Washington, D.C.- the capital of the United States and one of the most powerful cities on the planet- is a city with something for everyone (we love it so much we’ve called the area our home for more than a decade!). You’ll find plenty of classic photo ops and sights to see here, but don’t overlook some of the lesser-known opportunities to learn and enjoy what The District has to offer.
When we have friends and family in town, we don’t let them miss much from this list!
Here are our recommendations in no particular order.
WHAT TO SEE
- THE CAPITOL COLUMNS are off the beaten path- way off, in fact, at the National Arboretum in Northeast DC. Originally built as part of the East Portico of the Capitol Building, when the dome was constructed in 1866 there was some concern that the columns couldn’t hold the weight of the new structure. Almost 100 years later, the columns were removed and sent to their new home. Come here for peace, tranquility, and a look at history most visitors have never even heard of. Especially picturesque in the fall, it’s a great place to visit during any season.
More Information: US National Arboretum
- THE WASHINGTON MONUMENT is about as classic DC as you can get. Go online and reserve a time to visit the top of the moment, where you’ll be treated some incredible views of both Washington and Arlington. Reservations are only $1.50 online, though they can be made for free at the monument’s ticket booth- but in-person reservations can only be made for same day visits and often go quickly in the morning, so spend some time before you visit to save yourself any potential disappointment. The Washington Monument is definitely worth seeing.
More Information: Washington Monument Tickets
- THE JEFFERSON MEMORIAL is another must-see spot in DC. Located right on the Tidal Basin, it’s a gorgeous place to walk, take pictures, and people watch. You can also rent a paddle boat and enjoy the view of the memorial from the water.
More Information: Thomas Jefferson Memorial (NPS.gov) | TidalBasinPaddleBoats.com
- THE AIR FORCE MEMORIAL in Arlington is fairly new to DC, but it’s a surprisingly great place to see the Washington DC cityscape. The three steel spires were designed to replicate the contrails left by the Thunderbirds as they perform a precision “bomb burst” maneuver. A bonus here is free parking (it’s not too close to a Metro station, so a car is recommended).
More Information: AirForceMemorial.org
- THE LINCOLN MEMORIAL. The memorial to the 16th president of the United States is one of the most iconic spots in Washington, DC. Enjoy the view from the reflecting pool and be sure to visit the neighboring Korean War Veterans Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial– all just steps away.
More Information: Lincoln Memorial | Korean War Veterans Memorial | Vietnam Veterans Memorial | Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
- IWO JIMA, or the Marine Corps War Memorial, also boasts free parking and some great views of the city. It’s walking distance to Arlington National Cemetery as well, so it’s a great stop to add if you’re looking to make a full day trip to that part of town.
More Information: Marine Corps War Memorial | ArlingtonCemetery.mil
- GADSBY’S TAVERN in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia (just across the bridge from DC) is one of our favorite places- we love it so much we got married there! Frequented by such guests as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, you’ll get a glimpse at life during a very different time in our history. Listen up for the spooky tale of the Female Stranger- and watch for signs of her ghost in Room 8.
More Information: Alexandriava.gov
WHERE (AND WHAT) TO EAT
Washington, DC has an enormous selection of high quality restaurants. Whether you’re hungry for local cuisine or something from the other side of the globe, you can find it in this town. It’s hard to narrow down our favorites, but these are a few that we would recommend.
- FOUNDING FARMERS is an incredibly popular DC restaurant- and for good reason. The farm-to-table concept is perfected at Founding Farmers, where everything served is locally and sustainably produced- right down to the sodas and spirits. The popcorn of the day is an affordable gamble, and the chicken and waffles are among the best you’ll find anywhere. Don’t miss the made-from-scratch desserts! Dinner for two (appetizer, two main dishes, dessert, and a round of drinks): $75
More Information: WeAreFoundingFarmers.com
- BEN’S CHILI BOWL is a DC staple. Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Wolfgang Puck, Anthony Bourdain, and Bono have all stopped by Ben’s Chili Bowl for a half-smoke, and just one bite of this local delicacy will tell you why. Expect long lines during prime meal times and late at night, but you’ll also find lots of seating and quick service, so don’t let the crowd scare you off- and besides, you know it’s good if people are willing to wait for it.
More Information: BensChiliBowl.com
- OLD EBBITT GRILL, Washington’s oldest saloon. Just steps from the White House, Old Ebbitt Grill has been a DC fixture since 1856. It’s a popular spot for lobbyists, political insiders, journalists and politicians- so you never know who you’ll see when you visit. Enjoy cocktails and drinks from one of the four bars (the Old Bar, the Oyster Bar, Grant’s Bar and the Corner Bar) and be sure to try the oysters. Look for the Walrus head on the wall, it was bagged by none other than Teddy Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States.
More Information: Ebbitt.com
- MARTIN’S TAVERN has been a Georgetown landmark for more than 80 years, and every president from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush has dined at Martin’s. One of the booths even has a brass plaque to commemorate the spot where John F. Kennedy proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953. Dine on traditional pub food and classic cocktails. Martin’s Delight, their version of the hot brown, is a specialty.
More Information: MartinsTavern.com
WHERE TO STAY
- CRYSTAL CITY. Conveniently located to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Crystal City is a five minute cab ride or one stop on the Metro, and it’s 10-20 minutes into the city when you’re ready to sightsee. Consider the Residence Inn (which offers a free shuttle to the Metro if you don’t want to walk, free breakfast, and weekday happy hours) or the Marriott or the Hyatt, which are convenient to public transportation.
More Information: CrystalCity.org
- THE ALEXANDRIAN in Old Town Alexandria is beautiful and well-located; the hotel is about a 10-15 minute walk from the Metro (or just five minutes if you take the free King Street Trolley) but right in the middle of gorgeous King Street, and you’ll get great customer service and comfortable rooms.
More Information: Marriott.com | VisitAlexandriaVA.com
WHERE TO GO TO GET AWAY
WINE COUNTRY, our personal home away from home. Virginia is rightfully earning a reputation as one of the top wine regions in the world, and you’ll find dozens of wineries producing some really interesting varietals within an hour’s drive of DC. For something new, check out Norton wines- Norton grapes are native to Virginia. The best place to try Nortons (and other inventive wines) is Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg; also consider Naked Mountain Winery in Markham, Breaux Vineyards in Purcellville, and The Winery at Bull Run in Centreville.
More Information: VirginiaWine.org
Our blog post: Make Mine Virginia Wine: 14 Wineries to Visit in the Old Dominion
- CHARLOTTESVILLE, about a 2.5-3 hour drive from Washington, is a great day trip or overnight trip. Check out the University of Virginia campus where you can see the room of one of UVA’s earliest students Edgar Allan Poe. Visit Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (author of the Declaration of Independence), see the historic downtown mall, and enjoy even more great wineries (Barboursville, Flying Fox, and Glass House are among our favorites). You’ll pass signs for Montpelier on your way. It’s the home of James Madison (father of the U.S. Constitution) and it makes a great side trip as well. As an added bonus, Monticello and UVA are two of the UNESCO sites in the U.S.!
More Information: VisitCharlottesville.org
- ANNAPOLIS. Drive an hour east of DC and visit Maryland’s capital city on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. On a sunny day it’s a perfect place for a casual walk, great seafood, and even boat tours. Don’t miss out on the incredible crab cakes while you’re there- we highly recommend a trip to Cantler’s. Annapolis is also home to the United States Naval Academy. They have wonderful guided site tours, museums and attractions for tourists.
More Information: VisitAnnapolis.org
- CIVIL WAR BATTLEFIELDS. There are countless historic sites and landmarks throughout the Washington, DC and neighboring areas of Northern Virginia and Maryland, but some of our favorite places to visit are the Civil War Battlefields. There are at least seven Civil War Battlefields located within an hour and a half drive from Washington, DC. Rent a car and spend a day exploring some of most historic locations in American history.
Our blog post: 7 American Civil War Battlefields Near Washington, DC
WHAT TO KNOW
- MOST OF WHAT YOU WANT TO SEE IS FREE, so you don’t need to visit with a big budget. The Smithsonian museums (Air and Space, Natural History, American History, Portrait Gallery, etc.) are completely free to the public, as is the National Zoo and the National Archives. However, there are museums that charge an admission fee, like the Spy Museum and the Newseum. Balance your time between free and paid options to maximize your money.
More Information: Smithsonian Museums | SpyMuseum.org | Newseum.org |
- STAND RIGHT, WALK LEFT if you don’t want to stand out as a tourist- or irritate the locals. The DC Metro system is expansive and will take you close to the majority of the places you want to see, but escalators require a little bit of etiquette. Stand on the right side of the escalator if you don’t plan to walk up so those who want a little extra exercise can pass.
More Information: WMATA.com
- BUY A SMARTRIP CARD and save yourself a little money. Every Metro station has a kiosk or two dedicated to the sale of hard plastic SmarTrip cards, which are rechargeable. You can also order them online. Using a SmarTrip card instead of a paper fare card will save you $1.00 per ride on the Metro. SmarTrip cards cost $10, but they come preloaded with $8.00 in Metro fare money, which means the card itself will only set you back $2.00- and you’ll make that back with the money you’ll save on two rides!
More Information: WMATA.com
- BEAT THE CROWDS by visiting attractions at off hours. Union Station, the Smithsonian museums, the National Archives, and other popular attractions get particularly busy around lunchtime and stay packed throughout the afternoon- consider arriving when they open to get some quiet one-on-one time with the exhibits. Keep in mind spring and summer are busy months as well; visitors to the National Cherry Blossom Festival and school field trips pack the sights during the spring, and families make the most of school vacation time in the summer. Consider visiting in the cooler autumn months, or try to schedule your personal itinerary with the peak visitation hours in mind. Don’t forget the monuments are outside and accessible 24 hours a day-and they are beautiful at night!
- CONSIDER TAKING A TOUR to get the lay of the land. You’ll have many options- duck boats, segways, walking, hop-on hop-off buses, and others to choose from, but tours are a convenient and sometimes more personal way to experience the city. Tour guides often have local perspectives to share, which can enrich your knowledge beyond what signage and pamphlets can provide. Many tours launch from Union Station, so that’s a good place to start if you haven’t made reservations in advance.
More Information: UnionStationDC.com
- PLAN IN ADVANCE if you want to visit the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, or the White House. Each of these destinations offers tours, but you must pass a security clearance at least 15 days prior to your visit. Your representative can help you to secure these tours, so consider contacting his or her office if these destinations are on your must-see list. If you are visiting from another country, your embassy in Washington, DC can help you with scheduling a tour.
More Information: VisitTheCapitol.gov | WhiteHouse.gov
- COME DURING THE HOLIDAYS. The Christmas season is an amazing time to visit DC. The National Christmas Tree outside of the White House and the Capitol Christmas Tree are both excellent if you are visiting in December. You can also attend one of the many performances of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol at the historic Ford’s Theatre.
More Information: TheNationalTree.org | Fords.org
Our blog post: Christmas in Washington, DC: Holiday Traditions and Festivities
Destination Guides are our recommendations for things to do and see in each featured location. They are by no means definitive, they’re just based on our own experiences. If you have additional recommendations please let us know in the comments!