Grand, iconic, and the political hub, the USA’s capital is bursting with a sense of power and history. Everywhere you turn, you see a site that bore witness to significant events, whether it’s Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ moment or the Capitol Building that has seen the majority of presidential inaugurations.
Imposing museums line the Mall, commemorating Natural History, American Art & Portraiture, Air & Space and African American History, among other things. They’re symbols of the pride Washington takes in the country it represents and is always free. Among them, you’ll find monuments to the past standing in the ever-present reminder of things that have been.
As well as the power of the past, Washington also stands as a symbol of the power of the present. The White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court are here, as well as the World Bank, the Pentagon and dozens of embassies. Do you know how in House of Cards there’s that constant sense of powerful politicos striding? It’s not entirely inaccurate! The city is throbbing with action, decisions being made and alliances were broken. As bleak as we might feel about the current situation, there’s something fascinating in being close to this.
So far, we’ve painted a picture of a city that’s interesting, but perhaps not all that warm – to brush Washington off as a sterile place would be unfair, however. There’s actually a rich and varied arts scene here, from the National Theatre to independent ones. Jazz clubs are still going strong and you’re never far from some live music in the evenings. Galleries, open-mic nights, comedy, and craft beer all thrive in this city packed with young, ambitious people.
With all this on offer, it’d be a mistake to limit your trip to DC to only a couple of days and your programme doesn’t need to be limited to museums and monuments, as you can see from our list of the Washington DC.
From history to hip and happening, the city’s newest waterfront district is one of our favorite things to do in Washington DC – and only partially because we just love being by the water. Open since October 2017, this mile-long stretch along the Potomac River is packed with restaurants, shops and recreation options.
It’s a gorgeous place to simply meander, people watching and soaking up the sun (if there is any!). If you’re a water baby you can hire kayaks or paddleboards; if it’s winter you can brave ice-skating. Restaurants include outposts of all Washington’s hottest spots, from Nicholas Stefanelli’s Italian Market and Restaurant to Fabio Trabocchi’s Del Mar. There’s also the 6000-seat venue The Anthem showcasing some great shows. Get outdoors and enjoy the best of this captivating city!
If you didn’t believe us about Washington being more than politics and history, this is the Urban Adventure tour to go on. It will open your eyes to the wealth of culinary delights that lives in this city as well as teach you more about one of DC’s most ethnically diverse areas – Adams Morgan. You’ll visit some of the neighborhood’s hidden gems, trying a variety of six dishes and heading stories about the impact of the area.
From traditional American BBQ to Middle Eastern dishes to a sweet treat rounding it all off, your taste buds will thank you. The cocktail helps, as well! It’s a great way to meet people, whether that’s other travelers or the locals you chat with, and you even get some exercise (so all those calories don’t count, right?).
Perhaps one of the more surprising things to do in Washington DC is this fabulous drag show in a sports bar, with a side of eggs, bacon, and mimosas. Yup, you heard that right. Turn up at this big, white building on a corner on U Street on Saturday or Sunday and you’ll be ushered to a seat, a Bloody Mary or mimosa will be put in your hand and before you know it, you’ll be chowing down on pancakes while queens do an opening cheerleader performance. This drag show is anything but a drag…
It’s very interactive (i.e. be warned: there’s audience participation) as the queens dance between tables or even commit to some acrobatics from the ceiling beams. If you are shy – gurl, you can bet they will find you, but that is just half the fun. You can sing along to Rhianna or be taught how to twerk – or enjoy the show with your drink in hand. Brunch has never been so fabulous, inclusive or diverse!
Bibliophiles, listen up – this is the biggest library in the world. Located in three buildings on Capitol Hill, with 532 miles of shelves and over 164 million items in its collection, this is a truly staggering sight. It’s not all about the books. There are also maps, recordings, photos, and various exhibitions. The most dazzling architecture is in the Thomas Jefferson Building, where you’ll find several exhibitions among the stacks.
Even if you’re not as obsessed with books as us, the architecture alone is worth the visit. Rose windows in the ceiling, zodiac symbols inlaid in the floor, ornate staircases with carvings representing popular American professions at the time of building; there is seemingly infinite amounts to wonder at. There are daily tours that will give you further background on the library – these, plus entry, are totally free.
Hidden away among embassies a mere five minutes away from the lively residential area of Dupont Circle, this Art Deco hotel combines chic and contemporary design with friendly service and a whole host of amenities to make it one of the best places to stay in Washington. There’s no scrimping on comfort, as you’ll realize when you sink into the luxury mattress in your room; the rooms are kept clean and fresh.
You get free coffee in the morning and there’s a wine happy hour in the evening where you can chat to other guests before heading out for dinner. If you’d prefer to have dinner there, the Riggsby restaurant has some delicious options. With all this comfort, it’s hard to imagine wanting to leave – but if you do, you can hire a bike and everything you want to see is only a couple of miles away. One of the best parts about the Kimpton Carlyle? Not everyone knows about it – so keep it our secret!
A hall where all our favorite types of places live under one roof? Point us in the right direction! The former Union Terminal Market has undergone a bit of a resurgence as a gourmet food hall with tons of casual dining options. It’s extremely important to come here hungry as you’ll basically want to try everything, from the Korean tacos to the scrumptious doughnuts to the homemade pasta. If you come with a group, there’s something for every taste.
For those foodies who like to cook at home, Union Market is also a (slightly pricey) option for stocking up your kitchen shelves. You can get a huge range of luxe goods, like artisan tea, fresh produce, and enticing spices and seasoning. Murals and Yoko Ono art decorate the exterior, denoting what a hip place you’re about to enter!
We mentioned already how many monuments there are to see in DC, so why not catch them all on a fun and breezy bike tour? This way you’ll get to see all of the city’s ‘Greatest Hits’ without feeling like you’re endlessly trekking between statues. The tour will take you to the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Washington Monument, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and more.
It’s a more fun way to introduce kids (and some reluctant adults!) to American history and you’ll relish getting a chance to see more of the city as you freewheel around. Informative guides add to the experience and you’ll get plenty of time to dismount and explore each spot, before you’re speeding off to the next one!
We firmly believe that every trip should involve at least one ‘all-out’ dinner, even when you’re on a budget. If you’re in our camp, then make Succotash, baby of “Top Chef” alumni Edward Lee, your ‘all-out’ choice. Located in a former bank oozing grandeur, this Southern-inspired restaurant serves up unique food that doesn’t hold back on flavor or portion size.
Between the soaring ceilings and marble floors, you can feast on smoked chicken wings with a side of white BBQ sauce, chocolate-Bourbon pecan pie, outstanding ribs, and spicy crawfish. The cocktails match up to the food in inventiveness and quality, while everyone working here gives off a positive and welcoming vibe. Commit to treating yourself on your DC trip and make a reservation now!
You know how we mentioned Washington DC had some of the best museums in the country? And how they were free? Well, this selection of free museums will astound you, making them easily among the top things to do in Washington. Do some research in advance and choose where you’d really like to visit, otherwise, you might end up a little overwhelmed with choice.
The Smithsonian Institution includes 19 museums, 11 of which are on the Mall. Among them is the American History Museum with its eclectic collection that includes Julia Child’s kitchen and a muppet; the Natural History Museum and its elephant; the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian. These are only a few and each one is jam-packed with exhibits, stories, and history. As well as the Smithsonian museums, there are other, smaller museums lining the Mall that have equally as much to discover (and might be less crowded!).
One of Smithsonian’s most important and most worth visiting museums is the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In fact, it’s so popular and so worthwhile that you need to book tickets in advance, although it’s also free. There is 85,000 square feet of exhibition space and nearly 3,000 objects. It says a lot that while average visiting time at most DC museums is 2 hours, at this one it’s 5.
It’s a relatively new museum (it was opened by Obama in 2016) and it’s utterly compelling and so well done. It tackles a tough part of American history with compassion and intelligence. You begin in the ‘Slavery and Freedom’ exhibition before moving up through floors and galleries focusing on community and culture. As well as artifacts and art, there are state-of-the-art interactive components and interpretive panels. Given that DC is approximately 50% black, this incredible museum is vital in understanding ‘Chocolate City’.
Lively and eclectic, U Street is an important African American heritage district as well as a place you can have a hell of a good time. It’s been the center of the city’s black community since the 1870s and between the 1920s and 1960s it was the black entertainment hub, known as ‘Black Broadway’. It’s still an amazing place for live music and jazz clubs, as you should expect from the area that birthed Duke Ellington; spend the night in one of the historic jazz venues boogying away.
Bands, DJs and jazz groups provide the soundtrack, a plethora of restaurants provide the menu. ‘Little Ethiopia’ at the eastern end has always offered totally unique food, as has the famous Ben’s Chilli Bowl. For the undercover hipsters among us, there are dozens of adorable coffee shops and the local farmers’ market is a haven of produce. Colorful murals can be found up and down the street, adding to the picturesque vibes.
OK, we know we’re mentioning a lot of different areas in DC, but seriously, there are SO MANY cool neighborhoods in this city! Shaw is no exception, with its independent shops, trendy restaurants, and live music venues. Located in the Northwest quarter of the city, Shaw lies to the east of the U Street Corridor area and consists of a grid of mostly Victorian terraced houses. Like U Street, Shaw is also a historically African American neighborhood and is home to landmarks like the Howard Theatre.
It’s a fascinating place to wander around and discover, because you never know what’s around the corner. Here you’ll find an arty brewhouse, there you’ll spot a boutique cinema (the Atlantic Plumbing Cinema). As a nod to the alley culture of the last two centuries, many bars and restaurants have made their homes in carriage houses and warehouses, turning them into buzzing places where you can get a creative cocktail.
In the northwest of Washington, you’ll find this elegant, historic area that’s home to the main campus of Georgetown University as well as multiple embassies, restaurants and great shopping. We love its cobblestone streets lined with history and we were seriously drooling over the gorgeous houses here. The area is on the Potomac River waterfront so you get some beautiful views, as you do on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal that runs through the area.
Really, it’s the perfect place for aimless wandering, but if you absolutely need an activity then you can shop in local boutiques or designer stores or head to the game space at Pinstripes. Georgetown, like most places in Washington, also has its fair share of amazing places to chow down. It specializes in hip lunch spots like Sweetgreen or Stachowski’s, while the restaurants range from Michelin-starred to student eateries.
This district to the south of the US Capitol definitely feels like DC’s active and outdoorsy ‘hood. Perhaps that’s because it’s home to the Washington Nationals and if you’re lucky you could catch a game, or perhaps it’s the new soccer (football to us New Zealanders!) pitch where D.C. United play. Even if you’re not interested in either of these aspects, you’ll definitely love all the outside spaces in this area, from The Yards Park to the two miles of waterfront activities.
If you’ve got the bug for Washington’s scenic river views then how about taking a kayak tour of the Anacostia River at sunset? All the green spaces also host a range of events from concerts to movies, farmers’ markets, and expositions. Capitol Riverfront (otherwise known as Navy Yard) is the ideal area to visit if you love green city spaces and a creative atmosphere.
One of the Smithsonian museums not on the National Mall, the two massive hangars that make up this partner to the National Air and Space Museum are packed with dozens of aircraft and spacecraft. Dare we say it; we actually prefer this annex to the Air and Space Museum! It’s not just because we could gawp at Concorde, space shuttle Discovery and the like for hours, but because of all the interactive exhibits.
Visitors can really explore the world of aviation and space travel at a deeper level through the discovery stations and science demonstrations, not to mention the Airbus IMAX Theatre. Flight simulators give you insight into what it’s like to walk in space or fly a fighter jet. Basically, you’ll exclaim “COOL” a couple of dozen times while wandering around this center!
It is a toss-up between here and the Central Air Force Museum in Monino, Russia for the title of the best aircraft museum in the world, so be sure not to miss it while you get the chance. There is a free shuttle departing from Washington Dulles International Airport frequently, and free luggage storage lockers, so if you are flying into or out of this airport it is an even more tempting proposition.
Washington, DC has long been established as a place for individuals and groups from across the country to come to exercise their First Amendment rights by rallying around a cause. The USA is founded on the ideas of freedom of speech, the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances – so why not make the most of it.
Regardless of the administration in power, you can – and should – express yourself and your political beliefs. You’ll feel better for it, and have a distinctive experience along the way. The nation’s capital has been home to some of the most significant moments in American history from the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession to the the 1964 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, but there is always some protest going on here you can participate in. Or if there isn’t, maybe its time you started on!
Whether it is a small tea dance outside Mike Pence’s house or a large March for Science, DC has a variety of ways to express your political views – and we encourage you to do just that!
You have read the magazines and been captivated by the TV channel, now its time for the ultimate National Geographic experience at this one-of-a-kind DC museum. Exhibits at the National Geographic Museum shine a spotlight on bold people and transformative thoughts in the fields of exploration, scientific research, storytelling, and education.
With a comprehensive range of shifting exhibitions, the National Geographic Museum is a perfect destination for curious minds of all ages. Guests get to know the work of National Geographic conservationists, photographers, and scientists through fascinating, dynamic exhibitions emphasizing everything from iconic photography and world-famous artifacts to interactive learning stations and behind-the-scenes stories.
Especially noteworthy if you have been to DC before and covered all the free Smithsonian Museums, though this museum tends to have more modern and changing exhibits regardless
Founded in 1976 this neighborhood indie bookstore has become a local institution and meeting place for community residents, authors, and politicians. Renowned people that have visited Kramer’s include Barack Obama, Andy Warhol, Maya Angelou, and Monica Lewinsky, whose shopping at the bookstore captivated national attention during the Lewinsky scandal investigation and led to a very high-profile legal battle.
The original idea behind Kramers was to provide a place for people to both eat and read: “two of the three most enjoyable human activities” – and this still stands today. An intimate setting for dates, frequent live music gigs, author events, and always a full bar, why not stop by to enjoy a menu of upscale American fare, wine, and draft beer.
Or you know, pick up a book…
Mt Vernon is one of America’s most celebrated and significant sights, and this 4.5 hour Mt. Vernon tour takes you right to the root of the country estate that was called home by President George Washington. Located 13 miles south of Washington, DC you’ll head out across the Potomac and into the state of Virginia where you can then roam the 18th Century mansion’s magnificent rooms and gardens. In 1858, the house’s historical importance was recognized and it was saved from ruin by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, a philanthropic organization that acquired it and part of the Washington property estate and continued the 200-year-old tradition started by George Washington himself of allowing the curious public to view Mt. Vernon.
Mount Vernon was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places – and is open every day of the year, including Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Even without its relation to Washington, the property is a rare example of a full-restored plantation house today having escaped the damage suffered by many other plantation houses during the American Civil War. On the same day trip, you can also visit the boyhood home of General Robert E Lee, as well old town Alexandria where Washington worshiped and dined.
For a longer trip to Washington DC, or those who want to spend more time visiting attractions without the hassle of waiting in line to pay for your ticket there is the popular Go Washington DC Card. Cheaper than paying each admission on their own and with free digital delivery, it is also just very convenient and easy to use.
Pick from 17 included attractions and schedule where you want to go at your own pace. Pop into the newly opened International Spy Museum, visit the Newseum, stop by the National Geographic Museum, use on a three-hour bike rental and many more! You will also enjoy discounts on other activities, shops, or dining experiences for 30 days starting from card activation date. With savings of up to 47% on the 3, 4, or 5-choice passes – you really would be crazy to visit these Washington DC attractions and experiences without it.
As you can see from this varied choice of things to do in Washington DC, there is more to this iconic city than meets the eye – Get your Go Washington pass today and get exploring the moment you arrive.
Now you're all set and prepared to explore our big wide world, why not sort out everything else out all in one go? If necessary for your travel plans make sure you have brought proper travel insurance, protected your privacy by getting a secure VPN, compared all the top hotel booking sites to find just what you're after, reserved an unbeatable rental car price and - of course - booked the best flight deals!
Many budget travelers (including me) indulge in worldwide airport lounge access, so we can experience luxury while still slumming it in economy. Naturally, we would never leave home without a more a more general travel guide since we couldn’t possibly cover everything here!
Just add an adventurous attitude and plenty of smiles - they go a long way - and that about covers it all! Now go out, find your own path and don't forget to share your best inspiration stories with me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram...I'd love to hear from you!