Visiting Washington DC for the First Time? Here's What to See and Do
Washington DC, the capital of the United States, is a city teeming with history, culture, and iconic landmarks. As a first-time visitor, you'll find endless opportunities to explore and learn, from visiting majestic historical monuments to vibrant, charming neighborhoods. To make the most of your time in the city, we've compiled a list of must-see attractions and local experiences you’ll definitely want to have on your list. Here are our top recommendations for your first visit to Washington DC.
Marvel at the National Mall
Explore the heart of American history.
The National Mall is the epicenter of Washington DC’s most emblematic landmarks and monuments. Stretching from Capitol Hill to the Lincoln Memorial, this sprawling green space is home to the Washington Monument, World War II Memorial, and various Smithsonian Museums. Spend a day touring the Mall, soaking up its rich history, and snapping unforgettable photos.
Dive into history at the Smithsonian Museums
Experience world-class exhibits for free.
With 17 museums and galleries, the Smithsonian Institution offers a wealth of knowledge and culture to explore. There's something for every interest, from the National Air and Space Museum to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Best of all, admission to these cultural landmarks is free, making it easy to explore multiple museums during your visit.
Savor the flavors of Eastern Market
Taste the city's freshest produce and local cuisine.
Eastern Market is a lively destination for food lovers in the heart of the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Browse the bustling farmers market for fresh produce, sample artisanal cheeses, and indulge in the tasty fare from local food vendors. Don’t miss Market Lunch, the market’s most popular vendor, which is well-known for blueberry pancakes. On weekends, explore the outdoor flea market for unique crafts and antiques.
Unwind at the Georgetown Waterfront
Relax by the water and enjoy picturesque views.
The Georgetown Waterfront offers a serene escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Stroll along the Potomac River, dine at riverside restaurants, rent a kayak to explore the water, or experience the best of both worlds with a food and history tour of this rich neighborhood. Don't miss the chance to walk across the historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, taking in the charming scenery of Georgetown's historic district.
Pay respects at Arlington National Cemetery
Honor those who served at this hallowed ground.
Just across the Potomac River, the 693-acre (281-hectare) Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 400,000 military service members and their families. Visit the gravesites of notable figures such as Walter Reed and George C. Marshall, witness the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and absorb the poignant atmosphere that underscores the many sacrifices. The cemetery is expansive, so a trolley tour is an excellent option to cover the most ground.
Discover the vibrant U Street Corridor
Experience the city's diverse music and nightlife scene.
Once known as Black Broadway, the U Street Corridor is a thriving cultural hub filled with live music venues, hip bars, and diverse eateries. Catch a show at the historic Lincoln Theatre or Howard Theatre, and dance the night away at local nightclubs. And remember to try a famous half-smoke from Ben's Chili Bowl, a DC institution since 1958.
Uncover hidden gems in Dupont Circle.
Stroll through charming streets and unique shops.
Dupont Circle is a vibrant neighborhood with a rich history and a mix of architectural styles. Wander its tree-lined streets, marvel at the embassies housed in historic mansions, walk by the historical homes of past presidents, and explore the unique shops and galleries that line Connecticut Avenue. The neighborhood also has some of the city’s best cafes, bars, and restaurants.
Experience the Cherry Blossom Festival
Witness the city's most iconic springtime event.
Each spring, DC transforms with the arrival of thousands of cherry blossoms, a gift from Tokyo mayor in 1912. The National Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates this stunning spectacle with various events, including the Blossom Kite Festival, the Cherry Blossom Parade, and cultural performances.
Be sure to stroll around the Tidal Basin for breathtaking views of the blossoms framing the Jefferson Memorial and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Or take a bike tour to fully see the city painted in shades of pink and white.
Related: How To Experience Cherry Blossom Season in Washington DC
Explore the vibrant street art scene
Discover the city's creative side in unexpected places.
Washington DC boasts a flourishing street art scene that adds color and creativity to its urban landscape. Head to neighborhoods like Shaw, NoMa, and Adams Morgan to find larger-than-life murals and thought-provoking installations. The annual D.C. Walls Festival is another fantastic opportunity to witness artists from around the world in action as they create vibrant new works throughout the city.
Take a break at the United States Botanic Garden
Find serenity amid lush greenery and exotic plants.
Located near Capitol Hill, the United States Botanic Garden is a living museum showcasing a diverse collection of plants worldwide. Wander through the conservatory's various rooms, including a jungle, desert, and orchid house, or stroll through the outdoor gardens to enjoy a peaceful respite from the bustling city. Admission is free, making it the perfect spot for a leisurely visit.