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Top Attractions in the Washington, DC Capital Region
There is so much to see and do in Washington, DC that you can’t see it all in just one visit. The nation’s capital is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States and offers a wide range of attractions and activities. A well-rounded trip should include exploring the region’s historic landmarks, parks and neighborhoods. The National Mall is home to the city’s most famous monuments, memorials and museums and the starting point for most visitors.
To really capture the essence of the city, you should look beyond the obvious attractions and spend some time exploring some of the smaller and more unique destinations as well. This guide highlights the top things to do in Washington DC and includes suggestions of lesser-known places to explore that offer something special. Use this guide and you will be sure to have a memorable trip.Continue to 2 of 17 below.
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Visit the Smithsonian
Start at the Smithsonian Institution Building where you can pick up a map and information on all of the museums. The 19 museums are among the most popular attractions in Washington DC and cover a wide range of subjects from art to space exploration. Plan to explore the exhibits that you are most interested in, but don’t try to see too much at once. If you have just a few hours, focus your time on one museum. Enjoy interactive exhibitions such as the America on the Move at the American History Museum, the Q?rius Discovery Room at the Natural History Museum or How Things Fly at the National Air and Space Museum.
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Tour the National Monuments and Memorials
Our national monuments are truly spectacular and “must see” attractions when visiting the nation’s capital. Among the most popular are the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial and Vietnam Memorial and the World War II Memorial. They are spread out throughout the city and can be difficult to see on foot. The best way to see the major monuments is to take a guided tour - you won’t have to negotiate congested city traffic and you will learn a lot of interesting facts about our national heroes. Tours range from hop-on-off trolley tours to bike tours to moonlight tours. See a guide to the Best Sightseeing Tours in Washington DC. Informative park ranger talks and junior ranger programs are also available.
The memorials are beautiful at night when they are illuminated. Many of them are open 24 hours and offer great views of the city. Arlington National Cemetery, located just across the Potomac River, is also a prime place to visit and home to dozens of memorials... including the Coast Guard Memorial, the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial, Spanish-American War Memorial, and more.
For more details, see A Visitors Guide to the Monuments and Memorials in Washington DC.
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Tour the Three Houses of Government
The Three Houses of Government are key places to visit when sightseeing in Washington, DC. The White House, the Capitol and the Supreme Court are impressive buildings and visiting them will help you understand more about the U.S. government and its history.
Visiting the White House
Visitors from around the world come to Washington DC and hope to visit the most famous house of government. To arrange a tour you must make a request in advance through one of your members of Congress. Without advance planning, you can visit the White House Visitor Center, located at the southeast corner of 15th and E Streets, which is open daily from 7:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. View a short video and learn about the White House architecture, furnishings, and the Presidents and first families. Read more about visiting the White House.
Visiting the U.S. Capitol
The Capitol is open to the public for guided tours only. Tours are conducted from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Visitors must obtain free... tickets which are available online or through your Senator or Representative. The Capitol Visitor Center has a variety of interesting exhibits about the history and operations of this house of government. Best to visit early in the day. Read more about visiting the Capitol Building.
Visiting the U.S. Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is in session Monday through Wednesday from 10 a. m. until noon, October through April. You can watch a case being argued but seating is limited. Arrive at least an hour early to wait in line. When the court is not in session you can tour the building and attend a free lecture about court proceedings and the building’s architecture. The Supreme Court Building is open throughout the year from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Arrive early in the day. Visitors are admitted on a first-come, first-served basis. Read more about visiting the Supreme Court.
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Take a Walk Through Georgetown
Georgetown, Washington DC’s historic waterfront, today bustles with activity. The area is a shopper’s paradise and the streets are lined with restaurants of every nationality. Take a tour of historic sites, do some shopping and enjoy a meal at a local restaurant. Stroll along Washington Harbour and take in views of the Potomac River. Georgetown is a great place to visit during the day or evening. Restaurants are busiest on the weekends, so plan ahead and make a reservation if possible. There are plenty of interesting things to see and do and you can easily spend several hours exploring.
To learn more about restaurants, attractions, nightlife, parking, and transportation, see a Neighborhood Guide to Georgetown
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Walk, Bike, or Kayak Along the C & O Canal
The Washington DC region is lucky to have this wonderful historic park that offers a quick relief from hectic city life. Take the whole family for a walk and learn about the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, explore the region's bike trails or spend a few hours kayaking and enjoying the breathtaking scenery. The towpath along the canal offers some of the best places for outdoor recreation in the Washington DC area. The National Park Service offers canal boat rides and interpretative ranger programs during the warmer months of the year.
The Georgetown Visitor Center is located at 1057 Thomas Jefferson St., NW, Washington, DC (202) 653-5190. The visitor center is accessible from 30th Street. The park is open during daylight hours throughout the year. The visitor center closes during the winter months.
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See a Show or Concert at the Kennedy Center
Live theatrical productions at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts are entertainment at its finest. Purchase tickets in advance for performances ranging from musicals to concerts by the National Symphony, or see a free show at the Millennium Stage (every day at 6 p.m.). As the performing arts center serves as a memorial to JFK, free guided tours are available (Mon-Fri 10 a.m-5 p.m., Sat-Sun 10 a.m.- 1 p.m.) that explore the paintings, sculptures, and other artworks throughout the center. The Kennedy Center Gift Shops offer a great selection of unique gifts or performing arts-related memorabilia. Enjoy a meal or cocktails at the Roof Terrace Restaurant or the KC Café for casual fare.
To learn more, see schedules and purchase tickets, see A Visitors Guide to the Kennedy Center
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Attend a Concert at Wolftrap Farm Park
Listen to all types of music at this National Park dedicated to the performing arts ranging from pop, country, folk, and blues to orchestra, dance, theatre, and opera, as well as innovative performance art and multimedia presentations. Outdoor concerts are featured in the Filene Center during the summer, and indoor performances are held at the 18th-century Barns the rest of the year. The park is located in Vienna, Virginia, just 20 minutes from Washington, DC.
To learn more, see schedules and purchase tickets, see A Visitors Guide to Wolf Trap Farm Park
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Take a Hike at Great Falls Park
Take a picnic and enjoy spectacular views of the Potomac River at this National Park, located just miles from Washington DC. Great Falls offers a variety of things to do including hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, bicycling, and horseback riding. The park is accessible from both the Maryland and Virginia sides of the river and is a local favorite.
Both locations of Great Falls Park are open from 7 a.m. until dark every day except December 25th. Weekend afternoons are the busiest times to visit. To avoid crowds, visit early, late in the day or on a weekday.
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Explore Mount Vernon
explore the state-of-the-art galleries and theaters, visit the 500-acre estate of George Washington and his family, and tour the 14-room mansion that is beautifully restored and furnished with original objects dating back to the 1740s. Be sure to plan enough time to tour the Ford Orientation Center and Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, plus the outbuildings, including the kitchen, slave quarters, smokehouse, coach house and stables. The Mount Vernon Estate is located in Northern Virginia, just minutes from Washington, DC.
Mount Vernon is open every day of the year! April - August, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. – Oct. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Nov. – Feb. 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Holidays are a great time to enjoy the Estate and its special programming. You can easily spend at least half a day exploring the Mansion, grounds, and museum.
For more visiting tips, directions and event information, see A Guide to Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens
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Explore the quaint historic town just over the Potomac River from Washington, DC. The lively waterfront area has plenty of things to do. Visit colonial houses, public parks, churches, museums, a marina, unique shops, and restaurants. There are a variety of fun sightseeing tours of Alexandria available including cruises on the Potomac River, horse drawn carriage rides, ghost tours, and historic walking tours.
Alexandria is a fun place to visit and you can easily spend a whole day here. To learn more about restaurants, attractions, nightlife, parking, and transportation, see a Neighborhood Guide to Alexandria
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Visit President Lincoln’s Cottage
Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers' Home in Washington, DC is one of the most significant historic sites directly associated with Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and most people have never heard of it. The historic property was restored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and opened to the public in 2008. It is an interesting place to visit and provides an intimate view of Lincoln’s presidency and family life during the Civil War. Lincoln lived on this property to escape the stresses of the White House and the War while he developed his policy of emancipation.
Visitors can take a guided tour of the home and learn more about this beloved national figure. Tours are available daily. The Visitor Center is open 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon-Sat, 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sunday. For visiting tips, directions and more information, see a Visitor's Guide to President Lincoln's Cottage in Washington DC.Continue to 13 of 17 below.
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Explore Theodore Roosevelt Island
Theodore Roosevelt Island is a memorial and attraction that is overlooked by most out-of-town visitors to Washington DC. Accessible only from the northbound lanes of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the island is located along the Mount Vernon Trail and is easily accessible by bike. The 91-acre wilderness preserve serves as a memorial to the nation's 26th president, honoring his contributions to conservation of public lands for forests, national parks, wildlife and bird refuges, and monuments. The island has 2 1/2 miles of walking trails where you can observe a variety of flora and fauna and a 17-foot bronze statue of Roosevelt standing in the center of the island. Roosevelt Island is a local favorite and an attraction that everyone should visit at least once. For more information, see a Visitor's Guide to Theodore Roosevelt Island.
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Visit the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site honors the life and legacy of famed abolitionist and civil rights hero Frederick Douglass. The property was entrusted to the National Park Service in 1962, but has been open to the public since the early 1900s. Douglass freed himself from slavery and helped to free millions of others. After the Civil War, he moved to Washington, DC to serve in international affairs, in the Council of Government for the District of Columbia, and as US Marshal for the District. Visitors can explore the house and grounds of the estate and learn about the history of the home at Cedar Hill.
The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site is open 7 days a week. The Site is closed on January 1, Thanksgiving Day, and December 25. Read more about visiting the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.Continue to 15 of 17 below.
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Visit the National Arboretum
The National Arboretum is located in Northeast Washington DC and is one of the more overlooked attractions in the nation’s capital. The site is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and displays 446 acres of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants which are cultivated for scientific and educational purposes. Visitors can tour the grounds on a 35-minute open air tram ride. The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum is one of the most popular displays and includes one of the largest collections of miniature bonsai in North America. Seasonal displays, events, and educational programs are held throughout the year. The Arboretum is a great place to enjoy the outdoors and to learn about gardening and horticulture.
The grounds are daily, except December 25, from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is free. The Visitor Center is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. except for federal holidays, November through February. Tram rides are offered on weekends and holidays only at 12:00 p.m., 1:00... p.m., 2:00 p.m., and 3:00 p.m. For more information, see a Visitor's Guide to the National Arboretum.
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Visit the George Washington Masonic Memorial
One of the lesser known attractions in the Washington DC area and one of my favorites, the George Washington Masonic Memorial serves as a museum highlighting the contributions of Freemasons to the United States. Built in 1922, the memorial in Alexandria, Virginia, features beautiful murals and sculptures and a replica of a Masonic Lodge Room. The building also serves as a research center, a library, community center, performing arts center and concert hall, a banquet hall and meeting site for local and visiting Masonic lodges. Guided tours are given daily at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3 p.m.
For more visiting tips, see a Visitor's Guide to the George Washington Masonic Memorial.Continue to 17 of 17 below.
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Looking for More Sightseeing Ideas?
The Washington DC area is an amazing region with endless interesting places to explore. Here are some additional resources to help you plan some fun excursions.
- Best Sightseeing Tours in Washington, DC
- One Day Tour of Washington, DC
- 25 Historic Buildings in DC
- 50 Free Washington, DC Attractions
- Attractions That Require Advance Planning
- Cruises Along the Potomac River
- Top 10 Places to Visit with Out-of-town Guests
- 25 Free Things to Do in Washington DC
- Top 10 Things to Do in Georgetown
- Top 10 Things to Do in Arlington, VA