The best things to do in Washington, DC

Washington, DC is one of the most visited and intriguing cities in the U.S. What do Aussies love about Washington, DC? It has a winning combination of legendary attractions, lively festivals, theatres and a booming food scene. Read on for the best things to do when visiting.

Georgetown Waterfront ©

Explore the outdoors

Because of its layout, Washington, DC is easy to get around – and you can enjoy the great outdoors while you do just that. Given that 70 per cent of DC land is managed by the National Park Service, there’s a lot to explore.

Hire a kayak or stand-up paddleboard to float past key monuments including the Georgetown Waterfront and Theodore Roosevelt Island, or glide under the Key Bridge. Then enjoy shady strolls around the National Arboretum and Rock Creek Park. Another day you can bike ride around the National Mall or explore the trails and scenery along the Potomac River.

Outdoor adventures abound across the U.S. capital © Joshua Cogan

Head to the theatre

It’s often said Washington, DC doesn’t have a theatre district because it is a theatre town.

Most popular is the Warner Theatre or the National Theatre. Opening in 1835 the National Theatre is the oldest of its kind in the U.S.

For something more intimate, try Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Arena Stage. Meanwhile DC’s most fabled theatre, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – a memorial to the late President J. F. Kennedy – hosts hundreds of performances each year. Here, Millennium Stage’s event roster includes film screenings and live music.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts ©

24 Michelin-starred restaurants

Washington, DC’s reputation is growing among gourmands. Mostly due to its 24 Michelin-starred restaurants.

The Michelin Guide added four new One Michelin Star restaurants in 2022. One of these new restaurants was Imperfecto: The Chef’s Table. The restaurant serves Latin American cuisine over an intimate 12-course tasting menu with Chef Enrique Limardo. Latin American flavours are the stars in Washington right now, and this restaurant is a great example.

Imperfecto: The Chef’s Table © Leo Moser

Another not to miss is the new restaurant, The Bazaar by José Andrés. The namesake chef has a number of restaurants in town. He is also known for his humanitarian work in the U.S. and around the world.

Further afield but worth the journey is The Inn at Little Washington. It is the first and only three-star Michelin restaurant in Washington, DC. Expect a romantic dinner-party vibe in a private country house with dishes like chartreuse of savoy cabbage and Maine lobster with caviar beurre blanc.

Enjoy the magic of music

Whether you prefer jazz, go-go, hip-hop or dance, music rules in Washington, DC.

Don’t miss the 9:30 Club, which opened its doors in the ’80s hosting acts including Chuck Brown, Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Police. It’s since seen the likes of Bob Dylan, The Beastie Boys and Radiohead grace its stage.

On a more intimate scale, Pearl Street Warehouse delivers live music and a meal. It’s part of The Wharf neighbourhood, which also hosts regular acts.

DC Jazzfest held annually in August or September. The not-for-profit festival runs over 5 days featuring Jazz legends as well as up-and-coming musicians.

Cherry Blossoms

In spring (March to May), Washington, DC turns pink thanks to a gift of 2,000 cherry trees from the mayor of Tokyo City in 1912.

Since then, these blooms have starred in April’s National Cherry Blossom Festival. Fill your camera, then your stomach at the monthly food truck festival, Truckeroo.

Passport DC

Come May, Passport DC hits town with the aim of celebrating DC’s thriving international diplomatic community. The international embassies organise open houses, performances and workshops.

It’s such a fun way to experience multiple cultures without leaving the city via street festivals, exhibits and more.

A world of museums

DC has 70+ museums – the Smithsonian Institute claims 17 venues and 155 million artefacts alone. Two new spaces are being established here: the National Museum of the American Latino and the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum.

Nearby is The National Gallery of Art, with a collection of 150,000 pieces. Then, visit The International Spy Museum, Planet Word museum and The Phillips Collection.

The Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is the biggest library in the world. Containing 164 million items on approximately 1,350 kilometres of bookshelves. Start off by doing a free one-hour tour. Highlights include the Thomas Jefferson library, the reading room, the Gutenberg Bible and the Waldseemüller map found in 1507 in Bavaria – the first map to show the word ‘America’.

Great Hall in the Thomas Jefferson Building DC © Carol Highsmith

Walk through the tunnel to the Capitol on a tour of this iconic building which includes the Crypt, the Rotunda, and National Statuary Hall as well as the fascinating movie, Out of Many, One.

United States Capitol

Visit the neighbourhoods

Each of DC’s 24 neighbourhoods has a distinct vibe.

The Shaw area is hip with lively bars and restaurants around the legendary U Street corridor. In Adams Morgan you’ll find historic row houses as well as a variety of independently owned stores – and a crowded nightlife scene.

Brookland is an up-andcoming arts district filled with older homes and retro storefronts, while Georgetown has tree-lined streets with cobblestone sidewalks, grand homes and pretty C&O Canal. Then there’s the evolving Southwest Waterfront – a vibrant riverside community.

The Washington Monument

You will struggle to see all of DC’s sights in one trip, but it’s hard to miss the Washington Monument.

The 169-metre marble obelisk honours the first President of the United States. From the observation deck, you can see the U.S. Capitol, the White House, Arlington National Cemetery and the Washington National Cathedral.

The Lincoln Memorial

Another must is the Lincoln Memorial, where you’ll find the 618-metre ‘Reflecting Pool’. It is the site where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I HAVE A DREAM” speech. Arguably the best way to take everything in is on a bike, electric or classic, from the Capital Bikeshare program.

The Lincoln Memorial

The best free things to do in Washington, DC

It’s not called the ‘capital of free’ without reason. There are plenty of things you can do in DC that are completely free. Smithsonian’s museums and zoo have no entry fees. Great for kids, Smithsonian’s National Zoo is a 163-acre urban park in the Woodley Park neighbourhood with roughly 2,700 animals.

Take the kids (big and small) to Planet Word – the world’s first voice-activated museum. Here you can use words to transform the colour in the room, browse a magical library filled with literary secrets, and step into a humour gallery to determine the funniest member of your crew.

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