Things to do in Washington DC

Must-see Washington DC sights

Washington DC puts on quite a display for its guests, those instantly recognisable Neoclassical buildings of the US Capitol the rule-making hub of one of the world’s superpowers.

  1. US Capitol
  2. The White House
  3. National Museum of African American History and Culture
  4. International Spy Museum
  5. The National Zoo
  6. National Air and Space Museum
  7. National Cherry Blossom Festival
  8. Music & Murals Tour
  9. Spectator sports

Best of all, admission to all major attractions on the National Mall is always free; the most famous sites include the White House, memorials to four of the greatest presidents and the superb museums of the Smithsonian Institution. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s also got a growing art, music and theatre scene - gig venues and nightlife of Penn Quarter in particular having seen a dramatic uptick.

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1. US Capitol

One of the most recognisable buildings in the world, the The US Capitol is an essential stop for anyone with a political bent. Home of both the legislature – Congress – and the judiciary – the Supreme Court – this is the place where the law of the land is made. With the US Capitol as the centre of the street grid, the District is divided into four quadrants. Almost all the most famous sights are on Capitol Hill or, running two miles west, the broad, green National Mall.

Infobox: A public tour of the U.S. Capitol is free if you make a reservation in advance.

2. The White House

Of course, that other iconic sight and top of everyone’s list of what to do in Washington DC is the White House Standing at the edge of the Mall, north from the Washington Monument at America’s most famous address - this grand, Neoclassical edifice which has been the residence and office of the President of the United States for nearly 200 years. Keep your eyes peeled for the president, who sometimes pops out for interviews with TV reporters.

Infobox: If you’re interested in the history of the place and its occupants, walk a few blocks southeast to the visitor centre at 1450 Pennsylvania Ave.

3. National Museum of African American History and Culture

In a show-stopping building wrapped in a bronze metal lattice, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is the first major museum to open on the Mall in decades. Arranged into ten galleries centered on history, culture and community, there’s a sobering collection of more than 33,000 slavery artefacts, documents, costumes, musical instruments and other ephemera of African American life over the centuries. Among the exhibits are a “Coloreds Only” drinking fountain, Muhammad Ali’s boxing gear, the personal effects of abolitionist Harriet Tubman and the mammoth acrylic and glass prop Mothership from the Parliament/Funkadelic band’s stage show.

Infobox: The Sweet Home Café serves home-cooking intricately linked to the geographic regions that inspired each dish, revealing stories about African American culture through food.

4. International Spy Museum

The International Spy Museum is one of the quirkier things to do in Washington DC, celebrating espionage in all forms. You’ll find out about feudal Japan’s silent and deadly ninjas, surveillance pigeons armed with cameras from World War I, and infamous modern-day CIA moles such as Aldrich Ames. The museum’s standouts are undoubtedly its artefacts from the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, including tiny pistols disguised as lipstick holders, cigarette cases, pipes and torches; invisible-ink writing kits and a Get Smart!-styled shoe phone; and a colourful and working model of James Bond’s Aston Martin spy car.

Infobox: The shop has a tonne of gadgets to delight kids, from Night Vision Goggles to a micro Motion Alarm.

5. The National Zoo

Once you’ve had your fill of art and history, head up the hilly district of Upper Northwest to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Its Amazonia is a re-creation of a tropical river and rainforest habitat – piranhas included – while the Small Mammal House showcases some of the zoo’s lovable oddballs including golden tamarind monkeys, armadillos, meerkats and porcupines. Further along, orang-utans are encouraged to leave the confines of the Great Ape House and commute to the “Think Tank”, where scientists and four-legged primates come together to hone their communication skills.

Infobox: Along with the other Smithsonian attractions, the zoo is free-of-charge – great if a heap Washington DC holidayc is what you’re after.

6. National Air and Space Museum

The National Air and Space Museum is one of the best things to do in Washington DC for families. Here you can see all kinds of flying machines, rockets, satellites and assorted aeronautic gizmos, highlighted by Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis. The “Space Race” exhibit traces the development of space flight, including an array of spacesuits from different eras. The whimsically labelled “Wright Cycle Co.” is devoted to the siblings who pioneered aeronautics. “Apollo to the Moon” is the most popular room in the museum, centring on the Apollo 11 (1969) and 17 (1972) missions, the first and last US flights to the moon.

Infobox: Their regular Live Chats involve Q&As with a rosta of inspirational astronauts.

7. National Cherry Blossom Festival

For three weeks each spring, DC blooms with astonishing pink profusion. The National Cherry Blossom Festival is a citywide celebration of the gift of these 3,000 cherry blossom trees to Washington, DC by the mayor of Tokyo, in 1912. The festival features a range of spectacular events, from its eponymous kite extravaganza on the National Mall to fun cultural experiences like sake tastings. On average, peak bloom occurs around April 4th, but that date changes year-to-year.

Infobox: Get involved with the main draws: Petalpalooza, formerly known as the Southwest Waterfront Fireworks Festival, and the storied National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade.

8. Music & Murals Tour

Long known as "The Black Broadway", the U Street Corridor is awash in sound and colour; the murals which decorate this busy DC thoroughfare tell the story of the city's musical history. This immersive walk into U Street's African American musical saga, combines some of the finest street art in the country with timeless music and storytelling. From jazz to Go-Go, rock & roll to R&B, soul to gospel, the daily 2.5-hour tour will show you there’s more to DC than meets the eye.

Infobox: Nearby is the Planet Word Museum, all about language.

9. Spectator sports

Foam finger at the ready: Washington, D.C. is a sports city, which has professional football, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, and soccer teams. As tickets to Washington Redskins football games at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, are like gold-dust, go for DC’s Washington Nationals baseball team instead. They always put on a good show, at Nationals Park on the Anacostia waterfront (tickets $5–170).

Infobox: The 41,000-seat stadium is now the centerpiece of this newly vibrant waterfront, so stick around for dinner and drinks after the game.

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