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Capital ideas: The Best Things To Do in Washington, D.C. 

Get the inside scoop on what to see on your trip to the nation’s capital, from the White House to Foggy Bottom. | By Paul Oswell | December 30, 2021

Washington, D.C. is known for its grand monuments and politicians that rush around the city’s corridors of power, but there’s more to this majestic capital than meets the eye. In addition to witnessing the business of running the country, you can also experience world-class art and culture, eat Michelin-starred meals and even learn how to think like a spy.

Create memories in Washington, D.C. by:

  • Taking monumental selfies: Photo ops abound here, from the White House to the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial

  • Wandering through the museums: See everything from famous paintings to Dorothy’s ruby slippers to pandas and lions at the zoo

  • Breathe in the fresh air: Enjoy nature along the banks of the Potomac River, in the National Arboretum or on Theodore Roosevelt Island

The National Mall and the monuments

Organizing your time is going to be your biggest challenge in Washington, D.C., as there are so many sites worth seeing. If you want to at least marvel at the big-ticket items, then a hop-on, hop-off bus tour is probably going to be the most efficient means of doing it. That way you can hit the Capitol, the White House, the Library of Congress, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the National Mall, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, as well as the dozens of other spots.

Museums galore

You could ask many locals for their ideal D.C. itinerary and you’d get many different answers, especially about museums. Your interests may stretch to everything from the Declaration of Independence (at the National Archives) to the pandas at the National Zoo. The National Museum of Natural History, the National Air and Space Museum and the National Portrait Gallery are all big hits with families —plus, all of the Smithsonian museums are free!

In fact, just a detailed list of the museums in D.C. would take a lengthy guide of its own, but it helps that many are located within walking distance of each other. Other museums of note are the National Museum of the American Indian, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the International Spy Museum, which appeals to both kids and adults with its interactive exhibits.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is a remarkable, inspirational and unflinching facility, while the homes of Frederick Douglass and Mary McLeod Bethune are now educational museums.

The National Gallery of Art has works from the Middle Ages through to Picasso, as well as spectacular modern installations. If contemporary works are more your bag, then the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery should figure in your plans.

The National Zoo and cherry blossoms

The city has beautiful green spaces to retreat to when you need a break from the endless parade of museums. You can feel your energy levels being restored as you wander among Dumbarton Oaks or the equally historic lawns of Mount Vernon.

The United States Botanic Garden, the National Arboretum and the National Zoo are all glorious, intentional green spaces. Note that the zoo is on a hill, so you’ll have to walk up it either at the start or the bottom, depending on where you park (or arrive by Metro). There’s a great kid-friendly petting zoo located at the bottom of the hill, and the pandas and are located near the top. If you’re lucky, you could even see the orangutangs swinging above you on the open-air O Line.

During the cherry blossom season (late March-early April), a walk along the scenic Tidal Basin, drenched in pinks and reds, is hard to beat (however, be warned that it will be extremely crowded at this time of year). Here you can also admire the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which includes a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt.

You might also want to consider exploring beyond the usual sightseeing trails. Old Town Alexandria has a charming, Colonial feel (it dates back to 1749) and Arlington National Cemetery is a quiet place of reflection. If you’re yearning to stretch your legs, head to Theodore Roosevelt Island for its nature trails; it is also a great spot for bird watchers.

Where to eat and shop in Washington, D.C.

It’s likely that many of the political deals in this town take place at one of the 20 Michelin-starred restaurants. You’ll find competition for tables, so you’ll need to book ahead for your fine-dining experience. You can taste D.C.’s global influence through its cuisine, and Asian selections are particularly strong – if you can get a table, head to Maketto or Astoria DC.

You should also sample the Middle Eastern spots in Navy Yard, the Ethiopian restaurants in Shaw and the fresh seafood in Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria. Kid-friendly restaurants can be found in every neighborhood; your kids will love the homemade pop tarts at Ted’s Bulletin (several locations around the city).

If you have time for shopping, then Georgetown is a good place to start, with both high-end boutiques and major brand stores. You can find designer names as well as national chains around Penn Quarter. In short, you don’t have to limit your souvenir hunting to museum gift stores.

You’re going to want plan ahead to make the most of your time here, so think about your priorities before you arrive. If all else fails, it’s always just a good bet to head to the National Mall and Capitol Hill. Here you’ll find the famous landmark attractions, including presidential and war memorials and most of the Smithsonian museums. Find time for off-the-Mall exploration, too, to best experience Washington, D.C.’s vibrant and global character. No matter how you spend your days or how many times you’ve visited, there’s always something new to discover in the nation’s capital.

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Paul Oswell is an award-winning travel writer, and has been reporting from all seven continents for over twenty years. He is based in New Orleans and is the author of “The Bucket List North America: 1,000 Adventures Big and Small.”

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