This post covers the best things to do in DC, including top attractions, museums, points of interest, kid-friendly activities, food, things to do at night, and much more.
Why trust us? DC by Foot has been the leading walking tour company in Washington, DC for over a decade.
In addition to our best-rated walking tours, we take visitors to museums, and attractions, through security at federal buildings and more.
There is not a site (off the beaten path or on the Mall) that one of us has not been to!
Our Washington, DC Travel Tips Facebook group has over 45,000 members who rely on our advice to plan their trip to DC.
Similarly, we'll be relying on their tips and suggestions at various moments throughout this post!
Top Things to Do in DC
There is enough to fill your time in DC no matter how long you're here, so deciding the best things to do also depends on what kind of things are you looking for.
What is the number one attraction in Washington DC? Well, that depends on who you ask!
Whether you're visiting with kids, looking for things to do at night, or just want to know all the free things in DC, we have a travel guide specific to that type of travel.
- What to Do in Washington DC with Kids
- Washington DC Itinerary
- Things to Do in DC at Night
- What tour should I take in Washington DC?
- Top Things to do for First Time Visitors
- Free Things to Do in Washington DC
- Washington DC Night Tours
You can also find our suggested itineraries based on our years of experience in planning trips for families, corporate groups, schools, and more!
NOTE: We have updated this list as of November 2023 to include a number of activities you can enjoy for the holidays!
THINGS YOU CAN ONLY DO IN WASHINGTON DC
Below is our list of the top 20 attractions, landmarks, and things to do in the nation's capital.
In each listing, we add links for more in-depth looks at each choice and related items.
For more ideas on top popular attractions, check out our comparison guide on tourist discount passes, which could help you save money on entry fees.
1. Visit the National Christmas Tree
If you're visiting Washington DC in the winter, you might have the opportunity to see the Christmas tree in President's Park near the White House.
This is the main Christmas tree in Washington DC, and it's typically lit up during the first week of December.
You can visit and see the tree every night that month, and they will light it up at or around 4:30 pm each day.
NOTE: You'll also find other Christmas trees on display at several notable and historic sites in the area. For a full list of locations to visit, check our post covering Christmas in Washington DC.
TIP: You can see the National Christmas tree on our Washington DC Holiday Lights tour.
2. Go to a Christmas Market
Although there aren't a lot of holiday markets in DC, there are a few you might want to visit.
The most popular option is the Downtown DC Holiday Market, and you'll find it outside of the National Portrait Gallery.
Open from November 17th - December 23rd, 2023, visitors will find a wide array of handmade gifts for sale from 12 pm - 8 pm each day.
For even more options, make sure to visit our post covering Christmas Markets in Washington DC.
Tips From Tourists:
Even the local members of our Facebook Group agree that this is one of the best holiday markets in DC with plenty to see and do while you're there!
3. Go Ice Skating
There are usually a lot of great ice skating rinks opening up in Washington DC during the winter months.
One of the easiest rinks to find is actually at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. Since it's right on the National Mall, it should be easily accessible to most visitors.
The best thing about this ice rink is that it's usually open all winter long, from late November to early March.
Skate rentals are just $6 and the fee for skating is $12, making this a somewhat affordable activity.
If you're looking for other spots to enjoy this activity, make sure to check our full post covering ice skating in Washington DC.
4. See the Zoo Lights at Smithsonian National Zoo
Much like other zoos around the world, the Smithsonian National Zoo holds a special event during the holidays known as Zoo Lights.
This event features a variety of festive lighting displays, live music performances, holiday treats such as hot chocolate, and more.
While in years past this was a free event, it will be $6 for tickets to Zoo Lights in 2023. Thankfully, this isn't a major increase in costs, and it's still quite affordable to enjoy this activity.
You can expect Zoo Lights to run from late November to late December, with hours from 5 pm - 9 pm each night.
For more details, please read our post covering the Smithsonian Zoo Lights.
Tips From Tourists:
One of the contributors to our DC Travel Tips group on Facebook notes that parking at the National Zoo can be pretty costly, and it's recommended to use the metro instead.
5. Attend a Holiday Musical or Concert
Every year, there are usually several holiday themed musicals, concerts, or other theatrical performances being held in Washington DC.
Here are a few of the best options to consider in 2023:
You'll find even more excellent shows to see in our post covering what to do for Christmas in Washington DC.
Tips From Tourists:
Members of our Facebook Group indicate that the Nutcracker at Kennedy Center Opera House is very good, and it even has a bit of a DC spin to it!
6. See the Boat Parade of Lights
If you're looking for a fun holiday event nearby, this annual parade takes place in Alexandria every year.
As the name implies, you can expect a parade of festively-lit boats to float down the Potomac River along the Old Town Alexandria waterfront.
Starting at 5:30 pm on December 2nd, 2023, you'll have plenty of great opportunities to see these boats throughout the night.
Here are the best spots to see the boats:
- Founders Park (351 North Union Street)
- Alexandria City Marina (0 Cameron Street)
- Waterfront Park (1 King Street)
- Shipyard/Harborside Park (1 Wilkes Street)
- Ford’s Landing Park (99 Franklin Street)
For more details, check our post covering things to do for Christmas in Washington DC.
7. Tour the National Mall
This is the highlight of most visits to DC.
Make sure you read our Guide to the National Mall for the best information on the most FAQs about the National Mall:
- what to see
- which museums are on the National Mall
- where to eat
There are dozens of memorials to visit, but many of the most popular are all on or around the National Mall, including the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Wall, and the Washington Monument (just to name a few).
We cover the memorials on our National Mall walking tours.
Or if you're looking for less walking and more hop-on/hop-off style touring, check out our Bus Tour page to find the best bus tour.
Continue the trip to tour the Tidal Basin to explore the MLK, FDR, and Jefferson Memorials (and if you're in town in the spring, this is where you'll find the most famous Cherry Blossoms!)
8. Explore the Museums
There are 21 Smithsonian Museums and the National Zoo - and you're likely not going to have time to explore them all (but try if you want!)
Most Smithsonian Museums do not require tickets! Only the National Zoo, National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Air and Space Museum (Mall) require tickets.
We have guides to make the most of your visit to some of the most popular Smithsonian Museums
- National Museum of African-American History and Culture Tickets and Tours
- Guide to the National Portrait Gallery & Smithsonian American Art Museum
- Visiting the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in DC
- American History Museum in Washington DC
- Visiting the Air and Space Museum in DC | Guided Museum Tours (2024)
- How to Get Tickets to Smithsonian Museums
- Air and Space Museum Dulles
- Visiting the Smithsonian National Zoo
We offer guided tours of many of the Smithsonian Museums!
While the Smithsonian Museums may be the most popular, there are dozens of museums in DC from the National Gallery of Art (where you can find the only Leonardo da Vinci in the Americas to the International Spy Museum where you can assume a false identity as you visit.
- Planet Word Museum
- Ford’s Theatre Museum Tickets and Tours
- Best Museums in Washington DC
- National Gallery of Art | Art Museums in DC
- How to Get Tickets to the Holocaust Museum
- White House Visitor Center
- International Spy Museum Tickets and Discounts
- Top Free Museums in DC
Some of these museums are also included on various DC Discount Tourist Passes.
9. Visit Capitol Hill
The three main buildings on Capitol Hill cannot be experienced anywhere else:
We offer guided walking tours of Capitol Hill that include tickets to take a docent-led tour of the Capitol and entrance into the Library of Congress.
If we don't have a tour that fits into your schedule, tickets are available to the public! Use the links above to find out how to explore Capitol Hill on your own.
10. Walk down Embassy Row
You can only find Embassies in Washington, DC - the official representation of a foreign country.
There are over 200 embassies spread around the city, but many are concentrated on one section of the city, what we call Embassy Row.
Join our guided walking tour to learn about the people, places (and international intrigue) on our Embassy Row tour.
11. Witness the Changing of the Guard
Arlington National Cemetery is one of the most honored military cemeteries in the US.
It is the final resting place of over 400,000 and where we honor our unknown soldiers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Dozens of times each day, you can witness the Changing of the Guard ceremony.
12. Visit the National Archives
The original Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights are all on display at the National Archives.
There is even a copy of the Magna Carta. Reservations are not necessary but are recommended and free.
We've prepared a guide to help you plan your time here, including tips on how to get here, security, what you will see as well as concessions.
13. Go Inside the White House (or see it from outside!)
The home of the U.S. President is open to all. Tickets are free but extremely limited.
Read our post on how to get White House tour tickets.
We provide advice on where to apply for tickets, tips on planning your visit, such as getting through security, as well as a virtual tour to show you what you will see.
14. Visit Ford's Theater
Our 16th President loved the theater and it was at Ford's Theater where he would meet his tragic end.
Read our guide to tickets and tours of Ford’s Theatre as well as offer a preview of what’s to see in the museums.
Our popular Lincoln Assassination Tour runs nightly and some dates have tickets included!
15. Explore Historic Georgetown
The oldest neighborhood in Washington DC is older than the city itself.
This residential neighborhood is full of history, shopping, and great food. It is a unique part of the city and a great place to wander.
There is a variety of architecture, small-town charm in a big city, and Rock Creek Park for those looking for a bit of outdoors.
While Georgetown is one of the most visited neighborhoods, it is not the only place to explore:
- Neighborhood Guide to the Wharf in Washington DC
- Things to Do in Georgetown, D.C.
- Tour of Old Town Alexandria | Things to See and Do
- Embassy Row | Washington DC
- Visiting the Capital One Arena Neighborhood
- Visiting the Nationals Park Neighborhood
- Adams Morgan Neighborhood Guide
16. Tour the Pentagon
As the headquarters of the Department of Defense for the United States, you may not think the building is open to the public.
However, with advance planning and some background checks, you can take a Pentagon Tour for you and your family.
Be sure to read our guide to visiting the Pentagon, which covers how to visit the Pentagon on a guided tour, with tips on how to get here, where to park, and other nearby attractions.
17. Cheer on the "National" Teams
There is no shortage of sports teams in DC for you to root for!
You might also find that Baltimore games are just as easy to get to thanks to the MARC trains between DC and Baltimore!
- Washington Commanders
- Baltimore Ravens
The benefit of so many of our stadiums being centrally located is the number of restaurants and other attractions nearby.
18. Ride the Metro
Admittedly, this isn't an attraction or tour, but for many people, a visit to DC offers a rare chance to ride a world-class subway.
DC has a well-connected public transportation (WMATA) system and difficult-to-understand parking regulations.
For this reason, it is best to park your car for the day in a garage, at your hotel, or even at one of the suburban Metro stations and use public transportation to get around the city.
Using Public Transportation in DC:
- How to use the Washington DC Metro
- How to use the $1 Circulator Bus
- How to use Capital Bike Share
- How to use Scooters in DC
Use Hop On Hop Off Tours: You can use a Big Bus Tours ticket to get around town via their hop on hop off tours.
19. See the Cherry Blossoms
While Washington, DC is obviously not the only place you can find Cherry Blossoms, it is one of the most magical spots.
The famed pink and white trees bloom in Spring reflecting along the Potomac River and Tidal Basin providing a beautiful backdrop to the memorials.
The National Cherry Blossom Festival takes place from mid-March to Mid-April, though the trees bloom based on weather and can sometimes be before or after the festival.
We have the best guide to the Cherry Blossoms in Washington DC to help you plan your trip!
20. Take in the Art, Music, and Theatre Scene of DC
If you follow us on Instagram (@topthingstododc) you know we love the DC arts scene!
Love Art? Check out one of the many art museums:
- National Gallery of Art & Sculpture Garden
- National Portrait Gallery
- Smithsonian Art Museums: Hirshhorn, Freer & Sackler Galleries, African Art
- Kreeger Art Museum
- Phillips Art Collection
- Women in the Arts Museum
Want to check out some music?
Did you know the DC area is home to the only National Park for the Performing Arts?
Wolftrap is just outside the city of Virginia and is an amazing family-friendly venue.
Other venues to look into:
- The Anthem
- The Atlantis
- 9:30 Club
- Creative Cauldron
- FedEx Field, Capitol One Arena and Nationals Park also host some of the larger acts that come into town.
There are over 90 theatres in Washington, DC to see Broadway tours, operas, ballet, and plays:
- Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts - home to the National Symphony Orchestra, National Opera, Washington Ballet and Broadway touring shows.
- National Theatre
- Ford's Theatre (yes! You can see a show here!)
- Shakespeare Theatre Company
More Things to Do in DC...
There is so much to do in Washington DC that they cannot all fit into a top 20 list.
Click on the links below for our guides to visiting a few more of the top places to visit in DC.
- Play an Escape Game (Georgetown & Downtown DC locations!)
- Bureau of Engraving and Printing
- Washington National Cathedral
- Caisson Unit
- Tour the FBI Headquarters
- Explore Old Town Alexandria
- Mount Vernon, George Washington's Home
- United States Botanical Gardens