this guide to the best places to visit in Washington, DC.

Best places to visit in Washington, DC

National Mall

If you’re a first-time DC visitor, a trip to the National Mall is a must. Known as “America’s Front Yard,” this prime piece of historic real estate brims with iconic architecture. Stretching from the foot of the US Capitol to the Potomac River, this swath of green and cherry blossom trees is revered as the most important symbolic site in the United States.

National Mall

The National Mall is an embarrassment of riches, featuring spectacular museums, memorials, art galleries, and botanical gardens. Walk its grassy slopes and take in awe-inspiring views of majestic landmarks like the White House, the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian Museums, and the Lincoln Memorial.

This iconic locale has also hosted crucial events in US history, from Presidential I=inaugurations to pivotal moments in the Civil Rights struggle. This is where history was made, legacies are honored, and voices continue to be heard.

Rock Creek Park

When you’re ready for a dose of fresh air, hit the trails at Rock Creek Park. With over 1,800 acres of forested beauty, this stunning outdoor space is a perfect refresher during the hot summer months. Set in the city’s heart, this welcoming urban oasis invites nature lovers to linger.

Rock Creek Park

Leave the urban noise behind as you explore Rock Creek Park’s lush landscape. Hike, bike, or ride horseback over 32 miles of pathways that wind over hills, through forests, along streams, and across scenic bridges. Or take to the water for a leisurely punt on the Potomac.

While you’re there, you’re bound to encounter the past at several historical sites, including old grist mills and the site of the Civil War battle at Fort Stevens—take time to explore.

Feeling refreshed? Head back to town to add more notches to your Washington, DC, sightseeing belt.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Admit it, science nerds: You’ve been waiting for the unveiling of the “reimagined” Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. One of DC’s 19 Smithsonian museums, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum welcomes millions of visitors each year. Good news: the big reveal is set for the fall of 2022, and its updated version promises some fantastic new permanent exhibits.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Explore a treasure trove of legendary air and spacecraft, including Charles Lindbergh’s iconic Spirit of St. Louis. Learn about the history of flight invention and innovation at the Wright Brothers exhibit – then zoom into the story of space exploration at the Destination Moon exhibit, featuring the first-ever public display of the Apollo 11 command module Columbia.

Grab a seat in the Einstein Planetarium or IMAX theater for out-of-this-world viewing. Want to fly without leaving the ground? Amazing immersive flight simulators will put you in the cockpit and launch you into space. 

Lincoln Memorial 

If you’re feeling a magnetic pull to Washington, DC, it’s probably coming from the Lincoln Memorial. An iconic site that draws millions of people, this awe-inspiring monument honors one of the most beloved Presidents in American history: Abraham Lincoln. 

Lincoln Memorial 

Completed in 1922, this neoclassical temple is rich in symbolism. An intertwining rope of laurel carved into its top represents national unity, and Its 36 Doric columns represent the 36 states in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death. Not surprisingly, the Lincoln Memorial has hosted landmark historical events, including Martin Luther King, Jr.’s unforgettable “I Have A Dream” speech.

Overlooking it all: the magnificent 19-foot-tall marble depiction of the man himself. Read the words of the famous Gettysburg address carved into the wall behind him. Marvel at the amazingly lifelike details of Lincoln’s deeply-etched face, and the steadfast gaze that looks out to the horizon.

Prepare to be moved.

US Capitol Building

If you want to take the national pulse, put the US Capitol Building on your list of must-see tourist attractions in Washington, DC. Steeped in history, this magnificent building dates back to 1793, when President George Washington laid the cornerstone.

US Capitol Building

Set on Capitol Hill, the US Capitol Building is home to the House of Representatives, where laws are written, presidents are inaugurated, and State of the Union addresses are delivered.

And it’s a visual knockout that will delight architecture aficionados. Topped by the bronze Statue of Freedom, its massive 287-foot cast-iron dome towers over magnificent Corinthian columns, sweeping lawns, and a beautiful reflecting pool.

Step inside and take in the ceiling’s exquisite fresco images, then stroll the hallways to view historic statues, paintings, and exhibits. Marvel at the Rotunda, the Capitol’s imposing ceremonial heart. And of course, try to snag a seat in the visitors’ gallery when Congress is in session to take in some lively political cut-and-thrust.  

Meridian Hill Park

Want to bask in rustic beauty without leaving the city? Then you’ll want to savor the pleasures of Meridian Hill Park. Nestled in Rock Creek Park, this outdoor space is rich in history and one of the most interesting places to see in Washington, DC, for nature lovers. Originally the home of departing President John Quincy Adams in 1829, the site later became a camp for Union troops during the Civil War.

Meridian Hill Park

Today, Meridian Hill Park is a National Historic Landmark featuring a gorgeous green space and formal Italian-style gardens. And it boasts a stunning centerpiece: a man-made waterfall. This eye-popping art installation sends water tumbling down a series of 13 massive stone steps, making it the longest cascading fountain in North America.

Explore the park’s beautiful 12 acres and you’ll discover statues of historic figures like Joan of Arc and Dante. Unpack a picnic. Stop by on a Sunday afternoon, and you’ll catch the park’s weekly drumming circle. Feel the beat! 

Mount Vernon

You don’t have to be a history nerd to crave an inside look at the life of the first American president, George Washington. Get the big picture at Mount Vernon, his home and final resting place.

Mount Vernon

Set on the Potomac River in Fairfax County, Virginia, Washington’s 21-room mansion is one of the most iconic 18th-century homes in America. Presiding over 7,000 acres, Mount Vernon is a masterpiece of design. But it came at a cost: the opulent home and grounds were maintained for decades by the labor of slaves.

Book ahead for a guided tour of the mansion’s interior during the busy summer season. Browse 23 galleries featuring hundreds of artifacts and Colonial artworks.

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Experience interactive exhibits, visit the Education Center, and explore the site’s powerful museum for sobering insights into the lives of George Washington, his family, and Mount Vernon’s enslaved population.

Union Market

Want to meet the funky new kid on the block? Then saunter over to Union Market, and get acquainted. Set in Washington, DC’s trendy NoMa neighborhood, this multitasker puts a new spin on the wining/dining/shopping experience.

This isn’t your grandma’s farmer’s market! Set in a repurposed warehouse, Union Market houses over 30 artisans and boutiques offering everything from Korean tacos to icy gelato. Six days a week, you can browse a diverse array of local and imported goods ranging from coffee to fine cheeses, and flowers to spices.

The tone at Union Market is upscale and trendy, making it a popular spot with young professionals and families. Sip on a glass of wine, nibble on some tasty finger food, hang out and people watch. Check out the market’s monthly lectures, gospel choir brunches, and happy hour specials for unique treats.

International Spy Museum

Up for some cloak-and-dagger adventure? Slip on a trench coat and slide over to the International Spy Museum, a tribute to all things espionage. One of the coolest places to go in Washington, DC, this one-of-a-kind destination serves up the largest collection of international espionage artifacts ever displayed in public.

International Spy Museum

Explore a mind-boggling array of spy toys ranging from a lethal KGB “lipstick pistol” to the spectacular “Bond Car” of the silver screen (complete with ejector seat).

The International Spy Museum will take you on a fascinating journey through the history of spying. Delve into scintillating cases ranging from the Elizabethan court intrigues to Cold War espionage to 21st-century cyber warfare.

Dare to take a walk on the dark side. Learn how to assume a new identity and use the tricks of the trade at the museum’s “spy school”. Get a cover ID, then test your spying chops at interactive exhibits throughout the museum. (And don’t blow your cover!)

Nationals Park

Take yourself out to the ball game … and catch Abraham Lincoln rounding third base. Well, sort of. “Honest Abe” is just one of the entertaining mascots you’ll spot at Nationals Park in Washington, DC.

Nationals Park

Home to the Washington Nationals, this stadium is a unique blend of the conventional and contemporary.  Built in 2008, eco-friendly Nationals Park has become the showpiece of a revitalized waterfront district — so check out the neighborhood!

Baseball may be the stadium’s bread and butter, but there’s plenty more on the menu. Check out the Nats’ calendar for special events, food festivals, concerts, and theme nights. A kids’ play area offers everything from old-fashioned slides to virtual-reality headsets.

It’s not all about peanuts and crackerjack. You can sip a brew and chow down on goodies ranging from lobster rolls to ribs – all while keeping your eye on the ball, of course.

Arlington National Cemetery

Take a short drive from Washington, DC, for a deep dive into history at Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery, one of the most famous burial grounds in the world. Dating back to the Civil War, this legacy site honors hundreds of thousands of lives and tops the list of what to do in Washington, DC, for military history buffs.

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for both Armed Forces members and civilians. Among the most-visited graves are those of non-military notables, including Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy, whose gravesite is marked by an eternal flame.

Pay your respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a striking neoclassical structure that overlooks Capitol Hill. Explore the impressive memorial amphitheater, which houses a memorial chapel and display room featuring historic exhibits.

Beautifully landscaped and dotted with flowing fountains, Arlington National Cemetery is a perfect spot for quiet reflection.

Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

If you’re a culture vulture hungry for arts and entertainment, you’ll get your fill at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Hosting over 2,000 events a year, this is the place to satisfy your aesthetic appetites. Home to multiple venues, including theaters, concert halls, and opera houses, this vibrant cultural hub draws a wonderfully diverse crowd and is one of the top points of interest in Washington, DC.

Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Showcasing disciplines ranging from classical music to modern dance, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts features something for everyone. Thrill to the sounds of the National Symphony Orchestra, or catch some bottled lightning from the Dance Theater of Harlem. Snag a seat at a fresh-from-Broadway play or musical.

Itching to act? Check out the workshops and interactive experiences for kids and adults. Post-performance, adjourn to the venue’s lovely wine garden. Or head up to the rooftop terrace, savor a libation, and enjoy a breathtaking view of the Potomac.

Dupont Underground

Washington, DC, is known for its impressive museums and art galleries, but here’s a (truly) hidden gem that invites you to dig in. Go deep at Dupont Underground.

Set in a repurposed underground trolley station, this 15,000-square-foot space below Dupont Circle is an unlikely arts platform. But this dark horse is a winner with art aficionados who relish the unexpected.

Dupont Underground is a thought-provoking showcase for a diverse collective of creatives. Highlighting the work of local artists, it features everything from painting to photography, epic graffiti to light show installations.

Exhibitions change regularly – so dig in and explore, or book a tour through The Dupont Underground website. This could be your “aha” moment!

Theodore Roosevelt Island

Want to beat the Washington heat? Get off the grid and chill out on Theodore Roosevelt Island. You can thank “Teddy” Roosevelt – the country’s 26th president – for this beautiful sanctuary.  

Theodore Roosevelt Island

Set in the middle of the Potomac River, Theodore Roosevelt Island was home to the Nacotchtank people over 4,000 years ago. Their vibrant hunting & fishing culture was devastated by the arrival of European settlers, but centuries later, the landscape was nurtured back to life. It was named to honor Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman, early conservationist, and founder of the National Park Service.

Today, the island is chock-full of pristine trails that wander through wooded uplands and swampy bottomlands. It’s a haven for over 200 bird species (Teddy loved birds), so bring your binoculars for spectacular viewing.

This piece of paradise is strictly biped. Lace up those hiking boots!

Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens

Looking for a tranquil haven where you can breathe deep? Then treat yourself to a sojourn in Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens. Nestled in the tidal marshland of the Anacostia River, this peaceful oasis will give you a second wind.

After suffering the impacts of the industrial revolution, these pristine wetlands are enjoying a new lease on life. Today, Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens is a rich ecosystem spread across 700 acres, and home to exotic water gardens, forests, and recreational fields.

Stroll the boardwalks that traverse the teeming marshes. Savor the sight of lotuses rising from the water and lilies floating atop the ponds. Keep your binoculars handy; this is a popular neighborhood for beavers, turtles, and waterfowl.

Up for some human company? Chill out at a picnic table, or check out a range of alfresco activities, including yoga, tai chi, painting, and live music.

Tudor Place

History buffs: looking for a worthy addition to your bucket list? Place a checkmark beside Tudor Place, one of the last remaining estates from Washington, DC’s Colonial period. Set on over five acres atop the crest of historic Georgetown, this National Historic Site preserves the stories of six generations of Martha Washington’s family and the enslaved people who lived and worked there.

If the appearance is grand, there’s a reason: Tudor House was built by the same architect that created the Capitol Building. Outside, you’ll want to stroll the estate’s lush 19th-century gardens and navigate its intricate labyrinth of hedges.

Inside, the mansion has been converted into a museum, complete with opulent vintage furnishings. Take time to peruse a wealth of artifacts, archives, and works of art, including the largest Washington Collection outside of Mount Vernon. 

United States Botanic Garden

Had your fill of city greige? Then check out some green at the United States Botanic Garden, the oldest botanical garden in the country. The brainchild of George Washington, the garden is meant to showcase both the beauty and practical value of plant life – and make the case for conservation.

United States Botanic Garden

Home to an amazingly diverse plant population, the United States Botanic Garden fulfills Washington’s vision. Using sustainable practices, USBC cultivates over 65,000 plants for conservation, exhibition, and study. Discover an array of outdoor collections that highlight medicinal plants, orchids, carnivorous(!) plants, miniature trees, and more.

Explore the Conservatory and immerse yourself in ecosystems ranging from tropical rain forests to arid deserts. Let the kiddos loose to learn in the Children’s Garden.

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The ideal finale: stroll the landscaped paths through the beautiful three-acre National Garden as you take in amazing vistas of Capitol Hill. Horticultural heaven!

Best places to stay in Washington, DC, for sightseeing

For first-time visitors, the best places to stay in Washington, DC, fall in & around Downtown DC, including Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, and Foggy Bottom. These areas are home to most of the city’s top hotels and the main points of interest. 

Hotel Madera

Hotel Madera

Escape the busy streets of DC by spending your nights at the Hotel Madera. Set on a quiet tree-lined street just two blocks from Dupont Circle, this hotel features spacious rooms with soothing tons and delicate textures for your relaxation. Within walking distance of the hotel, you’ll find a slew of restaurants, bars, boutique shops, and art galleries.

Eaton DC

Eaton DC

If you’ve got a creative streak, a stay at the Eaton DC is a must. With its design-forward concept, this popular 4-star hotel offers cozy accommodations and private and shared co-working spaces. Music fans will love the in-room record players with curated vinyl selections, while readers will dig the curated libraries. End the day with a craft cocktail at the hotel’s on-site speakeasy, Allegory.

The Hay - Adams

The Hay-Adams

Operating for almost a century, the Hay-Adams is a must-stay for history buffs looking to add a dash of luxury to their historic sightseeing plans. The 5-star hotel takes your comfort seriously, adding luxurious extras like goose-down pillows to their palette of elegant decor. Unwind in the evening at Top of the Hay, the hotel’s wraparound roof terrace, featuring panoramic views of the White House and Lafayette Square.

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