My first trip to Washington DC was a bit of a write-off. Arriving in the Capital from New York in July, the first thing that hit me was the humidity. I consequently spent the first day shopping for clothes befitting a tropical island in the Pacific, my second day I hid out in a bar that was deliciously cool, had constant air conditioning and served me way too strong Bloody Mary’s. On my third and final day, I pulled my hungover body around as many of the sights I could, cursing the heat, swearing off vodka and making a promise to return to Washington DC for a second attempt – at a much more temperate time of year.
December probably wasn’t a much better time weather-wise but the USA’s capital was feeling rather festive and with an icy breeze serving as a good motivation to speed up my sightseeing pace, I once again attempted to see the sights of Washington DC…in just three days
Here’s my guide to…
The Best Things to Do in Washington DC in 3 Days
I’d highly recommend seeing the most iconic sights early on in your trip because DC is one of those places where time whips by and before you know it, your trip is over.
Pro Travel Tip
To maximise time, I took a Segway tour with Smithsonian National Mall Tours. Starting at 2pm and lasting for 3 hours, the route took us past all of the sights below while the guide punctuated the tour with fun, quirky and historical trivia about each of the stops.
It’s worth noting that the tour I took only zooms past the back of the White House, so spend the morning seeing the White House from the front before making your way to your Segway tour.
Note: there are a number of other Segway and bike tours available through Bike the Sites.
Start your day visiting the White House. You’ll probably struggle to get an uninterrupted photo of one of the world’s most recognisable homes (they’ve only got a damn fence in the way) but just seeing it with your own eyes is the important thing.
- George Washington, the first President of the USA, and the person who the capital was named after oversaw construction of the White House but he never got to live there because his term was up before the building was complete!
The National Mall
In itself, the National Mall – which is actually an extremely long stretch of lawn, is more of a starting point for seeing the main sights in Washington DC than it is a sight in itself.
- The National Mall comprises 146 acres of lawn that run from the Potomac River all the way to the Capitol building.
- The purpose of the National Mall is a place for public gatherings and many political rallies and events have been held here including the famous march on Washington for jobs and freedom.
For me, the Capitol Building is way more impressive (architecturally) than the White House and some of the best views you will get of the Capitol are from the balcony of the Newseum Museum (see below).
- The Capitol Building has its own Subway system.
- The pesky Brits (apologies on behalf of my ancestors), nearly razed the building to the ground during the War of 1812 but a fortuitously timed storm put the flames out.
- For just over a decade at the beginning of the 1900’s there was a law preventing any building being built higher than the Capitol. Although that law has long been repealed, there are still only 4 buildings in Washington DC that are higher than the Capitol: The Washington Monument, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Old Post Office and the Washington National Cathedral.
If you take the Segway tour in winter, you’ll hit the Washington Monument around sunset when you’ll be able to get that perfect picture of the monument reflecting in the reflecting pool.
- The Washington Monument is the tallest structure in Washington DC.
- It was the world’s tallest man-made structure until the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889.
- Look closely and you’ll see that the stone of the monument is in two shades. That’s because there was a two decade building hiatus during the Civil War. When construction work continued, a different stone was used to complete the monument.
Planning your trip
I used the USA Lonely Planet Guidebook to plan my trip because I was on a longer USA trip. Although it’s not filled with pictures, it’s got all the details you need including train and bus routes and times as well as local maps. If you prefer something more visual, check out the DK Eyewitness Guide for the USA which has great images and 3D guides to major sites.
Of all the monuments in Washington DC, the Lincoln Memorial is my favourite and arguably the most grand.
- It was from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream…” speech on 28 August 1963.
- After President Lincoln was assassinated, plaster cast masks were made of his hands and face and it was those casts that were used to later create the likeness for the memorial (a bit creepy if you ask me!)
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
I always find war memorials haunting but Washington DC is not short on dedications to those who have fought and lost their lives in battle, so it’s almost inevitable that you’ll find yourself at one war memorial or another during your visit to the capital. In my opinion, the Vietnam Veterans memorial, with its stark, black marble, is absolutely one of the most striking you’ll see.
- The winner of the design competition for the memorial was an unknown, 21-year old student from Yale, Maya Lin, who beat all of the professional architects who entered. (The competition was anonymous).
- Names are still being added to the wall – in 2006 a marine corporal whose death from a stroke was determined to be the result of wounds received in action in 1967, was added to the memorial.
- Although striking in black, the memorial is at odds with all of the white marble buildings and monuments that fill the rest of the National Mall.
National WWII Memorial
The National WWII Memorial, just over from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, honors the 16 million who served in the armed forces of the U.S. during World War II, the more than 400,000 who died, and the millions who supported the war effort from home.
- The memorial includes a curved Freedom Wall adorned with a field of 4,000 golden stars. Each of those stars stands for 100 American military deaths in the war.
- In front of the Freedom Wall is the inscription: “Here we mark the price of freedom.”
Grab lunch at a food truck: There are so many things to do in Washington DC that stopping for food can feel like a time luxury you don’t have. Fortunately, the recent explosions of food trucks onto the DC food scene means you can grab a quick bite without having to resort to trading cash for cardboard with a hot dog vendor. There are plenty of trucks to choose from, dotted all around DC and catering to every international flavour you can think of…and some you can’t! Here’s a list of some of the best trucks in the city.
Have Dinner on 7th Street/Penn Quarter: you’ll definitely be ready for a sit down meal after a day of sight-seeing and 7th street/Penn Quarter has a vast collection of restaurants and cuisines to choose from. If you don’t feel the need to go back to your hotel to spruce yourself up for the night, it’s a short walk from the National Mall.
Alternatively, head to pretty DuPont Circle to explore a different side of DC and grab a divine dinner at the same time. There are plenty of recommendations by Zagat if you want to plan in advance.
Let’s call Day Two “Museum Day”. If the thought of hitting museums all day makes you quake with fear, swap out the activity from the morning of day three (Arlington Cemetery).
Before I arrived in Washington DC and took my Segway Tour, I, like many people, was operating under the mis-apprehension that “the Smithsonian” was just one (albeit the most famous) museum in Washington DC. In fact, it’s 19 museums!
For most people, ticking off just a few of the Smithsonian museums will be more than enough of a challenge though I can’t help admire the spirit of the seven interns who visited 17 of the museums in one day. If you’re want to try to do the same, this article tells you how!
For me, I decided to focus on three of the Smithsonian museums plus Newseum (which has regularly been voted the best museum in Washington DC). Two museums in the morning and two in the afternoon make for a pretty packed schedule, particularly given I’m the kind of person who likes to read every last word on every last plaque so a bit of advance planning is required. If that seems too harrowing, visit the museums at your own pace.
Pro Travel Tip: each of the museums I visited had a summary floor plan that highlighted the main attractions in the museum and where to find them. For a $1 (optional) donation, it’s worth picking one up if you’re short on time.
Entry fees: the Smithsonian museums are free. Newseum has paid entry (though your ticket is valid for two days).
Here’s the museums I visited and the highlights in each.
National Museum of American History
This was one of my favourite museums in Washington DC. Not only does it take you through America’s modern history from transport and the kitchen table (exhibitions during my visit), but you get to see one pop-culture item after another.
The Ruby Slippers worn during the filming of the Wizard of Oz
The original Star Spangled Banner.
National Museum of Natural History
There are dinosaur skeletons aplenty in the Museum of Natural History, but that wasn’t the reason I wedged this museum into the middle of my day. I wanted to set eyes on the infamous Hope Diamond. I fully confess I was too superstitious to take a picture of the diamond lest its powerful curse somehow cause me to lose my beloved iPhone.
The Mystery of the Hope Diamond
Here’s a sneak-peek of the theft, mystery and curse behind the Hope Diamond.
National Gallery of Art
I could easily have spent the entire day wandering around the National Gallery of Art. From sculptures to Renaissance works to Modernism pieces, the museum is both vast and packed full of some of the world’s most significant and identifiable works of art.
Self Portrait, Vincent Van Gough (1889)
Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, Edgar Degas (1878–1881)
The Japanese Footbridge, Claude Monet (1899)
Although not forming part of the Smithsonian museums, Newseum definitely deserves a place on your museum list.
In its own words, Newseum’s “dynamic, engaging and interactive museum allows visitors to experience the stories of yesterday and today through the eyes of the media while celebrating the freedoms guaranteed to all Americans by the First Amendment.” It’s a perfect description that is wonderfully executed.
Berlin Wall (exhibition)
Front Pages Gallery (changed daily)
Hank Greenspun Terrace (for the best views of the Capitol Building)
Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery
9/11 gallery (including the twisted wreckage of the broadcast antenna that was on top of one of the World Trade Centre towers)
Lunch: remember those Bloody Mary’s I mentioned from my first trip to Washington DC? Well, they were served in Old Ebbitt’s Grill. Not only it the oldest saloon in the capital (founded in 1856), it’s an historic landmark that has had a long list of past Presidents and politicians prop up the bar or talk policy over lunch. I can highly recommend the Bloody Maryland, topped with a jumbo shrimp (but I’d advise you to only have one!) and the jumbo lump crab cakes are the perfect accompaniment.
Dinner: Head to Washington Harbour for great views of the Potomac and great food at Farmers Fishers Bakers. The food is made from scratch and as well as serving American classics, there’s an in-house bakery and sushi counter.
Arlington National Cemetery
Get an early start on the day and take the metro out to Arlington National Cemetery. Although a sombre start to your final day in the capital, it’s definitely a sight I’d recommend placing on your list of things to do in Washington DC.
John F. Kennedy grave site
Changing of the Guard
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Pro Travel Tip: If you want to be really time efficient, take the guided Grey Line bus tour around the cemetery.
Food Tour around Georgetown
There’s a lot to things to do in Washington and eating was very high on my list. On a short time scale and wanting to maximise the number of restaurants visited in the least amount of time taken, I opted for a food tour around historic Georgetown with DC Metro Food Tours.
Lasting around 3.5 hours hours, the Gastronomic Georgetown tour featured four courses in four restaurants and a good smattering of history as we walked around Georgetown, an area that was once home to the Kennedys.
The charcuterie board at J Paul’s
The twice ground meatballs at Paolo’s
The smores for dessert
Where to stay in Washington DC
On a budget: Hostelling International Washington DC Hostel – well located (within walking distance of the White House, National Mall and Smithsonian Museums. Includes breakfast. Private and dorm rooms available.
Looking for luxury: The Willard Intercontinental – grand and so close to the National Mall you can get a view of the Washington Monument. Consider one of the suites named after and decorated in a style befitting an ex-president. But if the Willard doesn’t do it for you, check out The Jefferson, which is not only one of the top 3 hotels on Trip Advisor but has also won their coveted Travelers’ Choice Award.
For a well-priced mid-range hotel, check out Priceline Express Deals. I’ve regularly secured up to 60% off hotel rack rates using this function. You can find out more in my related article, How to Book Cheap Hotels (with Priceline Express Deals).
If you have more time, energy or days…
There are so many great things to do in Washington DC that you’re unlikely to see and do them all in one trip. If you do have extra time, here are a few more of the capital’s highlights.
Korean War Veterans Memorial
Martin Luther King JR Memorial
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
Thomas Jefferson Memorial
Holocaust Memorial Museum
Any of the other Smithsonian Museums. On my list for next time are:
- National Air & Space Museum
- The National Portrait Gallery
International Spy Museum
Take a free tour of the Capitol Building
Take a tour of the White House (US Citizens Only)
United States Supreme Court
John F Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts (free or low-cost performances regularly available)
Plan the Perfect Trip to Washington DC
Things to do in Washington DC
You can plan your trip to each of the sights below.
Getting around Washington DC
The Washington DC Metro makes it very easy to get around the city. You can check out the Metro map here or if you have a smartphone, I’d highly recommend downloading a free metro map app like this one.
Have you been to the capital? Any other recommendations for things to do in Washington DC? Let me know in the comments below.
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