10 must-do’s in Washington D.C.
A trip to the nation’s capital is a worthy addition to everyone’s travel bucket list. Regardless of whether or not you are a history or politics buff, there is much more to see and do in “America’s Backyard” besides seeing the monuments. D.C. is home to several of the most renowned museums in the world, and that alone warrants a visit to the Capital City.
The iconic annual Cherry Blossom festival, an emerging foodie scene, and amazing architecture, are just a few more reasons to place a trip to DC high on your must-visit list. There is more than enough for everyone to do in D.C.’s vibrant Capitol Hill neighborhood, whether your interest lies in history, art, photography, food, nature, or politics.
Below are 10 must-do’s in and around the Capitol Hill region
Take a self-guided tour of the monuments
Obviously, seeing all the gorgeous grandiose monuments and memorials should be your number 1 priority while visiting Washington D.C. The National Mall, America’s most visited park, is commonly referred to as “America’s Backyard.” The Mall is home to an impressive concentration of museums, historical memorials, and cultural attractions. While all of these monuments are stately (and much more impressive in person than in pics), the history behind the architecture is even more impressive.
Most of the major monuments can be viewed via a 2 mile walking path, which stretches from the Capitol Building to the Lincoln memorial. This self-guided path is easy to follow, with signs along the way guiding you in the right direction. You’ll see a lot of locals out jogging and bike riding. The area is patrolled 24/7, and thus, also quite safe at night.
If you are not up for a lengthy walk, you can opt for a narrated trolley tour, available both day & night. Additionally, you can look into the Capital Bikeshare program, where you can enjoy unlimited 30 minute bike rides for just 8 bucks a day.
View the monuments by moonlight
Unfortunately, due to an overbooked itinerary, many tourists never make it to see the monuments at night. This is a shame as they look even more mesmerizing at dusk. It’s so refreshing to take a peaceful night walk viewing each awe-inspiring piece of history without the hefty afternoon congestion or intense summer sun in your face. If you really want to avoid crowds, 9pm-11pm is the ideal time frame.
Crowds have usually died down, and thus, it’s easier to get great pics. Plus, there really is not a whole lot to do in the Capitol Hill area after 5:00 when the majority of museums close. The Lincoln Memorial, the WWII Memorial, and Washington monument look especially incredible lit up, so be sure to at least get around to seeing these 3 beauties.
Wear comfortable shoes as you will be getting in plenty of mileage. Most pathways are well lit and the area is heavy patrolled, so it feels safe (be sure to use common sense and avoid dark areas).
If you prefer a guide, DC by Foot offers free tours (you can donate as much as you like).
Browse the Presidential Portrait Gallery
Although not the most hyped, the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery is one of D.C.’s most interesting museums. Like all the other museums, it is completely free to visit. If you are especially interested in art and/or politics, this is the museum for you. The highlight here is a section dedicated to Presidential portraits. Since Gilbert Stuart completed the iconic “Lansdowne” portrait of President Washington in 1795, every President since has had his portrait taken.
From Founding Father George Washington, to 44th President Obama, you will take a trip back in time from the late 1700’s, to the early 2000’s, viewing the detailed portraits of the Presidents who helped shape each period of our nation’s history.
Besides the well-known presidential portraits, the museum also highlights the history of America, civil rights leaders, and sports and entertainment figures. Portraits, as well as sculptures, drawings, and artifacts, and even the official White House piano (which was used from 1903-1937), are all on display.
What to see: The Obama portrait which was unveiled in February of 2018 is currently the most popular exhibit. Also be sure to check out Michelle Obama’s portrait and Champions, dedicated to American sports legends.
View the nation’s most important documents
The most frequently asked question by new D.C. tourists is “Where can I view the Declaration of Independence?” The National Archives building is where you can view this document, plus The Bill of Rights and The Constitution. The line is quite long and often begins to form outside the building more than an hour before opening. I highly suggest visiting on a weekday to avoid an extremely long wait.
As everyone wants to see these most important founding documents, they let people in one large group at a time. It’s a bit hard to see anything due to the immense crowds, but still a must while in the nation’s capital.
Unfortunately, no pics are allowed, so you will have to wait to see this one for yourself. The on-site gift shops offers an abundance of souvenirs including mini Declaration of Independence posters.
Additional info on the Archives exhibits
Visit the Smithsonian Museum of Natural & American History
The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History is one of the top visited museums in the world, 7th according to annual visitation numbers. Highlights include a nearly complete T-Rex skeleton (one of the largest and most complete ever discovered), the legendary 45.52 carat Hope Diamond, and the Eternal Life in Ancient Egyptian exhibit featuring 4 mummies which are over 2000 years old.
The Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the 11th most visited museum in the world, is also well worth a look. This is a massive museum with lots to see. Dorothy’s ruby slippers, the First ladies’ dresses, and the Star Spangled Banner are a few of the favorite exhibitions here.
Because the museums are right next to each other, it’s easy to combine both into a full day adventure.
Note: Both these museums get insanely busy on weekends. Try to plan for an early morning weekday visit, if possible.
Take a stroll around Tidal Basin Park during cherry blossom season
The peak cherry blossom season in D.C. usually falls around the first week of April. In Japan, Cherry blossoms, due to their short blooming period, represent the fleeing nature of life. Typically, you only have about a week to see these trees after peak. Thus, it’s difficult to plan your trip at the right time.
3000 cherry blossoms were donated by the Japanese in 1912 in honor of their friendship with the US. There are now thousands of trees all around the Capitol Hill region, with an especially high concentration at Tidal Basin Park. As this park features a wonderful view of the Jefferson Memorial, it’s a prime tourist photo spot when cherry blossoms reach their peak.
A massive surge in tourism occurs during cherry blossom season as visitors from all over the world flock here to see these gorgeous flowering trees, known as “Sakura” in Japan. Seeing the monuments any time of the year is an exhilarating experience, yet even more so when they are surrounded by these gorgeous colorful trees.
It’s a bit hard to plan your trip in advance as the estimated blooming cannot be predicted more than a week or so beforehand. Check the cherry blossom watch to stay updated.
Take a free tour of the Capitol Hill building
The Capitol building, home of the US Congress, is one of the most architecturally gorgeous buildings in the country. Established in 1793, the grand building is now one of the most recognized symbols of American democracy.
Free tours are available by walk in or advance registration. If you register in advance, you will be taken on a longer more personalized tour. Although the walk in tour does not take you through the Senate and House Galleries (separate passes required), it does include a walk through The Crypt (originally built as a tomb for Washington), the beautiful Rotunda, and the National Statuary Hall.
Take a look at the gorgeous artwork in the rotunda!
As soon as you begin your tour, you will be taken aback by the gorgeous architecture. The fresco painted on the dome ceiling in the rotunda was completed in 1865 by Greek-Italian artist Constantino Brumidi. This incredible piece of art is known as The Apotheosis of Washington.
In the National Statuary Hall, you will see 100 gorgeous statues, 2 representative of each US state. A few notable figures include Samuel Adams, Ronald Reagan, and Rosa Parks.
Take a tour of the White House
Every President since John Adams in 1800 has lived in the White House (Washington oversaw the construction, although he did not actually reside at the White House). This massive space is home to 132 rooms and 35 bathrooms. At 55,000 square feet, it surprisingly ranks as only the 34th largest house in the US.
Although the house is much further back then you would expect due to the huge lawn and gate, it’s still a must to at least snap one quick photo while you are in DC. Tours are available, although you must request your spot at least 21 days in advance (up to 3 months in advance). Tours operate on a first come, first serve basis and are free of charge.
The White House is conveniently walkable to many of the Smithsonian museums, so you can easily incorporate a quick viewing into your schedule. There is a great gift shop (White House gifts) in the vicinity. Here you can find just about anything including tons of Cherry blossom and Presidential themed souvenirs.
Explore the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden
The Hirshhorn is an amazing modern art museum, a bit off-the-radar, and thus, does not see nearly as much traffic as the more popular museums. It’s pretty small too, easily visited in just an hour or so, and therefore, the perfect small break in between attractions. After visiting the extremely hectic Air and Space Museum (located just next door), a visit to the Hirshhorn comes in as a nice quiet break.
The focus here is on contemporary art from the last few decades. Some of the art is a bit odd, and thus, this museum may not be everyone’s cup of tea. However, art lovers will definitely want to plan for a stop here. Like all other Smithsonians, admission is completely free! There are a number of interesting interactive exhibits – be sure to check out “Pulse.”
The Sculpture garden is really impressive with over a dozen unique artistic representations. Currently on exhibit is Yayoi Kusama’s monumental Pumpkin sculpture. Kusama says “Pumpkins bring about poetic peace in my mind. Pumpkins talk to me.”
Also on-site is a nice little cafe which serves excellent espresso and gelato. Treat yourself before getting back on your feet!
Additional info on current Hirshhorn exhibits
Tour the history of the postal industry
The National Postal Museum is an underrated D.C. gem which explore the history of the US postal industry. Compared to the uber popular museums in town, the postal museum barely sees any traffic. There is barely any wait to get through security, and the whole experience is really laid-back. Seeing the variety of postage stamps and the various means of transporting mail throughout the years is a unique experience you will not find elsewhere.
If you are a stamp collector, you will definitely want to place this museum high on your list. There is a really cool exhibit here where you can view stamps from around the globe. Another exhibit highlights all the popular US stamps used throughout the years – it’s really a walk down memory lane to see old specialty postage like the Breast Cancer Research stamps.
Each stamp truly is a work of art and it’s great that we have a museum dedicated to spotlighting these old treasures. From Elvis, to Martin Luther King, so many cultural icons have been honored throughout the years by way of a commemorative postage stamp.
Additional info on the National Postal Museum
More great museums to add to your to-do list
The National Gallery of Art – The impressive collection includes more than 141,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and various other means of art.
The Air and Space Museum – Informative, but extremely crowded museum highlighting both the space and aviation industry. Get here early and plan on spending at least a few hours exploring the detailed exhibits.
National Museum of the American Indian – A museum spotlighting the history of native cultures in the Western hemisphere.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum – The official US memorial to the Holocaust.
Full list of Smithsonian museums
If you are into quirky attractions
Capitol Hill Books is a must-see for any book lover. This eclectic shop has been a city icon for decades. The space is super small and jam packed with people all the time. You will find some really great books here, including quirky and hard-to-find gems, in addition to the classics. The quirky signs all over the shop really made for the most unique book shopping experience.
There are dozens of funny signs posted all over the shop – take a look below!
If you love shopping local
The Eastern Market takes place every Saturday on 7th ST S.E., just a few blocks from Capitol Hill. Here you will find unique handcrafted pieces from local artists, as well as locally sourced fruits, produce, and specialty goods. This is a great place to pick up a unique art piece or a few souvenirs. Local restaurants, coffee shops, galleries, and book shops are in the vicinity.
Daytrips in the vincity
Georgetown is home to a beautiful quaint downtown, loaded with great boutique shops and local restaurants. The architecture is gorgeous and cherry blossom trees dot the landscape every April. Try a red velvet cupcake at Baked & Wired and be sure to treat yourself to a fantastic Italian dinner at Il Canale.
Arlington National Cemetery – See the graves of President’s William Taft and John F. Kennedy, plus more than 16,000 Civil war soldiers. This cemetery is gorgeous especially during cherry blossom season.
The National Zoo – Located about a half hour outside of the city, the zoo is worth the drive for anyone seeking a break from the museum congestion. The highlight here is the Panda exhibit, being that it is 1 of just 4 US zoos to house these adorable bears, native only to China.