10 Washington, D.C., Itineraries for 10 Types of Travelers

America’s capital city has something for every type of traveler.


America’s capital city has something for every type of traveler.

Washington, D.C., reigns as one of the world’s most powerful cities, where white-marble monuments and iconic government buildings, including the White House, U.S. Capitol, and Supreme Court, speak to its political tour de force. What some people don’t realize is that, as government-driven as this city is, it’s also a flourishing metropolis with tons of other offerings. Did you know, for example, it has a thriving theater scene? Or that trails and parks offer a natural escape in the heart of urbanity? Or its foodie scene is making waves? Here are ten itineraries that explore the multifaceted aspects of this complex and fascinating place. On your next visit, don’t just stick to the obvious.

Top Picks for You

For Political Junkies

As most of the world knows, Washington, D.C., is ground zero for political power, and you can get your fill with tours of the U.S. Capitol, White House, and Supreme Court. The White House Visitor Center provides insight into the past-and-present workings of the Executive Mansion with exhibits, artifacts, and archival footage, while The People’s House: A White House Experience, a cutting-edge educational center opening in fall 2024, gives a chance to view facsimiles of the Oval Office, Rose Garden, and other areas not typically seen on the White House tour. But there are lesser-known sites for the political buff as well, including The Monocle, a historic restaurant on Capitol Hill known as a hangout for policymakers.

Ulysses S. Grant enjoyed a cigar and brandy in the Willard Hotel’s lobby—it’s said he coined the term “lobbyist” when petitioners seeking legislative favors pestered him; he called them “those damn lobbyists” (some argue the term dates back to the British Parliament in the 1830s, but it’s still a colorful story). Old Ebbitt Grill, founded in 1856, was Washington’s first saloon; Teddy Roosevelt is reputed to have killed the animal heads hanging from the walls. Today, don’t be surprised if you bump into a political influencer or two; the White House is just across the street, after all.

For Nature Lovers

It might come as a surprise that Washington, D.C., is a natural paradise, but that’s been one of its charms since 18th-century designer Pierre Charles L’Enfant fashioned it in leafy European style. Rock Creek Park is the verdant pièce de résistance, about 4 miles from the White House in Northwest D.C. President Theodore Roosevelt brought his kids here for Sunday hikes (“very real country indeed,” he said), and its trails remain one of the city’s hidden gems. You can’t beat the Tidal Basin in springtime when the fabled cherry blossoms bloom. Grab a Capital Bikeshare bike for a leisurely spin around the basin (preferably in the early morning to avoid crowds) and even venture across the Potomac River along the scenic Mount Vernon Trail. The National Arboretum, out US 50, spans 446 acres of exotic plants, trees, and flowers; dawn redwoods, bonsais, and full moon hikes are some of its allures. Round off a nature itinerary with a stroll or bike ride along the C&O Canal from Georgetown; its historic towpath wanders along the Potomac River into a riverine wilderness alive with deer, foxes, and herons.

For Families

Depending on their ages, kids will enjoy touring iconic sites such as the White House, U.S. Capitol, and National Archives, home to such pivotal founding documents as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. From there, check out the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall, many of which offer age-appropriate activities. The National Museum of American History, for instance, offers an interactive “wonder place” designed for the youngest historians, and the National Museum of the American Indian has a kids’ activity center with lessons about indigenous peoples (see more options here).

Other kid-friendly attractions include the International Spy Museum, which offers a 90-minute Family Highlights Tour; and the National Children’s Museum, with fun, interactive exhibits exploring science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is a tough visit for any age; for kids 9 and older, “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story” introduces the Holocaust’s history through the eyes of Jewish children from Germany. Smithsonian’s National Zoo is an all-time kid favorite, including meets and greets with the animals. If it’s a hot summer day, Yards Park has dancing fountains to splash in, plus canoe and kayak rentals.

For a tip on getting around, BigBus Tours, Unlimited Biking, and Capital Segway Tours are fun ways to see the city. Or hop on a boat and get a watery perspective with SeaSuite Cruises sightseeing tours or CityCruises water taxi.

For Art Buffs

The National Gallery of Art, with its wide-sweeping, centuries-ranging collection of masterpieces in its East and West Wings, is world-famous, but D.C. offers other artistic draws as well—you need to pick and choose what interests you. The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, sharing a historic building in Penn Quarter, spotlight four centuries of American art and, in the case of the latter, influential Americans. Contemporary and modern art take center stage at the Phillips Collection, Hirshhorn Museum, and Sculpture Garden, the new Rubell Museum, and, in neighboring Potomac, the stunning indoor-outdoor Glenstone, featuring pathways wandering past impressive sculptures on extensive grounds.

The Renwick Gallery, affiliated with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, presents American arts and crafts in innovative ways, while global arts find a home at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art and National Museum of African Art. But that’s not all. Gallery hop in Georgetown, at Addison/Ripley Fine Art, Klagsbrun Studios, and Washington Printmakers Gallery, among others; or embark on a self-guided art walk in the greater Dupont Circle area with First Friday Dupont. Don’t overlook the vibrant street murals in various neighborhoods, especially the U Street Corridor; self-guided tours are offered by MuralsDC; see more options here. Finally, Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens offers docent-led tours of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post’s collection of Russian imperial artifacts (including Fabergé eggs) and French decorative art in her opulent, 36-room home.

INSIDER TIPFor something a little different, visit the Artechouse DC, where art, science, and technology intersect in fun, immersive exhibitions. Themes change throughout the year.

For History Explorers 

History lurks around every corner of the Capital City so, again, choose what piques your interest. Georgetown, established in 1789, is the oldest neighborhood, with the Old Stone House providing witness to its earliest days, predating D.C.’s existence. The U.S. Capitol, White House, and Supreme Court are, of course, brim with history, as does the neighboring Library of Congress, adorned with stunning mosaics, frescoes, and marble stairways.

Walk in the footsteps of presidents at Mount Vernon, President Lincoln’s Cottage, Woodrow Wilson House, and The Octagon. Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was assassinated, offers both a museum and live shows on its stage. Explore women’s history at the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument and Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office Museum. The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, located in Anacostia, preserves the home of the former enslaved individual and abolitionist, appearing just as if he stepped out for a moment. For a broader historical perspective, delve into the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the National Museum of the American Indian—pace yourself, as these alone could captivate your attention for days.

Don’t miss the chance to join a historic walking tour with DC by Foot; Fiat Luxe Tours; A Tour of Her Own (focusing on women’s history); and DC Design Tours (emphasizing architecture).

For Theater Lovers

Few people realize D.C. is a hotbed for important theater works that have gone on to find Broadway fame: “Come from Away,” “Mean Girls,” and “Beetlejuice,” among them. You have a plethora of theaters to choose from in all different sizes and styles. There’s the esteemed John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, of course, plus the National Theatre and Warner Theatre, with their Broadway-caliber performances. But there’s more. Arena Stage, one of the nation’s original resident theaters with a history spanning more than 70 years, has gained recognition for its impactful, thought-provoking productions.

For the more unconventional, Woolly Mammoth is provocative and daring, wrestling with big ideas; Studio Theatre focuses on contemporary theater, plays, and occasional musicals; while Atlas Performing Arts Center, housed in a historic theater, stages innovative, community-focused performances spanning dance, music, theater, and spoken word. The 1910 Howard Theatre, once a vibrant hub for African American artists like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, has been beautifully restored and continues to host a variety of performances; and Ford’s Theatre, infamous as the site where Lincoln was assassinated, remains an active and historically significant venue. Don’t forget the Shakespeare Theatre Company, which performs works by Shakespeare and other classic playwrights at the Michael R. Klein Theatre and Sidney Harman Hall.

INSIDER TIPThe Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage offers free performances at 6 p.m.; reserve tickets online.

For Foodies

Long gone is the capital city’s reputation for merely serving steak and bourbon at its dark, smoky joints. There’s been a surge in exciting, innovative, chef-driven restaurants that have earned the attention of Michelin—including The Dabney, Pineapple & Pearls, and Rose’s Luxury. But don’t overlook the smaller neighborhood restaurants, whether they’re elevating global cuisine or blending local flavors, including Le Diplomate, Brookland’s Finest, and Dukem, just a sampling of the hundreds and hundreds of offerings.

Food halls have invaded, notably Union Market in NoMa, which opened in 2012; now you can find them in nearly every neighborhood, including Western Market near GW University, the Latin American La Cosecha in NoMa, and don’t forget historic Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, dating from 1873. Some of the museum restaurants offer seriously good food, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Sweet Home Café and the National Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Native Foods Café. You can make your breakfast-lunch-dinner itinerary or join a foodie tour; Mangia DC Food Tours, Blue Fern, and DC Metro Food Tours are good options (try the Little Ethiopia Food Tour with the latter).

For Scandal Seekers

Washingtonians love a good scandal, and you can’t toss a newspaper without turning up one—or three. Top places to get a scandalous whiff include the Watergate Hotel, which has been renovated to play up the Nixon break-in, the Westin Washington DC City Center, where Mayor Marion Barry was caught using crack in an FBI sting operation (back then, it was the Vista International); the Washington Hilton, site of President Reagan’s 1981 assassination attempt; and Wok and Roll Restaurant, where, back during the Civil War when it was a boardinghouse, a group of conspirators plotted to assassinate President Lincoln.

The International Spy Museum explores the world of spies, including in Washington, D.C. One of the best ways to dive into this world of gossip and scandal is by taking a tour. Recommended ones include DC Insider’s Ghosts, Scandals, and Murder tour; DC by Foot’s Lincoln assassination tour; Spyher, which offers espionage-themed tours led by a former CIA operative; and Fiat Luxe tours, which has a haunted and historic Georgetown Tour.

For Beer Drinkers 

Washingtonians have been brewing beer since the 18th century, thanks to English and German immigrants. Christian Heurich Brewing Company became Washington’s largest beer producer by the early 1900s. You can tour Heurich’s stately DuPont Circle house, which is furnished with the family’s original Victorian furniture; and taste beer in the backyard biergarten (including one beer based on a historic recipe).

The Heurich brewery closed in 1956, and for the decades following, D.C. had no breweries—until the early 1990s, when brewpubs were legalized. The first to open was Capitol City Brewing Company downtown. Since then, the beer scene has exploded, with some of the more popular breweries, including DC Brau, Red Bear, and Right Proper, for starters. Beer hop as you wish, or stroll the Metropolitan Beer Trail, which links 11 breweries and pubs in the NoMa, Ecington, and Brookland neighborhoods, tasting local brews along the way. Alternatively, let someone else do the driving with City Brew Tours, or sample a variety at ChurchKey, offering 500-plus hand-picked labels from D.C. and beyond, including 50 on tap.

For the Top Attractions

Sometimes, all you want to do is explore the most famous sights—which, in itself, could keep you occupied for days or even weeks; make sure to have a plan and pace yourself. Focus on the National Mall, where you can visit iconic landmarks such as the White House, national monuments (including the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument), Smithsonian museums (including the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of American History, two of the country’s most visited museums), and the U.S. Capitol. Remember that you need to book tickets ahead of your visit to the Capitol and White House with your Congressperson.

If you have time, the Library of Congress’s Thomas Jefferson building is stunning with its neo-Renaissance architecture; the Supreme Court never fails to impress; and the somber Arlington National Cemetery, located across Memorial Bridge, has JFK’s eternal flame and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. You might want to purchase tickets for a hop-on, hop-off bus, which will transport you to the major sights at your own pace. The DC Circulator’s National Mall route, which costs only $1 per ride (with free two-hour transfers available), is another convenient option.

INSIDER TIPDownload the National Park Service’s “NPS” app for six self-guided tours of the National Mall: Cherry Blossom Walking Tour; Civil War Memorials; National Mall Half-Day Tour; Obscure Memorials; Women in Military Service; and World War I. Download them before your visit in case your cell service doesn’t work amid a crowd.