Washington DC is known for big & impressive architecture, iconic buildings, museums, & lots of monuments built in memory of United States Presidents, other prominent leaders, & important national events. It can be overwhelming to figure out what to do in Washington DC if you have limited time to spend there! This list of top 10 things to do in Washington DC is perfect if you’re a first-time visitor.
1. Go look at the White House
The official home of the President of the United States and one of the most famous residences in the world is a must-see when in Washington DC. The White House, located on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, can be seen from several places but some of the best views are from the North & South lawns.
To see it from the North Lawn side, head to Lafayette Square; it’s often said to be the best place to go take a look at the White House. To see it from the South Lawn, make your way to The Ellipse. Other great photo opportunities you have are from tour buses as they pass the park on the north, and also from the top of the Washington Monument.
If you’re interested in touring the White House, you should check if touring is allowed when you’re in town. Remember that these tours can be suspended or cancelled depending on issues that might come up. However, if you would like to go inside the White House, you’ll have to book much in advance — 21 days to 3 months earlier — and it has to be done through the office of your member of congress. If you’re an international visitor, it will have to be done through your country’s embassy in Washington. The tours are free & self-guided, and it allows you to see some rooms & areas around the White House.
2. Peek at the US Capitol
Another famous Neoclassical building you’re not going to want to miss seeing while you’re in the capital city is the US Capitol on Capitol Hill. Visiting the Capitol is one of the top things to do in Washington DC. Situated at the east end of the National Mall, this building that houses the meetings of the United States Legislature has become a symbol of the country’s democracy.
If you’d like to go inside the capitol, you’re going to have to call the Capitol Visitor Center or check its website and see if and when the tours are being conducted. The tours, which are generally conducted most days of year, might be suspended in the event of a crisis; public health or other such. The tours are around 45 minutes and will show you the Rotunda, National Statuary Hall, The Crypt, some paintings, & some historic rooms in the building. If Congress is in session, you might want to try to get separate passes to the gallery.
Apart from that, there’s a lot to see & learn at the Capitol Visitor Center. It’s an underground building that has some great exhibits, informative films to show you, and even a cafeteria & gift shop.
3. Get close to the Washington Monument
Also at the National Mall and west of the Capitol is an obelisk you’re not going to miss. You’ll want to go as close to the Washington Monument as you can and see the reflecting pool before it.
The Washington Monument was built in honor of the first president of the United States, George Washington, and it used to be the tallest structure in the world when its construction was completed in 1884. It still stands as the tallest obelisk. If you don’t mind heights, you can make your way to the observation deck of this monument. Located at 500ft, the deck comes with birds-eye views of the national capital & parts of the neighboring states of Maryland & Virginia.
4. Lincoln Memorial
At the other end of the reflecting pool in the National Mall is another iconic monument, the Lincoln Memorial, built in memory of Abraham Lincoln. This another one of the most popular things to do in Washington DC. It’s made up of 36 columns for the 36 states that made USA at the time of Lincoln’s presidency. Sheltered within this pillared hall is a marble statue of the 16th President.
Other things to take in at the site include murals about Lincoln’s life, engravings of two of his speeches, some smaller sculptures, & the steps that lead up to the structure. These steps were where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered what is now the much-celebrated I Have a Dream Speech.
5. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
Just a few minutes’ stroll away from the Lincoln Memorial and across the tidal basin from the Roosevelt Memorial is the memorial for Martin Luther King, Jr. At this site is a 30-foot granite sculpture of this great leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the US.
You’ll also find several of MLK’s quotes engraved onto the Inscription Wall near his statue, which is also known as the Stone of Hope.
6. Walk through American History
Smithsonian National Museum of American History is a look back into the great strides America has made in the fields of politics, science, sports, entertainment, transportation, technology et al.
It also preserves a large collection of personal belongings of American greats from scientists & sportspersons to presidents. Here you’ll find things like Lincoln’s top hat & Roosevelt’s pants to Truman’s key to the white house. There’s Clinton’s Saxophone & Obama’s basketball and other such things. You’ll also see interesting things like the star-spangled banner that inspired the national anthem, the history of America’s lunchboxes, dresses of First Ladies, and Dorothy’s Ruby slippers.
This museum that has been open since 1964 has millions of exhibits and attracts millions of people, making it one of the best things to do in Washington DC.
7. Go deeper into African American History
For this, you’re going to have to go to another Smithsonian Institution Museum: the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
This museum that was established in 2003 hopes to document life, history, & culture of African Americans. Since 2016 it’s been at its present and final address. It’s home to thousands of exhibits from the slavery & segregation’s eras.
It has also become one of the most visited museums in the city.
8. Delve into some Space History
Yet another museum that’s been a big hit with visitors local, out of town, & even international tourists is the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
The things to see here include artifacts related to airplanes. This includes airplane engines, rockets, space equipment, suits and everything you need to learn about air & space travel. You’ll also find some traveling exhibits, interactive exhibits & even events for kids. There’s so much to see here & it’s one of the top things to do in Washington DC.
9. Enjoy some greenery at Rock Creek Park
When you’re ready to take a break from the monuments & museums that Washington is known for, you should make your way to the northern part of the capital city and unwind at Rock Creek Park.
This park was the third one to be taken under the wings of the National Park Service. It has trails for running, hiking, & biking. You can play some sports like tennis or golf, or just have a picnic in the park. If and when you’re ready for more activity, remember that the park is also home to a planetarium & the well-known Smithsonian National Zoo.
10. Explore Georgetown
Not far from the park is a charming & historic neighborhood along the Potomac that you might also want to check out. Georgetown, with its cobblestone streets and old homes, dates back to 1751, and holds some of the oldest European-style buildings. You don’t want to miss visiting the Old Stone House, which is said to be the oldest structure on its original foundations.
Other attractions here are Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, Georgetown University, shopping facilities, art galleries, & restaurants. The Capital Crescent Trail also passes the area if you’d like some more physical activity while here.