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10 Things To Do In Washington DC, Where to Stay and Eat

Washington is cool, clean and classy. It is an elegant city that is packed with iconic monuments, free museums, and a great food scene. My tips on the top things to do in Washington DC will help you make the most of this great city.

Considering Washington DC is the capital of the United States, it is surprising that it does not attract more overseas guests. New York attracts almost six times more visitors than Washington, and when we walked around The National Mall this became very clear. 

We walked right up to the gates of the White House on our first night and there were no more than 10 people there, and when we returned the following morning there were no more than 20. There were no loud sirens, no flashing neon signs and no raised voices – within minutes of our arrival I could see that Washington had a completely different vibe to the bustling cities of New York, LA or Miami. 

Washington DC with kids

Washington is such an elegant city. It is quieter and cleaner than its neighbours, and despite being home to some of the USA’s most iconic and important monuments, it feels more like a modern working city than a city packed with tourists.  

 

One local I spoke to said ‘Washington is the most European city in the United States’, and after seeing my fair share of American cities, I was inclined to agree with him.

Buildings in downtown Washington can’t be taller than 130 feet, approximately 13 stories. Many say this is to ensure that its beacon of democracy – the Capitol Building, remains the tallest building in the city. However, I was also told that the 1910 Height of Buildings Act is based upon the width of the street. Whatever the reason, the lack of skyscrapers makes Washington feel less commercialised than some of its neighbours. 

 

You may wonder why I recommend you fly nearly 4,000 miles to see a city that feels European, but with so many iconic sights in a small walkable area, it is a fascinating city to explore.

I have listed some of my favourite things to do in Washington DC so you can see why, as well as hotel and restaurant recommendations to help you plan your trip.

1. See The White House

visiting the White House is one  of the top things to do in Washington DC

No visit to Washington DC would be complete without seeing the White House. Unfortunately touring the White House is no longer possible, unless you live in the US, where you can request a visit through your Congressman, or wish to apply to your Embassy for a visit.

I was told that it is rare that either secures a positive outcome, and even if you are successful, tours are often cancelled or postponed due to security issues.

Therefore I think it is best to settle on seeing the White House through its perimeter gates. This is still a worthwhile exercise though, with the best photo opportunities available from the North side at Pennsylvania Avenue and Lafayette Square, rather than the typical view from the President’s Park.

2. Take a tour of the Capitol Building

one of the top things to do in Washington DC is to tour the Capitol building

One building that you can tour is the Capitol Building – this is one of the top things to do in Washington DC.  If you are even remotely interested in American politics I urge you to visit.

The Capitol Building is a true symbol of American democracy. In 1793 the founders created a structure of ‘Grandeur, Simplicity and Beauty’ to represent the American ideal of self-government. As the country grew, so did the Capitol Building, but parts still remain of the original structure.

The guided tour lasts about 90 minutes and starts with a 15 minute video. I loved learning about how the different branches of government form the United States Congress and how amendments to the Constitution are passed. However, the highlight of the tour is being able to walk around the Rotunda and see its incredible dome, where you are given ample time to take pictures. 

Like most museums in Washington DC, it is free to enter, but I recommend you book tickets online to ensure entry. There are limited tickets available if you don’t pre book, but queues can be lengthy and there are no guarantees you will get in.

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3. Have breakfast at Founding Farmers

Pancakes at Founding Farmers, Washington DC

One of the top brunch recommendations in Washington DC that I received was Founding Farmers. Their restaurants are designed and operated sustainably, and everything is made from scratch in their restaurants, from bread to their booze – they have their own distillery too!

We had breakfast in their Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant but there are four restaurants in Washington DC. Everything we ate from the Breakfast Street Tacos to Buttermilk Pancakes were delicious.

See more here

 

4. Marvel at the Memorials

a night time monument tour is one of the top things to do in Washington DC

Washington’s monuments and memorials are one of the main reasons that tourists visit the capital. They are seen on countless movies and visiting them is one of the top things to do in Washington DC. However, there are over 100 monuments and memorials in Washington, so it is not possible to see them all!

The Lincoln Memorial is one of the most iconic monuments in Washington and is a must see in DC. Abraham Lincoln sitting in a marble chair is located on the site of many famous speeches, including Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech. Seen regularly on TV shows and movies, it is even more impressive when you stand beside it.

Some of the best memorials to see in Washington DC are the Jefferson Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial and World War II Memorial. Each one has a remarkable story and vary in design, so if time allows I recommend visiting all of these.

We pre-booked a private guided tour of the city where we gained valuable insights into the symbolism of each memorial. One of the stand outs for me was the World War II Memorial.

Freedom Wall at World War II Memorial

Monuments to every US State as well as the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean surround a water pool, to highlight the extent of who was involved. The Freedom Wall has 4048 gold stars; each one represents 100 American military deaths – more than 400,000 people lost their lives or remain missing in action in World War II.

The Martin Luther King Memorial is another must see in Washington DC. It has a 30-foot statue of Dr. King as well as a 450-foot long Inscription Wall, which features 14 quotes from his speeches, sermons and writings.

Martin Luther King Memorial, Washington DC

Most of the memorials can be visited on foot, however a guided tour will not only give you more information on the significance of each memorial, but it will also enable you to visit them all over a few hours.

 

5. See the Changing of the Guard at Arlington

Arlington Cemetery

Although technically in Virginia and not Washington, Arlington Cemetery is only a stone’s throw from the capital and a must do in Washington DC.

Despite being one of the world’s largest national cemeteries, and having 400,000 American military veterans and dignitaries buried here, it is a peaceful place to walk around. The grounds are impeccable and you can’t help but be amazed at the lines of gravestones that resemble soldiers in formation, each perfectly aligned in rows.

 

Arlington Cemetery is free to enter and easily reached by metro or bus from Washington DC. You can take a free shuttle bus to various sites throughout the cemetery including John F. Kennedy’s grave and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, however it is also possible to walk around too – just follow the crowds.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a large tomb that is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It contains three unidentified soldiers from both World Wars and the Korean War. There was also a Vietnam vet laid to rest here but he was subsequently identified and buried in his home state.

Changing of the Guard at Arlington Cemetery is one of the top things to do in Washington DC

TOP TIP: It takes about 30 minutes to get to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from the entrance, so leave yourself plenty of time to get here if you want to see the Changing of the Guard, which happens on the hour from October to March, and every half hour during the summer months. I recommend stopping at John F. Kennedy’s grave on the way back to see the eternal flame

On average 30 funerals take place every weekday and there is a fear that they will run out of space, which is a sobering thought…

 

6. Shop the Outlets

Tanger Outlets near Washington DC

With the Euro and US Dollar almost at parity, shopping in the US is not as recommended as it used to be. However, there is still amazing value to be found if you visit the Tanger Outlets. They are located at National Harbor, but only a 20 minute UBER ride from Washington DC.

They are not as Premium as those in Woodbury Common, but they do have lots of household names such as Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Under Armour, Coach and Nike. I was amazed at the savings in many shops, especially Calvin Klein and Under Amour as well as boutiques such as Steve Madden and Pandora.

TOP TIP: Download their APP for even bigger savings. I paid $20 for a yearly membership and got a further 20% off the already discounted prices in many shops.

See more here

 

7. Explore Georgetown

visiting Georgetown is one of the top things to do in Washington DC

Georgetown is one of Washington’s prettiest neighbourhoods, and also happens to be one of the oldest. It is a popular area for shopping, with lots of gorgeous boutiques housed in beautiful buildings, but it is also a pleasure to explore on foot and is a hot spot for foodies. 

Speaking of which, Martin’s Tavern is a must visit. It may not be the best restaurant in Washington DC, but it is an authentic experience for sure. This locally owned restaurant has been passed down through four generations and is a landmark in Washington.

Martin's Tavern restaurant recommendation in Washington DC

JFK proposed to Jackie here, and you can dine in the Proposal Booth where it happened – Booth 3. Every U.S. president from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush has frequented Martin’s Tavern to dine here or have drinks at the bar. 

Martin’s Tavern serves up American type cuisine from 11am till late and is most popular for brunch and late dining. 

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If you are looking for unique things to do in Washington, why not go kayaking or canoeing on the Potomac River – Georgetown is the best place to do this. You can also walk the grounds of Georgetown University or simply relax at the Waterfront park. 

Georgetown is about a 30 minute walk from The White House, but is easily reached by subway. 

 

8. Visit at least one Museum

Apollo 11 exhibit at Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

Would you believe there are a whopping 84 museums in Washington DC! The famous Smithsonian Institute consists of 17 museums, galleries and a zoo, with the National Air and Space Museum, the Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of American History being the most visited.

 

Depending on your interests I recommend you visit at least one Smithsonian museum. They are free to enter and you will be amazed by the sheer size and the variety of exhibits available.

We visited the National Air and Space Museum which houses the largest collection of aviation and space artefacts in the world. The Apollo moon landing exhibit has 400 objects related specifically to the Apollo 11 mission, including the command module.

You will also find a Planetarium here with regular shows, as well as lectures and workshops. Like most museums in Washington entrance is free but timed-entry tickets must be pre-booked online.

TOP TIP: Don’t arrive before you allocated ticketed time as you won’t be allowed in.

The Holocaust Museum is a living memorial to the Holocaust and I’m told is another superb museum to visit, while the International Spy Museum is one of the top places to visit in Washington with kids.  

9. Tour the Monuments at Night

Monument tour by night in Washington DC

If you are wondering what to do in Washington DC at night, a tour of the monuments is a must – most are open 24 hours a day. While I think they should be visited by day too, they are beautifully lit up at night time and are best seen without the crowds.

There are many different tour options, including trolly tours, private cars, or group bike and Segway tours. Some stop at the White House and US Capitol Building as well as Washington’s top monuments and memorials. I have listed the most popular tours below:

 

10. Have a late dinner at the Old Ebbitt Grill

must visit restaurant in Washington DC

The Old Ebbitt Grill was founded in 1856 and is Washington’s oldest bar and restaurant. It is a landmark in the city which was visited by most US Presidents. Today it is a popular haunt with politicians and White House staffers, due to its location across the road from The White House.

It opens from 8am to 2am and is a great place if you are looking for a late dinner with good food and a lively atmosphere. The menu is extensive with everything from Oysters ( one of their specialities ) to steaks, pasta and burgers. 

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More restaurant recommendations in Washington DC

Beef carpaccio at North Italia Restaurant, Washington DC

If top quality pizza or pasta is more your vibe, don’t miss North Italia. It was one of the tastiest meals we had in Washington DC and great value too.

For tasty fast food options, check out Ben’s Chilli Bowl, made famous for its homemade chilli and delicious half smokes – smoked sausage dogs. 

Immigrant Food is another popular choice. It serves up street food style dishes to celebrate the story of immigrants. You will find African Gumbo, Japanese meatballs, Filipino fried chicken and lots more.

 

How to book a city break in Washington DC

Capitol Building Washington DC

We flew to Washington with Aer Lingus, who fly daily from Dublin to Dulles International Airport. Buses, taxis and UBER’s are readily available outside the terminal building and the transfer time to the city centre is about 30 – 40 minutes.

Where to stay in Washington DC

I recommend staying close to the White House and National Mall, where most of the sights are within walking distance. We stayed in the AKA WhiteHouse Aparthotel, this is one of the best places to stay in Washington DC for families, due to its spacious rooms with kitchenette and living area. 

 

The 4-star Hotel Washington is a superb choice for anyone looking for a top hotel in centre of Washington DC. It offers superb views of the Washington Monument and has a roof top bar with views of the White House.

If you are looking for a luxury stay, the Sofitel Lafayette Square is one of the best five star hotels in Washington DC.

 

I hope my post on the top things to do in Washington DC will inspire you to book a trip there soon. While every effort is made to ensure accuracy, attractions, prices and services. are subject to change.

Some of the links in this post contain affiliate links, where I receive a small commission if a booking is made, but at no additional cost to you.

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