It is important to note this post was written in Spring 2022. Details are current as of today but influenced by COVID and the events on January 6th 2021. This post will be updated as appropriate but I recommend you double check any information…
DC is not a spontaneous town. It is filled with type-A planners. Then pile on the business travelers and tourists. It is a trip where some extra planning will save you a lot of hassle and frustration.
White House and Congress: These are currently closed to tours. However, even when they are open they are the hardest to plan. You need to work through your Congressional representatives for access. Do this as early as possible and then plan your trip around these times.
Other Important Institutions – Library of Congress, Supreme Court and The Archives: All three of these are worthy of a visit and are foundational to the American Way of Life. If you have to choose, I would pick the Archives for a couple of reasons. It is more like a museum where you are looking at the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. They also have other exhibits. For the Library of Congress and Supreme Court it is more about the building (which are beautiful) and the concepts – but there is less to actually do. The Archives is also more centrally located and has timed entry. All three are free.
Washington Monument: Access to the top of the monument has grown increasingly difficult. Timed tickets are required and they are not available until 10 am the day prior. Obviously, you can get a great birds-eye view of the National Mall but unless this is a huge priority for you, I say skip it. If you want a great view, have a drink at one of the many rooftop bars. Vue is a local favorite.
Popular Non-Smithsonian Museums – Spy Museum, Museum of the Bible, Newseum: These are all great museums that are not part of the Smithsonian. They all have an entrance fee and most have timed tickets. I’ve been to them all several times but if you have limited time, it is your first (or second trip to DC) or are on a budget, the free museums offered by the Smithsonian give you plenty to see and do.
Most Popular Smithsonian Museums – African American Museum, Air & Space Museum, Natural History Museum, American History Museum, and Holocaust Museum: These are popular for a reason. They are fantastic. Expect them to be crowded. Plan on 2-4 hours for each museum. And if possible, I would go in the morning as they are less busy. The African American Museum and the Holocaust museum still requires timed tickets which you can get 30 days out (they go fast). The Air and Space museum has lots of closures in 2022 so check their website.
The Zoo: The National Zoo is also part of the Smithsonian and free but also requires timed tickets. This is new with COVID but I don’t know if will go away soon. Keep in mind that the zoo is not necessarily centrally located. It is 30-40 minutes from most of the museums and the mall.
Other Smithsonian Museums – Portrait Gallery, American Art Museum, Museum of African Art, Museum of the American Indian, Museum of the American Indian, Design Museum, Anacostia Community museum (currently closed), Postal Museum (currently closed), Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Renwick Gallery, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and the Gardens: As you can see, you could spend a week visiting all of them. If you are in DC during peak season and get tired of the crowds, these will be less busy. Of note, the Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum open and close later than most other museums. If you are like me and like to be on the go every minute and optimize your schedule, these are great places to visit late afternoon / early evening.
Smaller Private Museums – Fredrick Douglas House, National Museum of Women and the Arts (closed for renovation), National Geographic Museum: These are some of my favorites that I highly recommend. The National Museum of Women and the Arts is free the first Sunday of the month.
Even More Museums: They are hidden in every corner of DC. You can visit the small Drug Enforcement Agency Museum in Pentagon City, the National Guard Museum near Union Station, Museum of the Palestinian People in Northwest DC. This barely scratches the surface!
The National Mall: Walking the mall is my favorite DC activity. It is 2 miles from the US capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. On your journey you will pass the most famous Smithsonian Museums, the Botanical Gardens, The White House, the Washington Monument, the World War Two Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, and the Korean War Memorial. If your feet are up for it, continue back by way of the Tidal Basin in order to see the Martin Luther King memorial, the Roosevelt Memorial, and the Jefferson Memorial.
Arlington Cemetery: Conveniently located on the metro line, there is a ton to do and see here. Plan on 2-3 hours to visit the museum, see some of the more famous memorials and to see the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider.
Mt Vernon: Mt Vernon was the home of George Washington. It is a little outside of the central tourist area and will either require a car or an Uber. You’ll need a minimum of 2 hours here. You can also easily spend the entire day. Make sure to check out their website before your trip as they often have special events around the holidays and the seasons. This is one of my husband’s favorite places in the area and he probably visits once a month.
Off the Mall Memorials – 9/11, Iwo Jima, AF memorial: All three of these take a little more effort to see but not too much. The 9/11 memorial is a 10 minute walk from the Pentagon metro stop (currently closed). The Air Force memorial is another 10-15 minutes up the hill. The famous Marine Corps Iwo Jima memorial is a 10 minute walk from the Arlington Cemetery metro stop.
Other Fun Options – The Pentagon, Tour Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and Voice of America: The Pentagon is an amazing and impressive building. When they start offering tours again highly recommend you visit. You can also visit the US Mint and see how US coins are made. Voice of America which has provided English news all over the world for decades is just off the mall and offers a tour at 1200 Monday through Friday.
See a Show: DC if filled with theater options. The Kennedy Center and National Theater are the larger venues but you can also check out Arena Stage, Ford’s Theater, and the Shakespeare Theater. The Kennedy Center has a free performance Wednesday-Saturday at 6 pm on the Millennium Stage. In the summer, Navy Yard will have live bands and food trucks on the weekend. Westminster Presbyterian Church in SW has Friday night jazz. JoJos and other venues in the city offer live music with dinner.
World Events: Think tanks, profs and pints: Many are are currently virtual, but organizations like the Wilson Center, Heritage Foundation, Atlantic Council, Hoover Institute and Brookings Institute (and many more) have regular panels and talks about current events that are open to the public.
Areas to Eat:
I have several posts with specific recommendations. I highly encourage reservations. And in DC, reservations should be made weeks (sometimes months) in advance.
On the National Mall your choices are pretty limited to food trucks and museum cafes. That said, there are more than a dozen of food truck options on 14th street. This is a perfect option for an easy lunch.
Near the Sights: Gallery Place / China Town and around the White House and 14th Street are great areas to take a break with a long lunch or for dinner.
Eastern Market is up the Hill past the Capitol, Library of Congress and Supreme Court. It is a great place for dinner or to hang out on a Saturday. This is one of my favorite areas of the city.
U Street is a recently revitalized community. It has some great places to eat and most people will be local. While it is on both the metro and bus line, it is a little harder to get to and not near any of the main sights.
Waterfront / Navy Yard are great on a beautiful day if you want to combine a meal with just hanging out near the water.
Old Town has dozens of great options. This is my go-to with friends and family. If you are staying in Old Town, plan to eat here most nights.
Georgetown is a favorite area of many. I am not really a fan. It is hard to get to and I don’t think it has great options.
Areas to Stay:
NW DC will be the most convenient area for the National Mall and the museums. If you can afford it, this is the ideal place to stay. There are some beautiful and historic hotels. The general range would be between 7th and 18th Street and Pennsylvania and L street Northwest. (Downtown DC is made of quadrants and there could be duplicate addresses in SE, SW, NE).
If you can’t afford it and don’t plan to return to your hotel in the middle of the day, I recommend Old Town Alexandria. It is a easy metro ride downtown DC. Hotels will be a little cheaper, it is a beautiful area to walk, and King Street has over a mile of wonderful places to eat, drink and shop. It is always full of life!
Pentagon City, Crystal City and Rosalyn will be even more affordable, are also all convenient to the city with public transportation, and have a lot of places to eat in the area.
If looking for unique finds, the Smithsonian museum gift shops are some of my favorite places to shop.
Old Town is a great one-mile walking street filled with stores and restaurants.
If you are an international traveler looking for a US mall experience then check out the mall at Pentagon City or you can go out farther to Tysons Corner which is massive. There are also outlet stores at National Harbor which can be reached by Uber or water taxi from Old Town or Georgetown.
Transportation: You don’t need a car. Traffic is a nightmare and parking is expensive. You can do everything in the DC area by metro, uber, taxi or bus.
For sample itineraries based on a few hours to a few weeks, check out my other blog posts.