50 things to do in Washington, DC
The ultimate guide to things to do in Washington, DC, from DC’s best restaurants and shops to museums and sightseeing
The best Washington, DC museums
Consult our expert guide on Washington, DC museums and fill up on art and culture at any one of these fine institutions
The best Washington DC attractions
An insider’s guide to the best attractions, including iconic memorials and monuments, plus other free activities
Cool Washington, DC tours worth taking
Get to know the District via brewpub crawls, bike excursions, culinary walks and more fun Washington DC tours
DC events calendar
Check out the best Washington, DC events, festivals and concerts with our comprehensive events calendar
The best free things to do in Washington, DC
The vast collection of the National Archive & Record Administration (NARA) represents the physical record of the birth and growth of a nation in original documents, maps, photos, recordings, films and a miscellany of objects. The catalogue resonates with national iconography and historical gravitas (and pathos), and includes the Louisiana Purchase, maps of Lewis and Clark’s explorations, the Japanese World War II surrender document, the gun that shot JFK, the Watergate tapes and documents of national identity (collectively known as the Charters of Freedom). Nearby is one of the original copies of the Magna Carta. The Public Vaults, where most of the documents on permanent display are housed, has over 1,000 items on display at any one time.
National Zoological Park
The free-admission National Zoo offers a diverting escape. Particularly during the off-season, when the paths are not cluttered by pushchairs, the zoo offers a perfect (albeit hilly) stroll, away from the bustle of Connecticut Avenue. Tree-shaded paths wind through the margins past the various animals. The stars are two pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, brought on ten-year loan from China in 2001; their cub Tai Shan was returned to China in 2010. The panda habitat is part of the Asia Trail, which links the habitats of sloth bears, fishing cats, red pandas, clouded leopards, Asian small-clawed otters and a Japanese giant salamander. The zoo has built a new environment for Asian elephants as part of its effort to preserve these endangered animals. The Elephant Trails are large enough to house between eight and ten adults along with their young; they have indoor and outdoor facilities, with features such as pools and sand piles that stimulate natural elephant behaviour.
Arlington National Cemetery
It is the right of anyone killed in action in any branch of military service, or who served for 20 years, to be buried at Arlington, along with their spouse. It’s ironic, then, that the cemetery started almost as an act of Civil War vengeance: in 1861 Union forces seized the estate of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and in 1864 they began burying soldiers close enough to Arlington House to make sure that Mr. and Mrs. Lee could never take up residence again. However, time has worked its healing magic and transformed Arlington into a place of honor and memory.
United States Botanic Garden
In 1842, the Navy’s Wilkes Expedition returned from exploring Fiji and South America, showering Congress with a cornucopia of exotic flora. The present conservatory was erected in 1930 and recently modernized with state-of-the-art climate controls and a coconut-level catwalk around the central rainforest. The conservatory displays 4,000 plants, including endangered species. Themed displays feature the desert and the oasis, plant adaptations and the primeval garden. The orchid collection is a particular delight. Across Independence Avenue, Bartholdi Park displays plants thriving in Washington’s climate, ranged around an alluring fountain created by Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty. The new National Garden aims to be a showcase for "unusual, useful, and ornamental plants that grow well in the mid-Atlantic region."
Where to see art in Washington, DC
Since Leigh Conner and Jamie Smith opened their gallery in 1999, they have been showing prints, photographs, paintings and sculptures by the kind of cutting-edge artists Washingtonians usually travel to New York to see. The pair’s expansive gallery on Florida Avenue, NE, is unrivalled in DC—the massive, flexible space has played host to Leo Villareal (whose LED-based light sculpture Multiverse is in the National Gallery of Art’s collection) and video artist Federico Solmi. Strong shows by DC’s younger artists have been well received.
Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden
This spectacular, aggressively modern cylindrical building by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill enlivens the predominantly neoclassical architecture lining the Mall. The purpose of the structure, which was completed in 1974, was to house self-made Wall Street millionaire Joseph Hirshhorn’s collection of 20th-century painting and sculpture. The museum now presents art in a range of media, including works on paper, painting, installation, photography, sculpture, digital and video art.
This mansion was opened as a gallery in the 1920s by Marjorie and Duncan Phillips as a memorial to his father. The building was remodeled in the 1960s and underwent further renovation in the ’80s, when an extension increased its space by almost 20,000sq ft. In 2006, the museum unveiled its Sant Building, another expansion project that added airy galleries for modern art, an outdoor sculpture terrace and café, an art and technology laboratory and an auditorium. The museum’s signature painting, Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, enjoys pride of place in the permanent collection galleries. There, significant Van Gogh oils rub shoulders with Steiglitz prints and a solid selection of works by Picasso, Paul Klee, Bacon, Vuillard and Rothko—that is, if a traveling show hasn’t deposed them temporarily.
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
The Sackler contains some of the most important holdings of Asian art in the world. It has more flexibility than its neighbor, the Freer Gallery, whose mandate forbids the exhibition of anything from outside its collection. The Sackler, on the other hand, stages international loan exhibitions of Asian art (a recent show featured Ai Wei Wei). Connected to the Freer by an underground passageway, the Sackler was built up around a 1,000-piece Asian art gift from Dr Arthur M Sackler. Visitors enter through architects Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott’s first-floor granite pavilion (a similar pavilion, by the same firm, is at the National Museum of African Art). You then head below ground into a maze of overlapping bridges and long passageways that give the feel of an ancient temple.
National Gallery of Art
Pittsburgh investment banker and industrialist Andrew Mellon was born the son of a poor Irish immigrant but went on to serve as US Treasury secretary from 1921 to 1932. In 1941, he presented the National Gallery’s West Building as a gift to the nation. Mellon’s son, Paul, created the gallery’s East Building in 1978. Mellon junior, who had donated over 900 artworks during his lifetime, bequeathed $75 million and 100 paintings—including works by Monet, Renoir and Cézanne—on his death in 1999.
Washington, DC for kids and families
There are myriad activities in Washington, DC for kids, including parks, zoos, monuments and some of the country’s most family-friendly museums
Smithsonian museums guide
Use our ultimate guide to the DC museums on offer from the Smithsonian smorgasbord to get thoroughly institutionalized for free
Cheap date ideas in Washington, DC
From a moonlit hike to a self-guided taco tour, we’ve got the best dirt-cheap date ideas for cash-strapped city dwellers