DC Guide: What To Do

Hi Everyone!  As I mentioned on Friday, my husband and I are off on a little vacation this week – so I’m taking the opportunity to share some of my favorite things to do in my home base of Washington, DC.  I hope you enjoy!

Illustration by Molly Jacques for Oh So Beautiful Paper

I’ve been a DC resident for nearly ten years, and while I know I’m biased I really do love my city.  From history to art and culture to outdoor spaces, there are so many great things to see and do.  It makes me sad to think that so many people travel to DC each year and never see anything outside the monuments and museums around the National Mall, which really isn’t seeing DC at all!  DC is full of amazing attractions – many of them completely free – so to kick off this little mini guide I thought I’d share a few of our favorite things to do in this beautiful city.

Dumbarton Oaks


Comprised of an art museum (free entry) and well manicured gardens ($8 admission), Dumbarton Oaks is pretty much my idea of a perfect afternoon.  The museum contains a small but well-curated selection of Byzantine and Pre-Colombian art along with a rotating special exhibition.  For any of you who enjoy outdoor spaces, you absolutely MUST visit the breathtaking 16 acre gardens (a bit more on that later), which include a rose garden, beautiful arbors and fountains, several terraces, and groves of blooming trees.

The National Arboretum

National Arboretum: Azaleas

Photo Credit: Garden Visit

National Arboretum: Capitol Columns

Photo Credit: Wikipedia


Situated on 446 acres in Northeast DC, the National Arboretum is an oasis in the middle of DC – especially during spring and summer.  The Arboretum is home to a variety of collections, from magnolias and dogwoods to camellias and azaleas.  The Arboretum is most easily accessed by car or bike and is a beautiful place for an afternoon picnic.  You can also see the original columns from the U.S. Capitol Building, which were transferred to the Arboretum when the Capitol underwent an expansion in 1958.

Library of Congress

Library of Congress: Great Hall

Photo Credit: Wikimedia


The Library of Congress might just be the most beautiful building in all of DC.  Intended to be something of a U.S. answer to Italian Renaissance-style architecture, the construction was overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  But when Congress failed to appropriate funds for the décor, the son of the General in charge of the construction recruited more than 50 U.S. artists to contribute sculptural and painted works – so the the building is full of amazing frescoes and sculptures, a gorgeous painted ceiling, and ornate architectural details (not to mention some awesome exhibits).  We highly recommend signing up for free docent-led tours, which sometimes include a sneak peek at the main interior reading room (pictured above).

National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery 

The National Portrait Gallery is actually two museums in one – a classic art museum with portraits, landscapes, and still life paintings on one end, and modern art collections on the other.  I love them both!  The museum is housed in a gorgeous building that originally served as the U.S. Patent Office and served as the venue for President Lincoln’s second inaugural ball in 1865.

National Air & Space Museum – Udvar-Hazy Center


The National Air & Space Museum on the National Mall is the most visited museum in the entire world.  It’s one of our favorite museums, but it can be unbearably crowded.  Luckily, the museum has an annex building located a little outside of DC (near Dulles Airport) – the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center – and I think it might be even better than the main museum.  The air exhibit includes a historical walk through both civil and military aircraft, while the space exhibit includes lots of interesting rockets, satellites, and a space shuttle!

National Zoo

National Zoo

Photo Credit: Wikipedia


The National Zoo isn’t exactly off the beaten path, but it’s one of our favorite spots in all of DC.  It’s best to try to visit early in the morning or late afternoon, but there is always something fun to see at the Zoo if you’re willing to be patient.  Our favorite exhibits are the Amazonia house, which includes an open air walkway with free roaming monkeys and birds, and the Aviary – which also has an open area with free roaming peacocks, ducks, and other colorful birds.

Congressional Cemetery


Okay, so this one might be the furthest off the beaten path, but we figured it was worth mentioning for any history buffs.  Arlington National Cemetery receives thousands of visitors each year, but did you know about the Congressional Cemetery in East Capitol Hill?  This (much) lesser-known cemetery contains Civil War-era graves along with a few other notable members (J. Edgar Hoover is buried here), and there’s even a free cell phone tour with interesting facts and a bit of gossip.  Bonus: in the spring, the cemetery is full of beautiful cherry blossoms.

p.s. If you’re visiting DC for the first time and want to see the monuments, go see them at night!  They’re way less crowded than during the day, beautifully lit, and I think some of them are even more dramatic at night – particularly the Korean War Memorial and FDR Memorial.

Illustration by Molly Jacques / Except where noted, all photos by Nole Garey for Oh So Beautiful Paper

  1. Perfect timing! My husband and I are coming to DC this weekend for our annual no-kiddie trip. Thanks for the suggestions.

  2. You should make prints of that awesome illustration! Would love to have that for our home

  3. We visited a couple months ago and I miss this city more than ever!!
    We’ll be living there someday within the next five years and I can. not. wait!!

    Enjoy it for us!

  4. I am a huge fan of DC. I’ve been quite a few times and really hope to live there one day. We’ve managed to do all of these things except for Dumbarton Oaks and the National Cemetary!

  5. Thank you for posting your favorite spots. I love playing tourist in DC and there are still areas I have yet to check out. Especially because Udvar-Hazy is not too far from me.

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