Things to Do and See in Washington DC

A British friend is coming across the Pond to visit my old stomping grounds: Washington DC. I lived in the area from 2001-2005, and loved my time there. I’m excited to share the city with her soon!

As I plan our busy, short stop in the city, I’ve put together this list of essentials. Check it out for tips on building your own itinerary, without being overwhelmed!

Monuments and Memorials

The monuments in Washington DC are not to be missed. But I have seen many a tourist determined to visit them on a hot summer day, with about twenty kids in tow, walking from one monument to the next. This is a bad plan!

Monuments are best seen by car (though navigating DC and finding parking can be a pain). It is far too much walking to see the main ones by foot: Jefferson is ages away from anyone, and even walking Lincoln to WWII takes longer than you would think. If you don’t have a car, consider the metro or a taxi.

During the day (especially in the height of tourism season), everything in the city will be packed. This includes the monuments and memorials. It can be hard to appreciate the solemn silence of the Vietnam Memorial when there’s a herd of teenagers pushing past you and giggling to each other.

The best time to see the memorials is actually at night. They are all well lit and (I would argue) more beautiful in the soft golden glow. They are also far less crowded in the evenings, and therefore more quiet.

(Pop quiz: What’s the difference between a monument and a memorial? With a monument, the person it’s dedicated to knew it was going to be built. For instance, George Washington knew about the Washington Monument before he died. Now you know!)

Two Smithsonian Museums (Max) Per Day

The Smithsonian museums are world famous, and they are all free, so definitely plan to visit some!

But I’ve known folk to come to Washington DC determined to see every Smithsonian museum on the mall. (Spoiler: The mall is a strip of green grass at the center of the city, not a shopping mall.) You plain can’t. I lived in Washington DC for four years, and I haven’t been to all the Smithsonian museums.

Don’t discount museum fatigue, either. You can only look at so many old things before your brain starts to melt out your ears—and I say that as a museum lover! So come to terms with not seeing everything, and then make your selections.

Billy Hathorn / U.S. government, Washington, D.C.

Billy Hathorn / U.S. government, Washington, D.C.

If you’re careful with your time, and keep a tight leash on dads or grandparents who want to read every single plaque, you can just about manage two museums a day. If you have kids along, it might be best to plan on one museum a day and then something more fun (an IMAX movie or visit to one of the National Parks outside of the city).

Visiting off-season is best if you can possibly manage it. During November and December, schools won’t be doing many field trips. I’ve more than once had a museum almost entirely to myself on a chill November morning. (Perks of being a homeschooler.) If you are going during tourist season, be prepared for swarms of small children.

Other Museums

But wait, there’s more museums! These are normally not free, and some can be quite pricy, but they are worth thinking about—especially if you have a special area of interest.

The Holocaust Museum, while possibly the most depressing museum in DC (tied with the Native American Museum), is very worthy of a visit. On a lighter note, there’s also the Spy Museum (where you get a secret identity as you step inside, and have to try to maintain it through the whole exhibit) and the Newseum (museum of press).

If you’re an art enthusiast who wants more than the free National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, or National Portrait Gallery, you also have your pick of private galleries: The Phillips Collection (modern art), Corcoran Gallery of Art, Textile Museum, Kreeger Museum, and National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Basically: There are a lot of museums. See again the note about picking a max of two a day.

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