Don't be fooled: the best Washington, DC things to do go beyond the political. Sure, you should take a selfie in front of the White House and browse through the vast collection detailing the birth of America at the National Archives but don't forget to set some time aside to indulge in authentically American cuisine at the best restuarants in town, taste some pretty awesome (and creative!) concoctions at local cocktail bars and visit the National Zoological Park, which is a free zoo that's open all year round.
If museums are your thing, you're in for a treat: the capital is home to oh-so-many of them that you might have to set aside an entire week to explore them all. From the gargantuan National Gallery of Art (check out Vincent van Gogh's self-portrait) to the National Air & Space Museum (space stations! Missiles! Aircrafts!), cultural revelry is part-and-parcel of the DC experience so dive right into it.
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Best Washington, DC things to do
What is it? Where else but in DC's Air & Space Museum can you see missiles, aircraft and space stations, all without stepping outside the city limits?
Why go? In the museum's central Milestones of Flight hall, towering US Pershing-II and Soviet SS-20 nuclear missiles stand next to the popular moon rock station, where visitors can touch a lunar sample acquired on the 1972 Apollo 17 mission. Permanent exhibitions in the museum detail the history of jet aviation, space travel and satellite communications. For a closer look (and to improve your knowledge of the universe) head to the public observatory for inspiring views of the sky. If the weather isn't permitting you to star-study, make a beeline for the Albert Einstein planetarium instead, where you'll be launched into a journey through space regardless of the outside elements.
What is it? There's so much to see at this museum—featuring everything from 274 stuffed animals to a sparkling gem and mineral collection—that it can seem a bit daunting.
Why go? Adults will want to spend time in the Kenneth E Behring Hall of Mammals and explore the David H Koch Hall of Human Origins for an in-depth look at human evolution. The museum is also a real magnet for children—especially the Insect Zoo, where little hands can pet tarantulas and other live arthropods. Fancy a closer look at creatures of the fluttering variety? The butterfly pavilion (aka a tropical oasis) is home to several species of the winged wonders. You can also enjoy talks about the integral relationship that butterflies and plants share, named "Partners in Evolution".
What is it? Rock Creek Park is DC's favorite place for biking, skating, running and even horseback riding. Created by an act of Congress in 1890 to be used as a recreational resource, this lush landscape is a beckoning oasis that extends for over 1,800 acres.
Why go? With 32 miles of trails, plus paved roads for biking, you can easily spend an entire day stretching your legs in the park. While you're there, you can also explore the old mill and the site of the Civil War battle at Fort Stevens. You can also check out the highly entertaining Creature Feature program (4pm on Fridays), which takes a close look at the park’s wildlife.
What is it? Once a tiny, art-scene dive renowned for its heat (and smell), the 9:30 club now boasts state-of-the-art sound (and ventilation).
Why go? The club features an eclectic mix of artists—upcoming shows range from Chromeo to The xx—and a few long-lived (or reunited) punk and post-punk bands have played here, among them Wire, the Feelies and Mission of Burma. Make sure to arrive early and scope out the best vantage point to ensure a good view. All that headbanging giving you hunger pangs? No worries - whip out your wallet and buy some of the tasty tidbits on offer, from salads and pizzas to burgers and cupcakes.
What is it? The vast collection represents the physical record of the birth and growth of a nation in original documents, maps, photos, recordings, films and a miscellany of artifacts.
Why go? This is your one and only chance to see some of the country's most prized artifacts, including maps of Lewis and Clark’s explorations, the gun that shot JFK and the Charters of Freedom (the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence). Just search the catalogue and you'll be exploring thousands of years of history in no time.
What is it? Local chef Aaron Silverman’s two-story Barrack’s Row joint is worth every little bit of the buzz.
Why go? As the neon sign hung downstairs near the kitchen says, dining here really is "awesome." Rose’s menu is Southern-meets-Jewish-meets-Japanese-meets-French-meets-Thai-meets-your grandmother’s home cooking – which really means that it's fun, eclectic and constantly changing. Looking to treat your tastebuds? Easy. Sink your fork into delicious pasta parcels of sweet corn, rock shrimp and scallion and then finish off with mini chocolate cake with blue cheese, cherries and almonds. A word to the wise: Rose’s doesn’t take reservations and a line forms at 4pm on weekends for a 5:30pm seating.
What is it? A line of stands filled with copies of today’s front pages from newspapers around the world draws passers-by to this museum dedicated to journalism and free speech.
Why go? Make sure you catch the museum's stunning highlights, including eight graffitied sections of the Berlin Wall, the upper section of the antenna mast from the World Trade Center’s North Tower, the Pulitzer Prize photographs gallery and the Unabomber (Theodore Kaczynski)'s cabin. The News History exhibition, built around the museum’s collection of over 30,000 newspapers, traces 500 years of news. There's also a huge tribute to 2,323 journalists that have died whilst covering crucial news stories, and you can access information about each and every one of them.
What is it? This hopping French restaurant cost over $6 million to build, and it shows.
Why go? Le Diplomate both looks and feels like you’re in Europe: The floors have the perfect squeak, the bread baskets overflow and the burger comes with a miniature French flag staked on top. If you want to be the envy of all your dinner mates (and you’ve got money to burn), order a signature seafood tower which comes filled to the brim with glistening crustaceans of all sorts. All in all, it's a homage to arguably one of the best cuisines in the world. Bon appetit.
What is it? A brutal beauty on Indepndence Avenue, boasting a wealth of modern art.
Why go? This spectacular cylindrical building by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill was completed in 1974 to house self-made Wall Street millionaire Joseph Hirshhorn’s collection of 20th-century painting and sculpture. Today it still aoperates as such, but it's open to all and new pieces continue to be added. There is an impressive selection of Giacometti pieces to see, as well as a pair of Willem de Kooning’s rare 'door paintings'. A particular highlight is Yoko Ono's 'A Wish Tree for Washington, D.C.', the branches of which you're encouraged to whisper your secrets and desires to.
What is it? Although it's been a bustling commercial district for centuries, today this area is one of the most popular places in the city to go out for a drink or a bite to eat.
Why go? Also known as Barracks Row for its proximity to the Marine Barracks, Eighth Street SE in the Eastern Market neighborhood boasts plenty of restaurants. Winners include nostalgic diner Ted's Bulletin, pizza joint Matchbox and Mediterranean restaurant/wine bar Cava Mezze.
What is it? A free zoo that's open all year round.
Why go? Affordable outings that are fun for all the family don't get much better than Washington, D.C. National Zoological Park. Of course, that does mean that it's often packed with crowds and stroller, but if you go off-season you can take in almost all the exhibits in one visit. These include 1,500 animals, ranging from rare pandas to giant salamanders via elephant trails and lounging lions.
What is it? Now is a better time than ever to visit the National Gallery of Art, the gargantuan museum located smack-dab on the National Mall.
Why go? Following an extensive renovation to the East Building, the museum showcases an impressive collection of modern art, including Katharina Fritsch’s playful Hahn/Cock—a gigantic royal blue rooster perched on the roof. There are countless other notable works of art, including a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh from 1889. The gallery is also home to various special installations, some permanent, some touring.
What is it? The annual National Cherry Blossom Festival, which was first celebrated in 1935, celebrates the change of seasons and the beauty of the cherry blossoms (not to mention Japanese-American friendship).
Why go? Nothing says spring in DC like the appearance of the cherry blossoms along the Potomac. The trees, which were planted in 1912 as a gift from the people of Japan to those of the United States, are virtually venerated by DC visitors and residents alike as a symbol of spring’s imminent arrival. You can also enjoy cherry blossom tours – some of which give you a beautiful view of the blossoms from the relaxing luxury of a cruiseship.
What is it? Head to Columbia Heights to find this 12-acre park positioned due north of the White House along the longitudinal meridian of D.C.
Why go? The Park is filled with sculptures and memorials, including statues of Joan of Arc, Dante and James Buchanan, the 15th US President. Pack a picnic and hang out in front of the Cascading Waterfall in the formal garden, or visit the upper mall area, where concerts and events are often staged.
What is it? This woman-owned and -run restaurant off 14th Street is known for its worldly dishes, including khachapuri.
Why go? Though you might not be able to pronounce it, you’ll be glad you tried this Georgian (the country) delicacy made from bread, melted cheese, butter and a raw egg. Inspired by her travels, owner Rose Previte cherry picked her favorite meals abroad and serves them in one place. Sunday brunch promises shakshuka, a can’t-miss dish made from tomato sauce, onions, egg and cheese.
What is it? Busboys & Poets is more than just a place to get lunch or have a coffee—it's a gathering place for the community.
Why go? Owner Anas "Andy" Shallal, an Iraqi-American artist, activist, and restaurateur, opened the flagship venue in 2005 and it swiftly became a hub for DC progressives, including many anti-Iraq War activists. Today, Busboys & Poets has expanded to six locations, all of which host events such as open mic nights and exhibit art by local, national and international artists.
What is it? Taking part in Perry's legendary Sunday Drag Brunch, which runs from 10am to 3pm, is a surefire way to spice up your weekend brunch routine.
Why go? Brunch can be so blah sometimes. Unless, of course, you're brunching at Perry's, in which case there won't be a dull moment. The brunch ($25.95 for food and entertainment; drinks separate) is buffet-style, and includes a drag variety show. Be prepared to tip the ladies—they don't work for free.
What is it?
One of DC's quirkiest luxury boutique hotels, the Mansion on O Street stands out for its eccentric decor and interior layout, which includes 32 secret doors.
Why go? The Mansion has a storied history, including a period during the 1930s in which it was used as rooming houses for FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's G-men. Today, the Mansion is open to the public for tours, dining and shopping.
What is it? Set in the heart of the H St. Corridor, this is one of the few trendy restaurants that actually delivers good grub.
Why go? You get a cool scene, sure, but you also get really good food. The menu is simple, focused on Taiwanese-style ramen, dumplings and sides (including kimchi and Taiwanese cold tofu). Given the popularity of this place, there are usually very long waits, but you can make a reservation if you're willing to come before 6pm on a weekday.
What is it? The community-focused art center provides gallery walls and workspace for artists with disabilities to create.
Why go? Though it’s a bit off the beaten track (read: not on the National Mall), Art Enables is worth a visit. Works are available for purchase, with a lion’s share of the profit going directly to the artist. Art ranges from quirky (there’s one artist in resident who focuses on painting people’s shoes) to the abstract. They also offer commissions.
What is it? This annual springtime celebration opens more than 70 embassies’ doors to visitors.
Why go? If you've ever strolled down Embassy Row, you've probably wondered what it's like inside those grand mansions lining Massachusetts Avenue. What are the embassies hiding? State secrets? International intrigue? Nice chandeliers? During Passport DC, you can find out for yourself. Expect everything from cultural demonstrations to food tastings to music and dance performances. Best of all, it's free!
What is it? A giant Falls Church, VA strip mall that includes more than 125 Vietnamese shops and restaurants, Eden Center is the area's version of Little Saigon.
Why go? Eden Center is a must-stop for those who can't live without pho or bun cha. The chaotic parking lot, which is legendary among patrons both for the hassle and for its enchanting aroma of barbequed pork, is an essential part of the experience. Some of the best restaurants include Huong Viet, Thanh Truc and Hai Duong.
What is it? 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.
Why go? Time has worked its healing magic and transformed Arlington into a place of honor and memory. There's much to see here, so start by paying your respects to the imposing marble amphitheater at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The changing of the guard on the hour remains moving in its reverent precision.
What is it? Union Market is an upscale food- and drink-focused "artisanal marketplace," with shops that sell both local and imported goods.
Why go? Unlike your typical farmer's market, Union Market is open every day except Monday, so if you have a midweek hankering for locally made cheese or extra virgin olive oil, you can come here to satisfy your urge. The space houses more than 30 artisans peddling everything from acai bowls to Korean tacos; you'll also find coffee, home goods, flowers and spices.
What is it? Tucked away in Northeast DC by Union Market, the distillery slash bar is serving some of DC’s most inventive drinks.
Why go? You can thank Reed Walker and Jordan Cotton for the tasty cocktails at Cotton & Reed, the city’s first rum distillery. Join them on the weekend for a 30-minute tour of the operation, which includes a rum tasting. Don't miss the cocktails, either: The White Lion, made with allspice dram, white rum and lime is a standout.
What is it? Key Bridge Boathouse in Georgetown is D.C.'s gateway to all things involving water, oars and paddles.
Why go? Key Bridge Boathouse offers canoe, kayak and standup paddleboard (SUP) rentals and classes ($15–$25 per hour), as well as twilight tours of the Potomac via kayak. On the tour, you'll pass various DC landmarks, including Teddy Roosevelt Island, the Watergate Hotel, the Lincoln Memorial and the Kennedy Center.
What is it? Dinner, drinks and live entertainment from the comfort of your theater seat.
Why go? This imposing '30s Art Deco building is home to one of the quirkiest cinemas you're ever likely to attend. Within the theater are tables and plump, comfy armchairs – from here you can enjoy table service, as well as a movie or live comedy show. The menu comprises convenient finger foods like wraps, burgers, nachos and doughnut holes, while the drinks menu features a satisfying range of cocktails, draft beers and non-alcoholic options. Don't turn up expecting to catch the latest flicks, however, as this is a second-run cinema (with ticket prices to match, including bargain $6.50 admissions on Mondays).
What is it? This swinging tiki bar in DC’s bumping U Street neighborhood serves delicious drinks with cheeky names.
Why go? With names like "This Is the Best Drink Here!" and Misunderstood Vitamin Swizzle, Archipelago's whimsical tiki drinks are hard to choose between. The food is just as festive—think kung pao wings and crab rangoon dip. If it’s not too busy, ask your bartender for the key to the Tom Selleck shrine (yes, really) which sits behind closed doors on your way to the bathroom.
What is it? A day spent on the water in Maryland's charming capital, followed by an epic crab feast, is practically a D.C. rite of passage.
Why go? You haven't really lived in the DC area if you haven't gone sailing in Annapolis. Opt for a two-hour cruise in the Chesapeake Bay from local companies like Schooner Woodwind and Classic Sail Charters. Make sure you leave time before or after your sail to wander around the picturesque home of the US Naval Academy and St. John's College.
What is it? Located at the highest point in Georgetown, this offshoot of Harvard University is more than just a library.
Why go? Dumbarton Oaks also has lovely historic gardens, an art museum and a music room, which is the site of frequent lectures and concerts. The Research Library focuses on Byzantine, Pre-Columbian and Garden & Landscape Studies, and includes a rare book collection. Strolling among the many enclosed gardens, paths and terraces would make for an enchanting afternoon.
What is it? This bar from the owners of the now-closed Kangaroo Boxing Club, Josh Saltzman and Chris Powers, celebrates their respective hometowns, Chicago and Detroit.
Why go? Ivy & Coney is the best place in D.C. to get Chicago-style hot dogs and Detroit-style coneys (hot dogs covered in chili, mustard and onions), as well as peanuts and crackerjacks. Don't expect to get upscale cocktails here: the bar only has a few bottles, and nothing too schmancy.
What is it? Technically a research division of the Agriculture Department, this 446-acre haven always has many more trees than people, even on its busiest days during the spring azalea season.
Why go? Highlights include a boxwood collection, dwarf conifers, an Asian collection, a herb garden and “herbarium” of dried plants, as well as the National Bonsai Collection, which contains more than 300 trees. Also on display, somewhat incongruously, are 22 columns removed from the Capitol’s East Front during its 1958 expansion.
What is it? Even though it spans 20 acres, this nature conservancy, situated between Cleveland Park and Woodley Park remains a hidden wonder in the heart of D.C.
Why go? The non-profit Tregaron Conservancy owns and protects the site of a century-old, neo-Georgian estate formerly known as The Causeway (and now as Tregaron Estate) and its surroundings. Visitors can roam the grounds of the conservancy for no charge, seven days a week (but donations are welcome).
What is it? This incredibly sought-after establishment offers something for everyone: a chill downstairs bar, an upstairs dance party and some of the best trivia in the District.
Why go? Hardcore trivia nerds head to The Wonderland Ballroom's Monday trivia night for its mix of joviality and seriousness. There's no entry fee or charge to play, but trivia-goers are expected to buy a beer or a snack at the bar. Fellow teams take turns hosting and writing the questions, which are often hard and always quirky. Need something to munch on while you're quizzing? There's a whole load of edibles on offer from bar snacks to full meals, including a super sumptuous veggie burger.
What is it? This club housed in the restored former mansion of President Teddy Roosevelt remains the city’s most exclusive lounge.
Why go? Eighteenth Street Lounge's fireplaces, lamps and chandeliers make you feel as if you've wandered into the home of a wealthy hipster with an eclectic taste in music. Should your attire please the notoriously fickle bouncers and you’re granted entrance through the unmarked wooden door, you’ll find beautiful people mingling and dancing to live jazz or downtempo electronic music spun by the city’s best DJs.
What is it? With at least 50 wines available by the glass and 150 bottles, every palate is sure to be satisfied at Cork.
Why go? It's hard to beat Cork Wine Bar's cozy, romantic atmosphere, and even harder to beat the voluminous wine selection. Try a wine flight or a wine and food pairing, in which Cork matches some of its small plates with various selections of wine. The venue's food menu is solid: try the charcuterie board, cheese plate and avocado on grilled bread.
What is it? Relax with a picnic lunch or just take in the green surrounds at this Kahlil Gibran Memorial.
Why go? Designed by Gordon Kray and erected at 3100 Massachusetts Avenue in 1983, this bronze sculpture honours the late Lebanese American poet Kahlil Gibran. Lines from his work are also engraved around the piece.
What is it? Pizzeria (and Birreria) Paradiso has found a way to combine the best of both worlds at its four locations.
Why go? Head to the friendly Georgetown outpost of this pizza chain to experience the full Paradiso experience. Upstairs, in the homey, cheerful restaurant, you can chow down on fresh, hearty pizza (plus antipasti and salads) complemented by a beer menu spanning an impressive 20 on tap and some 168 more in bottles and cans. Phew. Once you've had your fill of pizza and booze, make a beeline for the games room where you can try your hand at everything from pinball to shuffleboard and classic arcade video games. Nostalgia, incoming.
What is it? The Company's mission focuses on promoting edgy, challenging plays in order to engage the D.C. community.
Why go? Your coolest, artsiest friends have probably been to the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company a bunch of times since its founding in 1980, but it's not too late to jump on the bandwagon. The small size of the theater allows every theatergoer to get a clear, unobstructed view of the stage, leading to an intimate, enhtralling communal experience.
What is it? This D.C. institution since 1922 has a shabby-chic vibe and great grub.
Why go? There's never a bad time to drop in at The Tabard Inn, whether you feel like having a meal or just sipping a drink. Patrons can relax on Victorian sofas in front of a log fireplace that might have come straight from the pages of Wuthering Heights. The sunny, charming restaurant is ever popular, so be sure to make a reservation before showing up for a meal.
What is it? Marvin turned a former fast-food shop into one of the U Street Corridor's coolest hangouts.
Why go? The bistro is named after D.C. native son Marvin Gaye and the food, which combines soul food staples such as shrimp and grits with Belgian classics like mussels, is a nod to his life-changing sojourn to Belgium. After dining downstairs, head upstairs to listen to DJs spin in the lounge, or congregate with the scenesters on the spacious back deck.
What is it? Housed in a very cool old building is this very authentic Russian restaurant and bar.
Why go? Once a private restaurant and lounge, Russia House retains something of the mystery of the Kremlin, despite the fact that any Tom, Dick or Vladimir can now down vodka here. The walls are covered in bordello-red silk and serious Russian oil paintings, with cushy sofas and low coffee tables adding to the room’s intimacy. A selection of more than 160 vodkas—a mix of Russian favorites, East European brands and American blends—further aids foreign affairs.
What is it? Cantler's Riverside Inn in Annapolis is one of the best-loved crab establishments in the area.
Why go? After a day on the water in Annapolis, it's de rigueur upon disembarking to head straight to a crab feast. For the uninitiated, eating Maryland crabs involves putting on a bib, sitting down at a table covered with brown paper, picking up a mallet, and going to town on fresh steamed crabs covered in Old Bay spice mix, which are dumped on the table in front of you.
What is it? This 24-hour Korean barbeque joint is the stuff of local legend.
Why go? Your taste buds will be treated to pure KBBQ magic at Honey Pig. Sit down at your table, which includes a built-in grill, groove to the K-Pop playing on the TVs overhead, and wait for the food to appear. Popular delicacies include the spicy pork belly, bulgogi (thinly sliced marinated beef) and seafood pancake.
What is it? For delicious ramen in a non-pretentious setting, head to Adams Morgan's Sakuramen, a favorite among DC noodle fans.
Why go? The surroundings aren't flashy and there's no booze on the menu, but this place delivers some of the best ramen in D.C., and quickly. The owners of Sakuramen take a broad and inclusive approach to their dishes, blending flavors from Japan, Hong Kong and America's east and west coasts. Our advice? Try ordering the Tonkotsu Red (pork broth with pork belly) or the meaty Shoki Bowl.
What is it? An unassuming Thai restaurant in a house on 9th Street NW.
Why go? What started out as a humble takeaway in the owner’s home on Florida Avenue, has since grown into one of the hardest reservations to snag. That might have something to do with their BYOB policy at Thai X-ing's (that's Thai 'crossing' in case you were wondering) new location in Shaw. It’s a dream for indecisive diners, as chef Taw Vigsittaboot serves a rotating tasting menu based on the freshest ingredients available—but always expect (and order!) the signature pumpkin curry.
What is it? When stressed-out D.C. folks need to unplug, they had to this Korean Spa in Annandale.
Why go? You'll be doing your relaxation in the nude, but you would be surprised by how quickly you become comfortable in your birthday suit. (And don't fret—Sun's Day Spa is gender-segregated). Start off with a relaxing soak or sauna session, then indulge in some of the spa's excellent full body treatments. The scrubs are legendary for removing every last bit of dead skin from your body.
What is it? This scenic area is renowned for starting the American Quarter Horse breed and hosting the oldest horse show in the country.
Why go? Though Virginia's horse country is only 50 miles south of D.C., it might as well be on another planet. You can take a drive through the peaceful green foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, stop at a vineyard or two to taste wine or go riding on one of many public access horse trails.
What is it? H Street Country Club is at once a Mexican restaurant, bar, arcade of sorts and indoor mini-golf course.
Why go? You have to take in this scene. Make a night of it and eat dinner at the restaurant first (try the brisket enchiladas), then take your margaritas into the bar for arcade favorites like shuffleboard, skeeball and Big Buck Hunter. You'll want to play a round on the D.C.-centric indoor miniature golf course, too ($9).
What is it? This coffeehouse is widely regarded by District java lovers as one of the best in the city.
Why go? Espresso enthusiasts and drip devotees alike agree that you can't beat the cup of joe at Chinatown Coffee Co. First, choose your bean; then select your method of brewing: Chemex, pour over, French press or siphon. If you're hungry, there's a good selection of pastries and toast to complement your brew. Don't expect frothy frappuccinos here: This place is all about the beans.