(Last Updated On: February 11, 2021)

There are so many things to do in Washington DC, that if you only have a limited time it can be hard to fit everything in! I’ve compiled a guide to my favourite twenty things to do in the US capital, so you don’t get overwhelmed and can plan your visit. 

Disclosure:  This post may contain affiliate links. I only recommend products or services I would use myself and all opinions expressed here are my own. If you use these links to buy something, I may earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your continued support.

Things To Do In Washington DC

1. Lincoln Memorial

Washington DC’s most famous memorial has to be the majestic statue of slain president Abraham Lincoln seated in his marble shrine. The 16th President of the United States of America, who was shot at the Ford Theatre in Washington DC, looks out over the reflecting pool with a perfect view of the Washington Monument – a sight that we’ve seen many times in films and TV shows about the nation’s capital.

The memorial is awe-inspiring. I felt an immediate sense of reflection and hush as soon as I entered the chamber and the statue of Lincoln inside there is truly huge and contemplative. The words inscribed on the walls of the chamber from the Gettysburg Address and the second Inaugural Address are a simple but powerful tribute to the change that this man affected in his lifetime. When you leave the memorial and wander down the steps, keep an eye out for the stone where Martin Luther King, Jr. stood to give his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

2. Arlington National Cemetery

My mum is a massive fan of exploring cemeteries and I’ve always found it a bit odd, but in recent times, I’ve found myself really fascinated by wandering amongst the headstones. Arlington National Cemetery is not technically in the District of Columbia, but I’ve included it in this list of things to do in Washington DC because it’s possible to get here in about 20 mins walk or 5 mins drive from the Lincoln Memorial and JFK’s eternal flame burning in Arlington can be seen all the way from the DC side over to the Virginia side.

The cemetery, itself, is vast and uniform white headstones litter the grassy fields. These headstones stretch for miles, really giving a sense for how large this space is. A short wander up the hill takes me to the eternal flame and burial site of JFK and his wife Jackie which is a simple, yet elegant memorial with incredible views of the Washington DC monuments and architecture. 

3. Smithsonian – National Air & Space Museum

There are so many great museums in Washington DC, but in my opinion, none surpass the incredible National Air and Space Museum run by the Smithsonian Institute. This incredible museum contains enormous exhibits on both aeroplanes and spacecraft, including my favourite display that features Amelia Earhart’s fire engine red Lockheed Vega 5B aircraft. I’ve worked most of my adult career in aviation, so the airline nerd inside me was very excited. The National Air and Space Museum is the most visited museum in the USA according to Wikipedia, which just goes to show how fascinating locals and tourists alike find air travel. And to top it all off, entry to the museum is absolutely free as it’s part of the Smithsonian collection. It’s definitely one of my favourite things to do in Washington DC.

4. The White House

The most famous residence in the USA (and likely, the world), The White House is easily recognisable as I walk around the city centre of Washington DC. When I visited, the house was cordoned off as likely there were some important visitors or security measures were increased, so getting the perfect shot was a little challenging!

It is possible to contact your country’s embassy to try and arrange a tour, however the Australian Embassy won’t bother doing this for their visiting citizens, so if you’re an Aussie, there’s no way to get inside for a peek. If you’re from the US, you can arrange a visit through your member of Congress. More info can be found here. Still, it’s a pretty nice house, if even from the outside and definitely fed my inner West Wing fan girl.

5. National Archives

Here’s where you can see the documents that birthed a nation. The National Archives contain some of the most significant documents in US History including the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution. After starting my US trip in Philadelphia and seeing the Independence Hall and Liberty Bell where the documents were signed, it was pretty amazing to then find myself in Washington DC, standing in front of the actual documents. The National Archives are free to enter, and it’s definitely worth popping in if only briefly, just to see these documents.

6. The United States Capitol

In my opinion, the most impressive building in the District of Columbia, and my favourite in a long list of things to do in Washington DC, the US Capitol building can be seen at most points throughout the city. Tours of the Capitol are truly excellent and I’d recommend booking in advance to ensure you don’t miss out on wandering the walls and seeing the amazing architecture in the dome area. For political nerds like me, definitely make sure you go in to watch a little bit of Congress or the Senate. US citizens can organise an entry pass through their Congress Representative and international visitors can visit a desk in the building to obtain entry with their passport. Watching the US government in action is quite amazing – I was there on the day that Congress held a vote on Trump’s National Emergency declaration and the place was buzzing.

7. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial

One of the founding fathers of the USA and third President of the country, Thomas Jefferson, is honoured in the capitol with a beautiful rotund memorial overlooking the Tidal Basin. A large statue of the man, himself, is situated inside the shrine and his eye line is apparently directed towards a statue of rival Alexander Hamilton standing outside the Treasury Building. The steps outside the Jefferson Memorial are a gorgeous spot to stop and take in the views of the Tidal Basin and greater Washington DC. If the Jefferson Memorial is on your list of things to do in Washington DC, then I recommend a nice walk along the water front from the Lincoln Memorial to really appreciate the cherry blossom trees and the views. 

8. World War II Memorial

One of the most interesting memorials in Washington DC is the National World War II Memorial. Situated at the opposite end of the reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial, this grand place of reflection is made up of two arches – one for the Atlantic and one for the Pacific – and 56 pillars making up the elliptical shape. On each pillar is the name of a United States state or territory with the addition of the Philippines, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Puerto Rico, commemorating their efforts in the conflict. Facing the Lincoln Memorial is the Freedom Wall, which is a large wall dotted with gold stars – one star for every 100 US soldiers lost in the conflict. In night time, the memorial is extra beautiful, with all the pillars lit up. 

9. Ford Theatre & Petersen House

I’m quite a fan of Abraham Lincoln and when I found out that the Ford Theatre where he was shot by actor John Wilkes Booth and Petersen House where he subsequently died of his injuries was just near Chinatown in Washington DC, I was keen to take a look. The actual theatre was closed for rehearsals as it’s still a working theatre, but below the theatre there’s a great museum all on Lincoln’s life and the assassination. After strolling the exhibits, the free ticket also included a visit to Petersen House just across the road where I was able to stand in the very room that Lincoln died in. If you’re a history fan, or a Lincoln fan (or both!) then add this to your list of things to do in Washington DC. 

10. Washington Monument

The Washington Monument is arguable the most recognisable monument in DC. The towering obelisk marks the capital of the United States with pride. When I visited in Feb 2019, the obelisk was closed for renovations – elevator issues, but from Spring 2019, you’ll be able to head right up to the top to get a bird’s eye view of the District of Columbia below. The obelisk itself is the tallest one in the world and also the world’s tallest stone structure. The monument is visible from just about anywhere in Washington DC, a powerful reminder of the reverence in which the American people hold their first President. 

11. See the Monuments by Night

The memorials and monuments of Washington DC are remarkable at any time, but there is something exceptionally special about seeing them lit up at night. I’d recommend hopping on a tour for this one, so you can easily get around from place to place and learn the history from your guide along the way. If you’re visiting in colder months, like I was, then the added bonus of being in the bus is that its heated! In warmer months, there are also bike or Segway tours that would be a heap of fun. Most tours will take you to the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam War Memorial, Korean War Memorial and the WWII Memorial at a minimum. There’s a few great DC night tours up on Viator here for you to choose from.

12. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

The newest memorial in the area, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is cleverly designed using the language from his most famous speech to inform the sculpture. In his “I have a dream” speech, King said “out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope”. The memorial to this amazing man shows Martin Luther King Jr. emerging from the mountain of despair as the stone of hope – in recognition of his contribution to the civil rights movement. His gaze stares intently across the tidal basin towards the Jefferson Memorial. It’s a beautiful remembrance of a wonderful man who did so much to progress the rights of people of colour in the USA. 

13. Take a walk around the Tidal Basin

The prettiest spot in the city and my absolute favourite of the many things to do in Washington DC is to take a walk on a clear day around the Tidal Basin where cherry blossom trees droop along the water’s edge. I visited when the trees were still bare, but would love to get back in Spring to see the cherry blossoms in bloom. The best walking track, in my opinion, is to start at the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial and wander round towards the Jefferson Memorial via the huge FDR memorial which you’ll see along the way. 

14. Late night book shopping at Kramerbooks & Afterword Cafe

Since 1976, late night books and drinks have been on the go at Kramerbooks & Afterword Cafe. Located in the lovely Dupont Circle neighbourhood, this up-late bookstore has all your reading covered. This quaint little bookstore has boasted high profile visitors like Maya Angelou, Barack Obama and Andy Warhol as well as a rather scandalous visit from Monica Lewinsky whose purchases from the store were under subpoena (which Kramerbooks fought). If you’re looking for a cosy nook and a great atmosphere to have a quiet night in, then add Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe to your list of things to do in Washington DC.

 

15. Korean War Veterans Memorial

I think this memorial has to be my favourite of all the different one scattered around the National Mall and surrounds. Out of nowhere, this field of grey soldiers appears, as if they were on patrol in Korea. No matter where you stand around the memorial, at least one of these soldiers has their eye on you, which can feel a little unsettling. I’d definitely recommend seeing this memorial in the day to study the sculptures, but I’d also return at night where it feels as if the statues just appear in the mist. 

16. Vietnam War Memorial

This is one of the most moving memorials in Washington DC. The design of the memorial is super simple, an expanding black V that contains the names of soldiers who perished in the conflict. This alone is confronting for the sheer number of names listed, some with little flowers laid at the foot of the wall. The wall starts small and as I walk along, the size increases and all of a sudden I am standing against a black wall much taller than I. Apparently the design is meant to symbolise an open would, and as you walk along the would gapes more and more. It’s simple, but effective in highlighting the horrible futility of war and the many people who lost their lives in Vietnam. 

17. Coffee at Emissary

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, or if you know me well, you’ll know that I am obsessed with finding good coffee. As an Aussie, that usually means a beautifully made latte (latte art optional) in an industrial-chic, funky cafe. In the US, sometimes finding a good latte is super hard because everyone there seems to either drink plunger coffee or Starbucks. However, there does seem to be a bit of a revolution happening in the USA at the moment and I’ve had more luck finding a great latte. In Washington DC, Emissary is my hot tip for a great cafe – perfect for a sit down, a study session, a blog post writing session or a quick takeaway if you’re in a rush. The staff are friendly, the design is cool and modern and the coffee? The coffee is ace. 

18. Walk Through The FDR Memorial

The Memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a sprawling, walk-through, outdoor memorial that represents the FDR era. From the Great Depression to World War II, FDR’s contribution to the USA is remembered here as I walk through the area. This memorial is also the only presidential memorial to feature a first lady – Eleanor Roosevelt – for her contribution to the United Nations. Quite powerful, I found, was the sculpture of FDR in his wheelchair as it felt really true to who he was. This memorial is best visited in the day, though it is lit up at night as well. 

19. Marine Corps Memorial

This memorial is not technically in Washington DC, but it’s totally doable when visiting the District of Columbia. Located in Virginia, near the gate to the Arlington National Cemetery, this monument is modelled on a real life photograph of six marines hoisting a US flag during the battle of Iwo Jima. It’s a fantastic sculpture that perfectly captures the real image. I visited as part of my memorials at night tour, when the sculpture was all lit up, though I imagine it is also beautiful during the day with the cemetery behind it. 

20. Stay at the Fairfax at Embassy Row

Now, it’s quite rare that I would list a hotel in a compilation of things to do in Washington DC, or any city for that matter. But I was just so blown away by how gorgeous this hotel is that I’d definitely recommend it to anyone feeling a little fancy. It’s located on the iconic Embassy Row in Dupont Circle, walking distance from lots of cafes, restaurants and bars and has hosted such celebrity guests as Jackie Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Frank Sinatra and Samuel L Jackson amongst others.

The rooms are beautifully decorated and after three nights in Philadelphia at the rather sub par Club Quarters with a terrible shower, I was so glad to have a lovely bathroom featuring a shower with great water pressure! The staff are friendly, the whole hotel has a historic feel and it really felt like a little bit of luxury.

Like this post? Pin it so you don’t lose it!

2 Comments

  1. Francesca

    I love the descriptions for each activity! You provided good deals. DC is such a fun place to visit.

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Get your free Travel Budget template

Get your free Travel Budget template

Sign up to the newsletter and receive a free travel budget template to help you plan your next trip.

Success! Your free travel budget template is on the way.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This