The best things to do in Washington, DC

While Washington, DC has typically been embedded in politics, the US capital is shaking things up when it comes to dining, arts and attractions.

Washington, DC is compact and well-planned, with most of its major attractions within walking distance of each other. If you prefer to explore on two wheels, there are more than 160km of bike lanes and trails, not to mention the country’s largest bike-sharing system. And then there’s the public transport system: choose between the hop-on, hop-off Old Town Trolley, the Metrorail, Metrobus or the DC Circulator.

Neighbourhood watch

Each of DC’s 24 neighbourhoods has a distinct vibe. In recent years, Washington, DC has invested heavily in enhancing the city’s neighbourhood precincts. Case in point The Wharf, a buzzing (yet LEED sustainable) development home to more than 80 restaurants and shops, four hotels, and residential and office space, sitting pretty in an historic wharf area. Mixed-use Capitol Crossing, meanwhile, covers three city blocks near the Capitol building, and while there are residential buildings, there’s also a hotel and 6,500 square metres dedicated to shopping, wining and dining. In coming years, visitors and locals can look forward to Street Bridge Park, the city’s first elevated bridge, spanning the Anacostia River and replete with interactive art and waterfalls.   

The Wharf © washington.org

Culinary diversity in Washington, DC 

The city is among the most culturally diverse in the US, and with that eclecticism comes a staggering bounty of authentic restaurants and bars – from ethnic eateries to fine-dining. In fact, DC ranks in the top-five cities nationwide for ‘food forwardness’, which is to say it’s vibrant and experimental, and always tasty. The city gets the Michelin Guide treatment annually – The Inn at Little Washington has three stars – but there are plenty of neighbourhood ‘eat streets’ to explore and cheap-and-cheerful restaurants to take the dining pulse. 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.

Vue Rooftop © washington.org

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 © washington.org

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.

Cherry blossom season runs through spring © washington.org

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.

Washington, DC museums

DC has its fair share of legendary attractions and experiences – things you can only do and see here. Like the U.S. Capitol, the seat of the United States Congress. Tours here are free, although you need to get a tour pass in advance. The Smithsonian Institute claims 17 venues and 155 million artefacts alone. The International Spy Museum is the only one of its kind in the United States, dedicated entirely to the profession of international espionage. And if you’ve ever wanted to see the historical documents that officially formed the US, you have to make a visit to the National Archives, where the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights are kept. The Lincoln Memorial is national monument built to honour the 16th President of the United States – it’s located opposite the Washington Monument.

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’.

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 © washington.org

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 © washington.org

Sustainability is front of mind 

DC sets the bar high when it comes to sustainable city development. At a commuter level, more than 50 per cent of locals and visitors get around by bike, walking or on public transport, and there’s a commitment to have a 100 per cent zero-emissions bus fleet by 2045. In addition, the DC Government is completely powered by renewable energy. Many hotels across town have cutting-edge sustainability programs in place and are LEED certified for their commitment to preserving the environment, as have the city’s restaurants – ‘farm-to-table’ is not just a catch-phrase here.  

All the eateries in Farmers Restaurant Group are LEED-certified and have in-house recycling and composting programs that keep 90 per cent of waste out of landfills. Bresca has joined ZeroFoodprint in an effort to fight climate change by going carbon neutral. Right Proper Brewing Company is run completely on solar power, producing almost all the company’s consumed electricity. They also use LED lights in the tasting rooms and production facilities and give spent grain away for free to local farmers. 

New and notable hotels in Washington, DC

Check in to these new hotels when you next visit DC:

  • The Westin Washington, DC Downtown
  • Royal Sonesta Washington, DC – Capitol Hill
  • Washington Marriott Capitol Hill
  • Arlo (August 2024)
  • The James (2024)
  • MOB Hotel (2025)

 Start planning your only-in-Washington, DC experience with Travel Associates today.

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This article was produced in partnership with Washington, DC & Brand USA.

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