DC Bucket List

18 Best Things To Do in Washington DC

The nation’s capital is so rich in history that you could spend months going to new places and never get bored. In fact, Washington DC is filled with more monuments, memorials, and museums per square mile than any place on earth!

While there are lots of things (we think) you should do in DC, what about the things you must do? This list includes the most iconic options in DC. The things that we recommend everyone put on their Bucket List and do at least once in their life.

1 Explore the National Mall

The expansive stretch of land between the United States Capitol to the east and Lincoln Memorial to the west is generally considered the National Mall. The exact boundaries are debatable, so the National Mall can also refer to the general area, often considered to include the outlying greenspace and their connected points of interest.

2 Ride to the top of the Washington Monument

The Washington Monument is a 555-foot tall marble obelisk that towers over the Washington DC skyline. Built to honor the 1st President of the United States, George Washington, this is the world’s most notable monument of its kind (but not the first).

Work on the Washington Monument began on July 4th, 1848, but stalled out in 1855 when the society supporting it went bankrupt. When work resumed in 1876, stone was sourced from a different quarry, causing visual differences you can still spot today: the brown streak separating the lower one-third and upper two-thirds of the monument distinguish the difference.

The best view of the Washington Monument is from the park surrounding it, but an elevator ride to the top offers commanding panoramic views of DC’s most iconic landmarks. On the way up you can spot 193 different Commemorative Stones set into the interior staircase walls.

3 Tour the White House

Every President of the United States and his or her family have lived and worked at the White House since 1799. The site for the White House was selected by 1st President George Washington in 1791, but wouldn’t be ready for more than eight years, when 2nd President John Adams and his wife became its first residents.

The property currently includes:

  • 6 levels
  • 132 rooms
  • 35 bathrooms
  • 412 doors
  • 147 windows
  • 28 fireplaces
  • 8 staircases
  • 3 elevators.

You can request a free tour of the White House by submitting a request through your representative in Congress.

4 Visit the United States Capitol

The United States Capitol building is one of the world’s most iconic symbols of representative democracy. Not only is it a cherished national landmark, but also a working government building- this is where the United States Congress (Senate & House of Representatives) get things done for the Legislative branch of the Federal government.

The building sits on 58.8 acres of land that include beautifully accessible paths, trees, flowers, benches, and fountains as it intertwines with the National Mall.

5 Dream at the Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial was built in 1922 to honor the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. It overlooks the Potomac River to the West, with the entirety of the National Mall to its East, including the Reflecting Pool, Washington Monument, and Capitol.

Inside the marble structure, which was inspired by the architecture of Greek temples like the Parthenon in Athens, is a 30-foot statue of Lincoln, seated in contemplation. Engraved on the Memorial walls are two of Lincoln’s most famous speeches: the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. The memorial would inspire further famous speeches on its grounds, most notably Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

 

6 Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool

At the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is a gigantic, shallow, rectangular pool that dramatically reflects the beauty of the surrounding National Mall. It’s 2,030 feet long, 167 feet wide, and ranges from 1.5 to 3 feet in depth (edges to center).

Surrounded by a paved walking path that’s shaded by trees, the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial is a beautiful place to get some fresh air and snap some photos.

7 Pay respects at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The names of 58,318 Americans who lost their lives in the Vietnam War are engraved chronologically on an expansive black granite wall near the Lincoln Memorial, forming the cornerstone of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Visitors can browse an alphabetical list of names in nearby catalogs to help them locate specific engravings.

8 Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

When the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History opened in 1910 it had nearly 10 million objects, moved in with the assistance of horse-drawn carts. Today it is home to nearly 130 million artifacts and specimen that help fulfill its mission of helping us understand the natural world and our place in it.

Larger than life exhibits include 11-ton African Bush Elephant, massive skeleton of a gray whale, tropical butterfly pavilion, and humongous dinosaur fossils.

9 Walk around the Tidal Basin

The 2.1 mile walking path surrounding the Tidal Basin leads to some of Washington DC’s greatest treasures, including the Jefferson Memorial.

At a depth of 10-feet and covering 104 acres, this man-made body of water harnesses the power of the tides, sending 250 million gallons of water from the Potomac River, through the Washington Channel, and into the Anacostia River at each high tide. Sediments swept along the way maintain the depth of the Washington Channel, keeping it navigable.

Although the Tidal Basin is a popular DC destination year-round, its beauty is especially appreciated in the Spring, during the world-renowned Cherry Blossom Festival.

10 Learn important lessons at the Holocaust Museum

More than 6,000,000 European Jews were systematically murdered between 1933 and 1945 by Nazi Germany and their allies. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum tells their story, preserves their memory, and gives visitors the opportunity to reflect on what it means to be responsible citizens of a Democracy.

The main exhibit is a 3-level self-guided chronological tour through “The Holocaust” that explores the rise of Nazi Germany, the outbreak of World War II, artifacts from Concentration Camps, and first-hand stories from Auschwitz.

The Holocaust Museum in DC may not be your definition of “fun”, but it offers one of the most powerful museum experiences on earth and is absolutely worth visiting.

11 Find hope at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

Completed in 2011, the memorial of Martin Luther King Junior along the National Mall celebrates his cultural leadership in confronting racism and inequality through non-violence.

The 30-foot tall granite sculpture is engraved with a line from King’s “I Have A Dream” speech that forms the basis of is symbolism: “out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” He gave that speech at the Lincoln Memorial, steps away, on August 28, 1963.

An adjacent 450-foot long inscription wall features 14 quotes from Martin Luther King Junior.

12 Get High at the National Air and Space Museum

What started as a collection of 20 Japanese kites in 1876 grew to become the world’s largest collection of historical air and space objects, now numbering 60,000+ artifacts spread across 2 museums.

The Air & Space Museum is filled with interactive exhibits and displays, including VR flight simulators that let you in the cockpit of fighter jets to do barrel rolls!

13 Witness History at the National Archives Building

Three of the most important documents in the history of the United States are housed in the National Archives Building:

  • The Declaration of Independence
  • The United States Constitution
  • The Bill of Rights

You can see all of these important artifacts in the magnificent “Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom”, featuring humongous oil-on-canvas murals that depict the aforementioned historical events.

14 See Lincoln's Box at Ford’s Theatre

They put on fantastic shows at Ford’s Theatre, but it’s claim to fame is being the place that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14th, 1865.

It started as a church in 1833, was converted to a theater in 1861, burned down and was rebuilt in 1862, and served as a popular entertainment venue while the Civil War raged. The government purchased the building after Lincoln’s assassination and turned it into office buildings.

On January 30, 1968, Ford’s Theater was finally renovated and restored to its former glory, debuting its first performance since Lincoln’s assassination. To this day, in honor of Lincoln, the Presidential Box is never occupied.

A show, a tour, or better yet both- Ford’s Theater is worth a visit.

15 Stroll through the Jefferson Memorial

The primary author of the United States Declaration of Independence is immortalized at the Jefferson Memorial. Before he became Governor, Foreign Minister, Secretary of State, or two-term President, Thomas Jefferson wrote the bulk of the USA’s founding document at the ripe age of 33.

The memorial sits on 19.2 acres of land on the shore of the Tidal Basin and was designed to match the Classical style of Jefferson’s home. At its center is a 19-foot tall bronze statue of Jefferson holding the Declaration of Independence.

16 Find hidden gems at Washington National Cathedral

Although President George Washington and DC city planner Pierre L’Enfant originally imagined “a great church for national purposes” in 1791, it wasn’t until 1896 that the location for Washington National Cathedral was selected. It has since been the site of many historic services attended by prominent American political figures and world leaders.

The architecture is inspired by 14th Century English Gothic style with a strikingly modern American approach. Two the Cathedral’s highlights, for example, are the Darth Vader Gargoyle and a stained-glass Space window celebrating American space exploration.

17 Honor Unknown Soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery

Across 639 acres of rolling hills at Arlington National Cemetery lay the remains of 14,000+ service men and women who served in the armed forces of the United States of America. The cemetery’s most famous monument – the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – honors those who could not be identified.

Visitors should also make time to see the Welcome Center, Memorial Ampitheater, JFK Gravesite, Memorial Arboretum, and the Changing of the Guard.

It’s actually in Virginia and not DC, but makes this list due to the proximity and the gravitas: if you’re in DC, visiting Arlington National Cemetery is something you must do!

18 Enjoy nature indoors at the United States Botanic Garden

The USBG (United States Botanic Garden) is a living plant museum originally envisioned by President George Washington, established by Congress in 1820, and since 1934 has been administered by the AOC (Architect of the Capitol). It is the oldest continually operating botanic garden in the United States.

If you’re looking for even more things to do in Washington DC, check out our Ultimate List of Things To Do in DC!

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