Trying to find great activities and attractions in the nation’s capital? Our guide to the best things to do in Washington DC is all you need to plan the perfect trip!
As one of the most visited cities in the United States, Washington DC is packed with historical landmarks and sites for guests from all over the world to learn about American history and culture.
Many historic national monuments, like the Lincoln Memorial and the famous Smithsonian Museums, have even appeared in popular movies and television shows. And many government buildings here are famous around the world.
In addition, many, if not most, of the attractions are free, making a trip to Washington, DC, budget-friendly. This ideal tourism location makes for a highly-sought after travel destination for many across the globe.
The George Washington Memorial Parkway is a scenic driving route that leads into the city. If you’re driving in, we recommend taking that road to see the best sights of Virginia and Maryland, along with the District of Columbia.
Stop searching for what to do in Washington DC. We’ve got you covered!
We’ve compiled the best Washington DC attractions so that you can go ahead and enjoy your time and skip the hassle of finding where to go and what to do during your visit.
Table of Contents
- The Best Things to Do in Washington DC
- 1) Visit The Famous Arlington National Cemetery
- 2) Climb The Washington Monument
- 3) Explore The Historic National Mall
- 4) Step Over To The Lincoln Memorial
- 5) Visit the Smithsonian Museums
- 6) Remember Those Lost At The Korean and Vietnam Veterans Memorials
- 7) Tour the White House
- 8) Catch a Show at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
- 9) Walk The Halls Of The U.S. Capitol Building
- 10) Learn About The Sobering Tragedy At The Holocaust Memorial Museum
- 11) Lift The Veil Of Secrecy At The International Spy Museum
- 12) Tour The Most Visited Museum In the United States, The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum
- 13) Dive Into History At The National Archives Museum
- 14) Hike Rock Creek Park
- 15) Stroll Through West Potomac Park
- 16) Bask In The Serenity Of The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
- 17) Admire The Washington National Cathedral
- 18) Admire the Creativity at the National Gallery of Art
- 19) Eye The Grounds Of A Living Museum At The United States Botanic Garden
- 20) Drift Down The Potomac River
- 21) Stroll The Stunning United States National Arboretum
- Where to Stay in Washington DC
The Best Things to Do in Washington DC
We’ve compiled a list of the top twenty-one things to do in Washington DC.
From visiting the best Smithsonian Museums to exploring the Historic National Mall filled with historical monuments, you’re in for an adventure filled with fun and history!
1) Visit The Famous Arlington National Cemetery
A United States military cemetery, the Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place of many soldiers who died during the nation’s conflicts from the Civil War and beyond.
Arlington House was the nation’s first memorial to George Washington. Eventually, in 1864, Arlington became an official cemetery, originally spanning 200 acres and has since grown to 639 acres.
Today, around 400,000 veterans and their eligible dependents are buried at the Arlington National Cemetery.
It is also home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a grave dedicated to all the unidentified U.S. service members who died in battle.
To reflect on the history, expanded over 639 acres, visit the most famous cemetery in the United States—Arlington National Cemetery.
- Address: Arlington, VA
- Hours: 8 am – 5 pm daily
- Cost: Free
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2) Climb The Washington Monument
Monumentalizing George Washington, the Washington Monument was constructed in the shape of an Egyptian obelisk to commemorate the timelessness of ancient civilizations and show gratitude to one of the United States Founding Fathers.
The obelisk tower stretches 555 feet in the air and was previously the tallest building in the world after its completion. Many visit the impressive tower day or night, and only a limited number of people are allowed inside daily.
For one of the top Washington DC activities, join this guided bike tour for a ride through the National Mall, along the Potomac Tidal Basin, and to the Washington Monument, Vietnam Memorial, World War II Memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial for the ultimate historical and family-friendly tour!
- Address: 2 15th St NW, Washington, DC 20024
- Hours: 9am – 10pm daily
- Cost: Free, but advance tickets are required. Find more info here.
3) Explore The Historic National Mall
Surrounded by national monuments such as the Washington Monument and Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, the National Mall is also flanked by other iconic Washington attractions, such as the White House to the north and the domed U.S. Capitol to the east.
Not an actual shopping mall, the National Mall is filled with historic landmarks. A free national park service app can be downloaded for new visitors to see how far apart each monument is and for interesting facts about these historical attractions.
Popularly known as “America’s Front Yard”, the National Mall is a must-visit during your stay in Washington D.C.
The long grassy knoll stretches from the Potomac River to the foot of the United States Capitol to protect national and iconic monuments.
READ NEXT: Get your fill of history by visiting Philadelphia next. Check out our post on the most incredible 3 days in Philadelphia itinerary!
4) Step Over To The Lincoln Memorial
Appearing in more than a few hit movies and shows, the Lincoln Memorial honors the 16th president of the United States, President Abraham Lincoln.
As one of the tallest United States Presidents at six feet four inches, President Lincoln’s statue would reach twenty-seven feet if it decided to stand!
Located on the western end of the National Mall, this national monument sits next to the reflecting pool across from the Washington Monument. The architectural design is reminiscent of a neoclassical temple, mastered and designed by Henry Bacon.
Thirty-six Doric columns surround the temple to represent each state that was part of the Union at the time of Lincoln’s assassination as a symbol that the nation would fall without the states.
Visiting this masterful historical attraction is free and available to be gazed upon at any time of the day year-round.
Another great idea for your DC tour is a Moonlight Trolley Tour. Exploring the best monuments and sights of the city on a night tour provides a more peaceful and unique perspective.
5) Visit the Smithsonian Museums
The Smithsonian Institution is one of the world’s largest museum collections and research centers. In the heart of Washington DC, you can find 21 incredible museums and education centers dedicated to art, history, culture, technology, and more.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Museum of African Art are ideal for art lovers. Both have a wide range of galleries from different time periods.
Another one of the best Smithsonian Museums is the National Museum of African American History and Culture. From Harriet Tubman to Michael Jackson, The African American History museum showcases all the ways that African Americans shaped the art, music, fashion, sports, and overall culture of the USA.
The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is another highlight. Made famous by the movie Night at the Museum, this museum has the largest natural world history collection on the planet!
Join a guided tour to take you through over 145 million specimens homed at the Smithsonian, where preserved plants, dinosaur bones, human artifacts, and art are galore!
The National Portrait Gallery is another awesome museum that focuses on images of famous Americans. Here, at the National Portrait Gallery, people may observe the nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House.
Also home to the National Postal Museum, the National Zoo, and numerous other art galleries and museums, the Smithsonian Museums are some of DC’s top attractions.
Visit the official website to view opening hours and addresses for each museum. All museums are free!
6) Remember Those Lost At The Korean and Vietnam Veterans Memorials
North of the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial honors the service members of the United States armed forces who served in the Vietnam War.
In total, the site spans two acres with two black granite walls. The Three Soldiers statue was added along with the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.
At this sobering memorial, 58,318 Americans who lost their lives during service are listed in chronological order. In advance, this can be very emotional for many visitors to experience. Therefore, we recommend being respectful of others during your visit to this memorial.
Also consider a visit to the Korean War Veterans Memorial, which memorializes all who served in the Korean War.
This memorial contains nineteen stainless steel statues and the Wall of Remembrance designed to commemorate the sacrifices of millions of Americans and allied partners. Each of the statues stands about seven feet tall among patches of juniper bushes meant to symbolize Korea’s rice paddies.
Both memorials are free to visit and are open 24/7 year-round.
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7) Tour the White House
As the residence of the President of the United States, the White House is one of the most famous buildings in the world.
One of the coolest things to do when visiting Washington DC is touring the White House. You have to book your tours at least 21 days in advance, and tour requests must be approved by Congress.
It’s a strict process, but worth it to enter one of the world’s most exclusive and lavish buildings. Tours run from 8 am to 12:30 pm Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
An alternative option is visiting the White House Visitor Center at 1450 Pennsylvania Ave. This interactive center has artifacts, photos, and exhibits showcasing what living in the White House is like.
Admission to the White House Visitor Center is free, and you can find more info here.
If you’re interested in US history, check out our guide to the best things to do in Boston, Massachusetts.
8) Catch a Show at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Another one of the top Washington DC attractions is the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Hosting over 2,000 performances per year, you can head here after a big day of sightseeing and kick back, relax, and be entertained.
From theater and dance to comedy, music, and opera, there is so much to see here.
Catch the Washington National Opera, National Symphony Orchestra, or the phenomenon of Hamilton the musical. Admire international orchestras and ballets, jazz bands, world-class comedians, and more.
Check the calendar to see what’s on!
If you’re a fan of theatre, also check out Ford’s Theatre. Here you can tour the museum about Abraham Lincoln, as Ford’s Theatre is where he was assassinated, or catch a local performance.
9) Walk The Halls Of The U.S. Capitol Building
Situated on a plateau eighty-eight feet above the level of the Potomac River, the U.S. Capitol Building is where the House of Representatives and the Senate join together to discuss, debate, and deliberate national policy.
The U.S. Capitol Building has grown along with the nation. The building now hosts over six hundred rooms and miles of corridors. The iconic white dome has been skimmed over or used as a background drop in more than a few movies.
Symbolically and architecturally impressive, the Capitol has housed the Senate and the House of Representatives for over two hundred years since its beginning in 1793. It has since been burnt, rebuilt, and restored to be seen in the present.
As well as being in active use by Congress, the U.S. Capitol Building functions as a museum of American art and history, hosting over 3.5 million people annually.
Join this tour for a guided walk with entry tickets to the Library of Congress and the Capitol.
- Address: First St SE, Washington DC 20004
- Hours: 9am – 3pm Monday – Friday
- Cost: Free, but tours must be scheduled in advance.
10) Learn About The Sobering Tragedy At The Holocaust Memorial Museum
The official United States memorial of the tragic Holocaust, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, is a living memorial to the Holocaust.
Dedicated to inspiring people worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity, the Holocaust Memorial Museum is guaranteed a permanent location on the National Mall.
A powerful lesson is mastered for educational value to encourage vigilance in preserving democratic values and not leave unchecked hatred rampant.
Since its dedication in 1993, more than 47 million visitors have walked the halls of the Holocaust Memorial Museum. In addition, the museum provides a Holocaust Encyclopedia that hones nineteen languages to welcome visitors worldwide.
- Address: 100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl SW, Washington DC 20024
- Hours: 10am – 5:30pm daily
- Cost: Free
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11) Lift The Veil Of Secrecy At The International Spy Museum
The International Spy Museum is an independent non-profit museum that houses information on the tradecraft, history, and role of espionage. It’s here that visitors can witness the largest collection of international espionage artifacts on public display.
Lifting the veil of secrecy, the International Spy Museum reveals the hidden world of intelligence. Guests can explore the successes and failures of espionage combined with the challenges and controversies that coincide with the invisible world.
The museum’s goal is to educate the public on the importance of intelligence in history and the present day.
At The International Spy Museum, visitors can explore the continuously updating role of technology in intelligence work and other factors like the impact of secrecy on civil liberties.
- Address: 700 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Washington, DC 20024
- Hours: 9 am – 7 pm daily (closes at 8 pm on weekends)
- Cost: $28.95 adults, $18.95 kids
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12) Tour The Most Visited Museum In the United States, The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum
Commonly referred to as the Air and Space Museum, the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum homes the world’s largest collection of aviation and space artifacts.
Established in 1946, the museum welcomes over eight million visitors yearly. As the most visited museum in the United States, the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum is dedicated to collecting, preserving, and studying artifacts and works of art related to history, aviation, and the universe.
Through these exhibitions and studies, the museum serves its audience to commemorate the past and educate future generations.
Here guests can explore twenty-one exhibition galleries that cover topics ranging from world wars to astronomy.
It’s one of the most popular Smithsonian museums, so we thought it deserved its own place on the list of the best things to do in Washington DC.
- Address: 655 Jefferson Drive, SW Washington DC, 20560
- Hours: The museum is temporarily closed for renovation but will reopen on October 14, 2022
- Cost: Free except for special exhibitions
13) Dive Into History At The National Archives Museum
Home to the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution, the National Archives Museum safeguards the founding documents of the United States.
The National Archives Museum was established in 1952 when President Truman unveiled the United States founding documents in the museum. And since then, the museum has welcomed visitors from all over the world for over sixty years.
Designed by John Russell Pope, a renowned architect, the Museum was meant to be a temple of history—which it is!
Homing “The Charters of Freedom,” the domed ceiling of the museum rises seventy feet above the ground and features forty feet tall bronze doors to inspire awe and reverence when visiting the historic space.
- Address: 701 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20408
- Hours: 10am – 5:30pm daily
- Cost: Free
14) Hike Rock Creek Park
Created by an Act of Congress in 1890, Rock Creek Park is maintained by the National Park Service as the nation’s capital gem.
Spanning 1,754 acres, Rock Creek Park is the third national park designed by the federal government.
A peaceful getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life, it’s here that many come to find refuge, fresh air, serenity, and thousands of years of human history.
Many come to hike, run, rollerblade, or bike the asphalt trails here for a refreshing outdoor activity.
In addition, there are equestrian trails that wind and twist through groves of cedars and oak trees, and if you’re looking to catch a ride, the Rock Creek Horse Center is available for guided tours!
15) Stroll Through West Potomac Park
Adjacent to the National Mall, West Potomac Park is a national park between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
The area includes the Tidal Basin, glorious cherry trees, and stunning views of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, and Jefferson Memorial.
Many come here for a rejuvenating walk to get away from the hustle of city life. Little pagodas are sprinkled around the grounds, and if you visit during the spring, the cherry blossoms bloom for a refreshing scene that takes you away from the rush of city life.
Walk along the Potomac River to the Arlington Memorial Bridge to stop at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. If you stop at this serene park in the morning, the peace is filled with birdsong as blue jays flit from tree to tree.
16) Bask In The Serenity Of The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
Dedicated to the 32nd president of the United States, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is a national memorial that features four open-air rooms to represent each of the four terms of office of which Roosevelt was elected.
Visitors can follow the meandering pathway that continues past waterfalls, bronze sculptures, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s enigmatic words carved on the granite walls.
Throughout the memorial, one of America’s great leaders is honored, sharing Roosevelt’s optimism that aided the nation in surviving the Great Depression and World War II.
The landscape of this unique memorial is often compared to a quaint secluded garden than a traditional memorial with its quiet alcoves and shaded trees.
Another great stop after DC is Philadelphia! Here is our list of the best things to do in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
17) Admire The Washington National Cathedral
An American cathedral of the Episcopal Church, the Washington National Cathedral’s real name is the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington.
This house of prayer is for all people and was conceived by the founders to serve as a great church for national purposes. Visitors from all over the world come to sightsee the cathedral’s stunning architecture.
The Washington National Cathedral hosts one hundred and twelve gargoyles and two hundred and fifteen stained glass windows to encompass the cathedral’s remarkable features.
It took eighty-three years to complete the construction of this monumental cathedral. And now, guests from all over the world can enjoy its magnificent displays!
- Address: 3101 Wisconsin Ave, NW Washington, DC 20016
- Hours: Opening and closing times vary based on mass and activities.
- Cost: $15
18) Admire the Creativity at the National Gallery of Art
Even if you’ve already visited the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Museum of African Art, or other art museums in DC, real art lovers will also want to visit the National Gallery of Art.
With over 141,000 works of art, including paintings, photographs, and sculptures, you can admire amazing artists’ works from throughout American history.
The Sculpture Garden is also a must-see.
- Address: 4th St. & Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20565
- Hours: 10 am – 5 pm daily
- Cost: Free
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19) Eye The Grounds Of A Living Museum At The United States Botanic Garden
Sprawled across the U.S. Capitol Building grounds, the United State Botanic Garden is a living plant museum.
As the oldest operating botanic garden in the United States, the United State Botanic Garden has been recognized as a museum, going so far as to be accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.
Established in 1820 by Congress, the gardens are committed to high professional standards and continuous improvement to sustain the best and oldest botanic garden in the whole of the United States.
- Address: 100 Maryland Ave SW, Washington, DC 20001
- Hours: Outdoor gardens are open from 7:30 am – 5 pm daily, Conservatory is open from 10 am – 5 pm daily
- Cost: Free
20) Drift Down The Potomac River
The second largest tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac River, was discovered by Captain John Smith in 1608.
The river once traced the border between the Confederacy and the Union. Its name was an essential Union army, the Army of Potomac. Throughout the war, the river functioned as an avenue for transport.
Today, locals and tourists can hitch a water taxi for an exploration on the water to travel to the National Harbor, Georgetown, Alexandria, Virginia, or the Wharf’s Transient Pier.
Renting out kayaks, pedal boats, swan boats, sailboats, and more are all among the best Washington DC things to do.
If you’re heading further south, check out this guide to the best things to do in Asheville, North Carolina.
21) Stroll The Stunning United States National Arboretum
Established in 1927 by an act of Congress, the United States National Arboretum is a botanical garden devoted to trees.
Spanning 451 acres, the arboretum homes 9.5 miles of winding roadways to add to the interpretative gardens and exhibits.
In addition, the nursery hosts a nesting pair of wild bald eagles that they record on the Eagle Cam so that interested visitors worldwide can view the majestic symbols.
This free attraction is one of the best places to view azalea blossoms while strolling through the pathways surrounded by vibrant flowers and stunning trees.
- Address: 3501 New York Ave NE, Washington, DC 20002
- Hours: 8 am – 5 pm daily
- Cost: Free
Where to Stay in Washington DC
Now you know the best Washington DC tourist attractions! From the incredible museums like the National Museum of African Art of the National Museum of Natural History to the parks, gardens, and more, you’re going to have a busy time sightseeing in DC.
Let’s look at the top accommodation options so you can rest your head comfortably at night after touring all the top attractions.
Best Hostel in Washington DC
Offering stylish and affordable accommodation, Generator Washington DC is conveniently situated in the thriving neighborhood of Dupont Circle. This hostel combines 4-star hotel amenities to focus on guests’ social experience and top-dollar comfort.
Best Mid-Range Hotel in Washington DC
Only two miles from the Arlington Cemetery is Homewood Suites By Hilton Arlington Rosslyn Key Bridge, a highly-rated hotel featuring top-dollar amenities.
The on-property restaurant, complimentary buffet or American breakfast, bike rental, and 24-hour front desk promote an exceptional experience during your stay in Washington DC.
Best Luxury Hotel in Washington DC
Simmer in celebrity treatment and world-class service at Riggs Washington DC!
Offering views of the city in the former home of Riggs National Bank, this luxury hotel serves all-American cuisine at the cafe and cocktail mixology drinks at the bar for the ultimate comfort stay of luxury.
And with plenty of nearby attractions, you won’t even have to travel far to see the best of Washington DC.
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