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Top things to do in Washington DC

Only got a couple of days to get to know a new city? Our Big Five City Guides can help. We break each destination down into culture, history, dining, shopping and relaxation must-sees and dos. Barry Johnson checks in from captivating Washington DC...

Hollywood films including All the President’s Men, Lincoln, Dave and White House Down have popularised the USA’s imposing capital city.

And while Washington DC was built to govern, it has well and truly transcended politicking. The city champions and celebrates the best of all aspects of American society.

Pennsylvania Avenue — the parade route for inaugurating presidents — conveniently cuts through the city’s red tape, allowing visitors easy access to the key tourist sites. Start here to fast-track your introduction to this incredible nation.

Here’s a city guide to the top things to see and do in Washington DC.

Things to see and do in Washington DC
Things to see and do in Washington DC: United States Capitol Building


DC is a city of monuments to the leaders, heroes and periods in history that resonate deeply with all Americans.

One of the most visited is the Lincoln Memorial, honouring the giant of American Presidents. The statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln is over 6 metres high, surrounded by the enduring words of his Gettysburg Address. Lincoln stares out over the Reflecting Pool towards the obelisk commemorating George Washington — the first president of the newly united United States. It reaches almost 200 metres towards the heavens.

Things to see and do in Washington DC
Things to see and do in Washington DC: The Lincoln Memorial. Image: Adam Ford

To complete Lincoln’s chapter in history, head over to Ford’s Theatre, the site of the President’s fatal final public appearance on April 14, 1865. The theatre continues to perform works examining the political and social issues related to Lincoln’s legacy.

Things to see and do in Washington DC
Things to see and do in Washington DC: Ford’s Theatre


Begin your cultural fact-finding mission on the National Mall, where many of the nineteen Smithsonian museums and galleries are located, housing millions of priceless objects and artworks representing the past, present and future of this proud nation.

To get a close look at some famous aircraft, including the space shuttle Discovery, the jet-black SR-71 spy-plane and the Wright brothers’ flyer, climb aboard the National Air and Space Museum.

Things to see and do in Washington DC
Things to see and do in Washington DC: National Air and Space Museum. Image: Bigstock

Most of us have been educated in American culture by films and television. To find out more of the back story, visit the National Museum of American History. It’s a timeline of America’s development, with Old Glory (aka the Star Spangled Banner) proudly flying after a long restoration.

Finally, slow your pace at Arlington National Cemetery, the resting place of thousands of America’s military. The Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the eternal flame burning over the grave of John F Kennedy are humbling highlights.

Things to see and do in Washington DC
Things to see and do in Washington DC: Arlington National Cemetery. Image: Bigstock


Join the political staffers at Ted’s Bulletin on Capitol Hill for the all-day breakfast – fried eggs, sizzling bacon, hash browns, sausages, pancakes, biscuits with gravy, washed down with a peanut butter, chocolate and banana milkshake.

Lunch with Balkan diplomats at popular Ambar. Order the locals’ favourite — an open-faced sandwich with the fiery flavours of wild forest mushrooms, salami and goat’s cheese, roasted bell peppers and horseradish, extinguished with rosemary-infused fresh lemonade.

For something more traditional, treat yourself to dinner at The Capital Grille. Start with crab cakes, fresh from Boston Harbour, then tackle the chef’s special — seared tenderloin with butter poached lobster tails.

Things to see and do in Washington DC
Image courtesy of The Capital Grille

Rated DC’s top restaurant a number of times, Komi offers fabulous American/Greek cuisine, served as a set tasting menu. The menu features ten or so dishes with an emphasis on seafood. The price is $150 USD per person, but it’s well worth the investment for a special night out. Don’t miss the Greek dumplings with crab meat.

Over at the Park Hyatt, the Blue Duck Tavern is a paddock to plate-style eatery, serving up sensational modern American. The restaurant features a contemporary interior with hand-carved wood furniture and a superb wine cellar. The flavours are bold, with most dishes prepared in the wood oven. Try the braised mussels in French onion broth. It’s amazing!

Things to see and do in Washington DC
Things to see and do in Washington DC. Image courtesy of Blue Duck Tavern


To inaugurate your own presidency, White House Gifts has mock White House rooms set up for selfies. Drink your morning coffee from a presidential coffee mug, turn heads with a set of Jackie Kennedy pearls or pitch a baseball stitched with Ben Franklin’s portrait.

If your home needs a piece of vintage Americana, browse Miss Pixie’s for antique and kitsch furniture, ceramics and art, sold according to their motto, ‘stack it deep and sell it cheap’!

For the long flight home, choose from the staff picks at Politics and Prose — a book store where writers and poets deliver their finest oratory each evening.


To escape the steamy air of politics in town, make your way to the National Arboretum. Its 167 hectares are home to a wide variety of flora, including maples, magnolias, roses and a 390-year-old bonsai tree. The distinctive reds, oranges and yellows of autumn/fall are particularly striking.

Things to see and do in Washington DC
Things to see and do in Washington DC: Enjoy the colours of fall at the National Arboretum.

Nature lovers may also be interested in catching a glimpse of some of the region’s amazing birdlife, including bald eagles, woodpeckers, colourful robins and elegant herons. Birding DC offers a wonderful bird-watching tour, hosted by an expert local guide.


The Hay-Adams

DC’s best known historic hotel — The Hay-Adams — shares one of the most famous addresses in the world. It’s located directly opposite The White House. The hotel has played host to the who’s who of American politics, including President Obama the night before his inauguration. The Hay-Adams is housed in a fully-restored 1920s Italian Renaissance-style building. Decorated in traditional style, The White House View Junior Suites are a nice option, with their separate living spaces.

Things to see and do in Washington DC
Image courtesy of The Hay-Adams

The Jefferson

The Jefferson is consistently rated DC’s top luxury boutique hotel. The Deluxe Suites with their sweeping city views are one of the best value options in terms of size. Rooms feature king beds and Italian marble bathrooms.

Things to see and do in Washington DC
Image courtesy of The Jefferson

It’s the attention to detail that makes The Jefferson so special. The guest-only library has to be seen to be believed!

Do you have any tips for top things to see and do in Washington DC? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Additional images: Bigstock


Barry Johnson

About the writer

Barry Johnson is a freelance writer living in Sydney, but with a trail of Aussie souvenirs scattered throughout previous homes in Europe, America, Asia and the Middle East. Barry believes travelling is an adventure where the highlights push you on to the next trip and the lowlights can be laughed at with hindsight. Without a passport, he’d have missed getting lost in the Californian forest a week after the Blair Witch Project went viral, building a giant Buddha on a Cambodian mountain, camel racing in an Egyptian desert and teaching English to Peruvian children as they taught him Quechuan — the language of the Incas.


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