The Washington, D.C. of today is a far different place from the one you likely visited on that middle school field trip so many years ago. Yes, there are still monuments and museums — including some new places you absolutely should explore — but today, more than 22 million people travel to the nation’s capital annually for its wide array of restaurants, nightlife and cultural attractions. And the best part: some of our favorite spots in D.C. are free.
Here are 10 of our favorite reasons to travel to this historic destination.
Engage in political intrigue
Washington is where government works — or doesn’t, depending on which side of the aisle you’re on. But no matter if you lean left or right, a visit to any of the three branches — the executive, judicial and legislative — is no less interesting.
Sign up well in advance of your stay to schedule a White House tour, particularly if you want to see the West Wing or the Rose Garden. You can book as far as three months and as little as three weeks out.
Similarly, witness Congress at work at the U.S Capitol, where your local representative or senator’s office can coordinate a complimentary tour.
The Supreme Court is also open to the public and, on a first-come, first-served basis, you can even watch the courtroom during live hearings.
Peruse the museums
All of the Smithsonian museums and galleries on the National Mall are complimentary and open to the public every day of the year except Christmas. The new National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Holocaust Memorial Museum (which also closes on Yom Kippur) both require a timed pass for entry during the high season (March to August). You’ll want to secure yours several weeks in advance.
The museums are vast, so it’s best to have an agenda. Try to see popular exhibits — the first ladies’ dresses, Dorothy’s ruby slippers and the Hope Diamond at the National Museum of American History as well as the dinosaur hall at the Natural History Museum immediately spring to mind — on the early side of the day.
The Air and Space Museum is a perennial favorite, too; catch an IMAX movie here, if you can. The National Gallery has two wings, one for modern and one for historic art. The attraction also happens to be one of our favorite lunch stops at the tasty onsite café.
Try to limit yourself to two museums in a single day; otherwise they tend to feel like a bit of a slog.
Tour the monuments
One of the things we love most about D.C.’s monuments is how easily accessible they are—most are walkable and all are open 24/7, every day of the year. If you can, go first thing in the morning around sunrise (or after sunset), when the brightly lit monuments take on an almost otherworldly glow.
The National Cherry Blossom Festival, occurring each March and April, might be the most popular time to tour these attractions, but we prefer the early fall, after summer tourists have departed and just before school groups descend en masse.
Explore the cultural capital
The Kennedy Center is a must-visit destination for its regularly rotating array of off-Broadway shows, ballets, operas and musical acts. Millennium Stage performances are free at 6 p.m. daily and accessible with a complimentary shuttle from the Foggy Bottom Metro station.
You can also peruse local publications like The Washington Post or The Washingtonian for listings of complimentary cultural offerings. Nearly every evening, one of the city’s embassies hosts some sort of gratis event to honor a holiday, festival or to educate locals about a country’s culture.
Experience international flair
Washington has long been a melting pot of different cultures due in part to the array of international residents who come to visit (or stay) for work at embassies, think tanks, universities and businesses.
Many other global flavors are also some of the city’s best. Sample Thai at Little Serow, check out an international-street-fair-inspired menu of small plates at Compass Rose or savor upscale Indian at Rasika.
Indulge in fine dining
Washington’s foodie scene has exploded in recent years, due in no small part to former president Barack Obama’s penchant for dining out.
D.C.’s upscale cuisine is really having a moment, from classic restaurants like the wine-focused Plume, a Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star treat within Four-Star The Jefferson, Washington D.C., to more contemporary American fare at Forbes Travel Guide Recommended restaurants Blue Duck Tavern and Westend Bistro as well as innovative molecular gastronomy at Minibar.
Don’t forget the local dishes
The fine dining in the nation’s capital may be exquisite, but you can’t leave without trying some of the local cuisine. For example, the half-smoke is a uniquely D.C. dish. This smoky beef and pork sausage is best served smothered in chili and cheese at Washington institution Ben’s Chili Bowl.
In the summer, don’t miss Chesapeake blue crabs served steamed with plenty of Old Bay — Cantler’s, about 45 minutes away in Annapolis, is the best bet — or in a crabcake at a D.C. spot known for fresh fish, like Occidental Grill & Seafood, which rests next door to Forbes Travel Guide Recommended Willard InterContinental.
A relatively temperate climate, not to mention an excellent public transportation system, makes getting out and about in the nation’s capital a breeze.
In the warm months, take to the Potomac for kayaking and paddle boarding, go for a morning jog around the monuments or bike down the paths that curve in and out of D.C.’s many national parks.
If you prefer indoor activities, this workout-obsessed city (rated second fittest in the country by the American Fitness Index) has its fair share of boutique gyms, too, ranging from cult favorites like SoulCycle to Pilates-inspired SolidCore.
Venture outside the city proper
One of the best things about D.C. is how easy it is to explore nearby areas. Public transportation seamlessly connects the capital to Maryland and the Northern Virginia area.
While you’re out, be sure to stop by the city of Alexandria, where you can wander through scenic Old Town’s many shops and restaurants or visit historic places like Arlington National Cemetery, Mount Vernon and The Pentagon. Or travel a little further afield to discover the region’s wineries, breweries and distilleries.
Relax in style
There’s a sumptuous spot for every type of traveler in Washington. If it’s shopping you’re after, stay in Georgetown at the intimate Rosewood, Washington DC, Four-Star The Ritz-Carlton Georgetown or the elegant Five-Star Four Seasons Hotel, Washington D.C.
For those who want to hit as many museums as possible, the Four-Star Mandarin Oriental, Washington D.C. offers easy access to the National Mall and the buzzy new District Wharf as well.
We also love historic Four-Star The Hay-Adams, where you can ask for a room with a White House view.
For business meetings, nothing beats the locations of Four-Star The St. Regis Washington, D.C., perfectly positioned near K Street lobbying firms, or Four-Star The Ritz-Carlton, Washington D.C. in the heart of the West End.