12 Things To See and Do in DC

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  • Washington, D.C., is the perfect destination for political and historical sightseeing.
  • The U.S. capital is home to the federal government’s three primary locations: the Capitol building, Supreme Court and White House.
  • The city lies on the Potomac River and borders Maryland and Virginia.

You don’t have to be a member of Congress to visit D.C. In fact, the history, vibrancy of the city and exceptional cuisine make it a great location for anyone, from someone looking for a political and culture-based trip to a couple planning a romantic weekend getaway. Washington has four distinct seasons, although its climate is milder than many other U.S. destinations. Winters can be cold, while summers are hot and humid, making spring and fall the ideal times to pay the capital a visit.

There’s an excellent rail network, and Washington is easy to get around because it’s compact and attractions are relatively close together. In between marveling at neoclassical architecture and learning about American history, you can hit up one of the area’s famous foodie hot spots.

You don’t have to be a politics major to have a great time in Washington. Anyone with an interest in culture and history can enjoy the sights and attractions in the U.S. capital. Read on for 12 of the top things to see and do while you’re visiting.

1. The White House

Visiting The White House isn’t something you can do spur-of-the-moment. You have to put in a request to your member of Congress at least 21 days in advance. However, you should make a request as early as possible to avoid disappointment, as only a limited number of tours are available.

All tours are free, but keep in mind that cancellations might occur at the last minute due to the White House’s understandably unpredictable schedule. If you manage to secure a tour, you’ll visit public rooms in the East Wing, including the Green Room, Blue Room and Red Room. What’s more, you can catch a glimpse of the China Room, the ornate State Dining Room and get an opportunity to view the famous White House Rose Garden.

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2. Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial is a tribute to the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. He waged a civil war that ultimately saved the Union and took the world-changing step of issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, which led to the abolition of slavery.

Daniel Chester French designed the memorial, which was completed in 1922. The iconic statue is 19 feet tall and weighs 175 tonnes, depicting Lincoln overseeing the National Mall. Above the statue, there’s a quote, which reads, “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” Tourists can visit the statue around the clock, year round.

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3. Smithsonian Museums

Visitors to Washington should check out the incredible Smithsonian Museums. The American History Museum, American Art Museum, Natural History Museum and Air and Space Museum are just some of the institutions in the collection. They contain more than 150 million artifacts, specimens and works of art, making them one of the largest museum collections on the globe.

Entry to all locations is free, and the museums are great attractions for intellectually curious kids and adults alike. You can find most of the museums in the National Mall, and the Smithsonian even has its own stop on the Metro’s Orange and Blue lines. For adults, there’s the Smithsonian at 8, with live music, food and cocktails.

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4. National Gallery of Art and Sculpture Garden

With more than 1,400 art pieces, the National Gallery of Art is a hub of creativity, showcasing works from the Middle Ages right up to modern day. It contains famous self-portraits by timeless artists, such as Van Gogh and Rembrandt, in addition to a myriad of drawings, paintings, prints, sculptures and photographs. You’ll also discover works by Warhol, Pollak, Matisse, Picasso and many other creators, all under one roof.

The neoclassical building housing the art is fashioned from pink Tennessee marble. It’s topped off by a dome rotunda made in the image of the interior of the Pantheon in Rome. The Sculpture Garden is the latest addition to the gallery and opened in 1999. Stunning plant life and a reflecting pool and fountain set the scene for incredible sculptures made by artists such as Louise Bourgeois and Roy Lichtenstein.

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5. Washington National Cathedral

America isn’t known for its Gothic cathedrals, but Washington National Cathedral is a fine example. It stands in contrast to the rest of Washington’s architecture, with its stained glass windows, gargoyles and medieval garden.

Construction of the building began in 1907, but the cathedral wasn’t completed until 1990. You can climb up its 30-story central tower, take a guided tour or search for all 112 gargoyles and grotesques. Hidden among them are a tongue-in-cheek Darth Vader grotesque and a hippy gargoyle. In the garden, visitors can discover a 13th-century Norman arch, roses and a fragrant herb garden.

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6. National Archive Museum

The National Archive Museum is home to over 3 billion historical records, including the three most seminal documents in U.S. history: the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom.

For a deeper dive into the evolution of American democracy, you’ll find over 1,000 documents on display in The Public Vaults. There’s also a 290-seat theater showing documentaries and live speeches, plus the Boeing Learning Center with interactive exhibits. Admission is free, and you can visit all year round, except Christmas Day and Thanksgiving Day.

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7. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

From exquisitely choreographed ballet performances to rousing recitals by the National Symphony Orchestra, there are many reasons to visit the Kennedy Center. Even if you don’t book a live show, the gloriously designed and constructed building is enough reason to visit.

Designed in the image of Washington’s famous aesthetic of a boxed rectangular building framing slender columns, the Center was constructed in 1971. The interior is lined with plush red velvet carpets, and flags from United States allies hang from the ceiling. Art lovers can even find exhibitions from renowned international artists, with everything from classic sculptures to skateboarding installations.

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8. U.S. Capitol and the Library of Congress

Perhaps the most impressive building in Washington, and arguably in the entire United States, is the nation’s political hub – the Capitol building. This is the place where Congress holds debates and carves out federal laws and policies. Imposing sculptures and paintings depict scenes from throughout American history under its cast-iron rotunda. Visitors are permitted throughout the year, but like The White House, you have to book a slot far in advance of your visit.

Once you’ve soaked in the culture and history of the Capitol, you can walk through a tunnel to the Library of Congress. With more than 164 million books, sound recordings and manuscripts, it claims to be the largest library in the world. Anyone can visit the library between Monday and Saturday. Entry is free, and you can even get a one-hour guided tour at no cost.

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9. Rock Creek Park

Rock Creek Park is a national reserve nestled among Washington’s neoclassical buildings and magnificent sculptures. Its 1,700 acres are a haven for people and nature alike, with hardwood trees, horses, a mill and even golf courses.

After a morning of sightseeing, you can ponder your thoughts as you walk along a trail and then take a picnic under a pavilion or enjoy a barbecue.
Other activities include a seasonal walk alongside a National Park Ranger or learning about the conservation efforts of the Rock Creek Conservancy.

Shutterstock/Robert A. Powell

10. Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Admission to the incredible National Zoo is completely free, and it’s not short on animals, exhibits or fun spots for kids to hang out. This zoo is one of the oldest in the United States and is certainly worth a visit.

There are even awesomely lifelike animatronic dinosaurs with moving tails and the ability to spray water on you as you walk by. Stepping into the modern world, you’ll see reptiles, birds, a tiger, otters and much more to admire when visiting the zoo.

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11. United States Botanic Garden

If you love nature, you won’t want to miss out on the beautiful United States Botanic Garden. This living, vibrant museum of plant life isn’t just a calming and magical sight. It helps inform the public about the importance of plants to our ecosystems.

It’s been open for more than 100 years and boasts a 28,944-square-foot conservatory with 10 garden rooms and two courtyards.
With a desert room, rose garden, children’s garden and a whole room devoted to the orchid, there’s something for nature lovers of all ages.

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12. Georgetown

Once you’ve exhausted yourself learning about the United States’ rich culture and history, head on down to Georgetown to relax. Whether you love shopping, trendy restaurants or stately buildings, you’ll find something to help you unwind.

Georgetown has offers riverside promenades, charming architecture and cobblestone streets alongside lively nightlife and music lounges. You can enjoy French fine dining, rustic Italian home cooking, fresh sushi or just about anything to suit your palate in this historic neighborhood.

Shutterstock/Orhan Cam

Imogen Sharma

Imogen Sharma

Imogen Sharma is a culture, science, tech and business expert with a passion for exploration and sharing knowledge with others. She aims to help people improve their lives in some way, whether it's starting a business, learning new skills or getting more out of their free time. Imogen loves classic literature and time spent at restaurants and the theater.

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