10 Best Things to Do When Visiting Washington, D.C. (USA)

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A visit to Washington D.C. should be on everyone’s bucket list. Not only is it the historical center of the U.S. and home to America’s President, but it’s also one of the most exciting and fascinating places to visit in the world. From the Smithsonian museums to the U.S. Capitol, and the Lincoln Memorial to The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts—there is something for everyone to see and do in the nation’s capital. The best part is that many of the sights are entirely free! So, join us as we discover 10 awesome things to do in Washington, D.C.

1. Lincoln Memorial

You can’t miss this tribute to the larger-than-life Honest Abe Lincoln. History buffs can all recite the words of one of the most famous speeches ever given—the Gettysburg Address. The Lincoln Memorial pays tribute to one of the most influential men in the American story. This striking piece of architecture contains 36 Doric columns, which signify the states in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s assassination. The best time to visit the Lincoln Memorial is at night when the attraction is lit and is the most captivating (it’s also much less crowded).

Book a twilight evening tour to see and learn about this and other highlights of Washington, D.C.

Lincoln memorial in Washington DC

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2. National Gallery of Art

You don’t need a degree in fine arts to appreciate the beauty on display at the National Gallery of Art. The museum has two sections which house pieces from some of the most famous artists that ever lived. In the East Building, you’ll find works from Matisse and Picasso, and the West Building contains the collection’s older works, such as from Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt.

Spend time walking through the exhibits and stop for a coffee or lunch in one of the bars and cafes. If you are in town during the summer, don’t forget to stroll through the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, or catch a free concert in the West Building’s Garden courts.

3. Vietnam Veterans and Korean War Veterans Memorials

It’s only fitting that the two most moving war memorials sit on either side of the Lincoln Memorial. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a long ebony granite wall, etched with the names of more than 58,000 Americans who gave their lives during the Vietnam War. The monument will touch anyone who visits the site, no matter your stance on the conflict. As you read the names, it will be hard not to become emotional, especially when you see the tears shed by the other visitors who walk along the wall searching for the name of friends, colleagues, or loved ones. The names are in the order the soldier died, so if you’re looking for someone special, it’s best to have the memorial’s name book to locate them.

On the eastern side of the mall, pay respect to the soldiers who served in the “Forgotten War”. The Korean War Veterans Memorial was privately funded, even though it is part of the National Park Service. Highlights are the 19 stainless steel statues of soldiers marching toward an American Flag, as well as a 164-foot-long granite wall that pays homage to those you fought and the Pool of Remembrance, a peaceful place for visitors to reflect on the cost of war.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington D.C.

4. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum draws millions of visitors to its exhibits each year and it one of the highlights of any trip to D.C. Personally, it’s my favourite because I am a retired U.S Air Force officer and have a kinship with the world of aviation. The museum contains a treasure trove of celebrated aircraft, including the iconic Wilbur and Orville Wright’s 1903 Wright Flyer Amelia, Earhart’s Lockheed Vega 5B, and Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. It’s a family-friendly destination that has a really cool flight simulator, an IMAX theatre, planetarium and a three-story gift shop with aviation-themed souvenirs.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Photo by Pedro Szekely via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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5. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

There are almost as many cultural attractions in Washington D.C. as there are monuments to past Presidents. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was named after America’s treasured Camelot president and houses the National Symphony Orchestra, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet and the Washington National Opera. You can also catch many other theatrical and musical performances throughout the year. For an awe-inspiring view of the Potomac River, head to the Center’s rooftop terrace. Free guided tours are available for those who want to learn more about the theatre’s history and architecture. Also, the Millennium Stage has free shows every day at 6pm.

6. The White House

The neat thing about the White House is that it’s the only private residence of a head of state that is open to the public. A tour of the White House can be the most memorable thing you do on a trip to the nation’s capital, but you’ll really need to plan ahead — tickets are required and sell out months in advance. The history of the White House is fascinating. It all began in 1791 when George Washington, selected the site for the White House and after eight years of construction, President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, moved into the unfinished building in 1800.

The White House

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7. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

There’s something about a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that will leave its mark on you for a long time.

The museum focuses on the atrocities of the Holocaust during World War II and is a very sobering experience. You’ll get a feeling of connecting to the past as you enter the museum and are handed an identification card with the name and personal information of an actual person who experienced the Holocaust. As you move through the exhibits, you’ll l be given updates on your person’s well-being as they experience Hitler’s rise to power, anti-Semitic propaganda, and the horrors of the Final Solution. Just beware that this museum is very graphic and may not be suitable for your children.

During the summer, you’ll need to reserve tickets because of the crowds, but a visit during the rest of the year you should be able to get right in.

8. U.S. Capitol Building

If you want to visit an amazing building and witness politics in action, then there is only one place to go—the U.S. Capital. This iconic building with its cast-iron dome houses members of Congress as they debate and create the United States. national policy and law. Tours of the north and south wings and the Rotunda allows visitors to view historic paintings, frescoes, and sculptures that illustrate famous scenes from American history. The tour is free, but you’ll need to make a reservation if you want to go beyond the Visitor’s Center.

United States Capitol Building

9. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial’s powerful symbolism and graceful design will inspire all who visit. Located beside the Tidal Basin, the 30-foot-tall statue of Dr. King is cut into a block of granite symbolizing his rock-solid stance on civil rights and his contribution to the American dream of equality for all. The address of 1964 Independence Avenue is a poignant reference to the year that the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress.

It’s one of the newest memorials in Wahington D.C. and the first dedicated to an African American. It’s proximity to other monuments like the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, The World War II Memorial, and the Korean War memorial make it easy to see all of these historical attractions in one day.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
Photo by Woubishet Z. Taffese via Unsplash

10. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History is the second-best Smithsonian attraction in Washington and draws millions of visitors every year. You’ll need to plan a whole day to see all the exciting and educational exhibits. Such as the replicas of giant whales in Sant Ocean Hall, life-size models of early human faces in the Koch Hall of Human Origins, and dinosaur fossils at the National Fossil Hall. Admission to the museum is free, but to see the IMAX show or get in the Butterfly Pavilion, you’ll pay a small admission fee.

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History - CC0 via Flickr
Photo by Don DeBold via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Tours and activities for Washington D.C.
James Stewart

Written by

James Stewart

Jim is a travel writer and retired lecturer of African Studies. He is a self-described life-long trekker and his career as a U.S. Air Force officer gave him the chance to experience amazing and exotic destinations in Europe, Asia and Africa. He is at home with a good Wilbur Smith book or anywhere there is a story to tell... [Read full bio]

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