The 25 Best Things to See and Do in Washington D.C.

Things to do in Washington DC
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Are you looking for things to see in Washington D.C. during your upcoming visit? It’s important to know what’s big inside the Beltway right now if you want to put together an itinerary that offers it all! Take a look at the 25 things you simply must see, experience and do in Washington D.C. during your trip.

America’s capital happens to also be a global tourism capital. There is so much culture, history and fun to be enjoyed during a visit to Washington. The first thing that will strike you about Washington is the way such an old, history-filled place can have such a young, fresh energy.

You’ll become hypnotized by the way silky cherry blossoms come to life in the shadow of the Potomac as you make your way to world-famous monuments and world-class museums. You’ll enjoy the way party lines seem to blur when the movers and shakers of Washington show up to party at the capital’s top bars and clubs after dark.

Your appetite for history will be eclipsed only by your appetite for the latest culinary trends when you check out Washington’s famed food trucks.

What to do in Washington DC ? Best 25 things to do in Washington DC

One of the things that will delight you is the fact that there is so much to do in Washington D.C. that is free and open to the public. You’ll quickly discover that this is one of the top spots to visit if you like the thought of getting from place to place on foot or via public transportation.

You’ll also love the way it’s so easy to mix pillars of American history with ultra-modern art, nightclubs and eateries while putting together an itinerary full of things to see in Washington D.C. Start planning your trip today!

1. Visit the International Spy Museum

Do you want to check out an attraction that’s generating tons of buzz right now? The International Spy Museum at L’Enfant Plaza is a spot where you can live out your fantasy of diving into a world of international espionage.

This high-tech museum is just a stone’s throw away from the National Mall. You will enter a world full of spy artifacts, tidbits from top intelligence officers and interactive stations. This fun museum should definitely make your list of things to see in Washington D.C. if you love mystery and intrigue. Get your International Spy Museum skip-the-line ticket in advance.

2. Tour the National Mall

A visit to the National Mall is pretty much mandatory if you find yourself in Washington for any amount of time. Most of the iconic memorials and monuments in the nation’s capital are positioned in or near the National Mall.

The U.S. Capitol, the White House, Smithsonian museums and many more landmarks will be within arm’s length when you hang out here. This long, grassy stretch of land is essentially the heart of Washington. Make visiting the National Mall the one thing you do in Washington D.C. if you only have a few hours!

Book your National Mall Tour here.

3. Enjoy Some Presidential Splendour at the Lincoln Memorial

What to see in Washington

The Lincoln Memorial is a quintessential Washington attraction that belongs on every itinerary of things to see in Washington D.C. during a trip. A visit to this free attraction offers opportunities to ponder the greatness of one of the greatest presidents while gazing at breathtaking Doric columns.

The words of the famous Gettysburg Address are etched into the opposing walls at the memorial. It’s always a good time to visit the Lincoln Memorial. However, many people prefer to visit at night when the memorial is all lit up.

4. Take in the Beauty of the Tidal Basin

Do you want to know about one of the most magical spots to see in Washington D.C. for your upcoming visit? There is nothing quite like seeing pops of color from the cherry blossoms lining Washington’s Tidal Basin in the spring. The Tidal Basin is a stunning reservoir that links the Potomac River and the Washington Channel with its shimmering waters.

This spot is a focal point of the National Cherry Blossom Festival that attracts visitors from around the world each spring. The beautiful cherry trees that populate the area around the Tidal Basin were actually gifted to the United States by Tokyo.

Exploring the basin area by foot is always fun. However, you’ll want to consider renting a paddle boat if you really want to soak in the beauty of this gem.

5. See the Sweeter Side of Washington at Georgetown Cupcake

Do the politics of Washington leave a bitter taste in your mouth? See the sweeter side of Washington at famous Georgetown Cupcake. This establishment is widely regarded as the best cupcake spot in the capital. What’s more, this beloved cupcake shop was even the subject of a TLC show for a few seasons.

6. See the Top Memorials and Monuments

What to do in Washington

The Lincoln Memorial is highlighted as being a standout spot to visit. However, it is far from the only memorial you’re going to want to see while visiting Washington. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the other must-see spots to hit when hanging around the National Mall in search of iconic memorials and monuments:

  • The Thomas Jefferson Memorial.
  • The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.
  • The Korean War Veterans Memorial.
  • The World War II Memorial.
  • The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.

Most outdoor monuments and memorials are open around the clock. However, official hours often apply. You will need to keep in mind that you may have limited access or be unable to ask questions to official guides if you choose to visit monuments after official hours.

Experience the sights of Washington D.C. by night! Book your Washington DC Guided Night Tour here.

7. Get a Taste of Nature in the Bustling Capital

Did you know that there’s actually so much nature to see in Washington D.C. during a visit? Mount Vernon Trail is a slice of serenity in the middle of what just might be the craziest place in the country!

This 18-mile trail goes from George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate to Theodore Roosevelt Island. The paved trail is easy to walk or bike. Mount Vernon Trail isn’t the only place within Washington where you can escape to nature. Here’s a rundown of the best nature spots you’ll want to see in Washington D.C. during your trip:

  • Hains Point.
  • Wheaton Regional Park.
  • Rock Creek Park.
  • Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.
  • Theodore Roosevelt Island.
  • Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens.

A spot like Hains Point on the Potomac offers green spaces and views of planes taking off from Reagan National Airport. Of course, you will probably want to add a trip to the National Arboretum to your list of things to do in Washington D.C. if you have a soft spot for green spaces.

Visitors can roam the grounds in search of robust plant collections and lush gardens. This breathtaking spot is actually operated by the United States Department of Agriculture. The grounds of the National Arboretum are open every day of the year except for Dec. 25. The popular National Bonsai and Penjing Museum is located within the National Arboretum.

8. See Where Laws Come to Life at the U.S. Capitol

Capitol Washington

Do you want to see the actual building where the laws and policies that impact your life are decided? The U.S. Capitol is where it all happens! A tour of the Capitol building is one of the most exciting things you can do in Washington D.C. during a vacation.

The famous Capitol rotunda is the centerpiece of the U.S. Capitol. You can admire the rotunda’s famed cast-iron dome and view frescoes and sculptures during your tour.

See also: Where to stay in Washington DC: Best areas and neighborhoods

9. Visit Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia

Arlington National Cemetery is actually located across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia. However, this landmark is a must-see spot for any Washington itinerary. Arlington National Cemetery serves as the final resting spot for more than 400,000 service members and veterans.

Be sure to find your way to the grave of John F. Kennedy and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during your visit to this important landmark. Arlington National Cemetery provides an app that allows you to find the locations of specific graves very easily.

Arlington Cemetery Station is the official Metro stop of the cemetery. Book your Cemetery Ticket and Trolley Tour.

10. Say Hello to America’s Beloved Critters at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

The Smithsonian operates a world-class zoo that will educate and delight you during your visit. This campus of the zoo covers 163 acres and houses 1,500 animals. Of course, the zoo is probably most famous among young people today for being home to a panda called Bei Bei.

It is possible to drive to the zoo. However, most guests skip the congested and pricey parking situation by simply using the Metro Red Line to reach the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan station.

11. Marvel at the Washington Monument

Best things to do in Washington DC

The Washington Monument was actually the tallest structure in the world after it was completed in 1884. It still stands as one of the tallest buildings in existence based on significance alone!

Hop inside a glass-encased elevator to enjoy 360-degree views of Washington from the top of an observation deck. Rangers are available daily to assist and answer questions during operating hours. However, you can visit the Washington Monument around the clock.

12. Experience the Vibrant Washington Nightlife Scene

A place that works hard also needs to play hard. That’s probably why Washington has such an amazing nightlife scene. What are some of the best bars and clubs to visit while staying in Washington? Here’s a rundown of the nightlife spots that are really hot with the capital’s after-dark crowd right now:

  • Eighteenth Street Lounge.
  • Tryst.
  • The Park at 14th.
  • UltraBar.
  • POV.
  • Citron.
  • Heist.
  • Tropicalia.
  • Russia House Restaurant and Lounge.

Don’t be surprised to spot some well-known celebrities or talking heads from cable news sauntering in when you hang out at any of these clubs. You should keep in mind that each club in Washington seems to have its own rules for etiquette and dress code. Be sure to do your research before you show up for a night of fun!

13. Chase Down Some of the Famous Food Trucks of Washington

In addition to being a political capital, Washington is also a foodie capital! Exercise your right to chow down by chasing down some of the famous food trucks of Washington. Here’s a list of some of the top food trucks to look for:

  • Abunai.
  • Millie’s Spring Valley.
  • Swizzler.
  • PhoWheels.
  • CapMac.
  • Puddin’.

The best food trucks are typically found in areas with tons of offices. It’s hard to say which curb you’ll find your favorite truck at on any given day. You can typically track down the food truck you’re looking for by checking websites or social media accounts.

14. Experience Fine Art at the National Gallery of Art

Calling all art lovers! The National Gallery of Art houses works from Matisse, Botticelli, Monet and more! This gallery is truly a national treasure. Spending an entire afternoon getting lost in the wonderful collections inside the National Gallery is one of the best things to do in Washington D.C. if you’re an art lover.

Don’t forget to take breaks to grab some lunch or coffee at one of the gallery’s five bars and cafés. You will want to stop in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden if you’re coming for a visit on a Friday in the summer.

The garden hosts live jazz from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Friday evenings during the summer season. The gallery is served by the Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter station.

15. Step Back in Time at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is a powerhouse attraction. This stunning museum contains an astonishing 126 million artifacts! Many people know the museum for its replicas of giant whales and other creatures.

The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins is another impressive feature within the museum. This is where life-sized models of early humans are on display. In addition, the world-famous National Fossil Hall houses one of the most impressive collections of dinosaur fossils in the world.

16. See the Living Documents of American History at the National Archives Museum

One of the best things you can do in Washington D.C. is to see the documents that serve as the foundation for life as we know it in the United States. The National Archives Museum houses the country’s founding documents. Here’s a rundown of the documents that are contained within the museum:

  • The Declaration of Independence.
  • The Constitution and Bill of Rights.
  • A surviving copy of the Magna Carta.
  • A surviving copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The National Archives Museum is fun for all ages. There are actually several interactive exhibits to enjoy during a visit. It’s easy to get to the museum using the Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter station via the Green Line or Yellow Line.

17. See the White House in Person

White House Washington

Do you want to visit the most famous address in the country? Make your way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to see the White House with your own eyes. The White House has served as the home of every president since John Adams.

Some planning is required if you’d like to take a tour of the White House. You will need to contact the office of your senator or representative at least 21 days in advance to arrange your visit. The website of the White House has specific instructions for arranging your visit.

18. Get Your Music Fix at 9:30 Club

A visit to Washington doesn’t have to be a deep dive solely into American history. You can also dive into music history while touring the nation’s capital. A spot in the U Street corridor of northwest Washington called 9:30 Club is just the place to do that!

This venue has hosted iconic acts like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Public Enemy and Nirvana during its long history. Check out the club’s website ahead of time to see which act you can get close to when you show up for a show.

19. Get Spiritual at the Washington National Cathedral

The high vaults, flying buttresses, stained-glass windows, stony gargoyles and manicured gardens of the Washington National Cathedral should be enough to get any architecture lover excited. Of course, this beautiful spot isn’t just good for tours. You can show up for one of three Sunday-morning services to worship.

20. Spend Some Time at District Wharf

District Wharf Washington

Treat yourself to some time at the spot where Washington meets the water. District Wharf represents the trendy, current side of the capital. The waterfront area offers amazing opportunities for dining and shopping.

Many of the trendier hotels in Washington are situated here. In addition, the neighborhood offers a handful of piers that continuously host fairs, festivals, public events and live music.

21. Visit the Municipal Fish Market

You don’t have to dig into politics to know that something is fishy in Washington! The Municipal Fish Market features some of the top fish vendors in the world. You’ll find both raw catches and prepared seafood dishes at this iconic spot. Washington’s Municipal Fish Market is the oldest continuously operating open-air fish market in the country.

22. Do Some Ice Skating During a Wintertime Visit

Several ice rinks pop up in neighborhoods around Washington once the Canadian winds blow in for the winter season. All of Washington puts the political arguments on ice for a bit once everybody laces up their skates! Here’s a rundown of the best spots for ice skating in Washington:

  • National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden Ice Rink.
  • Washington Harbour Ice Rink.
  • The Wharf Ice Rink.
  • The Watergate Hotel’s Top of the Skate.
  • Canal Park Ice Rink.

Each of these popular venues will offer you amazing views and ambiance. Skating venues can sometimes change things up from year to year. You’ll want to confirm hours and pricing before showing up to skate.

23. Visit Some Kid-Friendly Attractions in Washington

It can be easy to think that Washington is all about politics and adult interests. However, the reality is that the nation’s capital can be an educational playground for kids. We’re talking about finding everything from fun playgrounds to historic carousels! Here’s a rundown of some of the best kid-friendly attractions in Washington:

  • The Air and Space Museum.
  • Discovery Theater.
  • Glen Echo Park.
  • The National Building Museum.
  • Wheaton Regional Park.

You don’t need to be a kid to enjoy any of these attractions. The truth is that even kid-friendly attractions in Washington are fun for adults. In fact, these spots can be great for decompressing after a day of touring!

24. Visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Holocaust Museum Washington
Kamira/Shutterstock

A visit to Washington serves as an opportunity to explore some of the most significant chapters of American history. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is a place where you can explore one of the darkest chapters of human history.

Visitors of the museum are assigned identification cards that allow them to walk in the footsteps of people who experienced the Holocaust.

25. Get Your Festival Fix

There is so much to do in Washington D.C. throughout the year if you happen to love festivals and fairs. In fact, Washington is an epicenter for festivals. A number of world-famous celebrations of food, music, art and history roll into town throughout the year. Here’s a glance at some of Washington’s top festivals:

  • The Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
  • The Chesapeake Oyster, Wine and Beer Festival.
  • By the People.
  • The Adams Morgan Day Festival.
  • Nightmare Festival.
  • DC State Fair.
  • The DC Jazz Festival.
  • Zoo Uncorked.
  • Oktoberfest.
  • American Film Institute’s International Film Festival (AFI Docs).
  • The Giant National Capital Barbecue Battle.
  • DC Wine Fest.
  • Capital Fringe Festival.
  • Colonial Market and Fair.
  • The H Street Festival.
  • ZooFiesta.
  • The 17th Street Festival.
  • Taste of Georgetown.
  • Truckeroo.
  • Snallygaster.
  • The DC Mac + Cheese Festival.
  • ZooLights at the Smithsonian National Zoo.

Keep in mind that new festivals and events are popping up in the city each year. In addition, recurring festivals sometimes change dates and venues. Be sure to confirm dates and locations before you arrive.

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