The Best Things to Do in Washington DC

The 15 Best Things to do in Washington, DC

As the capital of the United States, Washington, DC, is home to many of the nation’s most dazzling achievements in politics, history, and culture. The city is filled to the brim with noteworthy monuments, awe-inspiring buildings, and incredible museums.

DC is a beautiful city with so much to see and do. Historic districts like Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria sit right on the Potomac River and have a romantic, timeless essence about them. Sites like the National Cathedral, the collection of Smithsonian museums, and the Capitol Building can fill even the most well-traveled visitors with awe.

There’s plenty of fun to be had in DC too. Outdoor festivals, live jazz concerts, and a booming restaurant scene mean that alongside a sense of grand scale, you can also tap into the vibrancy and creativity of the local community. There’s no city better at maintaining that dichotomy than Washington, DC.

With so many things to see and do, you might not know where to begin. So we’ve compiled our list of the absolute best things to do in Washington, DC, for you. Stick to these fun, historical, and unique Washington, DC, bucket list recommendations, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an amazing time exploring this gorgeous landmark location!

Don’t forget to check out our web story: The 15 Best Things to do in Washington, DC

The Top 15 Things to do in Washington, DC

1. Explore the Famous landmarks

Best Things to do in Washington, DC: Most Famous Landmarks

DC is home to America’s most iconic landmarks: the White House, Capitol Hill, the Washington Monument, and Lincoln Memorial. The list goes on – and the hype is deserved!

Aside from their fame, these landmarks are grand and beautiful. We’d recommend heading to Capitol Hill first to take in the marble and fresco murals in the US Capitol Building. The towering white columns that make up the Neoclassical exterior are awe-inspiring up close.

The White House, of course, speaks for itself. Built primarily as a residence, you might find that it’s smaller than you expected but just as grand. Joining one of the daily tours here is definitely a Washington, DC, bucket list item!

The Lincoln Memorial is where many famous moments in American history took place. MLK gave his “I Have a Dream” speech here. The view of the memorial from the Reflecting Pool is gorgeous, as is the glow of the lighting after sunset. 

You’ll probably spot plenty of picnickers around the National Mall, so feel free to bring a cheese platter and a blanket to join them underneath the shadow of the Washington Monument!


2. Brunch at Founding Farmers DC

Three blocks west of the White House, you’ll find Founding Farmers DC. This local farm-to-table spot is DC’s most popular brunch location, and it’s easy to see why!

The ambiance at Founding Farmers is super unique, think farm rustic, but with an industrial edge and incredible art pieces scattered throughout the space. It’s fun, vibrant, and casual, and in true DC fashion, much of the furniture is handcrafted.

Everything on the menu is made from scratch – as in, the beef is ground daily in the kitchen for the burgers, the ice cream is hand-churned, the ginger syrup in the soda was boiled and reduced by the bartenders, and even the spirits are crafted at Founding Spirits.

This restaurant was founded by American family farmers. So naturally, all of the ingredients they use at this restaurant are ethically sourced and often feature local specialties like Chesapeake blue catfish.

While Founding Farmers now operates multiple locations across the nation, the DC restaurant was the first and is still the flagship. We highly recommend making a reservation, especially if you’re traveling with a larger group, because Founding Fathers DC fills up fast!


3. Visit the National Portrait Gallery

Must do things in Washington, DC: National Portrait Gallery

The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery displays the portraits of significant individuals who have shaped American life. Where else in the world would you be able to see Alexander Hamilton, Frida Kahlo, and Edith Wharton?

The gallery features the world’s second complete collection of presidential portraits. The first is in the White House itself. Every single Commander in Chief is represented here through paintings, sculptures, photographs, and more.

While portraits will always be the focus, over the years, the gallery has expanded to new media forms. Vintage daguerreotypes, along with video and sound portraits, are beginning to expand the definition of portraiture as an art form, and the amazing direction at this gallery is one of the reasons why.

Expect to see famous politicians, artists, scientists, inventors, activists, and performers lining the walls here. We love that the gallery also shares the stories of lesser-known figures in American history.

When they’re available, we highly recommend taking a docent-led tour through the gallery. The volunteer docents here and throughout DC are well-trained, highly knowledgeable, and incredibly passionate about what they do!


4. Explore Georgetown

Washington, DC Things to do: Georgetown

DC’s oldest neighborhood has been beautifully preserved, and spending at least a few hours here is easily one of the best things to do in Washington, DC. The streets embody a storybook perfection. Many of the buildings here date back to the mid-1700s, so walking around feels like time travel.

There is so much incredible architecture on display, and the historic buildings are one of those must-see things in Washington, DC, if you’re interested in design or photography. You might find some of the sights familiar since so many have been immortalized in classic films.

Georgetown has many guided walking tours you can go on if you want to really experience a slice of history. Our favorite is the Kennedy walking tour, which retraces the steps of America’s most iconic couple, John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy, from the place they met to the church they attended.

For music fans, you can’t miss Blues Alley, the oldest continuously operated jazz supper club in America. Ella Fitzgerald sang here! The spontaneity, electricity, and history of jazz perfectly fit the atmosphere of DC in general.

The historic C&O Canal runs right through Georgetown, so you’ll have access to a serene waterscape, which you can also explore via kayak if you’re looking for outdoor adventure!


5. Kayak the Potomac River

Unique Things to do in Washington, DC: Potomac River to Rock Creek

DC is known for its brilliant museums and national monuments, but one of the most fun things to do in Washington, DC, is going kayaking along the Potomac River!

We mentioned the serene waters of the C&O Canal in Georgetown, but a quieter and lusher waterscape for kayaking can be found in Rock Creek Park.

This 1,754-acre city park was the nation’s third national park. There are a lot of activities you can do in the park, with its green forests and lovely walkways, but the highlight is the shallow body of water where the Potomac meets Rock Creek.

Not to be confused with the Rock Creek kayaking route, which is only recommended for kayaking experts, Rock Creek Park is wide and easy to maneuver for kayakers of all skill levels.

Paddling up Rock Creek Park will take you through several picturesque sites, including historic bridges and lush greenery.

You can find rentals at two sites near Rock Creek Park. Thompson Boat Center is the closest, right at the intersection between the Potomac River and Rock Creek. If you’d like to start closer to Georgetown, head to Key Bridge Boathouse


6. Peruse the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Must do things in Washington, DC: National Museum of African American History and Culture

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is the only national museum devoted to documenting African American history, art, and culture. Even from the outside, you’ll know that the experience offered by this museum will be unique due to its thoughtful architecture. 

The corona and main entrance of the museum take influence from African art and design. The iconic exterior is wrapped in a bronze metal lattice in an homage to the ironwork done by enslaved African Americans in the South.

Its central location just south of the White House and adjacent to the National Mall and other national monuments and memorials recalls the contributions various historical figures have made to African American history.

Permanent exhibitions document subjects such as the end of slavery and the struggle for civil rights, the impact of sports on communities, and the military. You’ll find special exhibitions that deep-dive into important figures in African American history and that explore cultural influences like hip-hop photography.

When it comes to Washington, DC, sightseeing, this thoughtful and important museum is a must-see!


7. Sample Levantine cuisine at Albi

Albi means “my heart” in Arabic, and this Mediterranean restaurant has that in spades, along with authentic flavors recreated using Mid-Atlantic ingredients and a panache for plating.

Owner/Chef Michael Rafidi has long been one of DC’s best. Every dish you’ll get at Albi looks like it could be in a gallery. Bright reds, greens, and yellows from smoked veggies and fresh herbs, perfectly tender meats, and sauces spread artfully on the plate turn dinner into a feast for the eyes.

The rich flavors of the meal meld traditional Levant techniques of coal-firing with local, seasonal ingredients. The result is a refined Mediterranean taste, and we recommend trying the sofra, a chef’s menu that utilizes seasonal ingredients.

When ordering a la carte, the baba ganoush, sfeeha, and hummus with soft-shell crab are all must-tries. These may seem like standard fare, which makes the unique twist Albi puts on them even more satisfying.

Artisan cocktails pair perfectly with the menu, and the wine list is just as interesting, emphasizing savory whites, natural sparkling wines, and Levant varietals with ancient roots.


8. Tour the Library of Congress

Washington, DC Things to do: Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is the world’s largest library, and its contents make it a special Washington, DC, bucket list destination. It’s no wonder that this building is one of the nation’s greatest achievements!

The library is spread out over three buildings on Capitol Hill. Of the three, the Thomas Jefferson Building stands out as one of the most beautiful buildings in the capital. Named after Jefferson’s generous donation of his own books and papers to the library, there is a sense of grandeur that permeates the walls here.

The architecture is a standout example of the Beaux Arts style – that is, luxurious, theatrical, and ornamental. Sculpted features line the stairs and doors, and columns and floors are carved from veined marble and rare granite. You’ll spot plenty of bronze, gilded artwork, and mahogany furnishings that give this building a sense of grandeur, too. 

For access to the cathedral-like reading room and a closer view of its iconic dome structure, you can register in advance for a free Reader Identification Card. This is the ultimate DC coworking space!


9. Visit the National Museum of Natural History

Unique Things to do in Washington, DC: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has the largest natural history collection in the world. That’s 147 million specimens. They’re not all on display, of course, but it would still be possible to spend an entire day in this museum without seeing everything!

Like all the Smithsonian Museums, entrance to this museum is free. It’s perfect if you’re traveling with kids, but anyone can enjoy the wonder of seeing Henry, the 13-foot, 11-ton elephant towering over the first floor of the museum.

The variety of exhibits is staggering, and there’s sure to be one for every flavor of scientific curiosity. We personally love the Hall of Human Origins, which exhaustively charts the history of human evolution.

Other standout permanent exhibits include Ancient Egypt, which holds real specimens of mummies and sarcophagi. The Hall of Geology houses the National Gem Collection, which includes the rarest jewelry in the world, like a 168-carat emerald and diamond necklace and the Hope Diamond.

The lush Butterfly Pavilion is a worthwhile add-on to your visit, too. Hundreds of butterflies flit through the exhibit, occasionally landing on guests!


10. Admire the Cherry Blossoms

Must do things in Washington, DC: National Cherry Blossom Festival

Every year in late march going to April, the National Cherry Blossom Festival turns the city pink. Festivities take place on the Washington Monument grounds and in Potomac Park. The sights and the activities make this one of the most unique things to do in Washington, DC, for visitors and locals alike.

The National Cherry Blossom Festival began with the 1912 gift of 3,000 cherry blossom trees from the Mayor of Tokyo to the city of Washington, DC. The gift was reciprocated with a shipment of flowering dogwood trees to the people of Japan.

Since then, this festival has celebrated the enduring friendship of the people of the United States and Japan, with many events and performances showcasing the cultural connections between the two.

Between the pink blooms, live music, and hanabi (Japanese fireworks) show, the atmosphere during the festival is fun, romantic, and dreamy. It’s an unforgettable DC experience. Picnicking is highly recommended, but arrive at your destination in Potomac Park or the Washington Monument grounds early to find a good spot!


11. Attend a Symphony at The Kennedy Center 

Washington, DC Things to do: The Kennedy Center

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is situated on the Potomac River, and it celebrated 50 years of bringing arts and culture to the capital in 2022.

President Kennedy advocated for the center’s construction and led fundraising efforts. The center was built to be America’s “contribution to the human spirit,” a place where the arts could be celebrated on a national stage.

The center produces and presents all manner of performing arts shows year-round. Catch performances of famous musicals like Hamilton and Wicked, baroque symphonies, contemporary ballet performances, and jazz concerts. 

The acoustics at The Kennedy Center are well-known for being excellent. Step into one of the chambers, and you’ll find that all the noise of Washington, DC’s bustling cityscape suddenly vanish, so that you can really immerse yourself in the show.

The building itself is bedecked in grand ornaments, from the Orrefors crystal chandeliers to the red carpet that lines the foyer. Before or after your show, you might go up to the terrace and catch a lovely view of the Potomac.


12. Find Red Pandas at the National Zoo

Best Things to do in Washington, DC: National Zoo

Lions, tigers, and (panda) bears, oh my! Smithsonian’s National Zoo promises an amazing afternoon, especially if you’ve got little ones. This zoo is home to over 1,800 animals representing more than 360 species from around the world.

The highlight of this zoo is definitely the panda enclosure, which is massive and features multiple viewing locations. The Smithsonian’s conservation institute is a leader in giant panda conservation, and this zoo supports landmark studies into their biology and behaviors!

You’ll also spot the smaller, redder cousins of the giant panda: the adorable red panda. Other amazing creatures include all manner of big cats, different species of otters, and American bison. The list goes on.

If you’re traveling with kids, the Kids’ Farm area features cows, alpacas, donkeys, and more! Zookeepers often hold enrichment sessions for the animals that involve performing tricks or other kinds of play, making for a little interactive show for the little ones.

We would recommend trying to arrive between 9 am and 10 am if you want to avoid the crowds. Tickets are free, but try to reserve them at least a few weeks in advance.


13. Visit the National Cathedral and Botanical Gardens

Washington, DC Bucket List: National Cathedral and botanical gardens

The Washington National Cathedral is one of the most breathtaking and overlooked Washington, DC, attractions. This massive cathedral is filled with stained glass windows, ornate interior chapels, and vaulted ceilings. The robust cathedral’s botanical garden also makes for a perfect midday place to rest.

From the outside, the Neo-Gothic architecture is a real showstopper. The finials on every column, lancet windows, and decorative molding make it stand out among the Greco-Roman influences of many of DC’s other attractions.

There’s usually a small fee for admission – unless you go during worship hours. Once inside, we’d recommend charting a path that takes you by the many stained glass windows. The intricate Rose Window is the cathedral’s most recognizable feature, and the Space Window commemorates man’s first steps on the moon in a three-piece mural.

While you’re looking around, take note of the special gargoyles located around the building. A Darth Vader gargoyle resides here! The interior chapels are all unique, and each contains intricate murals that depict the contributions of notable Americans or figures in the church.

Washington National Cathedral is one of the most beautiful places in Washington, DC. Go in the morning to see the full effect of the stained glass windows.


14. Shop in Old Town Alexandria

Best Things to do in Washington, DC: Old Town Alexandria

Old Town is a historic neighborhood in Alexandria’s downtown. It’s minutes away from DC, and it’s the place to go if you’re looking for boutique shopping and dining in a memorable location.

Red Barn Mercantile tops our list for home decor, charming souvenirs, and gifts. This family-run boutique stocks unique pieces that have been sourced from around the world.

Old Town Alexandria is also home to Hooray for Books!, an independently-owned bookstore that specializes in children’s books. That being said, it has recently expanded to include a curated adult section and popular YA selection to cater to all ages. You’ll find an impeccably curated selection of apparel and footwear at The Hive, which stocks from brands like Rag & Bone, Aquatalia, and ASHA by ADM.

Take advantage of Old Town’s proximity to the waterfront and dine outside! We recommend Ada’s on the River for its fun atmosphere, great cocktails, and fire-roasted entrees. For a twist on classic French brunch, check out Cedar Knoll. The waterfront dining rooms carry a sense of historic charm, and the views of the Potomac are gorgeous!


15. Immerse yourself in the International Spy Museum

Cool Things to do in Washington, DC: International Spy Museum

The International Spy Museum is not your typical museum. It’s full of immersive exhibits that let you test your spy skills by going undercover, cracking codes, and crawling through air ducts.

The museum is dedicated to documenting the tradecraft, history, and role of contemporary spycraft, and it holds the world’s largest collection of international espionage artifacts. So, if you’re wondering what’s real in the James Bond films, this museum will give you the answers.

Spycraft is a complicated subject, and the museum is exhaustive in its efforts to show the public what it actually involves. Kids will love the interactive activities, while you can enjoy the wealth of information on display about a very unknown aspect of modern life.

The “undercover missions” you can join in on take at least two hours to complete, but you could easily spend four or more hours doing everything that’s available in the museum. Visiting the Spy Museum is one of the most unique things to do in Washington, DC, and we’d recommend it to visitors of all ages!

There you have it! The best 15 things to do in Washington, DC. What’s your favorite thing to do in DC?


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Author

  • Valerie Wheatley

    Val grew up in Portland, Oregon but moved to Oahu on a whim back in 2013. She sold her house and all of her belongings and bought a one-way ticket. Since then she’s taken two around-the-world trips and has visited 60-ish countries while living out of a duffel bag.

    Val started documenting the Wandering Wheatleys travels back in 2013 as a way to update friends and family about her whereabouts and to relay humorous daily interactions. The only readers were her mom and her mother-in-law but that didn’t stop her!

    These days you’ll find Val dreaming up future trips, creating new travel content, managing a team of amazing travel enthusiasts, and chasing around her two adorable but naughty kids.

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