Washington D.C. typically requires a long weekend to visit properly. However, when given a time constraint, it’s helpful to have a plan in place. Luckily, most of my trips to D.C. occur over a short period, giving me a maximum of about 24 hours to fit as much as I can into the day. So, if you’re looking for a classic walk through D.C., here’s what I recommend:
Capitol Building: If you have enough time, start the day with a guided tour of the United States Capitol Building, but be sure to book ahead. D.C. in the early hours is wonderful, especially before the crowds hit the major sites, and since this building functions as both a tourist attraction and government hub it’s best to make this your first stop. Many Congressional offices offer their own guided tour, so you can either book through your Representative, Senator, or on your own. You can find more information through the U.S. Capitol Building’s visitor center.
Memorials: The highlight of any visit to Washington D.C. Whether you are new to the history of America, or a seasoned fun-fact nerd, it’s essential to take some time to visit these iconic memorials. And for us urban hikers, this is the ideal city walk, complete with shaded parks, water features, and plenty of stairs. In total the loop is about five miles if you start at the Capitol Building and head west towards the Washington Monument. The full loop includes stops at the World War II Memorial, walking along the Reflecting Pool to the Vietnam Memorial, up to the Lincoln Memorial, over to the Korean War Memorial and across the street (be careful of cars, this is a busy crossing!) to the MLK, FDR and Jefferson Memorials, all bordering the Tidal Basin.
This loop is by far one of my favorites to do either first thing in the morning, or at sunset when the crowds are low. Most of the monuments are open 24/7 (minus the gift shops), so you can enjoy them at your leisure.
Museums: The other highlight of this area is of course the array of museums lining the National Mall. I tend to visit DC in the summer months when by 10 a.m. the sun has already warmed the city sidewalks to unbearable temperatures, which makes walking during the daytime difficult. So, a perfect escape from the heat is to pop into any one of these museums (all National museums are free), where you can learn more about America’s history from the comfort of an air-conditioned space. While it’s nearly impossible to see everything in a day, here’s some of our favorites:
- National Gallery of Art. An underground corridor connects the more traditional West Building to the modern East Building, with highlights from Van Gogh, Degas, David, Vermeer, and Da Vinci. It’s a wonderful museum for art history lovers, as well as for architecture fans looking to explore the space.
- National Air and Space Museum. This one is perfect for travelers with kids (or kids at heart!). Here you can explore the wonders of aviation and space travel, and see how this has evolved over the years and helped us learn more about the world outside our own.
- National Museum of American History. Explore Julia Child’s kitchen, U.S. President memorabilia, First Lady dresses and more in this museum dedicated to the life and innovation of Americans. If you want to feel proud of all we’ve accomplished, this is the place to go.
- National Museum of African American History and Culture. Opened in September 2016, this is the newest museum added to the National Mall. Getting tickets is difficult the day of (unless you arrive and wait in line), so we recommend booking tickets ahead of time. If you can’t get in, we at least suggest taking some time to observe the detail on the building (it is one of the most intricate and beautiful).
Around the Corner: If you haven’t gotten your share of museums yet, you can stray a few blocks outside the National Mall to tour some of the *other* museums in the country. There seems to be theme to each, but here are our favorites:
- National Archives Museum. The main attraction here is of course the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. You’ll have to wait in line to get up there since they only allow a certain number of people in each day, but if historical documents are your thing then this is worth the visit.
- United States Holocaust Museum. I’ve visited this museum many times, and each time I am brought to tears. A well-curated museum, you are transported through the history of the Holocaust, from the start of World War II through the aftermath. You will read stories about survivors, heroes, and those lost, and leave with a reminder of why we must never let something like this happen again. Be sure to take a moment of silence in the room of shoes as well.
- Newseum. Another favorite for me, this museum chronicles the history of journalism, with special exhibits for different beats, as well as permanent exhibits about 9/11 news coverage, photo galleries, and the outdoor terrace overlooking Washing D.C. (ok not exactly an exhibit, but on a nice day this is a great view!).
Honorable Mention: Arlington Cemetery: Just across the Potomac is the Arlington Cemetery, which welcomes tourists during the day to pay respects at the final resting place of many of America’s military men and women, as well as John F. Kennedy and his family. If you have family buried here, use the cemetery’s website to locate a grave, or reach out to their customer service for help. And remember, this is a burial ground, so be respectful when walking through.
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