Lots of critics will tell you that 24 hours is not enough time in a place. But lets face it, often there is just not enough time or money to spend a week or a month everywhere. Sometimes you are driving from point A to point B and just stop for the day. Sometimes you are traveling for work and can only squeeze out one day (or less) to see the sights. There are tons of reasons you may only have one day, and that is ok! But you want to make the most of your time, and don’t want to waste precious minutes by deciding what to do… As a local, here are my recommendations for one perfect day in Washington DC.
If you only have one day and have never been to DC before, then I really recommend spending the day downtown at the National Mall. This is the heart of our Nation’s Capital, the location of both the Capitol and the White House, as well as all of our iconic monuments and museums.
If not staying in the city center, then either the metro or car is a reasonable travel solution. Expect to pay $15-$25 to park, but if there are three or more people in your party that may cost less than the metro in the long run. However, once the car is parked, plan on leaving it there for the day.
Washington is a walking city. If mobile and able, I recommend breaking out your walking shoes and plan a day of 4-5 miles on your feet. If that is too much for you or your kids, another great alternative is to rent a bicycle for the day at Capital Bikeshare. Capital Bikeshare has convenient pick up and drop off locations throughout the city. If you have limited mobility, then hop on hop off buses or tour buses are always an option but be prepared to spend much of the day in traffic and be judicious about how often you get off the bus or you will spend a lot of time waiting around.
Most of the Smithsonian museums open at 10 am but in order to beat the crowds and make the most of your day, I would recommend getting to the mall around 8 or 9 am. Start at one end and see of the memorials and buildings from the outside in the relative peace and quiet with only the runners and dog walkers. I recommend starting at either end of the mall so you can make your way to the center in order to visit a museum or two when the open.
Option A: If you are an early riser, you can squeeze in a tour of the Capitol at 830 am. However, anything later in the day will just eat up too much time for only one day in the city. Once done at the Capitol, walk by the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court before heading down the mall towards the museums.
Option B: Start by the Lincoln memorial and walk to see the Vietnam Wall, Korean Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, FDR Memorial, and Jefferson Memorial before circling back towards the World War II memorial and the Washington Monument. This is a gorgeous route and appropriately 2.7 miles. 1-2 hours is enough time to walk at a leisurely pace and still spend a few minutes at each location. If you have time and have it in you, you can also walk by the White House after the Washington Monument. To just see it and take a picture from the edge of Constitution Ave (enter German American Friendship Garden in your GPS) will add .6 miles (round trip) to your walk.
Plan to spend the majority of the day visiting 1-2 Smithsonian Museums. Museums open at 10 am and unless you are extremely lucky there will be a line to get in. However, if you time your first museum arrival for 10:15 or 10:30 you can avoid the initial line of early birders but still beat the late arrivals. The Smithsonian has 19 museums, so you will never see them all in a short trip. The most popular are the Air and Space Museum, Natural History Museum, American History Museum, and the Archives. They are popular for a reason, so unless you are particularly interested in Art or another museum, I recommend you pick from one of these.
Lunch: There are tons of fantastic places to eat in DC; however, they are all a bit off the mall and will eat up precious time if you plan to hit a second museum. For a fast and delicious lunch, hit a food truck. You will have dozens of options outside the L’Enfant metro station or along 14th Street in front of the Washington Memorial.
Visit your second museum after lunch.
The Kennedy Center has a free performance every evening at 6 pm. Too get there, take the metro to Foggy Bottom and take the free shuttle that runs every 15 minutes. It is easy to spot just at the top of the escalator.
End your day with dinner and drinks at either Eastern Market, Georgetown or China Town. If you opted for the Kennedy Center, then Georgetown is a lovely walk by the river. Both Eastern Market and China Town have easy metro access and dozens of great places to choose from.
It is a long day, but in just 12 hours you can see the highlights of the Capital, hit a museum or two and even have time for great food and a little culture! Check out my DC Favorites List and other DC blogs for other ideas.