Top Things to Do Your First Time in Washington, DC

If you’re visiting Washington, DC, for the first time, there are some things that you must do. But it can be overwhelming to decide how to narrow down the huge list of things to do. I’m a local and created this to help you decide what to do and the actual top things to do during your first time in Washington, DC!

It can be overwhelming as a first-time visitor because there is so much to see and do. If this is your first time in Washington, DC (or even second or third), then this is the list for you!

PS – one of the best things about DC is that everything is practically free! I mean it. Your first time in Washington, DC, will not be an expensive one if you follow these things to do. See my full itinerary with things to do, costs, and local gems here.

Table of Contents

Tips for Visiting DC for the First Time

  1. Wear Comfortable Shoes: DC, especially the National Mall, is a lot bigger than you think! The Mall alone is one mile long and the museums are huge! You’re going to walk a lot and wearing nice, comfortable shoes will make your life much easier.
  2. Take Public Transit: The easiest, most efficient, and affordable way to get around DC is by taking public transit. Parking in popular areas can be really challenging, especially if you are visiting during peak season. 
  3. The National Mall: There is no shopping here. This is not a shopping mall, and while it might sound silly if you know about DC, I’ve been asked where the shops are by tourists while on the National Mall, so calling it out!
  4. Escalator etiquette: Stand on the right and let people pass you on the left. This may sound silly, but the easiest way to annoy a DC local is to take up the whole escalator.
  5. Avoid Common Scams: Like visiting a lot of other major cities, there are people who will try to run common scams. A few to call out are things like, free hats or free stickers, but as soon as they hand it to you, they’ll ask you to pay. Just say no and keep walking. The other is signing petitions. While not always a scam, they most likely will be selling your information after you sign and add your email. They may also not be honest about what you are signing for.
  6.  Free vs. Paid Museums: All Smithsonian are free, but there are many other free museums in DC as well. There are also some museums that charge entry that are well worth it. Don’t write them off just because you have to pay to visit!
  7.  DC is Pricey: As someone who lives here, I’m not going to lie, it can get expensive fast. Make a budget and plan ahead if you want to make sure you’re not overspending cause it’s easy to overdo it.

Things to Do in DC on Your First Trip

In front of the World War II Memorial and Lincoln Memorial
 

1. Monument Hopping — free

All of the monuments are located on the National Mall (not an actual mall, people — it’s actually a national park). It will probably take about half a day to walk to all of them. A list of my favorites is below.

  • Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool
  • Washington Monument
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
  • Korean War Memorial
  • Thomas Jefferson Memorial (especially during the cherry blossoms!)
  • World War II Memorial
While free, a tour is an excellent way to see the monuments and get to know DC better. This tour is an excellent option and includes Washington Monument tickets and the best view of DC!

2. Smithsonian Museums to Spend Half a Day  — free

 

3. Smithsonian Museums to Visit For One to Two Hours — free 

4. US Capitol — free

First St SE, Washington, DC 20004

You can arrange a free tour online or in person in the Capitol, but space is limited. You can also see a live senate vote by reaching out to your senator for tickets. The lines for this can often be long and tickets sell out in the high season.

I’d recommend just buying in advance on their website  or taking a tour that includes tickets to the Capitol for a stress free visit!

5. White House – free

1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20500

This one requires some planning that I finally did over Christmas last year! You write to your senator or congressman/woman/person, and they arrange the tickets for you. If you know someone who works in the government in DC, they will often have access to special events and tours as well. No time to do that? You can walk past it right off the National Mall and see both the front and back.

There’s also a visitors center and gift shop across the street that you can visit without a ticket. Check out their website for more.

view from the Kennedy Center
 

6. Kennedy Center and Georgetown — free to $100

2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566

I LOVE the Kennedy Center. It has a gorgeous view, and there is a free show there every single night of the year at the Millenial Stage. Want to splurge? You can check out the latest big-name show happening there (you’ll most likely pay about $100 for a ticket).

Georgetown is close by and a great spot to see historic homes and experience the old feel of DC. It’s a famous neighborhood, so there are many free tours put on by the National Park Service. Make sure to check this out before your visit!

Click here for their upcoming free shows! Click here for current shows on the main stages.

9. Visit a Market and Hang with Locals — cost of food/souvenirs

DC is a foodie city and known for its innovation in food. One of the best ways to see the latest DC eateries is to visit a market! Union Market is very trendy and full of pop-ups; Eastern Market is more old-style DC, with farmers and local artists showcasing their best work. Eastern Market also has a large flea market on weekends, making it totally worth a visit.

Plus, if you’re going to buy a souvenir, it should be from an awesome local artist or shop! There are lots of options in both these markets. Union Market also has incredible murals that are definitely insta-worthy! Plus, they both have great cheap eats in Washington, DC, that are worth a try!

I’ve got a whole list of my favorite restaurants I always bring friends to when they visit, but some diverse and delicious options are listed below! Plus, here are some cheap eats in DC as well.

  • Ben’s Chili Bowl (U Street and H Street locations)
  • Farmers Fishers Bakers (Georgetown)
  • Maketto (H Street)
  • Daikaya (Chinatown)
  • Dukem (U Street)
 

11. Check Out a Rooftop Bar — varies

DC has tons and tons of rooftop bars and is known for its bar scene. The ones I listed below offer my favorite views.

  • Jack Rose (Adams Morgan)
  • Whiskey Charlie (Wharf)
  • El Techo (U Street)
  • Vue (Downtown)
  • Smoke and Mirrors (Navy Yard)
  • Hi-Lawn (Union Market)
  • Upstairs at the Morrow (NoMA)

12. Library of Congress – free

101 Independence Ave SE, Washington, DC 20540

This library was established in 1800 by John Adams and includes beautiful reading rooms, amazing collections, and historical books from all over the world. They have different exhibits throughout the year, but the highlight is the Jefferson Reading Room. 

Timed entry tickets are required to visit and you can reserve your spot here.

 

13. Union Station — free plus cost of food/shopping

50 Massachusetts Ave. NE Washington, DC 20002

This historic train station is located right by the capital. It’s a good stop for shopping (souvenirs or not), plus it has some quick bites local to DC. It has gorgeous ceilings, too!

 

15. Have Some Fun and Drinks at a Funky Bar — varies

Part of a vacation is having fun, right? These bars offer something funky to add to your drinking experience.

  • Rocket Bar for billiards and darts
  • H Street Country Club for mini-golf and skeeball
  • Penn Social for basketball and more
  • Lucky Strike for bowling

There, you have my list of the top things to do in DC on your first visit. It can be overwhelming to plan a trip to DC, but hopefully, this list will help you narrow down options and think about the best ways to spend your time in DC. Where is your favorite spot in DC? I would love to hear what others did their first time in Washington, DC.

Where to Stay on Your First Trip to Washington, DC

Luxury

  • The Willard InterContinental: This hotel is situated at 1401 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, just two blocks from the White House and within walking distance of many major attractions, including the National Mall with all the monuments and Smithsonians. It’s stunning around Christmas time.
  • The Hay-Adams: This historic hotel is located across from the White House and provides excellent city views, including landmarks like the Washington Monument and St. John’s Church. The Top of the Hay restaurant offers a rooftop setting with a great view.

Mid-Range

  • Washington Hilton: This hotel is close to two of DC’s most iconic neighborhoods, DuPont Circle and Adams Morgan. The Washington Hilton is a large hotel featuring an outdoor courtyard and views of the capital skyline. This Washington, D.C. hotel is just 1.6 mi from the White House. A full restaurant and bar are available.
  • Hotel Viceroy: Set on a tree-lined street in Logan Circle, this high-end hotel is a 15-minute walk from a metro station, 17 minute walk from The White House, and 2 miles from the National Gallery of Art.

Budget

  • CitizenM: This location in NoMa puts you within a 15-minute walk of the Smithsonian Institution and Union Station. Rooms at this upscale property offer up nice touches like iPads, iPod docks, and pillowtop beds with premium linens.
  • Hotel Hive: DC’s first micro-hotel, these low-frills accommodations are about half the size of traditional hotel rooms, but worth considering for travel on a budget. Situated between the Kennedy Center and George Washington University, the pet-friendly hotel’s rooms contain the basics: a private bathroom, Wi-Fi, a TV, and a choice between a king, queen, or bunk beds (the bigger the bed, the bigger the room).
As a local, I'm sharing the best DC has to offer and what not to miss. Here are the top things to do your first time in Washington, DC.
As a local, I’m sharing the best DC has to offer and what not to miss. Here are the top things to do your first time in Washington, DC.
Meghan

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