Washington D.C. is a wonderful place to visit in the warmer months, especially when the cherry blossoms are out! With spring here, and summer soon approaching, I asked my friend Julie from Travel As Much to share her favorite things to do in Washington DC. And this girl is as local as they come! She’s lived in Maryland her whole life, so Washington D.C. has been a familiar place for her to visit. She’s been on field trips to DC all throughout school, lived in DC during college, and worked in DC once entering the workforce.
Couldn’t have asked for a more qualified person to share with us the best things to do in Washington DC!
Don’t miss my additional suggested reading at the bottom!
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I’ll let Julie take it away:
Over the years I’ve seen a lot of changes in our nation’s capital. Happily, the one consistent thing about the city is there’s never a shortage of interesting things to do in Washington DC. And most of them are even free!
How to Get Around in Washington DC:
If you’ll be staying in the area, I think the most important factor in choosing a hotel is proximity to a Metro station. Driving in DC can be chaotic at best, and the Metro is the easiest way to get around. You’ll pay $2 for a reusable SmarTrip card, and add money for fares as you go. If you will be there for more than a few days, however, I think the best option is the 7 Day Short Trip Pass, which costs $36 and will cover unlimited travel for a week. The only time you will pay more is if the peak fare exceeds $3.60, in which case you pay any overage. (If you’re traveling within DC, the likelihood of going over the $3.60 limit is very small.
If Metro won’t get you where you want to go, I would recommend using services like Uber or Lyft rather than a taxi. If you do use a taxi, I think Diamond Cabs is one of the best. I absolutely do not recommend attempting to drive in DC unless you are already familiar with the area (take a full-day city tour if you don’t feel like navigating the public transpiration system).
Look at a map of the city and you can see what I mean. There’s the usual grid of streets running north-south (number streets) and east-west (letter streets), but just to keep it interesting, they threw in diagonal streets (state streets), circles, and they made about half of the streets one way. Also, rush hour lasts from about 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM. It’s insane.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
Where to Stay in Washington DC:
Hotels can range from seedy and cheap to luxurious and astronomically priced (the Four Seasons is $800 per night). If you’re like me, you just want a place to stay that is safe, clean, and comfortable, and is less than $200 per night (preferably way less!). There are a few I recommend:
- The Americana Hotel, which is across the river in Arlington, VA. It is less than a 20 minute walk from a Metro station, clean, and well run.
- In the district, I like the State Plaza Hotel, which is in the Foggy Bottom area of DC. It is a smaller hotel, but very reasonably priced for its location. It’s about a 15 minute walk to the Metro station.
- For the closest possible proximity to a Metro station, I recommend the Hampton Inn Washington DC (1 block away), Hotel Lombardy (3 blocks), The Kimpton Monaco (1 block), and Courtyard Marriott Convention Center (2 blocks).
When to Visit Washington DC:
The best time to visit DC is in the spring or fall. Winter is okay UNLESS it snows, in which case it is the absolute worst. Snow in the mid-Atlantic does not happen often, but when it does the majority of us who live here lose our minds. Panic will ensue. I wouldn’t say that summer is a great time to go either, as Washington DC can be kind of swampy, hot, and humid. Combine that with over-crowded tourist destinations because the kids are out of school and everyone is vacationing there, therefore, it gets miserable pretty quickly. But no matter when you go, you certainly won’t be bored![divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
Important Packing Notes for Washington DC:
When you’re visiting Washington DC, be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes. You will be doing a lot of walking! Also, dress in layers because the weather is unpredictable. In spring and fall especially, it is not at all uncommon to see high temperatures reach 60 degrees one day, and just a day or two later, set a record high of 85 degrees. You can never go wrong dressing in layers.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
15 Things to do in Washington DC:
1. Visit the National Museum of American History
At a minimum, you should see the Star Spangled Banner – the flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the song that is now our national anthem. Other can’t-miss exhibits include the ruby slippers that Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz, gowns worn by First Ladies over the years, and a 29 room dollhouse.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
2. Tour the White House
No matter what your political opinion, it’s pretty impressive to be able to say that you’ve been inside the White House. You can arrange a tour by contacting your US Representative at least 3 weeks but no more than 3 months before your visit to the capital city.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
3. Visit an Art Museum
If art’s your thing, there is no shortage of places to visit in our nation’s capital. The National Gallery has original works by Van Gogh, da Vinci, Monet, Lichtenstein, and Pollack, to name a few. Consider a tour of the National Gallery of Art if you’re super interested in learning lots more! The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden will delight any fan of modern art. The National Portrait Gallery has presidential portraits, Civil War era daguerreotypes, portraits of first ladies, and miniature portraits, to name just a few. The Freer & Sackler Galleries specialize in Asian art.
There is a National Museum of African Art as well. There is also a Smithsonian Museum of American Art, which includes a conservation center where you can watch experts restore and preserve works of art. The Renwick Gallery focuses on American craft and decorative arts from the 19th to the 21st century. And if street art is your thing, check out The Fridge, a gallery which highlights street art and other creative arts.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
4. Go Monument Hopping on the National Mall
If you view the monuments and memorials in Washington DC as boring markers of people who have passed and historic events, you will only see a small portion of their significance. The monuments and memorials in DC are works of art, full of symbolism and meaning. Some of my favorites include the World War II memorial, the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Albert Einstein memorial. If you would rather not do all that walking, you can view the monuments from a Potomac River cruise or on a super-fun Segway tour! Also, another good option is a hop-on hop-off bus which takes you to all of the major sites in DC with little effort!
Looking for something a bit different?! Visit the memorials and monuments at night, on a Washington DC Twilight Evening Tour.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
5. Visit the National Air & Space Museum
This isn’t one of my personal favorites, but I’m definitely in the minority with that opinion. Visitors can view an amazing IMAX movie, look at Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis plane, see the 1903 flyer that the Wright Brothers pulled over the dunes at Kitty Hawk, and visit the kid-friendly “How Things Fly” gallery. Plenty to see and do! (There’s even a model USS Enterprise from the original Star Trek series!)[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
6. Visit the National Museum of Natural History
If I had to give this museum a tagline, it would be “From Dinosaurs to Diamonds.” There are all sorts of fascinating exhibits – mammals, sea creatures, dinosaurs, gemstones and minerals, and prehistoric man. The one that captured my fascination as a child – besides the giant elephant dominating the rotunda – was the Hope Diamond, which is said to be cursed. But it is oh-so- pretty! Children will especially enjoy the insect zoo and the butterfly hall.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
7. Visit the National Zoo
At first glance, you might think that the National Zoo is all about pandas. As one of only four zoos in the US to have pandas, they truly are a Big Deal. However, the zoo has much more to offer visitors. The Apes section is always fun, and if you’re really lucky you might spot an orangutan crossing 50 feet overhead on the O-Line – a cable that connects two of the primate buildings. There is also a kids’ farm, where children can get up close and personal with cows, alpacas, goats, chickens, etc. The small mammal house has a diverse range of creatures, from the always entertaining meerkat to the kinda creepy naked mole rat. Other areas of the zoo include Big Cats, Amazonia, Asia, Birds, Elephants, Reptiles, and more. All told, there are 1500 animals from over 300 species at the zoo.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
8. Visit the National Archives
It doesn’t sound that exciting, but a visit to the National Archives gives you the opportunity to see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, along with one of the surviving copies of the Magna Carta and the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s free to enter, but there is usually a long line. To avoid the line, reserve tickets online for $1.50.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
9. Catch a Show at the Kennedy Center
The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts features nine stages/theatres offering musical, ballet and theatrical productions, cultural programs and events. Performances on the Millennium Stage are free and occur daily. No ticket required and quite possibly one of the best things to do in Washington DC![divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
10. Have an Authentic Ethnic Meal
There are so many international restaurants in Washington DC! Some of the best are: El Rinconcito Café (El Salvador), Zenebech (Ethiopia), A&J Restaurant (Taiwan), Indigo (India), Greek Deli & Catering (Greece), Café Mozart (Germany), Yechon (Korea), Los Hermanos (Dominican Republic), Kintaro (Japan), Me Jana (Lebanon), Baan Thai (Thailand), Tacqueria Nacional (Mexico), Saba Restaurant (Yemen), Thip Khao (Laos), El Chalan (Peru), Mari Vanna (Russia), Huong Viet (Vietnam), and Fettoosh (Morocco), just to name a few! You can eat like you are traveling around the world!
11. Visit the National Arboretum
If the weather is nice and/or you have a green thumb, check out the National Arboretum, a frequently overlooked visitor attraction. You can find your state’s tree in the State Tree Grove, wonder over the skill of bonsai gardeners in the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, and pose for photos in the Capitol Columns Garden featuring columns that were once part of the US Capitol building.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
12. Go Outside and Play
Washington DC, for all its gargantuan museums and monuments, has no shortage of green spaces to enjoy. Of the many things to do in Washington DC, throw a Frisbee or fly a kite on the National Mall, explore Theodore Roosevelt Island, or head to Rock Creek Park, which has over 1700 acres of history, nature, and wildlife.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
13. Visit the Newseum
This interactive museum traces the evolution of print and electronic communication from earliest days of the US to the technologies of the present and the future. Its mission is to promote, explain and defend free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. Exhibits of special interest are the Berlin Wall Gallery, the 9/11 Gallery, Today’s Front Pages (the front page of about 80 newspapers from around the world), and the Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery. Get advance tickets to the Newseum here.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
14. Visit the International Spy Museum
This museum presents espionage through the stories of individuals and their missions, tools, and techniques. You can see a pistol disguised as a tube of lipstick, cipher machines, wristwatch cameras, a shoe with a transmitter in the heel, eyeglasses with concealed cyanide pills, and (how to say this nicely?) a tool kit that would only be found in a body cavity search. The museum is a lot of fun despite its dark subject, but don’t be surprised if you leave feeling slightly paranoid.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
15. Visit the Bureau of Engraving and Printing
The free (yes, another free thing to do in Washington DC!) 40-minute experience includes an introductory film and gallery tour of the production process. You can see millions of dollars being printed as you walk along the gallery overlooking the production floor. Seeing money being mass produced is a bit of a surreal experience, but a memorable one.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
Further Reading and Resources for a Trip to Washington D.C.
Washington D.C. is a very popular destination, and because of that, there’s certainly some very valuable resources to read when planning your trip. A few of my favorite resources include:
- Frommer’s Easy Guide to Washington D.C., which provides maps, exact pricing of activities and transportation options, free self-guided walking tours, and so much more (just updated in 2017!)
- The Lonely Planet Washington D.C. Guide, which is great for finding even more things to do in Washington DC, places to eat, and places to stay.
- A US road atlas if you’ll be roadtripping to Washington D.C. You never know when you might lose service on your GPS!
- The Official Tourism Site of Washington D.C. page, which will give you lots more sound advice and will be able to answer so many of your questions
- Viator and GetYourGuide for a plethora of additional activity suggestions while in town, just make sure to search for Washington DC!
- This Huffington Post article: 15 Things Nobody Tells you About Visiting Washington DC
- Travel and Leisure’s 25 Free Things to do in Washington DC
Tips for Getting the Right Accommodation for Your Budget
Whether your budget is quite large or you’re hoping to visit with minimal expenses, finding the best deal on accommodation is super important. One of the most important parts of travel planning, actually!
- If hotels are your thing, I highly suggest you check out HotelsCombined in order to find the best deal. Unlike many other booking websites, they scour the web for the best deal from a multitude of booking sites all in one place. You can be sure you’re getting the best price. Try them out and see!
- Prefer an apartment? I highly recommend you take a look at AirBnB. You can choose from entire homes, apartments, or private rooms – depending on your preference. AirBnB has the greatest number of options and are usually less expensive than staying a hotel. Sign up with this link and you can earn $40 off your next stay!
- Last minute travel plans? Check out Hotel Tonight to score a last-minute hotel stay! Use my promo code JKLEINER for a free $25 towards your first booking.
- On a tight budget and want to spend as little money as possible? Consider staying in a hostel! Definitely not preferable for families or couples, but if you’re traveling solo or with a friend or two this may be a great way to save a bunch of cash. Recommended hostels in Washington DC include: HI Washington DC Hostel, Duo Housing DC, and Highroad Hostel DC.