3 Days in Washington, DC: What to Do in DC on Your First Visit

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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.

Georgetown in Washington, DC
Georgetown
Washington Monument in Washington, DC
Washington Monument

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

National Mall in Washington, DC
Lincoln Memorial

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
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Korean War Veterans Memorial
Korean War Veterans Memorial
WWII Memorial in Washington, DC
WWII Memorial

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.

Jefferson Memorial through cherry blossoms
Jefferson Memorial through cherry blossoms

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.)

RELATED: How to Have the Best Cherry Blossom Trip to Washington, DC

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).

The White House
The White House

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

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

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.)

National Museum of African American History and Culture
National Museum of African American History and Culture

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.

Smithsonian Castle in Washington, DC
The Smithsonian Castle is the main visitor center for all the Smithsonian museums

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.

Rotunda inside the National Gallery of Art
Inside the National Gallery of Art
Inside the National Museum of the American Indian
Inside the National Museum of the American Indian

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.

US Capitol building in Washington, DC
US Capitol

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:


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

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.

Old Stone House in Georgetown
The Old Stone House, the oldest standing structure in DC
Canals in Georgetown
Canals 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.

Church in Georgetown in Washington, DC
Georgetown door in Washington, DC
Pretty Georgetown door

(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

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.

Adams Morgan in Washington, DC
18th Street in Adams Morgan

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:

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 Normandy Hotel in Washington, DC

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)

Closer to the National Mall, I've also enjoyed staying at Hotel Washington, and splurging on a stay at the The Hay-Adams (and by splurging, I mean I used points to book this one!).

Room at the Hay-Adams Hotel in DC
Room at the Hay-Adams Hotel

Other hotels worth checking out in DC include:

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.

READ NEXT: How to Have the Best Cherry Blossom Trip to Washington, DC


Do you have any other favorite things to do in Washington DC?

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*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!

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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53 Comments on “3 Days in Washington, DC: What to Do in DC on Your First Visit

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  1. Growing up I never thought much of visiting Washington DC, but the older I get the more I want to go. I love history, and seeing how much there is to do, I can definitely see a Washington DC trip in my future!
    I didn’t know all of the museums you mentioned were free! The Newseum would be a must visit for me.
    Thanks for the awesome post!

      Well Washington, DC, certainly has plenty of history! And all of the Smithsonian museums are free – but sadly the Newseum isn’t (though it’s so awesome that I totally think it’s worth paying to visit!).

    We just got back from a trip to DC and all of these tips are great! We absolutely loved wandering around Georgetown after grabbing breakfast and coffee there, I can’t wait to visit again as there’s so much to see and do. Also, the Holocaust Museum was free too and totally worth a visit next time you’re there.

      I definitely need to make it to the Holocaust museum next time! I’ve heard it’s very well done.

    We spent exactly 3 days in DC on our first visit and it was definitely not enough. Once we discovered the Smithsonian museums we knew we could spend a whole day in most of them. 😀 But we fall in love with the city, too!

      I know, the Smithsonian museums are so good! I spent quite a good deal of time in the Natural History museum on my most recent trip, partially because it’s so cool and partially because it was SO HOT outside that the air conditioning was too good to leave. Haha.

    I spent almost five hours at the Newseum. I guess I’m a bit of a journo nerd but it is honestly one of the best museums I have ever been to. I tell everyone heading to DC to go there. There are so many places on your list I’ll need to check out next time I’m there!

      The Newseum is SO good. Even my boyfriend loved it (so it’s not just journo nerds!).

    These are all wonderful places to visit and explore in DC. There are a lot more places I haven’t gone to there but this post is helpful to build an itinerary for a trip there.

      Thanks Dave! You’re right – there are lots more places to visit, too. But I think this is a good start!

    I loved the Newseum! Such a unique concept. I did a day trip to DC with my friends in the Baltimore area awhile back and did some of the touristy things, but definitely need to return for a longer period of time to get more of a feel for the place.

      You can easily fill up a few days in DC. I’ll definitely be back to see even more!

    Great pictures! I remember finding the Korean memorial statues really creepy.

    I had very limited time in DC but did the length of the mall (including the Capitol building), White House, and air and space museum in a day, haha. I SO wanted to do the spy museum but it’s not very cheap! 🙁

      You still packed a lot into one day! Thankfully a lot of the museums are free to make up for the ones that are a bit more pricey!

    Great article thanks for sharing 🙂 I have not been to DC yet but I have family that lives close by so, I am sure I will be going one day. I especially liked your tip to explore Georgetown; the buildings there look amazing.

      You should definitely go! And yes, Georgetown is my favorite part of DC (so far). It’s so pretty, and a great neighborhood to explore on foot.

    DC is such a great walking city. And the museums are excellent — you can definitely spend a full week just visiting them alone. The Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress is GORGEOUS — definitely needs to be seen, even if you’re not doing research.

      I’m definitely kicking myself for not wandering into the Library of Congress! I’ll have to save it for next time. 🙂

    If you need a break from monuments and museums, only a few miles away is the Billy Goat Trail on the MD side, or Great Falls park on the VA side. Both hug the Potomac river, with scenic views of the river and incredible rock scenery. The river drops into a gorge that is used by Olympic kayakers. Visitors can view the dramatic scenery from outlooks, or hike the Billy Goat trail, with its rock scrambles.

    This is part of the C&O Canal system, so not short on history. One-hundred years ago, gold mines and shipping were found here.

      Good to know! There are so many places near DC that I would still love to see. I’ll have to add the Billy Goat Trail to my list!

      Can you walk/run to those areas from monuments? I’ll be a first timer and I’d like to run a different area each day I’m there. TIA

    I’m really inspired now to visit Washington DC! It’s never been high on my list but the national mall and free(!) museums look great!

      It’s a really great city for sightseeing! You should definitely go if you have the chance.

      We visited last fall before all the craziness hit. We were visiting Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown. We booked a bus tour from there to DC. The only negative was that it was just for the day. I want to return and have more time to see everything.

    I’ve been to DC three times and never run out of things to do. I’ve been inside the White House twice and to an Easter Egg Roll on the White House grounds. I’ve also been to the Pentagon post-9/11. But my favorite thing is the Holocaust Museum. Walking through there is so incredibly vivid and consuming that when you walk back outside into the sunshine of present-day, it’s disconcerting. It will haunt you for years.

      I haven’t yet been to the Holocaust museum. I hope to go one day, but after actually visiting Auschwitz in Poland a couple years ago, I’m not quite ready to revisit all those emotions again yet.

    Tip for going to the National Zoo: get off at the Cleveland Park Metro stop and walk straight along Connecticut Ave. It’s a leisurely walk on flat terrain and you’ll be walking through a well-known neighborhood.
    If you get off at Woodley Park/National Zoo Metro stop, you’ll have to walk uphill. For parents with kids in strollers, Cleveland Park Metro is your best bet.

      That’s a great tip, Elisa! Thanks for sharing!

    What a great guide! I’ll only be having two days there when I get there, but it’s always nice to have a lot of things to pick and choose from 🙂

      You should still be able to fit a lot in, Maria! I hope you have a great time!

    Sounds like a fun trip! My boyfriend and I took a trip there last year – neither of us had been since we were kids. It was a lot of fun seeing DC as an adult! The Newseum was one of my favorite places too!

      It’s definitely different as an adult vs. as a kid on a field trip! And yes, the Newseum is so good!

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