As the nation’s capital, DC is an infinitely popular spot for tourists from all over the world. And while photographing cherry blossoms and taking a Segway tour around the monuments are all well and good, there are plenty of things to do in the District that are perfect for locals and first-timers alike.
We’ve rounded up all the fun stuff around town, including plenty of free activities as well as splurge-worthy spots. We skipped the one-off events and the infamous stand-in-line destinations, since that’s really no way to spend a trip. Otherwise, it’s all here, from brewery tours and must-hit restaurants, to legitimately cool museums and gorgeous parks. And don’t worry: We won’t make you ride a double-decker bus.
Shop (and eat) your heart out in Georgetown
$ Georgetown Despite being DC’s oldest neighborhood, Georgetown remains one of the best areas of the city to spend time in — especially on an afternoon with optimal walking weather. Grab your morning brew at Grace Street Coffee Roasters or enjoy brunch al fresco at the euro-centric Kafe Leopold before strolling your way down M Street for some quality shopping, where you can find storefronts from big retailers like J.Crew or the more trendy Outdoor Voices. You can even pour your own custom candle to take home with you at the new Paddywax Candle Bar.
Stroll around the National Cathedral
$ Cathedral Heights Those who spend most of their time on Capitol Hill or downtown might not think to venture north to the National Cathedral, so we’re here to tell you that it’s worth the trip. Take an interesting tour of the cathedral, like this one that explores the 200+ gargoyles and grotesques that adorn the building. Casual strollers can also just walk in and poke around for themselves, taking a moment to gaze up at the stained glass windows and venturing to the top of the tower for a view of the city. Hungry? Many don’t realize that there’s actually an Open City at the National Cathedral where you can grab brunch. Don’t forget to take a walk around the gardens in the back, which are beautiful during the springtime.
Free White House This art museum always has an Instagram-worthy exhibition with themes like Disrupting Craft and Reforestation of the Imagination, but you can check out what’s currently on view before your visit here. Bring your cool friends here and explore the large-scale works from the annual desert phenomenon.
Free The Mall Put this at the top of the list of actually cool museums on the Mall. The massive institution has an endless supply of trivia fodder, but some of the coolest exhibits are sleepers, like the bone hall (giraffes only have seven neck vertebrae?!), the software that lets you turn your face into an early human, and all the crazy rocks in the geology exhibit.
Free Arboretum The 446-acre National Arboretum is the perfect backdrop for some artsy shots, whether you strike a pose in front of the iconic National Capitol Columns or frolic in the grove of state trees. (Note that professional or commercial photography requires a permit.) Don’t miss the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum where you can learn about miniature masterpieces.
Free Capitol Hill Did you know you can get a library card for the Library of Congress? The free “Reader Identification Card” gives you access to the Library’s research areas and generally makes you a bookish badass. Settle in to a reading room and dig up some history.
Throw around some axes
$$ Ivy City There’s more to do in Ivy City than just distillery hopping now due to the recent opening of THRōW Social™, a 22,000-square-foot venue for nearly any kind of social game your heart may desire. The space boasts 12 axe-throwing ranges, five curling rinks, and six FootBowl (soccer + bowling) ranges. It’s a surprisingly chic place for throwing axes too, with part of the space inspired by Palm Beach and the other half rocking an alpine-themed après ski vibe.
$ Potomac Glenstone is technically around a 40-minute drive outside of the city, but it’s a quick and scenic trip that delivers you to nearly 300 acres of beautiful landscape, sculpture, and other art. A privately owned gallery, Glenstone is always free but a reservation is necessary and slots can book up well in advance. Arriving there, you’ll feel a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city — surrounded by nature and in an artsy world of your own (it’s also the perfect place to grab a pic for the ‘gram).
Free The Mall As one of the city’s newest museums with a constant flow of visitors, you might not have had a chance to set foot inside this impressive Smithsonian creation. Now’s your chance. Be sure to plan ahead though, because it’s still popular as ever. You can get timed passes for a specific date months in advance, or get online at 6:30am to get same-day passes. Alternatively, you can try your luck in line during the week; a limited number of passes are distributed starting at 1pm, and the line forms well before then. By the way, its Sweet Home Cafe is excellent.
Free Kenilworth This water wonderland is open year round, offering nature buffs the chance to spot birds, admire water lilies and lotus flowers, hike, paint, canoe, and picnic. There are plenty of benches around the park, so you can linger a while and enjoy the views.
Free The Mall With rotating exhibitions and works by legendary artists, this gallery never gets old. Bring your guests to admire classic paintings by Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, Matisse, and Pollock while you explore fascinating temporary installations. Plus, during the warmer months, there are free jazz concerts in the Sculpture Garden.
Be a tourist on Embassy Row
Free Embassy Row Take a walk down Embassy Row and you’ll be transported to far off lands. During the month of May, Passport DC gives you a chance to globe-trot with special events by 70 embassies. Events include open houses, flower marts, chef challenges, street festivals, and more.
Free The Mall Boldly go to this museum dedicated to the Final Frontier. The collection is quite literally out of this world, with the 1903 Wright Flyer, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia, and a lunar rock you can touch. There’s also a planetarium and an IMAX theater.
Get educated at a think tank discussion
Free-$$ Various locations This is the nation’s capital, after all, and that means that many smart people make it their business to discuss and communicate their smarts here. Think tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace often schedule talks and informative discussions about topics big and small. Sometimes they also host open-bar receptions afterward.
Free-$$$$ Foggy Bottom You can even impress New Yorkers with a show at the Kennedy Center, which is one of the premier performing arts centers in the country. Depending on your budget, try to catch a free concert on the Millennium Stage or snag pricey, coveted tickets to a touring play or musical.
Free-$$$$ Alexandria Just a short drive or a water taxi ride away from DC lies the nationally designated historic district of Old Town Alexandria. It was founded in 1749 and is now ripe with restaurants, boutiques, museums, a free trolley, picturesque cobblestone streets, and red brick sidewalks. This adorable town was named a number one travel destination in the country by Money Magazine, beating out the home of Disneyland, so it must be pretty swell.
Free-$$$$ Various locations Sometimes making plans is overrated. When your house guests roll up, don’t forget to take a look at our list of all the things happening in DC that weekend for any picks that suit your fancy. Depending on the week, you might find yourself at a cooking class, a street festival, a sporting event, or an art installation.
$ Georgetown Even though it’s just blocks from the hustle and bustle of M Street, this historic country house and garden feels eons away. The property has beautifully designed and kept grounds, from a hillside of cherry trees and a rose garden, to peaceful terraces and an old greenhouse.
$ U Street Remember, the half smoke — our iconic half-beef, half-pork sausage — is arguably the official food of DC, so you have to make sure your guests get a taste. This OG joint is the natural choice for first timers. It’s a perfect late-night indulgence after bar hopping down U Street.
Sample the area’s best restaurants
$-$$$$ Various locations No matter what snooty New Yorkers say about DC being a meat-and-potatoes town, we all know the truth about the our city’s incredible dining scene. We’ve got you covered when it’s time to wine and dine at the absolute best spots in town. Plus, we’ll help you figure out where to grab a great burger, delicious breakfast, stellar Italian, tasty pizza, and, of course, brunch — Washington’s favorite meal of the week. Don’t forget to do work on your food bucket list while you’re at it.
…Or eat your way around a food hall
$-$$ Various locations Perfect for pleasing a variety of palettes and picky eaters, food halls are at the height of popularity right now. Within the city there’s the tried and true Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, the family-friendly Union Market with its 200-year legacy, and newcomer La Cosecha practically right next door — a Latin American food hall and marketplace. Don’t forget about the suburban outlier and Asian food hub The Block in Annandale, and Tastemakers in Brookland.
Relive your college years partying in AdMo or on U Street
$-$$ Various locations The best places for after-dark shenanigans are hands down Adams Morgan and U Street. Find dive bars galore (including some of our objectively best bars in the city), karaoke, live music, jumbo slice, and pretty much anything you want in these two happening neighborhoods. Just be ready to party like a frat boy.
$-$$$ Loudoun County If San Francisco has Napa Valley, DC has Loudoun County. Draw straws to pick a DD or jump in a limo rental and make your way out to the green rolling hills of the Northern Virginia countryside where there are wineries everywhere you turn. Some highlights include Greenhill, Tarara, Stone Tower, Quattro Goomba’s, and North Gate. If you don’t feel like leaving the city, you can always sip a DC-made rosé on the southeast waterfront at District Winery.
$-$$$ Various locations The city is chock-full of great local craft breweries, so you’d be remiss not to give your guests a taste. Take your pick from the pack: 3 Stars, Atlas, Bluejacket, DC Brau, Right Proper, and more. Neighboring suburban breweries like Port City are also worth a stop.
Sip locally pressed cider
$-$$$ Various locations DC now has not one, not two, but three cideries! The first arrival, Anxo, has two locations where you can taste their cider paired with Spanish pinxtos. Supreme Core is distributing across the city, so stop by one of the restaurants or bars serving their stuff. And Capitol Cider House is the newest in the set, having opened in a casual space in Petworth.
$$ Mount Vernon Our first president’s historic estate is just a 30-minute drive from the city. You can walk through the 18th-century mansion, stroll the expansive gardens and grounds, check out the four-acre farm, learn about historic trades, pay respects at The Tombs, or enjoy the museum galleries.
$$-$$$ U Street An institution in the DC music scene, this intimate club has to be on your list. Since the ’80s, the 9:30 Club has been graced by household names, under-the-radar artists, and up-and-comers about to make it big. It’s been named the number-one nightclub around by Rolling Stone, Billboard, and Pollstar more than any other club in the country.