If you were to ask 100 US citizens to define American culture, you would get just as many unique answers. We’re defined by our urban experiences—the glitz of Los Angeles, the bustle of New York City, the spectacle of Las Vegas. We’re our local experiences, too—the Weather Capital of the World in Punxsutawney, the warmth of Pie Town, the pioneering spirit of the National Road. Finding a starting point to uncover and discover the United States can be hard to do, and so we offer our home base for consideration: the nation’s capital, Washington, DC.
There’s a good reason why so many people from the US and abroad make Washington, DC their vacation destination each year: it’s a perfect starting point to discover what makes this country unique. Here are 20 of our favorite spots to recommend when crafting a DC itinerary. From famous spots to off-the-beaten-path treasures, there’s a lot to learn and plenty of fun to be had!
The Monuments & Memorials of DC
In a city full of its own history, Washington, DC also houses the history of people and events from sea to shining sea. Here are a few monuments and memorials we love to visit.
► Jefferson MemorialThe Washington, DC Tidal Basin is home to many of the most popular monuments in the District, and one of our favorites has the most picturesque location in the city. Located right on the water, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial is a must-see during your visit, and it’s especially popular during the spring months when visitors can enjoy the peak bloom of the Cherry Blossom Festival. You can also rent paddle boats and enjoy the view of the memorial from the water. We love to walk along the paths that lead to and away from it, where you can see much of the DC skyline extend around you.
► Washington Monument
If you were to close your eyes and picture the Washington, DC skyline, the city’s tallest monument pointing like an arrow that could pierce the sky is almost certainly the first image that would come to mind. The Washington Monument is the centerpiece of the National Mall and is practically DC personified. From the ground, you can look up to see it extend more than 555 feet into the sky. You can also reserve a time to take an elevator to the very top, where panoramic views greet you. If you aren’t one of the lucky few to snag a ticket to the top (making reservations online in advance is highly recommended!), one of our favorite history lessons can be learned without anything more than a visit. Standing in front of it, notice the stone color changes about a third of the way up. Construction on the obelisk began in 1848, but funds dried up after a few years; the Civil War extended the construction delay even further. When the project finally ramped up again 20-some years later the marble quarry that supplied the stone at the beginning of the project was no longer in operation. Engineers had to use slightly different stone to finish their work. Over time, the stones have aged in color which created the noticeable stripe you see today.
► World War I MemorialThe World War II memorial is one of the most popular stops on any tour of the National Mall, but leaving the Mall to visit the World War I memorial will connect you to one of the city’s newest additions. More than 116,000 US soldiers lost their lives in the war, and they are remembered along Pennsylvania Avenue at a memorial that spans two acres and includes monuments, quotes, and a fountain.
► Lincoln Memorial
When Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his I Have a Dream speech, he did so under the gaze of the USA’s 16th president. The Lincoln Memorial has witnessed many historic moments, and it pays tribute to a president remembered by history for his work toward healing a wounded nation. Lincoln’s likeness is foreboding, rising almost 100 feet above the heads of visitors, but there’s much more to the monument than meets the eye. It’s constructed of marble from Colorado, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama; granite from Massachusetts; and limestone from Indiana. These materials were specifically sourced to represent Lincoln’s unification legacy. Although it’s often crowded, there’s always plenty of open space to enjoy the views from outside, where numerous other attractions on the National Mall can be seen.
► James Buchanan MemorialOff the mall, Meridian Hill Park is one of our favorite under the radar locations in Washington, DC. Within its borders you’ll find a monument for one of the lesser-known presidents of United States: James Buchanan. Buchanan, whose term took place just before Lincoln took office, has not been nearly as well-remembered by history as his predecessor; some fault him for setting the stage for the Civil War. History can be complex, frustrating, and even messy; we find the Buchanan Memorial to be a rather peaceful place to reflect and acknowledge that there’s always a lot to learn about the country and those who have tried their hand at leading it.
► Eisenhower Memorial
One of Washington, DC’s newest monuments remembers Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president. Designed by architect Frank Gehry, the memorial takes a page out of the FDR memorial’s book by using statues to depict key moments in Eisenhower’s life. Even its position in DC is intentional; the memorial is surrounded by several agency buildings connected to his administration, including the Department of Education and the Federal Aviation Administration. Despite the number of memorials in DC, it’s not every day we welcome a new one, so if you have visited DC before this may be a new spot to add to your itinerary.
► FDR MemorialIf you’re looking for an impressive memorial that’s tucked away from the more commonly explored path, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial should be on your radar. FDR had an enormous impact on our country, serving the most terms in office and guiding the country through both the Great Depression and World War II, but the location of the memorial is what sets it apart. Nestled along the Tidal Basin and far from Metro stations and parking lots, you aren’t likely to simply stumble upon this memorial. Spread out over 7.5 acres, the memorial includes many statues that tell the story of his life, including one representing his fireside radio chats, people waiting in a bread line, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with the United Nations emblem.
► A few more…
There are many more monuments and memorials to see in DC, including the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the US Marine Corps War Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, the United States Air Force Memorial, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the George Mason Memorial, the World War II Memorial, the Albert Einstein Memorial, and Ford’s Theatre. Check those out while you’re in Washington, DC!
The Great Outdoors
It might be a city, but Washington, DC is full of great spots for experiencing the beauty and wonder of nature. Add a few of these locations to your list without having to leave the District!
► Theodore Roosevelt IslandYou wouldn’t expect to be able to hike through Washington, DC, but right on the outskirts of the city is an island that offers more than two miles of trails against a tree-filled backdrop. Situated in the middle of the Potomac River between Virginia and DC proper, Roosevelt Island is accessible via a pedestrian bridge. Once on the island, your hike can take just an hour or so, but extending your visit to allow time for bird watching or a picnic is a good way to make the most of your visit. In addition to walking or jogging, the island also has a statue of Roosevelt as well as water features; you’ll also see a few DC neighborhoods, including Georgetown, peeking out beyond the trees.
► US Botanic Garden
A genuine favorite place for those who call DC home, the US Botanic Garden is the oldest continuously operating botanic garden in the United States. Built on land designated for its purposed by President James Madison, there are more than 65,000 plants onsite. It’s a great place to see some endangered and lesser-known plants as well as some beautiful favorites, like orchids and roses. It’s also home to the Bartholdi Fountain, a centerpiece for the gardens and is illuminated on summer evenings. The US Botanic Gardens is a great place to relax in the middle of a busy day and a terrific destination on its own.
► Capitol Columns
Located at the National Arboretum in Northeast Washington, DC, the Capitol Columns are a great location to visit if you’re looking for a peaceful spot to get away from the tourists. Originally built as part of the US 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 at the National Arboretum. Now, they stand in a quiet park that takes a little sleuthing to find—it’s nowhere near the Mall or most of DC’s other famous landmarks—but it’s a hidden treasure you will be glad you visited.
► Hains Point
If plane spotting sounds like fun, you’ll want to make sure to visit Hains Point. Located near Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on the southern tip of East Potomac Park, it’s a favorite spot for picnics and to watch as planes take off from and land at the airport. Washington, DC has some of the most restricted air space in the country, and planes follow strict flight paths to comply with regulations. One of those flight paths goes right past Hains Point. If you want to take a picnic and spend a morning or afternoon there, you’ll want to reserve a table online in advance; there are plenty of trails to explore if you’re looking for more movement. Although not in DC, nearby Gravelly Point is just across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia; it offers even better plane spotting opportunities as aircraft takes off and lands directly overhead.
Cultural Stops in Washington, DC
Washington, DC is full of unique, only-in-our-city types of destinations. Here are a few of our favorite places to visit that you won’t find anywhere else!
► White House and US Capitol TourWashington, DC is the seat of the USA’s government, and if you tour either the White House or the US Capitol you’ll have the chance to see some of the country’s most famous buildings from the inside! Tours require reservations and must be organized through a Congressional office, so contacting your representative is your best bet for securing a tour of your own. Each tour provides visitors with a glimpse of famous rooms and artwork to help you learn more about the US presidency and what it means to serve as an elected official.
► Eastern Market
Capitol Hill is home to the city’s huge local marketplace, and Eastern Market is a perfect place to visit if you want to sample local food and make a few purchases from independent craftspeople. Eastern Market opened its doors in 1873, and today you’ll find some of the city’s most interesting people and the goods they create. We have purchased artwork and jewelry from vendors; you can also purchase food made from farm-to-table ingredients and plenty of ingredients to cook your own meals if you have access to a kitchen. Open daily except for Mondays, it’s worth a visit!
► Embassy RowWashington, DC is home to more than 175 embassies representing countries all over the world, and Embassy Row in Northwest DC is a great place to see where ambassadors reside when they represent their homelands in the USA. Embassies are both homes as well as offices, and most of the people who visit are there on official business. If your travels bring you to DC in May, you may have the chance to experience them as visitors! Each year, the Around the World Embassy Tour and the EU Open House Tour encourage embassies to open their doors and welcome visitors in to try native delicacies, watch traditional dances and musical performances, and learn about culture and customs. It’s a great way to travel the world in a single day, and best of all it’s entirely free!
► Dupont Underground
Head underground to experience some of Washington, DC’s coolest artwork! In an abandoned trolley station that now seeks to showcase the city’s cultural identity, the Dupont Underground offers exhibits that change regularly and incorporate elements of light, sound, and color. It’s especially interesting when thinking about the city’s transformations that provided the space for art to take shape; the tunnels saw trolleys as well as horses and carriages before people were welcomed in for its current iteration. From poetry to photography to performance art, it’s a unique space and a bit unexpected when visiting DC.
The DC Food Scene
Washington, DC’s food scene does not disappoint; from local flavors to international cuisine, you’ll find plenty of delicious options to try!
► Old Ebbitt Grill
Old Ebbitt Grill is the oldest saloon in Washington, DC, and it’s just steps away from the White House. A Washington, DC fixture since 1856, Old Ebbitt Grill is a popular spot for political lobbyists, DC insiders, journalists, and politicians; 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, the 26th president of the United States.
► Ben’s Chili BowlIf you only visit one restaurant in Washington, DC, Ben’s Chili Bowl should be it. The location is a local institution, with names like Barack Obama, George W. Bush, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Anthony Bourdain, Duke Ellington, and Bono among the long list of notable customers. The best meal on the menu is the half-smoke chili dog, and just one bite of this local delicacy will tell you why. Expect long lines during prime mealtimes and late at night, but you’ll also find lots of seating and quick service, so don’t let the crowd scare you off. Be sure to check out the mural on the side of the building as well; painted by a local artist, it has been modified many times over the years and features some of the most prominent Black Americans in the country’s history.
► Jumbo Slice
If dinner turns into drinks and drinks turn into more drinks, you may need a DC-famous jumbo slice before catching a ride back to your hotel. The Adams Morgan neighborhood is the best place to find them; nothing more than huge, floppy slices of pizza, they are a great way to stave off hunger or cure a hangover. The original jumbo slice is at Pizza Mart, which is conveniently open until 2 AM—way past our bedtime! Duccini’s is another perennial favorite for locals looking for pizza slices as big as their heads.
José Andrés has revolutionized the food scene in DC since making nearby Bethesda, Maryland his home, and Jaleo is one of our favorite places for gourmet food at reasonable prices. Featuring Spanish tapas, paella, and Spanish wine, Jaleo helped popularize small, shared plates in a way that eventually spread to some of his other restaurants, like Zaytinya and Oyamel. Visit for happy hour, when some of the most popular tapas are served at special prices, or spend more time and indulge in a full tasting menu experience. Don’t miss the gambas al ajillo, shrimps in garlic sauce, and croquettas de pollo, which are chicken croquettes.
► Ted’s Bulletin
A favorite brunch place with locations throughout the DC area, Ted’s Capitol Hill location is a great breakfast option to fuel your sightseeing plans! The biscuits with sausage gravy are a perfect take on the Southern classic, and the breakfast burrito is huge and filling, but don’t miss the sides: Ted’s Tarts are house made Pop-Tarts that come in seasonal flavors, and on weekends the “cinnamon roll as big as ya head” will feed everyone at your table!
Hotels in Washington, DC
There are plenty of lodging options in and around Washington, DC. Although we typically drive home after a day in the city, we have stayed overnight on a few occasions. We use Booking.com to research and compare hotels; Booking.com makes it easy to filter by amenities you want to have (like parking, free WiFi, or a property in a certain neighborhood). Take a look to see if there is a hotel that meets your needs!
That said, we do have one iconic suggestion:
► The WatergateThe Watergate is famous because it was the location for the 1972 burglary that ultimately ended Richard Nixon’s presidency. If you’ve ever heard a scandal referred to by a word with “gate” at the end, it’s a nod to the Watergate scandal and the monumental impact it had. With that kind of history, you might be surprised to discover that the Watergate is actually a wonderful place to stay, and they even embrace their spot in the history books. The room cards issued by the hotel say “no need to break in,” and each room has pencils that say “I stole this from the Watergate Hotel.” Not a bad Washington, DC souvenir to commemorate your visit!
Enjoy Washington, DC!
We have been tourists in Washington, DC for years despite the fact we live in the area. We have experienced it through the eyes of friends and family who have visited with us for their first time, and we have discovered new favorite spots on almost every trip into the city.
If you are planning a visit, take a look at our other guides on how to make the most of your experience:
Our Post: The Ultimate Guide to Washington, DC Museums
Our Post: Christmas in Washington, DC: Holiday Traditions and Festivities
Our Post: The National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, DC
Our Post: The Around the World Embassy Tour in Washington, DC
Our Post: EU Open House: The European Union Embassy Tour in Washington, DC
If you have never visited DC, the city can be a special and cost-effective place with many museums and experiences offered for free. If you have visited before, we hope you found a few new spots to add to a Washington, DC itinerary in the future! The USA is a remarkably varied and diverse country, and you’ll learn about a new nuance in every big city and small town you see. That’s what we love about Washington, DC: it’s a great place to immerse yourself in the history, food, and stories that have shaped the country since the very beginning.