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

Visiting Washington, D.C., is a chance to reflect on our national heritage, with memorials and free Smithsonian museums along the National Mall that explore where we’ve been and where we’re going. But the city doesn’t take itself too seriously, and after you’ve had a dose of American history, you can check out vibrant neighborhood markets, the performing arts scene, and green spaces.

1400 Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC 20560, USA
This extraordinary collection encompasses the dark and the light of our nation’s racial history, from the shackles, shacks, and whips of slavery to an exuberant lemon-yellow costume worn onstage by Bootsy Collins when playing bass for the funk band Parliament. The story begins several floors below ground-level with information about the early days of the African slave trade. Visitors follow the exhibits through the subsequent floors, climbing ramps as the story progresses through the colonies, the Constitution, the Civil War, Jim Crow and carpetbaggers, the civil rights movement, and up to the present. The exhibits on the upper floors, covering arts and sports and cuisine and community, are a joyous celebration of ongoing history and culture. The crowds who sign up for entry tickets months in advance, and who stand in front of displays and share their stories with complete strangers, are testimony that it’s high time this history was honored with its own museum.
Capitol Driveway Northwest
The U.S. Capitol Building is the epicenter of all D.C. political action—this is where the country’s most important battles are fought. Home to the House of Representatives and the Senate’s meeting chambers for more than two centuries, it’s also an art gallery in its own right, with priceless paintings and murals adorning the walls and ceilings. Take the free guided tour and marvel at the parade of political heroes and villains who have roamed its halls during pivotal moments in U.S. history. The Capitol is located within easy walking distance of the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the U.S. Botanic Garden.
2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566, USA
Overlooking the Potomac River, the Kennedy Center stands as a living memorial to President John F. Kennedy and an iconic landmark for arts in America. Its marble facade, sky-high ceilings, and crystal chandeliers exude grandeur, not to mention the central eight-foot bronze bust sculpture of JFK. With its Opera House and seven other stages presenting a variety of musical and theatrical performances—as well as a free event every day at 6 p.m. at the Millennium Stage—there’s no excuse not to enjoy the artistic expression of the human spirit while visiting D.C. As quoted by JFK and inscribed in the walls along the River Terrace, “This country cannot afford to be materially rich and spiritually poor.”
225 7th St SE, Washington, DC 20003, USA
The Eastern Market, now a National Historic Landmark, opened in 1873 to serve the Capitol Hill neighborhood (an 1805 version, located down by the Navy Yard, was a casualty of the War of 1812). The brick market hall, packed with butchers, bakers, vegetable markets, cheese vendors, flower kiosks, and a lunch counter, is bright and charming. Under the shed roof outside, additional local produce is displayed and sold. On weekends, booths selling vintage goods and handmade jewelry, housewares, and clothing do a brisk business down the center of 7th Street. Crowds spill out of the cafés, taco joints, and bagel shops occupying the first floors of the row houses along the block, adding to the lively mix at the market.
555 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20001, USA
The Newseum is an interactive, ever-evolving tribute to our First Amendment freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. Powerful exhibits such as eight sections of the Berlin Wall (the largest display outside Germany) provide historical context for the importance of free press, while timely exhibits about the civil rights movement provoke reflection on the progress of achieving equality. The daily-updated “Front Pages” gallery of local, national, and international publications is a comparative study on current events, while the archive of headlines highlighting momentous events from the 1400s through today is an engaging history lesson. Peruse Pulitzer Prize–winning photography, enjoy panoramic views down Pennsylvania Avenue, and test your journalistic skills with a recorded mock-broadcast—reading a teleprompter is not as easy as you may think!
3001 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008, USA
The 163-acre National Zoo is cradled by D.C.’s wooded Rock Creek Park, providing a protected, dynamic habitat for more than 1,500 animals. From the micro-world of insects to the larger-than-life world of elephants, the exhibits are engaging and educational, especially if timed with a training or feeding demonstration. Highlights include orangutans swinging overhead as they traverse the O-Line cable between enclosures; a charismatic family of otters that swirl through a waterfall-fed stream and scurry over rocks; and, of course, the famous giant pandas, which are just generally adorable as they eat, sleep, climb, and play. Admission is free, but donations are recommended to support the hard work that goes on behind the scenes to research and conserve these species for generations to come.
2 15th St NW, Washington, DC 20024, USA
D.C.'s most recognized landmark—and the world’s tallest freemasonry structure—transports visitors on a 70-second-long elevator ascent to its 500-foot observation deck. A National Park Service Ranger accompanies you and shares the history of this obelisk dedicated to the President and General who was regarded as “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Consider that at completion in 1884, only men were allowed to use the then-steam powered elevator because it was deemed to dangerous for women whose only option was to climb 897 steps to get to the top. Timed tickets are now required to enter and are available on a first come, first serve basis at the monument lodge located along 15th Street NW. Tip: although the ticket window opens at 8:30am, it’s best to line up 1-2 hours early as tickets are usually gone by late morning.

Note: The monument is closed for renovations until early 2019.
4th St SW & Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC 20560, USA
During three years of living in Washington, D.C., I made it my mission to visit as many museums as I could, and the National Museum of the American Indian quickly won me over. I was greeted by a live dance performance and welcomed into a circular space reminiscent of New York’s Guggenheim Museum. The exhibits are educational, informative and engaging, and the space itself is a captivating exercise in design. It may often be overlooked, but it’s one of the best D.C. museums with a notable food court featuring Native American-inspired dishes.
5 Henry Bacon Dr NW, Washington, DC 20245, USA
One of the most humbling spots—the seemingly endless names that reflect back into the countenance of the visitor—puts a solemn sense of humanity into the memorial.
Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC 20565, USA
With two buildings and a sculpture garden, the National Gallery of Art is a treasure-filled trifecta where each person’s gems will only be uncovered through an immersive day (or more) of cultural exploration. The West Building is a chronological history lesson of Western art that showcases masters including Leonardo da Vinci, Monet, and van Gogh. Continue through time by taking the moving walkway under the 41,000-LED Multiverse light installation to the contemporary East Building. Here, Alexander Calder’s largest mobile hangs from the atrium roof, works from Warhol and Pollack are featured, and Katharina Fritsch’s 15-foot blue rooster sculpture stands proud on the rooftop terrace. Back on the ground, the Sculpture Garden is the perfect place to reflect on the day.
101 Independence Ave SE, Washington, DC 20540, USA
Established in 1800, the Library of Congress is the oldest federal institution in the United States. The library was destroyed by British troops just 14 years after its conception, and Congress used Thomas Jefferson’s collection of 6,487 volumes to replace it. Today, the collection of the Library of Congress—housed across three buildings—grows by approximately 12,000 items a day and is the second largest library in the world with 164 million items and 838 miles of shelves (that’s farther than the distance from Washington, D.C. to Chicago!). The library holds the world’s largest collection of comic books and one of only three remaining Gutenberg bibles. The Library of Congress offers daily guided tours to explore its historic collection and famous Beaux-Arts architecture.—Miranda Smith
700 L'Enfant Plaza SW, Washington, DC 20024, USA
Aside from fictional spies like James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Austin Powers, few of us know much about the world of espionage and that’s probably very deliberate. After all, you can’t expect any good spy to be giving away their trade secrets. If you are intrigued by spies, and want to separate fact from fiction, then the place for you is the International Spy Museum; it is the only museum in the U.S. dedicated to espionage. Here, you can learn all about the gadgets and techniques real spies used, from cameras embedded in everyday objects, to my favorite, the lipstick pistol. Discover the realm of ciphers and codes that spies use to transmit messages, notorious female spies (you’ll likely recognize most of the names but never knew they were spies), and the role of carrier pigeons in espionage. For fun, you can also assume the identity of one of 16 different spies. As you walk through the museum there are displays as well as guards to test how well you remember the details of your spy profile. There is also a GPS guided tour called Spy in the City which involves walking streets around the museum to solve a spy case on your own. It’s a lot of fun, plus you get to see a bit of the Penn Quarter neighborhood at the same time. Though the Spy Museum is small, they cram in the displays and there is a lot of information to read. Give yourself at least four hours to cover it all.
3500 Water St NW, Washington, DC 20007, USA
Key Bridge Boathouse is the go-to launching point for paddlers of all skill levels. Whether you’re in a kayak or a canoe or on a stand-up paddleboard, time on the water is transformative. Its classes, tours, and rentals offer a unique perspective of D.C.’s cityscape, where you can skip the crowds and glide past iconic sights like the Kennedy Center, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Tidal Basin. Head north to soak up the serenity of the Potomac’s tree-lined banks, or south to circle Theodore Roosevelt Island, one of the city’s nature and wildlife refuges. Farther downstream, the river flows into the Chesapeake Bay, whose oysters find their way to some of the city’s best restaurants. After hours on the water, a dozen of these salty treats are well deserved.
2 Lincoln Memorial Cir NW, Washington, DC 20037, USA
The Lincoln Memorial has the hushed and solemn air of a sacred place, and indeed, many of its six million annual visitors behave like pilgrims arriving at a shrine. They linger in the soaring marble space, contemplating the 19-foot tall statue of the seated Lincoln, or silently reading the inscribed words of the Gettysburg Address or his second inaugural address, which famously ends: With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. The legacy of the 16th president and his measured words in times of strife—as well as the monument’s dramatic setting at the end of the National Mall—have made the site the natural gathering place for vigils, protests, and marches through the years since its 1922 dedication, including African-American singer Marian Anderson’s 1939 Easter radio broadcast, and most notably, the 1963 march that culminated in Martin Luther King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
600 Independence Ave SW
Opened to the public as part of the country’s bicentennial celebration in 1976, this is the largest of the Smithsonian Institution’s 20 museums. It is the most-visited museum in the U.S. (and the second-most-visited museum in the world behind the Louvre), containing the world’s largest collection of air and space craft, as well as interactive flight simulators, an IMAX theater, and the Einstein Planetarium. More than 60,000 objects connected with aviation and human flight are housed here, including the Wright brothers’ 1903 Wright Flyer; Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis; Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1, the Glamorous Glennis, which broke the sound barrier; astronaut John Glenn’s Friendship 7 Mercury capsule; the Apollo 11 command module Columbia, which carried the first men to the moon; the Apollo-Soyuz Hook-up; and Skylab. As immense as the museum may seem, you are looking at only 10 percent of the entire collection. The remaining 90 percent is located at the Steven Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, the largest air and space museum building in the world.
8th St NW & F St NW, Washington, DC 20001, USA
An undulating steel and glass canopy wows visitors who enter the Kogod Courtyard. Inside you’ll find diners from the museum’s café, tourists soaking their weary feet in the shallow fountain running across the space, and students taking advantage of free Wi-Fi in the light and airy setting. The modern roof seals the center of the old Patent Office Building, currently shared by the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum. Architect Norman Foster designed the roof to have minimal impact on the building by creating a support system that prevents direct contact and weight placement on it. Unlike most of the other Smithsonian Museums located on the Mall, this gem is found in the busy Penn Quarter of downtown D.C. It is my favorite place to bring visitors, not only for the impressive courtyard space, but also for the preserved architecture of the patent offices on the top floor. Check the Smithsonian’s website for special courtyard workshops, concerts, or events. The museum is right near the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro on the green, yellow, and red lines.
100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl SW, Washington, DC 20024, USA
The Holocaust Memorial Museum is a living memorial to the more than 11 million victims who perished at the hands of the Nazis before and during World War II. Built in 1993, the permanent exhibition tells the Holocaust’s full story through real belongings rescued by survivors and Allied concentration camp liberators, as well as oral histories, films, photographs, music, and artwork created in the camps. (A must-see: the sobering display of thousands of pairs of shoes.) There is also a Children’s Wall, a children’s exhibit called “Daniel’s Story,” and rotating temporary exhibits. Designed by Holocaust survivor James Ingo Freed, the architecture is symbolic of the ghettos and concentration camps—notably Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Arlington, VA 22211, USA
The Arlington National Cemetery is a 625-acre cemetery where fallen veterans have been laid to rest since the American Civil War. The cemetery lies at the end of Memorial Bridge, across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Wandering among the hundreds of thousands of white headstones is a solemn experience that forces visitors to reflect on the stories and dedication behind each service person. Paid bus tours that depart from the Welcome Center are available for visitors seeking to discover the grounds’ rich history. Stops include the Arlington House, Kennedy grave sites, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where the changing of the guard ritual occurs every hour, on the hour. Those who want to explore the grounds at their own pace or desire to locate a specific grave can download the cemetery’s free ANC Explorer app.
1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20500, USA
The most famous residence in D.C. has been occupied by every U.S. president except George Washington (President John Adams was the first, in 1801). Construction began in 1792, so it’s the oldest federally occupied building in the city. Tours are hard to come by and must be arranged up to six months in advance and no less that 21 days in advance through one’s congressmember (for U.S. citizens) or embassy (for foreign citizens), but anyone can walk along its gates, admire, and take a selfie along the gates of the storied residence. Look out for the Secret Service sharpshooters on the roof. If you find yourself inside, tour highlights include the East Room, the Blue Room, the Red Room, the Green Room, and the State Dining Room.
10th St. & Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20560, USA
The National Museum of Natural History has become the steward of one of the largest natural history collections, with over 126 million specimens including hundreds of mammals from Africa, Australia, and the Americas. This museum always tops visitors’ lists for its vast collection and the famous Hope Diamond. While the museum is free, some exhibits and the IMAX theater require admission. This museum is always busy, but more so on holidays and weekends. It’s best enjoyed early in the day and during the week, if you can.
Massachusetts Ave NW
Passport DC is a month-long event in May with more than 100 international events and activities that educate visitors and residents of the Washington, D.C., area about our global community. Every first Saturday of the month is the signature event known as the Around the World Embassy Tour. With D.C. home to more embassies than any other city in the world, usually over 40 embassies (in 2013 it was 44), representing six continents, invite the public with a rare behind-the-scenes look into their stately mansions and exclusive compounds to experience their country’s food, art, dance, and music. Out of the 44, I crossed over the border into 10 countries in one day: Indonesia, Haiti, Belize, Barbados, Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire, South Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Sri Lanka, and Turkey. (Yes, when you are in an embassy, you are officially on that country’s soil). So I chowed down on the Kyrgyz Republic’s national dish known as plov (lamb and rice), drank Haitian coffee and Barbancourt rum, sampled rendang and sambal spices from Indonesia, sipped Turkish coffee, savored barbecue chicken with beans and rice and panty-ripper cocktails from Belize... and heard the sounds of “Gangnam Style” blaring outside the South Korean Embassy, saw samba and capoeira performances at the Brazilian Ambassador’s residence. And there was hand-shaking and mingling with ambassadors and diplomats.... Talk about a full day of cultural immersion!
3101 Wisconsin Ave NW, Washington, DC 20016, USA
The Washington National Cathedral stands high over D.C. as a beacon of faith for the nation. The impressive Gothic architecture evokes comparisons to Notre-Dame (despite being built more than half a millennium later). Flying buttresses, spires, and stained glass windows inspire heavenly awe, while statues of modern missionary and civil rights figures such as Mother Teresa, Helen Keller, and Martin Luther King, Jr., ground us in earthly good works. The stained glass Space Window includes a lunar rock donated by the crew of Apollo 11, reminding us of our small place in the universe. Bring binoculars to scan the gargoyles for a Star Wars surprise, and climb the steps to the towers for panoramic city views. While overseen by the Episcopalian church, the cathedral welcomes all people.
1750 Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC 20024, USA
National World War II memorial honors the hundreds of thousands who fought and who died during World War II. I snapped this photograph of the Freedom Wall, which contains 4,000 gold stars to honor the over 400,000 Americans who died during World War II.
5200 Glover Rd NW, Washington, DC 20015, USA
Rock Creek Park is the main stretch of woodland that runs through the city’s northwest corridor. If you want to escape the mob of tourists on the Mall, or you just want to spend time in an urban oasis, head to Rock Creek Park. Any section between the Kennedy Center and Pierce Mill has features aplenty—running/biking trails that follow the twists and turns of the creek, tennis courts, idyllic scenery, and the occasional distraction like the National Zoo. On weekends, Beach Drive, located just north of Pierce Mill, is closed to vehicular traffic, transforming into an ideal trail for running or biking. To enter the park at Pierce Mill, take the Metro to Van Ness/UDC and head down Tilden Street. It will be about a 15-minute walk to the mill. For those looking for a more strenuous workout, a hike or a run on the Western Ridge Trail might just fit the bill.
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