Washington, D.C. Travel Guide

25 Ultimate Things to Do in Washington, D.C.

Courtesy of Destination DC

The best way to get to know Washington, D.C. is to take a bipartisan approach. At the city’s downtown core are grand tributes to American history and government that create an aura of power and diplomacy. But don’t forget that this is a city where people live, work, and play—and there’s a side of D.C. that thrives beyond the marble columns and museum galleries, so don’t delegate all your time to one aspect of the city. Add these top experiences to your list and you’ll cross the aisle between essential visitor sights and hotspots that locals love. —Jess Moss 

Courtesy of Destination DC

Tidal Basin

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.

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The Mall

If there’s one place in Washington you need to visit, it’s the National Mall. The 2-mile lawn between the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol is home to most of the city’s great monuments, museums and views. It’s one of the great gathering places; presidential inauguration crowds congregate here, as do festivals like the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival. There are many tours—bus, walking, Segway around the area, or you can easily explore on your own. Just be sure to wear comfy walking shoes.

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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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Courtesy of Destination DC

White House

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.

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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 two week–long 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.

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Smithsonian Museums

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 soon-to-open African American History Museum, 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 Museum of Natural History and Dorothy’s red slippers at the American History Museum. The best part? They’re all free.

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National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden

Sure, the sculptures here are nice—you’ll find works by Calder and Lichtenstein. But what locals love most about this nook next to the National Gallery of Art is what happens around the sculptures. On summer Fridays the lawn fills with a buzzing after-work crowd for Jazz in the Garden. Come early, claim a spot of grass, and toast the end of the work week with some ensemble jazz and sangria. In the winter, an ice rink pops up in place of the fountain. You can rent skates and spin about the art.

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14th St 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. 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

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 spots like Bluejacket Brewery and Justin’s Cafe.

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Kennedy Center

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.

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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.

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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.

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Potomac River

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.

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Historic Hotels

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.

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Holocaust Museum

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.

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U.S. Capitol

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.

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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.

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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.

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Dupont Circle

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.

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National Cathedral

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.

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National Zoo

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.

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Union Market and Eastern Market

D.C.’s market power couple (or are they frenemies?) sets a high bar for discerning shoppers. Eastern Market is a little better known and more historic. 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. Union Market, which burst back onto the scene recently after years of decline, is an emporium of high-end artisan brands and pop-ups, featuring everything from craft homegoods by makers and gourmet coffee and meats.

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H Street NE

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.

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Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Renwick Gallery

Renwick Gallery

The “photography encouraged” signs are a good clue that this is not your average art gallery. The branch of the Smithsonian is a block from the White House and showcases American craft and decorative arts. But don’t expect to see a lot of china plates and furniture. The programming here is innovative and pushes boundaries, from beer events to exhibits that have the Instagram crowd hashtagging on hyperdrive.

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Supreme Court

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.

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