7 of the best things to do in Washington, DC

Washington, DC, is a city with endless appeal.

This is where you’ll find some of America’s most famous buildings – places such as the White House and the Library of Congress, the world’s largest library. At its heart is the National Mall, a linear park filled with monuments, including the Lincoln Memorial. 

But DC isn’t just an excellent place for a history fix – its 21 Smithsonian museums provide remarkable insights into a wide range of topics, from Asian art to American politics. It’s also worth venturing beyond the Smithsonian’s esteemed institutions to lesser-known institutions, such as downtown’s National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, which has one of the world’s largest collections of bonsai trees.

You’ll never go hungry here, either, whether you’re a fan of food halls such as the brilliant Western Market Food Hall (visit first thing in the morning to enjoy the oven-fresh pastries at Bullfrog Bagels) in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood, or have a weakness for fine dining (Capitol Hill is your best bet for that).

With so much to check out, we’ve narrowed down the best Washington, DC, experiences to put on your radar.

1. Hang out on the National Mall

Yes, this is one of DC’s most popular spots, but it’s also breathtakingly beautiful. The best way to explore the awe-inspiring National Mall is on foot, wandering along its 34 miles of trails. Its 65 monuments include the WWII Memorial, the Washington Monument (once the world’s tallest freestanding structure) and the Lincoln Memorial. You’ll need to pace yourself, so consider visiting first thing in the morning or in the late afternoon when crowds have thinned out, and aim for one monument an hour maximum. The National Mall is usually at its busiest between midday and 3pm, so try and avoid these times. If you’re visiting in July or August another advantage to this approach is that you’ll avoid the hottest time of day. 

Make sure you visit some of the lesser-known monuments, too. Check out the beautiful German-American Friendship Garden, surrounded by fragrant lavender hedges, or the Lockkeeper’s House on the corner of Constitution Ave and 17th St, which is the oldest building on the Mall. When energy levels are down, hop between the National Mall’s monuments on the DC Circulator National Mall service, which calls at 15 stops on and around this famous park. Fares start at $1 per person, and children under five ride for free.

People pass in front of a gated white building set in large grounds with a fountain
Lucky visitors that apply in advance might get on a 45-minute-long tour of the White House © Bill Chizek / Getty Images

2. Peek inside the White House

If you want to tour the White House, you’ll need to submit an application to do so at least 21 days before your visit. If you’re a US citizen, applications must be made through your member of Congress, while international visitors should contact their country’s embassy in the city. The free 45-minute tours include access to several rooms, including the East Wing’s Red Room (named after the ruby-red satin fabric covering its walls), the State Dining Room and the China Room, used to display the White House’s china collection. Don’t panic if you can’t bag a spot on a tour, though. Another option is to head to Lafayette Sq, on the White House’s north side, to admire both the North Lawn and the president’s pad in all its glory.

Planning tip: Arrive early for your tour and be prepared for lengthy queues during busier times. Check the weather forecast beforehand and dress appropriately in the event that you end up waiting for a while at the first security gate, which is outside. Visit the restroom beforehand – you won’t have access to any once inside the White House. 

3. Explore historic Georgetown

Georgetown is the neighborhood where Washington, DC, began. It dates back to 1751 – 40 years before America’s capital city was founded. In 1828, George Washington ordered the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which connected the city to the rest of America. Today, this waterway is known as the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, and a walk along the stretch that weaves through Georgetown provides a brilliant insight into this area’s past – it’s lined with brick buildings dating back to the 1700s. Georgetown’s other architectural gems include Tudor Place, built in 1816 by Martha Washington’s granddaughter Martha Custis Peter, and Washington, DC’s oldest structure, the Old Stone House, which was built as a private home in 1766. Both are open to the public.

Detour: In June 2023, a $20 million reconstruction of the towpath that shadows the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was completed. The canal starts in Georgetown, so why not spend a few hours wandering along its banks? If you’ve got an entire day to spare, consider hiking or cycling the 14-mile stretch that connects Georgetown with Great Falls, Maryland.

A large stuffed elephant display dominates a hall in a museum
The National Museum of Natural History is one of the most popular of the 21 Smithsonian museums © Kit Leong / Shutterstock

4. Tour some of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums

A word of warning: there are 21 Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC, so you’ll need to do some prioritizing. Don’t miss big hitters such as the National Museum of Natural History, which has halls dedicated to everything from gems to dinosaurs (items in its collection include a chunk of mammoth flesh and a lump of whale earwax) or the National Museum of American History. This museum’s exhibits are incredibly diverse – where else can you see the original star-spangled banner moments after checking out the ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz

Lesser-known museums include the Hirshhorn Museum, famous for its supersized art installations, and the National Museum of Asian Art, which houses 45,000 artifacts dating back to Neolithic times. The majority of the Smithsonian’s museums are located close to the National Mall, and all are admission-free.

Local tip: Almost all Smithsonian Museums on the National Mall have two main entrances – one facing the National Mall and another facing either Independence or Constitution Avenues (depending on the museum’s exact location). Tour buses almost always unload their passengers outside the (much busier) National Mall entrances, so avoid the crowds and use the alternative entrances if possible.

5. Check out world-class street art

In recent years, DC has become a mecca for some of the world’s best street artists. Georgetown’s masterpieces include O St NW’s Wave Mural, painted by John McConnell and inspired by the famous wave painting by Japanese artist Hokusai, and Wisconsin Avenue’s Alma Indigena. This colorful mural by Victor Quinonez depicts a Wixárika Elder from the Mexican state of Jalisco. 

In NoMa, you’ll find Madsteez’s modern take on a George Washington portrait on N St, just a few feet from Union Market, whose exterior has been daubed with spectacular murals. Favorites include Mr Brainwash’s supersized “Never Give Up” quote. Other great neighborhoods for street art include Mt Vernon (head to the corner of 5th and K Sts NW to see portraits of Black leaders such as Martin Luther King) and U St, where Ben’s Chili Bowl restaurant isn’t just a great place to refuel, it’s also a canvas for Aniekan Udofia’s murals of African American icons, such as abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

A kayaker on a river heads towards a bridge. A large Gothic-style building rises up on the river bank
Kayaks and paddle boards can be rented near Georgetown’s Key Bridge © Danita Delimont / Getty Images

6. See the city from the water

Explore DC from the water to gain an entirely new perspective on this beautiful city. Head to Georgetown’s Key Bridge Boathouse to rent a kayak or SUP before paddling over to nearby Theodore Roosevelt Island (an 88-acre forested island and national memorial). Or opt for some old-school fun and float across the Tidal Basin – a reservoir between the Potomac River and the Washington Channel – in a pedal boat. You’ll enjoy breathtaking views of the National Mall and the Lincoln Memorial. Alternatively, sit back and relax on a boat tour: one of the biggest operators is City Cruises, based in the Wharf area.

Local tip: If you or your kids are desperate to see DC from the water but haven’t got much rowing experience, head to the Thompson Boat Center on the Capitol Riverfront, a large watersports center offering rowing lessons and boat hire. 

7. Have a drink at a DC speakeasy

DC experienced prohibition slightly differently from other places. In 1920, the city’s hard-drinking members of Congress weren’t willing to give up their liquor without a fight, and they didn’t have to. Instead, they simply headed to the city’s embassies, which were technically foreign soil. This meant they were the only places in America where alcohol could be served legally. Alcohol continued to flood into the city – its position on the coastline meant liquor could easily be smuggled in from places such as the Caribbean – and almost every neighborhood had several speakeasies. 

Today, numerous speakeasy-themed bars honor that tradition, including Left Door, disguised as a laundrette, the Eaton Hotel‘s Allegory bar, accessed via a door hidden amongst the library’s bookshelves, and Chicken + Whisky. To access this whiskey-focused bar, enter the restaurant and simply walk through the freezer door next to the open kitchen.

Keep planning your trip to Washington, DC:

Find the best times to visit
Getting around DC is easier than you think – here’s how
These incredible experiences won’t cost you a thing
Get up close with nature and more history on these day trips

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top