There is so much to see and do in Washington, D.C., that you just can’t see it all in 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 as well as the local food, art, and culture. As a result, the National Mall, which is home to the city’s most famous monuments, memorials, and museums, is often the starting point for many 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, D.C., and includes suggestions of lesser-known places to explore that offer something special.
Visit the Smithsonian
Start at the Smithsonian Institution Building where you can pick up a map and information on all of the museums. The 17 museums, plus galleries and zoo, are among the most popular attractions in D.C. 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 "America on the Move" at the American History Museum, the discovery room at the Natural History Museum, or "How Things Fly" at the National Air and Space Museum.
Tour the National Monuments and Memorials
D.C.'s national monuments are genuinely 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 though and can be difficult to see on foot. The best way to see the significant 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. Informative park ranger talks and junior ranger programs are also available.
The memorials are exceptionally 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.
Watch a Supreme Court Argument
One of the most interactive experiences you'll find in D.C. is at the Supreme Court, which is in session Monday through Wednesday from 10 a.m. until 12 p.m., October through April.
Here, you can watch a case being argued, but seating is limited so 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.
Take a Walk Through Georgetown
Georgetown—Washington, D.C.’s historic waterfront—bustles with activity every day of the year. The area is a shopper’s paradise and the streets are lined with restaurants of every nationality. Here, guests can take a tour of historic sites, do some shopping, and enjoy a meal at a local restaurant or stroll along the historic 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 this area.
Walk, Bike, or Kayak Along the C&O Canal
The D.C. area 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 region. Additionally, the National Park Service offers canal boat rides and interpretative ranger programs during the warmer months of the year.
See a Show or Concert at the Kennedy Center
Live theatrical productions at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts offer entertainment at its finest in D.C. 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 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.
Attend a Concert at Wolf Trap National Park
Listen to all types of music at Wolf Trap National Park, which is dedicated to the performing arts ranging from pop, country, folk, and blues to orchestra, dance, theater, 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 D.C.
Take a Hike at Great Falls Park
Take a picnic and enjoy spectacular views of the Potomac River at Great Falls Park, a National Park Service site, located just miles from D.C.
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.
Explore Mount Vernon
At Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens, you can explore the state-of-the-art galleries and theaters, visit the 500-acre estate of George Washington and his family, and tour the 21-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.
Explore the quaint historic town of Alexandria, which is located just over the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The lively waterfront area has plenty of things to do. You can easily spend a whole day here and even take a walking tour of Old Town Alexandria.
While there, 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.
Visit President Lincoln’s Cottage
President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers' Home in Washington, D.C., is one of the most significant historic sites directly associated with Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, and yet 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.
Explore Theodore Roosevelt Island
Theodore Roosevelt Island is a memorial and attraction that is overlooked by most out-of-town visitors to Washington, D.C. 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 the conservation of public lands for forests, national parks, wildlife and bird refuges, and monuments. The island has nearly three 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.
Visit the 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, who freed himself from slavery and helped to free millions of others, moved to Washington, D.C., after the Civil War. He later served in international affairs, in the Council of Government for the District of Columbia, and as U.S. 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.
Visit the National Arboretum
The National Arboretum is located in Northeast Washington, D.C. 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. Also on the grounds of the National Arboretum, 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.
The Arboretum is a great place to enjoy the outdoors and to learn about gardening and horticulture. The grounds are open daily, except on Christmas, and seasonal displays, events, and educational programs are held throughout the year.
Visit the George Washington Masonic Memorial
One of the lesser known attractions in the D.C. area, the George Washington Masonic Memorial serves as a museum highlighting the contributions of Freemasons to the United States.
Construction of the site began in 1922 but wasn't completed until the 1930s, but the effort was well worth the wait. This memorial in Alexandria features dozens of beautiful murals and sculptures as well as 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 as a meeting site for local and visiting Masonic lodges.
Visit the White House
The Three Houses of Government are key places to visit when sightseeing in Washington, D.C. 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.
Visitors from around the world come to D.C. and hope to visit the White House, arguably the most famous house of government, but to arrange a tour you must make a request in advance through one of your members of Congress.
However, without advance planning, you can also simply visit the White House Visitor Center, which gets you close to this historic building but not inside it.
Visit the Capitol
The Capitol is open to the public for guided tours only. Tours are conducted from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday, but it's best to visit early in the day.
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.