The perfect 3 days in D.C.
From the monuments of the National Mall to the iconic buildings of Capitol Hill to all those free Smithsonian Museums in between—D.C.’s core is compact enough that you can see tons of major sights in a short span of time. Traveling over a long weekend? Even better. With a third day, you can fit in sights beyond the Mall, like Arlington National Cemetery and Georgetown.
To get it all done, we’ve designed this itinerary so that each day flows easily from one location to the next, so you’re not wasting time weaving back and forth across the city. It also highlights attractions, restaurants, and tours that Tripadvisor reviewers rave about, so every spot is a winner. Best of all, we’ve built in stops to rest and recharge with local faves like fresh seafood and Georgetown cupcakes.
MORNING: A monumental tour of the National Mall
Wake up early, lace up your sneakers, and hit the National Mall. (If you’re visiting in the summer, it’s key to get there before the sun is blazing.) The aim is to walk from the iconic Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument. But don’t worry, there will be plenty of pit stops along the way.
The National Mall is home to some of America’s most famous memorials. The Vietnam Wall is a moving must-see, but we also suggest stopping at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, the FDR Memorial, and the World War II Memorial. Be sure to look out across the Tidal Basin (if it’s Cherry Blossom season, you’ll want to stick around a little longer) and gaze at the Jefferson Memorial.
Cap your morning off with an epic view from the top of Washington Monument—and be sure to book free, timed tickets ahead. And here’s a heads up for the rest of the itinerary: If you want to visit a museum or government building (even the free-entry ones), you probably need to book a ticket ahead.
NATIONAL MALL TOUR OPTIONS
- Sites by Segway Tour in Washington DC is a truly exceptional tour that visits an astounding number of sites in just 2.5 hours. Guides are knowledgeable and even Segway newbies will be speeding along in no time.
- This 4-Hour Guided National Mall Tour takes you to D.C.’s most famous memorials via van. In a museum-filled city that often has you standing, it’s a great way to spare your feet.
- By bike, Segway, electric cart, or van, no matter how you want to explore The National Mall, there’s an option. But we love this good old-fashioned walking tour, which covers a ton of ground—literally and metaphorically—in just 2.5 hours.
AFTERNOON: A moment of silence at Arlington National Cemetery
For all the National Mall has in monuments, it lacks in food options, so we recommend packing a lunch. It is, after all, a pretty fabulous place for a picnic. If you didn't bring lunch fixings or the weather is less than stellar, duck out of the Mall’s and go to The Hamilton, where the crab cake gets called out by Tripadvisor users.
Once you’re refueled, take the Blue Line to Arlington National Cemetery, where veterans from every war since the American Revolution are buried. It’s an emotional experience to look out across the sea of graves. Sites to see here include the huge US Marine Corps War Memorial (aka the Iwo Jima Memorial), the Kennedy Graves with the eternal flame, and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where it’s worth it to watch the changing of the guard, which takes place every hour or half hour, depending on the season. Finish your tour of Arlington at the US Marine Corps War Memorial, which is dedicated to Marines who have given their lives in defense of the United States since 1775.
Travelers say: “Visiting Arlington National Cemetery was an amazing experience. I was aware of this place but had no idea of the scale and how far back in history the graves go. Seeing J.F.K.’s grave was a real highlight. Everywhere is so well maintained and respect is shown to everyone buried there. If visiting Washington DC, don’t miss this.” —@Debbie G
EVENING: Seafood and a show at the Kennedy Center
From the Iwo Jima Memorial, you’re a quick walk from Quarterdeck, a family-favorite restaurant serving classic American dishes like mac ‘n’ cheese along with seafood such as steamed blue crabs straight from the Chesapeake.
Decompress over dinner, then take public transit (the Blue, Orange, or Silver line) to The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Check the calendar ahead—you’ll find free performances almost every day at 6 p.m. on the Millennium Stage, plus paid events like live music, Broadway musicals, dance performances, or comedy shows from big names.
Worthy detours along the way
MORNING: Two blockbuster sights
Afterward, there are tons of museums to choose from on the National Mall. We’d opt to spend the morning at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, an eye-opening Smithsonian museum that celebrates the richness and diversity of the African American experience. Located on the northeast corner of the National Mall, this popular museum gets mobbed fast, so book an early ticket for a chiller experience.
Travelers say: "The National Museum of African American History and Culture is so excellent. Allow plenty of time. Plan to take it slowly. And be prepared to be moved. We didn't see the whole museum but spent three hours walking through the entire history section. Even if you think you know all this history, it's a powerful experience to see how they have put it all together with so many perspectives and voices that have been forgotten or ignored or buried.” —@GreenMountainGirls
AFTERNOON: Museums, museums, and more museums
Hungry? It's museum café or bust in this area, so try to score a seat at the African American History museum’s restaurant, Sweet Home, where you can order classic southern dishes like fried chicken or BBQ pulled pork.
Post-lunch, get ready to hit a couple museums on the National Mall. Our vote goes to either the National Gallery of Art, where you can catch artwork by da Vinci, van Gogh, Matisse, and more, or the National Air and Space Museum, where you can see the Wright Brothers’ original plane and deep-dive into the moon landing.
NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART TOUR OPTIONS
- Tour on your own time: Bring your phone and headphones for free, well-produced audio tours straight from the National Gallery of Art website or app, including special tours for guests with vision loss, tours in sign language, and tours for kids.
- The museum’s free, guided tours are excellent, with tons offered daily, including general and exhibit-specific options. You can check the calendar, but there’s no need to register in advance.
- If you’re willing to spring for it, this 2.5-hour private guided tour of the museum is an incredible experience that delves into the gallery’s most iconic works.
EVENING: Happy hour, hot dogs, and live music
Take the Green Line north to the Logan Circle area, where U Street and 14th Street are buzzing nightlife spots. Grab a happy hour special (typically offered between 4 and 6 p.m.) pretty much anywhere, like D.C. brewery Right Proper Brewing Co, then head to Ben’s Chili Bowl for dinner. This fast-food style restaurant is a D.C. classic serving a D.C. classic—the half-smoke, a fat and spicy hot dog topped with chili sauce and onions. If you’ve still got gas in the tank, catch a show at one of the city’s fave live music venues, the 9:30 Club. (Check the calendar ahead for showtimes and acts.)
Worthy detours along the way
MORNING: Explore Capitol Hill and the National Archives
Spend your morning exploring Capitol Hill. Take in the buildings from the outside or pop inside the Capitol Building, where the Senate and House meet, the Library of Congress, the world’s largest library, and even the Supreme Court, where you might catch some oral arguments. Access is free, but check the hours and see if you need to book ahead, and note that some buildings are closed weekends.
Afterwards, hit the National Archives Museum, where you can check out John Hancock’s John Hancock on the O.G. Declaration of Independence and other original docs—like the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Magna Carta—along with related exhibits.
Travelers say: "I was a bit concerned that the National Archives would ‘just’ be the key documents from U.S. history, but I was so wrong. There is so much to see here and the way the museum is laid out is absolutely fascinating. I happily spent 2.5 hours here exploring the exhibits, though the Rotunda containing the Bill, Declaration, etc. was worth the visit alone. I would absolutely recommend this museum as a must-see in Washington.”—@Babyalmie
AFTERNOON: All-star American art and plenty of portraits
The National Archives Museum is surrounded by Michelin-starred restaurants like Oyamel, a Bib Gourmand (read: inexpensive but delicious) Mexican restaurant serving seriously good soups, ceviche, tacos, and more.
All filled up, forge ahead to the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which are housed in the same building. Here, you can check out the Presidential Portrait Gallery and paintings by all-star American artists like Andy Warhol and Georgia O’Keefe. The uber-modern Obama portraits are also a big draw.
EVENING: Shopping, strolling, and eating in Georgetown
Head by bus or cab to Georgetown, a tony neighborhood where J.F.K. once lived. If you go on the earlier side, you’ll have time to explore. For high-end boutique shopping, hit M Street. If you need an escape from city life, take a stroll in Georgetown Waterfront Park. And definitely try one of Georgetown’s famous cupcakes—Baked and Wired is a local fave.
The neighborhood is packed with exceptional—if pricey—dinner options. If you can foot the bill, you won’t be disappointed with the fresh seafood at Fiola Mare DC, where the waterfront views are as good as the dishes, and that’s really saying something. Afterward, stroll around Waterfront Park. In the summer, you can catch a free movie here as part of Georgetown Sunset Cinema.
GEORGETOWN TOUR OPTIONS
- The Gastronomic Georgetown Food Tour is a genuinely fantastic tour that’s part historic neighborhood tour, part restaurant-hopping extravaganza. You’ll try crepes, dumplings, meatballs, gnocchi, and more.
- If you can’t score a spot in the above tour, the Georgetown Foodie Tour and Neighborhood Walk is no slouch of a replacement, with that magic combo of historical facts and tasty bites.
- Get a little spooky with the Ghosts of Georgetown Walking Tour. The guides are true storytellers, tying local history to local hauntings. Plus, you’ll get to see “The Exorcist” steps.
Worthy detours along the way
Know Before You Go
With nice weather and fewer crowds, fall and spring are ideal for a D.C. vacation. While spring is busier than fall, it can feel especially festive—the Cherry Blossom Festival is a standout. Summer in D.C. tends to be hot, humid, and crowded. On July 4 (Independence Day), the city is mobbed but exciting, with events and evening fireworks bursting over the National Mall. Winter is cool but mostly manageable (temps in the 40s) with holiday decor brightening the city in December.
It’s ideal to include at least one weekday in your D.C. visit. While museums are open five days a week, they’re busiest on weekends. Government buildings, such as the U.S. Capitol and Supreme Court, may be closed on weekends (as well as federal holidays). Restaurants that cater to the government employee and the business set may also be closed weekends.
D.C. museums are typically open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., seven days a week—on the whole, aim to visit early or late for fewer crowds. Government buildings, like the U.S. Capitol and Supreme Court, close as early as 3:30 p.m. Restaurants serve lunch and dinner from about 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. and bars may not open until 4 or 5 p.m. on weekdays (noon or 1 p.m. on weekends), and close at 3 a.m. D.C. is a big happy hour city; you’re likely to find deals on craft cocktails, beer, and small bites on weekdays from about 4-6 p.m.
Foggy Bottom: Super convenient to National Mall attractions, Foggy Bottom is perfect for travelers who want to be close to sites but don’t need to be in the most happening neighborhood. A great option here is The Hive, a modern micro-hotel with itsy-bitsy rooms, brick walls, a chill bar, and pizza on site. Situated right on the corner of the GW campus, it’s a 10-minute walk from the Lincoln Memorial and a seven-minute walk from the Foggy Bottom metro stop, making sightseeing a cinch.
Downtown: Not only is Downtown convenient to D.C. attractions, but this busy area is also packed with restaurants, theaters, and convention centers. There are tons of amenity-rich hotels to choose from, but prices can be high. One good option, Hamilton Hotel, delivers a luxe experience (e.g. Peloton bikes in the fitness center, craft cocktails in the chic hotel bar). Best of all, it’s just a 10-minute walk to the White House and a breezy three-minute walk to the metro.
Dupont Circle: Looking for neighborhood vibes along with dining and nightlife options? Dupont Circle has you covered, though it’s less convenient to major attractions. Lyle Washington DC is a Tripadvisor fave thanks to particularly attentive staff and spacious, modern rooms—seriously, they’re twice as big as The Hive. You may have to change trains, hop on a bus, or do a little walking to get to sites, but you can still reach pretty much anywhere in D.C. in a half hour.
Public transportation: D.C. has a solid public transit network with the metro headed to major destinations and buses catching those areas the metro misses. Buy a refillable SmarTrip card at a metro station or choose one, three, or seven day passes, depending on how many rides you plan to take. Don’t forget to swipe in and out when you travel. The city also has a free DC Circulator with several routes. Particularly useful is the circulator running around the perimeter of the National Mall, though it only runs April through September. D.C. transit’s biggest downfall is the metro’s somewhat limited hours, which start as late as 7 a.m. (Sunday) and end as early as midnight (Monday through Thursday).
By bike: Capital Bikeshare is affordable and convenient and can be especially practical for getting around the National Mall area, which is big but very bikeable. The city also has a network of dedicated bike lanes. (You can download a map here.) Not so sure about urban cycling? Chill leisure routes like Capital Crescent Trail and Mount Vernon Trail might be more your jam.
By taxi: Taxis can be booked on the Curb app or through the DC Yellow Cab app or website and can also be hailed on busy streets. Uber and Lyft are also options, though not necessarily cheaper, particularly during rush hour.
Airport transfers: The cheapest way to get from Dulles International Airport into the heart of D.C. is on the metro, with the Silver Line getting you to L’Enfant Plaza in an hour. A taxi or cab will easily cost $50 and will typically take the same amount of time, depending on traffic. From Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, it’s a cool 25 minutes to L’Enfant Plaza on the metro’s Blue Line. A taxi ride can take as little as 10 minutes and cost as little as $15—if you’re lucky. Traffic on this route is notoriously gnarly.