One could easily spend an entire month exploring Washington, DC. The list of places to see and visit is beyond extensive and with 19 Smithsonian Museums to explore, that’s 19 days right there! The memorials, the food scene, the nearby historical homes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as well as Harper’s Ferry and other significant places in history, a month’s time would fly by in the blink of an eye.
A 3-Day Itinerary
With all of that being said, if you find yourself in Washington, DC with only a few days to explore the wonders of the city, here’s our suggested 3-day itinerary. It will keep you hopping, but you’ll take in what we believe to be a top-rated glimpse of the nation’s capital city. Note: Our itinerary is based on driving and parking in the city, but all of the sites are accessible by public transportation.
Washington, DC Day 1
Start out at the Smithsonian Castle, on the National Mall, and walk toward the Lincoln Memorial. Along the way you’ll see Washington’s Monument, the WWII Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and of course, the Lincoln Memorial. Definitely, climb the stairs and get up close and personal with Mr. Lincoln. Near the Lincoln Memorial you’ll find several other memorials including, the Korean War Memorial, the Martin Luther King Memorial and the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial.
From Lincoln’s Memorial find your way to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. It is powerful in its simplicity. From there leave the National Mall and continue on to the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Directly across the street from the front of the White House is Lafayette Park where you can rest and take in the historical significance of the White House and all those who have walked the halls and occupied the Oval Office.
Just steps away from the White House, you’ll find Old Ebbitt Grill, the perfect lunch respite. The restaurant and bar are iconic to the Washington, DC political scene. Ask for a table in the main dining room to get the full scope of the ambiance. The fried green tomatoes are the best but really, you can’t go wrong with the quality and yumminess of the food. Personally, I highly recommend a Mojito cocktail to accompany those fried green tomatoes.
After lunch make your way back to the Smithsonian Castle, a quick walk, and step inside the Freer Gallery (next to the castle) and give yourself the gift of experiencing the Peacock Room inside the gallery.
Once back in your car (or on public transportation) make your way to the National Cathedral. A visit to the cathedral is well-worth your time as it is stunning and holds its own against the grand cathedrals of Europe. Visitors are welcome to explore on their own, and/or guided tours are available.
From the cathedral it’s a quick drive to Georgetown where you can walk the beautiful campus of Georgetown University, search for the historic cobblestone neighborhood streets, and then see if you can find the infamous Exorcist Stairs as seen in the movie. M Street in Georgetown is an experience in itself as you’ll find a multitude of shopping and dining options.
Washington, DC Day 2
Begin your day with breakfast at Ted’s Bulletin on 8th Street near Eastern Market. Ted’s is another well-loved dining experience in DC. I can personally attest to the deliciousness of the fried chicken and biscuits, the french toast and pretty much anything else on the menu. Oh, and be sure to order a homemade poptart! Yum!
From Ted’s either take the Metro at Eastern Market or drive and park near the capitol building. The visitor’s center is actually behind the capitol and down a flight of stairs/elevator. The tour is free but you do need a timed entry which is easy. Just stand in line. The tour begins with a 15-minute full-size theater movie, followed by a guided tour of a few of the historic rooms. It’s a good tour and lasts approximately 50 minutes.
Once you finish the tour take the underground tunnel to the Library of Congress, which is directly across the street and behind the capitol. Why visit the library? Once you step inside you’ll understand immediately. Trust me. Be absolutely certain to find your way upstairs to the overview of the main reading room. It is the crown jewel of visiting the library and should not be missed.
Leaving the library, make your way across the street to the Superior Court of the United States. You can’t miss it. (open Monday – Friday). There are lectures (small group) held inside the actual courtroom every hour on the half hour, but if you don’t want to attend a lecture you can peek in to the courtroom between the lectures. In a separate media room there is a very good video that is worth watching. Built with white marble, the building is stunning. Take a bit of time to roam the hallways and take it all in.
Washington, DC Day 3
Begin your day at Ford’s Theater where the NPS gives a very good talk explaining what actually happened on that fateful night when the president was assassinated. Downstairs from the main theater is a very nice albeit somewhat small museum and across the street is the actual house where they moved President Lincoln after he was shot and later passed away.
The National Archives
Next up, make your way to the National Archives where you can view the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Which, as you can imagine are spectacular to see, and very well-guarded by the way. The rotunda itself is well-worth seeing as are the two huge paintings that depict the signing. There are also other exhibits to explore and a small museum.
The Best Chili in DC
Lunch for the day should be at Ben’s Chili Bowl where you’ll dive in to the best chili dog and chili cheese fries you can imagine. It is another iconic DC eatery where even presidents have been known to indulge. On your way in or out, don’t forget to look at the wonderful murals on both sides of the building.
Round out your day by choosing a Smithsonian and spend the rest of your day exploring. We always encourage visitors to spend time at the National Museum of American History. Often referred to as America’s Attic, the museum houses the history and culture of America. It’s fascinating and a minimum of three hours should be allotted.
“The dresses I wore are in the Smithsonian now.” Jamie Farr (TV Series: MASH)
Washington, DC is a vibrant non-stop city and depending on what time of year you visit, your experience will be different. Spring is a lovely time to visit because the weather is nice and the cherry blossoms are in bloom. However, spring is also when eighth-graders from across the nation descend on the city as part of their curriculum. Eighth grade = American History. I remember w-a-y back when having to pass an American History exam in order to pass eighth grade.
Fall is a really nice time to visit because the summer heat and humidity has moved on and the fall colors are bursting forth. Summer is nice as well, but the heat and humidity can be stifling and the lines can be long.
Spring, summer, fall, or winter … no matter what time of year you visit, Washington, DC will not disappoint!
I am sad that the Smithsonian museums will likely still be closed, but there will be much to see in our 8 days in May. Hoping for good weather, or at least warm rain! We are exploring all the places we can reach by Metro and bus so we can leave our car parked. At least two of the restaurants mentioned are still open and serving. I am sure there will be many more.
You’re correct, Margaret, you’ll find there is so much to see in DC even if the Smithsonian Museums are closed. Keep checking the Smithsonian’s website though because things continue to change. DC is a very pedestrian-friendly city.
Oh, I love Washington DC and have to admit to some envy for you two for having it at your fingertips and being able to partake of its offerings at your leisure. One of these days I’m going to take the time to do the 19 Smithsonian museums in 19 days. Next time I visit the area, I’ll be sure to let you know! 🙂
I often think the same thing, Anita. I’d love to just explore 1 Smithsonian for 1 whole day including lunch in the cafe. I’d have to space it out though, maybe 1 Smithsonian each week otherwise I think I might suffer from brain overload!
This looks interesting but I’d like to take a month to explore the Smithsonian.
19 Smithsonian Museums, 19 days. That should do it, otherwise you’d end up with museum overload. Ha! Ha!
Patti, this is a great itinerary. I would love to visit Washington DC, it will probably be as part of a road trip to the US which we hope to do in the near future. With great cities like Washington DC it is alway hard to decide how to best explore it. I was glad to see great culinary suggestions also, I love starting a day of exploring with a good breakfast
Thanks so much, Gilda. I hope you do find your way to the US and take in the sites of Washington, DC. It’s a fantastic city.