10 capital things to do in Washington, D.C.

October 27, 2015                 5m read time
Stephanie Mee


As the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., is packed with world-class museums and monuments galore, but it's not just all about memorials here. There are also loads of green spaces, cool cultural venues, and trendy restaurants and bars to explore. Read on for our top picks for things to do and see.

The list of quintessentially American attractions in Washington, D.C., is simply staggering, with the White House, Smithsonian Institution, and Lincoln Memorial coming up on top. Ridiculously rich in history, the city is also an incredibly progressive place with plenty of protected parks, revitalized neighborhoods, and a growing population made up of diverse cultures from around the world. This means that in addition to gawking at majestic monuments, you can also enjoy fun outdoor activities like hiking, biking, canoeing, and kayaking, take in some culture at massive art galleries and lively music festivals, or sample a mind-boggling selection of cuisines from around the world.

1. Open Yourself Up To History

Walkers and bikers in Constitution Gardens by the Washington Monument in Washington D.C. Orhan Cam

Walkers and bikers in Constitution Gardens by the Washington Monument in Washington D.C.

Orhan Cam

 

With so many historic landmarks to see, creating an itinerary to see them all can be a tad overwhelming. Tour Washington DC can take the stress out of planning and give you the opportunity to see the most important monuments and memorials, such as the Lincoln Memorial and the White House, all in one go. Each tour has a maximum of six people, so you'll be able to ask all the questions you want, and the energetic guides can fill you in on interesting insider stories and tidbits about famous figures and important events in history. The tours last four hours.

2. Soak Up The Wild Side of D.C.

Old stone bridge in Rock Creek Park in Washington D.C. Dion Hinchcliffe

Old stone bridge in Rock Creek Park in Washington D.C.

Dion Hinchcliffe

 

Situated along the Potomac River, Rock Creek Park encompasses more than 2,000 acres of rivers, forests, and grass fields. Locals and visitors alike love to hike and bike along the park’s 32 miles of trails, past towering trees and over wooden bridges. Boating enthusiasts can rent kayaks, canoes, and small sailboats from the Thompson Boat Center. There are also 13 miles of beautiful equestrian trails where you and your trusty steed can plod along in peace.

3. Savor Gourmet Grub at the Food Truck Fare

Rito Logo Food Truck at the JAMMIN' DC in Freedom Plaza in Washington D.C. Elvert Barnes

Rito Logo Food Truck at the JAMMIN' DC in Freedom Plaza in Washington D.C.

Elvert Barnes

 

In between visits to the National Museum of Natural History and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, stop at the National Mall for a picnic under the cherry blossoms. For a heady mix of international street fare, make your way to the food trucks at L'Enfant Plaza on Seventh and D Streets where you will find everything from Polish sausages to kimchi barbecue tacos and lobster rolls. Keep an eye out for the famous Astro Donuts & Fried Chicken truck. Grab your grub and snag a seat on the lawn of the National Mall to soak up the sun and do some people watching.

4. Slip on a spy's shoes (for a day)

Inside the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. Frankie Victoria

Inside the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C.

Frankie Victoria

 

Ever wondered what it would be like to be a top-secret spy? Experience Washington, D.C., as an undercover agent with the International Spy Museum’s Spy in the City mission. The museum staff will arm you with an interactive GPS unit and give you codes, clues, and audio commands that will take you around a one-mile circuit in the Pennsylvania Quarter neighborhood in search of a foreign agent. For a bit of inspiration before your mission, check out the museum's spy gadgets, including lipstick pistols and cipher machines.

5. Embark on the Billy Goat Hiking Trail

The C&O Canal on Bill Goat Trail in Washington D.C. C&O Canal NHP

The C&O Canal on Bill Goat Trail in Washington D.C.

C&O Canal NHP

 

The Billy Goat Trail makes for a great half-day escape from the city with its fun trails that offer awesome views of the Potomac River and Great Falls. Be warned, though, that many of the trails involve a good deal of rock hopping and scrambling. Out of the three sections you can choose from, section A is the choicest. The route will take you past wildflowers and over incredibly varied terrain, including rivers and huge boulders. Once you're up high on the ridge, you can look below to see kayakers braving the rapids or search the skies for hawks and bald eagles.

6. Groove to Live Music Amongst Life-Size Art

Jazz in the Gardens at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C. Rebecca Schley

Jazz in the Gardens at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C.

Rebecca Schley

 

The National Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art is well known for its sculptures by artists such as Joan Miró, Marc Chagall, and Roy Lichtenstein. However, what many people don't know is that this lovely garden offers live music and drinks every Friday evening in the spring and summer. The music includes a mix of jazz, afro-funk, and salsa, and there are stands where you can buy cocktails and sangria to sip on while you lounge on the grass.

7. Paddle Along the Potomac

A kayaker paddles under Key Bridge on the Potomac River in Washington D.C. Mike Mahaffie

A kayaker paddles under Key Bridge on the Potomac River in Washington D.C.

Mike Mahaffie

 

See the city from an entirely different perspective while paddling along the waters of the Potomac. You can rent canoes, kayaks, pedal boats, or stand up paddleboards at the National Harbor, Ballpark Boathouse, or Key Bridge Boathouse. Travel at your own pace down the tree-lined river to Theodore Roosevelt Island, which has miles of trails dedicated to the outdoorsy 26th president. Chances are you'll see tons of interesting birdlife here, including raptors, blue herons, and egrets.

8. Celebrate Your 21st Amendment at a Speakeasy Bar

Marcus Strickland on saxophone at Bohemian Caverns in Washington, D.C. Timothy Forbes

Marcus Strickland on saxophone at Bohemian Caverns in Washington, D.C.

Timothy Forbes

 

In 1917 Prohibition hit Washington, D.C., and prompted many saloons to go underground and many more speakeasies to pop up around town. Get a taste of those illicit drinking days at one (or several) of D.C.’s authentic Prohibition-era bars. Some of our favorites include PX for its creative cocktails made with housemade tonics, bitters and juices; Bohemian Caverns for its funky jazz performances (pictured above); and The Dirty Martini, once a popular upper-class speakeasy called the Mayflower.

9. Find a Thrilling Dose of Whitewater Adrenaline

Kayakers on the whitewater rapids in Mather Gorge in Washington D.C. Andrei Medvedev

Kayakers on the whitewater rapids in Mather Gorge in Washington D.C.

Andrei Medvedev

 

If adrenaline-packed action is more your style, a trip down the rushing rapids of Mather Gorge just downriver from Great Falls will be right up your alley. Potomac Paddlesports offers four-hour whitewater rafting trips that will take you on a wet and wild journey past soaring cliffs, dense forests, and swirling eddies. Each trip includes the raft, paddles, safety gear, raft safety orientation, a light snack, and an enthusiastic guide who will point out all the unique natural features you pass.

10. Up Your Skills, Record Your Memories

Trey Ratcliff teaches photography tricks by the Washington Monument Jason Vines

Trey Ratcliff teaches photography tricks by the Washington Monument

Jason Vines

 

Aspiring shutterbugs can advance their photography skills on a fun and informative tour with MJ Love Photography. The walking class covers light, composition, and manual camera settings, and features stops at of some of D.C.'s most photogenic historic monuments, including the Lincoln Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Each tour takes one to two hours and includes instruction from an experienced photographer guide.

Stephanie Mee

Stephanie Mee is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Bali, Indonesia. Her work has been featured in numerous magazines, newspapers, and websites, and she is constantly on a mission to seek out new stories and adventures. In addition to being an avid wordsmith, she is also an incurable foodie and wanderluster.

Subscribe +
Pkarrowicon

Get the best stories and activities, personalized just for you. Go on, get out there!

You might also enjoy: