For a city that’s so small, Washington DC has a lot going on. If you search for “things to do in Washington DC,” you’ll find probably 50 things you’d like to do the first time you visit. To help you plan your first trip to the nation’s capitol, I’ve rounded up the 10 things you absolutely must do. A few of these are more traditional tourist destinations, but don’t let that deter you. If I’ve shared something on this list, it’s because it’s worth your time.
Visit the Library of Congress
I’m putting this at the top of the list because I visited the Library of Congress by chance. I had just finished a tour of the Capitol building and saw a sign leading to the library, so I decided to “pop in really quickly.” Little did I know that I was actually walking to one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve seen in the US.
The Library of Congress is absolutely stunning. It has two grand staircases, a vaulted ceiling, and is covered in gold leaf (I don’t want to know how much it cost to build this place). There are two exhibition wings, which I highly recommend checking out. You can also peep into the main reading room (also gorgeous), and can check out Thomas Jefferson’s collection of books that he donated to the Library of Congress after the first building burned down. All in all, it’s a history lesson you don’t want to miss.
Window shop in Georgetown
Georgetown is the most well known shopping district in Washington DC. The main street is impossible to miss, and it’s lined with lots of well-known stores. The only drawback to shopping in Georgetown is that there aren’t a lot of local boutiques represented, but what the area lacks in mom and pop stores more than makes up with its array of local eateries.
See Julia Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian
The Smithsonian Museum of American History is free to visit and is packed with things to see. Your first stop should be to the basement to see Julia Child’s kitchen, exactly as it was when she lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When you visit, make sure to check out the high counters, which she had custom made because she’s so tall.
One thing to note is that the museum as a whole is catered to a more family-friendly crowd, so the exhibits aren’t as “museum-y” as you might prefer.
Pay your respects at Arlington National Cemetery
No trip to Washington DC is complete without a trip to Arlington. I’d recommend visiting it on your way to or from Mount Vernon, as they’re 14 or so miles away from each other (but on the same side of the river).
Experience live history at Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon is one the most touristy spots in DC, but it’s one of my favorites. The tour of the house itself is quite short—maybe 30 minutes in total—but the house is definitely worth seeing. I found it fascinating to see how Washington decorated his home (one room was lime green, no joke!) and to see where he lived.
The estate surrounding Mount Vernon is beautiful as well. There’s a small farm down by the river and a number of small houses where various employees lived and worked. The upper garden is lovely to walk through and smells incredible when the flowers are all in bloom. I’d set aside a good three hours to leisurely explore the estate and tour the home, to be safe.
Visit the WWII Memorial
If it’s your first time to DC, I know your first stop will likely be the National Mall. While there are many memorials worth visiting and paying your respects at, I’m most drawn to the WWII memorial. Not only is it one of the most picturesque (you can see the Washington monument through the fountains of the WWII memorial), but it’s also the time period I know the most about. Many of my literature classes in college touched on the war, so it’s a time in our nation’s history that I feel very strongly about.
Sneak a lion home from the National Zoo
TOTALLY KIDDING. But you really should visit the National Zoo! It’s free to enter, and the exhibits are fantastic. I’d recommend getting here as close to opening as possible to beat the worst of the heat and the crowds.
Eat a cupcake at Baked & Wired
I don’t recommend cupcake shops lightly, because I’m actually not a huge cupcake fan (gasp!). Store-bought cupcakes are typically too sweet for me or have too much frosting, but Baked & Wired lived up to the hype. Most people will tell you to visit Georgetown Cupcake—DON’T DO IT! Their cupcakes pale in comparison to Baked & Wired. I went for the Texas sheet cake cupcake, and it was so incredibly rich and delicious. It had just the right amount of frosting, and the cake itself was rich and chocolaty.
Tour the Capitol Building
It’s free to tour the Capitol building, but you need to schedule your visit a month or so in advance. If you follow me on Instagram, then you know I adore capitol buildings for whatever reason (Austin, TX is still my favorite one I think!). The rotunda in the US Capitol building was insane. It’s made of cast iron and weighs 9 millions tons, and it’s beautifully decorated, to boot. The tour only lasts 30ish minutes, but you’ll see the rotunda and the old Senate and House chambers.
Though I didn’t get the chance to visit Alexandria on this trip, my mom and I stayed here when I was last in Washington DC. Alexandria is a town just outside of DC, and it has a historic main street lined with boutiques and good restaurants. If Georgetown doesn’t have the mom and pop stores you’re looking for, head to Alexandria. You can take the metro here and make an afternoon of your trip.
Beyond this list of 10 activities, I highly recommend you take DC at a slow pace and enjoy yourself. There are many great places to eat here, so don’t hesitate to have a relaxing lunch or dinner and take some time to decompress.
What would be the first thing you’d do in Washington DC? I always love hearing what’s on people’s bucket lists!