The capital city of the United States, Washington D.C. is fittingly packed with incredible things for you to see and do. Aside from being home to the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the government, it has dozens of world-class museums, while countless marble-clad monuments and memorials are situated along the National Mall.
A federal district of its own, the vibrant metropolis lies along the east bank of the Potomac River, sandwiched in between Virginia and Maryland. While the rest of the city is well worth a look due to its thriving dining and nightlife scenes, most people simply head straight to the National Mall, which is where almost all its top tourist attractions in Washington D.C. can be found.
This is because the lush, green parkland is not only bordered by both the White House and Capitol Building but contains the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and numerous Smithsonian museums too.
In this post, we'll cover:
25. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Not far from both the National Mall and Lincoln Memorial you can find the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. One of the best places in all of D.C. to watch a show, the state-of-the-art venue hosts more than 2000 performances each year, ranging from ballet and opera to concerts, plays and dance shows.
First opened in 1971, the huge cultural center is named after the former president and lies alongside the Potomac River. Besides an elegant Opera House and Concert Hall, the campus encompasses the refined Eisenhower Theater, as well as several other smaller venues. In addition, there are also some brilliant restaurants and rooftop terraces to try out.
24. International Spy Museum
One of the most fun things to do in Washington D.C., the International Spy Museum unveils the techniques and technologies used by spies throughout the ages. Set just south of the Smithsonian Castle, its galleries are packed with interactive exhibits, artifacts and even equipment that cover thousands of years of espionage’s hidden history.
A firm favorite with both adults and children alike, the museum was founded in 2002 and is now located at L’Enfant Plaza. While exploring the world’s largest collection of international espionage artifacts you’ll not only see concealed cameras and weapons but ingenious gadgets and disguises too. Guests can also crack codes and try out their spying skills, while fantastic photos and displays teach you all about important spies, scientists and covert missions.
23. Arlington National Cemetery
Another of the most popular and picturesque places to explore around DC is the atmospheric Arlington National Cemetery. Established during the American Civil War, it is now the final resting place for many of the most revered military veterans and influential figures from throughout the United States’ past.
Situated just across the Potomac River, the lush, green graveyard and its amazing monuments and memorials overlook the city from a prominent hillside. While many go to pay their respects at JFK’s grave, other people instead head to the moving Iwo Jima Memorial or grand Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Aside from ambling past rows and rows of well-maintained graves, you can also stop by the attractive Arlington House or peek into the Pentagon next door.
22. Smithsonian’s National Zoo
Boasting an incredible selection of exotic animals, birds and reptiles, the superb Smithsonian’s National Zoo can be found just fifteen minutes’ drive north of downtown. Sprawled across a huge area, its spacious enclosures and exhibits are home to everything from orangutans and elephants to gorillas, giant pandas and komodo dragons.
One of the oldest and most prestigious zoos in the States, it was founded in 1889 and is very highly thought of for its excellent research and conservation work. In total, it now impressively contains over 2,700 animals that represent more than 390 species from as far afield as Africa, Asia and South America. On top of this, interesting talks and live demonstrations constantly take place in the zoo.
21. United States Botanic Garden
Right next to the majestic Capitol Building is another very pleasant outdoor space for you to enjoy: the United States Botanic Garden. Lovingly landscaped, its gorgeous grounds and gleaming glass conservatory are a treat to stroll around with pretty plants, flowers, trees and shrubs wherever you look.
The oldest continually-operating botanic garden in the country, it was first established in 1820 with exquisitely manicured lawns and colorful flower beds found next to lovely water features and fountains. Inside the conservatory are scenic sections dedicated to desert plants and orchids, jungle species and primeval trees with marvelous Mediterranean and medicinal areas also on show.
20. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
One of the many must-see monuments in D.C. is the striking statue that makes up the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Dedicated to the inspirational leader of the Civil Rights Movement, it lies at the northwest corner of the Tidal Basin, just off of the National Mall.
Only erected in 2011, the 30-foot memorial is inscribed with motivational and moving quotes from King’s speeches and sermons. Thanks to its powerful symbolism, beautiful design and the profound impact that he had on the country, the magnificent monument is now a popular spot to visit and photo with countless other memorials also lying nearby.
19. National Archives Museum
Situated on the north side of the National Mall you can find the National Archives Museum which is home to some of the nation’s most important documents. Sure to delight history aficionados, it contains not only the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution but the Bill of Rights too.
Built in 1933, the imposing building features exquisite architecture with a fantastic facade fronting the renowned and resplendent rotunda within. Here you can examine the Charters of Freedom before moving on to other equally interesting chambers that display the Emancipation Proclamation, Louisiana Purchase Treaty and an original Magna Carta dating to 1297.
18. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
Set on the southwestern side of the Tidal Basin is yet another monument that is well worth checking out when in town: the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Dedicated to the 32nd President of the United States, its four outdoor ‘rooms’ represent each of Roosevelt’s terms in office, highlighting the considerable challenges both he and the country faced in the thirties and forties.
Water features prominently throughout the various outdoor areas of the memorial with a single large drop and cascading waterfalls symbolizing the Great Depression and World War II. Dotted about the tranquil gardens are stones engraved with his speeches and sayings and stunning sculptures of the President in his wheelchair, the First Lady and their dog Fala.
17. World War II Memorial
One of the most prominent and popular parts of the National Mall after the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial is the massive and impressive World War II Memorial. Located at the eastern end of the Reflecting Pool, it commemorates the Americans who served in the armed forces during WWII and the civilians who supported them on the homefront.
Surrounding an oval plaza and fountain are granite pillars that represent each state and US overseas territory and two triumphal arches for the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. In addition to snapping some photos of iconic scenes of the war experience etched on bas reliefs you can also pay your respects at the Freedom Wall, which is dedicated to those who lost their lives during the war.
16. National Portrait Gallery
While it is most known for hosting images of every previous president, the National Portrait Gallery also contains countless other portraits, paintings and photos of notable American citizens. Housed in the historic Old Patent Office Building, its enticing exhibits and artworks can be found just a short walk north of the National Mall.
Established in 1962, the exceptional art museum now boasts a large collection of some 23,000 items including drawings, statues and engravings. While wandering around its light and airy galleries you can see amazing depictions of everyone from Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama to Frida Kahlo, Benjamin Franklin and Pocahontas with temporary exhibitions and talks also regularly taking place.
15. National Museum of African American History & Culture
The latest addition to the Smithsonian’s many institutions is the superb National Museum of African American History & Culture. Opened in 2016 on the National Mall, its extensive array of artifacts, artworks and audio installations shine a light on the cultures and communities of African-Americans in the country and the colossal challenges they have faced over the centuries.
The only national museum of its kind in the US, its interesting and interactive exhibitions focus on diverse themes like African craftsmanship, the breakdown of segregation and the fight for equality. Aside from seeing items owned by famous figures such as Muhammad Ali, Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner, you can also enjoy the astonishing architecture of the building which is based on the three-tiered crowns found in Yoruban art.
14. National Gallery of Art
As it is widely considered to be one of the best museums in the States, the National Gallery of Art is definitely not to be missed when in D.C. Packed with incredible paintings and photos, sculptures and prints, it showcases masterpieces by everyone from Raphael and Rembrandt to Monet, Picasso and van Gogh.
Founded in 1937 on the National Mall, the museum consists of the neoclassical West Building, the strikingly modern East Building and a gorgeous outdoor sculpture garden. Each focuses on various artistic mediums and epochs covering not only modern and contemporary artworks but the medieval period too with astounding pieces by European masters and American artists featuring throughout.
13. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
A very sobering yet important place to visit, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is set just south of the National Mall. Home to thousands of historic artifacts, photos and oral testimonies, it educates people on the atrocities committed during WWII, confronts genocide and antisemitism and remembers the survivors and victims of the Holocaust.
As soon as you enter the museum you are immediately confronted by the past as you are handed an identification card of an actual person who experienced the Holocaust. While wandering through its well-designed galleries full of shocking images and original artifacts, visitors learn about everything from Hitler’s rise to power and Aryan ideology to the horrors of Kristallnacht, ghettos and the Final Solution. Particularly moving parts are its Tower of Faces and candle-lit Hall of Remembrance.
12. Vietnam Veterans and Korean War Veterans Memorials
Yet further thought-provoking and powerful spots for visitors to stop by are the Vietnam Veterans and Korean War Veterans Memorials. Located not far from one another, their striking statues, plaques and memorial walls can be found towards the western end of the National Mall.
One of the most visited monuments in DC, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has a black granite wall emblazoned with the names of the fallen for you to walk along, as well as a Women’s Memorial and a bronze sculpture called The Three Servicemen. Equally impressive and emotive is the memorial to the Korean War Veterans that features stunning statues of a platoon on patrol and a peaceful Pool of Remembrance where you can pay your respects.
11. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Another of the biggest and best museums in not just D.C. and the States but the world is the excellent Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Lying along the National Mall, its almost endless galleries are crammed with awe-inspiring artifacts, exhibits and specimens that look at everything from Ancient Egypt and Korean culture to dinosaurs, epidemics and meteorites.
A firm favorite with families, the massive museum is a delight to explore with its collection now numbering a whopping 145 million items in total. Asides from seeing replicas of giant whales and skeletons of triceratops, you can also watch tarantulas be fed in the Insect Zoo, wander through the colorful butterfly pavilion or catch a show in its IMAX theater.
10. Washington National Cathedral
The U.S. government likes to separate church and state, so it doesn’t have a formal national cathedral, but if it had one, it would have to be the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, which is considered the spiritual home of this nation.
More commonly known as Washington National Cathedral, this Neo-Gothic structure is the sixth largest cathedral in the world. Funerals for Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan and Ford were held here. Worship services are free, but admission is charged to tour the rest of the cathedral.
9. Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is today the largest library in the world. But it had more humble beginnings, being founded in 1800 to house early documents of the United States that were transferred from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. For the first 100 years, it was mainly a reference library for Congress, but today is home to 158 million items that include 36 million books in 460 languages and 69 million manuscripts.
It has the largest collection of rare books in North America. The library is open to the public, but potential users are asked to check the library’s list of holdings on online before they come to make research materials more easily findable when they arrive. The main reading room is known as the Sacred Room, and is absolutely stunning.
8. Georgetown Neighborhood
Georgetown is an historic district that was established in Maryland decades before the U.S. government was established in Washington, D.C. It became part of the nation’s capital when Congress created the District of Columbia in 1871. Today Georgetown is a trendy place to live, work and play. It is home to a top university, several embassies and the Old Stone House, the oldest unchanged building in D.C.
Located in northwest Washington, D.C., the area has served as home to such notables as Thomas Jefferson, when he was vice president of the United States; Francis Scott Key, who wrote the Star Spangled Banner following a War of 1812 battle; and John F. Kennedy, who left his home there to move into the White House.
7. National Air and Space Museum
Visitors don’t have to be kids to be fascinated by the National Air and Space Museum. Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Air and Space Museum offers plenty of hands-on activities for kids of all ages, from eight to 80. The museum is a treasure trove about America’s air and space programs.
Exhibits include everything from the 1903 Wright Flyer to the Apollo 11 moon-landing expedition to exhibits on how scientists are exploring space today. The best part? Admission to the basic museum is free, though fees charged may be charged for features such as IMAX.
6. Jefferson Memorial
The Jefferson Memorial is a tribute to the US’ third president, Thomas Jefferson, and incorporates many of his thoughts on architecture. Its formal style resembles the Pantheon in Rome. This design created a controversy because some felt it looked too much like the Lincoln Memorial. The debate was settled by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who laid the cornerstone in 1939.
Located on the National Mall, it features a statue of Jefferson looking toward the White House, and is intended to memorialize Jefferson’s views as a statesman and philosopher. Because Japanese cherry trees had to be torn down for the memorial, it now hosts Washington’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival.
5. Lincoln Memorial
The Lincoln Memorial is a stunning tribute to the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated as he attended a theatre performance. A mammoth statue of the seated president is surrounded by a Greek Doric style temple. The memorial was dedicated in 1922, with Lincoln’s last surviving son, Robert Todd, in attendance.
Located at the west end of the National Mall, the memorial is where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech in 1963. It also has been featured in several movies ranging from 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Nixon to an episode of the Simpsons. The memorial is open 24 hours a day, with National Park rangers on hand from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.
4. Washington Monument
One of the most distinctive and defining landmarks in DC, the brilliantly bright white Washington Monument rises dramatically above the National Mall below. Towering 555 feet in height, the enormous obelisk commemorates the First President of the United States and his significant military achievements during the American Revolutionary War.
The tallest monument column in the world, it makes for a stupendous sight as it looms above the Reflecting Pool and Lincoln Memorial. Besides taking photos of the majestic marble structure, you can also take a trip up to its lofty observation deck. From here you can enjoy simply phenomenal views over many of the city’s most important and impressive monuments, museums and memorials.
3. United States Capitol
The United States Capitol is where Congress meets. Sessions of the Senate and House of Representatives are open to the public when the bodies are in session. Visitors need free passes, which can be obtained from their congressmen’s office. At the same time, they can also get passes to tour the Capitol building, as guided tours do not include visiting legislators in action.
The Capitol was one of the first buildings constructed by the fledgling U.S. government following the Revolutionary War. Construction began in 1793, with legislators meeting there for the first time in 1800. Central to the Capitol building is the rotunda, which lies under the dome. This is where honored citizens, such as presidents, lie in state.
2. White House
The White House serves many purposes. It is where the President works and lives with his family. It is also the symbol of the United States to the rest of the world. It is where the President officially meets with leaders of foreign nations and hosts them at state dinners.
The site for the White House was selected by George Washington, first president of this new nation, but President John Adams was the first to live in it. It was burned by the British during the War of 1812, but later reconstructed. Self-guided tours are available for visitors who plan ahead. They must request a tour through their congressman’s office 21 days to six months in advance.
1. National Mall
Visitors to Washington, D.C., won’t want to miss a stroll on the National Mall, a greenway that will take them past many of the capital’s important sites. Located downtown, the National Mall stretches on the west from the US Capitol building to the Potomac River and on the east from the Jefferson Memorial to Constitution Avenue.
Across the streets from the mall, but still considered part of it, are a variety of Smithsonian museums and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. To the east, nearby attractions include memorials to Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and James Garfield, and the Reflecting Pool. With about 24 million visitors a year, it is the top tourist attraction in Washington.