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What an amazing experience, exploring Washington DC for the first time. The city surprised me in so many ways, and I wondered why I waited so long to visit. My grandson Dayan moved to DC last summer, for post graduate studies, and for work. Dayan living there prompted me to travel to DC so I could not only see my grandson but see the city through his eyes.
There are SO many fun things to do in Washington DC, and most of those activities are free.
Haven’t been to DC yet either? Use my experiences as a guide. Been to DC already? Share your favorite things to do in the city, in the comments.
List of Fun Things to Do in Washington DC
For reference, I spent four days and three nights in DC, at the fabulous citizenM Hotel located a couple of blocks from the National Mall. A nearby Metro station made getting around the city easy. And, DC is very walkable if you don’t mind walking a LOT. I’d suggest comfortable, sturdy walking shoes.
I experienced rain every day of my visit. That didn’t stop Dayan and me from exploring all day long with the help of rain jackets and an umbrella.
Here’s a list of fun things to do, while visiting the nation’s capital.
Tour The Capitol Building
The United States Capitol, typically called The Capitol or The Capitol Building, is the seat of the legislative branch of the United States federal government. It is located on Capitol Hill at the eastern end of the National Mall, on a plateau 88 feet above the level of the Potomac River. From The Capitol you can look west and see the Washington Memorial 1.4 miles away and the Lincoln Memorial, 2.2 miles away. These three structures line up on the National Mall.
The Capitol is home to the House of Representatives and the Senate. As the country and city grew, so did The Capitol. Building began in 1793 and the first congress met there in 1800. Currently the building contains over 1.5 million square feet, 600+ rooms and miles of corridors. The structure is crowned by the magnificent white dome and is an iconic symbol of the US and her people.
You can participate in a paid tour of The Capitol. Only visitors with advance tour reservations may enter the building. Check out tour info HERE.
Dayan and I toured The Capitol Building shortly after my arrival in DC. The 1 1/2 hour tour begins with a 30 minute film about the construction of The Capitol and its purpose. I felt SO moved during the film. It brought home to me the importance of this historic building and also of the city itself. It’s one place…for many people…for ALL people. Inscribed in the rotunda is the Latin phrase, “E Pluribus Unum”, from the many, one. One government, representing all.
We loved this fascinating tour and learned so much.
Explore The National Mall
Nicknamed “America’s Front Yard”, the National Mall is where the country’s most iconic memorials, museums and statues are found. You can participate in guided tours of the Mall, or walk the area yourself. The space stretches from The Capitol Building to the Tidal Basin area beyond the Lincoln Memorial to the White House on the north side. It is flanked by the Smithsonian Museums.
A 5 mile loop around the Mall takes approximately an hour and a half to walk. You can easily spend days exploring in just this area, visiting memorials and museums.
Dayan and I wandered around this area on all four days, popping into museums and art galleries, to escape the rain, and visiting monuments and memorials. Seeing the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, after reading about them and seeing photos of them my whole life, was an emotional experience for me.
Discover Monuments and Memorials
While exploring the National Mall, stop at the many, many monuments and memorials.
The Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial are the most well known however there are more than 100 structures in the area. These monuments and memorials honor America’s forefathers and heroes and tell stories about our history.
Places to visit include Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, National World War I and World War II Memorials, Jefferson Memorial, Martin Luther King Memorial, Albert Einstein Memorial, Vietnam Women’s Memorial, African American Civil War Memorial and DC War Memorial.
There are many other sites set up in memory of a person or group. Part of the fun is finding them.
Visit the Smithsonian Museums
DC can boast that it has the world’s largest museum complex!
Around and near the National Mall, 16 Smithsonian Museums offer exhibits that range from art to science to history. The National Zoo is included as a Smithsonian site as well. All Smithsonian Museums are, amazingly, free to enter. Some do require a timed entry. You can reserve your pass online.
Smithsonian Museums include:
- Anacostia Community Museum
- Arts & Industries Building
- Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden
- National Air & Space Museum
- National Museum of African American History and Culture
- Renwick Gallery of Smithsonian American Art
- National Museum of African Art
- National Museum of American History
- Smithsonian Institute Castle
- National Museum of the American Indian
- National Museum of Asian Art
- Smithsonian National Zoo
- National Museum of Natural History
- National Portrait Gallery & Smithsonian American Art
- Smithsonian Gardens
- National Postal Museum
Among the museums, the National Museum of Natural History, with its dinosaur bones, sea life exhibits and rock and mineral section, is the most popular. It ranked first, with almost a million visits in 2021, with the National Zoo a close second.
Dayan and I enjoyed visiting several of these museums, including Natural History, the Portrait Gallery, American Art and American History. We also visited the National Gallery of Art, which is not a Smithsonian Museum. However, it is worth a visit as well, for its amazing works of classic art.
Walk Through the United States Botanic Garden
In the middle of the city lies a beautiful garden. This is the United States Botanic Garden, established 200 years ago. It too is free to enter.
The US Botanic Garden offers uniquely beautiful exhibits that not only delight but inspire us to become better stewards of the plants on the earth.
You can wander through outdoor exhibits that include vegetable gardens, flower gardens, sculptures, fountains and seasonal displays.
Indoors, in the conservatories, stroll through world regions that include desert, tropical, subtropical and Jurassic. There’s a medicinal garden, orchids and endangered plants.
I love to visit botanical gardens in every city and country that I visit. This one was magical!
Take a Photo of the White House
At the northern edge of the National Mall, on Pennsylvania Avenue, sits the beautiful White House. This magnificent structure has housed every US president, since John Adams in 1800.
Did you know that the White House is modeled on Leinster House in Dublin? Irish born architect James Hoban intentionally created the neoclassical structure based on the Irish Legislature building.
The West Wing was added in 1901, by President Theodore Roosevelt. Eight years later President William Taft added the Oval Office. And the East Wing was completed in 1946. The executive residence includes six stories, 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases and 3 elevators.
Tours of the White House are free, however, you must contact your representative to make a request. Submit requests at least 21 days in advance or up to 3 months before your visit. There are a limited number of visitors allowed.
I didn’t discover the 21 days in advance rule in time to request a tour. However, Dayan and I explored nearby Lafayette Square and took photos of the White House.
Enjoy the Views from the Old Post Office Clock Tower
What a wonderful way to get a different perspective of the city!
The Old Post Office, located at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, is a National Historic Site. Completed in 1899, this post office replaced an earlier general post office building from 1839. The clock tower is the third tallest structure in DC.
It ceased existence as a post office in 1914 at the beginning of WWI. After avoiding demolition for many years, retail space, a food court and a roof skylight over a central atrium brought new life to the old structure. The building operated for four years as a luxury hotel before reopening this year as the Waldorf Astoria Washington DC.
The 315 foot high clock tower houses the “Bells of Congress” and on its observation level, offers panoramic views of the city. Entrance is free.
Dayan suggested this site, and I admit giddy relief when he told me there’s an elevator to the observation deck! The wind was brisk and cold but what amazing views over the city! The final photo in this post shows just how beautiful those views are.
Walk Around the City
Besides the National Mall, there’s much to explore in the city, such as charming neighborhoods, museums like the International Spy Museum, historic spots like Ford’s Theatre, restaurants that specialize in brunch, cool coffee shops, gardens and stunning architecture.
In spite of the rain, I spent Monday afternoon walking in downtown DC, after one last lunch with my grandson. I “gwalked”…walked and gawked at the same time! DC is a gorgeous city, clean and friendly with lots of green space. I loved everything about it and simply enjoyed being there.
Take a Tour
There are many tours available in DC, from historic ones to memorial tours to ghost walks. The city offers bike tours, bus tours, walking tours or you can explore by moonlight in a trolley.
I spent the remainder of my last afternoon in DC on a 90 minute bus tour. It got me out of the chilly rain, which was quite heavy by then, and I appreciated the stories the tour guide shared. We stopped at the Lincoln Memorial and I snapped additional photos.
I love experiencing ghost tours in the cities I travel to. This time, however, Dayan and I created our own walking ghost tour, stopping at haunted locations in the city to take photos. Check out my post, Ghost Stories from Washington DC.
Have you visited DC?
My four days in DC flew by! There’s so much to do and see that I need another trip there. I believe I could visit DC yearly and never run out of experiences to enjoy. Let these fun things to do in Washington DC give you a starting point.
Have you visited DC? What experiences did you most enjoy? Add to my list by posting your recommendations in the comments below!
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