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. Some of the less popular museums are excellent — portrait gallery, archives, Phillips Collection, Corcoran. Some of the “hot” neighborhoods of years past have now been overtaken — instead of Georgetown and Dupont circle, check out Logan Circle and Shaw. As someone who lives in the District, I have to disagree about the need to head to Virginia for great food. Yes, some of the better traditional ethnic cuisines, particularly East Asian, are better in the burbs. But there are now tons of great restaurants in DC proper, and I virtually never feel the need to head to Virginia. Agreed on landing at National — avoid Dulles at all costs.

  2. Good advice on the Red Line. Unfortunately, it is the primary line I use when I travel to DC since I always stay at my favorite hotel in the world — the Willard — and frequent DuPont Circle. With uberX prices falling nationwide, uberX may be a better option, especially late at night when Metro delays can seem interminable.

  3. National Building Museum is really unique, as a museum about cities and buildings and structures that people build. It also has great play spaces for little kids, is really an incredibly beautiful building, and has the coolest gift shop I have ever seen. Definitely worth a stop in the cold of winter or stifling humidity of winter.

  4. You must live in Northern VA, too many Virginia recommendations here. Rasika (either location) is great, I also enjoy Blue Duck Tavern. The newest area to explode is 14th St. NW…tons of great bars and good food if you know where to look. Le Diplomate is good if you can get a table. I enjoy the Building Museum (even better if you have little kids) and the Portrait gallery. So many museums are free, I see no need to pay but the Newseum is somewhat worth the cost.

  5. Sorry, one more tip, probably not useful in the winter, but you should definitely go to the monuments just off the Potomac River at night- Lincoln Memorial, FDR Memorial, MLK statue. Super easy to get to at night with no traffic, easy to park, and they really are a unique and beautiful experience at night, lit up very nicely. But again, wouldn’t do it in the winter. Too cold.

  6. All good advice, but you forgot to mention strolling down the Mall along the reflecting pool to the Lincoln. Especially at night. A drink (just one – too pricey otherwise) atop the W hotel for the view. Arlington Cemetery for the changing of the guard.

  7. Have a meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner, or tea) at Blue Duck Tavern at the Park Hyatt DC. Must order the duck fat fries. Use an Amex Open Business card for 5% rebate, and earn Gold Passport points for dining. Vidalia, Old Ebbitt Grill, and Zaytinya are good restaurants to visit as well.

    Franklin Roosevelt monument is probably my favorite monument to visit at the moment.

  8. Live in DC? Somehow I got the impression that you lived in one of those “A” places — Arlington, Alexandria, or something.

    I have no recent information about DC but when I was visiting fairly regularly a decade or two ago, I enjoyed Adams Morgan — in particular one Spanish restaurant that frequently had Lobster Thermidor on the menu. Not haute cuisine, but at the time there were a lot of interesting restaurants in the area.

  9. Apps to download: DC Metro Transit, Spotcycle, Scoutmob, Uber, Field Trip. Even if you aren’t going to get a drink or food, in the afternoon head to the rooftop of the W hotel next to the White House – one of the best unobstructed views of the city and the White House (and bring a camera!). Go to a jazz club on the historic U street (jojo/utopia/etc) then get a half smoke from the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl. If you are heading to Georgetown for shopping, use the Circulator bus, only $1 to ride and only way to get there. Almost every cab now has a functioning credit card machine, but always ask beforehand if its working and make sure to get a receipt. 14th Street between Thomas Circle and U street has opened up maybe 10 new and amazing restaurants in the past year, all worth trying (get reservations). Oh and this Sunday is the Chinese New Years Parade in Chinatown; if you are in that area, be sure to check out the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery (great exhibit on dancing in the 20th century) and get a latte from Chinatown Coffee Company. Aaaand I’m done.

  10. Georgetown; Beautiful people, beautiful stores, C&O canal and Potomac Waterfront. If driving get out to the rapids and waterfalls at Great Falls.

    The DEA museum at Pentagon City Metro (also Nordstorm there and more beautiful stores).

    Never been but people swear by the NRA museum in Fairfax.

    The National Building Museum- Originally built as the War Pensioners Building after the civil war- huge and beautiful. Museum of American Art/National Portrait nearby. Both free and close to the private and expensive (and I found very boring) Spy Museum.

    Library of Congress (who cleans that ceiling?)

  11. My earlier comment didn’t show up…here goes again…

    All those things are northern va which is fine but most visitors are staying downtown. Go to Blue Duck Tavern….14th st nw for bars and new restaurants and the Building Museum is cool for kids and adults alike

  12. The Archives is a must in terms of visiting museums. Be sure to get there early. For a night on the town, I recommend the U Street corridor from around 9th to 16th Street. The area has lots of trendy bars and eateries.

  13. Had a friend years ago who was disappointed when discovering that the Mall wasn’t a shopping experience…pretty amusing!

  14. Biggest question is does OP have a car? If the answer is no then write off the international food jaunts into the further-out burbs.

    On the food front, OP should go for Ethiopian if she has never had it because DC does it right. Ethiopic on H Street is the mainstream favorite, but Dama on Columbia Pike is the real deal. If that’s not her speed, then I second del Campo 100% for a big-dollar dinner out.

    As far as things to do? If the weather keeps up like this then it will be mostly indoor activities. If she’s down near the Capitol, the United States Botanic Garden is worth a walk-through…and it’s always warm in their subtropical exhibit!

    If OP has a car and wants to get out of the city (or if she happens to be flying into/out of Dulles, against your recommendation), the Udvar-Hazy center is worth the time and cost ($15 for parking). Concorde, space shuttle, SR-71, Enola Gay and hundreds more aircraft. And great spotting of international arrivals right on the big runway at IAD.

  15. Tour of the US Capitol is a must. And might as well knock out the Supreme Court and Library of Congress while you’re up there.

    My fave nice restaurant is Oya, but for a quick bite then Potbelly’s, Cosi and Five Guys are all great.

  16. There’s lots more on the Mall than just the Smithsonian, wonderful though it is. I especially like the National Gallery (realize it’s in TWO buildings–and has a great giftshop and bookstore too!), the National Archive, and the Newseum. It’s also a good idea to buy tickets in advance for the Spy Museum. For those who enjoy political satire, The Capitol Steps (often heard on NPR and elsewhere) perform every Friday and Saturday evening in the Reagan Building (Federal Triangle stop on the Metro). The vast food court in the basement of Union Station offers an amazing variety of food specialties at bargain prices.

  17. If using the metro, get a SmartTrip card. If you don’t have it you’ll get charged an extra $1 every time you get on for using a paper ticket. The signage isn’t good in the metro stations, but there will be a machine (probably at the end of the row of machines) that will sell you a SmartTrip card with credit already on it. You can then easily add to the card any time through the other ticket vending machines.

  18. I would recommend doing one of the tours at night of the monuments- very beautiful. The National Cathedral is not the easiest to get to, but they have lots of tour, high tea and organ concerts there as well as religious meetings.

  19. I lived in NoVa for a long time but never visited the National Cathedral or Basilica until this past summer when I was in town. I thought they were both fantastic and very different from each other. Nice places to see especially on a hot summer afternoon.

  20. I second the Spy Museum and Newseum. I’ve been to the first and my kids to the second.

    also, maybe the National Zoo?

  21. If you drive to DC area and stay in VA, what’s the best Metro station to park close to and access public transport (without going broke paying for parking)?

  22. my kids as did i loved the spy museum a lot, and have revisited twice, also found the crime and punishment museum interesting too

  23. You want to fly into National airport. No one actually calls it Reagan.

    This tip is years out-of-date. Except for people making a partisan point, everyone who has moved to Washington in the last 10 years — which is a lot of people — uses “Reagan Airport” and “National Airport” interchangeably.

  24. Regarding the recommendations for Blue Duck Tavern, it’s one of my favorite places as well, certainly about the most attractive restaurant space in the city, but it’s simply further to my point about the best places downtown being $$$ and while there are decent inexpensive places to eat the best inexpensive places are in Northern Virginia. Rasika West End is better than Rasika. Building Museum is another good museum to visit.

  25. @ABC great questions, there’s street parking in Alexandria for sure down near King Street and there’s street parking in Crystal City. Maybe neighborhood parking around Ballston could work and stay at the Westin or Holiday Inn? Not something I’ve given much thought to, since I live and work near metro.

  26. rewriting due to time out errors replying earlier.

    Agree with Spy Museum. Like the air and space at IAD as well.

    Food: Blue Duck is truly all that. Their apple pie however is not. We would rather eat the cinnamon buns from matchbox. Just have to get there before 3pm to get them.

    Also big fans of Angeethi out in Herndon.

    The smartcard has made the metro much easier. can even pay your parking at suburban lots with it.

  27. Re: Good eats near DCA – get on the yellow line to King Street (third stop down) and walk down King – you’ll pass dozens of great restaraunts. My favorites are Vermillion, Restaurant Eve, and Virtue – although the last is a better high-end bar than dining spot.

  28. This post does seem to have a rather northern VA slant, as someone who lives in the city proper (14th street) I can say I never venture out of the city for food, between the food and bar options on H street( Toki underground has teh best Ramen in the city) to 14th street ( Etto’s gives Pupatella a run for its money, not to mention Le Diplomate for awesome french themed food, and finally Garden District for an awesome german beergarden) there are plenty of options available. If its BBQ your after I’d check out DCity Smokehouse. Not to mention the fact that the bar scene in the city blows arlington etc out of the water. I suggest venturing out beyond the mall area to get a real feel for the city, theres lots to see beyond the monuments including Meridian Hill Park were L’enfant was said to have mapped out his plans for the city, the arboretum providing a tranquil space away from the busy city life and the national zoo (also free).

  29. Please don’t come to Washington, DC to see the Spy Museum. There are world class (and free) museums here that are much more worthy of your time.

  30. Just a FYI – If you plan on dining out anywhere in the DCA area other than a Thai or pizza restaurant, be prepared to spend a lot. A normal meal at a middle of the road restaurant can run 2 people around $60+, and that doesn’t include alcohol. A lot of nice restaurants have decent happy hours during the week, so I’d suggest trying to hit up one of those to save some money.

  31. Gary: You are definitely NOT a District guy! : — )

    So, for your visitors: Restaurants are accurately reviewed and catalogued in the Washingtonian, available on line. In my NW neighborhood, by two different Metro stops are two excellent and (says my French wife) authentic french restaurants of reasonable prices, Lavandou (Provencal food, Cleveland Park Red Line Metro) and Chez Billy (Paris bistro style, Petworth Green Line). For exquisite, expensive and “harder to get into than heaven” is Komi, in NW near DuPont. Rasika’s Indian fushion is indeed superb.

    Runners and cyclists, this is your paradise. Rock Creek Park connects to the Mall and the waterfront, and, of course, the Capital Crescent Trail (paved and fine gravel). Beach Road is closed off somewhat north of the Zoo, with walkers, runners, skaters, and bikes on weekends and holidays.

    Theater: Don’t forget the gorgeous Arena Stage, just across the park from the SW waterfront, and the outdoor boat-top eating (so so food but fabulous space) of the Cantina Marina. Also, the Shakespeare Theatre is next to Chinatown. Oh: Imax is at two Smithsonians on the Mall. If you have never seen “To Fly”….. And just a couple miles south of Dulles is the extraordinary Smithonian airplane, space shuttle, etc. Udvar-Hazy museum with another Imax that shows feature films.

    Finally, only Gary would forget to mention the BEST SHOW EVER: Look out the window when you fly into town. Particularly if your arriving plane takes the Georgetown sharp right turn over the Potomac. Be on the left side, day or night.

  32. @Nick – of COURSE the bar scene is better in a dense urban area (downtown) than in the suburbs. I don’t mention it because I’m trying to point to the things that are unique to DC, that you get in DC which you can’t get other places. I don’t think you can say that DC does bars better than most other major cities.

  33. Agree with #27, live here and everybody I know calls DCA “Reagan.”

    Definitely go to Georgetown and its waterfront. Haven’t seen this mentioned but go check out Eastern Market. One of my favorite areas in the city.

  34. Pile on here. U st and Adams Morgan are fun at night along with nicer places along 14th st in the Logan circle area. Everyone I meet calls it Reagan. And there is GREAT salvadoran, Peruvian, and Bolivian food in the area. In DC, el tamarindo is fun. Then Justas chicken in Alexandria for lomo saltado, and saltenas at Pan Americana. Both inconvenient to metro. I side with all the other recommendations, but food doesn’t have to be expensive. U st and Adams Morgan have a lot of good food for decent prices.

  35. Gary, are there any hotels near where the Nationals play. Last time I came for a game I had to stay close to the National Mall?

  36. Weather permitting (and it’s supposed to be *relatively* warm this weekend), the DC segway tour is a great way to get in all the major tourist sites without being stuck on a bus.

    To me, the Museum of American history is a must. Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Fonzie’s leather jacket and a vast military collection. Natural history to see the Hope Diamond and other amazing gems. Air and Space to nerd out.

    As for eating, it’s probably way too late to make reservations at places like Komi or Fiola but mini bar has fallen out of favor a bit even though it’s one of the most interesting dining experiences I’ve ever had anywhere in the world. Might be worth a shot. Also love Tosca. These all fall, of course, into what Gary would call ‘real dollars’ places. For cheap eats, pop into one of Ed Pizzarello’s Five Guys franchises! 😀

    In terms of getting around, DC’s Uber is top notch, fast, and reasonably priced (so long as there is no surge pricing…if there is AVOID AT ALL COSTS. You WILL get ripped off.)

    Night life: for the touristy scene there is the Penn Quarter/Chinatown. Dupont is good for cruising. Adams Morgan for getting fall-down drunk with lots of B&Ts (although technically DC has no Ts ;)). I like the U Street bar scene. A little grittier and therefore more fun. A great evening out is to stop by St. Ex near 14th and U for a few drinks then down the block to the Black Cat for DJ and/or live music. Oh, and the Friday night Dr. Who happy hour!!!!

  37. Make a reservation for a cocktail after touring the Mall at Jose Andres’ new Barmini, where the bartenders make 106 (pricy, but delicious) craft cocktails from ingredients as unusual as liquid nitrogen and cotton candy. In fact, any of Jose Andres’ amazing collection of restaurants are good bets and many are located within close proximity of museums and major points of interest: Jaleo, Oyamel, Zaytinia.

    If you are planning to tour the Capitol (and you should), call your Congressperson in advance to arrange a special tour. If you happen to be in DC on a morning when the Supreme Court is holding oral argument (on a non-newsworthy case; check the website), queue up that morning to spend 15 minutes in the Visitors Gallery, if only just to take a peak as the Justices confront the parties.

    Aside from the major sites, one or two of the lesser-known attractions are worth a closer look, especially if you have a car. Driving by the monuments at night is a must, but don’t forget to stop at the small but remarkable Einstein Memorial on Constitution Ave. near the State Dept. If you have the time (and a reservation) take a tour of the Hillwood Museum in Upper Northwest to take in the large collection of pre-Bolshevik Russian artifacts and a glimpse of how A-List Washington entertained in the mid-20th C. Then stay around for afternoon tea. The off-the-beaten-track Krieger Museum on Foxhall Road has a nice collection of French Impressionist paintings also displayed in what was once the home of its former owners.

    I second the suggestion of visiting the National Zoo right now. The new baby panda was introduced for the first time to the public last week. As the weather improves, so will your other options there.

  38. Harry’s Saloon on 11th St.
    Post Pub on L St.
    Tune Inn at Penn and 3rd.
    ME Swings for coffee at the corner of 17th and G
    Dukem on U St for Ethiopian food.
    Star Spangled Banner at the American History museum
    As noted above, Five Guys for a burger. It really is the best around.
    National Archives for many things
    National Zoo is a winner too. Good rec above.
    Uberx is cheap but the drivers are horrible. Most can’t find Arlington from downtown DC.
    For comedy, head back into Arlington to the Cinema Draft House.

  39. Gary said: You want to fly into National airport. No one actually calls it Reagan.

    EJ said: This tip is years out-of-date. Except for people making a partisan point, everyone who has moved to Washington in the last 10 years — which is a lot of people — uses “Reagan Airport” and “National Airport” interchangeably.

    I’m not sure why you think that, but you’re totally wrong. The only people who call it “Reagan” are people from out of town and those who have just moved here. People who live here quickly learn to call it “National” or risk being mistaken for tourists. If you ask a cab driver to take you to “National” he’ll take the shortest route. If you ask him to take you to “Reagan” you’ve got about a 50-50 chance that he’ll take you the long way, because he’ll assume you don’t know your way around.

    Also, I second all of the comments about great restaurants in DC. If you want good and inexpensive east-Asian food, follow Gary’s advice and go to the suburbs, but for everything else, DC’s restaurants are pretty good (albeit pricy).

  40. How could I leave out the wine tasting tour? Pearsons, Calvert Woodley, bassins, Weygandt wines, and Cleveland park wine all usually have a free wine tastings on Friday evenings and on Saturday afternoons. All but cp wines lists details on their respective websites

  41. I call it Reagan because that’s its name. If the cab driver wants to mess around with the route he takes ill be quick to correct him. Also,don’t neglect the navy yard area. Catch a Nats game, but on stubhub for great prices, and have dinner at Arsen at Bluejacket. There are several new restaurants in the area and it is metro accessible. I would avoid Adams Morgan and stay closer to 14th street or U street.

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