Updated: Nov 26
If you’re visiting Washington, DC, for the first time, there are some things that you must do. But, it can be overwhelming when looking at the huge list of things to do to decide how to narrow it down. I’m a local and created this to help you decide what to do and the actual top things to do during your first time in Washington, DC!
It can be overwhelming as a first-time visitor because there is so much to see and do. If this is your first time in Washington, DC (or even second or third), then this is the list for you!
PS – one of the best things about DC is that everything is practically free! I mean it. Your first time in Washington, DC, will not be an expensive one if you follow these things to do. See my full itinerary with things to do, costs, and local gems here.
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 is below.
Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
Korean War Memorial
Thomas Jefferson Memorial (especially during the cherry blossoms!)
World War II Memorial
2. Smithsonian Museums to Spend Half a Day — free
You could spend weeks just visiting Smithsonian Museums. Here is a list of my favorites to visit when you only have half a day:
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 — perfect for photos)
National Zoo (Woodley Park)
For a full list of Smithsonian Museums, click here.
3. Smithsonian Museums to Visit For One to Two Hours — 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 a gorgeous 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, so there are many free tours put on by the National Park Service. Make sure to check this out before your visit!
7. Pay for a Museum — $15 – $25
Hear me out here: yes, tons of free things exist in DC, but this means the paid experiences 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 a lot of fun. These museums tend to be 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.
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 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, making it totally worth a visit.
Plus, if you’re going to buy a souvenir, it should be from an awesome local artist or shop! There are lots of options in both these markets. Union Market also has incredible murals that are definitely insta-worthy! Plus, they both have great cheap eats in Washington, DC, that are worth a try!
Union Market (NoMA)
Eastern Market (Capitol Hill)
10. Eat Some of the Amazingly Diverse Food — varies
Ben’s Chili Bowl (U Street and H Street locations)
Farmers Fishers Bakers (Georgetown)
Maketto (H Street)
Dukem (U Street)
11. Check Out a Rooftop Bar — varies
DC has tons and tons of rooftop bars and is known for its bar scene. The ones I 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)
Whiskey Charlie (Wharf)
12. Library of Congress-free
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 — free plus cost of food/shopping
This historic 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 — free to $50
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 paddleboard on the Potomac (you can rent by the hour or day)
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!
15. Have Some Fun and Drinks at a Funky Bar — varies
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 skeeball
Board Room for board games
Penn Social for basketball and more
Lucky Strike for bowling
There you have my list of 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? I would love to hear what others did their first time in Washington, DC.
The Willard InterContinental: This hotel is situated at 1401 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, just two blocks from the White House and within walking distance of many major attractions, including the National Mall with all the monuments and Smithsonians. It's stunning around Christmas time.
The Hay-Adams: This historic hotel is located across from the White House and provides excellent city views, including landmarks like the Washington Monument and St. John's Church. The Top of the Hay restaurant offers a rooftop setting with a great view.
Washington Hilton: This hotel is close to two of DC's most iconic neighborhoods, DuPont Circle and Adams Morgan. The Washington Hilton is a large hotel featuring an outdoor courtyard and views of the capital skyline. This Washington, D.C. hotel is just 1.6 mi from the White House. A full restaurant and bar are available.
Hotel Viceroy: Set on a tree-lined street in Logan Circle, this high-end hotel is a 15-minute walk from a metro station, 17 minute walk from The White House, and 2 miles from the National Gallery of Art.
CitizenM: This location in NoMa puts you within a 15-minute walk of the Smithsonian Institution and Union Station. Rooms at this upscale property offer up nice touches like iPads, iPod docks, and pillowtop beds with premium linens.
Hotel Hive: DC’s first micro-hotel, these low-frills accommodations are about half the size of traditional hotel rooms, but worth considering for travel on a budget. Situated between the Kennedy Center and George Washington University, the pet-friendly hotel’s rooms contain the basics: a private bathroom, Wi-Fi, a TV, and a choice between a king, queen, or bunk beds (the bigger the bed, the bigger the room).