When people think of Washington, DC they tend to think of somewhere a little bland, a little boring and a little too political. Sure, we’re a very politically-charged area of the country and we may not have a lot of high-rises (or… any), but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a heck of a lot of charm and a vast array of Washington attractions, both indoor and outdoor.
DC is an incredibly cool place and you won’t be sorry if you visit!
Main Washington Attractions
DC has so much to do it can be hard to know where to even start. With 19 free museums, war memorials and pretty neoclassical architecture everywhere you turn (we need it to complement all those large, concrete blocks – I’m looking at you FBI building) it can feel overwhelming. Let’s look at some of my recommendations for the best things to do in Washington DC.
Ok, I’m going to start off this post with one of the few museums in DC that is not free, but before you start yelling at me, hear me out. The Newseum is not part of the Smithsonian and comes with a high entry price of $24.95, but it is genuinely my absolute favorite in the entire city. The good news is your ticket gains you entry for two days so you can always start one day and finish the next day.
Some of the permanent exhibits include the tear-jerking, but moving, 9/11 Gallery, Today’s Front Pages (which gathers current front pages from every US state and around 40 other countries every day), Inside the FBI and Newspapers Throughout History – an incredible exhibit that has real front pages from important times in history from the Boston Tea Party, the Salem witch trials, winning the Revolutionary War, assassination of Lincoln, start of WWII and more.
The museum also has a really cool interactive NBC newsroom where you can get in front of a camera and see what it’s like to be a reporter or photographer.
Although this museum is not free, I guarantee you will not be sorry you went.
Air and Space Museum
As part of the Smithsonian, the Air and Space Museum is totally free of charge and is an aviation-lovers’ dream. It has over 20 galleries and dozens of real aircraft and missiles spread throughout, as well as an IMAX theater.
There is also the Udvar-Hazy Center, which is a second part of the Air and Space Museum and is a giant hanger located near Dulles International Airport in Virginia. Keep in mind it’s also free, but technically you have to pay $15 for parking. If you love aviation, you can’t miss this because it houses planes like the Concorde, the Wright brothers’ plane, Nazi WWII planes, Enola Gay (the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb) and the Space Shuttle Discovery.
The National Mall
I’ll move on from museums now and let’s get a breath of fresh air. The National Mall is home to a wonderful stretch of grass and walkways, the Washington Monument and the Capitol. You should also be sure to take a free tour of the Capitol, but be sure to book your tour well ahead of time you’re your congressman because spots fill up fast.
DC is home to tons of memorials, but the top ones are located by the Mall and are well worth the visit. The WWII memorial is incredibly impressive with its large fountain in the middle, and everyone knows what the Lincoln Memorial is.
One of my personal favorites though is the Vietnam Memorial. This simple wall in varying heights with names of fallen soldiers etched into it will always remain one of the most moving memorials for me in the entire city.
Just opposite the reflection pool, you’ll also find the Korean War Veterans Memorial, another striking sight you can’t miss.
The White House
You obviously can’t take a trip to DC and not see the home of the sitting president and those before him. Unfortunately, you can’t get as close to the White House as you may hope, but it’s still worth checking it out for the sake of it!
This gorgeous college city neighboring the downtown area is situated on the Potomac River and has incredible food, shops, and architecture. You’ll no longer feel like you’re in a big city, but rather a small town and absolutely zero concrete buildings.
The Kennedy Center
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is not only a stunning building on the Potomac adjacent to the Watergate building (honorable mention), but it’s also a great place to see a show when you’re in town. Prices vary from an affordable $20 upwards of $100 based on the show and seats.
Washington DC’s Best Food & Drink Options
In DC it’s easy to spend hundreds on a meal at some fine dining establishments, but you can also eat and drink on the cheap in the ‘cool’ parts of town.
This American-style restaurant in Georgetown has been around for decades and will satisfy your need for great food and even better ambiance.
Jose Andres pretty much owns DC with the number of restaurants he has and many of them are pricey but delicious. Some favorites include Jaleo, minibar, and Zaytinya.
This French-Asian restaurant in the heart of up and coming Shaw is delicious, filling and totally affordable. Don’t miss their incredible brunches and bottomless mimosas on Saturdays and Sundays.
Also located in Shaw, this Mexican beer garden is equal parts hip and rustic, with a barn-like feel, tacos served in baskets but awesome lights and music. It’s cheap, it’s delicious and it’s in a buzzing part of town for when you start knocking back the margaritas and just want to get out there and have some fun. (Note, the popular and well-known 9:30 Club is just down the road.)
Located downtown near Farragut North you’ll find this mom and pop counter-service stir fry place. The food is fresh and tasty and you pay by weight, so get as much or as little as you want.
We’ve all probably heard of this show, but if you’re in DC and you’re partial to a cupcake, it may be worth it to stop in one of their many city locations just for novelty’s sake.
With a few locations around the city, this artisan gelato place will leave you wanting more the second you see and taste their various unique flavors.
For fantastic happy hours, you’ll have to try Oyamel, McCormick and Schmick’s, La Tasca, The Front Page or Gringos & Mariachis in Bethesda.
Getting Around DC
The cheapest way to get around DC is to walk, but sometimes distances are longer than they appear on a map, so if you don’t want to walk that far then your second best bet is metro. Metro has been going through a lot of changes recently, which I won’t get into, but it’s running a lot smoother than it was in previous years.
Journey prices are based on distance and range from $1.50 to $3.75. You can check the prices at each station. However, do note that now you longer can no purchase paper tickets, but you need to get yourself a $2 SmarTrip card and you can get one at any Metrorail station or retail outlets like a CVS.
There’s also a decent bus network in DC, although they’re not always reliable. Almost all buses in the city center are $2 flat rate, regardless of where you get off. You can also use your SmarTrip card on buses as well.
DC also now has its free streetcar, which runs pretty much solely in the H Street Corridor area near Union Station. It’s not overly helpful transport-wise, but if you’re walking along H Street down to the river it could be a way to save some time and money.
Places to Stay in DC
DC has a lot of high-end hotels but it’s also easy to stay here on a budget. Regardless of what you choose, you’ll be able to find somewhere suitable for you.
There are plenty of cool hostels in DC, including Highroad Hostel in Adams Morgan, HI Washington DC or City House Hostel. Prices start around $20/night for a shared dorm room.
For budget hotels, you can always find a Holiday Inn, Days Inn or Double Tree just across the river in Virginia in the Rosslyn or Arlington area for around $70-$80/night.
For more midrange hotels, try the Embassy Row Hotel downtown for around $100/night, Hampton Inn for approximately $125/night or Residence Inn by Marriott for about $180/night.
If you’re looking for luxury, be sure to check out The St. Regis downtown, coming in around $345/night or the historic Mayflower for about $250/night.
There are also some cool boutique-like hotels in DC, such as the Kimpton Rouge Hotel, for around $80/night or the Normandy Hotel for around the same kind of price.
Don’t Miss Out on other Washington attractions…
As one of the oldest zoos in the country and part of the Smithsonian, it’s a great way to spend a cheap day and has fun interactive spots for kids and adults alike. Experience the orangutans swinging above your head on their rope bridges and meet some curious red pandas. In the winter, there are some excellent light displays around Christmas and in the spring and summer, there are drink nights, parties and fiestas.
Walk Along National Harbor
Just south of the city you’ll find National Harbor, a development along the Potomac River with tons of amazing seafood, shopping and nightlife, complete with a Ferris wheel.
Visit Mount Vernon
Located around 20 minutes outside of the city, depending on traffic, you’ll find the plantation house of George Washington himself. Tickets are $18 if you purchase them online, but it’s well worth the visit to spend a day learning about that period in history, his daily life, seeing the actual house and property and enjoying time outside sitting on the front lawn overlooking the river.
Local DC Drinks
DC brews a lot of its own beer and gin so don’t miss your opportunity to try them and visit the breweries if possible. DC Brau is a local favorite, with a hilariously titled beer called Fermentation Without Representation. Also try Ivy City Gin, whose distillery is in northeast DC.
DC Things to Know
The weather in DC is really polarized and many people think its temperate year round because we’re technically under the Mason-Dixon line, but don’t be fooled. We have brutally cold winters and stifling hot summers, so be sure to pack appropriately.
Uber is almost always cheaper from downtown to Maryland or Virginia rather than the other way around. It’s never made any sense to me, but I have hard data in the form of my Uber app history to prove it.
When Metro has a delay on the board or it looks like there are issues, honestly, save yourself now and take an Uber. Metro is known to break down and cause hours of delays. It’s not worth it, I promise you.
DC is so much bigger than it appears on maps. I had a friend visit and we walked up and down the Mall looking at the memorials, checked out Library of Congress and the Supreme Court (all near one another) and when we were done we had walked upwards of 25,000 steps. Don’t let distances on maps deceive you.
Despite the current administration, DC is a very liberal city. How you take that information is up to you.
There’s a strong rivalry in the tri-state area. We Marylanders think the Virginians are hicks, the Virginians think we’re pretentious and DC just wants to live its best life and wants everyone to stop fighting over it.
I hope you enjoy visiting this incredibly diverse city and get the best of both worlds –history and trendy, melded together in a melting pot of awesomeness.
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Hannah is a born and raised Washingtonian (the city, not the state) who’s love for travel has taken her to more than 35 countries and led her to live in six. With a background in journalism, she hopes to continue pursuing travel writing and inspiring others to experience different cultures. When Hannah’s not traveling, you can probably find her with a strong black coffee and a good book.