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Visiting Washington DC for the First Time? Here's What To See and Do

Discover the best things to do in Washington DC with these must-see attractions and local experiences.

Joggers run through a Washington DC park in spring.
Hi, I'm Laura!

Laura Ratliff is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor with more than a decade of experience in the travel and lifestyle space, who regularly spends more than 200,000 miles on a plane each year. As a freelancer, her work has appeared in Architectural Digest, Condé Nast Traveler, GQ, Jetsetter, Bon Appétit, and more. She has also held staff positions at Architectural Digest, Bloomberg News, and Condé Nast Traveler, and was most recently the senior editorial director at TripSavvy.

Washington DC, the capital of the United States, is a city teeming with history, culture, and iconic landmarks. As a first-time visitor, you'll find endless opportunities to explore and learn, from visiting majestic historical monuments to vibrant, charming neighborhoods.

To make the most of your time in the city, we've compiled a Washington DC travel guide that covers the top landmarks, museums, and experiences you’ll definitely want to add to your must-do list. From walking around the National Mall to exploring DC’s vibrant street art scene, here are our top recommendations for what to see in Washington DC on your first trip to the capital city.

1. Marvel at the National Mall

A view of the National Mall at twilight through dramatic pillars in Washington DC.
The National Mall is at the heart of the city.Foto: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

If you're limited on time, this is *the* place to visit in Washington DC.

The National Mall is the epicenter of DC tourism—this is where you'll find many of the best Washington DC attractions, specifically the most emblematic landmarks, monuments, and museums. Stretching from Capitol Hill to the Lincoln Memorial, this sprawling green space is home to the Washington Monument, World War II Memorial, and various Smithsonian Museums. If you're looking for the absolute best thing to do in DC, by far it’s touring the Mall, soaking up its rich history, and snapping unforgettable photos.

2. Dive into history at the Smithsonian Museums

Vintage planes on show at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.
Head to the National Air and Space Museum when you're in town.Foto: Kamira / Shutterstock

These iconic Washington DC museums are free to visit.

With 17 museums and galleries, the Smithsonian Institution offers a wealth of knowledge and culture to explore. There's something for every interest: the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Gallery of Art, and the National Museum of Natural History, to name a few. Best of all, admission to these cultural landmarks are free, making it easy to explore multiple museums during your visit. If you want to take a deeper dive into a single museum, consider booking private guided tours.

3. Savor the flavors of Eastern Market

Flowers on display at the Eastern Market in Washington DC.
When you're in Capitol Hill, make time to check out the Eastern Market.Foto: Von Givens / Shutterstock

Taste the city's freshest produce and local cuisine.

Eastern Market is a lively destination for food lovers in the heart of the Capitol Hill neighborhood—indulging in a smorgasbord here might just be one of the most fun things to do in Washington DC. Browse the bustling farmers market for fresh produce, sample artisanal cheeses, and indulge in the tasty fare from local food vendors. Don’t miss Market Lunch, the market’s most popular vendor, which is well-known for blueberry pancakes. On weekends, explore the outdoor flea market for unique crafts and antiques.

4. Unwind at the Georgetown Waterfront

A bridge spanning Georgetown Waterfront in Washington DC on a still and sunny day.
Georgetown Waterfront is a beautiful escape from DC's busy streets.Foto: Andrei Medvedev / Shutterstock

Relax by the water and enjoy picturesque views.

The Georgetown Waterfront offers a serene escape from the city's hustle and bustle. Stroll along the Potomac River, dine at riverside restaurants, rent a kayak to explore the water, or experience the best of both worlds with a food and history tour of this rich neighborhood. Don't miss the chance to walk across the historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, taking in the charming scenery of Georgetown's historic district.

5. Pay respects at Arlington National Cemetery

American flags laid before graves in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC.
Trolley tours can be taken of Arlington National Cemetery.Foto: Orhan Cam / Shutterstock

Every Washington DC itinerary should include a stop to honor those who served at this hallowed ground.

Just across the Potomac River—and easily accessible via Washington DC transportation—the 693-acre (281-hectare) Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 400,000 military service members and their families. Visit the gravesites of notable figures such as Walter Reed and George C. Marshall, witness the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and absorb the poignant atmosphere that underscores the many sacrifices. The cemetery is expansive, so a trolley tour is an excellent option to help explore this solemn space.

6. Discover the vibrant U Street Corridor

Inside an opulent theater in U Street Corridor in Washington DC.
U Street Corridor is home to top theaters.Foto: Nicole Glass Photography / Shutterstock

Experience the city's diverse music and nightlife scene.

If you're ready to experience some nightlife, change things up and head to DC’s U Street Corridor where you’ll find live music and good eats. Once known as Black Broadway, the U Street Corridor is a thriving cultural hub filled with live music venues, hip bars, and diverse eateries. Catch a show at the historic Lincoln Theatre or Howard Theatre, and dance the night away at local nightclubs. And make sure to try a famous half-smoke from Ben's Chili Bowl, a DC institution since 1958.

7. Uncover hidden gems in Dupont Circle.

A fountain in a plaza in Dupont Circle in spring in Washington DC.
Dupont Circle is known for its shopping opportunities.Foto: Truba7113 / Shutterstock

Stroll through charming streets and unique shops.

Dupont Circle is a vibrant neighborhood with a rich history and a mix of architectural styles. Wander its tree-lined streets, and marvel at the embassies housed in historic mansions and homes of past presidents—we suggest strolling around with a local Washington DC tour guide who can provide noteworthy context about the beautiful architecture. Here, you’ll also find some of the city’s best cafes, bars, and restaurants, not to mention unique shops and galleries along Connecticut Avenue.

8. Experience the Cherry Blossom Festival

The Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC.
There's no better way to welcome in spring.Foto: Orhan Cam / Shutterstock

There's a reason spring is one of the best times to visit Washington DC.

Each spring, DC transforms with the arrival of thousands of cherry blossoms, a gift from the Tokyo mayor in 1912. The National Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates this stunning spectacle with various events, including the Blossom Kite Festival, the Cherry Blossom Parade, and cultural performances.

Be sure to stroll around the Tidal Basin for breathtaking views of the blossoms framing the Jefferson Memorial and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Or take a bike tour to fully see the city painted in shades of pink and white.

Related: How To Experience Cherry Blossom Season in Washington DC

9. Explore the vibrant street art scene

Colorful buildings in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington DC.
The Adams Morgan neighborhood is home to colorful streets.Foto: Andrei Medvedev / Shutterstock

After you've photographed all the Washington DC landmarks, turn your lens to the street art.

The city boasts a flourishing street art scene that adds color and creativity to its urban landscape. Neighborhoods like Shaw, NoMa, and Adams Morgan are among the best places to visit in DC for street art. Here, you'll find larger-than-life murals and thought-provoking installations.

Insider tip: The annual DC Walls Festival is another fantastic opportunity to witness artists from around the world in action as they create vibrant new works throughout the city.

10. Take a break at the United States Botanic Garden

Lush foliage in the United States Botanic Garden in Washington DC with the White House in the background.
The views from the United States Botanic Garden are pretty stellar.Foto: Rachael Martin / Shutterstock

Find serenity amid lush greenery and exotic plants.

Located near Capitol Hill, the United States Botanic Garden is a living museum showcasing a diverse collection of plants from around the world. Wander through the conservatory's various rooms, including a jungle, desert, and orchid house, or stroll through the outdoor gardens to enjoy a peaceful respite from the bustling city. Admission is free, making it the perfect spot for a leisurely visit.

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