Whether you’re a history buff or an outdoors enthusiast, there’s a lot to love and endless things to do in Washington DC.
Washington D.C. is synonymous with one word: politics. But do yourself a favor and set aside your political grievances because Washington D.C. is one of the best cities in the country to visit. Whether you’re a history buff or an outdoors enthusiast, there’s a lot to love and endless things to do in Washington D.C.
A Fascinating History
Before you go searching for intriguing things to do in Washington D.C., it’s worth taking a look at the gripping historical origins of our nation’s capital city.
Long before Europeans arrived, the Potomac River lands were home to significant settlements of the Piscataway people. European colonists recognized the geographic importance of the area. They claimed the land for themselves, thus setting the stage for the ensuing centuries of political tug-of-war that has come to define American politics.
Federal officials founded Washington D.C. in 1790 and named it after George Washington, the first president of the United States. Officials selected Washington D.C. to be the nation’s capital as a result of a deal between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. The compromise allowed southern states to have their own capital while also giving the northerners control over the nation’s finances.
Pierre L’Enfant designed the city, modeling it after the cities of Paris and Rome, with wide streets and grand public spaces. L’Enfant built the city on a swampland, making it susceptible to flooding. In order to combat this problem, L’Enfant created the city on a series of raised platforms or terraces.
The city continued to grow throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and today, D.C. is home to over 680,000 people.
What to Expect From a Visit to Washington, D.C.?
A trip to D.C. is sure to be an enlightening experience. With boundless things to do in Washington D.C., the whole family can find something they’ll enjoy. You could spend weeks buzzing around town on tours, getting lost in museums, and marveling at the iconic historical sites. D.C. is truly a playground for the intellect.
D.C. officials have done a great job preserving its historic architecture. Between the picturesque streets and the awe-inspiring monuments, D.C. has an unparalleled charm that makes it a wonderful place to explore on foot or by bike.
It’s also one of the most accessible American cities to get around without a car. The Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) operates the city’s bus and metro system and can get you almost anywhere you need to go. The D.C. Circulator offers an easy-on, easy-off way to get to all the great things to do in Washington D.C.. Bicycles, scooters, trolleys, and water taxis are trendy among residents and visitors alike.
Best Things to Do In Washington DC
- Visit the White House
No visit to Washington DC would be complete without a tour of the White House. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is one of the most iconic buildings in the world, and it is 100% worth a visit if you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing it in person. You can take a guided tour of the inside of the building and learn all about its history.
The White House is an ideal destination for visitors interested in learning about the history and culture of the United States. While you’re there, you can also tour the grounds and see the White House’s renowned and beautiful gardens.
If you decide this is one of your ideal things to do in Washington D.C., you’ll likely want to obtain a ticket in advance. Plan ahead because tickets can be hard to come by depending on the time of year.
- Take a Tour of the Capitol Building
Washington DC is full of beautiful buildings and monuments, including the nation’s stunning capitol building, and taking a peek inside the belly of this beast is one of the best things to do in Washington D.C.
An expert tour guide will lead you through the hallowed halls of the Capitol building for a tour replete with history, civics, art, and architecture. You will also get to see the inside of the Legislative Chamber and the Supreme Court.
You can also explore the National Archives, which houses infamous documents like the Declaration of Independence. Be sure to enjoy the view from the capitol grounds, where you can see some of the most famous landmarks in the world, including the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
- Visit the National Mall
The National Mall is a must-see for any visitor to Washington DC. This two-mile-long park is home to some of the country’s most famous monuments and memorials. You can spend hours walking around and taking in all of the sights, making it one of the best things to do in Washington D.C.
Some highlights include the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The National Mall is also an excellent place for people to enjoy the outdoors. You can even catch a free concert at the Capitol building in the summer.
- Get Lost in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History is one of Washington DC’s most popular tourist attractions. This massive museum is home to hundreds of exhibits on topics ranging from dinosaurs to anthropology, making this one of the most educational things to do in Washington D.C.
You could easily spend a whole day exploring all that the museum has to offer. While you’re there, be sure to check out the Hope Diamond, one of the most famous diamonds in the world. Just don’t touch it — legend has it that the diamond is cursed.
There are also a number of excellent restaurants located near the museum, so you can grab a bite to eat after a long day of exploring.
- Stroll Through Georgetown.
Georgetown is one of the most historic and picturesque neighborhoods in Washington DC. The cobblestone streets and 18th-century architecture will make you feel like you have stepped back in time.
There are plenty of fun things to do in Georgetown, from shopping at high-end stores to enjoying the views from the Waterfront Park. Be sure to stop by one of the many bakeries for a delicious mid-stroll treat.
- Check Out the Galleries of Dupont Circle
Dupont Circle is home to some of the best art galleries in the region and is one of the lesser talked-about things to do in Washington D.C. After stopping at the famous fountain for a little people watching, spend a few hours wandering around Dupont Circle’s art galleries.
Top of the list should be Dupont Underground, an abandoned streetcar station-turned-gallery space that houses the work of renowned artists. If you’re looking for more traditional art, head to the Phillips Collection, one of D.C.’s first private art museums to count works by Renoir, Rothko, and Van Gogh in its permanent collection.
Dupont Circle is also home to tons of excellent restaurants, so you can refuel after a day of exploring the galleries.
- Paddle Along the Potomac River
Washington D.C. is situated squarely on the banks of the picturesque Potomac River. Hop into a kayak and spend an afternoon lazily cruising towards the Chesapeake Bay.
There are dozens of boat ramps in the city, or you can venture downstream towards Piscataway Park for a quieter ride. If you’re looking for relaxing things to do in Washington D.C. a serene paddle down the Potomac might be your best bet.
- Hike the Rock Creek Trails
Rock Creek Park is one of the best places to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. This massive park spans over 32 miles of hiking trails, picnic areas, and scenic views. In addition, this rocky outcropping offers stunning views of the cityscape below.
Rock Creek Park is a favorite natural sanctuary for locals, away from the hustle and bustle of D.C. Miles of trails wind through the park and along the creek, stretching all the way to the Potomac. Lace-up your hiking boots for a stroll in the woods for one of the most things to do in Washington D.C.. For a truly unique experience, take a hike to the top of Pike’s Peak.
- Sample the Local Oysters
A trip to D.C. wouldn’t be complete without snacking on some of New England’s world-renowned oysters. So enjoy a refreshing happy hour special and a platter of fresh oysters.
If you’re looking for a truly unique experience, head to one of the many oyster bars and sample some of the local fares. Hank’s Oyster Bar is highly regarded by locals, but the Oyster Bar at Union Market is truly unmatched. This lively market is also home to several other excellent food vendors so that you can make a day of it.
- Cycle Around East Potomac Park
One of the best ways to see Washington D.C. is from atop a bicycle. East Potomac Park is a favorite spot for cyclists, as it offers miles of car-free paths with stunning views of the monuments along the way.
Situated on an island between the Washington Channel and the Potomac River, the park features 400 acres of green space and miles of trails that are perfect for a leisurely cycle. It’s easily accessible by the D.C. Circulator, and You can easily rent bicycles in the park through the city’s bike-share program.
- Stroll Through Old Town Alexandria
Old Town Alexandria is one of the most charming neighborhoods in the Washington, D.C. area. This historic district is filled with 18th-century architecture, cobblestone streets, and a lively waterfront.
A day trip is a beautiful excursion for visitors to D.C. Alexandria’s picturesque cobbled streets, and quaint 18th-century row houses are easy to fall in love with. There are plenty of things to do in Old Town Alexandria, from shopping at high-end stores to enjoying the views from Waterfront Park.
The riverfront offers plenty of green space to sit and watch the world go by, and there are some unique and delightful restaurants and bars to enjoy. In addition, the quiet charm of Old Town makes for a nice respite from the urban buzz of Washington D.C.
- Visit The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
The National Zoo is one of Washington D.C.’s most popular attractions. This world-renowned zoo is home to over 2000 animals, including giant pandas, lions, giraffes, and tigers. For the nation’s animal lovers, there’s nothing better than spending some time with the zoo’s furry (also prickly and scaley) residents as you explore all that the National Zoo has to offer.
In addition, you can feel good about supporting the National Zoo, as it recently received a five-year accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). This award certifies that the zoo meets or exceeds the AZA’s standards for animal care, veterinary programs, and conservation efforts.
- Explore the Catacombs
Between Greco-Roman architecture and global political influence, Washington D.C. has historically taken plenty of inspiration from Rome. However, in the early 20th century, a group of Franciscan monks took things a step further by constructing a labyrinth of catacombs beneath the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America.
The catacombs are a replica of the original Roman catacombs, though there is only one “real” grave. A visit to the catacombs is one of the more off-the-beaten-path things to do in Washington D.C., but it’s worth visiting if you’re intrigued by the unusual.
- Visit the National Gallery of Art
If you’re looking for a world-class art museum to explore, look no further than the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Each year, millions of people come from all over the world to see the museum’s famous collection, making it one of the most popular destinations in all of D.C.
This museum is home to some of the most famous works of art in the world, including paintings by Vincent van Gogh and Rembrandt. The museum is open every day from 11:00 am to until pm, and admission is always free.
- Visit the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is a must-see destination if you are an aviation or space enthusiast, though it’s interesting enough to captivate anyone’s interest. A visit to the National Air and Space Museum is among the most fascinating things to do in Washington D.C.
This world-renowned museum is home to some of the most iconic aircraft and spacecraft in history, including the Wright brothers’ plane, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, John Glenn’s Mercury capsule Friendship 7, and the Apollo 11 command module. With so much to see and do, the National Air and Space Museum is sure to educate and entertain visitors of all ages!
- Read a Book at the Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is the most extensive library in the world. The Library of Congress was established in 1800, and it has been growing its collection ever since. It is located in the heart of Washington D.C., and it contains more than 150 million items, including books, manuscripts, maps, music, films, photographs, and prints.
Its collection of more than 12 million maps also makes it the world’s most sprawling map collection. It is also home to the United States Copyright Office and the U.S. Congressional Research Service.The Library of Congress is open to the public, and it offers tours Monday-Saturday. If you’re interested in taking a tour, you can sign up for one on their website. Even if you aren’t a fan of reading, the Library of Congress offers some truly photogenic opportunities.
- Explore The United States Botanic Garden
The United States Botanic Garden is located in Washington D.C. and is the oldest botanical garden in North America. Established by Congress in 1820, the garden features a variety of plants from all over the world, as well as many beautiful gardens and exhibits, making it one of the most visually beautiful things to do in Washington D.C. While you’re there, you’ll see everything from exotic flowers to native plants, and be sure to bring the kids along to enjoy the interactive Children’s Garden.
Admission is free, so it’s an excellent activity for the whole family. You can easily spend an entire day exploring the gardens and exhibits, so be sure to wear comfortable shoes.
- Cool Off at Yards Park
Washington, D.C.’s Yards Park is a breathtaking oasis in the heart of an urban metropolis. With its lush green gardens, trickling fountains, and majestic views of the Anacostia River, it’s no wonder this park is a favorite spot for locals and visitors alike.
Relax with a good book or enjoy a family outing and cool off in one of the park’s many water features. Yards Park is sure to please whether you’re looking for a quiet escape or an adventurous afternoon. There are so many free things to do in Washington D.C. like taking a dip at Yard Park, making D.C. a great place for a family on a budget.
Want to catch D.C. in its prime? In that case, Spring is the best time to visit Washington D.C. as the weather is mild and the stunning Cherry Blossoms are in bloom.
However, the city is busy all year round with tourists, making any time a great time to visit America’s capital city. No matter how you choose to spend your time in Washington D.C., the city is busting with adventurous opportunities, and you’re sure to have a memorable experience. So pack your bags and get ready for the vacation of a lifetime.
Theresa Bedford is a syndicated freelance home and travel writer with regular contributions to the Associated Press wire and MSN. She helps everyday people love the life they have through simplicity, organization, and prioritization.