Visiting the east coast and trying to decide if Washington DC is worth visiting? Read on for my full breakdown.
Washington DC, the capital of the United States of America, is a somewhat overlooked travel destination. While other east coast cities (I’m looking at you, NYC) are sometimes more flashy to visitors, Washington DC is an underrated yet incredibly appealing city with an overwhelming amount of things to see and do.
Trendy neighborhoods, a vibrant food scene, plenty of monuments and historical sites, world class museums that are mostly free of charge, events and festivals throughout the year… the list goes on.
In this guide, I’m sharing 14 reasons that Washington DC is worth visiting, plus things to consider when planning a trip to Washington DC.
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14 Reasons Washington DC Is Definitely Worth Visiting
1. Visit World Class Museums (For Free)
One of the best parts of Washington DC is all of the top notch, high quality museums available to visit. There are 19 Smithsonian museums in Washington DC, and all of them are free. Always. Incredible.
Even if you think of yourself as “not a museum person,” the museums of DC will certainly entice you. For example, the National Museum of Natural History has in-depth and immersive animal exhibits, from mammals to fossils to sea life (and more). The National Air and Space Museum has the largest collection of aircraft and space items in the entire world, thrilling to even the most casual observer.
There’s also the African American Museum, and American Indian Museum, the Postal Museum (a surprising favorite!), the American History Museum, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. And this is just a sampling.
2. Plus One of the Coolest Museums I’ve Ever Visited
Is it worth making a whole other section about *another* museum? For the International Spy Museum, yes, yes it is.
I’ll try to keep my gushing here to a minimum, but this is worth it’s own point because the International Spy Museum is really one of the top 3 coolest museums I’ve ever visited.
What makes the Spy Museum so great for children and adults alike?
The whole museum is a mix between really interesting and often interactive exhibits about spy activity that the US or other countries have done, and you participating in your own spy mission that you complete in stages as you work your way through the museum.
At the beginning, you pick up your scannable card and get your own personalized spy mission at the Briefing Station that you will need to complete. Make sure you remember your cover story and code name!
Then you enter the museum exhibits and start exploring. There are many different themes as you go between rooms – for example, this first room, was all about spies and spymasters. Other rooms are themed around how to steal secrets, codes and codebreakers, hackers, spies and spying during different wars, and more.
It was a mix of traditional exhibits posters, with different short videos, artifacts, small vignettes, and a ton of things to do yourself. You can even engage in tests of strength and agility – like climbing through vents or hanging from a bar as you “infiltrate”.
Periodically throughout the museum it was time for you to work on your own top secret spy mission. At the row of touch screens, you had to complete a spy task, tailored to your own unique mission. Oftentimes, these tasks correlated with the exhibits in the room.
Overall, a top experience in DC and a great reason to make a visit to the city.
3. Monuments and Memorials Galore
The thing that most people think of when visiting Washington DC are the monuments and memorials. And indeed, one of the best things about visiting Washington DC are the plethora of these spots throughout the city.
The National Mall is the long rectangular greenspace in the city that is lined by Smithsonian museums, monuments and memorials, and flanked by the US Capitol on one end, the Lincoln Memorial on the other. The White House is just a block away from the Mall, near the Washington Monument (the tall, white obelisk that stands right in the middle of the Mall.)
Unique from each other and well-designed, these monuments and memorials invoke a sense of awe and wonder. The war memorials in particular are designed to make you reflect and appreciate the enormity of the sacrifice that was made. When you walk through these structures in Washington DC, you definitely be prompted to think and feel deeply!
Pro Tip: A popular experience is a nighttime trolley tour, where you’ll see the monuments and memorials brilliantly lit up against the dark sky.
4. Tours of Federal Government Buildings
Who doesn’t love a good look behind the scenes? I, for one, enjoy a good look at how the sausage is made, and in Washington, you can go on tours of the US Capitol, the White House, and the Supreme Court. All of these experiences are extremely interesting and a way to see the US form of democracy in action.
Capitol tours are very easy to come by, just call or email either your senator or representative, and they will get you tickets. (Just google “‘YOUR CITY’ US senator” or “‘YOUR CITY’ US representative” to find your person). Capitol tours take you through the main parts of the building, but when either house is in session, you are allowed to go in and watch what’s happening on the floor.
White House tours are extremely difficult to come by, but its still worth trying! Again, contact your representative for tickets – they will help you get entered into the lottery. There is way more demand than tickets available, but if you do get lucky, you’ll get to tour through some of the prominent rooms in the White House.
The Supreme Court doesn’t do tours, but oral cases are open to the public. Since there are many times when the Court isn’t hearing oral arguments, opportunities for this are happenchance. If you do get lucky though, join the queue in front of the Supreme Court building to hopefully get let in.
5. Great Public Transportation Options
Visitors to Washington DC will be happy to know that it is extremely easy to get around the city. First off, the city is pretty compact, is very walkable, and there are a lot of pedestrians out.
However, it is still a fairly large city, and the National Mall itself is actually 2 miles long. These are a few other ways to get around:
The Sightseeing Bus:
This is a regular city bus that makes on large circular loop around the major tourists sites of the Mall. It costs $1 to ride, you can pay with cash or metrocard, and buses come approximately every 10 minutes. (The map for this is here, the red route is what you want) This is by far the cheapest and easiest way to get around downtown DC, and can also connect you to other parts of town.
Bikes and Scooters:
DC has a really good City bike and scooter system. There are bike stations all over the mall, – just download the Capital Bikeshare app, put in your info, and then do a quick Scan & Go to take a bike or scooter around town.
Bikes cost $1 to unlock, and then $0.05 per minute afterward. You can also just buy a daypass for $8. Scooters are more expensive than bikes, but it is definitely a fun and easy way to get around.
Taxis, Uber, and Lyft
Of course, taxis, Ubers, and Lyft also are options if you need to go farther and don’t want to take public transit.
Another option is to go on a hop-on hop-off bus. These buses take a circular route around Washington DC, and the driver gives a narrated tour of what you are seeing as you drive by. You can get off where you want to stop and explore, and then get back on the bus to ride to your next destination. This is a good way to minimize walking, get around the major sites efficiently, and get some commentary on DC while you do it.
Washington DC has a well-connected metro system throughout the city. The metro is better for transportation around the Greater DC area and to outlying communities, and not necessarily for navigation around the Mall, but you can definitely take it out to Georgetown, Alexandria, the Zoo, or other locations.
6. An Incredible Food Scene
If you’re a foodie, you’ll love Washington DC. As the city is a hub for international visitors, there is a wide variety of cuisines to eat – from Korean to Thai to Malaysian, and from Middle Eastern, French, and Salvadoran restaurants.
7. …And Lots of Street Food Options
On the other end of the spectrum, Washington DC also has an abundance of street food options, in the form of food trucks that line the streets around the National Mall.
While certainly not winning any fine dining awards, there’s nothing quite like an ice cream on a hot day as you’re walking between monuments. And while there are lot of options for basics like hot dogs and pretzels, you can also find food trucks serving up some hot and delicious meals.
8. So Much Beautiful Architecture
I’m a person who loves great architecture, and delights in visiting cities where the buildings are historic, interesting, and beautiful. The United States has many great qualities, but lots of cities full of beautiful architecture just isn’t one of them. Which, of course, makes Washington DC all that more exciting.
DC is a planned city, and the most prominent architectural style is neoclassical. This style, patterned after classical Roman design, is found in a lot of the official government buildings and museums around the capital. You’ll see columns, pediments, and domes proliferating among these stone buildings.
Houses and apartment buildings in Washington DC are overwhelmingly constructed in a Victorian style, with colorful, skinny buildings, turrets and spires, conical roofs, and asymmetric exteriors. I thought the rows of brightly painted houses with their little turrets were SO cute.
Another architectural style you’ll see around Washington DC is Romanesque Revival, which is the style of the Old Post Office building (below). These buildings almost resemble a castle, and have prominent towers and arches in them. (You can actually go up to the top of the bell tower in the old Post Office).
Finally, there are several Beaux-Arts style buildings in Washington DC, my favorite of which is the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. It has arches and columns and sculptures and intricately carved details, colorful murals on the ceiling, and a view into the gorgeous main reading room.
If you enjoy pretty buildings even a little bit, you are going to love DC.
8. See Historical Documents That Changed the World
In the National Archives, you can see the actual, original Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights on display. It was amazing to look at the documents that had major and lasting impacts on the entire world.
The documents are displayed in cases in a tall, grand, dimly lit room. The grandiosity of the surroundings underscored their significance. No videos or pictures of any kind are allowed in any part of the interior of the building, so you’ll just have to go see them yourself!
9. Cherry Blossom Festival in Spring
The spring cherry blossom festival in Washington DC brings crowds to the city to see the beautiful pink blossoms as they burst into bloom around the National Mall. The Tidal Basin in Washington DC is one of the top places in the United States to enjoy cherry blossoms – there are approximately 3800 trees that create a gorgeous pastel background to the city.
The cherry blossoms are definitely one of the best reasons to visit Washington DC in the spring.
10. 4th of July in DC
It should come as no surprise that the nation’s capital goes all out for the 4th of July. Hundreds of thousands of people come to DC to watch the fireworks go off behind the Washington Monument, and while that’s a lot of people, sitting on the lawn of the Mall and seeing that incredible fireworks display is a night I won’t ever forget.
Other big events in DC over the 4th include a big parade and a concert. While it definitely brings in a lot of people, July 4th is a very exciting time to visit Washington and a time you should consider visiting.
11. A High Quality (Mostly) Free Zoo
The National Zoo is another free thing to do in Washington DC and this excellent zoo has many fascinating and exciting animals to see. There are several tigers, panda bears, bobcats, bison, red pandas, a cheetah, an ostrich, and a kudu, just to name a few.
The zoo is located a few miles north of the Mall, so you’ll either need to drive, take the metro, or grab an Uber to get up there, but it’s worth the transit time, particulary if you have kids.
The zoo itself is free to visit, but parking costs $30.
12. Quite a Few Beautiful Greenspaces
While Washington DC is obviously a bustling city and can feel crowded, there are actually quite a few pedestrian designated areas and the accompanying greenspaces help you feel more alone. Relaxing on the many lawns or in the various parks around the city can give you that break you need between the hustle of getting to the other activities above.
13. Trendy Neighborhoods of Georgetown and Alexandria
Georgetown is a hip and trendy neighborhood on the Potomac River in and near Washington DC, while the city of Alexandria is actually in Virginia. We particularly loved Georgetown, with its bricked sidewalks and historic buildings, the grand Georgetown University, and all the shops and restaurants lining the main street.
The C&O Canal in Georgetown, designed as part of a series of canals to connect shipping locations on the east coast, is today a picturesque spot in the neighborhood. You can admire the canal from the several bridges that cross it, and even descend and walk the footpaths along the canal.
14. Lots of Concerts, Sports, and Events to Watch
Washington DC has several professional sports teams: the Washington Nationals (baseball), DC United (soccer), the Washington Commanders (football), the Washington Wizards (men’s basketball), the Washington Mystics (women’s basketball), and the Washington Capitals (hockey).
Concert halls, arenas, and other venues large and small across the city host a wide variety of performances throughout the year.
➡️Is Washington DC safe?
Overall, Washington DC is a safe destination for tourists. The areas around the National Mall are all generally safe, as well as Georgetown, with pickpockets being the most common risk in this area. Be particularly careful in public transportation spots, as this is a common spot for pickpocketing to occur. Be careful walking alone late at night, and try to stick to well-trafficked and well-lit areas.
The most unsafe areas of Washington DC are in the southeast corner (which isn’t by many tourist spots anyway), so I’d avoid that area.
➡️ How Expensive is Washington DC to Visit?
Washington DC is a decently expensive city in the United States. Hotels tend to be pretty pricey, especially if you want to stay adjacent to the National Mall. Alternatively, you can choose to stay farther out and take the metro into sightsee each day.
If you’re parking in Washington DC, plan to pay anywhere from $20-35 per day for your car. Other costs of transportation were noted in the above “Getting Around” section.
Restaurants tend to be on the more expensive end – around $30-40 for a “standard” meal at dinner, but there are also plenty of fine dining establishments in the city where the prices jumps significantly. Lunch is less expensive, and of course, there are also food trucks around the city where you can grab a “cheap” meal – think amusement park prices.
Attractions around DC is where you’ll really see a cost savings, as almost all sites are free to visit. There are some exceptions: The Spy Museum is around $25-30 per adult ticket (depending on when you go). The National Zoo is free, but if you’re driving, you’ll have to pay $30 for parking. And the Washington National Cathedral is $15 per adult.
Still, you’ll end up paying very little to visit the primary tourist attractions of Washington DC – a great reason to visit the city.
➡️ Best Time to Visit DC
The best time weather-wise to visit Washington DC is in April, May, and June in the spring, and September and October in the fall. Summers in Washington DC are hot and humid, with average highs at 88 degrees F, and an average of 68% humidity. Winters (December-February) are pretty cold, with average highs in the 30’s.
Tourism is definitely the lowest during the winter, with few visitors to the city and subsequently lower hotel prices. DC sees the most visitors between spring and summer. In particular, expect there to be a lot of visitors during school breaks and around the Cherry Blossom festival.
➡️ How Many Days Do You Need in DC?
I would recommend at least 2 days in Washington DC – with 2 days you can see a couple museums, walk the Mall, visit the Capitol (and White House, if you’re lucky), visit some monuments and memorials, enjoy a couple restaurants, and maybe see a few things off the Mall.
On my most recent visit to Washington DC, we were there for 5 days, and we never ran out of things to do. We were there with our kids, and it was their first time there, so our goal was to do ALL the things. Honestly, we could easily used another 3 days to do everything we wanted!
If you only have a day or two in Washington DC, I would recommend going on a nighttime monuments tour – this fun trolley tour with a tour guide takes you past the major monuments and memorials on the National Mall, where you get to see them lit up against the night sky.
Some places you’ll just drive past, stopping for a few minutes in the trolley to hear interesting facts and tidbits about the monuments. At other spots, you’ll get out for 10-15 minutes to see the memorial up close.
👉Check current rates for this Nighttime Monuments Tour here
➡️ A Few Downsides To Visiting Washington DC
- If you don’t like history or museums, like, AT ALL, you’ll run out of things to do faster.
- Hotels and restaurants can be expensive.
- There are a lot of rats (Washington DC has some of the highest levels of rats in the entire country).
Is Washington DC Worth Visiting – The Wrap Up
Absolutely! It is one of the prettiest cities in the United States, steeped in history, and has a great variety of activities. It can also help foster an appreciation and understanding of the United States, which really does hold a unique spot in the history of the world. We hope this helps you plan your trip there!