You probably know Washington, DC as the capital city of the United States. You might know that it was named after our first President, George Washington, and that it's the current seat of our federal government. You might also know that it's home to lots of monuments, memorials, and museums, and that it's a popular city for tourists to visit.
I've been one of those tourists in Washington, DC many times, and can confirm that it's a great city for a long weekend getaway in the US.
I decided to use my various visits to come up with a guide of things to do in DC that would include ALL parts of the city, from the historical to the government-y to the cool neighborhoods that make DC so much more interesting.
Trips to my nation's capital usually aren't long for most visitors, so here's my guide for what to do in Washington DC in just 3 days.
3 days in Washington, DC
Day One in DC
Highlights: East side of National Mall, Tidal Basin, White House, Smithsonian museum
Ready to get your tourist on? Because that's what I recommend for your very first day in Washington, D.C.! There's a LOT to see and do here, and some of the best things are actually the things you'll find listed in all the guidebooks.
We'll start out with the most iconic things to do in Washington, DC.
1. Visit the National Mall
Washington DC's National Mall is probably the most famous part of the city (well, maybe other than the White House). It's the park-like outdoor area where you'll find all the famous monuments and museums, stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to the US Capitol building.
(Well, actually the second half of this area, between the Washington Monument and Capitol building, is the “official” National Mall, but most people consider it to include everything up to the Lincoln Memorial, too.)
And, fun fact, it's managed by the National Park Service!
Today I recommend sticking to the eastern end of the National Mall (which is where most of the memorials are anyway). Must-see memorials and monuments here include:
- The Lincoln Memorial (it's worth it to walk up all the steps!)
- Vietnam Veterans Memorial
- Korean War Veterans Memorial
- National World War II Memorial
- The Washington Monument
All of the memorials are outdoors and free to visit, but be sure to wear good walking shoes – the Mall is huge!
2. Stroll around the Tidal Basin
If you've seen photos of Washington, DC, bathed in cherry blossoms, chances are you've seen photos of the Tidal Basin. This large reservoir roughly between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument is great for a stroll (the trail around it is just over 2 miles long), or you can even rent a paddleboat to explore.
You'll find several memorials around the basin, too, including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. (I especially like the FDR Memorial; lots of people skip it, but it's worth walking to.)
3. See the White House
You can't go to Washington, DC, and not get a glimpse of the famous White House! You can take a slight detour to see it as you make your way down the National Mall, as it's near the Washington Monument (across the Ellipse).
Tours are offered of the White House on select days, too, but you'll need to contact your local Representative (or your embassy in Washington, DC if you're not American) in order to request and schedule a tour. More info here.
4. Visit a museum
Spend your morning seeing the monuments and memorials along the Mall, and then dedicate your afternoon to a museum (or two). Washington, DC, is known for its Smithsonian Museums, all of which are located along the western side of the National Mall – and they're all free to visit.
Museum options I would recommend on Day 1 include:
- National Museum of African American History and Culture (free museum, but it requires a timed ticket reservation for entry)
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (also requires a free pre-booked timed ticket)
- Smithsonian National Museum of American History
- Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (one of my personal favorites)
- National Museum of Asian Art
- International Spy Museum (the only paid museum on this list)
Depending on which museum(s) you want to visit, you might be able to visit more than one. But most of these museums are large, so definitely allow a couple hours for each. (And if you're going to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I can tell you from experience that you probably need 3-4 hours to see everything there.)
Day Two in DC
Highlights: Another Smithsonian museum, Botanic Garden, US Capitol, Library of Congress
Don't put those walking shoes away just yet, because there's still a lot more walking to do today. We'll focus mostly on the western end of the “Mall,” closer to the US Capitol.
1. Visit another museum
You mayyyybe had time to visit 2 museums yesterday, so I recommend starting out with at least one more museum visit today.
Museums at this end of the Mall that you might like to visit include:
- National Gallery of Art and Sculpture Garden
- Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (another personal favorite)
- National Museum of the American Indian (also has the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe)
These are all free, so you could totally pop in to more than one for an hour or so.
2. Stop in at the US Botanic Garden
On your way towards the US Capitol, stop at the US Botanic Garden, which calls itself a “living plant museum.” The glass-domed Conservatory here dates back to 1933, and contains two courtyard gardens, 10 themed garden rooms, and even a canopy walkway. It's entirely free to visit.
Outside, you can also stroll through more gardens and see the Bartholdi Fountain. It's a lovely outdoor space, especially during the warmer months.
3. Walk to the Capitol
The US Capitol building is a pretty impressive sight, and you'll probably want to see it. Its iconic dome is rises 288 feet into the sky. You can take a tour inside if you want – advanced booking recommended – but note that public tours do not include the Senate and House Galleries.
Past the Capitol, you'll find other other iconic institutions on Capitol Hill like the US Supreme Court and the Library of Congress.
4. Visit the Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is a very cool spot. It's the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States, and also one of the largest libraries in the world with a collection of approximately 173 million items. You can visit the Library of Congress, too – you're encouraged to reserve your free timed ticket online in advance.
Or you can book a combo Capitol and Library of Congress tour with a guide.
Cool tours in Washington, DC
Want to see DC with a guide? Here are a few guided Washington, DC, tours to check out:
- Washington DC in One Day: Guided Sightseeing Tour
- Washington DC Guided Night Tour
- Washington DC Hop-On Hop-off Trolley Tour
Day Three in DC
Highlights: Explore a cool neighborhood away from the National Mall.
Tired of the touristy sights yet? If so, you'll probably enjoy Day Three, which is going to get you away from downtown and the National Mall and into some of DC's coolest neighborhoods.
1. Explore another neighborhood
Washington, DC, isn't known for its neighborhoods in the way that, say, New York or San Francisco is. But DC does still have a lot of cool neighborhoods that are worth exploring. My favorites (so far; I haven't even been to half of them yet!) include:
Georgetown is a historic neighborhood located on the banks of the Potomac River. It's so historical, in fact, that it predates Washington, DC, itself, having been founding in 1751 in what was then Maryland. This means you'll find lots of beautiful old buildings, leafy streets, and even an old canal (the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal) in Georgetown.
If you're going to spend a day wandering around a DC neighborhood, I would highly recommend Georgetown. Not only is it very pretty, but there are also lots of cute boutiques and restaurants to visit, too. And plenty of colorful doors to photograph.
(If you want to visit an even OLDER neighborhood, head to Alexandria's historic Old Town in Virginia, which you can reach using DC's Metro system.)
Adams Morgan is most famous for its nightlife, but the diverse and funky neighborhood has so much more to offer!
I stayed here with a friend during part of my past DC trips, and enjoyed wandering down colorful 18th street, and especially loved how many choices there were when it comes to restaurants. You literally can find everything from Ethiopian to Italian to vegan BBQ (I swear it's a thing!) to Nepalese here.
If you have one more day…
Staying in Washington, DC, for four or five days? Some other things to do in DC you might want to check out include:
- Visiting Arlington National Cemetery
- Touring George Washington's Mount Vernon home
- Going to the (free!) National Zoo
- Exploring Old Town Alexandria in Virginia
Check out these tours that would be perfect as day trips:
- Mt Vernon and Old Town Alexandria Day Trip from Washington DC
- Gettysburg Day Trip from Washington DC
Where to stay in DC
You'll find all the usual hotel chains in DC, but if you're looking for something with a little more character away from all the tourist hot spots, check out The Normandy Hotel. The Normandy is a boutique hotel located on a quiet leafy street just off Connecticut Avenue near Dupont Circle and Embassy Row.
The rooms are comfortable (and have seriously awesome wallpaper), and the staff is top-notch. I felt more than welcome during my stay, and loved being within walking distance of some cool neighborhoods.
The Normandy isn't next to the National Mall or anything like that, but it's close to both Dupont Circle (which has a metro stop) and Adams Morgan. Staying here gave me a different feel of DC, which I really loved. (Read TripAdvisor reviews | Book a room at The Normandy on Booking.com)
Other hotels worth checking out in DC include:
- Poppy Georgetown Guesthouse And Gardens (a boutique hotel in Georgetown)
- The Jefferson (a luxury option)
- Hilton Garden Inn Downtown (for a very central location)
Or, you can compare other hotels in DC here.
How to get around DC
The great thing about visiting Washington, DC, is that you don't really *need* a car in order to get around. There are plenty of options for getting around the city, which include:
- Walking (for the areas that aren't too far apart/within some of the coolest neighborhoods)
- Using the Metro – You can get a SmarTrip card at just about any station, and one-way ride fares start between $1.75 and $2.15 depending on the time of day you're traveling.
- Taking an Uber or Lyft – Both rideshare companies operate in DC, and rides often aren't that much more expensive than if you use public transport (especially if you opt to share your ride with someone else).
- Go on a Big Bus tour – Lastly, DC offers hop-on, hop-off tours on double-decker buses like many other large cities. These tours can often be a great way to see a city AND get to where you want to be at the same time. Big Bus Tours has four different routes around DC, including ones that will take you to places like Georgetown, Arlington, and Mount Vernon.
Do you have any other favorite things to do in Washington DC?
Pin it for later:
*Note: I was a guest of The Normandy hotel for two nights during one of my stays in DC. However, you guys know I never recommend things to you guys unless I actually like them!
Amanda Williams is the award-winning blogger behind A Dangerous Business Travel Blog. She has traveled to more than 60 countries on 6 continents from her home base in Ohio, specializing in experiential and thoughtful travel through the US, Europe, and rest of the world. Amanda only shares tips based on her personal experiences and places she's actually traveled!