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Best things to do in Washington, DC for first timers

The list of things to do in Washington, DC is way too long to conquer in a weekend, or even a week!

Even if you lived in the nation’s capital, you’d take about a year to work your way the best things to do and see: like world-class museums, the outdoor green spaces for hiking, to ogle at the monuments – during the day and again spectacularly lit at night.

Then there’s the dining and bar scene, the live music venues, shopping in Georgetown and the live sport. As I write the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team are about to play their first ever game in Washington, DC at the 82,000-seat FedEx Field.

They always start their international games with a passionate, rousing haka. A Maori war dance which has significant meaning to not just Maori people, but all New Zealanders. Read about the haka here.

Capitol Building Washington DC
Capitol Building. Image by David Mark from Pixabay

I’ve been to Washington, DC times, even lived here for a year. This post covers the heroes and highlights for first-timers, but if you’ve been before you might like some different things to do in Washington DC.

Sports teams in Washington, DC

DC (District of Columbia) is home to the Washington Football Team (formerly Washington Redskins, but that name has been binned), Washington Nationals baseball, Washington Wizards basketball, Washington Capitals hockey, DC United soccer, Washington Mystics women’s basketball and then there’s all the college teams.

Yes, there is a lot more to DC than standing in front of the White House for the obligatory selfie!

Washington, DC is a great place for a weekend away or a full month-long vacation.

If you’re about to visit DC and want to know what are the absolute highlights – and more importantly, how to strategically get to them all so you’re not traipsing back and forth across the Mall because you didn’t realise how far apart everything was, start here.

The beautiful green space that is the 59-hectare National Mall runs right down the middle of the city surrounded in trees with the Capitol Building at Capitol Hill at one end and the Lincoln Memorial at the other. Punctuated in the middle is the Washington Monument, a 555ft obelisk that you can take a new elevator to the top of.

Map of National Mall courtesy Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Stand at the top of the Washington Monument

One of the best places to get some great photos is from the top of the Washington Monument, named for America’s first president.

It is surrounded by 50 flags, one for each state, and was closed for three years for renovations, but reopened in 2021. You can buy tickets to ascend to the very top (you used to be able to climb the stairs).

The renos included adding an elevator which takes a full two minutes to get to the top, enough time for you to appreciate the internal architecture lined with stones commemorating George Washington. Tickets need to be booked online. Walk-ups not accepted.

Look down the Mall towards Abraham Lincoln sitting knowingly in his massive monument, the Lincoln Memorial, watching over the 2000 ft long Reflecting Pool, but first take a left and walk through the WWII Memorial.

Washington Monument with WWII Memorial
Washington Monument with WWII Memorial in the foreground. Image by David Mark from Pixabay

This impressive site includes towering stone walls commemorating not just every State, but also other nations who served alongside the Americans.

Another very moving memorial is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, is a giant wall has every name of every American lost in that war etched into it. You’ll see family members taking rubbings with paper and pencil over their ancestors names.

The Vietnam War Memorial wall
The Vietnam War Memorial wall. Photo by Caleb Fisher on Unsplash

Then located on the left of the Mall as you continue towards the Lincoln Memorial, is the Korean War Veterans Memorial. The 19 stainless steel statues, each seven feet tall, have been made to represent the 5.8 million Americans who fought in the 3-year war. Their faces are just so life-like.

Visit the White House

Remarkably, tours of the White House are still available, although it is quite the rigmarole to make it happen!

You need to make your request via your Member of Congress up to 3 months in advance. International visitors need to request via their country’s embassy in Washington, DC. They’re filled on a first-come first-served basis and numbers are limited. Tours are free.

The famous White House
The famous White House! Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Your tour of the White House includes the public rooms in the East Wing, which includes the Blue Room, Red Room and Green Room; the State Dining Room; the China Room; and a view of the White House Rose Garden.

Secret Service members are stationed in each room and are available to answer questions about the history and architecture of each room.

Visit some of the Smithsonian Museums

There are 21 museums and the National Zoo that make up the Smithsonian Institute. So don’t be fooled into thinking you can see them all in a week – and even in a month!

There are also other museums that are not part of the Smithsonian that you’ll want on your list too. Plus monuments and even more historical sites, like Ford’s Theater where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

The brilliant thing is most of Washington, DC’s museums are free to enter!

To help you decide which museums to tackle on your first visit to DC, here are the top 7 museums as rated by TripAdvisor, which clearly means they’ll be busy – but there’s a good reason for that. They’re amazing.

National Museum of Natural History

The National Museum of Natural History is one the whole family will enjoy. And it’s free.

Not only are there fun interactive exhibits and fossils, but there’s also a live insect “zoo” where you can see tarantula, hissing cockroaches, stroll among live butterflies and more. I remember the time I went I couldn’t take my eyes off the bird-eating spider. It was massive! (And no, I did not witness it eating a bird. Lord help me!)

Inside the Natural History Museum
Inside the Natural History Museum. Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

The Natural History Museum is also home to the Hope Diamond, one of the most famous pieces of jewellery in the world. The stone originated in the Kallur Mine in India and was purchased in 1666 by a French gem merchant who cut it and sold it to King Louis XIV.

It was then stolen in 1791 and recut to 45.52-carats. What we see today is the “Hope” diamond that popped up in 1839, owned by a London family.

Hope diamond
The Hope Diamond

In 1949 New York gem merchant Harry Winston bought it and donated it to the Natural History Museum in 1958, where it has been on display ever since. (Much to his descendants chagrin I’m sure!)

National Museum of African American History and Culture

“A people’s journey, a nation’s story”, the National Museum of African American History opened in 2016 and its architecture is unlike any other building you’ll find in DC. It’s covered in bronze coloured aluminium lattice which filters light into the building, symbolizing light coming into the dialogue about race and to promote healing and reconciliation.

Inside you’ll find more than 36,000 artefacts and see how history and culture has shaped America. Admission is free.

National Museum of African American History and Culture
National Museum of African American History and Culture

National Gallery of Art

You’ll find more than 150,000 paintings, photographs, drawings, sculpture that spans the history of Western art. Again, it’s all free, including special exhibitions.

The building itself is breathtaking. Admission is free.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Holocaust Museum is not part of the Smithsonian Institute of museums but it is well worth visiting. Beware that it is harrowing. However I’m of the firm belief that these memorials, tributes and historical museums like this are essential. Lest we forget. I would allow at least 2 hours here.

Admission is free. You need to book timed entry tickets online.

Air and Space Museum

Long voted as the most popular of the Smithsonian Museums, the National Air and Space Museum is truly fascinating for the aviation fans among us. It’s quite extraordinary to see the first capsule that was created to land on the moon. It honestly looks like something the kids would cobble together in school! Admission is free.

National Portrait Gallery

Art lovers should set aside a good couple of hours here. Opened in 1968, it is located in the old Patent Office Building. The first exhibition was “The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, 1770–1800,” dedicated solely to African Americans.

There are lots of presidential portraits starting from George and Martha Washington. Photographs were later introduced after Congress passed the decision.

By 2013, the NPG housed 21,200 works of art dedicated solely to portraiture. Admission is free.

Interior of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.
Interior of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.

Museum of the Bible

One of the newest museums to open in Washington, DC, this is a walk through the Bible. It opened in 2017 and of course, as you would imagine, ruffled feathers.

But it ranks on the list of one of the Top 10 museums to visit in Washington, DC on TripAdvisor, by real people who have visited.

You’ll enter through enormous doors etched in scripture verses and find experiential and interactive exhibits. Replicas of the Dead Sea Scrolls and recreations of life in Jerusalem as Jesus would have lived.

The Museum of the Bible is privately funded by he Green family. It is eight floors high with a biblical garden on the roof, a grand ballroom and a restaurant called Manna, named after the daily provision of food God provided the Israelites when they left Egypt and camped for 40 years before reaching the Promised Land.

Note: there is a charge for this museum.

Inside the Museum of the Bible
Inside the Museum of the Bible

How do the Smithsonian museums remain free?

Great question! In a world where we’re used to paying for every little thing, it is quite astonishing that this enormous collection of spectacular buildings and the impressive artifacts within, remain free for all visitors. Even Washington Zoo is free, but you need to get timed entry passes online.

In 1835 British scientist James Smithson bequeathed his estate to his nephew Henry James Hungerford, but stipulated that if he died without heirs (which he did) he wanted the money to go to Washington to found the Smithsonian Institution “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” The amount was $515,169. (That equates to over $15m today).

The fiscal year 2021 saw the Federal Government invest $1 billion into the Smithsonian Institution. That makes up 62% of its funding. It also receives funding from private donors and revenue from its magazine, on-site restaurants and gift shops.

The original Smithsonian building. The castle. It is now the Information Center. Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

But wait, there’s lots more to see!

Ford’s Theatre

There is so much for history buffs in D.C. Ford’s Theatre is the theater that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in as he sat watching a play. (It’s also on my list of Hidden Gems in Washington DC).

John Wilkes Booth snuck into the president’s box and shot him in the head then escaped over the balcony, landed on the stage and broke his leg, but still managed to get away.

It is a working theater today to see a performance, but is wildly interesting if you’re into that kind of history!

Kennedy Center

The Kennedy Center probably won’t be on your must-visit list, but you’ll see it on the edge of the river.

It’s a fabulous venue for concerts and I’ve been here for the opera. I also graduated high school here. Yes, I’m a Kiwi from New Zealand, but I did a one year exchange with a wonderful family in Rockville MD and my high school, T S Wooton, used this incredible venue as their graduation hall. Probably because kids of government families!

View of the Kennedy Center at night
View of the Kennedy Center at night. Pic courtesy Washington.org

That was back in the 80’s and I’m still in touch with that wonderful family every day. Yes. Every day. (If you’re thinking about doing a student exchange, I can’t recommend it highly enough! I did mine through AFS).

International Spy Museum

I haven’t been to the new International Spy Museum yet, but I did visit the previous one a couple of times – and this one is even bigger and better.

International Spy Museum
International Spy Museum

When I lived in the US my “dad” was in Counter Terrorism at the CIA. I took him into this museum and we had fun with the interactive exhibits. When you arrive you’re given a secret identity and your mission is to come out not having been caught. I was completely busted. He sailed through, identity intact!

It’s now moved into a phenomenal new building and offers even more interactive exhibits.

Note: there is a charge for this museum.

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery is another location that you need a couple of hours to visit. It’s actually located in Virginia, just across the Potomac River behind the Lincoln Memorial. It is the final resting place of 400,000 veterans and their families.

There is a permanent guard in in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (below) and they change over every hour from 1 October to 31 March and every half hour from 1 April to 30 September.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery. Image by Steve Wilson from Pixabay

You’ll also want to visit the eternal flame at JFK’s grave. The graves of other notable people are also here: astronauts, medical scientists, athletes, judges. Funerals are still carried out today.

Rock Creek Park

A common mistake to make when thinking about Washington, DC is to assume the city is all big government buildings. Of course the National Mall is a wide open space, but the real lungs of the city is Rock Creek Park.

This 1,754 acre city park is a popular location for hikers, runners, walkers, cyclists. It’s also filled with wildlife. You might see white-tailed deer, migrating birds, streams, native plans and plenty of critters.

Spring cherry blossoms

If you’re visiting Washington, DC in the spring (early April is the best time) you’ll need to bring your camera as the city is decorated in cherry blossoms! Some people plan to visit specifically for the riot of pink confetti on the trees and strewn like carpet on every path.

Gorgeous cherry blossom framing the Washington Monument
Gorgeous cherry blossom framing the Washington Monument. Photo by Eric Dekker on Unsplash

Watch a game at FedEx Field

FedEx Field, home of the Washington Football Team (formerly Washington Redskins), is where the USA Eagles rugby team will take on the New Zealand All Blacks on October 24.

Locals get there early for tailgating. For those of us non-Americans, tailgating is the pre-game picnic and drinks fans set up out of their cars and trucks in the parking lot. It’s just about as much fun as the game itself – and some fans don’t even buy tickets to the game!

How to get around Washington DC

This city is deceptively huge. Walking everywhere is not really possible, unless you have hours (even days) on your side. Traffic is usually grid-locked too, so even taxis are not the best idea.

If you want to see the highlights, get a 2-day Hop On Hop Off bus pass which will cover everything above.

Or if you’re confident on electric scooters, these are a great way to get to the next place in your own time. There are 7 companies at last count and you pay for them via an app on your cell phone. Read all the rules for riding e-scooters in Washington DC.

You can also rent bicycles in the same way if you prefer a seat – and a little basket in the front!

Note: it is illegal to ride scooters and bikes on the footpath in the CBD. You could be fined $25.

Locals use the Metrorail, the underground rail system. There are several stops nice and close to museums and the nightlife districts.

For going out at night, or when you just want a car, there are several taxi companies, as well as Uber and Lyft.

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!