It’s easy to ride the Metro or hop on a bike and explore all that the nation’s capital has to offer. The backbone of the city is built on arts and culture. Enjoy awe-inspiring art galleries, unmatched museums, thriving performing arts and music scenes and so much more.
Where editors like to take a stroll through the Mall at twilight, aka “the magic hour,” when crowds subside and the illuminated monuments take on added poignancy—ideal for photos. The Mall makes for a picturesque backdrop after a snowstorm, too. Don’t forget to go to the top of Washington Monument for 360-degree city views.
With ever-tightening security, touring the White House takes some advance planning. But there are plenty of worthy exterior photo ops, especially from the north side. And keep an eye out for peaceful demonstrators of all sorts, like Concepcion Picciotto, who from her tent in Lafayette Park protested against nuclear arms for 30-plus years.
To take a free guided tour, book a slot online or arrive early at the visitor center’s “Public Walk-up” to score one of the few same-day tickets. The entire 580,000-square-foot visitors center lies underground to avoid detracting from the appearance of the Capitol.
Signing up for a guided tour helps visitors navigate this popular museum. To minimize long waits for the Einstein Planetarium and IMAX films, purchase tickets in advance online. To get through security more quickly, keep bags to a minimum.
Cass Gilbert, architect of the imposing all-marble building, left a “lasting impression” of himself. Look up at the west pediment to find his carved portrait (third from left), alongside those of chief justices and the allegorical figures of Order, Liberty Enthroned and Authority.
The best time to visit this enormous collection of American artifacts is midweek, midday. Highlights include “The Star-Spangled Banner” display, Julia Child’s kitchen, American Stories (Dorothy’s ruby slippers, a piece of Plymouth Rock) and First Ladies and their glamorous inauguration gowns.
Located in East Potomac Park, this marble ode to Renaissance man Thomas Jefferson provides one of the best views of downtown D.C. from across the Tidal Basin. Many walk the distance (it's far but beautiful), but biking around the basin gets you there faster. Capital Bikeshare and Bike and Roll (which offers guided tours) are two options.
Visitors stroll through the Butterfly Pavilion for free on Tuesdays (normally $6, $5 children 2-12 years) with timed tickets (10 a.m. at the box office). Dom Pedro is just as exquisite as the Hope Diamond, but easier to see (and curse-free). The O. Orkin Insect Zoo shows off creepy, crawlies and offers daily tarantula feedings.
Yes, the main attractions are on stage, but we like to arrive early for a glass of champagne on the large terrace with stunning city and river views. Another tip: You can sometimes spot the night’s performers grabbing a pre-show bite in the upper-level KC Café.
A trolley tour ($12; children 4-12, $6) offsets walking the 600-acre grounds, while the ANC smartphone app has in-depth details for those wishing to get around on their own. The Changing of the Guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier shouldn’t be missed. Finding a specific grave marker also makes for a singular experience.
One of the best ways to get to George Washington’s home? By boat, as his guests often did back in the day. Not only is a river approach relaxing, but it gives great sightlines on the hilltop mansion from its most impressive angle. The Potomac Riverboat Company and Entertainment Cruises both offer tours to the estate.
Works by some of the world’s greatest artists adorn rooms here. One beloved sculpture has even inspired a musical. In 2014, Degas’ “Little Dancer” came to life on a Kennedy Center stage. While more than 30 bronze casts of the sculpture grace museums worldwide, the National Gallery’s wax original is the only one shaped by Degas' hands.
D.C.’s most famous celebrity isn’t a rock star, or even the president, fuzzy bears. Giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian have been captivating hearts of visitors for years. Line up early for a visit to the panda house, which opens at 10 a.m. Mei Xiang is only one of some 2,000 residents, so plan to spend at least half a day here.
For $1 each way, the Circulator bus is an affordable option to this popular zone since Colonial times. Local color abounds in the West Village (west of Wisconsin Avenue, above M Street) with Saxby’s Coffee (O and 35th) and The Tombs (Prospect and 36th). The annual Georgetown House Tour in the spring brings visitors inside grand houses.