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Top Things To Do In Washington DC: Plan Your First Visit

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US Capitol Building, Washington DC
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Start planning your trip to the US capital with this handy travel guide to the top things to do in Washington DC.

From the amazing food scene at Union Market to wandering along the National Mall, and checking out some of the top galleries and museums on the planet, Washington DC is a city with something for everyone!

It’s one of those iconic cities that I’ve grown up feeling like I knew. I’d seen it in movies and TV shows, and whilst I’d never been, it felt strangely familiar.

I was excited to see iconic landmarks like The White House and The US Capitol, but I was also really looking forward to seeing what else the city had to offer. Beyond the façades made famous through politics and TV, what else is going on?

I wasn’t disappointed – there were a lot of places to visit in Washington DC! From the magic of the Renwick Gallery’s exhibition dedicated to Burning Man Festival, to the many top restaurants serving exceptional cuisine, we found a lot to fill our days with. It was also great to see how budget-friendly a lot of places were. This is a city filled with free museums and galleries, and it’s surprisingly walkable too.

With tour company Travel Planners now offering free stopovers of up two nights with United Airlines at no extra cost to your airline ticket, visiting DC is a no brainer.

As if that wasn’t enough, this includes a free return with Supershuttle from the airport, 2 for 1 tickets to the International Spy Museum and Newseum, and a stay at the luxurious Embassy Row Hotel.

So if you’re planning a trip to the city, check out the video for a flavour of what’s on offer, then scroll down to read about the best things to do in Washington DC.

Enjoy The Food Scene In Washington DC

Washington is one of the only places in the USA with the Michelin guide, which foodies will know is a good indication of the level of cuisine in the city! It’s a cosmopolitan city, so you’ll find anything you fancy, from Chinese to Mexican, Lebanese to German.

It’s also worth noting the city has the biggest Ethiopian population outside of the country itself, so if you’ve never had the chance to try that cuisine, I’d urge you do to it here.

Here are a few food spots in DC that you can’t miss…

China Chilcano – My favourite restaurant in the city, it’s one of a collection by superstar chef Jose Andres. It serves a fusion of Japanese, Chinese and Peruvian. Ceviche and dim sum on the same menu? YES I was in heaven!

China Chilcano, Washington DC

China Chilcano, Washington DC

Mi Vida – This trendy Mexican restaurant is down on District wharf. While you’ll find classics like tacos, nachos and margaritas, there are also some great twists, like this delicious main course of prawn and scallops with a tangy avocado salsa.

Mi Vida Restaurant, Washington DC

Mi Vida Restaurant, Washington DC

Union Market – I love food markets, and this is one of the best and most varied I’ve visited in a long time. There are around 20 stalls all under one roof, some of which started out as popular DC food trucks before laying down roots in the market hall. Takorean (a Korean taco fusion) is my top pick. The arepas were fab too.

Union Market, Washington DC

Union Market, Washington DC

Union Market, Washington DC

Union Market, Washington DC

Cool Places To Drink In Washington DC

From rooftop bars and secret speakeasies, to al fresco spots and breweries, there are plenty of places to enjoy a cocktail or a beer in DC.

Calico This bar feels like a gorgeous secret summer spot, with its outdoor terrace and quirky décor. It’s kitsch and fun, serving up tasty cocktails, including alcoholic juice boxes and great snacks and sharers.

POV Bar at the W Hotel – If you’re looking for a bar with a spectacular DC view, this is it! POV Bar overlooks several important buildings and landmarks in the centre of the city, including The White House.

I loved how you could see along the National Mall too.  It was the perfect spot to raise a final toast to our time in the city.

Cocktails at POV at the W Hotel, Washington DC

Cocktails at POV at the W Hotel, Washington DC

Blue Jacket Brewery – The craft beer scene is booming, so if you love beer, definitely stop by Blue Jacket.

Located near Yards Park, once inside you can watch all the processes going on.

As you may know, I’m not much of a beer lover, but I was surprised by the flavours here. There were some fruity beers using passion fruit and strawberries which almost converted me!

Blue Jacket Brewery, Washington DC

Blue Jacket Brewery, Washington DC

Explore The Amazing Free Galleries And Museums In Washington DC

One of my favourite things about Washington DC is how many great museums and galleries there are… and even better, pretty much all of them are free!

In just a few days we visited several of the top galleries in the city, so here are the ones I’d recommend.

National Portrait Gallery – There are some incredible portraits on display at the moment including a whole exhibition of presidential portraits.

This includes Kehinde Wiley’s vibrant painting of Barack Obama which has been extremely popular (there was a queue to get near it!) I also love the beautiful courtyard in this building – it’s light, airy and a very calming space.

National Portrait Gallery courtyard, Washington DC

National Portrait Gallery courtyard, Washington DC

Renwick Gallery – When we visited Washington DC there was a Burning Man exhibition on at the Renwick Gallery.

Wacky and colourful creations, intriguing costumes and soundscapes make this a totally unique experience.

Renwick Gallery, Washington DC

Renwick Gallery, Washington DC

National Gallery of Art – You could spend all day here – it’s massive! We started in the sculpture garden, which I’d definitely recommend. Then we ventured into the West Building to check out the historical artworks before visiting my favourite part – the East Building where the modern works are displayed.

From paintings by Pollock to Rothko, to the colourful hanging mobiles by Calder, there’s plenty to look at. Don’t forget to visit Leo Villareal’s Multiverse – a moving walkway with a magical lightshow which connects the buildings via the basement.

National Gallery of Art – East Wing, Washington DC

National Gallery of Art - East Wing, Washington DC

National Gallery of Art – East Wing, Washington DC

Explore The City On A Carpe DC Food Tour

I always love getting to know a city through its food, and this U Street Tour was a great introduction to the area famed for ‘Black Broadway’, the city’s jazz heritage and its Ethiopian community.

From chilli at Ben’s Chilli Bowl, to my first taste of Ethiopian food (yum!) and checking out the colourful murals, I finished the tour with a greater understanding of the city’s history.

U Street, Washington DC

U Street, Washington DC

Venture To District Wharf 

To be honest I’d never considered Washington DC to be a ‘waterfront’ destination, but it is! I heard from locals this part of the city has totally transformed in recent years into the buzzy area it is today.

There are live music venues like Pearl Street Warehouse, great restaurants including chic Mexican Mi Vida (see above) and pontoons and docks to enjoy views, boat trips and more.

District Wharf, Washington DC

District Wharf, Washington DC

Channel Your Inner James Bond At The International Spy Museum  

Awaken your inner secret agent with a trip to Washington’s Spy Museum. This was a truly unique experience, charting the history of the world’s most famous spies, secret agents and criminals.

I loved how interactive it was (definitely one of the most fun things to do in Washington DC!) with chances to crack codes, test your strength and more. This is a museum that’s great for big-ish kids and grown-ups alike.

International Spy Museum, Washington DC

International Spy Museum, Washington DC

Tour The US Capitol

Another truly unique DC experience – touring the building I’ve grown up seeing on news bulletins and in movies. Tickets are free and include a film about the building’s construction and usage, followed by a tour of a few of key areas.

You can also visit The Senate and House galleries by enquiring in advance. Find out more about that here.

US Capitol Building, Washington DC

US Capitol Building, Washington DC

Wander The National Mall And See The White House

For me, one of the most exciting things to do on my first trip to DC was to see the city’s most famous landmarks! I loved walking from The White House, down the National Mall to see the Capitol Building, Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

So many iconic views, and amazing to take in the details up close!

Washington Monument, Washington DC

Washington Monument, Washington DC

Washington Monument, Washington DC

Washington Monument, Washington DC

The White House

The White House

Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC

Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC

Where To Stay In Washington DC 

We stayed at The Embassy Row Hotel, located close to Dupont Circle. The decor was chic and stylish, and there were plenty of food and drink options nearby, plus it was easy to hop on the Metro or a taxi to get around the city.

There’s also a great café area on the ground floor, but the real hidden gem is up high! Yep there’s a rooftop pool. What better way to cool off after a day of sightseeing.

The Embassy Row Hotel, Washington DC

The Embassy Row Hotel, Washington DC

Embassy Row Hotel Pool

Embassy Row Hotel Pool

How To Get Around Washington DC  

If you’ve got limited time in the city, I’d recommend downloading the Lyft or Uber apps and taking taxis. A 20-minute journey will cost you approximately $10 – $12. There’s quite a lot of traffic in the city, so while some distances look short, allow plenty of time!

If you are on a budget or aren’t in a rush, the Metro is really easy to use and costs just $2.20 per ride. You can also look at travel cards that last for the duration of your trip.

I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing about my first trip to Washington DC. I was only there a few days but packed absolutely loads in! If I return, I’d probably focus on a few smaller neighbourhoods and explore on foot. I felt like there was SO much to see and do, I barely scratched the surface!

Thanks to Washington DC and Travel Planners for inviting me to explore Washington DC. As always all opinions are my own.

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