Surprising Things to See in Washington DC

Updated on March 22, 2024 by Julie McCool

For many people, visiting Washington DC means making sure the family or group sees a bunch of monuments, zipping through a White House tour, then heading to Philadelphia or Williamsburg. I have lived near USA's capital city for over 20 years, so Expedia asked me to share some of my favorite, surprising things to see in Washington DC.

This article was written by Charles McCool and was first published on McCool Travel.

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Surprising Things to See in Washington DC

Here are some of the unique and surprising things to see in Washington DC on your next visit.

Einstein Memorial

One of my favorite surprising things to see in Washington DC is the Albert Einstein Memorial. This is my favorite Instagrammable spot in DC and surely will be one of yours. Climb on the good doctor's lap, put your finger in his ear or nostril, or stroke his mustache.

The 2x actual size statue of Einstein sits right across the street from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. If possible, visit on Pi Day to celebrate Einstein's mathematical birthday.

McCool Travel tip: At night, park right in front of the statue, and you will likely have the place to yourself. It is convenient and fun to visit the nearby Lincoln Memorial area monuments (Vietnam, Korea) at night.

More Favorite Washington DC Museums

Every time I visit Washington DC, I am astonished at the quality and quantity of world-class museums. Many of them are Smithsonian museums and are ABSOLUTELY FREE. The top two most visited museums in the United States are in Washington, DC (both are free): Natural History Museum and Air & Space Museum. (If you love the Air and Space Museum, also visit the Udvar-Hazy Center in Northern Virginia.) Also part of the Smithsonian collection is the National Zoo which is also free, FREE, FREE. If you visit on a scorching hot summer day, overhead water misters keep you cool—but try to visit in the spring when there are baby animals.

Those are amazing museums but I also enjoy other Smithsonian properties—including American Indian MuseumPortrait GalleryRenwick GalleryHirschhorn Sculpture GardenBotanic Garden, and Folger Shakespeare Library. Superb museums in Washington DC charging an admission fee include the Spy Museum and National Geographic.

Visit the Smithsonian museums on a weekend getaway to the US Capitol Area.

To search for the best hotels in Washington DC, click here.

Smithsonian Natural History Museum, Washington DC
Smithsonian Natural History Museum, Washington DC

Folger Library

Skip that trip across the Atlantic Ocean because one of the most surprising things to see in Washington DC is the world's largest Shakespeare collection at the Folger Shakespeare Library. The on-site Folger theatre hosts performances, lectures, and other events.

Located only a block from the US Capitol Building, Folger also houses an amazing collection of works from Renaissance Europe. On my last visit, I spent an hour looking at dozens of books from the 14th to 18th centuries.

McCool Travel tip: View the even older Magna Carta (from 1215)—along with the original Declaration of Independence and other rare historical documents—at the nearby National Archives.

Senate Cafeteria

For an inexpensive Washington DC dining experience, try breakfast or lunch at the Dirksen Cafe in the Senate Office Building. This is where most Congressional workers eat but it is also open to the public. The salad bar is an especially nice deal. I like to make my own salad here and it costs about half the price of nearby places.

In the middle of November, Dirksen serves a traditional Thanksgiving lunch. Two summers ago, I walked past Senator Bernie Sanders on the sidewalk outside the building. So I truly can say you never know who you will see there.

McCool Travel tip: You can also eat at cafes inside the Supreme Court and US Capitol Building.

Washington DC Embassies

Nearly every country in the world has an embassy in Washington, DC, and many of them are located in an area known as Embassy Row. Simply walk into the buildings and you will meet someone from countries around the world.

Every May, Passport DC hosts fun events at dozens of Washington DC embassies. The EU (European Union) open house is especially popular. Outside the Embassy of India, view the impressive statue of Mahatma Gandhi.

Washington DC-Embassy Row, photo credit McCool Travel
Washington DC-Embassy Row, photo credit McCool Travel

DC Food Trucks

While you can find great food all over Washington, DC, food trucks are something DC does very well. On most weekdays, you can find a dozen food trucks near Union Station, another 15-20 food trucks in McPherson Square, and dozens more across the city. In addition to typical Mexican, Italian, and American offerings, DC food trucks serve Laotian, Ethiopian, Cajun, Jamaican, Vietnamese, Venezuelan, Peruvian, and other cuisines.

Find some of our favorite food trucks in 8 Great Washington DC Food Trucks.

“The Exorcist” Steps

Georgetown is the oldest part of Washington DC and contains gorgeous row houses, old brick cobblestones streets, and a world-class university. One of the more surprising things to see in Washington DC is the infamous staircase from the famous horror movie The Exorcist. I have seen visitors from all over the world climbing up and down the Exorcist Stairs. Do you dare?

For something a little tamer, visit the nearby labyrinth in Georgetown Waterfront Park.

Exorcist steps in Georgetown, Washington DC, photo credit McCool Travel
Exorcist steps in Georgetown, Washington DC, photo credit McCool Travel

Whether you prefer world-famous museums or quirky hidden gems, you'll find plenty of places to discover in America's capital city. Visiting during cherry blossom season? Check out our guide to the best places to see cherry blossoms in Washington DC including popular and insider spots.

For more information about things to do in Washington DC, visit the Destination DC website.

Article by Charles McCool, who works with destinations and brands to cover unique and fun travel experiences on his website McCool Travel. Follow Charles McCool on FacebookTwitterInstagram, PinterestFlipboard, Medium, and LinkedIn.

Favorite surprising things to see in Washington DC, from major museums to quirky hidden gems, from local travel expert Charles McCool of McCool Travel.
Surprising Things to See in Washington DC