One could spend a whole month in Washington, DC, and still not see it all. But what if you’re short on time? Is there anyway to see DC in less than a day?
Our answer? Yes, provided you are motivated and wear a comfortable pair of walking shoes!
Unfortunately, for the majority of our family visits to our nation’s capital city, we’ve just been “passing through” on our way to somewhere else.
But we’ve learned to pack a LOT of sightseeing into a small amount of time — usually 24 hours or less.
And since admission is free to all the sites listed below (except Mount Vernon), we don’t feel pressured to “get our money’s worth” when we go. We feel sufficiently enriched, just getting to spend a short time in each place.
Here’s our typical itinerary:
How to see DC in less than a day
9:00 AM – Tour the Library of Congress
Located across the street from the Capitol, this place is a book lover’s dream. Take a stroll through its corridors and breathe in all the beauty of the world’s biggest library.
We’ve only done self-guided tours, although guided tours and gallery talks are also available.
9:45 AM – Walk to Capitol Hill
It’s a short jaunt and normally doesn’t take us more than 15 minutes.
10:00 AM – Tour the US Capitol Building
To get a behind-the-scenes look at our seat of government, you’ll need to book your reservations well in advance. Allow 90 minutes for the standard tour.
We usually alternate between touring the Capitol and touring the White House. Both tours are free, but there’s a lot more red tape associated with getting into the White House, and the Capitol is more central to the other sites on this list, so if you only have time to do one, I’d suggest sticking with the Capitol tour.
Don’t miss picking up some free postcards and bookmarks in the gift shop. For a price, you can also get a replica of the capitol dome cast in white chocolate. Sweet!
12:00 PM – Grab a bite of lunch
We walked to Union Pub to eat. It was only a few blocks from the Capitol (201 Massachusetts Ave). The service was fast, the food was tasty, and we earned 5 Aadvantage miles for every dollar we spent there — always a plus in our books.
1:00 PM – Walk back to the mall to tour Smithsonian
I would love to spend a full, leisurely day in each of these wonderful museums, but our visits are more of the whirlwind variety. We allow ourselves about 30 minutes per site and try to hit the highlights of each.
If you’ll explore each museum’s website before you go, you can get an idea of which exhibits you’d most like to view in person, then head directly to those displays. I’ve noted some of the things on our “must see” list for the ones we visited below (click on the name of the museum to go directly to that website).
1:30 PM – Visit the National Gallery of Art
We take a little time to pose for pictures amongst all the pyramids on the east side of the West Building.
You’ll find the gallery gift shop on that end of the building, too. If you want to buy souvenirs of your trip to DC, this is a great place to do so. They have something to inspire the inner artist in all of us.
If you’d rather skip any possible temptation to overspend, you can bypass the bookstore by using the front entrance of the building, instead. Inside you’ll find two full floors of galleries filled with exquisite art, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci, Raphael’s Alba Madonna, van Gogh’s Self-Portrait, Monet’s Japanese Footbridge, and one of my personal favorites, Daniel in the Lions’ Den by Sir Peter Paul Rubens.
If you are a fan of ornate furnishings (as we are) you’ll want to walk through the early American furniture exhibit, too.
..as well as a lot of nudes (so beware if you or your children are sensitive about that kind of art).
2:15 PM – Walk through the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
We always cut through these gardens on our way to the Natural History Museum, but never linger for long. Our favorite sculptures here are the giant metal tree and the yellow house. You should also keep your eyes open for the albino squirrel we spotted scurrying around the grounds last time we were in town:
They also have a huge fountain in the center of the garden…
…that gets turned into an outdoor ice rink in the winter. Last time we visited in January, we were wishing we’d allotted enough time to do a little skating.
2:30 PM – Visit the National Museum of Natural History
Sadly, the National Fossil Hall has been closed for renovation the last two times we’ve been in DC. It is scheduled to reopen in 2018. But you can still explore the Hall of Mammals and the Ocean Hall:
The African Elephant in the Rotunda makes a great photo op, and be sure to go upstairs to view the Hope Diamond while you’re there, as well.
3:00 PM – Take a water break
Bottled water is expensive downtown, so carry some with you from home. It’s especially important to stay hydrated if you visit in the heat of the summer.
There’s a popcorn stand outside the Natural History Museum; the local birds enjoyed it as much as our kids did. We sat just long enough to drink our water, feed the birds, and listen to a street musician play several verses of Amazing Grace on his saxophone. When the police came by and ran him off, we continued on our way.
3:15 PM – Visit the National Museum of American History
4:00 PM – Walk across the Mall to the Museums on opposite side
Stop by the Smithsonian signature building on the way. Even if you don’t have time to go into the visitor’s center inside, take a few minutes to admire and/or photograph this beautiful castle from the outside.
4:15 PM – Check out The Hirshhorn Museum
If you enjoy modern art, you won’t want to miss this one. We usually take a quick peek in a few of the galleries.
If we are feeling really adventurous, we’ll lecture one another on “what the artist is trying to communicate” for any given piece, then read the description to see how close we came to guessing correctly.
My daughter Bethany introduced us to this game, and she’s really good at it. Sometimes, her tongue-in-cheek analyses are actually spot on!
4:45 PM – Visit the National Air and Space Museum
This place is expansive! It’s my sons’ favorite museum on the mall. General admission is free, but you’ll have to buy tickets if you want to watch any IMAX or planetarium shows. We have never done that. There is plenty else to keep you busy while you’re here.
Keep your eyes peeled for The Wright Flyer (the brothers’ design that ushered in the age of flight), The Spirit of St. Louis (the plane in which Charles Lindberg made the first solo, non-stop, transatlantic flight), and many other historical air and spacecraft.
5:30 PM – Walk back to car
Take your time, and admire all the beautiful landscaping and architecture along the way. There are lots of big, old trees in this area, and beautifully designed buildings.
6:00 PM – Eat dinner
Best make it some place fairly close by, or you’ll get caught in rush hour traffic. If you plan ahead, you might even pack an ice chest with goodies and enjoy a picnic sitting on the green grass of The Mall. We’ve done that before, as it is a great time saver.
Otherwise, I suggest cross-check Aadvantage Dining and Restaurant.com for deals at nearby places. We’ve eaten some great Indian, Italian, and Mediterranean cuisine in the DC area thanks to these programs.
We usually prefer to try out locally-owned restaurants whenever we’re on vacation, but if you are traveling with kids who prefer the big chains, you should also check for any kids-eat-free deals in the area.
8:00 PM – Tour National Monuments at night
No one-day, whirlwind tour of Washington DC would be complete without paying a visit to the national monuments. But since those are open all day long, we normally save them for the evening hours.
After all the walking/rushing we’ve done earlier in the day, we prefer to drive from one memorial to another once the sun has set.
You can usually park on the street for free in the evenings and walk up for a close-up view. We highly recommended doing so (especially for Lincoln and Jefferson), as the memorials look beautiful and brilliant, all lit up at night. Include a minimum of these four sites on your tour:
- Lincoln Memorial
- Washington Monument
- Jefferson Memorial
- White House.
The First Family’s residence looks beautiful at night, so be sure to drive down Pennsylvania Avenue after dark, as well. I’ve taken some beautiful night pictures of DC’s monuments and memorials. If you’re a camera buff, you’ll want to pack a tripod for still shots.
One thing we’ve never fit in but would really like to see? Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Admission is free there, too, but the hours of operation have made it impossible for us to go and still do everything else on our schedule.
And that wraps up our whirlwind tour. If you have to see DC in a day, this is one way to do it.
If your travel itinerary allows you the luxury of spending a couple of nights in the DC area, though, we’d recommend visiting Mount Vernon on your way into town (don’t miss the 4-D theater presentation included in the price of your ticket), then the National Zoo on your way out.
More Travel Ideas for Families
If your family loves to go as much as mine does, check out my book Pack Up & Leave. It’s chockful of smart tips that will make your next family road trip or vacation more economical, educational, and memorable.