One of the best features of Washington, D.C., is its walkability. Not only are many of its major sites and attractions grouped together on the National Mall, but the city is a series of true neighborhoods knitted together, easily traversed by foot. Spending time in just one neighborhood can tell you a lot about the city as a whole. Fortunately, there are plenty of walking tours available to take advantage of all this. Whether they skew historic or cultural, food- or monument-centric, here’s a look at some of the best walking tours the city has to offer.
D.C. By Foot
There’s a walking tour for nearly every subject at D.C. By Foot. Better yet, they’re all free, or pay-what-you-can. The group works with independent, licensed tour guides who offer walking tours across the city featuring themes from major tourist attractions, like the National Mall and Tidal Basin, Arlington Cemetery, and Capitol Hill, or dig a little deeper into the city’s history and culture, with tours that track the Lincoln assassination, the ghosts of Georgetown, the secrets and scandals of the nation’s capital, and the U Street neighborhood’s heydey as the “Black Broadway.” They’ve also got food-centric—mostly specifically focused on dessert—walking tours based in Georgetown and Capitol Hill.
Cultural Tourism D.C.’s Neighborhood Heritage Trails
If you’re more of a self-starter when it comes to touring a new city, consider Cultural Tourism D.C.’s neighborhood heritage trails (free). Since 2001, the organization has been establishing walking trails throughout the city’s many neighborhoods, allowing residents and visitors alike a self-guided, deeper look into the heart of the city, as opposed to the monuments and government buildings downtown. Follow the signs around each neighborhood to learn more about what it was once like to live there and how it has come to be what it is now. Hear about the immigrant experience in Adams Morgan, explore D.C.’s Civil War history at Fort Stevens in Brightwood, or follow the city’s transition from civil war to civil rights on a tour of downtown.
Before you go on any tours, though, check the Cultural Tourism D.C. website for intel on where to pick up tour pamphlets—there’s even a mobile app for the downtown and greater U Street heritage trails.
National Park Service Ranger Tours
You can hardly find a more knowledgeable tour guide than a National Park Service ranger. Stationed at all the major monuments and memorials downtown, park rangers are available not only to give talks at each of the individual sites, but they also conduct free guided walking tours of the National Mall and Memorial Parks—both during the day and in the evenings.
Rangers customize their own tours, but plan on seeing most of the major memorials. During cherry blossom season, there are extra tours available of the memorials and the Tidal Basin. Check the National Park Service website for dates and times, as they can vary seasonally.
D.C. Metro Food Tours
For those who prefer the classic technique of learning about a city’s culture by eating all of its food, D.C. Metro Food Tours (from $52) is a solid place to start for a guided tour of Washington’s restaurant scene. These tours are on foot, too, to help you work off the calories you’ll be consuming at the four or five restaurants you’ll be stopping at for small bites along the way.
Itineraries are primarily divded by neighborhood, including Georgetown, Capitol Hill, U Street, Dupont Circle, and Adams Morgan. There’s also a tour that focuses on all the excellent Ethiopian food that Washington boasts, as well as a tour of the culinary offerings at Eastern Market. Restaurants included in each can vary (and be hit or miss) but do give a unique perspective on the city’s heritage through its culinary traditions.
You don’t need any reservations to get on a tour with Washington Walks ($20). This company has been leading tours of the city since 1999, exploring the architecture and high society of Embassy Row, the fashion and Kennedy-related history of Georgetown, and the haunted history of Lafayette Park, just across from the White House.
Washington Walks also offers special tours during cherry blossom season, a selection of routes to tour the memorials by moonlight, and weekend morning tours through a rotation of neighborhoods including Bloomingdale, Foggy Bottom, and Woodley Park and the National Cathedral. All tours last about two hours; check the website for details about where to meet your tour or to sign up in advance if you prefer.