Top 12 Things To Do in Washington DC

Last Updated on February 13, 2024 by Emily Johnson

Washington DC is the capital of the United States and a vibrant, historic city with countless sites to see and activities to enjoy. As the seat of government and home to iconic landmarks, world-class museums, and cultural attractions, DC offers something for everyone.

ActivityDescription
National Mall & Memorial ParksExplore iconic landmarks and museums along a scenic park.
Smithsonian MuseumsVisit world-class museums and galleries for diverse interests.
Monument & Memorial TourReflect at various memorials and monuments throughout DC.
Library of CongressDiscover the world’s largest library and its collections.
US Capitol TourLearn about US government operations with a Capitol Hill tour.
DC’s Food SceneExperience the city’s eclectic food offerings from local to international cuisines.
Kennedy Center EventsAttend free performances and events at this renowned center.
National ArchivesSee the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.
Ford’s TheatreEnjoy performances at this historic theatre where Lincoln was assassinated.
Historic Homes & GardensExplore the history and beauty of DC’s historic homes and gardens.
Art GalleriesDiscover art across modern and classical galleries outside Smithsonian.
Rock Creek ParkRelax in nature with trails, historic sites, and a nature center.

From touring the national monuments to experiencing the local food scene, DC guarantees memorable experiences.

Visit the National Mall and Memorial Parks

Name and Location: The National Mall and Memorial Parks encompass iconic DC greenspace between the U.S. Capitol Building and Lincoln Memorial.

History and Significance: As the heart of the city and site of historic speeches and marches, the National Mall represents democracy and freedom, bordered by monuments honoring leaders and veterans.

What to Expect: Enjoy walking or biking along tree-lined paths viewing sites like the Washington Monument and war memorials. Attend festivals or events on the Capitol lawn or sit by the reflecting pool reflecting at this historic public commons.

Visitor Information: Free. Always open. Closest Metro stops include Smithsonian and Federal Triangle. Bikes, scooters, and pedicabs available for rental.

The National Mall is a national park lining the space between the Lincoln Memorial and Capitol Building, containing some of the most recognizable landmarks in the country. A walk along the park provides jaw-dropping views straight down to the US Capitol, with opportunities for visiting Smithsonian museums bordering the sides.

Some must-see stops include the Washington Monument – an impressive 555-foot marble obelisk honoring the nation’s first president. Continue along to view the World War II Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and more. Don’t miss seeing the Lincoln Memorial with its 19-foot seated Lincoln statue overlooking the Reflecting Pool.

Explore the Many Smithsonian Museums

Name and Location: The 19 Smithsonian museums feature various themed-exhibits mostly lining the National Mall at no cost.

History and Significance: These world-class, ever-evolving museums enlighten visitors on topics from aviation to zoo animals with many showcasing iconic American artifacts donated or acquired over 173 years.

What to Expect: Expand your knowledge and interest through diverse galleries and hands-on learning. Popular options include Air and Space, American History, African American History, Natural History, and the National Zoo.

Visitor Information: All museums offer free entry. Hours range widely from 10am–5:30pm. Some remain open into the evening.

With 17 free museums, galleries and a zoo, the Smithsonian Institution offers something educational and inspiring for all interests and ages. From Air and Space to Natural History to African American History, spend days wandering the halls taking in the arts, science, history and culture on display.

Don’t miss the National Museum of African American History featuring stories of civil rights icons, sports firsts, influential artists and pivotal moments in history. The National Air and Space Museum displays thousands of aviation and space artifacts including the 1903 Wright Flyer and Apollo Lunar Module. And the National Museum of Natural History houses an impressive collection from dinosaur fossils to gemstones.

Take a Monument and Memorial Tour

Name and Location: Iconic monuments and memorials scatter throughout the National Mall and greater DC landscape.

History and Significance: Monuments commemorating former presidents, wars, social movements and national tragedies remind visitors of impactful turning points in American history through design and symbolism.

What to Expect: Reflect while viewing famous structures like the Washington Monument obelisk, the solemn Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, massive marble Lincoln Memorial, and more, each offering unique vantage points.

Visitor Information: Free and open 24/7. Locations scattered across the central National Mall area down to the Tidal Basin.

In addition to the iconic monuments and memorials along the National Mall, spend time visiting additional landmarks scattered throughout DC. Reflect at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial featuring four outdoor “rooms” commemorating FDR’s time in office. Marvel at the Iwo Jima Memorial recreating the iconic photograph of the soldiers raising an American flag during WWII.

Visit the memorials honoring times of tragedy including the Pentagon Memorial commemorating 9/11 and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum educating about the Holocaust. Don’t miss the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery to pay respects to the nation’s veterans and military casualties.

Explore the Stunning Library of Congress

Name and Location: The Library of Congress forms the world’s largest library complex on Capitol Hill featuring diverse exhibits.

History and Significance: Originally established in 1800 as a research library for Congress, expansive collections prompting construction of several renowned buildings honoring knowledge and democracy.

What to Expect: View majestic Great Hall architecture and symbolic embellishments during a guided highlights tour. Or make free reservations for special exhibit galleries and interactive visitor experiences.

Visitor Information: Open 8:30am–4:30pm Monday–Saturday free to the public.

The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world containing over 167 million items. On a guided tour, discover the ornate Great Hall with its sculpture and painting adorned walls, the Gutenberg Bible, Thomas Jefferson’s original library, and rotating exhibits.

Plus the library offers free concerts year-round including noontime shows in the ground floor Coolidge Auditorium. The online calendar makes getting tickets easy for the diverse musical and performing arts shows. Don’t miss taking in a performance in the library’s spectacular, gilt-decorated Neoclassical interior.

Tour the United States Capitol

Name and Location: The U.S. Capitol Building serves as one of the most architecturally impressive and politically influential buildings in Washington D.C.

History and Significance: Completed in the early 1800s, the grand Capitol Building has stood as a global symbol of democracy as hosts and home to Congress and landmark events for over 200 years.

What to Expect: Guided walking tours share highlights of lavish architecture and storied history. When available, witness Congress in action by attending public sessions inside ornate chambers.

Visitor Information: Free guided tour reservations recommended via www.visitthecapitol.gov. Entry times and extra security vary.

As the meeting place of Congress, visiting the capital’s namesake landmark provides insight into how the US government functions. Book a tour exploring the historic Capitol Hill building to view the iconic Rotunda and National Statuary Hall collection. Peek into the Senate and House galleries overlooking congressional proceedings, as schedules allow.

For the best experience, contact your state’s representative or senator ahead to request gallery passes to watch Congress in session. In addition, check the calendar for exhibits like the yearly Congressional Art Competition displaying work from high school artists across the country.

Experience DC’s Food Scene

Name and Location: Washington D.C. features vibrant dining neighborhoods citywide spanning global cuisines at all price points.

History and Significance: Iconic establishments have long catered to politicians with newer chef-driven restaurants attracting foodie acclaim, catalyzing dynamic food and drink sectors reflecting regional diversity.

What to Expect: Savor Southern cooking and live music on U Street Corridor. Brunch along 14th Street’s Logan Circle. Bar hop hip happy hours on H Street. Or try avant garde tasting menus from award-winning rising star chefs.

Visitor Information: Metro accessible neighborhoods include Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, Chinatown, Barracks Row on 8th St SE, and the Wharf.

Washington DC offers an eclectic food scene with options spanning food trucks, cozy cafes, diverse eateries and Michelin star restaurants. For quintessential DC flavors, head to Ben’s Chili Bowl to try the chili-slathered half-smokes that locals crave. Taste international street food at Union Market sampling empanadas, banh mi, tacos and more from local vendors.

Go on an ethnic food tour in Columbia Heights and Northeast DC to discover Salvadoran pupusas, Ethiopian injera and curry goat from Jamaica. And don’t miss the upscale dining of renowned DC restaurants like The Inn at Little Washington and Minibar by José Andrés, specializing in elevated tasting menus and cutting-edge cuisine.

Attend Free Events at the Kennedy Center

Name and Location: The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts sits along the Potomac River hosting theater, concerts, opera, dance and more.

History and Significance: Opened in 1971 to honor President Kennedy’s support for the arts, the Kennedy Center became the US National Cultural Center, hosting tens of millions of visitors over 50 years.

What to Expect: Take free tours to learn Kennedy Center history or attend the daily 6pm free Millennium Stage performance highlighting diverse community arts groups and performers year-round.

Visitor Information: Open daily 10am–5pm for tours. Performance times vary. Metro accessible or pay parking on-site.

Overlooking the Potomac River, the Kennedy Center hosts theater, concerto and dance performances within its gleaming, Modernist-style building. While tickets to visit the concert halls, theaters and galleries require paid admission, the Kennedy Center offers many free events.

Experience free performances daily on the Millennium Stage in the Grand Foyer, featuring musical groups spanning jazz, chamber music, ballet and more. Relax at the monthly free jazz concerts in the REACH courtyard or weekly summer show series on the River Terrace. And be sure to view the vibrant murals and art installations scattered along the REACH, the Kennedy Center’s new expansion with walking paths, gardens and stages.

See Iconic Documents at the National Archives

Name and Location: The National Archives Museum displays the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights and other artifacts downtown on Constitution Avenue.

History and Significance: As the U.S. Government’s record keeper since 1934, the National Archives preserves over 10 billion pages of records, legislation, letters, maps and media documenting American history in secured, monitored storage areas onsite.

What to Expect: Glimpse the National Archives’ vaulted halls and Titanic artifacts alongside the main permanent exhibit gallery housing America’s four pages of freedom in the Charters of Freedom.

Visitor Information: Free entry. Open 10am–5:30pm daily with extended summer hours. Timed entry passes available online.

Both the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution call the National Archives home. Visit to see the founding documents’ original copies as well as view other historic records and papers.

Popular rotating exhibits range from the papers of US presidents to accounts from Revolutionary War soldiers to items commemorating amendments to the Constitution. And free public programs frequently include expert talks, hands-on family activities, performances and film screenings tied to exhibits.

Don’t just see the main building – visit the archives’ additional galleries and museums too. The Archives Museum displays iconic exhibits like colonial pamphlets and D-Day photos. The Presidential Library system houses the libraries and museums for many former presidents.

Attend a Performance at Ford’s Theatre

Name and Location: Historic Ford’s Theatre attracts visitors to downtown DC as both a museum and functioning performance stage focused on Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.

History and Significance: Originally opened in the 1860s, Ford’s Theatre remains known as the site of Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 assassination, which transformed the venue into an impactful heritage site and memorial.

What to Expect: Tour exhibits detailing the assassination. View Lincoln’s box seats and hear stories. And check the schedule for plays, musicals and special programs held inside the active theater centered on American history.

Visitor Information: Free entry to museum. Timed entry passes required. Performance ticket costs vary. Metro accessible.

Both a functioning theater and historic site, Ford’s Theatre provides an iconic DC experience. See a play or musical in the historic setting where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The well-preserved red-walled theater with its Victorian décor remains an active performance space.

For a profound evening, take in a show in the balcony seating visibly marking the State Box where the Lincoln party sat on that fateful night. To further relive history, visit the Lincoln museum beneath the theater showcasing artifacts related to his presidency and assassination. And see the Peterson House across the street where the fatally shot Lincoln was carried from Ford’s Theatre.

Tour Iconic Homes and Gardens

Name and Location: Storied estates and gardens in the DC area offer glimpses into history.

History and Significance: Once private residences of America’s political elite and pioneers, these manors and estates capture eras through luxury collections and landscaped grounds now preserved as small museums.

What to Expect: Wander rooms and hear stories where founders debated policies during tours of places like Mount Vernon, Dumbarton House or Carlyle House. Or admire gardens nurtured over decades at Hillwood Estate and Tudor Place from spring through autumn when flowers bloom.

Visitor Information: Hours and pricing varies. Some sites offer seasonal events from book fairs to afternoon teas on lawns.

Washington DC’s historic homes and gardens offer a refined glimpse into the lives of some of America’s most esteemed politicians and leaders. As Mt Vernon is located just outside the city, start your visit at George Washington’s beloved home filled with 18th century artifacts overlooking the Potomac River.

Next head to Anderson House – the palatial mansion of Ambassador Larz Anderson and his wife Isabel. Wander through the grand interior viewing their impressive collection of Asian and European art. Don’t miss the immaculate gardens outside too.

For horticulture enthusiasts, the U.S. Botanic Garden features lush tropical, desert, primeval, rose and ornamental gardens within sight of the Capitol. And Seasons at the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Miniature Rooms displaying tiny versions of historically accurate interiors.

Experience Art at World-Class Galleries

Name and Location: Washington DC houses one of the country’s best museum collections spanning renowned cultural institutions.

History and Significance: Private collectors have gifted and landmarked stunning fine arts museums, many with free permanent exhibits or pay-what-you-wish ticketing, concentrating significant works conveniently within the metro area.

What to Expect: Marvel at masterpieces from Van Gogh to Warhol at the National Gallery of Art or Smithsonian American Art Museum galleries. Take the metro to the Phillips Collection featuring Renoir and O’Keeffe or the Kreeger Museum’s sculpture garden.

Visitor Information: Hours and ticket prices vary. Many offer tours, lectures, classes and events.

Beyond the Smithsonian collections, Washington DC boasts a flourishing art scene from the modern Hirshhorn Museum sculpture garden to the Renaissance masterpieces of the National Gallery’s West Building. Smaller galleries provide the chance to discover hidden gems and chat with local artists too.

View avant-garde paintings, installations and sculpture at Former Newseum space ARTECHOUSE, open for adults-only art showcases with rotating exhibits. Under Golden Triangle’s glass-ceilinged atrium, wander Vertex exhibiting contemporary pieces from global artists.

Venture into Foggy Bottom’s Foundry Gallery displaying both established and emerging talent. And don’t miss Eye Street Art hosting rotating exhibits within a historic Civil War-era townhouse. Galleries stay open late on the weekend for the free Dupont/Logan gallery walk each month too.

Relax in Rock Creek Park

Name and Location: Rock Creek Park stretches nearly 2,000 acres bisecting Northwest DC as one of the East Coast’s largest urban parks.

History and Significance: Created in 1890, Rock Creek Park aims to preserve natural lands for public use with amenities added over the decades from gardens to golf courses across forests, fields and a winding creek.

What to Expect: Hike and bike scenic trails past historic estates and landmarks. Horseback ride across open meadows. Or visit well-groomed gardens and greenhouses bloom year-round near the Nature Center and Planetarium.

Visitor Information: Free access. Open year round 6am-10pm with extended summer hours. Pet and family friendly with restrooms and drinking fountains available.

When ready to rest and recharge surrounded by nature, head to Rock Creek Park spanning twice the size of New York’s Central Park. This verdant refuge stretching across the DC features forestlands with hiking and biking trails, historic homes, nature center and even horse stables.

Have a picnic alongside the bubbling Rock Creek complemented by birdsong in the treetops. Rent a boat or take a ranger-led tour to further immerse in the park’s ecology and history. Attend a planetarium show at the park’s Nature Center and Observatory too – one of DC’s hidden gems. With Rock Creek’s peaceful wilderness so close, embrace both city exploration and opportunities for relaxation.

Whether your passion is history or art, cuisine or culture, Washington DC promises enriching experiences and enduring memories from your trip. Use this list of top things to do to help guide your DC journey. From capitol tours and iconic landmarks to world-renowned museums and vibrant performing arts, the capital offers endless sites and activities to fill your itinerary. Be sure to venture off the National Mall too to discover DC’s diverse neighborhoods, verdant parks, inspired dining scene and abundance of lesser-known gems waiting to be uncovered.

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