Washington D.C. is full of iconic sights that we’ve seen in the movies. We wanted to go a but further and discover some unique places; our list of things to do in Washington D.C.
I remember telling Abby that I wanted to visit Washington D.C. many times. It’s in so many movies and TV series, but she always told me that she had visited Washington a lot when she was little and that there were other cities to see. I finally convinced her that it would be interesting to see the city again with new eyes and it would be new for me. So we packed our bags from New York and headed for the capital of the country, a city that is it’s own Federal District.
Washington D.C. is is one of the most recognizable cities in the world, with all it’s history; and it is only about four hours drive from New York. It is mainly known for politicians, memorials and museums (which is enough for a trip in and of itself.) But there are also beautiful parks, a multicultural community and food from every corner of the globe, as well as some hidden gems that we always love to discover in any city.
Here are 25 things to do in Washington D.C. from the well known to a few off the beaten path, a city that even surprised Abby after so many years.
A walk around the National Mall
This is the area where you will find most of the main attractions in Washington D. C. I mean to say, that it is a place you must see if it is your first visit to the city. We started our visit climbing the steps to the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The feeling is overwhelming when you imagine the whole lawn filled with people. If you are anything like us, you won’t be able to resist taking a photo with the Reflecting Pool, with the memorial and with the Washington Monument in the distance.
If it is nice out, you will see lots of people resting around the pool, but we continued our route around the area. We walked down to the shores of the Potomac River where the West Potomac Park enjoys beautiful views to the other side. The best time to visit is in the springtime because the cherry trees in blossom are simply spectacular. Continuing our walk along the river, we found ourselves with one of the best views of the trip; the Tidal Basin with the Thomas Jefferson Memorial peeking out from the white flowers of the cherry trees.
The Jefferson Memorial is worth a visit, both for the statue of the president and for the building where it can be found. For those of you who are interested in the history of the Holocaust and that difficult period of history, on the other side of the shore from the memorial you can find the United States Holocaust Museum where you will find permanent and temporary exhibits dealing with different aspects of the Holocaust. It can be upsetting, however, especially for young children.
Just in front of the museum you will find the Washington Monument which we saw reflected earlier from the Lincoln Memorial, both memorials are free to the public. Here there are two possible paths; straight ahead to the White House or to the right past the Capitol Building. One way or the other we planned to see both buildings, so we decided to turn right. On our walk we saw multiple places that we could visit: the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (of Asian Art), the Smithsonian Castle (a “castle” that serves as an information center), the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (for anyone interested in flight and space), the National Museum of the American Indian (where you can learn about the culture and history of the Native Americans), the United States Botanic Gardens and finally the Capitol (where the Senate and Congress meet. The Capitol is open for tours, although we chose not to take the tour this visit.)
If we continue walking around the National Mall from the Capitol we will arrive at the Washington Monument where there are a variety of options to choose between if you aren’t going to be in the city very long: The Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, the National Gallery of Art (which we highly recommend if you are interested in European and American art), the National Archives (with all kinds of documents about the United States) and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (which showcases important artifacts and moments in the history of the United States.)
If you stand in front of the Washington Monument to one side is the Capitol and on the other side the Lincoln Memorial; you can still see the White House in front of you. Of course there is a lot of security and you have to walk around whole building to get to the main door. If you want to go inside, you have to reserve a tour ahead of time and leave all your information. If you are traveling around Christmas, you can see the National Christmas Tree which they place between the Washington Monument and the White House.
A City of Memorials
If there is one thing Washington D. C. is known for as the capital of the United States, it is for paying homage to those who were significant in the development of the nation or who have fought and given their lives for their country. The list of memorials, many of them free and open all day, is endless. Without a doubt some of the most spectacular ones are in memory of former presidents of the nation like the Lincoln Memorial, the Roosevelt Memorial or the Jefferson Memorial. The last one, in springtime, is simply spectacular with the cherry trees in blossom.
Don’t miss other memorials dedicated to the veterans of the Vietnam and Korean Wars and those who fell in World War II or the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. There are even tours specifically designed to visit the memorials in the city, so if you enjoy history or if you are curious about how the United States grew and developed, it’s a great option.
The Military Scene in Washington
Crossing the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial, you will find two of the most recognizable military icons of the city. The first is the enormous Arlington Cemetery which holds the memory of thousands of military who have given their lives for the United States. Among the most recognizable places are the eternal flame of JFK, the Memorial Amphitheater and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The second place to visit in this area is the Pentagon, where the defensive and strategic decisions of the country are made. There are tours so that you can visit the inside, but you have to follow strict rules in order to go inside. (more information). If you are able to visit, you will see the inside of one of the most impressive buildings of the country (and one that we often see in movies.) Inside it is like it’s own city since 23,000 people work there.
Free Zoo and Museums Thanks to the Smithsonian Foundation
For those of you who love museums, Washington D.C. is a great city to live or to visit time and again. It has the largest number of free museums in the country and all thanks to the Smithsonian Foundation, which is part of the government. Abby and I visited the Air and Space Museum, an impressive complex that left me speechless. There you will find replicas of planes, rockets and every day there are free guided visits (which we recommend)
And if you still want more after leaving the museum, there are many more to choose from including the Museum of Natural History (which is just as impressive as the museum in New York), the National Gallery of Art, the Museum Sculpture Garden and more than 17 other museums in huge buildings with numerous objects of value. If you are tired of museums, but want to enjoy another free family activity, check out the Smithsonian’s National Zoo which is completely free and one of the oldest in the country. They even have pandas, which is one of my favorite animals, so what more can you ask for?
One of the things that we love most when we visit a new city is to find charming spots which might not be obvious tourist attractions. This was the case with Embassy Row, a long calm Avenue where you will find the large majority of embassies of different countries. The interesting part is that it is in a separate area of the city and you can clearly see how much economic power each country has.
It was a sunny Sunday, so we enjoyed our walk. On either side of the street there were enormous houses, each with a flag showing the country for each embassy. At the end of Massachussetts Avenue (the real name for this street) just before the British embassy there is a little park that is a peaceful spot we discovered by accident. It is called Khalil Gibran Memorial and it is right next to the United States Naval Observatory. It’s hard to visit the Observatory because there are very few tours, so you have to book far in advance. (more information).
Near the United States Naval Observatory, if you continue straight ahead, you will also find the Washington National Cathedral. It is a neo gothic style and if you have already walked up Embassy Row, it is worth it to go a little farther and enjoy this beautiful cathedral. In fact, it is the second largest cathedral in the United States and the sixth largest in the world. It has gargoyles in the shape of Darth Vader and moon rocks embedded in the stained glass windows. What’s more, you can visit the tomb of Woodrow Wilson and see the ashes of Helen Keller in the Crypt. This is also where they held the funeral of former president, Ronald Reagan. The surrounding area is called Cathedral Heights and it boasts some gorgeous parks.
Exploring the University Area: Georgetown
When we finished our walk along the embassy street, we decided to go south to check out the area around Georgetown University (where there is a special shop that we’ll mention later). The path took us through a beautiful park filled that was green and peaceful. It was Dumbarton Oaks Park and it was designed with the idea of joining sculpture and nature. Crossing the park you can also go inside the Museum of Dumbarton Oaks, which is known for it’s Pre-colombian and Byzantine art.
I really liked the university area of Georgetown because, apart from reminding me of my own university days; it was very welcoming with the shops, small houses and gardens. You might say that it’s a small annex of the city of Washington D.C. But the real reason we made our way to this area of town had nothing to do with academics, but with gastronomy. We wanted to try the well known Georgetown Cupcake. The long line out the door was a good sign and 15 minutes later, we were enjoying a cupcake that was well worth the wait in line!
Alternative Places For Those of You Returning to the City
For those of you who have visited the city before, or if you are looking to find new places or alternative activities we have a few ideas.
If you enjoy dance, opera, jazz, ballet, etc, you can’t leave the city without attending a concert or show at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The building is beautiful and enormous, and inside the acoustics are spectacular. In competition with Lincoln Center in New York, this is one of the places with the most cultural events per year in the United States and in the World.
If you decided to go to the National Zoo and you don’t feel like going back to the city center, you can head to Meridian Hill Park, a beautiful park to wander around and relax for a while. There are statues, a memorial and a lake with a fountain at the end.
Also near the zoo are the Tregaron Conservancy Trails where they run an interesting conservation and preservation program for the park since 1912. It is worth taking a walk if you are in the area to enjoy the plants and unique flowers. It is one of the National Historic Sites, as well.
The Fridge is an art gallery that also serves as a space for music and performances in an area of the city called Eastern Market. The idea was to create an artistic space for everyone and to encourage a community dialogue through art. The building is covered in murals so you can’t miss it.
The International Spy Museum is a museum dedicated to the history and the practice of espionage. It is the only museum in the United States dedicated to espionage and the only one in the world dedicated to teaching the public about this fascinating profession. You can participate in the interactive experiences where you get to play spy, as well as enjoy a guided visit to Washington via GPS so your experience extends beyond the four walls of the museum.
If you are looking for another interactive museum we suggest the Newseum, a museum dedicated to the profession of news reporter that promotes the freedom of expression and the first amendment which guarantees the right to freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly and petition. There are 15 galleries and 15 theaters on the seven floors of the museum and some of the most successful exhibits have been the gallery dedicated to 9/11, the Berlin Wall and the Pulitzer Prize winning photographs from 1942 to the present. The museum is one of the most complete of its kind and is interesting for anyone who uses electronic communication.
BloomBars is a unique space in Washington D.C. where they promote the fine arts via performances, art shows, theater, dance, workshops and classes to help the community. Among other activities you can enjoy story time in Spanish, activities and crafts for kids, ballet performances and dance classes for adults. Check the calendar of events for the dates you’ll be in Washington.
Where to Stay in Washington D.C.
We stayed at the Hotel Palomar Washington D.C. and although it is a bit on the pricey side, it is definitely worth the money for its comfort, design and location.
If you want to look for other hotels in Washington D.C. check out this link.
Where to Eat in Washington: Places we tried and enjoyed
Tortino Restaurant is an Italian restaurant outside the touristy area of the capital. The food is delicious and the environment is relaxed, which is perfect after a long day of visiting the sights. We tried the baby spinach and goat cheese salad along with the grilled salmon served with mixed vegetables. The pasta dishes also looked good, but we were having dinner and didn’t want to order anything too heavy at night.
Another tradition in the United States, but especially in Washington D.C. is eating from a Food Truck. The vans turned restaurants on wheels are parked on various streets near the Smithsonian museums and have every kind of international cuisine imaginable. We tried a falafel pita from a Lebanese food truck, but there was also african, indian, american and even a food truck with chocolate chip cookies that was almost impossible to pass up. (We only managed to forgo dessert because we were planning a visit to Georgetown Cupcake that afternoon!)
Georgetown Cupcake is a great spot for anyone with a sweet tooth. We loved the cupcakes and they have plenty of flavors to choose from. I tried the peanut butter fudge and it was decadently delicious!