Best Things to Do in Washington D.C.

Washington D.C. Is Magical

I grew up on Long Island and Washington D.C. is just over a four-hour drive from my hometown. Because of that, I was able to visit Washington many times over the years for weekend trips with friends, school trips, business trips, and visiting my cousin who has lived there for the past fifteen years.

I love spending time in Washington, there’s something magical about the history and energy of this city. I love walking around the capitol and the monuments, spending an afternoon in a Smithsonian museum, and finding a new spot to have lunch. With more than 175 embassies, ambassador’s residencies, and international cultural centers, Washington has an incredibly diverse scene and you can find pretty much every type of food and language here.

1. Enjoy a Wide Variety of Quality Cuisine

Washington has hundreds of restaurants, narrowing down the list is not easy to do. Washington has an incredible food scene perhaps on par with New York City. You can find just about anything you want here, although prices reflect the East Coast experience with sandwiches, burgers, and salads typically costing $17-32. If you’re not sure where to start, consider taking a guided food tour or cooking class, or check out Yelp reviews to narrow down the list based on your preferences and budget.

2. Tour the Capitol

Located on Capitol Hill, our U.S. Capitol building is where our Congress has been writing laws since 1800. Whether you only have time to walk around the exterior or you’re able to take a tour inside the Capitol, it’s a beautiful building with so much history and importance. While all tours and programs are free, you will need to register ahead of time. And if you’re not able to take an in-person tour, sign up for a live, virtual tour here!

3. Explore the Smithsonian Museums

The Smithsonian Institution is a group of museums and research centers founded in 1846. Incredibly, all 19 Smithsonian museums, and the National Zoological Park, are totally free! Some of the ones I’ve most enjoyed are the National Air and Space Museum, the Museum of the American Indian, and the National Gallery of Art. There are also many other incredible museums in Washington that are not part of the Smithsonian. Two non-Smithsonian museums that I recommend and find to be incredibly fascinating for very different reasons are the National Archives Museum and the Holocaust Museum, which are both free.

4. Explore the Zoo

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo first opened in 1889 and is currently home to more than 1,800 animals. I’ve been a few times over the years and I always find something new and interesting. You could easily spend hours exploring the 160 acres, checking out tigers, apes, elephants, pandas, and much more. The zoo is part of the Smithsonian, so it’s totally free, although you will need to reserve tickets ahead of time. Need an immediate pick-me-up? Watch the live webcams of pandas, elephants, and lions, playing and napping.

5. Walk Around the Monuments

With over 100 monuments spread throughout 1,000 acres, you could easily fill several days tracking them down. Washington’s major monuments are scattered around the National Mall and are free to check out. Probably the most popular monuments are the Lincoln Memorial, the World World II Memorial, and the Washington Monument, so be prepared for more crowds in those areas and wear comfortable walking shoes.

6. Tour the White House

One of the coolest things to do in Washington is to take a tour of the White House. Regardless of your political beliefs, a White House tour is educational, powerful, and maybe even a little emotional as you learn about all the incredible people and events that have occurred in this space dating back to 1800. It’s a very special and memorable place to spend an afternoon. You must request tickets in advance through your Member of Congress and you will be asked to provide I.D. when you arrive, so be prepared.

7. Enjoy the Trendy Neighborhoods

Washington has several neighborhoods that offer great shopping, bars, and restaurants. Dupont Circle is a glamorous, high-energy neighborhood with bookstores, outdoor chess games, and sushi restaurants. The young, edgy energy reminds me of Brooklyn, New York. Foggy Bottom is one of Washington’s oldest neighborhoods. Here, you’ll find riverside views, George Washington University students, and excellent kebabs. Georgetown is known for having a lively shopping and dining scene. Spend an afternoon checking out art galleries and upscale boutiques. Chinatown has something for everyone including concert venues, the National Portrait Gallery, and Japanese-inspired cocktails and cuisine.

8. Learn the History of Lincoln’s Assassination

Ford’s Theatre is the site of President Lincoln’s Assassination on April 14, 1865. You can still see regular performances at this historic theater, and you can also take a 30-minute self-guided tour through the museum. There, you’ll learn about Lincoln’s life at the White House, the challenges he faced during the Civil War, and why Lincoln’s killer, John Wilkes Booth, hated Lincoln. You’ll also see artifacts related to the assassination including the gun Booth used.

Washington is One of My Favorite Cities

Growing up in New York, I’m grateful I’ve been able to visit Washington D.C. so many times over the years. It’s one of my favorite U.S. cities. There’s something so unique about the history and energy of Washington, and it’s pretty amazing how many things you can do for free! Looking for more travel ideas around the States? Check out my blog post on 110+ Things to Do in the Berkshires, Best Things to Do in Austin, Texas, and Ultimate 7 Day Midwest Road Trip.

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