When you visit a new city, it is hard to figure out what to do and where to start. So, we are pulling together our favorite things to do, and yes, there are a lot. There are tons of free things to do in Washington DC, but also some things worth splurging on. Now let’s dive right in.
Visit all of the free Washington DC Museums
There are 11 free Washington DC Museums. If you are traveling on a budget, these Smithsonian museums are the best activities for you.
Smithsonian National Zoological Park
You can’t come to Washington DC and not see the panda bears at the Smithsonian National Zoo. There is plenty of fun for adults and kids. Even better, it is free to enter. Take the Metro or park (members get free parking) in one of the lots. Weekdays are less crowded, as are winter weekends. The Zoo is large enough for people to spread out, with plenty of shade to cool off in the hot summer months. If you are visiting during the holidays, don’t miss ZooLights!
National Gallery of Art
One of the United States premiere art collections is free and open to the public. It is also housed in two buildings (West and East), which many don’t realize. The main building (the West Building) of the National Gallery of Art is so large that patrons will be exhausted by the time they walk out. However, they are missing much of the modern and contemporary art and sculpture that is housed in the East building just across the way. Don’t skip this building.
The museum’s collections includes Byzantine religious paintings, works by Bellini, Botticelli, Albrecht Durer, Goya, Degas, Manet, Renoir, Cezanne and Monet, as well as American painters such as Whistler, Homer, and Bierstadt, as well as Gilbert Stuart, who painted many of the founding fathers. This doesn’t even scratch the surface of the collection. It does give you a good idea of the masters they have, and what other goodies you will find when you visit.
National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
Just next to the National Gallery of Art you will find the Sculpture Garden. Available year round, this expansive garden includes a fountain that turns into an ice-skating rink in the winter months. During the spring and summer, it is filled with native American flowers, shrubs and trees, welcoming visitors to take a break from the heat of the day, rest their feet and enjoy a bit of shade.
There are several modern sculptures in the garden. They should not be touch, but can be enjoyed as you tour the space. Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s Typewriter Eraser is sure to make your kids giggle while you try to explain what it is. Spider by Louise Bourgeois is always a creepy classic around Halloween as well. While this DC garden might not have a LOVE sign by the artist, it does have Amor by Robert Indiana, a playful nod to the classic sign made Indiana famous and can be found in several cities across the country, including my hometown of Philadelphia.
Find the best things to do during a Washington DC Christmas
National Portrait Gallery
Presidential history comes alive in the US National Portrait Gallery, but those aren’t the only faces you will see. Faces of the Civil War and Early America come to life through the paintings and sculptures on display. Modern art and classical works tell the story of America’s origins as a nation, as well as the struggle she continues to have throughout history and modern times.
One thing not to miss is the Kogod Courtyard. This space is so beloved by locals that you may see gals having a picnic brunch on the weekends, kids splashing in the floor waterfalls (it makes sense when you see it), and folks working at the café tables during the week. It is a bright spot in winter, and a cool, dry space during the hot summer months.
National Air and Space Museum
Space lovers won’t want to miss the National Air and Space Museum. Local kids can’t visit enough (just ask mine), and there is always more to see. While the really big planes and space ships are down at the Udvar-Hazy Center, many of the first planes and the history of flight can be found in the downtown Washington, DC Air and Space Museum.
Come here to get your education into the US flight and space program, an early look at commercial planes, how flying effected the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries and where we are headed next in the skies.
A children’s education lab, just off of the entrance, is where kids (and adults) can get hands on with the science of flight. Daily interactive experiences are put on by the staff, which everyone is welcome to participate in. But please, let the kids sit up front so they can see. There is plenty of time for grown-ups to ask questions too.
National Museum of Natural History
The dinosaurs have a brand-new exhibit and all of Washington DC has rejoiced. Walk in to say hello to the life-size elephant, one of the most photographed museum spaces in the city, before you head into this museum dedicated to the mammals, geology and natural wonders of our planet.
For ladies looking for a bit of inspiration for their jewelry collection, make sure you check out the gem collection in the museum. This is where the Hope Diamond is also on display, but we have our eye on a few tiaras too.
Dinosaurs, bugs, a butterfly pavilion (extra fee), and of course, the ultimate taxidermy of critters collection are just waiting for you to explore.
The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Keep a careful eye on the Renwick Gallery website to see what exhibit is on display during your visit. It is always rotating through, and depending on the show, could have a long line up to get in the door. More than one show has hit social media, bringing in a fresh flood of visitors, even on weekdays.
Don’t let that stop you from coming in for a visit though. Every exhibit is thought out and beautifully displayed in this stunning building inspired by the Louvre. Modern art exhibits, re-created events like Burning Man, and giant rooms of light installations are just a few of the things you can expect when you visit the Renwick. While the gallery does have early America and 19th century art in its collection, it is best known for displaying more contemporary works, folk art and self-taught displays.
United States Botanic Garden
Located next to the U.S. Capitol building, the U.S. Botanic Garden is an ode to the value and importance of plants to the planet’s ecosystem and humankind. In 1820, Congress set up the garden, now one of the oldest botanic gardens in America. Guests can explore the flora and fauna both inside and outside of the greenhouse for free 365 days a year.
The permanent collection inside the Conservatory features subtropical, tropical and arid region plants, including orchids and endangered plants in need of protection. The National Garden, outside of the Conservatory, features the Regional Garden of Mid-Atlantic native plants, the Rose Garden, the Butterfly Garden and the First Ladies Water Garden.
Across the street from the Conservatory, you will find Bartholdi Park, where themed gardens surround Bartholdi Fountain. Here you will be inspired to take a few ideas from the local landscape and implement them into your home garden.
The annual Season’s Greenings always has a different holiday theme to ring in the Christmas season, whether it is celebrating pollinators or the big gardens across the country. It is definitely the best time to see the Conservatory all dressed up.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The Holocaust Museum will be one of the hardest, but one of the most important museums you will visit in Washington, DC. The permanent exhibit, The Holocaust, requires timed tickets March through August, when crowds are at their peak.
The museum does not recommend this part of the museum for children under 11 years of age, as there are graphic images your children may find upsetting. They will not stop younger children from visiting though. It is up to the parent to decide. Other exhibit, except Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story, which is recommend for ages 8 and up, may be more appropriate for younger children.
The newest exhibit to the museum is Syria: Please Don’t Forget Us, a compelling look at the conflict in the Middle East through one man’s story. The museum is free and open to the public, except on Yom Kippur and Christmas Day when it is closed for the day.
National Geographic Museum
The National Geographic Museum, much like the magazine, is all about storytelling. Whether the rotating exhibits are diving into scientific research, animal encounters, female empowerment or when the dinosaurs roamed, you are sure to walk away just a little bit smarter. Each exhibit, there are usually two included on your museum ticket, brings together the best of National geographic photographers, artifacts, interactive stations, and behind-the-scenes information you expect from the premiere conservationist publication in the country.
National Building Museum
The National Building Museum is best known for their summer exhibitions, but it has something for everyone all year round. Past exhibitions include Snarkitecture’s The Beach in 2015 and Fun House in 2018, bringing the ball pit to new levels for adults and kids to dive into and have a bit of fun.
Permanent exhibits like Play Work Build will keep kids from infant through grade school busy for hours practicing those large motor skills. Building Zone, specifically designed for ages 2 through 6, introduces young architects to the elements that go into building and design. Parents are welcome to help, but don’t be surprised when the kids kick you out.
Adults will enjoy revolving exhibits like Flickering Treasures, which celebrates the long cinematic history of Baltimore. Animals, Collected features creatures both real and mythical as architectural and decorative elements. Think gargoyles, statues and tile work, as well as sketches, paintings and reliefs from the museum’s collection to show off the design process that goes into a building.
Embrace your differences at the Washington National Cathedral
In 2011, when an earthquake hit Washington DC, the National Cathedral felt the brunt of that seismic event’s lasting effects. Gargoyles fell, turrets were damaged, pinnacles destabilized and one 350-pound finial fell to the ground.
The National Cathedral still stands, and continues to recover, with ever dollar going towards reconstruction. All are welcome in this church, even children, no matter your religion. It is a beautiful architectural feature in the city.
Actually, many people, even atheists want to go just to find Darth Vader. That’s right, as part of a 1986 children’s design competition, a Darth Vader grotesque (gargoyle) is up on the north, dark, side of the Cathedral, along with a stone racoon.
Before you visit, do make sure you check for service hours and special events. Cathedral admittance is fee based to tour, unless you are only visiting the prayer chapel during the week or attending services.
Walk the National Mall and Memorials Park
Washington DC’s most popular and recognizable park is known as the National Mall. You’ll find many of the free DC museums, the Washington Monument and lots of wide-open spaces for kids (and pups) to run. Kite flying is a big draw especially during Cherry Blossom season.
While the Mall is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the best light is early in the morning and before sunset. Parents and kids will love that there are three different Junior Ranger programs available on the park, allowing young travelers to earn new badges. Activities aren’t just relegated to the younger set either. Park rangers offer a wide variety of activities from tours to walks, talks and even runs throughout the year.
Visit each of Washington DC’s Monuments and Memorials
As the nation’s capital, DC has plenty of monuments and memorials that celebrate U.S. soldiers, wars, freedom fighters and significant moments in history. It could take an entire day (or two) just to tour the National Mall memorials and monuments.
Arlington, VA, just across the Potomac river, is home to the Pentagon and the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial is located to commemorated the loves lost when American Airlines Flight 77 during a terrorist attack. The Women in Military Service for America Memorial and U.S. Airforce Memorial are also located in Arlington.
Monuments and Memorials on the National Mall
Plan at least a day or two to explore the memorials and monuments on the Washington DC National Mall. It’s our favorite spot to do a Flytographer photo session, but more importantly, it gives you a well-rounded history of the nation’s important figures and events. Here’s the highlights you don’t want to skip:
- Thomas Jefferson Memorial
- Lincoln Memorial
- U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima Memorial)
- Washington Monument
- Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
- Vietnam Veterans Memorial
- Korean War Veterans Memorials
- National World War II Memorial
Breathe in the Blooms at United States National Arboretum
Washington DC may be known for her cherry blossoms,but azaleas are why you go to the United State National Arboretum in the spring. Fall colors take over in autumn, but year-round you will find locals strolling the paths, biking around the trees and enjoying a picnic on the weekend.
Special programming happens in the park year-round, including a special collection of bonsai, wreath making workshops and learning how to use herbs to make fresh scents for your home.
Splash Around in The Yards Park
Sometimes you just have to chill out, especially when you are wandering around the swamp that is Washington DC. Yards Park has the perfect wading pool and dancing fountains splash pad for kids and adults, with chairs and a sprawling lawn to stretch out on with your pup when you are in town. Restaurants surround the area along the Anacostia River, and don’t miss out on a scoop or two from the local ice cream shop. Bonus: at night the fountain area is illuminated with color-changing lights to add to the ambiance as you stroll.
Take a history tour through a cemetery
Some of Washington DC’s most interesting stories can be found in her cemeteries. Book a tour of Oak Hill Cemetery with Capitol Spaces to get the inside scoop on notable locals who have remained in town well after their last breath. The stories about Lincoln popping into a friend’s crypt where his son was laid to rest are worth the price alone.
Or book one of these other great tours around the city.
Eat Your Way Through DC’s Best Public Markets
Anyone who thinks DC’s food scene has gone stale obviously hasn’t been to Union Market recently. Like Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, Washington DC celebrates its chefs and makers in warehouse style at Union Market, Eastern Market and Tastemakers. Most recent to open, La Cosecha celebrates the Latin American flavors of the city. Many of the city’s markets do have a bar, distillery or brewery on site, making it the perfect date night destination or weekend hot spot for brunch.
Dig into the DC Farmer’s Market Scene
Just because we are in the city, doesn’t mean you can’t get fresh produce, straight from the source cheeses, and home-baked goods. Virginia and Maryland farmers come into the city every week to sell their goodies at the local farmer’s markets throughout the city and suburbs. Be sure to check out DuPont Circle, White House Market and Falls Church Market in VA whenever you come to town.
Self-guided Ivy City Distillery tour
Ivy City has become the unofficial booze district of Washington, DC. Breweries in the neighborhood include 3 Stars, Atlas, Bluejacket, DC Brau and Right Proper. If you are more of a cider person, check out Anxo, Capitol Cider House and Supreme Core (distributing across the city at several restaurants and bars in the city).
Personally, I prefer local cocktails and a nice G&T, which is when I head to one of Ivy City’s four distilleries– New Columbia Distillers for gin, One Eight Distilling for rye and bourbon, Jos. A. Magnus & Co. for bourbon and two crazy-flavored gins created with Middle Eastern spices, and Republic Restoratives for vodka, apple brandy and bourbon. Apparently, we really like our bourbon and clear liquors in DC.
Brunch at historic Tabard Inn
We love a good brunch, and Tabard Inn is always one of our top five favs. Set in the ground floor of the inn, the restaurant is larger than it appears when you first walk in the door. Ask to sit in the back where the windows bring in tons of natural light to brighten up even a dull winter morning.
Make sure you order the donuts, which they are known for and shouldn’t be missed. Arrive early and definitely make a reservation. This hot spot is well known by locals and visitors alike.
Check out the view at Great Falls National Park
Just outside of the city, you will find one of DC’s most beautiful and unexpected national parks. Great Falls National Park can be entered via Virginia or Maryland, but we prefer the Maryland entrance at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center. It can be a bit less crowded. Paths are well maintained, although not paved, and are perfect for walking, running and biking. The walkway out to the falls are not pet-accessible, but the rest of the park does allow dogs.
If you are up for a bit of a challenge, hike Billy Goat Trail A. The scramble over the rocks will keep you motivated and work muscles you didn’t know you had. We love taking our kids out here for the day. They definitely out pace us on the trail, and are exhausted by bedtime.
Ride the Capital Wheel at National Harbor
Every major city needs its wheel and Washington DC is no exception. When you are looking to get to new heights over the city and the water, you ride the Capital Wheel at National Harbor. This DC attraction brings you 180 feet above the Potomac river for views of the Washington Monument, Masonic Temple, Georgetown and Old town Alexandria. Head over at sunset when the wheel lights up and the city really starts to shine.
Check for Capital Wheel Groupon tickets if you want to save a little on admission fees.
PIN IT FOR LATER!
This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking one of those links we will receive a small commission.
Washington, D.C. Travel Resources
Your Washington, D.C. vacation doesn’t have to be stressful. We’ve got the resources you need to plan your trip and make the most out of your time in the city and surrounding area. If this is your first time to the capital region, check out our Washington, D.C. trip planner and itineraries.
For transportation, check out our D.C. driving guide and our guide on how to ride the metro. For those flying in, you’ll want to read our guides to BWI, DCA and IAD airports.
Dive into our things to do in D.C., which is always being updated and evolving to make sure you have the latest and greatest activities to fill your checklist of things to do. Don’t forget about food, the real reason we all travel, right? Our Washington, D.C. restaurant guide will get you started and lead you into neighborhoods full of delicious treats.
For more resources, check out our pages on Baltimore, Richmond and beyond.
Where to Stay in Washington, D.C.
Budget: When it comes to Washington, D.C. budget hotels, prices vary depending on the season. In the middle of October, a four-star hotel could be under $150, while in December it may be over $400. At any given time of year, though, Hotel Hive is a safe bet for value when it comes to resting your head. If you are looking for a hostel, Hi Washington D.C. Downtown is well located for exploring all of the D.C. museums, restaurants and bars at the fraction of the price of a hotel. Check rates and availability here.
Mid-range: Every USA hotel chain can be found in Washington, D.C., but stay at the St. Gregory Hotel when you want a local touch. The modern, light-filled rooms will welcome you to the city, whether you are in a studio or suite with wraparound terrace. The hotel is walking distance to Georgetown, the National Mall and Embassy Row, making it easy to explore without a rental car. Check rates and availability here.
Luxury: You are spoiled for choice when it comes to luxury hotels in Washington, D.C. We love cozying up at the Graham Georgetown, a sweet little boutique hotel in one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city. Check rates and availability here. Major hotel brands like The Fairmont, Mandarin Oriental, Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons Hotel Washington D.C. and St. Regis Washington D.C. all have outposts here as well. If you want something a bit more historic, we recommend The Jefferson, Washington D.C. Ninety-nine rooms in this luxury boutique hotel bring together an attentive staff, petite spa, and the Michelin-starred Plume restaurant with all of the history you could hope for when you are in the nation’s capital. Check rates and availability here.
Family-friendly: We always gravitate towards the Kimpton hotels whenever we are traveling with kids. Kimpton Hotel Monaco Washington D.C., once the General Post Office building, is located in the Penn Quarter neighborhood just four blocks off the National Mall near the National Gallery of Art. Price point is mid-range, depending on the time of year you visit. Parents will love the nightly wine events and evening nightcap perks as well as complimentary coffee and a tea bar each morning. Kids will love that they can borrow a fish friend for their stay, and that there is always a treat on hand that they can enjoy, and the robes are just their size. Kimpton also has adult and child-size bikes to borrow so you can cruise around town during your stay. Check rates and availability here.
Planning a Trip to Washington, D.C.? Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!
Whether you are traveling domestically or coming from an international destination, travel insurance is a must for anyone coming to Washington, D.C. You will be exploring both inside and outdoors; hiking may even happen if you get adventurous. You could find yourself on a Segway or bike tour. The city is highly populated and accidents and crime do happen. This is not to scare you, but to prepare you for what could occur when you are checking out the free museums, exploring neighborhoods, finding the best food and learning about the local street art. Should something happen, travel insurance has you covered. Check rates and availability here.
We recommend and use Allianz Travel insurance. Our family is covered under a household plan, but their individual plans are just as robust if you are a solo traveler or a couple looking to get away. I’ve been a customer for more than five years and have always been in good hands with the Allianz team.
This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking one of those links we will receive a small commission.