The Most Important Things to See, Do, Eat, and Know When Visiting Washington DC

Meagan tweets,

Excited to head to DC this weekend. Do any travel bloggers have tips/tricks/places I need to know?

Giving tourist advice about your home town can be hard, at least it is for me, I’m not a tourist in DC — I live here. I’ve shown visitors around, for sure, and set up tours of the Capitol and whatnot. But it’s also easy to let the attractions blend into the background.

So I had to give this a little bit of thought.

  • Go to the Spy Museum. Just go.

  • The rest of the museums are great, the Smithsonian unfortunately only displays something like 1% of its collection. You can’t miss Air and Space, or Museum of Natural History. The Newseum is worth seeing, and the Holocaust Museum is important. Get your tickets for that one in advance.

  • You’ll see the Washington monument, but it’s just a big structure and it looks the same as it does in pictures. Is it really that special? I’ve lived here long enough to see it wrapped in scaffolding for renovation twice.

  • But DC isn’t what it used to be, it’s so much lamer in the post-9/11 world. You can’t drink on the National Mall anymore. No more setting up on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial at midnight with a nice bottle of wine. Now you can’t even dance at the Jefferson Memorial.

  • If you want the best food the area has to offer you need to spend real dollars or get out of the city and into Northern Virginia.

    Downtown I like Del Campo a lot right now ($$$$) and try Rasika West End. There’s plenty of decent food, but not a lot that’s better than you can get in other major cities. Hill Country Barbecue isn’t Central Texas barbecue and it isn’t even New York’s rendition of Central Texas barbecue. Ben’s Chili Bowl is famous but it isn’t very good.

    But go to Elephant Jumps for Thai food in Merrifield, I don’t know of a better Thai restaurant in the United States. Have the Hung Lay curry, and just about anything they’re offering on special. Go to the Eden Center (anywhere at the Eden Center!) for Vietnamese. Kogiya in Annandale is great Korean barbecue, though you won’t see what the fuss is if you’re coming from Los Angeles. The best pizza in town is Pupatella in Arlington.

DC has a good metro system, you’ll get around by subway. Avoid the red line if you are keeping to a schedule, it always seems to break down the most. When I first came to DC the advice I was given (as a pretty white bread kid moving here from California) was to avoid the Green Line but that really no longer holds, the city’s experienced tons of gentrification since then.

You want to fly into National airport. No one actually calls it Reagan. Baltimore isn’t Washington and Dulles will be connected to the city by metro in several years and billions of dollars. For now we have only one airport here.

In DC we’re proud of the Kennedy Center, and it’s a nice building with great views, but DC theater can’t compare to New York. At least we don’t have The Lion King.

What should someone coming to visit DC for the first time do? What’s not to be missed in my home town?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I’m amused by the Reagan vs. National debate. I’ve lived here for 4 years, currently in a place about 1.5 miles from DCA. The other day I took an Uber cab from my apartment to DCA and asked to go to the US Airways terminal at National Airport. The driver said, “Reagan?” I reluctantly said yes. I don’t think there’s any hard-and-fast rule about what natives call it — I’ve heard Reagan, National, and DCA.

    There’s tons to do here, and lots of good places to eat. I really like some fast food-type chains that are available here but not many other places in the US, like Nando’s and Vapiano. Good, inexpensive food in the heart of the District.

  2. Have to disagree on the Spy Museum rec, but I guess it’s a matter of personal preference. My favorite non-Smithsonian museum is the Newseum – much less cramped than the Spy Museum, a beautiful space, and with tons of cool stuff if you’re a news/journalism junkie.

    I’m a DC native and have always called it National. My friends (mostly, though not all, also area natives) all call it National, too, and scoff at those who call it Reagan! Likewise, nobody calls BWI “Marshall”. And speaking of BWI, it’s a reasonable option if DCA doesn’t work for you. You can take the MARC train direct to Union Station (~30 minutes) for about $10.

    Also, Gary, it’s true that DC theater isn’t Broadway, but what is? (I’m a little sensitive about DC people always having an inferiority complex about NY!) DC’s arts scene is head and shoulders above most US cities. And BTW, the Lion King will be playing at the Kennedy Center all summer.

  3. Wrong on at least one point: Pizza
    Pomodoro in Fairfax is as good as it gets. Its the only think I miss about living in DC.

    Eating Downtown as a tourist…I always enjoyed going to Old Ebbit Grill, right across from the White House. It seems like you are eating in a classy place, but the prices, food and service was always great. They don’t look down their nose at tourists that aren’t dressed up either. I was told that there are often some big shots eating in there, but I never noticed any.

  4. I second the recommendation for Founding Farmers, enjoyed breakfast there. Also enjoyed Burger Tap and Shake for casual lunch. Sit at the bar and have a micro brew and order lunch, and skip the line.

    Highly recommend a free tour of the Anderson House (Society of the Cincinnati) near Dupont Circle. And at the National Zoo (free), Giant panda cub Bao Bao is now on exhibit.

  5. +1 on the Newseum. Super-interactive and fun for all ages. It’s kind of a downer, but the Holocaust Museum (a Smithsonian, so it’s free) covers a difficult topic – but well worth the time. Anyone mention the reading room at the Library of Congress? Best advice: don’t try to “do” DC in 1 or 2 days. As the comments prove, there’s a ton to see and do!

  6. Definitely don’t miss Union Station. It has trains that take you to New York in 3.5 hours!

  7. Beach Miles – Maybe things have changed in the last year or so, but I think the Navy Yard is a neighborhood that hasn’t yet fully arrived yet. There was a lot of construction in the real estate boom years before the crash, but since the recession the area has been frozen in place halfway through the transition with a lot of half-empty condo buildings but not much else. Thus, even if you do find a hotel there, it’s not a very fun or interesting place to stay in since it’s crazy packed before/after games and completely dead at all other times. Someday it will be great, just not yet.

  8. Restaurants:

    Not so expensive/Ethnic

    Sakuramen – Contrary to other comments, *this* is the best ramen in town

    Florida Avenue Grill – A long-standing U Street institution, serving soul food with soul.

    Ray’s Hell Burger – Not in DC proper, but on a metro line. Best burger in a town of great burgers (if it’s good enough for visiting heads of state..!).

    FOOD TRUCKS – If you don’t come from a city with tons of food trucks, you owe it to yourself to try these out. There’s a wide variety and they are very yummy.


    Tabard Inn – A DC institution with tons of charm and character, the setting for numerous novels. (Iron Gate across the street is also excellent, tho better in the summer when you can sit outside)

    Johnny’s Half Shell – Excellent seafood perfectly located between the Capitol and Union Station. You can’t go to DC without having crab cakes!

    Cafe du Parc (Willard Hotel restaurant) – Again, best during the summer for outdoor dining, but an excellent restaurant right next to the White House.

    Ray’s the Steaks – Best steakhouse in a town that knows its steakhouses.

    1905 – Love the atmosphere and one of the few fine dining restaurants that serve generous portions!

  9. For aviation related stuff… I’ll second going out to the Udvar-Hazy air and space museum near IAD – which also has a mock control tower that you can watch the approach at 1R.

    Also if one has a vehicle, head to Gravelly Park which is just north of DCA off George Washington Parkway – have to access via the Northbound lanes, it’s on the right. Very cool park that is just feet from the end of one of the runways. You’ll get some very cool photos, especially if they’re approaching from the North.

    I enjoyed the lesser known monuments near the Jefferson such as the FDR memorial, the new MLK memorial, and the WWI memorial which is tucked away on the side of the reflecting pond.

  10. Old Ebbit Grill is awesome and prices are very reasonable. I am surprised no one has mentioned old town alexandria yet. It’s a very nice walk on the old town area and nice view near water. There’s also a nice Kimpton hotel there.

  11. FWIW, calling National ‘Reagan’ is a lot like calling San Francisco ”Frisco.’ Sure lots of people do it…mostly tourists but also people who move there and even some who have lived there for a while. But doing it will still mark you as a tourist or newbie to most folks (whether you are one or not). And some find it incredibly grating.

    Old Ebbitt is a good recommendation for tourists. And while some power brokers do lunch there from time to time it’s mostly just tourists at lunch and especially dinner. In that area, also pop into the W (formerly Hotel Washington) and head up to the roof bar for an overpriced drink along with a spectacular view of the White House and Potomac. Also take a look at the lobby of the Willard around the corner…where it is alleged that US Grant coined the term ‘lobbyists’ for all the petitioners who came and hung out in the lobby to bug him while he was drinking there (it’s not exactly TRUE, but it’s still a cool story).

    If the idea is to try to catch Newt or Nancy or John or Harry, then make a reservation a Capital Grille, Bistro Bis, Charlie Palmer or my previous recommendation, Tosca. But you wont see many/any pols on the weekend.

    For pizza my recommendation is the local chain MatchBox. 4 or so locations around DC in all the right places. Excellent thin-crusted, smokey pizza and their sliders that locally-famously come in three portions: 3-6-9.

    As for Old Town Alexandria, it’s fine. Some good places including Murphy’s Grand Irish Pub and the Fish Market. But really, people visit DC for DC, not for the ‘burbs…even the inner-burbs.

  12. Local for 55+ years (grew up in Bethesda, MD and moved to DC after college – now live in VA and considered a traitor for that by my MD friends).

    The Airport is Reagan National but it will always be National to me — just like Metrobus will always be DC Transit to me. If I hear someone say “Reagan” I assume they mean the building on 14th or moved here after the airport name change.

    When visitors get tired of walking the mall (oh how I miss the Tourmobile!) or visiting the musems, I drive them up to Great Falls park (pick your side – VA or MD). Gorgeous in the fall or winter and most folks are surprised at the park being so close to DC.

    Fave restaurants (remembering it’s not New Orleans or Manhattan):
    DC: Becks (consistently good)
    The Prime Rib (pricey steak/prime rib house) – good
    for pol/celeb sighting)

    MD: Bethesda Crab House or Cantler’s in Annapolis (Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs at either spot – messy but fun!)

    VA: Peking Duck (Falls Church on Rte. 7)

  13. I think our art museums and galleries don’t get enough attention. It’s easy to start with the National Gallery where we have Degas, Renoir, Van Gough and so much more. The cafeteria in the lower level between the East and West wings is a great place for lunch, coffee or gelato.

    The Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum also have great collections including a well known painting of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. These two museums are attached by a lovely courtyard which is a great place for lunch or coffee. These are all free.

    The Phillips is quaint and the Mondrian room is a treat. The Corcoran has a great collection and usually has an interesting special exhibit. Dumbarton Oaks is another treasure and the garden a delight.

    I am also a big fan of the U. S. Botanical Gardens. There’s always a surprise there from stinky plants to trains at the holidays. It’s got great appeal.

    Lots of options. Hope you have the time to visit some of the sights listed.

  14. “Reagann-National” lasted for a few years but it’s back to “National”; just like it always historically has been. Just like “Cape Kennedy” reverted to “Cape Canaveral”. Just like it’s “BWI”, not “Thurgood Marshall-BWI”.

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