Things to do in Washington, District of Columbia

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Top Tourist Attractions in Washington, D.C., USA

Washington, District of Columbia, is a historic city with a life and culture that make it unlike any other nation. The capital of the United States is more than just political power; it also serves as an important historical landmark.

While many tourists focus on visiting monuments, galleries, and museums, Washington, D.C., offers much more.

See the best things to do in Washington, D.C., from sightseeing at landmarks like the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial to a full day of fun at the Smithsonian.

The White House and the Capitol are only part of the picture. Washington, D.C., is a treasure trove of museums, memorials, and monuments, each telling its own story of American history and culture.

10 best places to visit in Washington, D.C., for your next vacation

  1. National Mall
  2. Lincoln Memorial
  3. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
  4. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
  5. Smithsonian National Zoological Park
  6. National Museum of African American History and Culture
  7. Smithsonian National Museum of American History
  8. Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
  9. Washington Monument
  10. National Gallery of Art

Best things to do in Washington, District of Columbia

If you want to explore the world’s most powerful city with a local knowledge of sightseeing, our list of must-see attractions should be able to help you out.

If history is your thing, don’t miss the American History Museum and the National Mall. Be sure to see the Capitol Building and White House as well.

If you want to take advantage of all that nature offers, take a joyous hike in Rock Creek Park or visit the U.S. Botanic Garden and its lovely greenhouse. In no time at all, you’ll feel like a District native!

Things to do in Washington, D.C.
Things to do in Washington, D.C.

Washington is one of the top U.S. travel destinations, and not just because of its various memorials, museums, and landmarks. It’s also home to some of the best places to eat and drink, so you’ll want to pack your appetite for your trip.

Places to go in Washington, D.C., to experience history, nature, science, and culture

Washington, D.C., is a city that centers on its museums, monuments, and history, so it should not be surprising that it offers something for every visitor.

With so many free attractions and beautiful parks available to tourists, it’s possible to have an almost free vacation in Washington, D.C.

Places to go in Washington, D.C.
Places to go in Washington, D.C.

I hope you will make it a point to visit as many museums, monuments, and memorials as possible. Each place deserves our full attention and respect for its history within its walls.

Visiting these historic places gave me a new perspective on Washington, D.C., and increased my love for the nation I grew up.

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Enjoy all the must-see tourist attractions in Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C., is the capital of the United States of America. It’s a city that reflects the American story.

  • It’s where JFK gave his famous “Ask what you can do for your country” speech in 1961.
  • It’s where Martin Luther King Jr had his Change Comes to Washington march for jobs and freedom in 1963.
  • It’s also where Ronald Reagan called upon Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” in 1987. 
Tourist attractions in Washington, D.C.
Tourist attractions in Washington, D.C.

If you’ve never visited D.C., there are plenty of things to see – but don’t miss the top ten attractions!

The nation’s capital has many must-see sights for tourists, residents, and history buffs. Whether you’re into history and culture or want something fun to do with the family, Washington, D.C., truly has it all.

There’s no shortage of places to see in Washington, District of Columbia

The monuments and museums in Washington, D.C., are undoubtedly top-notch. But there is much to see and do besides these attractions. By exploring the neighborhoods beyond the typical tourist routes, you can get to know the D.C. area.

Places to see in Washington, D.C.
Places to see in Washington, D.C.

From guided tours of Georgetown homes to thrilling architecture, Civil War fortifications, and vibrant street art, Washington has something for everyone. No matter what your interest is, you will find it in D.C.

The diversity of attractions and things to see in Washington, D.C., is definitely one of its biggest draws, and it shows how Washington thrives on its past but also looks toward the future.

Top picks for where to go in Washington, District of Columbia

It’s no secret that D.C. is one of the most popular travel destinations in the U.S. From its red-brick buildings to its historical monuments to the gorgeous parks and waterfronts that line the city, Washington D.C. has something fantastic around every corner, and we’ve highlighted some of our favorites here.

Where to go in Washington, D.C.
Where to go in Washington, D.C.

If you’re looking for where to go in Washington, D.C., these destinations will most likely entice you out of your hotel and into a day of exploring the city.

Discover the nation’s capital with this guide to what to see in Washington, D.C.

Now that you’ve taken in this great city’s sights, sounds, and tastes, it’s time to call it quits and head back home to wherever that may be. But before you leave, grab a last-minute souvenir from this fine city.

You’ll re-visit these souvenirs over the years and remember your time spent in the beautiful nation’s capital – hopefully, it won’t be long before you return!

What to see in Washington, D.C.
What to see in Washington, D.C.

The National Mall: Washington DC’s Grand Avenue of History and Culture

A Landscape of National Significance

The National Mall, nestled in the heart of Washington, D.C., is more than just a park. It’s a sprawling expanse that connects some of the most iconic symbols of American history and culture.

Stretching from the United States Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall is a canvas showcasing the nation’s journey.

It’s home to many museums of the Smithsonian Institution, art galleries, and many memorials, sculptures, and statues.

This grand avenue, designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant and later refined by the McMillan Commission, is a testament to the nation’s dedication to preserving and celebrating its heritage.

A Hub of Cultural and Historical Treasures

The National Mall is a treasure trove of landmarks and institutions. Its notable features include the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Gallery of Art with its Sculpture Garden.

Each institution, along with others like the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian, offers visitors a deep dive into various facets of America’s story.

The Mall’s landscape is further enriched by the Smithsonian Gardens, a collection of beautifully maintained gardens and landscapes that complement the museums. This area is not just a corridor of green in the city but a vibrant, living museum.

A Stage for National Events and Public Gatherings

The National Mall is more than a collection of buildings and green spaces; it’s a stage for national events and a premier public gathering space.

It’s where history has been made through monumental events, peaceful assemblies, and powerful speeches. The National Park Service administers the Mall and emphasizes its role in providing a huge and dignified setting for national memorials and government structures.

The Mall’s design as a historic landscape offers extraordinary vistas to symbols of the nation, making it a place where the past and present of the United States converge uniquely and powerfully.

In Washington, D.C., the National Mall symbolizes the nation’s values, struggles, and achievements. It’s a place where history is written and vividly displayed and experienced, making it a must-visit destination for anyone seeking to understand the heart and soul of America.

The Lincoln Memorial: A Monument to American Ideals

A Symbol of Neoclassicism and National Pride

The Lincoln Memorial, an iconic U.S. national memorial, is a tribute to Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. Located at the western end of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., it is a stunning example of neoclassical architecture.

Designed by architect Henry Bacon, the memorial’s construction spanned from 1914 to 1922. It features a large interior statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln, masterfully created in 1920 by sculptor Daniel Chester French and carved by the Piccirilli brothers.

The interior murals, painted by Jules Guerin, and the epitaph above the statue, penned by Royal Cortissoz, add to the memorial’s solemn and respectful atmosphere.

A Venue for Historic Speeches and Civil Rights

The Lincoln Memorial has been more than just a monument; it has served as a symbolic center for race relations and civil rights in America.

Its Doric-style columns and the inscriptions inside, including Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address, resonate with the ideals of freedom and equality.

The memorial gained further historical significance as the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

This event cemented the memorial’s status as a venue for significant national discourse and a symbol of the ongoing struggle for civil rights.

A Testament to American Architecture and History

Administered by the National Park Service, the Lincoln Memorial is a major tourist attraction, drawing millions of visitors annually.

It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966, and is celebrated for its architectural grandeur and historical significance.

Open 24 hours a day; the memorial offers a space for reflection on the nation’s past and the enduring legacy of one of its most revered leaders.

The Lincoln Memorial is a tribute to Abraham Lincoln and a testament to his championed ideals and the nation’s journey toward realizing them.

In the heart of Washington, D.C., the Lincoln Memorial remains a poignant reminder of America’s past struggles and aspirations. In this place, history and ideals converge in a grand neoclassical setting.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: A Journey Through Aviation and Space Exploration

A Monument to Human Flight and Space Exploration

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., is a testament to the human spirit’s quest for flight and space exploration.

Established in 1946 as the National Air Museum, it opened its main building on the National Mall near L’Enfant Plaza in 1976.

The museum, a center for research into the history and science of aviation, spaceflight, planetary science, terrestrial geology, and geophysics, is renowned for its original spacecraft and aircraft collection.

Notable exhibits include the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia, the Friendship 7 capsule flown by John Glenn, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Bell X-1, and the Wright brothers’ Wright Flyer.

A Hub of Historical Artifacts and Educational Endeavors

The museum’s vast and historically significant collection features almost all original primary or backup craft.

Visitors can marvel at the model of the starship Enterprise from “Star Trek: The Original Series” and immerse themselves in the stories of these iconic artifacts.

The museum also operates the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport, which includes the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar and houses the museum’s restoration and archival activities.

The main building on the National Mall is undergoing a significant renovation to enhance the visitor experience and preserve its priceless collection.

A Cultural and Educational Landmark

The National Air and Space Museum is not just a repository of artifacts; it’s a cultural and educational landmark. It has been one of the most-visited museums in the world, attracting millions of visitors annually.

The museum’s role in education is highlighted by its various programs and exhibits that inspire and educate visitors about the wonders of air and space travel.

It’s a place where history is brought to life, and the stories of human achievements in aviation and space exploration are told engagingly and informatively.

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History: A World of Discovery

A Treasure Trove of Natural Wonders

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, situated on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is a marvel of the natural world.

Established in 1910, this museum is a part of the Smithsonian Institution and is renowned for its dedication to the preservation and study of natural history.

With over 146 million specimens of plants, animals, fossils, minerals, rocks, meteorites, human remains, and cultural artifacts, it boasts the largest natural history collection in the world.

The museum is a hub for over 185 professional natural history scientists, making it the largest group dedicated to studying natural and cultural history globally.

A Journey Through Time and Nature

Visitors to the museum are greeted with a vast array of exhibits that span natural history. From the Hope Diamond to the Star of Asia sapphire, the museum’s gem and mineral collections are among the most famous in the world.

The Hall of Human Origins offers an in-depth look at the evolution of humans, while the Ocean Hall provides a comprehensive view of life in the world’s oceans.

The museum also houses a significant collection of dinosaur fossils, making it a must-visit for enthusiasts of prehistoric life.

A Center for Research and Education

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is not just a museum; it’s a center for scientific research and education.

The museum’s collections and exhibits are crucial in educating the public about the natural world and our place within it. It also serves as a research facility for scientists from around the world.

The museum’s commitment to education is evident in its interactive exhibits and educational programs, which aim to inspire a new generation of naturalists and scientists.

The Smithsonian National Zoological Park: A Haven for Wildlife and Conservation

A Century-Long Legacy of Wildlife Conservation

The Smithsonian National Zoological Park, commonly known as the National Zoo, is a cherished institution in Washington, D.C., and a pioneer in wildlife conservation.

Established in 1889, it is one of the oldest zoos in the United States and is part of the Smithsonian Institution.

The zoo’s mission is to provide engaging experiences with animals and to create and share knowledge to save wildlife and habitats.

Spanning 163 acres in Rock Creek Park, just 20 minutes from the National Mall, the zoo is home to about 2,000 animals across 400 species. Notably, the zoo operates without an admission fee, making it accessible.

A Diverse Array of Exhibits and Research

The National Zoo is renowned for its diverse exhibits, including Amazonia, the American Trail, Asia Trail, and the Giant Panda Habitat.

These exhibits showcase various species and emphasize the zoo’s commitment to conservation and education.

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), a 3,200-acre Front Royal, Virginia facility, serves as a research and breeding center for endangered species.

The zoo’s efforts in scientific research are evident in its success in breeding and studying threatened and endangered species, making significant contributions to wildlife preservation.

Engaging the Public in Wildlife Preservation

The National Zoo’s role extends beyond animal care, including public education and engagement. Through various programs, the zoo educates students, teachers, and families about the intricacies of the animal world.

It also plays a crucial role in training wildlife professionals worldwide, forming a network to support international conservation efforts.

The zoo’s use of web technology and programming expands its reach to a global audience, furthering its wildlife conservation and education mission.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture: A Beacon of Cultural Heritage

A Landmark of African American Legacy

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), also known as the Blacksonian, is a Smithsonian Institution museum located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Established on December 19, 2003, and dedicated on September 24, 2016, by President Obama, the NMAAHC is a testament to the rich and diverse African-American experience.

With approximately 40,000 items in its collection, the museum showcases the profound impact of African Americans on the nation’s history, culture, and art.

The Journey to Establishment

The idea for a museum dedicated to African American history and culture dates back to 1915, with the National Memorial Association’s efforts to create a national memorial building.

However, it was in the late 20th century that the concept gained momentum. After several legislative attempts and growing public support, the museum was finally authorized in 2003.

The museum’s design, a collaborative effort by the Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates, and Davis Brody Bond, was selected in 2009.

The building’s unique architecture and exhibits have received widespread acclaim for their innovative approach to storytelling and design.

A Center for Learning and Reflection

The NMAAHC is not just a museum but a vibrant cultural center inviting exploration and reflection. Its exhibits cover various themes, from slavery and the civil rights movement to music, art, and much more.

The museum also serves as an educational resource, offering programs and initiatives that deepen the understanding of African-American history and its significance in the broader context of American history.

With over a million visitors in 2022, the NMAAHC has become a pivotal institution for learning, remembrance, and inspiration.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History: A Chronicle of the American Experience

Preserving and Presenting America’s Heritage

The National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institution, is a treasure trove of artifacts that capture the American spirit.

Established in 1964 and located at 1300 Constitution Ave. NW in Washington, D.C., the museum is dedicated to collecting, preserving, and displaying the heritage of the United States across various domains, including social, political, cultural, scientific, and military history.

Among its notable exhibits is the original Star-Spangled Banner, symbolizing the nation’s enduring ideals. In 2022, the museum welcomed 1.8 million visitors, ranking it as one of the most-visited museums in the United States.

A Journey Through Time and Innovation

Originally opened as the Museum of History and Technology, the museum was one of the last structures designed by the architectural firm McKim Mead & White.

1980, the National Museum of American History was renamed to reflect its mission. The museum has been renovated to enhance the visitor experience and preserve its vast collection.

These renovations include the addition of a new sky-lit atrium, a grand staircase, and new galleries like the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Hall of Invention.

The museum’s layout is thoughtfully organized, with each wing anchored by a landmark object that highlights the theme of that section, such as the John Bull locomotive and the Greensboro lunch counter.

A Hub for Education and Reflection

The National Museum of American History is not just a repository of historical artifacts; it’s a center for learning and reflection. Its exhibits cover various aspects of American history and culture from the early colonial period.

The museum also plays a crucial role in education, offering programs and initiatives that deepen understanding of the American experience.

It serves as a place where history comes to life, offering insights into the events and innovations that have shaped the nation.

The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center: A Portal to Aviation and Space Exploration

A Showcase of Aeronautical Marvels

The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, an extension of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, is located near Washington Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia.

This impressive facility, opened in 2003, is a significant addition to the Smithsonian’s efforts to preserve and display aviation and space artifacts.

The Center is named after Steven F. Udvar-Házy, an immigrant from Hungary and co-founder of the International Lease Finance Corporation, who donated $65 million to the Smithsonian Institution.

The 760,000-square-foot facility houses some of the most iconic aircraft and spacecraft, including the Space Shuttle Discovery, the Enola Gay, and the Boeing 367-80, the prototype for the Boeing 707 airliner.

Architectural Splendor and Expansive Exhibits

Designed by Hellmuth, Obata, and Kassabaum, the same architects behind the National Air and Space Museum building, the Udvar-Hazy Center took 15 years of preparation. Hensel Phelps Construction Co constructed it.

The Center features two large hangars: the Boeing Aviation Hangar and the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar.

The Donald D. Engen Observation Tower offers a unique view of landing operations at Dulles Airport.

The Center also includes an IMAX theater and a taxiway connecting it to the airport. A significant expansion, completed in 2010, added restoration, conservation, and collection-storage facilities, moving these functions from the museum’s Garber facility.

A Rich Collection and Educational Resource

The Udvar-Hazy Center is not just a museum; it’s an educational resource that brings the history of aviation and space exploration to life.

The Center’s collection includes the Gemini 4 and Friendship 7 space capsules, a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, an Air France Concorde, and many other significant aircraft and spacecraft.

The facility also hosts various events throughout the year, including lectures, book signings, and family activities, making it a dynamic hub for learning and discovery.

The Washington Monument: A Towering Tribute to America’s First President

An Iconic Symbol on the National Mall

The Washington Monument, an imposing obelisk on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is a powerful tribute to George Washington, the United States’ first President and a key figure in the American Revolutionary War.

This striking structure, made of marble, granite, and bluestone gneiss, is the world’s tallest stone structure and the world’s tallest obelisk, measuring 554 feet 7 11/32 inches (169 m) tall.

It was the world’s tallest structure from 1884 until 1889, when the Eiffel Tower surpassed it in Paris.

A Monument Marked by Challenges and Triumphs

The journey to build the Washington Monument began in 1848 but faced numerous challenges, including funding difficulties, control struggles within the Washington National Monument Society, and the American Civil War.

Construction was halted in 1854 and did not resume until 1877. The monument’s completion in 1884 and the finalization of internal ironwork and installation of memorial stones in 1888 marked the end of a complex and interrupted construction process.

A noticeable difference in the marble’s shading partway up the structure indicates where construction was paused and later resumed with marble from a different source.

The original design by architect Robert Mills was modified due to budget constraints, leading to the construction of the obelisk without Mills’s proposed colonnade.

Architectural Features and Public Access

The Washington Monument’s interior is accessible by an elevator and a spiraling staircase, allowing visitors to appreciate the memorial stones embedded in its walls.

The monument includes a pyramid with observation windows and aircraft warning lights. The structure is protected by lightning rods connected to groundwater.

The monument has undergone several renovations and repairs, including closures for elevator repairs and security upgrades.

It was also temporarily closed due to damage from a 2011 earthquake but has since reopened, continuing to attract visitors and serve as a symbol of national pride.

A Legacy of Art and Philanthropy

The National Gallery of Art, located on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue NW in Washington, D.C., is a testament to the power of art and philanthropy.

Established in 1937 through a joint resolution of the United States Congress, Andrew W. Mellon, a Pittsburgh banker and former Treasury Secretary, founded the museum for the American people.

Mellon’s substantial donation of art and construction funds laid the foundation for the Gallery, which has since been enriched by major works from donors like Paul Mellon, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, Lessing J. Rosenwald, and others.

The Gallery’s collection, which includes the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Americas and the largest mobile by Alexander Calder, traces the development of Western art from the Middle Ages to the present.

Architectural Marvel and Expansive Collections

The National Gallery of Art’s campus comprises the neoclassical West Building, designed by John Russell Pope, and the modernist East Building, designed by I. M. Pei.

An underground passage links these buildings and is adjacent to the 6.1-acre Sculpture Garden. The West Building, completed in 1941, was the largest marble structure in the world at the time of its inception.

The East Building, opened in 1978, houses the museum’s modern paintings, drawings, sculptures, and prints collection.

The Gallery’s extensive collection includes paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculptures, medals, and decorative arts, making it one of the largest museums in North America.

A Center for Artistic Excellence and Public Engagement

The National Gallery of Art is not just a repository of art; it’s a vibrant center for cultural engagement. The Gallery presents temporary special exhibitions spanning the world and art history, attracting nearly 3.3 million visitors in 2022.

It operates as a private-public partnership, with the federal government providing funds for operations and maintenance, while artwork and special programs are funded through private donations.

The Gallery’s commitment to accessibility is evident in its free admission policy, making it a unique cultural destination in the United States.

Embracing the Rich Tapestry of Washington D.C.

Washington, D.C., is a political powerhouse and a mosaic of culture, history, and vibrant experiences. The plethora of places to visit in Washington D.C. offers something for every traveler, whether you’re a history buff, art enthusiast, or simply seeking memorable experiences.

The Washington D.C. attractions span a wide array, from the hallowed halls of the Capitol to the serene paths of the National Mall. Each location tells a story, contributing to the rich narrative of the nation. The places in Washington, D.C., are not just locations on a map; they are chapters in American history waiting to be explored.

Washington D.C. sightseeing is an adventure, with each turn presenting a new facet of this dynamic city. The Washington D.C. tourist attractions, including the iconic Lincoln Memorial and the bustling streets of Georgetown, offer a glimpse into the city’s diverse character.

Among the best places to visit in Washington D.C. are the Smithsonian museums, where art and culture come alive, and the Tidal Basin, especially during the cherry blossom season. These locations are sights to behold and experiences that enrich the soul.

The options for those wondering about places to visit in D.C. are endless. Each locale offers unique flavor and charm, from the historic U Street to the vibrant Eastern Market. The things to do in Washington D.C. extend beyond the conventional, offering insights into the city’s heart.

The best places to visit in D.C. are those that resonate with your interests. Whether exploring the wonders of the National Zoo or strolling through Rock Creek Park, the city caters to all tastes and preferences.

Finally, the places to see in Washington D.C. are not just tourist destinations but landmarks of a nation’s journey, symbols of its struggles and triumphs. As you leave the city, you carry with you memories of places visited and experiences that have shaped your understanding of America’s story. Washington, D.C., is more than a city; it’s a chapter in the book of American history, open for all to read and explore.

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