Washington, DC, attracts travelers of all sorts, from nature lovers and history buffs to city slickers and trendsetters. A typical weekend in the district could include jogging along the Georgetown waterfront, indulging in a bottomless brunch on U Street or getting lost in one of the many free museums on the National Mall. 

Here are the top things to do on your visit to the US capital. 

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1. Get a history lesson at the Smithsonian museums

What's a trip to DC without visiting all the museums and monuments? All the Smithsonian museums are free and can easily dominate the focus of any trip to the capital. From the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to the National Museum of African American History and Culture there's a deep well of historic knowledge to learn. 

Planning tip: Most of the museums also offer free guided tours – check the individual websites to see what's happening when.

21 free things to do in Washington, DC

2. Take a walking tour 

Not sure what neighborhood to explore first or want to learn the history behind some of the most iconic spots in the district? Join a free walking tour. Walking tours are the perfect way to gain a different perspective and a deeper appreciation of a city and the people who live there through a local eye. Pick a company that works with the community, such as Cultural Tourism DC or Washington Walks.

3. Soak up the splendor of the National Mall

A nation is many things: its people, its history, its politics and its amassed knowledge. Each one of these is given architectural life on the National Mall, the center of iconography of the most iconic city in the US. It's where the nation’s ideals are expressed in educational institutions, monuments and memorials. It's also where Americans come to protest, rally and watch presidential inaugurations. A monument-studded park edged by the magnificent Smithsonian museums, this must-visit destination provides days – if not weeks – of enjoyment and edification for visitors.

4. Travel your taste buds at Compass Rose

Want to tour the world without needing your passport? At Compass Rose, the goal is to send your taste buds around the world from the comfort of this northwest neighborhood restaurant. Plot an international escape and order the Tour of the World menu, which showcases dishes from countries around the planet, from Jamaican lamb curry to fresh Lebanese salads and kebabs from Senegal.

Planning tip: It's a 2.5-hour experience that anyone can enjoy. Dishes are shareable, and guests are seated outside in a Bedouin-style tent.

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Kayakers on the Potomac River at sunset in Georgetown, Washington, DC
Get out on the Potomac River by renting a kayak in Georgetown © Camrocker / Getty Images

5. Explore Georgetown

What isn't there to do in Georgetown? It's easy to spend a day getting lost in this charming neighborhood filled with eye-catching architecture and cobblestone streets. Georgetown Waterfront Park is the perfect place for a walk or run and has a garden to enjoy. A bike path traces the C&O Canal, built in the 1800s to transport goods to West Virginia. You can rent kayaks, canoes and paddleboards from Boating in DC to explore the Potomac or Anacostia rivers.

If you need some retail therapy, Georgetown has a host of vintage shops filled with stylish goodies, such as Reddz Trading

Shop for vintage treasures at these Washington, DC, consignment and thrift stores

6. Stop and shop at Eastern Market

Eastern Market is a beautiful way to experience a ton of local DC business in one day. The market has everything from fresh produce and flowers to more than 100 vendors selling handmade crafts and jewelry. Located in Capitol Hill, Eastern Market was built in 1873 and is the last of the 19th-century covered markets that once supplied DC’s food.

Planning tip: Eastern Market has both indoor and outdoor sections with varying hours, so check before visiting. 

A giant panda rests on a large stone structure at Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, DC
Don't miss the playful pandas at Smithsonian's National Zoo © John Baggaley / Getty Images

7. Adore the animals at Smithsonian's National Zoo

Smithsonian's National Zoo is a beloved attraction in the district. Founded in 1889, the zoo is home to 2700 animals, and popular stops include the pandas, big cats and orangutans, which swing 50ft overhead from steel cables and interconnected towers (called the O-Line).

Planning tip: Walk-in tickets are available, but you can reserve a free ticket online up to 30 days in advance.

8. Join a community event at Busboys and Poets

Busboys and Poets describes itself as a "cultural hub where racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted." From empowerment events to spoken-word nights, this community gathering space has so much to offer. Founded in 2005 by Iraqi-American artist and activist Andy Shallal, Busboys and Poets has expanded to eight locations throughout Washington, DC. Come for the food and coffee shop but stay for the community. 

9. Have your mind blown at Artechouse 

Science, art and technology collide at Artechouse, a digital art experience and incubator that takes the limits off creativity. The mission of Artechouse is to inspire, educate and empower. Imagine art jumping off the wall, vibrant lights and bright colors. Walking through any exhibit will feel like a sci-fi movie coming to life. 

10. Catch a live performance at the Kennedy Center

The legendary Kennedy Center is the nation's cultural hub. It typically puts on more than 2000 performances each year in venues including the Concert Hall (home to the National Symphony Orchestra) and Opera House, home to the Washington National Opera.

Planning tip: Watch a free performance on the Millennium Stage daily at 6pm as part of the center's “Performing Arts for Everyone” initiative.

People walk outside at the Municipal Fish Market at The Wharf in Washington, DC. In the background are exteriors of Jessie's Cooked Seafood and Captain White Seafood City
The Municipal Fish Market is the oldest continuously operating open-air fish market in the United States © Barry Winiker / Getty Images

11. Walk along the water at The Wharf 

The Wharf is a mile-long stretch along the Potomac River that bustles with rooftop restaurants and shops. Throughout the week, yoga classes take place along the Waterfront. The Municipal Fish Market at The Wharf is home to the nation's oldest continuously operating open-air fish market (it opened in 1805). It's a vibrant hub with live music, bars and family-friendly activities like a s'more-making station.

12. Get into nature at Rock Creek Park

Take a break from the hustle and bustle of the city and visit Rock Creek Park, a wild corner of Washington, DC. The park is twice the size of Central Park in New York City and has trails for hiking, cycling and horseback riding.

This article was first published June 2021 and updated August 2022

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