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The 10 BEST Washington DC History Tours for First-Time Visitors

The 10 BEST Washington DC History Tours for First-Time Visitors

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Washington, DC, is full of fascinating American history, making it an attractive travel destination not only for Americans but also for foreigners like us! Hands down the best way to learn and see the most during your time here is with a tour – whether you’re visiting Washington in 1 day or have much longer. Since it’s your first time visiting, there’s a lot to consider when trying to pick the best history tour.

I know exactly what that feels like! We have been to Washington, DC, several times now (we love it there), and this blog is all about our suggestions based on what we learned after visiting. After going multiple times we have compiled our favorite tours for you to get the full effect of this historically rich city.

How to Pick the Best History Tour for First-Timers

Bailey poses for a photo out the front of the White House in Washington DC
Didn’t see the president this time!
The front of the National Archives in Washington DC
The front of the National Archives

So before we get into the best history tours you can take in Washington, DC, let me give you some tips I wish I had when we visited for the first time. Let’s start with the types of tours you can take – general or specialized.

General history tours are great for an all-around experience of the city and allow you to see a lot of DC’s iconic sights in less time. Let’s be honest, there is an overwhelming amount of things to see and the convenience of being taken to all of these places in a day can’t be understated. While there is still a ton of history covered in a general tour, they lack the depth and detail you get when taking a specialized tour. 

Specialized tours on the other hand offer the opposite of a general tour. Instead of spending a day going from place to place, you dig into the history of one or maybe two locations – like tours of the US Capitol for example. This is the best way to get a ton of information about something you’re interested in and some of the best stories I’ve heard have been on these tours. However, if you just take a specialized tour, you miss out on seeing a lot of the other great landmarks in DC, which is where a general tour excels.

The Washington Monument sits behind the Lincoln Memorial reflection Pool in Washington DC
Now that’s impressive

With the goal of seeing as much as possible the first time we went, we did nothing but general and sightseeing tours. We only had a couple of days and wanted to maximize our time Unfortunately, that left us feeling that even though we saw a lot, we missed out on getting into the meat and potatoes of our favorite locations. So the second time we went, we pretty much exclusively did specialized tours to make up for all of the things we wanted to learn more about the first time around, and wow, did we miss a lot. 

So if I were to go back in time and advise myself on how to make the most of my experience in DC for the first time, my advice would be this. Spend your first day taking a general tour so you can check off all of the places you’re curious about and get an overview of other things you’d like to know about. On the second day, take a specialized tour of a place you found interesting on the first day or one you wanted to do already. This way you get the best of both worlds.

If you only have the opportunity to take one, I would suggest a general tour like this Washinton DC in a Day tour. They still get into a lot of great history and you can visit fantastic places like the White House and Lincoln Memorial. Of course, if there’s a place you want to learn about in-depth, take a specialized tour like this one of Arlington National Cemetary or this tour of the US Capitol (one of the few that takes you inside the building!).

Now that we have covered that, let’s get into the best history tours you can take when you visit Washington, DC for the first time.

General Washington, DC History Tours 

Group Sightseeing Tour: Washington DC Highlights in One Day

Statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC
It’s a beautiful statue!
World War II Memorial in Washington DC
The World War II Memorial

With over 1,800 5-star reviews it’s safe to say this Washington, DC in one day tour knows how to show you the city and teach you some history at the same time. 

The tour begins outside of the U.S. Navy Memorial where you will have your first stop before hopping onto a luxurious 30-passenger bus. There are two options for this tour, a glass-top or closed-top option. We opted for the glass top, which cost just $10 USD more, but we enjoyed the views it gave us of the city.

Over the next 6 hours, you will make your way around the city stopping off at different locations for guided walking tours. The White House is just as stunning in person as it is in the movies or pictures and seeing the Secret Service was so cool!

Wide angle shot of the United States Capitol in Washington DC
The United States Capitol 

I won’t name all of the stops here (there are 12 in total), but other highlights were the National World War II Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. This tour has a perfect balance of places to see and time spent at each location. In general, you will spend about 15-20 minutes at each location learning about its history.

If you take this tour from April 1 – October 15, there is a one-hour cruise on the Potomac River included. We absolutely loved the cruise portion of the tour, and think taking a river cruise is a great addition to any DC trip.

This tour operates every day of the week year-round. Tickets for the glass-top bus are $99 USD per person while the closed-top option is $89 USD per person.

VIP Access to US Capitol National Archives Reserved Entry: Bus Tour

People line up outside the United States Capitol in Washington DC
Waiting to get into the Capitol Building
A tour bus in Washington Dc
Cool tour bus!

This exceptional best of DC tour takes you to all of the city’s top sites with VIP access to the US Capitol and National Archives. Get an up-close look at the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence during this 8.5-hour guided tour.

Your first stop is the Capitol Building where you will get a 1-hour guided tour. Seeing where the United States Congress is located was a special experience, and the feeling you get walking through its halls is hard to describe! Taking a luxury bus around the city, we stopped at many other notable landmarks in DC like the Lincoln Memorial and the White House. You’ll spend about 15 minutes at each.

Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC
Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC
Statue of soldiers at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC
Statue of soldiers at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

If you take this tour from April 1 to October 15, there is a lovely cruise down the Potomac River with a stop to eat lunch at one of the restaurants along its banks (at your own cost). If you go during the winter, you will instead do some sightseeing of the Pentagon with an option to eat at a restaurant nearby.

However, the highlight of the day was the hour we got to spend in the National Archives looking at the Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, and United States Constitution. If you’re a history buff, you will love this part of the tour!

This experience operates every day of the week besides Sunday and has both a closed-top and glass-top bus option. We enjoyed the open-top bus with tickets only being $139 USD a person. If you would like to save a couple of dollars, the closed-top is only $129 USD per person instead.

Related Read: If you’re interested in US history, you’ll love these history tours in Philadelphia.

Private Tour: City Tour of Washington, DC

Bailey poses for a photo out the front of the United States Capitol in Washington DC
So excited!
Grassed area with statues at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington DC
At the Korean War Veterans Memorial

If you want to see all of DC’s top landmarks without getting on and off of a tourist bus all day, this private customizable Washington, DC tour takes you everywhere you want to go in half the time and without any hassle.

With start times between 8 am and 6:30 pm, this 4-hour tour is designed to fit around your schedule and what you want to see. With pick-up and drop-off at almost all DC hotels, you don’t have to worry about a thing. 

You and your group will take a Cadilac Escalade or Mercedes Sprinter Van around the city with your guide visiting the landmarks you choose and want to get photos of. The White House at night is especially beautiful lit up and so are all the other popular landmarks as well.  

Scenic view of a street in Washington DC
DC has some beautiful streets

Since this tour isn’t a large group, you can see just as much if not more in half the amount of time than if you take a large group bus tour. If you like the idea of a private tour, but aren’t sure where to go, your guide will have recommended itineraries depending on what your group wants to see.

This tour is offered every day of the week with a 5-person maximum option costing a flat $550 USD or a 14-person maximum at $650 USD total. If you can get enough people for this private tour, it costs less per person than some big group tours you can take!

Electric Cart Small-Group Tour: DC Monuments and Capitol Hill Tour

Close up of the tower at the United States Capitol in Washington DC
The US Capitol Building!
Stars at the World War II Memorial in Washington DC
At the World War II Memorial

If you’re looking for a fun, short, and budget-friendly way to see all of the different DC monuments, this Capitol Hill and DC monuments by electric cart tour is probably the best choice out there. 

Your ride for the day is a 7-person electric cart. This open-air vehicle is a ton of fun to go sightseeing in, and our guide, Chris, was as funny as he was knowledgeable making our experience incredibly memorable.

Since this is only a 2-hour tour, you won’t spend much time at any of the sites, but long enough to snap some pictures and learn about their history. There are 11 stops on this tour with highlights being the White House, US Capitol, and Lincoln Memorial.

This tour does run year-round rain or shine, so if you are visiting in the winter, be sure to dress appropriately! If the weather seems like it will be too nasty for you to have fun, you can always cancel your booking through Viator for a refund up to 24 hours before the tour begins. 

This great little tour is perfect if you only have a short time in the city. It costs $79 USD each for 2 people to join. There’s also an option to book an entirely private tour for a higher fee.

Night Tour: DC Monuments and Memorials

The United States Capitol lit up at night in Washington Dc, USA
It’s even more beautiful at night!
Sunset at the National Mall in Washington D.C. with a view of th
The Lincoln Memorial all lit up

Washington, DC, is beautiful at night. I loved this DC monuments and memorials night tour because we got to see all of these incredible places while they were lit up. This 3-hour guided tour takes you to all of the places you have on your list at night for one truly incredible experience.

We opted for the open-top bus that gives you panoramic views of the city, and I recommend you do the same since the city is so pretty at night. As with most of the sightseeing tours, you get approximately 15 minutes at each stop to take pictures and enjoy each of the monuments lit up. I’d seen each of these monuments before this tour, and I must say that they are even more impressive at night. Especially the White House and Lincoln Memorial!  

The White House at Sunset in Washington DC
The White House at sunset is incredible!

Your guide will share interesting stories and historical facts along the way with a good balance of learning about history and having time to explore and take pictures. Our two guides, Kelly and Shawn, made sure everyone had their questions answered and were entertaining from start to finish. 

The open-top bus is available from mid-March to mid-October with a glass-top option available during the winter. Regardless, I recommend dressing warm since it can still get chilly at night during the summer in DC! If you would like to book this tour for an open-top bus, tickets are $94 USD with the standard closed-top bus tickets costing $64 USD per person.

Related Read: There are lots of incredible Philadelphia night tours including ghost tours and pub crawls!

Specialized History Tours in Washington, DC

Small-Group Guided Tour inside US Capitol & Library of Congress 

Paintings on the wall inside the United States Capitol in Washington DC
The US Capitol is a beautiful building!
Daniel poses for a photo inside the United States Capitol while on a tour in Washington DC
So many statues!

If taking a deep dive into the United States Legislative and Judicial branches sounds interesting to you, this small-group guided tour of the US Capitol and Library of Congress is definitely one to book. 

Your first stop is the US Capitol building where admission is included and you get an in-depth tour of the inside. Architecturally, the US Capitol building is a work of art, and I loved having our guide go into detail about its history. In total, you will spend an hour and a half here exploring and learning.

Your next stop is the Library of Congress which is arguably the most stunning building in the city. The high domed ceilings and architecture give it a grandiose feel. Our guide took us to see part of Thomas Jefferson’s original library which is still on display, and it’s amazing how well preserved they were.

The highlight of this tour is the expert guide who can answer any and all questions you have. Since the tour had a maximum of 20 people, it still felt personal and was super informative at the same time. If you’re interested in taking this tour for yourself, tickets are $89 USD per person.

Arlington National Cemetery Walking Tour & Changing of the Guards

Graves at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC
Graves at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC
Changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC
Changing of the guard at Arlington

One of the most touching specialized tours we’ve taken was this Arlington National Cemetary walking tour. Only taking 2 hours, this short but incredibly informative tour has you seeing graves of soldiers from the Civil War, John F. Kennedy’s resting place, and the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier.

Our guide, Jim, was a knowledgeable and passionate storyteller with tons of stories that kept everyone in our 15-person group interested the entire time. I found that the highlight of the day was the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier. This tomb is dedicated to fallen U.S. service members whose remains haven’t been identified. Jim knew the perfect spot to walk and take pictures of the ceremony which was really something special to see. 

You will make one last stop at the grave of John F. Kennedy to learn about his life and numerous accomplishments before his assassination. All in all, this tour is loaded with stories you won’t hear anywhere else and fascinating history. The amount you learn in such a short time is amazing!

This tour is a great budget-friendly option for travelers at $55 USD per person. Private tours are also available for a higher fee if you’d prefer a more personalized experience.

African American History Tour with Museum Admission

Statue at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington DC
Martin Luther King, Jr.
A tour guide talks to our group on a bus during a sightseeing tour in Washington DC
Our guide was fantastic!

This half-day African American history tour was another one of my favorite tours we took in DC. It covers the entire history of the first African Americans at Jamestown through to the Civil Rights movement. 

Walking past the White House and to the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lincoln Memorials, your guide will tell you about the crucial roles each of the men played in African-American history. Fun fact, did you know MLK Jr. was 15 when he started college?

The second half of this tour has you taking a bus to other locations such as the African American Civil War Memorial and Lincoln Park. Our guide, Dre, was the highlight of the trip with his energetic and engaging history lessons and deep knowledge of the different people he talked about. There is a lot of history covered on this tour you won’t hear about anywhere else!

The last stop was the National Museum of African American History and Culture where your priority access ticket is included. I enjoyed spending an hour here looking at different exhibits, especially with the context of the history our guide had given us up until now. If you want an in-depth history of African Americans in the United States, it doesn’t get better than this.

This experience is $89 USD per person, and the tour lasts about 3.5 hours.

Related Read: You can learn more about African American history while visiting DC’s Georgetown neighborhood.

Old Town Alexandria and Mount Vernon Tour

George Washingtons house at Mount Vernon Tour
Mount Vernon, George Washington’s house

Step back in time during this 5-hour Old Town Alexandria and Mount Vernon Tour filled with stories, historical reenactments, and wonderful architecture. Spend your day exploring outside of DC and learning all about America’s first president.

You’ll board a bus to make your way 13 miles (21 kms) away to the former estate of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. You will spend 3 hours here, and I loved every minute of it. Taking a guided tour through the mansion and gardens makes his home come to life through stories and reenactments done by the staff there. I didn’t know much about George Washington before taking this tour, and now I know so much more!

The surrounding area is beautiful and a nice break from the city. After you learn all about the fascinating life of the Founding Father himself, you will make your way to the quaint town of Alexandria which might have some of the most brightly colored and adorable houses in the United States. What stood out to me during this tour was all of the amazing architecture we saw including the Masonic Memorial dedicated to the first president. 

The end of your day is spent driving back along the Potomac River taking in views of Washington, DC, and asking your guide any remaining questions you may have. This tour runs every day except Tuesday and Thursday and tickets are only $84 USD per person. 

The Lincoln Assassination Walking Tour

Lafayette Square in Washington DC
Lafayette Square in Washington, DC
Ford's Theatre in Washington DC
Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC

This Lincoln Assassination walking tour follows the final days of one of the United States’ most famous presidents. Only taking 2 hours, but packed full of fantastic history, this guided tour takes you through the events that led to America’s first presidential assassination.

Your tour begins at 7 pm at St. Johns Church where you will meet your guide and begin to learn about the key players involved in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Taking a walk through Lafayette Square, I enjoyed looking at Civil War-era homes that helped paint a picture of what life was like during that time.

The evening is spent stopping at various locations as you make your way to Ford’s Theatre and learning the history of different figures and events from that time. Accompanied by pictures of DC from the mid-1800s, our guide, Becca, did a fantastic job setting the scene for what would be one of the most pivotal moments in American history.

The most memorable moment of the night however was going back behind Ford’s Theatre. It was here where John Wilkes Boothe made his escape, and we learned all about the manhunt that ensued for 12 days before he was caught. The only downside to this tour is that it’s only 2 hours long. I couldn’t believe how quickly the time passed!

This is an excellent tour that I think anyone would enjoy. At $49 USD per person, this is a wildly entertaining and incredibly affordable tour.

Other Things to do While You’re in Washington DC

Bailey enjoys a beer on a pub crawl in Washington DC
Cheers!

If you’re looking for more fun things to do in Washington DC, look no further! This city isn’t just about history, museums, and monuments, there are plenty of other ways to explore. Whether you have a few days to fill or simply want a range of activities, check out these other awesome things to do in DC.

  • Segway Sightseeing Tour – Cruise around Washington, DC, in style on this segway sightseeing tour! If you’ve never been on a segway, you’re in for a treat – they are super fun and you’ll spend 2.5 hours passing by 24 iconic locations. Plus, the local guides are so great, so it doesn’t feel like your typical sightseeing tour. You can reserve this tour for only $75 USD.
  • Food, History, and Street Art Tour – U Street is another legendary Washington, DC, neighborhood, so what better way to discover its culture than through a food, history, and street art walking tour? You’ll have three hours to learn about the area called “Black Broadway” and experience what makes this area so unique and important to the nation’s capital! Part of the ticket price goes toward feeding those in need in this neighborhood – so it’s a good cause too. Book tickets in advance here.
  • History Tour Pub Crawl – If you love history and craft beer, this tour is perfect for you! Your local guide will share the history that isn’t necessarily in the textbooks, all while stopping at important historical locations where a deal or two was struck over a pint of beer. I like how unique this tour is, and I really love that you get 4 beers included in the price! This tour can be booked here in advance for $100 USD.

Where to Stay in Washington, DC

the pool at Pendry hotel in Washington DC
The pool at the Pendry is so nice! Photo Credit: Pendry Washington DC

Now that you’ve learned all about Washington, DC, history tours, you’ll probably need a place to stay! This city has loads of options. To help you narrow it down, we’ve highlighted our top choices. We’ve included everything from budget hostels to luxurious hotels, so you’re bound to find something you like!

Pendry Washington DC – $$$

For the ultimate luxury and convenience, opt for the Pendry Washington DC. This 5-star hotel has free bikes, an outdoor pool, a hot tub, a fitness center, a rooftop bar, and a large terrace overlooking the wharf. Plus, it’s just a 5-minute walk to the docking port for river cruises if you decide to add one to your itinerary (you might even see your boat from your window!). The rooms are spacious, modern, and super comfortable.

There’s a wide range of room options, ranging from $260 USD to over $1,000 USD, depending on what you choose. However, you’ll find the best deals when you book your stay in advance.

Hotel Madera – $$

Hotel Madera is a great mid-range accommodation in the heart of DC. You can have a taste of American comfort food and cocktails at their on-site restaurant – or grab a complimentary glass of wine at the bar. It’s located close to many bars and restaurants and is just a 5-minute walk to Dupont Circle. Rooms are quite large and well-equipped, and some come with balconies to view the city.

Prices start at $170 USD which is a great value for what you get! Snag this deal by booking online here.

Duo Nomad – $

Duo Nomad is our top choice for budget accommodations in DC. It’s a clean place with complimentary breakfast, a garden, a terrace, and a shared lounge to meet other travelers or relax after a day of sightseeing. It’s located just off Capital Hill. Prices run from $39-$59 USD for a bed in a shared dorm. However, if you’re two people traveling, get a 2-bed shared dorm, and voila – it’s your own private accommodation!

If you’re on a budget, reserve a bed at Duo Nomad on Booking.com or through Hostelworld.com.

Thanks for reading!

Daniel and Bailey take a selfie in front of the White House in Washington DC
Thanks for reading!

There’s so much history in Washington, DC, that taking a history tour really enhances your understanding of the city and makes your visit better. Hopefully, our experience going on so many different tours in DC has helped you pick out one (or more) tours that are perfect for you!

If you have plans to visit more US cities, be sure to check out all our guides to destinations in the United States. You can get started with one of the related blogs linked below:

28 BEST Free and Cheap Things to do in Washington, DC

10 BEST Tours in Philadelphia for Food, History, and Hidden Gems

5 Absolute BEST New York City Food Tours + 10 Tips BEFORE Booking!

How to Spend 5 Days in NYC: A Complete New York Itinerary