From the rich history at the National Mall to the policy in action on Capitol Hill, here's a list of the best things to do and see when you visit Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., may be the epicenter of American politics, but these days you’ll find so much more. You’ll discover an innovative foodie scene, award-winning theater, and booming neighborhoods offering charms all their own. Explore the National Mall’s Big Guns, of course: National Air and Space, National Museum of American History, and the White House, topped with a U.S. Capitol visit, a stroll through historic Georgetown and an evening at the Kennedy Center. But save time to wander the burgeoning Shaw, NoMa, 14thStreet, and District Wharf neighborhoods; to sample innovative cuisine at Union Market; and catch a game at Nationals Park. And when it comes to hotels, DC has the age-old classics—the Willard and Hay Adams—but it also leads the crowd with the likes of edgy Line and Eaton. It’s exciting times for D.C., and here’s how to make the most of your visit.
A serene reservoir just south of the National Mall, the Tidal Basin is one of the most photographed spots in Washington. The inlet is surrounded by some of the city’s top monuments: the Jefferson Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. A walking path encircles the water, and when it’s warm out you can rent a paddleboat and putz around the pond. But the Tidal Basin really hits its peak from late March to early April, when cherry blossoms envelop the walkways and monuments in a cotton candy-colored cloud of tiny flowers.
Related: Visit Fodor’s Washington, D.C. Guide
Monuments & Memorials
No other city pays tribute to America’s heroes and history the way that D.C. does. There are the monuments scattered all over the District, from plaques on homes to horsemen in traffic circles. But the real attractions are located on the National Mall, where grand stone homages to wars, presidents, and more draw millions of visitors every year. It’s easy to make a circuit of the top spots: Start at the towering Washington Monument and loop either direction (clockwise or counterclockwise) around the World War II Memorial, Tidal Basin, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, and Vietnam Veterans Memorial. For something a little different, come back at night—everything is lit and open to the public, and looks totally different when bathed in moonlight.
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If there’s one sight that says “America,” it’s a view of the White House. The Presidential estate is on display at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; you can snap a selfie from both the street side and from the Ellipse on the way to the Mall. The building’s heavily guarded and not generally open to the public, although if you plan ahead you can arrange a tour through your state representative. Nearby, the White House Visitor Center is a convenient alternative to a tour —it’s open to the public and shows off some of the artifacts that have decorated the home.
National Cherry Blossom Festival
Every spring the cherry trees around Washington blanket the city with a blizzard of little pink and white flowers. The city goes nuts for the blooms—you’ll find cherry blossoms in cocktails and cupcakes, on the Metro, and in events throughout the three-week-long National Cherry Blossom Festival. Many of the original trees (which were a gift from Japan in the early 1900s) stand around the Tidal Basin; this is ground zero for flower peepers. If crowds aren’t your thing, you can still enjoy the flowers. Get to the Tidal Basin before the sun rises for a little more breathing room (and some incredible photo-ops as the sky lightens) or head into the neighborhoods or out to the Arboretum for a less hectic and equally heavenly stroll.
What do baby pandas, astronauts, and postage stamps have in common? They all make up the dizzying array of offerings at the Smithsonian Museums, a 19-museum network that includes everything from the Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Zoo, and a castle. Before you worry about seeing it all in your visit, take a deep breath. You can’t. This is the largest research and museum complex in the world, so your best bet is to do a deep dive in one museum that interests you or do a highlights tour of some of the most popular sights, like the Hope Diamond at the National Museum of Natural History and Dorothy’s red slippers at the National Museum of American History. The best part? They’re all free.
Stay Nearby: The St. Gregory Hotel
14th Street and U Street
A focal point of the District’s dining and nightlife scene, 14th and U streets have been undergoing a massive revitalization in recent years. U Street, which was formerly known as Black Broadway, was the focal point of early 20th century African American culture in D.C. You can still see some of the icons from that era at places like Lincoln Theatre. And iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl has been serving up half smokes and chili since 1958. But the corridor, and 14th Street, which began as an offshoot from U but has blown up into its own entity, is better known now for its trendy restaurant-bar concepts, like Le Diplomate, Bar Pilar, and Barcelona. If you want a night out in Washington, this is the place for it.
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Nationals Park/Yards Park
Washington isn’t known nationally as a baseball town, but Nats games are one of the top things to do in this city. Nationals Park is one of the most pleasant ballparks in the majors, with a waterfront setting, affordable tickets, and friendly fans. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, a Nationals game is worth it for the food—try local dishes like half smokes and crabcakes—and the fun (join locals in cheering for the bumbling Teddy Roosevelt in the 7th-inning presidents’ race). Arrive early to wander around the riverfront Yards Park or to join the red mobs of fans pregaming at Bluejacket Brewery.
The pinnacle of performing arts in Washington, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has a prominent perch on the banks of the Potomac River. This is where the National Symphony Orchestra plays, as well as the opera, ballet, and a host of rotating plays and acts. In keeping with Washington’s penchant for free cultural activities, there are daily performances that are open to the public. Even if you’re not attending a show here, it’s worth a visit for the views from the upper-level esplanade.
The seat of legislative power for the United States anchors one end of the National Mall with a soaring dome, one of the tallest structures in the city. Most visits begin at the snazzy Capitol Visitor Center, where you can book a tour to see the building’s Rotunda, Crypt, and National Statuary Hall. You can also book a tour through your member of Congress; these representatives can also give you passes to watch a session of the Senate or House in action.
Library of Congress
Book nerds, listen up! This is the world’s largest library, with about 838 miles of bookshelves. The catch is, you can’t actually check out the books (only certain government officials can do that), but you can join a free hour-long tour of the Beaux-Arts complex. Books aren’t the only thing on display here; there’s an impressive domed ceiling and a grand collection of art and sculptures.
Arlington National Cemetery
A quick trip across the Memorial Bridge from the Lincoln Memorial brings you to Arlington National Cemetery. The bucolic 624-acre plot of Virginia land is the final resting place of two presidents and about 400,000 American veterans. Many people come to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and its changing of the guard ceremony and the eternal flame at John F. Kennedy’s gravesite. If you’re looking to pay respects at a specific grave, the ANC Explorer app can lead you there.
Law in D.C. is a spectator sport. The highest court in the country, and home of the third branch of government, the Supreme Court is housed in a neoclassical white building a block from the U.S. Capitol. The biggest highlight is the courtroom itself—oral arguments are open to the public from October through April. (Admission is first-come, first-served.) You can also do a self-guided tour of the richly decorated building to see its collection of portraits and statues.
It won’t attract swimmers or win “clean water” accolades anytime soon, but the Potomac River is still a hive of activity in Washington. The river forms the border between D.C. and Virginia, and when the weather’s nice it swarms with kayakers, stand-up paddleboarders, and rowers. Sightseeing cruises are a fun way to see the monuments, especially around the Fourth of July, when fireworks punctuate the tour. For a natural escape, head about 14 miles upriver from D.C. to Great Falls, a system of waterfalls that’s a great spot for hikers and advanced kayakers.
D.C. is a city rich with history and scandals, and its grande-dame hotels have plenty of stories to tell. The most notorious hotel in American history, the Watergate, is reopening after a major restoration. A few miles away, the Mayflower was the site of Eliot Spitzer’s infamous affair. Other hotels are steeped in history of a less sordid nature. Just blocks from the White House, the Hay Adams and Willard Intercontinental hotels have hosted everyone from Mark Twain to Abe Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr. (who wrote his “I have a dream” speech in a room at the Willard). If you can’t afford the hefty price tag of these spots, take a spin through the gilded lobbies or settle in for a drink at their classic bars. Check out the best hotels in D.C. with a ton of history.
You’ll need a little quiet time after a visit to this brilliant museum—it’s impossible to leave here without being moved. The official U.S. memorial to the Holocaust and its victims sits near the Mall in an artfully designed building that’s meant to evoke memories of WWII-era Germany. The exhibits take you through the history of the Nazis, ghettos, and Final Solution using survivor stories and artifacts. There’s also a children’s section that explains the Holocaust to younger visitors.
A decade ago, few visitors found themselves in this corner of Washington. Now it’s the city’s obsession. The residential neighborhood east of Logan Circle is seeing a development boom, with artisan bars, restaurants, and boutiques moving in. Beer drinkers have plenty to cheer about here; Dacha beer garden and Right Proper Brewing Company keep hops fans hydrated. Foodies are flocking to spots like Mockingbird Hill, Southern Efficiency, and Declaration. And everyone’s keeping their eyes on new retail-residential spaces that are bolstering the area’s new boutique lifestyle vibe.
Georgetown and the Waterfront
One of Washington’s ritziest enclaves, Georgetown marries old-world charm with upscale dining and shopping. You’ll find high-end chain stores like Brooks Brothers and Zara along with classic D.C. eateries like Clyde’s and “best restaurants” list-toppers like Fiola Mare. The historic C&O Canal starts here and makes for a shady place to stroll. Side streets leading up to Georgetown University’s campus have cobbled stones lined with well-preserved townhouses that shelter senators and dignitaries.
Dupont has a little bit of everything. The neighborhood centers around a large traffic circle surrounded by a mix of shops, restaurants, and museums. You’ll find chains like Chipotle and Loft nestled next to independent outposts like Kramerbooks and Bistrot du Coin. Museums here are takeovers of neighborhood homes: the Phillips Collection has a collection of modern and Impressionist art, the Woodrow Wilson House showcases 1920s lifestyle, and the Heurich House Museum (also known as the Brewmaster’s Castle) hosts beer-centric history events. Fanning out from the circle are residential streets, office buildings, and a corridor of embassies known as Embassy Row.
Set high on a hill and with a prominent spot on the city’s skyline, this 20th-century stone church is built in a soaring 14th-century gothic style. It’s officially Episcopalian but has also been the site of state funerals for presidents and sermons by religious leaders like the Dalai Lama. It’s also home to Darth Vader—the Star Wars villain sits high on one of the towers, after being chosen as one of the winning designs in a children’s contest to decorate the building.
If you were to give Washington a signature animal, the giant panda would win the job. The National Zoo, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, is home to four beloved pandas (including a newborn that had Washingtonians on “panda watch” awaiting the birth). There are, of course, other animals to visit here as well — from elephants to lions to Amazonian frogs and monkeys. Not only is the zoo easy to get to on Metro, it’s free for all ages.
Rising at the residential epicenter of Capitol Hill, Eastern Market is a hive of activity, especially on weekends. Originally built in 1871, the indoor-outdoor market hall is surrounded by a colorful neighborhood of the same name. Many of the vendors here exist specifically for the market and sell a homey assortment of food and crafts. You can cull your own picnic fixings from the interior South Hall Market or the weekend market stalls; or join the locals at the Market Lunch counter for a hearty breakfast (try the famous blueberry-buckwheat pancakes) or lunch comfort food (the Chesapeake crab cakes are standouts).
H Street NE (Atlas District)
It’s a tad isolated, and comes with a little bit of grit, but the artsy H Street Corridor is a good place to escape the pomp and marble of D.C.’s downtown core. Also known as the Atlas District because of Atlas Performing Arts Center, it’s home to an assortment of quirky bars and restaurants, from Maketto and Toki Underground to the funeral home-turned-live music venue Rock and Roll Hotel. One of the best times to visit is during the annual H Street Festival, when the neighborhood’s strong community vibe is celebrated with live bands and a street party.
If there’s anything better than the eat-drink-shop-and-entertainment scene in DC, it’s to do it all along the water’s edge. Enter, District Wharf in Southwest DC. Here you’ll find some of the city’s best restaurants (Fabio Trabocchi’s Del Mar, Requin), shops (Politics and Prose, District Hardware and Bike), bars (Brighton SW1, Whiskey Charlie), and entertainment venues (The Anthem, Pearl Street Warehouse). The best thing to do is simply stroll and see what strikes your fancy—perhaps a live free concert on the District Pier, kayaking from The Wharf Boathouse, or taking the free dinghy to nearby East Potomac Park for a picnic. And don’t forget, the Wharf expands on the historic Maine Avenue Fish Market, which has been serving up fresh crab, shrimp, and fish smothered in Old Bay spices since 1805. Phase 2, which expands on the fun, is slated to open in 2022.
International Spy Museum
More spies live in DC than any other city in the world, and while you might not spot a real one (they’re really good at that undercover thing), you can learn all about their work, past and present, at this fabulous, enormous museum devoted to all things spy. Occupying a brand-new space at L’Enfant Plaza, the 140,000-square-foot museum is filled with interactive exhibits, a state-of-the-art theater—and the chance to test your own spy skills.
Stay Nearby: State Plaza Hotel
George Washington was always a farmer at heart, and you can see this side of the first president at his colonial plantation home along the Potomac River, about 10 miles south of Alexandria. Tours take in the surprisingly small but elegant, beautifully restored mansion, including the formal dining room, Washington’s study, and his bedroom where he died. Stroll around the estate’s 500 acres, including gardens, crop-filled fields, and the tiny, rudimentary cabins of enslaved people. Be sure to save some time for the Museum and Education Center, which puts Washington into the context of his life and times—and beyond. The 4D multimedia movie includes wind and snow in its special effects, and “Be Washington” is an interactive theater experience in which you make leadership decisions similar to what Washington would have faced.
Ford’s Theater/Petersen House
President Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd, attended a play on April 14, 1865, when actor and southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth took the opportunity to shoot him. Lincoln was rushed across the street to the Petersen House, where he died the next morning. The theater—which remains a live theater with patriotic-themed shows—has a fabulous museum in its basement. Tours lead up to the fateful balcony where Lincoln sat, then across the street to Petersen House, decorated in period style. The tour continues into the Center for Education and Leadership, which provides several floors of fascinating exhibits delving into the aftermath of Lincoln’s death and the evolution of his legacy.
It wasn’t that long ago that D.C.’s food scene encompassed steak power dinners and lots of leather seats and dark-lit decor. But that has all changed, with a surge of innovative chefs pushing the envelope—far enough to put D.C. on the Michelin map. And the scene continues to push and pull, with new places to try all the time. At the upper echelons, there are the fine dining establishments such as Blue Duck Tavern and Plume at the Jefferson. But DC’s greatest success lies in its growing plethora of neighborhood restaurants, where residents are demanding good food—making way for now nationally known places like Bad Saint and The Dabney. It’s an exciting time for D.C. foodies, one that’s just getting better and better.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
This epic museum on the National Mall chronicles the African-American experience, from the devastating journey of Africans taken into servitude through the Civil War, Restoration, Jim Crow era, civil rights movement, up to today. The extensive exhibits don’t shy from brutal truths, forcing visitors to examine the basis of America’s very foundation. On the upper levels, African-American arts and culture are celebrated with original memorabilia, including James Brown’s black cape and Althea Jackson’s tennis racket.
One of DC’s newest neighborhoods, NoMA (North of Massachusetts) centers on Union Market, an eclectic hub of innovative food stalls and pop-up eateries (try The District Fishwife’s poke bowls, Asian-style tacos at TaKorean, and/or brown butter bourbon bread pudding at Puddin’). In the surrounding area, fun businesses have popped up, including Dolcezza Gelato and Coffee Factory; Michelin-starred Masseria; Cotton & Reed, an artisanal distillery among several distilleries; and a flagship REI housed in the arena that hosted the Beatles’ first American concert in 1964. And in true neighborhood fashion, a series of events brings everyone out on the streets, including NoMA Summer Screen film series in Storey Park, a lunchtime concert series, and a bustling farmer’s market.
INSIDER TIPNoMa is one of the city’s bike-friendliest areas, with a bike parking garage, a cycletrack, bike trails, and eight Capital Bikeshare stations.
At a time when the role of news in democracy is making headlines, this fascinating, state-of-the-art museum just up the street from the U.S. Capitol takes a deep dive into the First Amendment. Among its fifteen galleries you’ll find 400 historic front pages dating back to the 1400s, the largest section of the Berlin Wall outside Germany, and some of the world’s most iconic photographs. Good Morning America segments have been taped at the real-life Knight TV Studio; and you can try your own hand at being a journalist in the NBC News Interactive Newsroom.
INSIDER TIPSome of the city’s best views can be found from the Greenspan Terrace, on the museum’s top floor.