The capital city, one of the most noteworthy cities in the United States of America, Washington DC, is not only a political powerhouse but also a destination worth exploring. The city was named after George Washington, the first president of the United States, and the “D.C.” stands for the “District of Columbia”, the federal district in which Washington is situated. It is also the seat of the three branches of the government of America.
It is a dynamic city, home to the White House where the president resides and works, a plethora of museums and monuments, eclectic neighborhoods and a vibrant culinary scene.
With so much to see and do it might be difficult to know where to start. Kick off your visit by taking a Big Bus Hop-On-Hop-Off Tour. The bus takes you past all the major attractions and points of interest with multi-language audio commentary, so you will get a good idea of what you’d like to see, spend time on and plan your itinerary.
The following list highlights top things to do and places to see in Washington D.C.
1. The National Mall
Start your exploration of the city by visiting the National Mall, a 2-mile long tree-lined park that runs through the heart of the nation’s capital and extends from the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capitol Building.
Nicknamed America’s front yard, It is where you will find most of the must-see attractions in the city, including ten of the museums of the Smithsonian Institution, the Lincoln Memorial and the White House just steps away.
Adjacent to it is West Potomac Park, another national park that includes more national memorials and also the Tidal Basin, a man-made inlet to the Potomac River adorned with cherry blossom trees, Constitution Gardens, the Reflecting Pool and sports fields.
It is the ideal place to orient yourself in Washington DC and to identify which attractions you want to add to your itinerary.
2. US Capitol Building
Washington DC cannot be separated from politics and the US Capitol is where it all happens.
The seat of power in Washington DC certainly deserves a visit as it is not only a symbol of democracy but also one of the most important landmarks in the world and the most recognizable historic building in the city.
The impressive, domed building houses the United States Congress, the seat of the legislative branch of the US federal government and the House of Representatives. Visitors can even see politics come alive and watch politicians in action when Congress is in session.
Your visit starts at the Capitol Visitor Center where you can browse through exhibits to learn about the Capitol’s architectural history and the work of Congress, watch live feeds from the House and Senate or take part in interactive programs and activities while you wait for your free guided tour.
3. Capitol Hill
While you are in the area, do pay a visit to the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world, in the breathtakingly beautiful Thomas Jefferson Building. Besides all the exhibits worth exploring, the building itself is a work of art that you can’t afford to miss.
Within the Capitol Hill area are Barracks Row and Eastern Market, both popular attractions in the city.
Barracks Row was selected by Thomas Jefferson as the setting for the first post for the Marine Corps to protect the Navy Yard and the US Capitol, and today the area housing the military base is popular for its wide array of restaurants and quirky shops.
You can explore the base by taking a tour of the Marine Barracks Washington while you are there or follow the self-guided neighborhood heritage trail.
Treat yourself to a crab cake or blueberry pancakes at the Eastern Market just down the street; it is a farmer’s market that comes alive on weekends with arts and craft fairs and is popular for the fresh produce, flowers and handcrafted goods on offer.
4. White House
See where the most powerful leader of the free world, the president of the United States of America, live and work.
The White House is and was home to every president of the United States except George Washington as it was not completed until after his death, and John Adams in 1800.
Visitors can apply to take a tour of the East Wing of the White House, however, it has to be planned long in advance. US citizens must apply through their Member of Congress, and foreigners must contact their home country’s embassy in Washington DC to make arrangements.
To get a glimpse into the life and work inside the Executive Mansion you can go to the White House Visitor Center at 1450 Pennsylvania Ave. There you get an introduction into interesting aspects of the White House like its architecture and history and you can browse through a variety of exhibits that feature interpretive panels, historical artifacts and more.
Take the interactive touchscreen tour of the White House to view more than 90 artifacts from the White House collection, and watch a short film depicting life inside the mansion.
5. The Lincoln Memorial
The tribute to the 16th president of the United States, the great Abraham Lincoln who fought to preserve and unite the nation during the Civil War, is open 24 hours a day and free to visit.
The huge statue of President Lincoln is housed in the center of a beautiful structure that resembles a Greek temple, with 36 columns representing the 36 states in the Union at the time of his death. It is located at the western end of the National Mall, where it towers over and reflects in the shimmering water of the Reflecting Pool.
When you climb the stairs to approach the statue you will see the words of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address inscribed on the walls.
A good time to visit the Lincoln Memorial is early in the morning when it is less crowded or see it in the evening when the impressive structure is illuminated.
6. Waterfront In Georgetown
Take a breather from history, politics, and memorials and go and spend some time at the Waterfront in Georgetown, Washington’s oldest neighborhood with its cobblestone streets, spectacular views of the Potomac and loads of restaurants at Washington Harbor.
You can rent kayaks or canoes and spend a relaxing afternoon on the water, or go cycling, walking or running along the Potomac River and the C&O Canal. In winter the dancing fountain at Washington Harbor becomes an ice-skating rink that sparkles at night when fairy lights illuminate the area.
The Georgetown Waterfront Park is at the foot of Wisconsin Avenue, N.W. and can be reached by metro, the D.C. Circulator bus that runs from Union Station or other Metrobus lines.
7. Smithsonian National Air And Space Museum
Learn all about flying: how things fly and how the International Space Station stays in orbit on your visit to this one of America’s favorite museums.
The exhibitions cover the history of flying from the earliest days of flight to modern-day space exploration. So, for instance, will you see the world’s first successful airplane at the Wright Brothers exhibit, to Apollo command modules and a spaceship where you can actually walk through the country’s first space station.
The National Air and Space Museum deals with all things aeronautical and is a massive museum with the largest collection of historic aircraft in the world. It is home to 61 aircraft, 51 large artifacts from space and over 2000 smaller items.
Have fun while you learn and take part in an incredible collection of interactive games, watch a movie in the IMAX theater and gaze at the stars through a high-powered telescope at the Public Observatory.
8. The National Gallery of Art (NGA)
Valuable, historic works of art, a magnificent sculpture garden and an illuminated, artistically decorated tunnel that connects its buildings make a visit to the National Gallery of Art a worthwhile experience.
The art gallery was a gift to the American people by Andrew W. Mellon, a banker and former treasury secretary, who donated his private art collection and funds to get the NGA started in 1936. What started as an art gallery when it opened in 1941 with a collection of 126 paintings and 26 sculptures, grew to one of the largest museums in North America today.
It is home to more than 150,000 paintings, sculptures and other works of art that covers the development of Western Art from the Middle Ages to the present day, including the only painting by Leonardo Da Vinci in America.
The National Gallery of art comprises two buildings, namely the West and East Buildings, connected with a tunnel called “the Concourse” where the food court and gift shop are located.
In the West Building you will find works of art by European masters like Jan Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, and Leonardo da Vinci. The focus in the East Building is on modern and contemporary art featuring works by Picasso, Matisse, Warhol and more.
9. The United States Holocaust Museum
Take a journey through the life of someone who experienced the Holocaust when you visit this museum, which focuses on the atrocities committed during the Holocaust in World War II.
Expect more than just a walk through the exhibits in remembrance of a crime against humanity, but a comprehensive and graphic experience of what life has been like for people who lived through it.
Upon entering you will receive an ID card with the name and background information of a real person who experienced the Holocaust, and as you move through the exhibits you are supposed to find out what happened to “your person”.
The exhibits take you through Hitler’s rise to power, anti-Semitism, and propaganda to the Final Solution; this is where you will find graphic displays, items from the ghettos, bunk-beds from the barracks of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a gas chamber and even a deportation railway car which you can pass through.
The exhibition covers several floors and is arranged chronologically from early anti-Semitism and persecution to the death camps and post-WWII period. The museum also features a theatre, cafe, library and gift shop.
10. Smithsonian National Museum Of Natural History
Mummies and butterflies, dinosaurs and elephants, exotic plants and exquisite gems; whatever you are interested in, you are sure to find it and learn more about it at this museum, which is free to visit like all the other Smithsonian Museums in Washing DC.
Do not expect to see all the exhibits on display at the Museum of Natural History in one day, as it is home to more than 126 million artifacts that covers everything from dogs to dinosaurs.
Some of the highlights include the massive African elephant in the rotunda, a 45-carat blue diamond in the gem collection, the butterfly pavilion which features live butterflies and exotic plants and a look inside mummies from Ancient Egypt.
Insect lovers should check out the tarantula feedings in the O. Orkin Insect Zoo, and if marine life is your thing, do not miss the 23,000-square foot Sant Ocean Hall. Although the visit to the museum is free, fees apply to visit the Butterfly Pavilion and the IMAX theatre.
11. National Zoo
Pay a visit to the giant pandas on the Asia Trail in the National Zoo, one of the city’s most popular attractions.
It is one of the oldest zoos in the country and part of the Smithsonian Institution. The National Zoo is open 364 days a year, free to visit and home to more than 2,700 animals including Asian elephants, Sumatran tigers, and orangutans.
You can take a 20-minute ride by MetroRail to the National Zoo at Rock Creek Park in Northwest Washington from the National Mall. Be prepared to do a lot of walking, as the zoo is huge and located on a hillside with some steep areas.
12. The International Spy Museum
Have you got what it takes to become a spy? Go on an undercover mission when you visit the International Spy Museum to test your skills!
Upon arrival, you will be given a cover identity and go on a mission as you travel through the permanent exhibitions of the museum.
During your mission, you will learn how secret information gets turned into intelligence, try code-cracking yourself and come face to face with spies and their masters. You will also get an insight into the way that spying has shaped the world, how agencies protect citizens from threats and listen to spy tales from the Renaissance period to the Cold War.
Your performance is tracked as you move along and upon conclusion, you will be debriefed and receive an Undercover Mission badge. The museum is at Washington DC’s L’Enfant Plaza and can be reached by the Metrorail System.
A Few Handy Tips For First-Time Visitors To Washington DC
- The best locations to stay in order to be close to the top tourist attractions lie north of the National Mall between Capitol Hill and Georgetown, downtown, Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom.
- Make use of public transportation instead of trying to navigate through the congested traffic in Washington D.C. by car. Buy a rechargeable SmarTrip card and use the Metrorail, or take the DC Circulator’s buses that service five lines and run between popular tourist spots.
- Save time and money and get the Washington DC Explorer Pass to help you plan your itinerary and visit all the top attractions at reduced rates.