This post was originally published on A Globe Well Travelled in 2016. The content has been revised and updated with fresh information.
Washington DC is a destination that I could go back to again and again.
I’ve already visited twice, but the city deserves more time.
Washington DC can seem like a capital city filled with a bunch of political stuff, but it has plenty of other attractions for visitors to see and experience. Sure, the national buildings and monuments are really great, but there are so many other things to do in Washington DC that would interest more than just a House of Cards fan.
If you’re planning a trip to the US capital anytime soon, this list includes everything that you absolutely must do while you’re there. Here are my the best activities for a weekend in Washington DC!
Where we stayed:
We stayed at the Hyatt Place US Capitol, which would normally be waaaay out of our price range but we were lucky and got an extremely good deal (like, 50% off).
Hotels can get pretty pricey with all the politician types, so I’d suggest checking out Airbnb for cheaper apartments or private rooms. There are plenty of options between Union Station and Logan Circle that would make for a great stay in DC.
1. United States Capitol Building
The number one thing you need to see in DC is the US Capitol Building. The visitor center offers tours where you can see the inside of the rotunda, and the exterior looks absolutely gorgeous from every angle.
While you’re up on Capitol Hill, be sure to check out the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court Building, both of which are equally as pretty and have some interesting architecture. You can get a closer look at all of these buildings on a Capitol Hill architecture tour.
2. Washington Monument
The iconic Washington Monument is situated smack-bang in the middle of the National Mall, and is currently the tallest building in DC. It actually held the title of world’s tallest structure in 1885 until it was overtaken in 1889 by the Eiffel Tower.
#funfact: The marble subtly changes colour about a third of the way up, as the monument’s construction was halted when funding ran out in 1854, and wasn’t continued until 1877.
3. The White House
The White House may be kind of unimpressive in real life, but that doesn’t mean you can skip it! We viewed the White House from the south side as we were walking along the mall, but you actually get a better view if you head up to Pennsylvania Ave and look at it from the north side as the road is closer to the building.
4. Lincoln Memorial
Old Abe (or ‘Linco’ – I haven’t yet decided which nickname I like better) sits at the west end of the National Mall.
This monument is very impressive, but it can get fairly busy so if you want to beat the crowds, head over early in the day. The monument is open 24 hours and is lit up at night, so this might be a great option if you’re still out in the evening. You can also do a Washington DC moonlight tour to see all the monuments lit up after dark.
5. War Memorials
Washington DC has some amazing war memorials. My favourite was the Korean War Veterans Memorial which has some life-sized soldier statues scattered throughout a garden. It’s also the location of the famous ‘Freedom Is Not Free’ quote which is engraved on a fountain within the memorial.
The Vietnam War Memorial sits directly opposite, and features the etched names of veterans on a rather large reflective wall. Both of these memorials were very moving and I would highly recommend that you see them on your DC trip, even if war memorials aren’t usually your thing.
6. The Tidal Basin
The Tidal Basin is basically a gigantic pond right next to the National Mall. It has a walking trail all the way around, and in the spring it’s known for being one of the best places in DC to see cherry blossoms.
There are also 3 more memorials around the basin (if you aren’t sick of memorials already): the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, the Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial, and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.
The architecture in Georgetown is so different to the rest of DC (or even the rest of USA). The cobblestone sidewalks and super pretty Georgian architecture will make you feel as though you’ve been transported to Europe.
A few places to check out are the canal (which has walking trails and pedestrian bridges along it), Waterfront Park, Georgetown University, and M St for shopping. If you want a more comprehensive neighbourhood experience, try a Georgetown foodie walking tour.
8. Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington Cemetery is one thing that I missed, but I wish I’d had time for it. I’ve heard that it has an impressive landscape with long rows of white graves on the hillside. It’s a massive site, so it might be worth booking the hop-on hop-off trolley to get around. You could also choose to do a guided walking tour which includes the changing of the guards.
The cemetery is also situated right next to the Pentagon, so if that’s your jam, you can check it out while you’re there!
9. Union Station and Union Market
Our bus from NYC arrived via Union Station and I was honestly surprised at how beautiful it was. It reminded me somewhat of Grand Central Station in New York City, but the double levels of shops and big open areas were quite unique.
Next to Union Station is Union Market, which has plenty of local eats. Go when you’re feeling a tad hungry and take your pick of cuisine – your taste buds will be pleased. There are also some amazing murals around here.
10. Restaurants & Nightlife
The junction at U Street and 14th NW is a hotspot for anyone craving food from somewhere other than a chain restaurant. The Mexican meal we had at El Centro was fantastic, and there are great bars all over the place.
One thing that Washington DC is known for is Ethiopian food, so this area might be a good place to try some. Unfortunately I don’t have any recommendations for you as I didn’t get the chance to try any. Next time, for sure!
11. Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
The Air and Space Museum makes you feel like a kid again, staring wide-eyed at the massive aeroplanes, space ships, and rockets that fill up the huge space. We spent 2 hours here, and it just wasn’t long enough – the museum is both massive and incredibly interesting.
12. Even more museums!
If there’s one thing DC has no shortage of, it’s museums, and all of them are insanely good. Enter museum overload by picking a few of these to explore: