What to Do in Washington D.C.: A Guide

Washington D.C. is one of my favorite cities. After visiting it for the first time in 2010, I ended up spending a summer in D.C. interning at the Department of State. It was such a cool experience getting to live and explore a new city – and I got to spend a lot of time with family there. I’ve visited in early spring (end of March), early winter (mid December), and of course, stayed there in the summer (end of May – beginning of August) during one of the hottest summers they had in 30 years! I look forward to coming back to see an East Coast fall.

I love that there’s so much happening there – there’s so much history to explore, museums to visit, and other cool events that happen throughout the year. And it’s only gotten better. When I visited 5 years after my stay there, D.C. got much cooler. I mean, it’s gotten much more gentrified, but the food scene has gotten much more interesting. You’ll see that the “Dining” section is the largest, of course.

I divided up this guide into three sections: Dining, Shopping & Activities, and Sightseeing. There’s also a last section with other things on our list that we didn’t get a chance to do and I would want to check out next time. I also indicated which neighborhood each location is in, since it can get hard coordinating what to do on each day – if you’re a planner like me, that is!

DINING

Of course, dining is a big part of any trip I take – even if I wasn’t a food blogger! It’s another way to explore the city and get a feel for the local life, especially if a city has dishes and cuisines its known for. D.C. has really stepped its game up in terms of food – and they already had a good one to begin with! I also tend to be more bougie on a trip in regards to food, because I don’t know when I’ll get to visit again!

  • American Ice Company – I really loved the vibe of this place since they made it to look like a garage with rolled up doors and everyone was hanging out on picnic tables. The menu was simple and to the point, but it had delicious twists on classics. I had a lemon-pepper chicken sausage with a mayo horseradish sauce and slaw as well as a hearty bowl of chili. Everything had a lot of flavor, but tasted so much better and lighter since it was all in house.
  • [Capitol Hill] Cava Mezze – Okay, I still think about Cava Mezze sometimes. Mezze is similar to tapas, you eat a bunch of small plates that can be hot or cold. With a Mediterranean Greek menu, this was so up my alley. When you get their sampler, you get to choose from a bunch of dips and bites, and one of my favorites is their crazy feta, which is whipped feta and jalapeno. They sell it in local Whole Foods there, so I would buy it to snack on at home too. We’d also get mini gyros, because, who doesn’t like gyros? These were awesome since they put the fries in the wrap! The gyro consisted of the usual gyro meat, fries, tzatziki, tomatoes, and pickled onions. 
  • [Dupont Circle] District Taco – This taco spot was originally a food truck that eventually opened a brick and mortar. When you step inside, it’s similar to that of Chipotle or the Counter where you can customize your order to your liking – you can choose between tacos, burritos, quesadillas, etc. What I like more about this place is they have a wider variety of toppings than Chipotle. It’s good for a quick bite to grab and go!
  • [Foggy Bottom] District Commons – I got to come here twice with my office while I was interning – the first after a good Senate Hearing and the second as my going away lunch! It’s a really clean, hip looking restaurant that still has a sense of its historical roots with the the art documenting its history. This place also has Oprah’s seal of approval – she was literally sitting at the table next to mine when I visited the first time! I wanted to go up to her but she seemed busy and I didn’t want to be unprofessional in front of my colleagues. They have really good flatbread pizzas, like a smoked salmon and lemon-dill marscapone (though it solidified that I hate smoked food), and the one that I liked with roasted sweet peppers, goat cheese, and basil pesto.
  • [Georgetown] Georgetown Cupcakes – If you’ve watched TLC, then you’ve probably flipped by and seen “D.C. Cupcakes”. Last time when I visited, we were told to stop and try the cupcakes here and I absolutely loved them. I think I like them almost as much as I love Magnolia’s cupcakes in NYC. There’s always a long line but I think it’s worth it. Or you could do the genius thing and preorder your cupcakes, skip the line, and head to the pickup spot – which is what I did when I was around for the summer. Some of my favorites were the Chocolate^3 (Valrhona chocolate cupcake with a rich Callebaut chocolate ganache icing topped with french chocolate sprinkles), Hummingbird (fresh banana, pineapple, and pecan cupcake topped with a vanilla cream cheese frosting, chopped pecans, and a blue fondant hummingbird), and Salted Caramel (Caramel cupcake with a salted caramel-infused buttercream frosting topped with a caramel drizzle).
  • [Mt. Vernon Triangle] A Baked Joint – A Baked Joint is the sister store to Baked & Wired, which is a bakery I had already heard about – which already had the seal of approval from a friend. It’s a big cafe spot where you can get work done or socialize with friends. It’s also in an area of D.C. that’s getting revitalized and updated. These biscuits were so good that we came back TWICE during our trip. It was crunchy on the inside, soft on the inside and each nook and cranny had all of these delicious fresh herbs. It looked like a homemade biscuit and it tasted so much better than I could have anticipated!
  • [Penn Quarter] China Chilcano – China Chilcano is a José Andrés restaurant that has a unique take on Peruvian food by celebrating its multi-cultural cuisines. South America is unique in that it’s had different ethnic groups migrate to different countries throughout the continent. The restaurant combines traditional Peruvian dishes, Nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian cuisine), and Chifa (Chinese-Peruvian cuisine) together for a really fun and interesting menu.  One of my favorites were the The Pegao Norteño. These lamb pot stickers with aderezo norteño, crispy cumin lace, and gold flakes were delicious! The crunch makes it really interesting with the hearty lamb.
  • [Penn Quarter] Jaleo – This is the other Jose Andres restaurant I went to, but I actually went to the one in Bethesda since we were going to watch Star Wars right after. Jaleo is Spanish inspired cuisine with tapas! We had cheese plates, steak, and paella, of course. You won’t be disappointed if you have a meal here.
  • [Penn Quarter] Oyamel – After being on the East Coast for most of my summer, I was really missing good Mexican food. Chipotle and Baja Fresh can only quell cravings for so long. A Jose Andres restaurant is the way to go. The simple fact that the waiter makes you FRESH guacamole at your table sold me. And it came in the largest pot in the world. I could’ve eaten that the whole night and been happy.  I ordered a chicken enchilada with green sauce and a bunch of cheese. This was one of the RARE times I finished everything on my plate. I’m notorious for bringing home leftovers because portions are so large.
  • [Penn Quarter] Pitango Gelato – A cute gelato spot that’s perfect to walk over to after dinner in Penn Quarter. I got the Nocciola (Hazelnut), which is one of my favorite flavors because of course, it’s Nutella and Ferrero Rocher. I was in heaven, basically.
  • [Penn Quarter] Rasika – Rasika is one of those D.C. spots you need to check out. It’s Indian fine dining done right. Luckily, we can get some of those amazing flavors in SF at August 1 Five, as the chef who created Rasika moved on to open August 1 Five. You want to make reservations a little in advance, but it’s not too hard to get. Make sure to get the Palaak Chaat which is fried spinach leaves with a chutney sauce on top.  I was a bit skeptical at first just because I was like oh.. it’s just fried leaves? I didn’t understand why my cousins were raving about it. They said that sometimes they’d just come and order JUST this dish. But when I tried it, it was delicious! It’s perfectly crispy, and has the perfect amount of masala in the sauce.The restaurant combines traditional Peruvian dishes, Nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian cuisine), and Chifa (Chinese-Peruvian cuisine) together for a really fun and interesting menu.
  • [Shaw] Supra – This was my first time having Georgian food – and D.C.’s first Georgian restaurant. Georgian cuisine has a lot of similarities to Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food, so it’s something I’m very familiar with. Supra is family style and small plates, so we ordered small plates from the “hot” section. Be sure to order Khinkali, Georgian soup dumplings. This was my first time having any type of soup dumpling, so I was very excited. The broth had a hearty beefy flavor and very comforting on a cold day. And it’s also addicting.

SIGHTSEEING

There’s honestly so much to do in Washington D.C. The history nerd in me was so enthralled the first time I visited, because so much of this country’s history and current events are situated in this unique city. During my summer internship, I basically felt like I was in Hamilton the Musical, before it even existed. I’m all about learning history, culture and visiting architecture/landmarks since I find it fascinating, so that’s where my recommendations tend to lean towards.

  • Supreme Court (Capitol Hill) – I didn’t actually get to go inside the building, but it’s a sight to behold. It’s insane to be able to walk up those steps knowing about so many landmark rulings that were decided within that building. When I was doing my internship, I was really set on going to law school and becoming a lawyer, so this was extra fascinating to me. I’m still very interested in politics and current events, so regardless, I would be geeking out! I also kept singing Schoolhouse Rock while I was there because I’m that lame.
  • Library of Congress (Capitol Hill) – I got even lamer and geeked out even more at the Library of Congress! It’s the national library and the oldest cultural institution in the United States. It’s also the largest library in the world with over 168 million items. It’s such a pretty building to visit and check out the different exhibits and installations, including Thomas Jefferson’s library. The book nerd and English major in me also couldn’t contain being here. During my last visit, we went through the process of getting admitted to the Reading Room, which is what you see down below when visiting the Library, and you can actually go into the collections and look at books! I believe only Congress and related officials can check out books, but just being able to go into the stacks was insane and amazing.
  • The Capitol (Downtown) – Another must if you’re visiting. You can explore the area through the visitor center and get a feel for what the Capitol building is like even though it is obviously in use during work hours. I think there’s also a way to get to the Library of Congress from underneath but I honestly don’t remember where we were going lol. I do want to take a proper tour next time because it looks like you get access to more areas of the building, but it does require advance planning.
  • National Archives (Federal Triangle) – Again, if it’s your first time, you need to go here. Here at their museum, they have the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights on display. It’s a sight to see these founding documents of this country. There are also several temporary and permanent exhibits on display and it is an actual archive where the public can request records such as from the Civil War.
  • Smithsonian Museums (National Mall) – It’s hard to do all 19 (a couple are actually in New York) Smithsonian museums in one visit (or even one summer!), but I’ve done a fair amount of them. It’s so nice and freeing because they’re all free, so you can hop in and hop out as much as you want! I love that freedom because you could decide to see specific exhibits to pack them all in, and not feel like you have to spend your whole day in one museum because of the cost. My favorites would probably be the National Museum of African American History and Culture (this is their newest and best one yet – it’s done so well that you really want to go through each floor and learn so much! So incredibly moving), National Museum of American History (cool cultural artifacts from the Star Spangled Banner flag to Julia Child’s kitchen), the Freer and Sackler Galleries (has a lot of South Asian and Islamic art among other Asian art including the Peacock Room!), and the National Portrait Gallery (houses all of the presidential portraits including the Obamas, which I didn’t get to see since they were made available after I last visited).
  • National Mall (National Mall) – The Mall is another must see because it has all of the iconic American monuments all clustered together. It is a long walk, but again you can pick and choose which ones you want to see and plan your trip accordingly. I think between all of my visits I’ve hit every monument and seen my favorites multiple times. Among them are the Washington Monument (you literally see it everywhere like the Eiffel Tower), the Lincoln Memorial (that reflection pool is stunning and the quotes they chose were great), the Jefferson Memorial (again, another stunning monument even if I have issues with Jefferson), and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument (the visual that they chose for him was interesting and it feels like a lesser visited monument, which is really unfortunate).
  • The Yards (Navy Yard) – This whole area has been revitalized by the time I came back in 2017. This used to be pretty dead, but they made brand new housing and shopping complexes that are structured together, and now there’s a ton of food and activity here! It’s the cool place to be between Milk Bar popping up and so much more. I’m looking forward to checking this out next time I come back, because it’s such a great place to walk around, explore, and get that amazing waterfront view.
  • Newseum (Penn Quarter) – This is also another favorite museum, though it’s not a Smithsonian. The mission of this museum is to educate people about the importance of the free press and the first amendment. It takes you through the entire evolution and journey of the press from newspapers to television and the internet. Some of the incredible exhibits they had were the Hurricane Katrina exhibit (this was a temporary one), the 9/11 exhibit with all of the magazine covers that came after the incident and features an antennae from one of the buildings, and an actual piece of the Berlin Wall. I also wanted to be a journalist in another life so this was also extra fascinating to me.

SHOPPING & ACTIVITIES

I don’t really go shopping much on trips to be honest. My budget is allocated more towards food, transportation, housing, and activities, so it’s last on my list – especially if I’m just traveling domestically. I do look up those areas though because they’re usually flanked by restaurants and other things to see, which are listed below.

  • Georgetown – This is D.C.’s oldest neighborhood, and it’s one of the cutest. It may be home to Georgetown University, but there’s a lot to see as you walk down the colorful streets. There’s endless shopping, restaurants, and a beautiful view of the Potomac river. Surprisingly, I haven’t eaten here much since I wasn’t staying very close to the area, but there’s a bunch of cool new spots that have popped up in the last couple of years.
  • Go to a baseball game – I’m not a baseball fan in general, but the only games I’ve been to were in D.C.! The Nationals Park was completely redone a few years ago, so it’s nice and new. There are a ton of great eating options from D.C. staples like Ben’s Chili Bowl to everyone’s favorite Shake Shack. It’s a fun time to hang out at the stadium and a game – even if you’re not too into the game itself.
  • National Zoo – I finally got to go to the zoo during my last visit! Ive’ wanted to go to to the Smithsonian National Zoo because it’s one of the oldest zoos in the United States and has such a large variety of animals to see – including my favorite, the red panda! Ever since I saw YouTube videos of those silly dudes years ago, they’ve become my favorites. I also got to see the awesome panda family (especially the baby, Bei-Bei) that is featured on their Instagram frequently. It honestly made my day when I finally saw a red panda in person – and I’m not really a huge animal person. The zoo is pretty large, so you could spend the whole day there, with the 300 different species exhibited. I also appreciate that it’s a research facility that works to care for and rescue endangered species, so it’s not just an attraction.
  • Pentagon City Mall (Fashion Centre at Pentagon City)- Okay, this isn’t in D.C., but it’s so close that you can just hop on the Metro and get taken directly to the mall. It’s the largest mall in Arlington, Virginia, with over 170 stores to visit. I include it because it’s nice to get all your shopping done in one spot – and malls are an easy, family friendly activity. If you’re staying there for an extended period of time, it’s a nice spot to check out.
  • Ride the D.C. Metro – This should probably be above the mall, but my list is in alphabetical order, heh. The Metro makes it really convenient to go through the DMV (D.C./Maryland/Virginia) area, and it’s better than BART. I didn’t end up going on it much because I had a ride to my internship and family that lives there, but it’s something worth taking note of as a really good transportation option. It’s akin to the subway in New York.
  • Visit Union Market – This could technically be in the Dining section since it is a food hall with over 40 vendors, but it also has other small shops located inside as well. It originally was farmer’s market that fell into disrepair a few times throughout the decades, but is now being revived with the high quality food options available. Think the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Reading Terminal in Philadelphia, or Grand Central Market in Los Angeles. What I especially like is that they employ students from near by Gallaudet University, which is the first university specifically designed for the deaf and blind.

THINGS WE DIDN’T GET TO DO

You’re probably thinking, “why is this even a list if you didn’t experience it?” Some of these things were included on our final choices, but we cut things out in favor for above, it didn’t work out with timings, or we just simply ran out of time. I would want to come back to check these things out – as well as explore new things!

  • Bad Saint – This Filipino restaurant was named one of D.C.’s best restaurants in 2017 – the year I last visited. It’s a really small spot and the reservations fill up fast! Hoping that maybe the hype isn’t insane the next time I go to check it out.
  • Call Your Mother Deli – It’s a deli that’s supposed to have really good bagels! I LOVE bagels and pastries and carbs, so it would be dumb if I didn’t go check it out next time I’m there.
  • Lost Sock Coffee – Honestly, I just really like their name, which makes me want to check it out lol. They roast their own coffee and are also in several coffee shops in the area, but they just seem like chill people.
  • Smithsonians I still haven’t been to – I can’t really remember which ones I haven’t visited at this point but Hirshhorn and the Renwick gallery come to mind. I want to stop into them next time.
  • Smorgasborg D.C. – Okay, this isn’t a thing I could’ve missed out on since they just launched in D.C. this month, but I haven’t been to the ones in New York or L.A. either, so if I’m around I’d be down to check it out. D.C. also has a big truck/vendor scene, so I know it’ll be worthwhile.
  • Thip Khao – This was another restaurant that was a potential option, but there just wasn’t enough time! I put it as a lesser priority since it is Thai food, and it’s something that I regularly eat anyway. However, it also has really good buzz as well, so will be back for that!
  • Timber Pizza Company – I always love a good pizza spot and this one looked so delicious! I didn’t make it out there on the last visit since it was over in Georgetown and conflicted with other plans.
  • Tour the White House – The only reason I haven’t done this is because you need to arrange it at least a month in advance. I was actually supposed to go for an event through my internship but I got sick, so I never ended up going! I didn’t bother last time because of the current administration, so this will be an outing for another time.

And that’s the list! I hope I didn’t make it too long,, but I think there are a lot of fun options no matter what type of trip you’re taking. Let me know below in the comments if this was helpful and if you have any thoughts or other D.C. recommendations! Be sure to check out the vlog below to get a closer look!

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