20 Best Things to Do in Washington, D.C.

Jefferson memorial from across the water

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

There is so much to see and do in Washington, D.C., that it's hard to see everything the city has to offer in one trip. The nation’s capital is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States, and it offers a wide range of attractions and activities for guests of all ages and interests—from free events and festivals to famous monuments and museums.

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.

01 of 20

Visit the Smithsonian Museums, Zoos, and Galleries

Landscape of the Smithsonian Castle

Mark Williamson / Getty Images

The 17 museums—plus the galleries and zoo—that make up the Smithsonian Institution in D.C. are among the most popular attractions in the city. Start at the Smithsonian Institution Building, where you can pick up a map and information on all of the museums.

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. Museums and galleries of the Smithsonian cover a wide range of subjects from art to space exploration. 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.

02 of 20

Tour the National Monuments and Memorials

Washington Monument

 Taylor McIntyre / TripSavvy

D.C.'s national monuments are must-see attractions when visiting the nation’s capital. Among the most popular are the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, and the World War II Memorial.

These famous landmarks and attractions are spread out throughout the city, so it can be difficult to see all of them on foot. The best way to see the most significant of them is to take a guided tour where you won’t have to negotiate congested city traffic but will learn a lot of interesting facts about our national heroes. However, you can also take hop-on trolley tours or bike tours of the city as well as your own self-guided tours.

The memorials are exceptionally beautiful at night when they are illuminated, and many of them are open 24 hours. 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, and the Spanish-American War Memorial.

03 of 20

Take a Walk Through Georgetown

Georgetown, Washington, D.C.
Glowimages/Getty Images

Georgetown—Washington, D.C.’s historic waterfront neighborhood—bustles with activity every day of the year. There are plenty of interesting things to see and do in Georgetown, and you can easily spend several hours exploring it. The area is a shopper’s paradise, and the streets are lined with restaurants serving up dishes from around the world.

Take a tour of historic sites, do some shopping, and enjoy a meal at a local restaurant before taking a stroll along the historic Washington Harbour to take in views of the Potomac River. Georgetown is a great place to visit during the day or evening, but restaurants are busiest on the weekends, so plan ahead and make a reservation if possible.

04 of 20

Walk, Bike, or Kayak Along the C&O Canal

Canoeists paddle the C&O Canal near Washington, D.C.
Kelly/Mooney Photography/Getty Images

Starting in Georgetown, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park stretches nearly 185 miles along the north bank of the Potomac River to Cumberland, Maryland.

The towpath along the canal offers some of the best places for outdoor recreation in the region. Take the whole family for a walk near the city and learn about this historic ​park that dates back to the 18th century, explore the region's bike trails, or spend a few hours kayaking and enjoying the breathtaking scenery. Additionally, the National Park Service offers canal boat rides and interpretative ranger programs during the warmer months of the year.

Location: 1057 Thomas Jefferson Street Northwest, Washington, D.C. (in Georgetown at 30th Street)

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05 of 20

See a Show or Concert at the Kennedy Center

The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
TimothyJ/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Live theatrical productions at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts offer 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 also available that explore paintings, sculptures, and other artworks dedicated to John F. Kennedy throughout the center. The Kennedy Center Gift Shops offer a great selection of unique gifts or performing arts-related memorabilia, and guests can enjoy a meal or cocktails at the Roof Terrace Restaurant or the KC Café for casual fare.

Location: 2700 F Street Northwest, Washington, D.C.

06 of 20

Enjoy Performing Arts at Wolf Trap National Park

Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts
Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts

Located in Vienna, Virginia—just 20 minutes from D.C.—the Wolf Trap National Park is the only National Park dedicated to the performing arts. You'll find shows, concerts, and performances ranging from pop, country, folk, and blues to orchestra, dance, theater, and opera, as well as innovative 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.

Location: Vienna, Virginia between the Dulles Toll Road (Route 267) and Leesburg Pike (Route 7)

07 of 20

Take a Hike at Great Falls Park

Kayakers at Great Falls National Park, near Washington, D.C.
Skip Brown/Getty Images

Take a picnic and enjoy spectacular views of the Potomac River at Great Falls National Park, which is located just miles from D.C. in McLean, Virginia. 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 for its recreational activities and seasonal events.

Location: 9200 Old Dominion Drive, McLean, Virginia

08 of 20

Explore Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens

An aerial view of Mount Vernon Estate
Virginia Tourism Corporation

Once owned by the first president of the United States, George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens is located just a few miles south of Washington, D.C. along the Potomac River in Virginia.

While you're there, 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. Also 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.

Location: 3200 Mount Vernon Highway, Mount Vernon, Virginia

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09 of 20

Head Over the River to Alexandria

An aerial view of Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia
Alexandria Convention & Visitors Association

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, and you could easily spend the entire day exploring Old Town's historic buildings and attractions.

Take a walking tour of the city and visit colonial houses, public parks, historic churches, extensive museums, unique shops and restaurants, and even a full marina. There are a variety of these fun sightseeing tours available, including cruises on the Potomac River, horse-drawn carriage rides, ghost tours, and historic walking tours.

10 of 20

Step Inside President Lincoln’s Cottage

A frontal view of Lincoln Cottage, Soldier's Home, in Washington, D.C.
Dennis K. Johnson/Getty Images

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.

Location: 140 Rock Creek Church Road Northwest, Washington, D.C.

11 of 20

Get Lost in the Wilderness of Theodore Roosevelt Island

Roosevelt Island

Victoria Chamberlain / TripSavvy

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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 easiest to get to 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, monuments, and wildlife and bird refuges. The island, which features a 17-foot bronze statue of Roosevelt standing at its center, has nearly three miles of walking trails where you can observe a variety of flora and fauna.

Location: Potomac River, Washington, D.C. (Northbound on the George Washington Memorial Parkway)

12 of 20

Honor Civil Rights at the Frederick Douglass Historic Site

The Frederick Douglass home at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
Courtesy of the National Park Service

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.

Location: 1411 W Street Southeast, Washington, D.C.

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13 of 20

Wander Through Trees at the National Arboretum

 Taylor McIntyre / TripSavvy

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 includes one of the largest collections of miniature bonsai in North America. The grounds are open daily, except on Christmas, and seasonal displays, events, and educational programs are held throughout the year.

Location: 3501 New York Ave Northeast, Washington, D.C.

14 of 20

Marvel at Craftsmanship at the National Masonic Memorial

The George Washington Masonic National Memorial
Aimin Tang/Getty Images

The George Washington Masonic Memorial serves as a museum highlighting the contributions of Freemasons to the United States. Construction of the site—which is located just across the Potomac in Alexandria—began in 1922 but wasn't completed until the 1930s. This memorial 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.

Location: 101 Callahan Dr, Alexandria, Virginia

15 of 20

Arrange a Tour of the the White House

White house
Pool / Getty Images

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.

Location: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.

Website: White House

16 of 20

Take a Guided Tour of the U.S. Capitol

 Taylor McIntyre / TripSavvy

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 also has a variety of interesting exhibits about the history and operations of this house of government.

Location: First Street Southeast, Washington, D.C. at the east end of the National Mall

Website: U.S. Capitol

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17 of 20

Watch a Supreme Court Argument

Interior of the Supreme Court

Victoria Chamberlain / TripSavvy 

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. from the first Monday in October through late April each year.

During this time, you can watch a case being argued, but seating is limited and only available on a first-come, first-served basis, so arrive at least an hour early if you want to make sure you see a case. When the court is not in session, you can tour the building and attend a free lecture about the building's architecture and the responsibilities of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Location: 1 First Street, Washington, D.C. (on Capitol Hill at First Street and Maryland Avenue)

18 of 20

Follow the Money to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing

Offering a tour for all ages to see how money is printed in the United States, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing is a great destination for the whole family—and it's entirely free to visit. Established in 1862, the bureau also prints White House invitations, Treasury securities, identification cards, naturalization certificates, and other special security documents. Tours are held every 15 minutes on weekdays throughout the year, except for on national holidays.

Location: 301 14th Street Southwest, Washington, D.C.

19 of 20

See the Constitution at the National Archives

The original copies of the Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution, and Bill of Rights are all on display at the National Archives, which is located across Pennsylvania Avenue from the National Mall. Take time to wander through the halls and read historical artifacts like President Ronald Reagan's speech card from his remarks in Berlin, Germany in 1987 and the arrest warrant for Lee Harvey Oswald, who was charged with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The National Archives are open weekdays and is free to enjoy.

Location: 700 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, Washington, D.C.

20 of 20

Marvel at the Military on a Pentagon Tour

The Pentagon is so iconic in Washington, D.C. that its address is simply "The Pentagon, Washington, D.C." The headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, this famous building is known as the world's largest low-rise office building and named for its five-sized design. Constructed in just 16 months, this massive structure houses the offices of the people who oversee the Navy, Air Force, Army, and Marine Corp. To take a tour of the Pentagon, you must make a reservation at least 14 days (and up to 90 days) in advance; however, the tour is free to attend.

Location: Access through a pedestrian tunnel from the Pentagon City Mall parking lot at 895 Army Navy Drive in Arlington, Virginia

Website: Pentagon

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