Washington, DC Itinerary + Day Trips You’ll Love from a Local

Washington, DC, is a must-visit city in the US. Its inspiring monuments and museums define a visit, and as someone who’s been living in the area for twelve years now, I write about it all the time. From downtown to hidden gems, you honestly could spend weeks here and not see everything.

This Washington, DC itinerary will take you to some of the best places in DC. AND with the added on day trips from DC, you can journey beyond the capital city’s major attractions to discover natural escapes, incredible food, exciting shopping, and culture-rich cities. This Washington, DC itinerary includes my favorite spots as a local and the must-sees.

Table of Contents

Washington, DC Itinerary Costs

  • Flight: $300 (average from other US cities)
  • Airbnb: $60 per night 
  • Activities: $200 or less
  • Food: $40 per day (check out my list of cheap eats in DC)

Where to Stay in Washington, DC

Luxury

    1. The Willard InterContinental: This hotel is situated at 1401 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, just two blocks from the White House and within walking distance of many major attractions, including the National Mall with all the monuments and Smithsonians. It’s stunning around Christmas time.
    2. The Hay-Adams: This historic hotel is located across from the White House and provides excellent city views, including landmarks like the Washington Monument and St. John’s Church. The Top of the Hay restaurant offers a rooftop setting with a great view.

Mid-Range

  1. Washington Hilton: This hotel is close to two of DC’s most iconic neighborhoods, DuPont Circle and Adams Morgan. The Washington Hilton is a large hotel featuring an outdoor courtyard and views of the capital skyline. This Washington, D.C. hotel is just 1.6 mi from the White House. A full restaurant and bar are available.
  2. Hotel Viceroy: Set on a tree-lined street in Logan Circle, this high-end hotel is a 15-minute walk from a metro station, 17 minute walk from The White House, and 2 miles from the National Gallery of Art.

Budget

  1. CitizenM: This location in NoMa puts you within a 15-minute walk of the Smithsonian Institution and Union Station. Rooms at this upscale property offer up nice touches like iPads, iPod docks, and pillowtop beds with premium linens.
  2. Hotel Hive: DC’s first micro-hotel, these low-frills accommodations are about half the size of traditional hotel rooms, but worth considering for travel on a budget. Situated between the Kennedy Center and George Washington University, the pet-friendly hotel’s rooms contain the basics: a private bathroom, Wi-Fi, a TV, and a choice between a king, queen, or bunk beds (the bigger the bed, the bigger the room).

Day 1

No Washington, DC itinerary would be complete without seeing the monuments, whether you spend 2 days in DC or a week. If you want to save money, you definitely don’t have to do a tour, but I do think it’s pretty fun to hear the history of each of these monuments with a tour.

Monuments you’ll want to see include:

  • National World War II Memorial
  • District War Memorial
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
  • Vietnam Veterans Memorial
  • Abraham Lincoln Memorial
  • Washington Monument
  • Thomas Jefferson Memorial

My favorite time of year around the National Mall is cherry blossom season! You’ll see the gorgeous trees in bloom all over.

I always think that starting off with a tour on a trip really helps you get insider tips, learn more about history, and just enjoy the rest of your trip overall. This tour is an excellent option and includes Washington Monument tickets and the best view of DC!

Check Out the Museums

After exploring the monuments, choose a one or two different Smithsonian museums to visit. I’d recommend one larger one, and one smaller one with limited time. Consider spending a day on the National Mall just to visit museums. They are all free, but some require timed entry. You could spend weeks just visiting Smithsonian Museums.

Here is a list of my favorites to visit when you only have half a day:

  • African-American History Museum (on the National Mall)
  • American History Museum (on the National Mall)
  • Holocaust Museum (almost on the National Mall)
  • Air and Space Museum (on the National Mall)
  • National Art Gallery and Portrait Museum (Chinatown just north of the National Mall — perfect for photos)
  • National Zoo (Woodley Park)

There are smaller Smithsonian museums (or ones that take less time) that are definitely still worth a visit. Most are located right along the National Mall, too. Here are a few to consider if you want to visit a few smaller museums or still have enough time after visiting one of the larger museums!

  • National Archives (while smaller, lines can be long, and it can take hours, consider a tour if you want to visit)
  • Renwick Art Gallery (next to the White House)
  • Hirshhorn (on the National Mall)
  • Sculpture Gardens (on the National Mall)
  • Botanical Gardens (on the National Mall)

Spy Museum

$24.95

10-minute walk south of the National Mall, 700 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Washington, DC 20024

Not interested in a Smithsonian or want something completely different? Check out the Spy Museum!

I love the Spy Museum. They recently did a huge renovation and opened up in a brand new part of DC just south of the National Mall. Unlike Smithsonian Museums, you’ll pay for entry into this one, but I promise it is worth it! I usually spend a few hours here when visiting and it’s a fun, interactive experience sharing the history of spies!

Sunset Drinks, Dinner, or a Show in the Wharf

901 Wharf St SW, Washington, DC 20024

From the Spy Museum, walk about 10 more minutes south and you’ll reach the Wharf.

The Wharf is DC’s newest development and has some of the best views at sunset. Whiskey Charley offers great views of the Capitol from its roof (located inside the Hilton), La Vie has happy hour specials, and Officina has a huge patio with greenery that is pretty romantic.

After that, grab dinner at one of the great restaurants there. My favorites are Hank’s Oyster House (seafood), Officina (Italian), and Mi Vida (Mexican).

If you’ve still got energy after a long day, check if there are any shows going on in the Wharf. There are three different music and comedy venues that have opened up in the Wharf and offer a variety of music genres every night. The Anthem is the largest venue, Pearl Street Warehouse often hosts local or cover bands, and Union Stage hosts smaller names as well as comedy on a regular basis.

In the summer, there are large games such as cornhole and outdoor concerts happening as well. Plenty of entertainment options!

Check out the Wharf’s website for their latest events.

Day 2

Museums

*Stop at the Capitol for tickets first thing in the morning if you don’t buy in advance or take a tour that includes tickets to the Capitol!

 
Spend the morning exploring another one of the best free museums DC has to offer. There are far too many to see in one trip… In fact, if you spent 1 minute at each exhibit it would take more than 258 years to see them all, but don’t worry, you can still see some of the most awesome museums in a few hours.

Capitol

First St SE, Washington, DC 20004

A tour of the Capitol is one of the best ways to see and understand US politics. Advance reservations are recommended, but not required. If you choose to risk it, go the morning of, before you visit any museums. The lines for this can often be long and tickets sell out in the high season. I’d recommend just buying in advance on their website. You can also take a tour that includes tickets to the Capitol

The Capitol is beautiful and taking a tour will help you learn about the US government, history, and where we are today. I think it’s essential! In the summer, flowers are all around the Capitol making it an especially beautiful spot to see.

Library of Congress

Library of Congress 101 Independence Ave SE, Washington, DC 20540

At the Library of Congress are rare books, the Jefferson Reading Room, and it’s just all-around a beautiful building. Timed entry tickets are required to visit and you can reserve your spot here.

Supreme Court

Supreme Court 1 First St NE, Washington, DC 20543

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the Nation for all cases and controversies arising under the Constitution or laws of the United States. There are specific guidelines and you are not guaranteed entry. It is important, though, to see while in DC! Find visitor information here.

National Archives

National Archives 701 Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC 20408

Your last stop will be the National Archives where you can see the Declaration of Independence and other important early US documents like the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The lines here can be long so I’d recommend giving yourself plenty of time. While reservations aren’t required (and it’s free), it is recommended you reserve a spot in advance.

Dinner and Drinks on U Street

900 U St NW, Washington, DC 20001

U Street is one of the most popular neighborhoods in DC for locals and has a lot of historical significance. It’s full of beautiful Victorian homes built in the 1800s and an epicenter of African American life in the first half of the 20th century – one of the most exciting areas in the country for the celebration of black culture. Poets like Langston Hughes and musicians like Duke Ellington got their start in this neighborhood, and the culture lives on today (in select areas, of course).

You can eat almost any kind of food in this area. Some of my favorites are Dukem (Ethiopian), Ben’s Chili Bowl (a local favorite), and Le Diplomate (French). For music, check out U Street Music HallDC9 and Twins Jazz. This is a perfect spot for people wanting to go out or couples visiting DC who want to enjoy local music.

Find the photo op above and more in my Washington DC photo guide.

Day 3

Breakfast in Eastern Market

225 7th St SE, Washington, DC 20003

This can really be done on any day, but Eastern Market is another local spot that I just love. It’s been in operation since the 1800s and you’ll find local food, coffee, art, music, books, and more in the area. I love grabbing a bagel at Bullfrog Bagels, a homemade pop tart at Ted’s Bulletin, and a Coffee at Radici.

On the weekend, a huge flea market opens up outside and you can shop local art, old maps, funky jewelry, and more.

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington, VA 22211

Arlington National Cemetery is a really important place to visit while in Washington, DC. Watch the changing of the guard, see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, important graves of leaders and presidents, and Robert E Lee’s home during the Civil War. There’s a lot of history in this cemetery that you should take time to explore. Getting a guide for this area is a good idea so that you find the most important places while there.

Georgetown

3301 M St NW, Washington, DC 20007

Georgetown was established in the 1700s as a city in Maryland. It later became part of the city of DC and is one of the oldest neighborhoods. Today, it’s lined with upscale shopping, famous bakeries (Georgetown Cupcakes or Laduree?!), and beautiful historic homes. Take time to stroll through the neighborhood and walk along the water, enjoying the views!

One of the best things to do in Georgetown is a walking tour and cruise along the Potomac! You’ll get to pass the monuments and sites along the National Mall offering a truly unique view into DC! Highly recommend this tour here, especially if you can’t get tickets for the White House.

White House

1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20500

Of course, you have to see the White House while in DC! Arranging a tour can be really difficult, but you can visit the gift shop and outside easily. You have to reach out months in advance if you would like to take a tour and plan ahead.

Check out their website for more.

Monuments at Sunset and Night

This is something everyone says you have to do and they are right! The monuments look gorgeous at night! You can easily visit on your own, or join a tour to hear even more information about the monuments and take in the beautiful views at sunset.

Dinner and Drinks at Union Market

1309 5th St NE, Washington, DC 20002

Union Market is one of my favorite places as a local to hang out. There are over 40 food options in and around the market which has been open since the 1930s. There are tons of affordable food options here that you’ll love as well as local brews and cocktails. My favorite is Rappahannock Oysters which does a happy hour daily with 1/2 off oysters (local to the DC area).

Day Trips to Consider

Yes, you can see a lot of DC in three days, but there is so much beyond three days that you can do! This Washington, DC, itinerary didn’t feel complete without including some of the day trips that I love. It’s also easy to take a road trip from DC to many other top cities and places along the East Coast.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Explore the historic estate and take part in immersive activities, including a 4D film, interacting with period interpreters, and hearing tours from lesser-heard perspectives (such as “Herstory”). The property is beautiful and you’ll want to spend time walking the grounds and learning important history.

In the afternoon, stroll through Old Town’s walkable King Street mile, lined with 200+ independent shops and restaurants set inside historic buildings, red-brick sidewalks and a free trolley. Stop at historic site museums like the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum.

Consider this tour which will take you to both!

Day Trip: Harper’s Ferry and Udvar-Hazy Space Center Day Trip

In the morning, drive out to Harper’s Ferry. You’ll cross through Maryland into Virginia, eventually reaching West Virginia and Harper’s Ferry, a National Park that was the key site in the Civil War located where the Potomac and Shenandoah River meet. The area has museums, 18th-century buildings, and an inside look into life during the 1700s.

It’s an incredible place to visit and has one of my favorite hikes in the area. Get the great outdoors and history in one trip!

Udvar-Hazy Space Center is located in Dulles and part of the Smithsonian Museums. It houses thousands of aviation and space artifacts including full-size space crafts and planes. It’s way bigger than the Air and Space Museum on the National Mall and has rare planes and spacecraft on site.

Baltimore is one of my favorite cities. I lived there for three years before moving to DC, and it’s an easy day trip from DC. You can take the train from Union Station in DC straight to Baltimore (MARC Train schedule here). In Baltimore, you can check out the National Aquarium, original Washington Monument, historic Fells Point, amazing crabs (try Nick’s Fish House), and free museums (Walter’s Art Museum is my favorite).

Day trip: King’s Dominion

King’s Dominion is a popular theme park located a few hours south of DC. With tons of roller coasters and a water park, it can be a really fun and different than the other day trips suggested here. You’ll get some thrills, fun in the sun, and more just a few hours from DC.

As a local, I created this Washington, DC itinerary with all the things you can't miss when visiting DC, along with optional day trips to make your time here even better!
As a local, I created this Washington, DC itinerary with all the things you can’t miss when visiting DC, along with optional day trips to make your time here even better!

This Washington, DC itinerary will help you see the best of DC in three days and take a few days to enjoy the best the area has to offer! No matter how you spend your time in DC, you’ll love it!

Meghan

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