10 Must-See Attractions in Washington, DC

Washington, DC

There are many, many exciting sites to see in Washington, DC. From the big attractions like the Washington Monument to neighborhood attractions like Howard Theater in Shaw, DC is packed with history, arts, and entertainment.

We have been fortunate enough to see most of capital region’s sites, and have our personal favorites of the must-see venues and attractions. Here are our top ten.

1) The Monuments and Memorials at Night

The Lincoln Memorial

The National Mall has much to offer, from the Smithsonian museums to the Capitol Building to the monuments and memorials that line the western side of the park. They are all magnificent in their own right, but nothing compares to the monuments and memorials at night.

The National Park Service does a great job lighting the memorials, creating a grand tour through the annals of history. Put on your walking shoes, and  start your sunset/evening walk from the Lincoln Memorial to the Jefferson Memorial with stops along the way, including:

  • Vietnam Memorial
  • Constitution Gardens (reflecting the Washington Monument)
  • WWII Memorial (another view of the Washington Monument)
  • MLK Memorial
  • FDR Memorial
  • Jefferson Memorial

You should be able to complete the walk in two hours with many stops along the way. Enjoy Washington at its best.

2) The Library of Congress

The Library of Congress

Another magnificent piece of architecture, the Library of Congress is perhaps one of if not the most ornate structures of the many federal buildings in Washington, DC. This building is a temple of worship for knowledge, as Thomas Jefferson would appreciate it. A marquee piece from the gilded age, you cannot help but feel awe inspired by the main foyer and the reading room.

The exhibitions are outstanding, too, ranging from Thomas Jefferson’s founding of the Library of Congress to reflections on America’s baseball culture.

Whether you see the building alone, or as part of a visit to see your representative, the U.S. Congress, and/or the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress is a must-see stop on your trip to Washington, DC.

3) The U Street Corridor

Ben’s Chili Bowl

If you live in the DC area for any period, you come to know the neighborhoods, and no community is more relevant to DC’s cultural history than the U Street corridor. From Duke Ellington to Martin Luther King, major African American luminaries visited this neighborhood until the riots of 1968. In the 1980s a renaissance began, and U Street became the hip neighborhood in DC.

Now a scene for hipsters and jazz enthusiasts alike, U Street offers fun clubs, historic architecture and sites, and incredible murals on almost every free wall. There are also great restaurants with varying types of cuisine, from Ethiopian to the landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl, home of the half-smoke.

Must see sites include:

  • The Lincoln Theater
  • The Howard Theater
  • The first African American YMCA
  • African American Civil War Museum

Don’t miss this incredible neighborhood, an epicenter of real Washingtonian life.

4) George Washington’s Mount Vernon

George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Washington, DC became the seat of government in March 1801. Before serving as the home to our government, the region was home to the nation’s first president, George Washington (1732-1797).

Walk through history and tour George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate in Alexandria, Virginia. You will see where visitors came to see the nation’s first president and hero of the Revolutionary War.

The colonial mansion was more than just a beautiful home with an incredible vista overlooking the Potomac River. AsIt was also a working farm supporting the Washington household and with its own distillery, Mount Vernon was the prototype of American corporate farming. Visit this natural treasure and see how the Washingtons lived in the late 18th century.

5) The National Cathedral

The Seeing Deeper light show at the National Cathedral.

Washington, DC plays host to the government, it is also home to significant embassies, universities, and major religious centers. One of the most beautiful religious buildings in the city is the non-denominational National Cathedral. The second most massive religious structure in the United States, the National Cathedral had its first stone places in 1907 during Teddy Roosevelt’s administration and was completed in 1990 during George H.W. Bush’s presidency.

Playing host to primary funeral services and religious events, including the functions of past presidents, the interior of the National Cathedral is stunning! The original vaulting and flying buttresses are delightful. The rose window is also quite beautiful.

If you can manage to time your visit, be sure also to take the gargoyle tour, which is pretty unique. There are numerous gargoyles and grotesques including a famous Darth Vader grotesque.

6) Georgetown Neighborhood

Georgetown as viewed from Teddy Roosevelt Island.

Right down the road from the National Cathedral is the historic Georgetown neighborhood. Georgetown is DC’s oldest neighborhood, and his played home to some of DC’s most celebrated luminaries and is the site of several movies, most notably The Exorcist and Wonder Woman 1984.

Of all the famous people who have lived in Georgetown, none are perhaps more mythical than JFK and Jacqueline Onassis. The two began dating while living in Georgetown, and some accounts have JFK proposing tothe Jackiequi O. at the historic Martin’s Tavern. Additional sites to see include:

  • C&O Canal
  • Georgetown Cupcake
  • Georgetown Waterfront
  • Architecture and cobblestone streets (focus on O & P Streets)
  • Dumbarton Oaks
  • Georgetown University

Wear good walking shoes, and be ready to use your check card. Georgetown also has a vibrant shopping district.

7)The Kennedy Center

The Kennedy Center Opera House

The cornerstone of the DC Live Arts scene, the Kennedy Center serves as a living memorial to JFK. The incredible structure plays host to several events every day, from plays and live music performances to ballet and opera.

All concerts and performances on the Millenium Stage are free. If you want to see a significant performance, please be sure to book your event well in advance. Major performances sell out quickly.

Of course, the opera house is worth a visit in its own right. The incredible Austrian Crystal Chandeliers are amazing, as are the 18 chandeliers in the entry hallway. The all-wood acoustic concert hall is also worth a visit. While you are at the Kennedy Center, make sure to take a stroll on the roof and see the city from one of the best vistas.

8) The Smithsonian Museums

The Space Shuttle Discovery can be seen at the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Museum

When it comes to artworks and history, a trip to Washington means a trip to at least one of the venerable Smithsonian Institution Museums in Washington, DC. Lining the national mall, and littered throughout the region, these museums serve as a cornerstone for any visit to the District of Columbia.

Museums themes include modern art, portraits, African American art, natural history, American history, air and space, Native American culture, and much, much more. See the whole list of museums and exhibitions here:

When you visit, give yourself time to enjoy each museum. The larger sites often take two to three hours to appreciate the totality of the experience.

Co-located with the Smithsonian buildings on the National Mall is the equally impressive National Gallery of Art. From Monet to a big modern blue rooster you can see a wide-ranging and beautifully diverse series of artworks.

9) The Franciscan Monastery

The Franciscan Monastery by Gary House

An insider’s list needs more than just the mainstays, so enjoy the first of two hidden treasures in the Greater Washington area. The Franciscan Monastery offers beautiful architecture and grand vistas in its garden.

As noted in our Franciscan Monastery gatheringmeetup, “This national shrine that sustains this 800-year mission of the Franciscan Friars in the Holy Land by serving as a ‘“Little Jerusalem’” in America. In addition to the catacombs and interior, the Franciscan Monastery has two major garden plots worth visiting. During the Garden Tour, you will learn about the history, architecture, plants, and friars as you explore the formal upper garden, more natural lower garden and the vegetable garden and bee apiaries behind the monastery.”

It’s a pilgrimage for those who cannot make it to the Holy Land. Enjoy the Franciscan Monastery and all of its beautiful wonders.

10) Great Falls National Park

Great Falls, VA

Did you know one of the East Coast’s best National Parks is located right outside Washington, DC?  Great Falls, Virginia offers incredible vistas of these Class 5 rapids. But don’t go in the water, several people die every year kayaking or swimming in these dangerous waters.

Walk along the beautiful Potowmack Canal, partially funded by George Washington, which helped boats navigate the dangerous falls. Other attractions include the equally impressive Mathers Gorge, a popular destination for kayakers and rock climbers alike. Enjoy a hike in the beautiful nature and scenes of Great Falls, Virginia.

The Maryland side of the park features the incredibly difficult Billy Goat Trail, which skirts along the east side of Mathers Gorge. You can also enjoy a comfortable walk on the C&O Canal.

What attractions would you add?

All photography by Geoff Livingston with the exception of the Franciscan Monastery.