Perched on the East Coast, Washington, D.C. is a pretty incredible city to visit if you’re looking to explore one of the best cities in the USA. Not only is it the capital, but it’s also got a ton of charm, history and a hoard of cultural sights that can’t be missed. This is exactly why I wanted to share with you my favourite and some of the best things to do in Washington D.C. during your next trip.
Yeah, it’s a pretty well-known city, but it’s not always the first choice of cities to visit in the US, especially from an international perspective. It’s so easy to just think of New York, San Francisco or the likes of Miami (which are all amazing) but there really is something special that can’t be missed about Washington D.C., too.
After visiting for 5-days (or so), I really came to appreciate how much diversity and history is packed into this relatively small city. After all, it’s got an epic mix of museums, galleries, foodie joints and Georgetown to explore!
Anyway, this is the main reason why I wanted to share my top tips and the best things to do in Washingon D.C. on your next trip.
Take a look, below, at the best things to do in Washingon D.C. – have the best trip!
1.) The National Mall
Okay, let’s get the obvious out the way first… it’s not a shopping mall! 😂
The National Mall is essentially the place where everything government, monuments and museums are located. This all made it one of the first areas I headed to when looking for the best things to do in Washingon D.C.
Honestly, you could spend days just exploring this whole area and the museums.
Now, the mall itself is a long strip of the grassy park and, I suppose, water area, which stretches from the Capitol building in the east to the Lincoln Memorial in the west.
Once here, there are plenty of pathways to walk down as you make your way along the Mall, so be sure to see as much as you can.
For a tasty dinner (although higher priced), head to the Kinship Restaurant. They make the most delicious truffle pasta and it’s such a gorgeous place.
2.) U.S. Capitol
Home of the U.S. legislature, the Capitol building is full of lawmakers and politicians that help decide what goes on in the country.
Better still, It’s one building that we (as visitors) can still go into and tour to get a little taste of what goes on.
Now, for tours of the Capitol, you can contact your state Senator or Representative (if you’re based in the US), who will give you a pass that allows access to the building.
Alternatively, you can purchase tickets at a kiosk outside the building, which will include an official tour. All the information on how to get the tickets are here.
Though, be warned, queues do form if you’re picking up tickets on the day. Oh, and there isn’t a limitless supply!
3.) Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is both the world’s largest library and the oldest cultural institution in the whole of the United States. Housing more something like 160-million items (which, I didn’t count), it officially serves as the research library for Congress.
Various exhibitions and galleries can also be found here, showing some of the best collections in the Library. Different talks and lectures take place here frequently, and there is also a giant, beautiful reading room, too.
It really is one of the best things to do in Washington D.C. for sure!
4.) Smithsonian Museums
With 18 institutions in Washington D.C. alone, I’m almost certain you’re going to find a Smithsonian Museum which interests you!
Now, during my visit, I didn’t manage to see them all (they’re huge) but do a little research and find a few that you’d be really interested in and focus your time on them.
A few of the most popular museums would; the National Air and Space Museum, the Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of American History.
Since these three are located right on the Mall, it makes for easy access if you’re already in the area. Oh, and don’t forget the African American History and Culture Museum, the American Art Museum, and the National Zoological Park, too.
For a complete listing of the museums available, head to the Smithsonian website to plan your time. Honestly, there seems like there are not enough hours in the day for all of these – so plan ahead!
5.) The Lincoln Memorial
No trip to Washington D.C. would be complete without visiting Abe Lincoln on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial!
Certainly one of the most iconic memorials in the city, the Lincoln Memorial sits at the west end of the National Mall, just on the edge of the Potomac River.
Once you’ve taken your picture with the seated, marble version of the nation’s 16th President, be sure to turn around to take in the gorgeous views of the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument.
Now, it does get pretty busy, so if you want to miss most of the crowds, head across early in the morning when you start your day.
6.) International Spy Museum
Fancy yourself as an American James Bond? Yeah, then get yourself over to the International Spy Museum.
Jokes aside, the museum houses the largest collection of espionage items in the world and offers a uniquely global perspective on the importance and impact of spies in society and politics.
With plenty of exhibitions and interactive displays and even a lipstick pistol from 1965, it’s a pretty interesting place to explore.
Though, honestly, if you’re not too interested in spy-stuff, then you might wanna give this spot a miss. Afterwards, head across to one of the best Ethiopian restaurants, Keren. Honestly, I’ve had some of the tastiest Ethiopian food in D.C. and this place is good!
7. Alexandria, Virginia
Technically not in Washington D.C at all, Alexandria is right across the river, and certainly worth a trip!
This beautiful old colonial town is an easy place to visit from Washington D.C and is the perfect spot to escape the more serious parts of Washington D.C.
Once here, make sure to spend some time strolling the cosy old streets and little stores, too. You see, the area is known for its 18th and 19th-century architecture, tasty restaurants, boutiques, and its arts and culture scene to boot!
Oh yeah, and If you feel like making an extra trip a little further south, be sure to check out Mount Vernon. It’s the former estate of the nation’s first president, George Washington.
8.) The White House
A trip to the nation’s capital just wouldn’t seem complete without a visit to the White House, would it?
With its famous address of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House is the primary living and working space of the President of the United States.
Anyone can stand outside the property’s gates (which I did) and marvel at the imposing structure, but getting inside is a little trickier! For obvious reasons, security here is tight.
If you want to be able to actually go inside the White House and tour it, you have to submit a tour request through your Member of Congress (if you’re based in the US).
Though, if you’re not from the U.S. you should contact your country’s embassy in Washington, D.C., for help with submitting a tour request. This is by no means guaranteed so don’t get your hopes up! As a British citizen, the British Embassy won’t accommodate requests for tours due to the resources required to organise. 😭
Just shy of the Lincoln Memorial (about 800-metres), is the neighbourhood of Georgetown. For me, exploring this historic spot is easily one of the best things to do in Washington D.C. especially if you love a more historic district.
Once here, make sure to spend some time wandering the cobbled streets and exploring the historic houses that make up this stunning little area. It’s all really easy to explore by foot and a totally great way to spend a lazy afternoon.
After having a little wander (especially around M street), stop off at the Old Stonehouse, explore the Dumbarton Oaks Museum, see the Francis Scott Memorial Park and the C & O Canal, too.
Oh yeah, and there’s a heap of little boutiques to shop until your heart’s content!
For a bite to eat, grab a bite to eat at Martin’s Tavern for their tasty brunch. Alternatively, head to Bistrot Lepic which is a cosy French restaurant that is amazing for dinner.
10.) National Gallery of Art
Free of charge, the National Gallery of Art is easily one of the best things to do in Washington D.C. if you love art. Better still, it’s huge and is more or less a massive library of every type of art you could ever imagine.
The gallery itself has a heap of history that traces western art way back from the middle-ages! Plus, it’s the only place in the whole of the Americas that houses an original painting by Leonardo da Vinci.
Once here, don’t forget to see Vincent van Gogh’s self-portrait, spot Pablo Picasso’s Still Life and see Henri Rousseau’s, The Equatorial Jungle.
Just like most major cities in the United States, Washington D.C. has a bustling (but pretty small) Chinatown area to explore in the city. Now, it’s not the most extensive Chinatown district, but it’s well worth a gander for the Chinatown Gate if you’re interested.
One thing to note, if you’ve come from cities like Vancouver or New York, you’ll likely find this Chinatown un-impressive. I personally say this as it’s not got the most extensive streets of Chinese restaurants, businesses or sites but it’s still okay for a quick walkthrough if you’re in the area.
12.) Washington National Cathedral
Based on a neo-gothic design (similar to the Houses of Parliament in London), it’s probably one of the most iconic cathedrals within the District of Columbia.
After wandering around the iconic building, make sure to see the Rose Window that was placed here around 50-years ago in the presence of the president, Jimmy Carter and Queen Elizabeth II!
It’s a great place to see, especially if you love iconic architecture and grand buildings.
13.) United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is one of the cities spots you have to visit. It’s a place that shines a light in the most horrendous acts that have happened during the Holocaust and is a touching and emotional place that will leave a lasting impact on you.
Once here, make sure to visit The Hall of Remembrance and see the exhibitions that show us why we always have to disown hatred and the atrocities of genocide and inequality. Honestly, it’s a ‘hard’ place to visit but something that we should never forget.
14.) Ford’s Theatre
Although pretty macabre, Ford’s Theatre has become something of a spot to see whilst exploring the best things to do in Washington D.C.
You see, it’s the site where, the then sitting President, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Today, you can visit Ford’s Theatre and explore the theatre itself (or see a show). You can check the calendar of events, here.