18 Actually Cool Things to Do in DC This Summer

Outdoor concerts, buzzy art exhibits, and more summertime fun in DC.

It’s summertime, and that means the living is easy in Washington, DC. We can’t get enough of the endless sunny days of summer, with extra daylight hours for squeezing in as much fun as possible, and warm nights that mean that fun doesn’t have to stop anytime soon.

Summer also brings new opportunities for cool things to do around the city and beyond—from lazy afternoons spent picnicking at Meridian Hill Park to fun new art exhibits and al fresco meals and concerts. So, from the return of a beloved Smithsonian festival to rooftop drinks, here are all the coolest things to do in DC this summer.

Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park | Bram Reusen/Shutterstock

Various locations
Mild weather seems to last for approximately one week in the District before it begins to swelter, and we know the best way to beat the impending heat. Find your closest friend with a car and entice them with a short trip outside of the city to hike to one of the area’s many swimming holes, such as Overall Run in Shenandoah National Park or Cunningham Falls State Park. Not up for a hike? That’s fine, head over to the Beaver Dam Swimming Club instead, a large quarry just north of Baltimore.

Hotel Washington
Hotel Washington

Various locations
The fabulous thing about building the height restrictions in DC is that views from a rooftop bar can span a good portion of the entire city. Catch jaw-dropping views of everything from the White House and National Mall to the Potomac River, the charming townhomes of Dupont and Logan circles, and more. We have your summer rooftop itinerary covered with this list of a whopping 26 options, where you and your friends can sip spritzy cocktails or ice-cold pints and take in the views.

National Mall
One of the perks of living in Washington, DC includes easy access to some of the best (and most cost effective) museums in the country. The Smithsonian museums also offer impressive event programming that DC residents should absolutely take advantage of. Since the 1960s, the world-renowned institute has been putting on a summer Folklife Festival, bringing together global musicians, artisans, chefs, and more for an annual celebration on the National Mall. This year’s Folklife Festival takes place at the end of June through early July with an emphasis on the social power of music. Besides a shopping marketplace and delicious food, a unique highlight to check out is the interactive Earth Optimism programming—centered on learning about inspiring conservation efforts happening around the world.

Belga Café
Belga Café

Various locations
That unshakeable feeling of dread we all seem to feel heading into a new week of work, can creep up even more often when the summer months come around. We’ve found the best way to get a leg up on them is to make the most of our Sundays—starting with multiple rounds of mimosas or Bloody Marys at bottomless brunch. Luckily, DC is a brunch city with tons of incredible al fresco options that allow you to take in the sunshine while you inhale a plate of chicken and waffles. Make your Sunday morning decision even easier by checking out this list of favorites.

Bonsai Garden
Bonsai Garden | Lissandra Melo/Shutterstock

Wander through one of DC’s hidden gardens

Various locations
Take advantage of the beautiful weather with an afternoon stroll through one of the many hidden gardens throughout the city—potentially the most enjoyable way to reach your daily step count goal. The gardens at Georgetown’s Dumbarton Oaks are particularly stunning, and the roses are in bloom all summer long at Kalorama’s Mitchell Park. Catch a beer event behind the Brewmaster’s Castle at Heurich House Garden, and marvel at hundred-year-old mini trees at the Bonsai Garden within the National Arboretum.

Root, root, root for the home team

Navy Yard
Summertime in DC is simply not complete without heading to Nationals Park at least once for a sunny day spent watching a ballgame with friends. It’s a no-brainer activity for sports fans, but can be just as fun for those who don’t typically follow who has the best batting average that season. Make a day of it by heading to The Bullpen before for a cold pint, and strolling postgame over to The Wharf for dinner with waterfront views.

Dolcezza Gelato
Dolcezza Gelato

Various locations
When summer rolls around in DC, we all scream for local ice cream—and the city has plenty of tasty options for cooling down with a scoop. Dolcezza’s aesthetic gelato shops dot the city, and you should never pass up an opportunity to sample a new flavor from Ice Cream Jubilee’s locations in Navy Yard, U Street, and Arlington. Fresh waffle cones are a must-try at the Wharf’s Southwest Soda Pop Shop, and those who want a super rich frozen custard treat would do well to track down the Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats truck for a decadent donutwich.

Lily's Flower Truck
Lily's Flower Truck

Various locations
Next time you find yourself shopping in CityCenter, make sure to stop by a summer pop-up that’s just as charitable as it is highly aesthetic. Whether you’re in the market for a fresh summer bouquet for your coffee table or have someone special in mind you’d like to buy one for, look out for the signature blue and white checker of Lily’s Flower Truck. The roving flower truck will be popping up all summer in spots like CityCenter and Union Market, offering customizable bouquets. To make the deal even better, each purchase benefits a local animal shelter.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens | Flickr/angela n.

Kenilworth
You’d be hard pressed to find a Washingtonian who doesn’t have at least one photo with a blooming branch of cherry blossoms, but how about with towering pink and white white lilies? While the bloom of cherry blossoms only lasts a fleeting few weeks, the aquatic blooms of Kenilworth can be seen from early May all the way until late August, so plan an afternoon trip and enjoy nature right in the District.

Glenstone Museum
Glenstone Museum

Potomac
Glenstone is technically around a 40-minute drive outside of the city, but it’s a quick and scenic trip that delivers you to nearly 300 acres of beautiful landscape, sculpture, and other art. A privately-owned gallery, Glenstone is always free but a reservation is necessary and slots can book up well in advance. After arriving there, you’ll feel a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city—surrounded by nature and in an artsy world of your own.

Washington National Cathedral
Washington National Cathedral

Cathedral Heights
Those who spend most of their time on Capitol Hill or downtown might not think to venture north to the National Cathedral, but it’s definitely worth the trip. Take an interesting tour of the cathedral, like this one that explores the 200+ gargoyles and grotesques that adorn the building. Casual strollers can also just walk in and poke around for themselves, taking a moment to gaze up at the stained glass windows and venturing to the top of the tower for a view of the city. If you work up an appetite, many don’t realize that there’s actually an Open City at the National Cathedral where you can grab brunch.

Dupont Circle
Legendary artist Pablo Picasso is best known for his abstract portraits, but many art fans have a deep appreciation for what is known as his “Blue Period.” At the outset of Picasso’s career, much of his work had a moodier and monochromatic feel. His paintings during this important time will be on view at the Phillips Collection from now until mid-June, and this is the first exhibition in the city in 25 years to focus on Picasso’s early works.

Take a day trip to Alexandria

Alexandria, Virginia
A quick train ride will take you to Alexandria, Virginia in under 30 minutes, leaving the whole day open for summertime activities on the bank of the Potomac River. Venture around the cobblestone streets of Old Town, picking out your favorite historic homes. Then go shopping on King Street—it’s the main road in town, full of charming independent boutiques, quaint cafes, and top-notch restaurants. Make your way down to the waterfront with a cool drink for sunset, and if you have more time during the day, be sure to check out the Torpedo Factory Art Center to see what works of art they have on view.

QAGOMA Photography
QAGOMA Photography

National Mall
If you missed Yayoi Kusama’s last DC exhibit a few years ago, now’s your shot to see her work IRL. The Hirshhorn will be displaying five of her works from the museum’s permanent collection, including two of the iconic Infinity Mirror Rooms. The exhibition will be on view until November, and free timed passes will be required to enter, so don’t miss your chance to see his otherworldly art.

Meridian Hill
Meridian Hill | Flickr/NCinDC

Grab coffee and walk around Meridian Hill Park

Columbia Heights
Sometimes simple activities are actually the most fun, like meeting up with a friend for a walk around the park. Next time you’re fidgeting at your desk with perfect weather outside, give yourself a well deserved coffee break by grabbing a cup from one of DC’s best coffeeshops and making your way over to Meridian Hill Park for a walk and some fresh air. Relaxing afternoon picnics at Meridian Hill are highly recommended all summer long, especially on Sundays when you can experience fun music and energy compliments of a weekly drum circle.

Wolf Trap
Wolf Trap

See live music at a concert

Multiple locations
Concerts are fun all year round, but especially during the summer when outdoor shows reign supreme. DC and its surrounding areas provide music lovers with a bevy of great options for al fresco concerts, from venues that draw some of the biggest talents in the business like Merriweather Post Pavilion to the relaxed classical and folk concerts at Wolf Trap and everything in between. If you’re catching a show at Wolf Trap, take advantage of the opportunity to bring your own food and drinks into the venue. A plate of charcuterie, a chilled bottle of wine, and a show sounds like an ideal summer evening.

Grace Street Coffee
Grace Street Coffee

Shop (and eat) your heart out in Georgetown

Georgetown
Despite being DC’s oldest neighborhood, Georgetown remains one of the best areas of the city to spend time in—especially on an afternoon with optimal walking weather. Grab your morning brew at Grace Street Coffee Roasters or enjoy brunch al fresco at the euro-centric Kafe Leopold before strolling your way down M Street for some quality shopping, where you can find storefronts from big retailers like Urban Outfitters and J.Crew to boutique shops like Take Care and Relish. When dinner time rolls around, there are plenty of great restaurants to consider, from some of the best Ethiopian food in the city to ritzy steakhouses and old-school brasseries.

The DC Improv Comedy Club
The DC Improv Comedy Club

Downtown
A romantic dinner in Dupont Circle is a classic date night, but we challenge you to get a little more creative next time by catching a post-dinner show at DC Improv, a long-standing comedy venue in the neighborhood. The venue hosts multiple comedy shows just about every night of the week, so you can squeeze in some laughs no matter what your summer schedule looks like.

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Austa Somvichian-Clausen is a contributor for Thrillist.