A newbie's guide to Washington DC

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The centre of US political life, America's powerhouse of a capital often commands world attention. But Washington DC is much more than an institutional playground - it's a diverse and culturally rich city with enough attractions to keep you busy for weeks.

A newbie's guide to Washington DC, USA © Lazyllama - Dreamstime
A newbie's guide to Washington DC, USA © Lazyllama - Dreamstime

Washington DC is also super accessible thanks to great value fares direct from the UK with Virgin Atlantic*. So, whether you go for the many monuments and museums or to sample the street food and explore local neighbourhoods, Washington DC won't disappoint. Here's our pick of what to do on your first trip.

Monuments and museums

The National Mall

A first-time visitor to Washington should head straight for the National Mall. A leafy expanse in the heart of the city, it's home to some of America's most important historical landmarks.

The imposing National Monument stands proud at the centre, hemmed in by a ring of 50 American flags (one for each state). To the west, the Lincoln Memorial boasts a 6m (19ft) statue of the late president, its grand marble columns mirrored in the tranquil Reflecting Pool. To the east, the United States Capitol dominates the skyline.

You could spend an entire day (and easily more) wandering between monuments and dipping into any of the eleven Smithsonian museums that are clustered here.

Capitol Hill

For yet more history, visit Capitol Hill. The most enduring symbol of the city, the United States Capitol building is an impressive feat from the outside.

But it's once inside that you'll get a true taste of history and working politics. The National Statuary Hall is home to 100 statues, all of notable Americans, while Exhibition Hall is dedicated to telling the story of US Congress, past and present. You must book onto a guided tour to explore the Capitol.

The White House

A peek at The White House may well be top of your itinerary, so make sure you're organised. Should you want to see inside these coveted walls, you'll need to submit a request to your embassy in Washington DC (this option is not currently available for British travellers).

The White House, Washington DC © Vacclav - Fotolia.com
The White House, Washington DC © Vacclav - Fotolia.com

But, if you're content with the Visitors Center, there are some great interactive exhibits and interesting artefacts to be found here too.


For Washington beyond the monuments, head to the neighbourhood of Georgetown. Once a down-at-heel port with a dominant role in America's slave-trade past, Georgetown is now one of city's prettiest enclaves.

Neat row houses and Federal-style mansions will satisfy architecture buffs, while oodles of boutiquey shops and cute-as-a-button cafés add to the area's appeal.

Activities to try in Washington DC

Take a bite out of the city

Washington DC's food scene runs the gamut from fine-dining restaurants to quirky food trucks.

Rasika, a stylish place serving modern Indian delicacies, is a firm local favourite. Then there's José Andrés' China Chilcano: a Michelin-approved spot with Chinese, Japanese and Peruvian influences and free-flowing pisco sours.

For lunch or a late supper, try Busboys and Poets: a café-cum-bookshop-cum-performance space with several locations. Meanwhile, Ben's Chili Bowl (original restaurant on U Street) doles out huge hot dogs heaped with steaming chilli, and is nothing short of an institution.

If you're hoping to get a taste of DC on the go, the city's 200 roving food vendors serve up everything from lobster to lasagne. Or you're sure to find a bite at Union Market, a trendy industrial space with foodie pop-ups and plenty of fresh produce for sale.

Head for the waterside

Down by the waterside, the city's latest project is The Wharf: a rejuvenated area of the bankside home to one of the USA's oldest fish markets, bars and restaurants aplenty, and new concert venue The Anthem, which opened in October 2017. The latter has already played host to the likes of Morrissey and The Foo Fighters.

But if you want to see the city from a new perspective, take to the water. The Potomac Riverboat Company offers the Washington Monuments Cruise, a narrated tour focused around the city's greatest landmarks.

Spend some time museum hopping

It's no exaggeration to say that DC has a museum for everyone. The National Museum of Natural History is a certain crowd pleaser, home to the Hall of Dinosaurs and the legendary Hope Diamond, one of the world's most famous jewels.

The Air and Space Museum, Washington DC © Kmiragaya - Dreamstime
The Air and Space Museum, Washington DC © Kmiragaya - Dreamstime

Beyond this, there's the fascinating Air and Space Museum. It records decades of progress in aviation and space travel through life-size exhibits and archives.

The newest Smithsonian is the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which opened in 2016. Collections include a virtual-reality experience dedicated to civil rights' activist Rosa Parks.

Whet your whistle with the city's best brews

Beer lovers won't go thirsty in DC. Book onto a DC Brew Tour: the 'Original Tour' takes you to some of the region's best breweries (such as inventive DC Brau or eco-conscious Hellbender Brewing Company) and includes lunch with pairings.

If you want to go it alone, head to Bluejacket. It's a working microbrewery, brew pub and tasting room that offers weekend tours and has an attached restaurant serving up inventive American cooking.

Day trips from Washington DC

For small-city vibes: Alexandria, Virginia

A mere ferry ride from DC, the charming city of Alexandria is a breath of fresh air after a few days in the bustling capital. Drink in the Old Town's colonial-style houses, poke your head into the Torpedo Factory, a working artists' studio, and spend your evening swilling cocktails at speakeasy PX, a local favourite.

For a dose of history: Mount Vernon

This elegant mansion dates back to the 1700s and was the home of George Washington, America's first president. Take in the bold furnishings of Washington's 18th-century dwelling (some of the original features survive), before lapping up the views across the Potomac.

Don't forget that Mount Vernon was also a plantation, home to more than 300 slaves. The "Enslaved People of Mount Vernon" tour, which chronicles the lives of the enslaved people who lived here, is an essential part of any visit.

The Marine Corps War Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, Washington DC © Kropic - Dreamstime
The Marine Corps War Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, Washington DC © Kropic - Dreamstime

For a place to reflect: Arlington National Cemetery

Most famous as the burial site of President John F. Kennedy, Arlington National Cemetery is the resting place of more than 400,000 people and a great source of national pride.

All who are buried here have served the States in some way and guided tours delve into the history of the cemetery and tell stories of the fallen. Don't miss the pomp and ceremony of the hourly Changing of the Guard.

Do the delights of Washington DC have you packing your bags? Check out the latest deals on fares to the US capital with Virgin Atlantic, direct from the UK in under nine hours. Remember, you can also find out more about the weather in Washington DC, and see when we think is the best time to go for the very best weather.

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Jacqui Agate

Jacqui Agate

Posted on Wednesday 4th April 2018 in: City Culture North America Virgin Atlantic

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