Washington DC is one of my favorite places to visit in the US. There is soooooo much to see and do, it’s easy to get to, easy to get around, and it is practically made for tourists.
I’d argue that it’s the US’ best city for sightseeing. Besides just having a tremendous concentration of sites, it’s laid out so well and I joke, but it feels like everyone is either a businessman/politician in a suit or a tourist so it has a really clean and safe vibe.
I’ve been to DC quite a few times and I’ve done quite a few different things, so I thought I’d throw this post together to give you the rundown if you’re planning a trip:
What You Need to Know About DC
I’ve only ever been to DC in the summer and even though it’s peak tourist season, it’s a pretty good time to visit. But my first choice would absolutely be in the spring to see the cherry blossoms. I’m working on making that happen next year.
You don’t need a car. There are several major airports within a quick Lyft/Uber ride and if you’re staying pretty much anywhere in the city everything is either pretty walkable or easily accessible on the metro which is very nice and user friendly.
Hotels are usually much cheaper in DC on the weekends because all the business people and politicians go home. So I always like to take advantage of Friday and Saturday night rates.
There are so many great hotels, but last time I stayed at the Fairmont which is on the edge of Georgetown and it ended up being perfect. It was just a block or two to the Foggy Bottom metro stop and the Uptowner Cafe (a little bodega) was on the way and it was the perfect place to pop in and grab breakfast. I also found the Fairmont to be quite a bit cheaper than other comparable luxury hotels.
So much of the “big stuff” in DC is free (monuments, Smithsonian museums, etc.), but some things require a timed entry ticket so double check for anything that requires reservations before you arrive.
5 Day Washington DC Itinerary
5 days is pretty much the perfect amount of time to spend in DC. If that includes your arrival and departure day (so three full days), you can see a LOT if you’re willing to pack it in. If you have five full days, then that definitely leaves you time for some day trips whether that’s just a 20 minute taxi or hopping on the train.
Instead of telling you exactly what to do when, I’m going to tell you pretty much everything I’ve ever done in DC broken down by category and how I would rank it (must do, nice if you have time, skippable, etc) plus a few day trips that I recommend:
US Capitol Sites
Obviously, since DC is the capital, there are some important things to see here:
White House: The White House IS open for tours, but it takes a little planning (and sometimes luck). They are reserved at least 21 days in advance (but no more than 90) and you HAVE to go through a member of Congress and their Congressional Tour Coordinator. There’s a full list by state here and then you just have to start contacting the right people and follow your state’s procedures.
It’s really something to see and I would definitely recommend following the process to see if you can get a tour, but I wouldn’t be too upset if it doesn’t work out. You can still go by and see it from the gates.
US Capitol: The Capitol is back open for tours, but you need to reserve a time in advance. More info here. In a lot of ways, I think going inside the Capitol is more impressive than the White House.
Library of Congress: This is actually my favorite one of these places on this list to go. But I’m a book person! They usually have a handful of special exhibits going on here as well. The Library of Congress is free to visit, but you need to reserve a time slot in advance. You can do that here.
Supreme Court: You can also go inside the Supreme Court building when they’re not in session. More info here. This one isn’t a must do for me though, and I’ve always been plenty impressed just seeing if from outside.
Everybody associates the Smithsonian with Washington DC, but a lot of people are surprised to find out that the Smithsonian is actually a collection of 21 museums plus the National Zoo.
AND ALL OF THEM ARE FREE.
Let’s start with the National Zoo: If you have kids, you should go. If you’ve never seen a panda, you should go. If you like zoos in general, you should go. In short, it’s a great zoo. Entry is free but you MUST have a pass to enter. They can be booked online four weeks in advance and they keep a limited amount of tickets available same day onsite.
“The Big Three:” Of the 21 museums, there are three that I would say are the big ones.
The American History Museum, Natural History Museum, and Air and Space Museum attract more visitors than the rest. It’s partially their location on the National Mall and partially their scope. Plus they’ve been around for a while.
One of my favorite things in DC is the exhibit in the American History Museum that has dresses and personal items from EVERY First Lady in history including the inaugural ball gowns of every first lady since (I believe) Mamie Eisenhower.
Of these three museums, the Air and Space Museum requires timed entry tickets.
African American Museum: I haven’t been yet (we couldn’t get tickets last time I was there because it had just opened and was super popular), but I’ve heard that it’s a fantastic museum and a true must do in DC. And it focuses on culture as well as history.
American Indian Museum: I haven’t been to this one yet either. Being Native American myself, it’s definitely on my list of places to go next time I’m in DC and while they have an impressive collection of artifacts, I’ve heard that it’s pretty lacking in context (i.e. not much discussion of what happened to the native people in this country). The First Americans Museum recently opened in Oklahoma City, OK and tells the story of the 39 tribes forcibly relocated to Oklahoma along with the story of natives in this country in general and I’ve heard many people say that it’s the museum that the Smithsonian should have built but didn’t.
The rest are a smattering of smaller museums (a lot of art and design oriented museums) that are sometimes interesting to pop in if you’re passing by but I wouldn’t necessarily say are must dos besides maybe the Portrait Gallery if you’re a big art person.
Personally though, I did really enjoy the Smithsonian Castle. Besides being a really cool building, this is a great place to learn about the Smithsonian Institution itself and how it was founded.
Other Museums & Sites to See
Holocaust Museum: This is one of my top recommendations in DC. It’s not a “fun thing to do” but it’s so important and this museum is incredibly well done. I know a fair amount about the Holocaust and still learned about some new facets that I ended up researching more later. Plan to spend about 1.5-2 hours here. It’s obviously not a place for most children, but some older children may be okay to visit. I went with a preteen and early teen and they handled it well (both were very interested to go) but we made sure to manage the flow of how much time we spent in certain areas and there were still a few areas that we decided it was best they didn’t view (parts of the museum are designed to be out of view unless you’re a certain height or walk around a barrier in an intentional way).
United States Botanic Garden: This is a great botanic garden with a lot of different climates and it’s right next to the US Capitol. Free entry.
National Archives: Home to the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, the National Archives are a must visit for history lovers. It’s free, you don’t need reservations (sometimes you have to wait in line at peak times though) and you see all the documents in one rotunda so it’s a pretty quick visit.
National Gallery of Art: This isn’t a must visit for me, but it’s worth a stroll through if you’re an art lover. Admission is free and here’s a link to the collection’s highlights. I think Da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci is the standout.
Ford’s Theater: Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Ford’s Theater in DC and it’s near the top of my must do list for DC, especially if you plan your visit to coincide with a ranger talk for a little context. Tickets are free but you need to reserve a timeslot in advance. You can also visit the Pederson House across the street where he actually died.
International Spy Museum: Part museum, but mostly interactive experience, this is a must do if you have kids.
You can’t come to DC without seeing the monuments!
Most of the monuments are clustered around the National Mall between the Washington Monument (east end) and the Lincoln Memorial (west end) and along the Tidal Basin.
In this area, you’ll find:
World War II Memorial
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Korean War Veterans Memorial
Martin Luther King Jr Memorial
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
Thomas Jefferson Memorial
These are easy enough to visit on your own and they’re all within walking distance of each other, but one of the most popular things to do in Washington DC is a “Moonlight Monument” tour that makes multiple stops along the mall (less walking) and gives you more context than seeing them on your own. I’ve done this tour and it’s great.
**National Parks Passport Tip: If you’re a National Parks stamp collector like me, you’ll be excited to know that there are sooooooo many stamps available in the DC area. Most of the monuments and a lot of the historic sites in DC are part of the National Park Service and if the site/monument has a Visitor Center you’ll find the stamp there, but a lot of these places don’t have Visitor Centers (of if you’re seeing them from a tour/trolley you may not have time to stop everywhere. Well here’s a pro stamp collector tip: The Visitor Center at the Washington Monument has pretty much every stamp for the DC area. It’s a one stop shop!
Day Trips from Washington DC
The Washington DC area is so tightly packed with attractions that you could easily spend 5 days just seeing everything in DC proper, but there are some great places to visit just outside of DC plus the train system is really good on the east coast and that opens up a lot of good day trip options. Here are some of my favorites:
Arlington National Cemetery: I hesitate to even call this a day trip because it’s pretty much in DC (although technically in Virginia). It’s on the metro, right across the Potomac, and a must do. Seeing the Eternal Flame at JFK’s gravesite and the changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are must dos. Plus visit the Robert E Lee house to learn how Arlington ended up being the site of the National Cemetery.
Mount Vernon: George Washington’s estate is also a quick ride away from DC proper but it feels like a world away. It’s a great day trip and besides learning a lot of history, it’s also a beautiful setting.
Monticello: Thomas Jefferson’s estate is further away, but still a good day trip option.
Philadelphia: I’ve been on quite a few trips to DC so one year we decided to go to Philadelphia for the day on the train. Being from somewhere where train travel isn’t super common, riding the train felt like an event to us and it’s a really easy 2.5 hour train ride from DC to Philly. We spent most of the day in and around Old City visiting most of the historic attractions. We spent time at the National Constitution Center, saw Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Betsy Ross’ house, Elfreth’s Alley, and a lot more. If you’re interested in US Colonial history, Philadelphia is a must visit.