Washington, D.C. can be a sometimes-discordant mix. Part urbane world capital, part nationalistic amusement park, and part carnival of self-interested glad-handing, it still stands as an impressive reflection of American ideals. And while the biggest sights here tend to be a bit staid, there are plenty of fun things to do in Washington, D.C.
The Best Things to Do in Washington, D.C.
Below are eight of the top events and activities to experience in D.C.
Stroll the National Mall
No trip to Washington, D.C. would be complete without a visit to the National Mall, the ultimate national tribute to American sacrifice and achievement. From the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, and the World War II Memorial to the Vietnam and Korean War Veterans’ memorials, a day on the nearly two-mile-long Mall can be both sobering and inspiring. And thanks to the Smithsonian museums that ring the Mall—all of which are free—spending a couple days here is educational as well.
The newest addition to the Smithsonian museum family is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016 after decades of controversy. Since then it has gained a reputation as a deeply moving experience, with exhibits ranging from slave-trade shackles to a World War II-era biplane flown by the Tuskegee Airmen to Michael Jackson’s fedora. Tickets aren’t easy to come by (visit the museum’s website well in advance), but a limited number of same-day “walk-ups” are usually available.
Check Out the Cherry Blossoms
Washington, D.C. goes mad for the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival, which draws more visitors than any other time of year. In 1912, the mayor of Tokyo gave 3,000 cherry trees to the city of Washington, D.C. to commemorate U.S.-Japanese friendship; those trees now grace the Tidal Basin. On average, more than 1.5 million people come for the month-long celebration, which includes musical performances, a kite festival, and a parade. The crowds can be intimidating, but the blossoms are incredible. The window for “peak bloom” usually runs from late March to early April.
See a Military Parade
Among the often-overlooked things to do in Washington, D.C.? Military parades! For a first-hand glimpse of the ceremonial pomp normally accorded the president, visiting heads of state, war heroes, and the honored dead, keep an evening free for the Army’s Twilight Tattoo. Held Wednesdays from late April through early August at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, just across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia, the pageant includes the ceremonial Old Guard and its fife and drum corps, the Continental Color Guard, the Salute Guns Platoon, and the Army Drill Team.
Not to be outdone, the Marine Corps holds two weekly parades. On Tuesdays from mid-June to mid-August, the Marines hold a Sunset March at the Iwo Jima Memorial, also just across the river (although in 2018 the Sunset March will be held at the Lincoln Memorial, on the National Mall). On Fridays from early May to late August, the Corps holds an Evening Parade at the Marine Corps Barracks at 8th and I Streets in Washington.
Visit the Zoo
The National Zoo, secluded within Rock Creek Park, should be on everyone’s list of things to do in Washington, D.C. The giant pandas are the zoo’s iconic attraction, but there’s a veritable menagerie of exotic wildlife, including African lions, Sumatran tigers, cheetahs, gorillas, orangutans, wolves, sea lions, seals, sloth bears, and elephants, among many others. A rope suspension system called the O-Line allows orangutans to travel hand-over-hand between their yards, directly over visitors’ heads. There’s also a kids’ farm, “tide pool” splash pool, and solar-powered carousel.
Discover History in Rock Creek Park
The third national park established in the United States is a place of respite and calm within the city. The park covers nearly 1,800 acres and offers 32 miles of hiking trails and paths, plus a planetarium. Numerous Civil War-era fortifications built to protect Washington from Confederate attack can be found in Rock Creek Park. The most notable of those is the partially reconstructed Fort Stevens, where Abraham Lincoln was nearly shot by Confederate sharpshooters as he watched fighting on July 12, 1864. It was “the only time in American history,” the Park Service notes, “in which a sitting president came under direct fire from an enemy combatant.”
Enjoy an Arboretum
Slightly off the beaten path but worth a visit is the 446-acre U.S. National Arboretum, located just 2.5 miles from downtown. The arboretum showcases trees and plants from around the world, including The National Grove of State Trees and an Asian collection offering dramatic views from hills that slope steeply to the Anacostia River. In spring, the azalea collection on the flanks of 240-foot-high Mount Hamilton erupts in color; elsewhere, the Capitol Columns, a set of nearly two dozen Corinthian columns that originally graced the Capitol building, now stand proudly in a 20-acre meadow. The Arboretum is also home to a bonsai museum and a resident pair of bald eagles.
The National Gallery of Art was launched in 1937 with a substantial donation of money and art from financier and U.S. Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon. The original building houses works by pre-20th-century American artists and European masters such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, Monet, Van Gogh, and Da Vinci. A second wing, designed by I.M. Pei and opened in 1978, focuses on modern and contemporary art, and includes work by Picasso, Matisse, Pollock, Warhol, and Lichtenstein. From mid-November to mid-March, a skating rink is open in the museum’s Sculpture Garden.
Take in a Performance
Wondering what to do in Washington, D.C. after dark? Whether you’re into ballet, Broadway, or the Bard, one of the most popular things to do in Washington, D.C. is to catch a performance.
The best-known venue is the Kennedy Center, which hosts some 3,000 events a year including musicals, orchestra concerts, hip-hop performances, and much more. The Shakespeare Theatre Company is your spot for what it calls “classic theatre,” including not just Shakespeare’s plays but also other productions in a variety of genres. Or rock out at the legendary 9:30 Club, which has hosted touring artists like Bob Dylan, Franz Ferdinand, and the Smashing Pumpkins. For a full list of what’s on when you’re in town, check out this events calendar.
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Best of DC Including US Capitol, National Archives Reserved Access, White House and Lincoln Memorial
—Original reporting by Matt Jenkins