The vibrant capital city of the USA, Washington DC is famous for its iconic monuments and vast museums. Along with history, the city buzzes with political power and an incredible food scene. There are lots of amazing things to do in Washington DC, from serene parks to crowded tourist attractions making any visit to this city truly worthwhile.
Getting There – How to Reach Washington DC
There are three major airports in Washington, DC, and flying is one of the most popular ways of getting to the city.
- Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport lies 4.5 miles south of downtown DC, across the Potomac River in Arlington, VA.
- Dulles International Airport is 26 miles west of the city, in Virginia. It handles most international flights.
- Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport is 30 miles northeast of DC (and 10 miles south of Baltimore) in Maryland.
All airport are well connected to the city by metro, public buses, and taxis.
All trains to the city arrive at the stunning Union Central Station near the Capitol. The station itself is well connected by metro, bus and taxi.
There are regular bus services to and from Washington DC from most major East Coast cities. Many stop at Union Station, though there are often other drop-off points scattered across the city.
Those planning to drive to Washington Dc by car or motorcycle usually use the I-95 which goes northeast to Baltimore and southwest to Virginia. It connects to the I-495 (or the Capital Beltway) that circles the city. You can also take the Hwy 50 that crosses the city from east to west, becoming New York Ave and Constitution Ave in the city. But remember to expect lots of traffic.
Getting Around – How to Navigate the City
Washington DC has an excellent and diverse public-transportation system. You can use the District Department of Transportation’s goDCgo to navigate and plan routes.
DC’s subway network, or Metro, is extremely well connected to almost all major sights, hotels and business districts, as well as to nearby Maryland and Virginia suburbs. There are six lines (Red, Orange, Blue, Green, Yellow and Silver) and trains generally run every 10 minutes, starting at 5 am on weekdays (am on Saturday, 8 am on Sunday) and up to 11 pm.
There are two main fleets of buses in DC’s public-bus system, Metrobus and DC Circulator. The latter is connected to most of the popular sights of the city. Ensure that you pay your fare using exact change, or that you use a SmarTrip card.
Note: The city also has a streetcar system, though it is so far limited to one route.
You can usually hail local taxis at popular destinations such at Union Station, and fares are meter-based (starting at $3.50, and $2.16 per mile). However, they are not always easy to hail on the street, so consider using Uber or Lyft.
The city has some of the worst traffic congestion in the US, and is known for bottlenecks in both the suburbs and the city itself. Finding street parking can also be extremely difficult in popular neighbourhoods, and garages can be quite expensive. If you do wish to drive yourself, remember that the speed limit is usually 25 mph, and that lots of lanes change direction during rush hour.
DC is an excellent city to explore by bicycle, with its wide lanes and various bike-share programs. Riders can also take their bikes on Metro trains and public buses.
The Potomac River passes through large areas of the city, and you can take water taxis to various destinations, such as Georgetown, Old Town Alexandria, and the Wharf.
Best Things to Do in Washington DC
1The Smithsonian Museums
The Smithsonian Institution is made up of various cultural centres, made up of 19 museums, many research centres, and a zoo, most of which lies in the DC area. Highlights include:
- Museum of the American Indian – offers a range of exhibitions on the Native cultures of the Western Hemisphere and supports repatriation and traditional customs.
- Air and Space Museum – explores the history and science of aviation and spaceflight, with displays of planes and space crafts. Don’t miss seeing the Apollo 11 command module, the Wright brothers’ airplane, and a model of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek.
- Freer Gallery and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery – both have excellent exhibits of Asian Art, including ancient ceramics and temple sculptures. Be sure to visit the exquisite blue-and-gold Peacock Room.
- American Art Museum –
- National Gallery of Art – has hundreds of masterpieces of European art from the early 1900s to the present.
- Renwick Gallery – located a block away from the White House, this gallery displays decorative arts from the 19th to the present.
- Museum of Natural History – its collections contain all kinds of specimins of natural history, including plants, animals, fossils, minerals, rocks, and more.
- Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden – displays works by prominent contemporary artists and an adjoining garden with sculptures
- Museum of American History – contains all kinds of artefacts on related to the nation’s history, such as historic flags, Lincoln’s top hat, Washington’s sword and an exhibit of First Ladies’ costumes.
- Museum of African American History and Culture – explores the experiences of African Americans and their achievements. Don’t miss the sobering ‘Slavery and Freedom’ exhibition, and exhibits of Harriet Tubman’s hymnal and Emmett Till’s casket.
- National Zoological Park – it is home to about 1,800 animals of 300 different species, including giant pandas, the big cats, and great apes.
2The U.S. Capitol
Go on guided tours of the building where the American legislature is housed, and where bills are turned into laws. The lower House of Representatives meets in the south wing, while the upper Senate (100) meet in the north wing. However, tickets to the guided tours are limited, so it’s best to book online in advance (there’s no fee to do so).
3Library of Congress
One of the largest and most prestigious libraries in the world, the stunning Library of Congress is also the national library of the United States. Spread across three buildings it has over 160 million items in more than 450 languages.
4Supreme Court of the United States
The highest court in the country, the Supreme Court is built in a Greek-style building. You can visit the many permanent exhibits and hear lectures here throughout the year. When the court is in session (Monday–Wednesday during October–April), you can even watch a case being argued.
The official residence of the President of the United States, this iconic, imposing building was built between 1792 and 1800. While pre-arranged tours are possible, they are quite difficult to get. Americans need to apply via a member of Congress; while non-Americans must ask their country’s embassy in DC for access.
Set at the centre of the National Mall, which is lined with several monuments, the Washington Monument towers over them all. The iconic obelisk stands at 555 feet tall, and offers unparalleled views from the top.
At the western end of the National Mall lies the memorial to America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. With majestic neoclassical Doric-columns. Lincoln’s marble statue is flanked by the words of his Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural speech. The memorial is also where Martin Luther King Jr delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
8National World War II Memorial
The soaring columns and bronze sculptures of the World War II Memorial lies between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. It pays tribute to those Americans who served in the war and honours those who fell. You can also visit the nearby memorials to the veterans of the Vietnam War and the Korean War
9Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
This memorial features a 30ft-tall likeness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the celebrated leader in the American civil rights movement. It is located next to the National Mall, and also has many of Dr. King’s quotes engraved in the stone behind him.
10Thomas Jefferson Memorial
Sitting amid a grove of cherry trees, the round Jefferson Memorial lies on the south bank of the Tidal Basin. It is a replica of the Roman Pantheon and honours the third US president. Inside, you will find inscriptions from the Declaration of Independence, which was drafted by Jefferson.
11U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Also near the National Mall, is the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum which has numerous impassioned exhibits, including photographs and personal artefacts about the millions murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust.
This fascinating and interactive museum is filled with exhibits of major events in the news. These include the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, and even the Unabomber’s cabin.
13Georgetown and the Waterfront
A picturesque neighbourhood is full of narrow cobblestoned streets shaded by lush green trees. Here you will find beautiful 18th- and 19th-century homes, as well as boutiques, cafes, restaurants, and art galleries. Head to the waterfront for stunning views of the Potomac.
14Woodrow Wilson House
This preserved 1920s home on Embassy Row is a Georgian-revival mansion once belonged to America’s 28th president (between 1921–24). It explores his life and legacy, as well as exhibits of artefacts, and even his wife’s flapper dresses.
15U.S. National Arboretum
Spread over 450 acres, the National Arboretum is home to all kinds of green spaces, from gardens and meadows to bonsai exhibits, herb gardens, and even a koi pond. You can also find some of the original columns from the Capitol building at the Capitol Columns Garden.
16The Kennedy Center
Located in the Foggy Bottom area, the Kennedy Center overlooks the Potomac River, and is a performance arts space hosts all kinds of shows. It is also home to the National Symphony and the National Opera. You can also visit the rooftop terrace for panoramic views of the city.
This huge neo-Gothic cathedral was built between 1907 and 1990. It has lots of interesting features, such as over 200 unique gargoyles, more than 200 stained-glass windows, mosaics, wood carvings and much more.
18Arlington National Cemetery
The Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for thousands of American servicemen and women, as well as President Kennedy. It is also home to “The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” which has the remains of unidentified US service personnel from both of the World Wars and the Korean War.
Made (in)famous as the place where John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, this theatre is full of fascinating exhibits and artefacts, such as Booth’s .44-caliber pistol.
20Theodore Roosevelt Island
A 91-acre island in the Potomac River, the wooded Theodore Roosevelt Island is the perfect place to go on walks, as it is car and bike free. Its trails are full of vibrant wildlife and offer great views of the Kennedy Center and Georgetown University across the river.
This area of Washington DC is filled with embassies, restaurants, bars, cafes, and more. You’ll also find all kinds of boutiques, vendors, and the fascinating National Geographic Museum.