The Washington Monument and Reflecting Pool

Gazing east along the National Mall: the Reflecting Pool, Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol (©dibrova, Shutterstock.com)

Top Things to Do in D.C.

By Brooke Sabin & Anne Kim-Dannibale on 05/01/15, updated 07/26/16
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No matter the season, first-timers and repeat visitors alike find plenty of new things to do in D.C., but the classics never go out of style.

Bookended by the U.S. Capitol building to the East and the Lincoln Memorial to the West, the 3-mile-long, 400-feet-wide National Mall serves as an essential starting point for getting to know D.C. The eastern end closest to the Capitol is framed by the Smithsonian Institution’s many iconic buildings: National Museum of American History, National Museum of Natural History, National Gallery of Art (East and West buildings) and National Air & Space Museum among them.

On the western end, visitors find the city’s famous monuments, from the meditative expanse of the Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial and the Washington Monument to the Mall’s newest addition, the imposing granite structure immortalizing Martin Luther King Jr.

Other essential things to do include taking in a show (some free) at Kennedy Center, getting to know George Washington at his Mount Vernon, stopping for photo ops at the White House, and meeting the town’s beloved pandas at the National Zoo. Don’t forget to pack comfortable walking shoes!

The National Mall looking toward the Lincoln Memorial (©NCinDC/Flickr Creative Commons)

Looking toward the Lincoln Memorial from the East end of the Mall (©NCinDC/Flickr Creative Commons)

Attractions

National Mall

Where editors like to take a stroll through the Mall at twilight, aka “the magic hour,” when crowds subside and the illuminated monuments take on added poignancy—ideal for photos. The Mall makes for a picturesque backdrop after a snowstorm, too. Don’t forget to go to the top of Washington Monument for 360-degree city views.

The White House

The south portico (By Mary A. Behre, Courtesy Destination DC)

Attractions

The White House

With ever-tightening security, touring the White House takes some advance planning. But there are plenty of worthy exterior photo ops, especially from the north side. And keep an eye out for peaceful demonstrators of all sorts, like Concepcion Picciotto, who from her tent in Lafayette Park protested against nuclear arms for 30-plus years.

U.S. Capitol Visitor Center

The seat of the legislative branch of government (Courtesy Destination DC)

Travel Services

U.S. Capitol Visitor Center

To take a free guided tour, book a slot online or arrive early at the visitor center’s “Public Walk-up” to score one of the few same-day tickets. The entire 580,000-square-foot visitors center lies underground to avoid detracting from the appearance of the Capitol.

Air and Space Museum

(©f11photo/Shutterstock)

Attractions

Air and Space Museum

Signing up for a guided tour helps visitors navigate this popular museum. To minimize long waits for the Einstein Planetarium and IMAX films, purchase tickets in advance online. To get through security more quickly, keep bags to a minimum.

Supreme Court

The seat of the judicial branch of government (FaceMePLS, Flickr)

Attractions

Supreme Court

Cass Gilbert, architect of the imposing all-marble building, left a “lasting impression” of himself. Look up at the west pediment to find his carved portrait (third from left), alongside those of chief justices and the allegorical figures of Order, Liberty Enthroned and Authority.

Star-Spangled Banner exhibit (Courtesy National Museum of American History)

Star-Spangled Banner exhibit (Courtesy National Museum of American History)

Attractions

American History Museum

The best time to visit this enormous collection of American artifacts is midweek, midday. Highlights include “The Star-Spangled Banner” display, Julia Child’s kitchen, American Stories (Dorothy’s ruby slippers, a piece of Plymouth Rock) and First Ladies and their glamorous inauguration gowns.

Jefferson Memorial (©ehpien/Flickr Creative Commons)

(©ehpien/Flickr Creative Commons)

Attractions

Jefferson Memorial

Located in East Potomac Park, this marble ode to Renaissance man Thomas Jefferson provides one of the best views of downtown D.C. from across the Tidal Basin. Many walk the distance (it's far but beautiful), but biking around the basin gets you there faster. Capital Bikeshare and Bike and Roll (which offers guided tours) are two options.

Natural History Museum

(©Lissandra Melo/Shutterstock)

Attractions

Natural History Museum

Visitors stroll through the Butterfly Pavilion for free on Tuesdays (normally $6, $5 children 2-12 years) with timed tickets (10 a.m. at the box office). Dom Pedro is just as exquisite as the Hope Diamond, but easier to see (and curse-free). The O. Orkin Insect Zoo shows off creepy, crawlies and offers daily tarantula feedings.

Kennedy Center

At the Kennedy Center, sunset reflected in the waters of the Potomac River (Courtesy Destination DC)

Attractions, Entertainment

Kennedy Center

Yes, the main attractions are on stage, but we like to arrive early for a glass of champagne on the large terrace with stunning city and river views. Another tip: You can sometimes spot the night’s performers grabbing a pre-show bite in the upper-level KC Café.

Arlington National Cemetery (©U.S. Army/Flickr Creative Commons)

(©U.S. Army/Flickr Creative Commons)

Attractions

Arlington National Cemetery

A trolley tour ($12; children 4-12, $6) offsets walking the 600-acre grounds, while the ANC smartphone app has in-depth details for those wishing to get around on their own. The Changing of the Guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier shouldn’t be missed. Finding a specific grave marker also makes for a singular experience.

Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon's hilltop site above the Potomac River (Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)

Attractions

Mount Vernon

One of the best ways to get to George Washington’s home? By boat, as his guests often did back in the day. Not only is a river approach relaxing, but it gives great sightlines on the hilltop mansion from its most impressive angle. The Potomac Riverboat Company and Entertainment Cruises both offer tours to the estate.

National Gallery of Art/West Building

Edgar Degas' "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen" (Courtesy National Gallery of Art)

Attractions

National Gallery of Art/West Building

Works by some of the world’s greatest artists adorn rooms here. One beloved sculpture has even inspired a musical. In 2014, Degas’ “Little Dancer” came to life on a Kennedy Center stage. While more than 30 bronze casts of the sculpture grace museums worldwide, the National Gallery’s wax original is the only one shaped by Degas' hands.

National Zoological Park

Giant panda and celebrity sensation Bao Bao (Courtesy Smithsonian's National Zoo)

Attractions

National Zoological Park

D.C.’s most famous celebrity isn’t a rock star, or even the president, but a fuzzy bear. Since giant panda Bao Bao (“treasure”) was born in 2013, she’s been a worldwide sensation. Line up early for a visit to the panda house, which opens at 10 a.m. Bao Bao’s only one of some 2,000 residents, so plan to spend at least half a day here.

Georgetown's main shopping street

Georgetown's main shopping zone

Areas to Explore

Georgetown

For $1 each way, the Circulator bus is an affordable option to this popular zone since Colonial times. Local color abounds in the West Village (west of Wisconsin Avenue, above M Street) with Saxby’s Coffee (O and 35th) and The Tombs (Prospect and 36th). The annual Georgetown House Tour in the spring brings visitors inside grand houses.

Map of Top Things to Do in D.C.