11 Top Things to Do on the Way to Washington, D.C.

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If you’re headed on a road trip and looking for things to do on the way to Washington, D.C., then you’re in luck! 

I’m a Northern Virginia native who has grown up exploring the many things to do in and around the nation’s capital! 

If you’re driving from the south, like from Virginia or North Carolina, I recommend stopping by some of the amazing Virginia attractions near D.C., such as Mount Vernon, Old Town Alexandria, and Arlington National Cemetery.  

If you’re driving from the north, like from New Jersey or New York, I recommend stopping by some of the main attractions in Maryland, like the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, beautiful Annapolis, and the National Harbor right outside D.C. 

I’m here to tell you more about these attractions and more things to do on the way to Washington, D.C.! 

Map of the Top Things to Do on the Way to Washington, D.C.

The following map can help you plan your road trip to D.C. by showing you where the locations mentioned below can be found.

8 Top Things to Do in Virginia on the Way to Washington, D.C.

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery is one of the most important sites near Washington, D.C. It is just over the border from Washington in Virginia, on the other side of the Potomac River. 

Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, VA

The cemetery is 639 acres in size and serves as the final resting place for over 14,000 members of the armed services, dating all the way back to the Civil War. 

You can visit Arlington National Cemetery on foot or participate in a guided tour of the majestic, hallowed site. 

The narrated tours leave by tram every 20 minutes and visit some of the major sites at the cemetery, including the grave of John F. Kennedy, Jr.; the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial). 

You can reach the national cemetery by car or by metro. There is a metro station located right at the site (the stop is on the Blue Line, and it’s called Arlington National Cemetery). 

Fashion Center at Pentagon City

If you’re looking to shop till you drop, then the Fashion Center at Pentagon City is the place for you! And it’s conveniently located just minutes from D.C. in Arlington, VA. 

The mall features a wide variety of shops, including an Apple Store, Aldo, Coach, The Lego Store, and more. The flagship department stores are Nordstrom and  Macy’s. 

Pentagon City is also conveniently located right on the Blue and Orange metro lines, which means you can easily stop by during your Washington vacation. 

When visiting Arlington, be sure to check out some of my favorite restaurants in Clarendon!

Mount Vernon

The famous home of George Washington is just 16 miles from Washington, D.C., which makes it an easy stop on your way to Washington. Mount Vernon is also one of my favorite things to do in Fairfax!

Mount Vernon

The home is located along the shores of the Potomac River, with beautiful water views from the sprawling lawns. 

There are guided tours offered, which give you an inside glimpse into the life and times of the Founding Father. 

If you’re traveling during the spring, try to catch the Spring Wine Festival & Sunset Tour. It’s the most popular event at Mount Vernon and features wine from local Virginia wineries and food vendors. 

You can sprawl out on the lawn with a picnic blanket and take in those beautiful views along the Potomac! 

And if you happen to go around the holidays in December, you’ll be treated to lovely Christmas decorations, garlands, candles, and lights brightening up the estate.

Old Town Alexandria

Old Town Alexandria is one of my favorite neighborhoods in northern Virginia! It’s like traveling back in time as you walk along the brick sidewalks lined with cute colonial townhouses, restaurants, and stores. 

Chart House in Old Town Alexandria, VA - one of the best things to do on the way to Washington, D.C.

The area is very walkable. Just take a stroll down Duke Street and King Street, where you’ll find many of the main shops and restaurants. Old Town is great for shopping for arts and crafts, unique home decor, and thrift clothing shops.

You’ll find many of the shops along King Street. Just walk along the brick sidewalks and stop by Ten Thousand Villages for home goods, American in Paris Boutique for French-inspired couture, or Van Bommel Antiek Hous for antiques. 

There are also some great restaurants in Old Town that range from seafood to Italian to lively Irish pubs. For fine dining, check out Vermillion, which features American fare sourced from local farms. 

If you want to be transported to an Irish pub, look no further than Daniel O’Connell’s Irish Restaurant & Bar

And if you’re in the mood for Italian, you have no shortage of options, including Mia’s Italian Kitchen and Landini Brothers Restaurant.

Torpedo Factory Art Center

As the website itself declares: “YES, the Torpedo Factory Art Center once was an actual torpedo factory!” It even still features a 1945 Mark XIV green torpedo on display in the main hall. 

Today, it’s one of the most popular attractions in Old Town Alexandria. The site is now a great place to check out special art exhibits, and they’re all free to the public! 

The building features numerous galleries with a wide range of art forms to explore.

The Enamelists Gallery lets you explore the world of glass and metal art with beautiful piece of jewelry on display. The Multiple Exposures Gallery focuses on fine art photography, and is actually the longest continuously operating fine art photography gallery in the D.C. area. The Potomac Fiber Arts Gallery features works made from textiles, including clothing, wall hangings, jewelry, and more. 

You can check out their website for special events, which include special exhibitions, receptions, and more. 

George Washington Masonic National Memorial

The most prominent monument in Old Town Alexandria is the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. The tall tower sits on a hill between King Street and Duke Street, which are the two main streets that lead into Old Town.

The striking design was actually inspired by the lighthouse of Alexandria in ancient Egypt. The interior is inspired by the Parthenon. You’ll see classic elements from Ancient Greece and Rome throughout the interior and exterior design of the building. 

Getting a chance to study and learn more about this unique architecture, plus the history of George Washington and his connection to Freemasonry, are some of the main reasons to visit the site. 

Try to plan your trip on Monday, or Thursday through Sunday. These are the days when the memorial offers guided tours. The tour times are 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 1:30 p.m., & 3:30 p.m. and advanced reservations are required. 

Great Falls National Park

Great Falls National Park is one of the best natural wonders near D.C. It’s located along the Potomac River and just 17 miles from the city. 

Great Falls National Park

The centerpiece of the park is the thrilling falls that occur at a particularly rocky stretch of the river. It’s essentially like a combination of rapids and many small waterfalls. 

There are three main overlooks right near the falls where you can get a spectacular upclose view. You might even spot adventurous kayakers making their way through the falls! 

The park also has numerous picnic areas and a visitor center.  

One of my favorite ways to explore the park is to take one of several hikes through the woods and by the Potomac River. 

The ridge trail is a rocky trail that will take you high up along a ridge with beautiful views of the Potomac River along the way. 

You can also approach the national park by taking the River Trail, which is one of my favorite hikes in Northern Virginia!   

Manassas National Battlefield Park

Manassas National Battlefield Park is a little further away from D.C., but if you have the time and love history, then it’s worth the trip. 

Manassas National Battlefield Park - one of the best things to do in Manassas VA

The sprawling park near the northern Virginia suburb of Manassas was the site of two major battlefields in the Civil War.

At the park, you can learn about the battles; see artifacts that include cannons, rifles, uniforms, and letters; and watch reenactments that include gunfire and even cannon fire demonstrations. 

Start at the main visitor center and make sure to watch the excellent movie presentation that teaches you about the history of the battle. From there, walk through the small museum and learn about the trials that you can take through the park. 

Even if you’re not as interested in the history, the park is a great place for going on a hike. There are over 40 miles of trails that travel through fields, hills, forests, and by the stream Bull Run. Along the way, you’ll pass historic sites like the Stone Bridge and Stone House. 

Learn about even more of my favorite things to do in Manassas, VA!

3 Top Things to Do in Maryland on the Way to Washington, D.C.

Annapolis, Maryland

Annapolis is a beautiful city that is worth a stop on your way to D.C. The city is surrounded by water along the Chesapeake Bay and the Severn River. 

Harbor in Annapolis, MD, one of the best things to do on the way to Washington, D.C.

As a result, water is a huge part of the city’s culture and identity, and many of the main attractions in town center around water and maritime history. Annapolis is also famously home to the U.S. Naval Academy.

You can take a guided tour of the academy to learn about its rich history, and you can even visit the crypt of John Paul Jones. 

One of the main attractions in town is the Annapolis Maritime Museum & Park where you can learn more through exhibits and artifacts about the maritime history of Annapolis. 

If you have the time, I recommend booking a guided boat tour on the historic skipjack, WILMA LEE. They have several tours available, including the Heritage Tour, Sunset Tour, and the thrilling Wednesday Night Races!

Inner Harbor, Baltimore 

Inner Harbor is probably the most popular tourist destination in Baltimore. The waterfront location boasts pretty views, and you’ll find many of Charm City’s biggest attractions nearby. 

Inner Harbor in Baltimore, MD - one of the best things to do on the way to Washington, D.C.

You can catch a baseball game at lovely Camden Yards, or a football game at towering  M&T Bank Stadium.  

One of my favorite local attractions is the National Aquarium, which is excellent and easily one of the best aquariums I’ve visited, and I’ve been to a lot! They have dolphins, sharks, sting rays, jelly fish, sea turtles, puffins, frogs, snakes, and much more. 

The Inner Harbor is also a great spot for restaurants, particularly if you love seafood! Some excellent choices include Phillips Seafood and McCormick & Schmick’s. You’ll also find plenty of well-known chain restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory, Hard Rock Cafe, and The Capital Grille. 

National Harbor, Maryland 

National Harbor is a fun destination right across the border from Washington on the Maryland side. 

The Capital Wheel and Potomac River at the National Harbor, MD.

The area features over 40 eclectic restaurants including Bombay Street Food (Indian), Bond 45 (New York steaks), Fiorella Italian Kitchen (Italian), Irish Whisper (Irish), plus numerous bars, fast food, and much more. 

One of the main attractions is the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, which is a large hotel and convention center. Even if you’re not staying, it’s a fun spot to explore. They often host special exhibitions and events, like the ICE show in December!

National Harbor also features a giant ferris wheel, called The Capital Wheel, that lights up the skyline as you approach National Harbor from Virginia across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

The Capital Wheel actually has enclosed gondolas, which means you can ride all year long. The views from the top include the Potomac River, the Washington Monument, Old Town Alexandria, and Georgetown. 

Right next door to National Harbor you’ll find the MGM National Harbor, which features a casino, hotel, and more shops and restaurants. There is also a lovely conservatory with seasonal displays. It’ll have you feeling as though you’ve stepped into the Bellagio in Vegas!

The MGM also has a nice concert venue where you can see live music performances.

Top Things to Do in Washington, D.C.

When you get to D.C., there’s no shortage of things to do and places to explore. Washington is home to many of the most famous attractions in the world, including the fabulous Smithsonian Museums, the White House, the U.S. Capitol Building, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and much more. 

The Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

Below are just some of my favorite things to do in Washington, D.C.

📍 See an IMAX movie at the Air and Space Museum

📍 Go on a Nighttime Monuments Tour and see the major monuments in a whole new light, and with smaller crowds! The tour includes stops at the Washington Monument; Lincoln Memorial; Jefferson Memorial; World War II Memorial; and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. 

📍 Explore the Natural History Museum, where you can see dinosaurs, tarantulas, and the Hope Diamond!

📍 Attend a show at the world-class Kennedy Center. They regularly feature musicals straight from Broadway, operas, jazz, dance, and much more!

📍 Attend a baseball game at Nationals Park! Don’t forget the crackerjacks and beer!

📍 Learn all about the life of spies at the International Spy Museum. You can even see cool spy gadgets and pretend to be a spy yourself!

📍 Learn about even more of the best things to do in Washington, D.C., including the best free things to do, the best fun things to do, and the best spring festivals!

Where to Stay in Washington, D.C.

Once you arrive in D.C., there are many great hotels to stay. Below are some of my top recommendations near the National Mall, which will be convenient for the metro and many of the city’s major attractions. 

Holiday Inn Washington Capitol

The Holiday Inn Washington Capitol is just blocks from the National Mall. It also has an outdoor pool and it is pet-friendly!

🛏️ Click here to book your stay at the Holiday Inn Washington Capitol! 🛏️

Hilton Washington DC National Mall 

The Hilton Washington DC is another great choice. It is located near both the National Mall and The Wharf, which features excellent shopping and restaurants along the Potomac River. The four-star hotel also has an outdoor pool, bar, and restaurant. 

🛏️Click here to book your stay at the Hilton Washington DC National Mall! 🛏️

Learn about even more great things to do in and around Washington, D.C.!

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Museum of African American History and Culture - one of the best free museums in Washington, D.C.

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The Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

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Dulles Airport

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Windridge Vineyards

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4 wine glasses and a cheese board

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Northside Social Coffee and Wine - one of the best restaurants near Clarendon in Arlington, VA

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Mount Vernon, one of the best things to do in Fairfax, VA