Gardens and Culture in Washington, DC

Advisor - Joslyn Weaver
Curated By

Joslyn Weaver

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  • USA

  • Washington DC

  • City Travel

  • Arts & Culture

  • Outdoors & Nature

firework display at night
Curator’s statement

Washington, DC is a destination that is rich with aesthetically pleasing gardens and amusing culture. There is an ample amount of things to appreciate for any age. Whether you enjoy the outdoors and parks, history or art, you will find something to your liking. My favorite season to visit is the spring because the cherry blossoms and many spring bulbs are in bloom throughout the city and surrounding areas. The weather during that time of year is also just right for most outdoor activities. If you visit other times of the year, you may benefit from warmer weather in the summer or shorter lines for museums in the winter. You can capitalize on unique opportunities any time of the year in Washington, DC.

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Where to stay in Washington, DC

Riggs Washington DC

A hotspot bar and colorful, creative interiors attract a cool crowd to this Penn Quarter addition.

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  • $100 food / beverage credit.

  • Breakfast daily.

  • Upgrade & extended check-in/out whenever possible.

Waldorf Astoria Washington DC

An elegant stay housed in the nation's Old Post Office, complete with modern rooms and a Michelin-starred sushi restaurant.

Fora Perks
  • $100 food / beverage credit.

  • Breakfast daily.

  • Upgrade & extended check-in/out whenever possible.

Rosewood Washington DC

A Georgetown belle overlooking the canal, with a Wolfgang Puck restaurant and rare rooftop pool and terrace.

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  • $100 food / beverage credit.

  • Breakfast daily.

  • Upgrade whenever possible.

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Gadens to see in Washington, DC

two lions lying amid plants

Cherry blossoms: On average, the cherry blossoms bloom in the beginning of April each year. People flock from all over the world to see the groves of cherry trees with petals littering the ground around the Tidal Basin. If you are in town during the National Cherry Blossom Festival, you can catch some of the events and festivities to celebrate these gorgeous blooms.

Enid A. Haupt Garden: This is a beautiful garden space just outside the Smithsonian Institution Building on the National Mall. It is pleasant to wander around and enjoy the many plants or sit and eat a picnic lunch. You can take a step back from the crowds and tourists to enjoy a bit of peace and relaxation.

National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden: An oasis to cool off on a hot day. There is a giant, misty water fountain at the center of this garden with paths surrounding it. You can stroll through and see outdoor sculptures anytime of the year.

US Botanic Garden and Bartholdi Park: The botanic garden is a great spot to be surrounded by plants even when it is rainy outside. The conservatory is broken into sections highlighting plants from various areas of the world as well as medicinal, endangered and rare plant species. You can even visit a jungle area with a catwalk with viewing areas from above, but be prepared for the intense humidity in that room. If it is a nice day, continue your visit with Bartholdi Park just across the street.

Dumbarton Oaks: Visit the beautiful terraced gardens in this 16-acre historical estate in a neighborhood just outside downtown. It was designed by Beatrix Jones Farrand. She was able to break barriers and become the first female landscape architect because she came from a family that had the means to help make that happen. In fact, her maiden name is where the saying "Keeping up with the Joneses" comes from. Aside from that, you will enjoy her work by exploring the many areas to see, sit and stroll.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens: If you visit in July, be sure to take a short drive over to these gardens to see the many waterlily gardens in full bloom. The square water gardens with paths connecting them makes it easy to see the flowers close up and from all angles.

United States National Arboretum and National Bonsai & Penjing Museum: This arboretum and museum are about a 20-minute drive from downtown. Once there, you can drive through much of the arboretum. You can get out and walk trails or see some interesting architectural ruins. You will want to stroll through the Bonsai area and museum gardens, and maybe even explore the azalea garden depending on the time of year you go.

Smithsonian's National Zoo: The zoo is a short drive outside of downtown Washington, DC. All ages will enjoy seeing wildlife from all over the world. They do a great job mimicking the natural habitat of each animal, so there is a garden-like feel to the exhibits. Be sure to see the giant pandas roll around on the ground, climb trees and munch on bamboo. Since the giant pandas are often fed first thing in the morning, and large crowds gather at this exhibit it is a good idea to make this your first stop of the day. The elephants are trained, fed and given their baths throughout the day, so you may get to catch one of these during your visit. Look up when walking throughout the zoo, because the orangutan families often swing through on cables overhead. Stop to see the majestic lions and tigers and hear their thunderous roars. Watch otters as they swim around and play-chase with each other. At set times throughout the day, join Phung Luu to watch, touch and feed exotic birds during the "Birds in Flight" program. Learn the value of all birds, and walk away with a newfound appreciation for vultures. Marvel at seals and sea lions from an underwater cave. These are just a few of the many things you can do and see at the zoo.

Glenstone Museum: This museum is adults-only and is located about 40 minutes outside of downtown. It is well worth the drive, though. Wear your walking shoes, because the grounds are quite extensive, and it could take you about an hour or longer to walk the pathways leading throughout the garden. Throughout the museum, you will find sculptures, gardens, museums, courtyards and even a café to eat. There are some very contemplative pieces, including one in a giant pit and one covered in all kinds of flowering plants. Pick a day with nice weather, and definitely make it a priority to go.

Culture to experience in Washington, DC

long, wide road leading to the white American Capitol building

National Museum of Natural History: This museum is probably one of the most popular, so it is a good idea to arrive early. The natural artifacts you will see here include historical wildlife, plants, fossils and so much more. As with most museums in DC, give yourself about three to four hours to see the whole thing. I recommend choosing a maximum of two museums per day or pairing one museum with another type of activity on any given day.

National Museum of the American Indian: Don't miss story time in the 360-degree Lelawi Theater on the fourth floor of the museum. The history, architecture and life of Native Americans is retold in this immersive setting.

National Museum of American History: I love the nostalgia everywhere you turn in this museum. It has some great interactive spaces where you can touch and experience things of the past. If there are little ones in your group, they will enjoy some time in Wegmans Wonderplace or Spark!Lab. Check the hours on these if you plan to go. This museum leaves you amazed at how much Americans have made in history and how much technology has developed over time.

White House Tour: If you are interested in touring the White House, you will want to request tickets three months in advance through your local congressional representative. Arrive early and allow about two hours for this tour due to lines and security check. While the tour itself is quite short and simple, you get to walk the same hallways as so many incredible historical figures.

National Air and Space Museum: See how air and space travel has changed over time, and think about what is to come in the future. If you didn't get enough air and space there, you can also visit the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center about 40 minutes outside of downtown.

Hirshhorn Museum: There are rotating exhibitions within this museum that require an additional timed pass to be reserved a day in advance on their website. Be sure to reserve early the day before since these passes go fast. If you do not get a timed pass, you are still able to visit the rest of the museum.

Smithsonian Institution Building: The inside of this historical building is full of futuristic ideas and inventions. Your mind will explode with the possibilities that are being explored as you walk through and participate in this interactive museum.

Old Post Office Tower: Visit this unique spot for some of the best 360-degree views of downtown. It is located above the Waldorf Astoria, and it feels like a secret spot that most tourists do not know about.

Other nearby outings

CityCenterDC: Visit this downtown area for dining, shopping and more. Walk through the Plaza at City Center to see what special events are happening. I enjoy looking at the overhead decorations strung between the buildings that change throughout the year.

Georgetown M Street: Great for a little shopping excursion.

Bethesda Row: Visit for great food, shopping and a different feel than downtown DC. While you are there, be sure to visit Levain Bakery for an unforgettable cookie.

Alexandria Virginia: Enjoy the cobblestoned streets and historic charm in this little town not far from DC.

Other festivities

If you happen to be in Washington, DC for the 4th of July, don't miss the fireworks show. Bring a blanket and sit on the lawn on the National Mall facing the Washington Monument. Watch the fireworks display make a silhouette out of the Smithsonian Castle.

Where to eat in Washington, DC

woman spreading white ricotta cheese on slices of bread

Tatte Bakery & Café: There are several locations for this bakery. Indulge in fresh pastries, sandwiches and other unique dishes. I recommend it for brunch.

Founding Farmers & Distillers: This restaurant is one of several others with similar names including the word "Farmers," and I would recommend all of them. The weekend brunch buffet has so many wonderful options that it is sure to please even the pickiest of eaters.

A Baked Joint: Delicious options for a satisfying meal any time of the day. Their hours vary depending on the day, so check first before heading over.

Bread Furst: Lots of options for fresh-baked breads, pastries, sandwiches and more. There is not much seating, so you could plan this for a to-go or picnic option as well.

Cracked Eggery: I recommend this for a quick breakfast before heading to Smithsonian's National Zoo. It is even close enough to walk to from the zoo.

Dolcezza Gelato & Coffee: If you like gelato, I think you will be pleased with this place. My favorite flavor is stracciatella because the thin slices of chocolate melt in your mouth at the same rate as the gelato.

Need to Know

Looking for more travel inspiration? Check out my guide to a romantic long weekend in Asheville, NC.

Advisor - Joslyn Weaver

Travel Advisor

Joslyn Weaver

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This guide is part of our ongoing series on travel to Washington, DC.