Top Things to Do on Your First Visit to DC

top things to do on your first visit to DC

As someone who has lived in DC for over three years now and visited multiple times before that as a tourist, I'm pretty set on my top things to do on your first visit to DC! It can be overwhelming as a first time visitor to DC because there is so much to see and do. I have been putting this post off for a while because I knew how long it would take me to narrow down the long, long list of my favorite things to do. If this is your first visit to DC (or even second or third) then this is the list for you! Here are my top things to do on your first visit to DC.

PS - one of the best things about DC is everything is practically free! I mean it! Your first visit to DC will not be an expensive one if you follow these things to do.

In front of the World War II Memorial and Lincoln Memorial

1. Monument Hopping - free

All of the monuments are located on the National Mall (not an actual mall people - it's actually a national park). It will probably take about half a day to walk to all of them. A list of my favorites are below.

  • Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool
  • Washington Monument
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
  • Korean War Memorial
  • Thomas Jefferson Memorial
  • World War II Memorial

2. Smithsonian Museums to Spend Half a Day At -  free

You could spend weeks just visiting Smithsonian Museums. Here is a list of my favorites though to spend half a day at!

  • African-American History Museum (on the National Mall)
  • American History Museum (on the National Mall)
  • Holocaust Museum (almost on the National Mall)
  • Air and Space Museum (on the National Mall)
  • National Art Gallery and Portrait Museum (Chinatown just north of the National Mall)
  • National Zoo (Woodley Park)

For a full list of Smithsonian Museums click here.

3. Smithsonian Museums to Spend an Hour or Two at - free

There are smaller Smithsonian museums (or ones that take less time) that are definitely still worth a visit. Most are located right along the National Mall too.

  • National Archives (lines can be long and it can take hours)
  • Renwick Art Gallery (next to the White House)
  • Hirshhorn (on the National Mall)
  • Sculpture Gardens (on the National Mall)
  • Botanical Gardens (on the National Mall)

4. US Capitol - free

You can arrange a free tour online or in person in the Capitol, but space is limited. You can also see a live senate vote by reaching out to your senator for tickets.

5. White House - free

This one requires some planning that I have yet to do. You write to your senator or congressman/woman and they arrange the tickets for you. I've heard it is well worth a visit. No time to do that? You can walk past it right off the national mall and see both the front and back.

view from the Kennedy Center

6. Kennedy Center and Georgetown - free to $100

I LOVE the Kennedy Center. It has an amazing view and there is a free show there every single night of the year at the Millenial Stage. Want to splurge? You can check out the latest big name show happening there (you'll most likely pay about $100 for a ticket). Georgetown is close by and a great spot to see historic homes and experience the old feel of DC. It's a famous neighborhood and there are many free tours put on by the National Park Service. Make sure to check this out before your visit!

Click here for their upcoming free shows! And click here for current shows on the main stages.

7. Pay for a Museum - $15 - $25

Hear me out here, yes tons of free things exist in DC, but this means the paid ones are really, really good! DC is also home to some wonderful museums you have to pay for. The Spy Museum is my absolute favorite but there are many more I've visited and had fun at. These museums tend to me more interactive than many Smithsonian museums and provide special events and interesting changing programming. All three listed are within walking distance of the National Mall.

  • Newseum
  • Spy Museum
  • Building Museum

8. Arlington Cemetery - free

The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a really moving scene. You can also walk around and see historic homes of past presidents located on the grounds. Get ready for lots of walking because everything is really spread out!

9. Visit a Market and Hang with Locals - free plus cost of food/souvenirs

DC is a foodie city and known for its innovation in food. One of the best ways to see the latest of DC eateries is to visit a market! Union Market is very trendy and full of pop-ups, Eastern Market is more old style DC with farmers and local artists showcasing their best work. Eastern Market also has a large flea market on weekends totally worth a visit. Plus if you're going to buy a souvenir, it should be from a local artist or awesome shop! There are lots of options in both these markets. Union Market also has awesome murals that are definitely instaworthy.

  • Union Market (NoMA)
  • Eastern Market (Capitol Hill)

10. Eat Some of the Amazingly Diverse Food - varies

I've got a whole list of my favorite restaurants I always bring friends to when they visit, but some diverse and delicious options are listed below!

  • Ben's Chili Bowl (U Street and H Street locations)
  • Farmers Fishers Bakers (Georgetown)
  • Maketto (H Street)
  • Daikaya (Chinatown)
  • Dukem (U Street)

11. Check Out a Rooftop Bar

DC has tons and tons of rooftop bars and is known for its bar scene. The ones listed below offer my favorite views.

  • Jack Rose (Adams Morgan)
  • Embassy Row Hotel (Dupont)
  • The Observatory (Georgetown)
  • Ellipse Rooftop Bar (Downtown)
  • Driftwood Kitchen (H Street)

12. Library of Congress

This library was established in 1800 by John Adams and includes beautiful reading rooms, amazing collections, and historical books from all over the world. You can get a library card and visit the inside of the Jefferson Reading Room for yourself for free if you have the time!

13. Union Station

This historical train station is located right by the capital. It's a good stop for shopping (souvenirs or not) plus has some quick bites local to DC. It has gorgeous ceilings too!

14. Get Outside

DC has some awesome green spaces that are worth exploring. Get away from the typical and see a beautiful park and take in some views from a different angle.

  • National Arboretum (part of the National Park Service - see the original columns for the Capital here!)
  • Rock Creek Park
  • Meridian Hill Park
  • Kayak or paddle board on the Potomac
  • Theodore Roosevelt Island
  • Boat tour from Georgetown

Want to read about more ways to get out of DC? Read about my favorite day trips from DC here!

16. Have Some Fun and Drinks at a Funky Bar

Part of a vacation is having fun right? These bars offer something funky to add to your drinking experience.

  • Rocket Bar for billiards and darts
  • H Street Country Club for mini-golf and skee-ball
  • Atlas Arcade for old arcade games
  • Board Room for board games
  • Penn Social for basketball and more
  • Lucky Strike for bowling

There you have my list for the top things to do in DC on your first visit. It can be overwhelming to plan a trip to DC, but hopefully this list will help you narrow down options and think about the best ways to spend your time in DC. Where is your favorite spot in DC? Would love to hear what others love about DC too!

Fall in DC

Summer in DC

Spring in DC

  • Hickory Starr

    Why the African American Museum? For me I want to see the American Indian Museum.

  • I lived in DC for seven years, I REALLY need to take my kids back!

  • Great post. I love America and DC is one of my bucket list items, so many amazing monuments, museums and historical sites all in one place!

  • I haven’t been to DC for YEARS but this has shown me there is SO much more to it than the White House! Definitely bookmarking this as you can do it affordably!

    Char xo

    • Thank you! It is totally an affordable destination.

  • UnaVeronicaVagante

    I had no idea DC had all these interesting spots!
    Thank you for sharing!