Discover the heart of American history and culture in Washington, DC. From iconic monuments to world-class museums, the best things to do in Washington, DC, offer an enriching journey through the past, present and future.
Washington, DC, is a city brimming with activities that cater to history buffs, art lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. Many of these enriching experiences come without an admission fee, making the capital an affordable yet invaluable destination.
Monuments and memorials in Washington, DC
The National Mall is the heart of Washington, DC. Hosting over 25 million visitors annually — more than Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon combined — many of the district’s most iconic monuments, memorials and museums are located on or near this expansive green space.
The towering obelisk honoring America’s first president is one of the most recognized structures in the United States. The Washington Monument is a must-visit, whether you’re looking up from its base or taking in panoramic views from its observation deck, which is also the highest spot in Washington, DC.
This neoclassical monument pays tribute to Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father and the third U.S. President. Situated around the Tidal Basin, the Jefferson Memorial becomes a spectacle of beauty during cherry blossom season when framed by delicate pink flowers.
This awe-inspiring monument honors Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President who led the nation through its Civil War. The 19-foot-tall seated statue of Lincoln is a symbol of unity, strength and wisdom.
“Visiting the Lincoln Memorial is a can’t-miss experience when visiting Washington, DC. Arrive early or during less crowded times to fully appreciate its solemn beauty and reflect on the remarkable history this memorial represents.”— Cindy Gordon, VisitOhioToday
World War II Memorial
Located at the east end of the Reflecting Pool, the World War II Memorial honors the 16 million people who served in the American armed forces during World War II. It’s a serene yet powerful tribute to those who fought for freedom.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial
Spread over 7.5 acres, this expansive memorial honors the 32nd President and his four terms in office. It features a series of outdoor rooms representing each of his presidential terms.
Korean War Veterans Memorial
This hauntingly beautiful memorial consists of 19 stainless steel statues representing a squad on patrol. The Korean War Veterans Memorial serves as a reminder of the human cost of war.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
This striking monument features a 30-foot statue of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr, looking defiantly across the Tidal Basin at the Jefferson Memorial. It’s a place of reflection on the ongoing struggle for racial equality.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
This black granite wall, etched with the names of over 58,000 servicemen and women, offers a somber tribute to those who perished in the Vietnam War. Loved ones often leave photos, letters and other personal objects near their veteran’s engraved name.
“The nation’s moving monuments and memorials aren’t just free to visit, but they’re even more impressive at night.”— Ninette Axelson-Dean, Eat, Bake, and Travel
World-class museums in Washington, DC
Washington, DC, is a haven for museum enthusiasts. Whether you’re into art, history or science, the city’s museums dive deeply into many subjects.
Contrary to popular belief, the Smithsonian isn’t just one museum. It’s a collection of museums, galleries, gardens and even a zoo. With 140 million objects and specimens, it’s no wonder over 30 million people visit annually. Use these helpful tips to plan your visit, including the National Museum of Natural History, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Portrait Gallery or all of the sites in the Smithsonian portfolio.
National Museum of Natural History
Home to the Hope Diamond and an impressive T-rex skeleton, the National Museum of Natural History offers a fascinating journey through the natural world. From ancient fossils to dazzling gemstones, this museum captivates visitors of all ages.
National Museum of American History
This museum is a treasure trove of American heritage, featuring iconic artifacts like the Star-Spangled Banner and the First Ladies’ Inaugural Gowns. The National Museum of American History provides an in-depth look at the events, people and inventions shaping the United States.
Located in the Woodley Park neighborhood, the National Zoo is a sanctuary for over 1,800 animals from 300 different species. And like all Smithsonian sites, there is no admission fee, making it one of the best free things to do in Washington, DC, with kids.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
This groundbreaking museum features the history, culture and contributions of African Americans. From the heartbreaking experience on the first ship that crossed the Atlantic Ocean to impressive achievements in the arts, sciences and sports, the museum provides a detailed and emotional look at Black history in America.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Located in the heart of the capital, this museum boasts one of the largest collections of American art. It offers a rich tapestry of America’s artistic heritage, from colonial portraiture to contemporary installations.
International Spy Museum
The International Spy Museum provides an immersive experience that allows visitors to assume undercover identities and learn the art of espionage. Located 5 minutes south of the Smithsonian Castle by walking, the museum features a range of interactive exhibits that uniquely blend history, pop culture and hands-on activities. The International Spy Museum is privately funded, so unlike the Smithsonian venues, there is a modest admission fee.
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More things to do in Washington, DC
In addition to the monuments, memorials, and museums mentioned above, here are several more can’t-miss things to do in Washington, DC. From solemn military cemeteries to historical estates, these additional attractions provide a broader understanding of American history and culture, making your DC trip truly unforgettable.
Arlington National Cemetery
From the giant sarcophagus containing the remains of an unknown American soldier to a sea of white marble headstones dotting the green rolling hills, Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place of presidents, Supreme Court justices, astronauts and courageous men and women from all backgrounds who helped shape American history.
Located just 16 miles south of Washington, DC, George Washington’s Mount Vernon is a must-visit destination that offers a glimpse into the life of America’s first president. The estate overlooks the scenic Potomac River and features a mansion tour that includes the first president’s bedroom and study. Visitors can also explore outbuildings, including the washhouse and slave quarters, to better understand 18th-century life and reflect on the many ways that times have changed.
Capital City conclusion
Washington, DC is more than just a political hub — it’s a living museum where every monument and museum tells a story. Whether you’re a history buff, an art lover or simply curious, the capital city offers an unforgettable journey through America’s rich tapestry.
Sage Scott was bitten by the travel bug as a preschooler when her family moved abroad for the first time. Now settled in America’s Heartland, Sage is a travel writer, world wanderer, and photographer whose favorite color is golden hour.