Washington, D.C. Travel Guide

USA  #1 in Best Historic Destinations in the USA
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Courtesy of Kevin Voelker Photography/Getty Images

3-day Itinerary in Washington, D.C.

Explore the best things to do in Paris in 3 days based on recommendations from local experts.

Day 1

  • 1
    #1
    Lincoln Memorial
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    #1 in Washington, D.C.
    Monuments and Memorials, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND
    Monuments and Memorials, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND

    Although the Lincoln Memorial is just one of the District's many monuments, the larger-than-life Honest Abe is also among travelers' favorites. History buffs might enjoy the man of few (albeit powerful) words' two famous speeches, the second inaugural address and the Gettysburg Address, which are both etched into the memorial's opposing walls. Meanwhile, art history and architecture aficionados will enjoy admiring the building's striking design by Henry Bacon, complete with 38 Doric columns, 36 of which signify the states in the Union at the time Lincoln passed away.

    Though most agree the Lincoln Memorial is worth checking out during the day or at night, many recent travelers say the most captivating time to visit is after dark when the attraction is lit and less crowded. Plus, evening temps will make peak summer visits more comfortable.

    The Lincoln Memorial is free and can be viewed 24 hours a day, but keep in mind that the site is only staffed by National Parks Service rangers from 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. You'll find the memorial situated at the western end of the National Mall, which can be reached by walking from the Foggy Bottom-GWU Metro station or taking the DC Circulator's National Mall bus. For further details, consult the National Park Service's official Lincoln Memorial page.

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    5 minute walk
  • 2
    #2
    Vietnam Veterans and Korean War Veterans Memorials
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    #2 in Washington, D.C.
    Monuments and Memorials, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND
    Monuments and Memorials, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND

    One of the most moving war memorials, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial – or "the Wall," as it's commonly referred to – is a long black granite wall with the names of more than 58,000 Americans who perished during the Vietnam War emblazoned on its surface. Recent travelers said their visits to the site were heartbreaking but thought-provoking and powerful, adding that even the toughest of individuals will find it hard to not become emotional while reading the wall's names. If you're looking for a specific person, keep in mind that the soldiers' names are ordered by the date they died, not alphabetically. Also, reviewers recommend using the attraction's name books and visiting during the day when there's ample sunlight.

    When you're wandering along the eastern side of the Mall, venture to the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Paying tribute to the 1.5 million who served in "The Forgotten War," this privately funded site contains 19 stainless steel statues of soldiers in combat. In a triangular area known as the Field of Service, soldier statues march toward an American flag. Next to the soldiers is a 164-foot-long granite wall that pays homage to the unnamed troops that fought in the Korean War. Another highlight of the memorial is the Pool of Remembrance, a tranquil place for reflection. However, some past travelers cautioned that the memorial lacks signage, so younger visitors may not understand as much as those who lived through the war.

    Both memorials are free to explore 24 hours a day but are only staffed by National Park Service rangers from 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. The Vietnam Veterans and Korean War Veterans memorials are just a short walk south on 23rd Street Southwest from the Foggy Bottom-GWU Metro stop (on the Blue, Silver and Orange lines) by the Lincoln Memorial. You can also take the DC Circulator's National Mall bus to the sights. Visit the National Park Service's Vietnam Veterans Memorial page and its Korean War Veterans Memorial page to find out more.

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    10 minute walk
  • 3
    #10
    National World War II Memorial
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    #10 in Washington, D.C.
    Monuments and Memorials, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND
    Monuments and Memorials, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND

    A popular memorial, the National World War II Memorial was dedicated in 2004 to the 400,000-plus Americans who died during the war. A circle of 56 pilings (representing the then 56 U.S. states and territories) looks over the Rainbow Pool. At night, with lights shining, this memorial can be quite ethereal.

    Past visitors said they felt inspired after visiting the National World War II Memorial. Though you'll rub elbows with other tourists in the spring and summer, previous travelers suggest timing your visit during one of these seasons so you can enjoy the memorial's fountains and waterfalls.

    The National World War II Memorial is located on the National Mall's main drag, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, and can be reached by taking the DC Circulator's National Mall bus or the Metro's Blue, Silver or Orange line to Smithsonian station. The sight is free to explore 24 hours a day, but it is only staffed by National Park Service rangers every day from 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. For further details, consult the National Park Service's official National WWII Memorial page.

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    10-20 minute walk
  • 4
    #12
    The White House and the Washington Monument
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    #12 in Washington, D.C.
    Monuments and Memorials, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Monuments and Memorials, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    Even if you're only in town for a short trip, visiting the Washington Monument and the White House – two marbleized symbols of the free world – is a must for any first-time D.C. visitor.

    At 555 feet and 5 inches, the Washington Monument (at its completion in 1884) was the tallest structure in the world. And nowadays, you can ride one of the Monument's glass-encased elevators to the top observation deck to enjoy 360-degree views of the city. However, the Monument's elevators are currently undergoing renovations, so visitors will not be able to go to the top until early 2019. You can explore the attraction's exterior for free 24 hours a day, but National Park Service rangers are only available from 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. to answer questions. Visit the National Park Service's Washington Monument page for more information.

    Neighboring the Washington Monument to the north is the White House. Home to every U.S. president since John Adams in 1800, the White House is America's most famous homestead. If you opt to tour the building, you'll have the opportunity to visit the State Floor, which includes the East Room, the Green Room and the Blue Room. In order to participate in a tour, you'll need to contact the office of your senator or House representative at least 21 days in advance to ensure your entry, and bear in mind that tours can be canceled last minute. Self-guided tours take place from 7:30 to 11:30 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Security lines can be long (especially during the summer months), so recent visitors recommend arriving at least 15 minutes early. The White House is a short walk from the Farragut West, McPherson Square, Metro Center and Federal Triangle Metro stops on the Blue, Silver and Orange lines; you can also take the Red Line to Farragut North or Metro Center. To plan your visit, consult the White House's official website.  

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    15-20 minute walk; 15 minutes by bus
  • 5
    #4
    Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
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    #4 in Washington, D.C.
    Museums, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Museums, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    Attracting millions of people each year, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum contains a trove of celebrated aircraft, including Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Vega 5B, Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis and Wilbur and Orville Wright's 1903 Wright Flyer, among others. Exhibits include a flight simulator, an IMAX theater and the Einstein Planetarium. And parents beware: The three-level gift shop is huge, so get ready for pleas from your kids.

    Visitors recommend arriving in the morning to avoid the heaviest crowds, which are sure to pour in, especially once summertime rolls around. Some say parts of the museum are also starting to look worn but insist this is a must-visit site for families and aviation enthusiasts.

    There is no fee to visit the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, but the IMAX theater and planetarium do charge for shows. However, a free show is offered at the planetarium every day at 10:30 a.m. Tickets for other shows cost $9 for adults and $7.50 for kids ages 2 to 12. The museum can be found on the eastern end of the National Mall and is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, excluding Christmas Day. The closest Metro station is Smithsonian, accessible via the Blue, Silver and Orange lines; the National Mall bus route for the DC Circulator also has a stop by the museum. For more information about this Smithsonian, visit the attraction's website.

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Day 2

  • 1
    #13
    U.S. Capitol and the Library of Congress
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    #13 in Washington, D.C.
    Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    Arguably the most magnificent building in Washington, the U.S. Capitol is where visitors go to witness politics in action. Inside, members of both houses of Congress debate and create national policy and law, while visitors explore the building's north and south wings and circular centerpiece: the Rotunda. This iconic hall houses paintings, frescoes and sculptures depicting famous scenes from American history, not to mention a 150-year-old cast iron dome.

    Touring the Capitol is free of charge, but you'll need to make your reservation well in advance if you want to explore areas of the Capitol outside of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center welcomes visitors Monday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (with the exception of Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year's Day and Inauguration Day), and offers passes available on the day of your visit or online. If you wish to tour the Senate or House of Representatives galleries, you'll need to contact your senator or House representative’s office, respectively, to obtain free passes. If you're planning to visit during peak tourist seasons like spring and summer, same-day tour passes can be difficult to come by, so plan to make your reservations prior to your visit. Though some travelers express mixed reviews on whether the U.S. Capitol warrants the time and effort spent (both making reservations and going on the actual tour), most agree the site is well worth a visit.

    If you're not that stoked about exploring the building's innards, consider taking a stroll (and a few photos) outside of the building. Thanks to the Capitol's prime location at the eastern end of the National Mall, you'll be afforded sweeping views of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The easiest way to reach the Capitol is off the Capitol South Metro stop (Blue, Silver and Orange lines) or the Union Station stop (Red Line). For more information, check out the official U.S. Capitol Visitor Center website.

    After you've admired the Capitol, walk along East Capitol Street or through the Capitol's tunnel to the Library of Congress. Comprising three buildings and housing more than 164 million books, manuscripts, sound recordings, pieces of sheet music, maps and photographs, the Library of Congress holds the title of "largest library in the world." The most notable building in the trio is the Thomas Jefferson Building, which was built in 1897. Although you can't check books out (unless you've registered yourself as a researcher and obtained a Reader Identification Card), you'll find an eclectic array of interesting items, such as the Gutenberg Bible, as well as a rotating series of events and exhibitions. You should also take a stroll through the Thomas Jefferson Building's Main Reading Room, which features a grand domed ceiling, mahogany desks and diligent researchers pouring over catalogs and periodic volumes.

    The Library of Congress is open to the public Monday through Saturday, though each building maintains different visiting hours. There are no entrance fees for this attraction, and free one-hour guided tours of the Thomas Jefferson Building are available Monday through Saturday. Events and exhibitions held at the Library of Congress are also complimentary for visitors. To find out more about the Library of Congress, visit the property's website.

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    15 minute walk; 5 minutes by car
  • 2
    #5
    National Gallery of Art
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    #5 in Washington, D.C.
    Museums, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Museums, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    If you're any kind of art connoisseur, you should make a stop at the National Gallery of Art. Composed of the East Building, which houses the gallery's more modern works (think: Henri Matisse and Mark Rothko), and the West Building, which contains the collection's older works (from Sandro Botticelli to Claude Monet), this museum has enough to fill an entire afternoon; pace yourself and maybe order a coffee, gelato or lunch at one of the gallery's five bars and cafes.

    Also, if you're traveling in the summertime on a Friday evening, past visitors recommend heading into the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. for some jazz. Or, travelers suggest catching one of the free concerts offered in the East Building's auditorium and the West Building's East and West Garden courts. The latter are available every Sunday evening from February to June.

    The museum welcomes visitors 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays. There are a variety of free self, guided and audio tours available. Complimentary guided tours for larger groups and special exhibitions are also offered based on availability. You can reach the National Gallery of Art by taking the Metro's Yellow or Green lines to Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter station. For additional information, consult the National Gallery of Art website.

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    5 minute walk
  • 3
    #11
    National Archives Museum
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    #11 in Washington, D.C.
    Museums, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Museums, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    A treasure trove of the United States' founding documents, the National Archives Museum is high on travelers' to-do lists and almost always has long entrance lines. But once you do get inside, you'll see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, along with one of the surviving copies of the Magna Carta and the Emancipation Proclamation. Other interactive and kid-friendly exhibits fill the museum, which is located off the Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter Metro station on the Green and Yellow lines.

    If you love history, you'll enjoy visiting this museum. Reserving free passes on Recreation.gov's website comes with a service fee of $1.50 per ticket, but travelers say paying for advance tickets will save you from having to wait in a long line to enter. Also, leave your camera in your hotel room since photography is not permitted anywhere inside the building.

    Though the museum welcomes visitors every day from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., travelers are not permitted to enter after 5 p.m. Ticketholders have access to all of the museum's exhibits, as well as a gift shop, a cafe and restrooms. Complimentary weekday guided tours can also be arranged in advance through Recreation.gov. For more information about the National Archives Museum, visit the property's website.

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Day 3

  • 1
    #9
    Washington National Cathedral
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    #9 in Washington, D.C.
    Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    Construction first began on this massive cathedral – the sixth largest in the world –  in 1907, but it wasn't actually completed until 1990. Designed in the Gothic style, the Washington National Cathedral sits surrounded by gardens, creating a pleasant atmosphere for visitors. Take a stroll around the cathedral and peer at its high vaults and flying buttresses, or step inside to admire its intricate glass-stained windows. Another highlight is the cathedral's Gargoyle Tour. This tour – offered between May and September – gives you a chance to gaze up at the building's stony grotesques and gargoyles. (There's even a Darth Vader gargoyle that was appointed in the 1980s along the right-hand side of the northwest tower.)

    Recent visitors were wowed by this cathedral's grand architecture and colorful stained-glass windows. If you're religious, consider attending one of the free worship services, which are offered every Sunday at 8, 9 and 11:15 a.m. Evening prayers led by the choir are also available on Sundays at 4 p.m.

    Visitors are welcome to join tours of the Washington National Cathedral daily. Standard Highlights tours are offered Monday through Saturday starting at 10:15 a.m. and on Sundays at 1 p.m. These tours are included with cathedral entrance fees, which cost $12 per adult and $8 for children between 5 and 17. Kids 4 and younger visit for free. Other tour tickets are $5 to $75 each.

    The closest Metro stop to the Washington National Cathedral – Cleveland Park station – sits about a mile away near the Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute. Several buses also stop in the area, and fee-based parking is available in the cathedral's underground parking garage. A gift shop and cafe are also located on-site. Check out the cathedral's official website for more information.

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    5-10 minutes by car; 15-25 minute walk
  • 2
    #14
    Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute
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    #14 in Washington, D.C.
    Zoos and Aquariums, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Zoos and Aquariums, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    More than 1,500 animals call the Smithsonian's 163-acre National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute home, from Asian elephants to great apes to sea lions. While here, don't miss your chance to meet the zoo's most popular resident, a baby panda named Bei Bei who was born on Aug. 22, 2015. Also, be sure to look up every now and then as you stroll beneath the Orangutan Transport System (called the O Line): Chances are you'll spot orangutans swinging along cables between eight steel towers. Or, if you're more intrigued by the exotic animals native to South America, head over to the 15,000-square-foot Amazonia exhibit, home to creatures like titi monkeys and yellow-rumped caciques.

    Recent visitors praised the zoo's pleasant surroundings and broad selection of species, but they do caution that visitors should set realistic expectations. Though some said the zoo could be more exciting, keep in mind the nearly 400 species are free to visit.

    The easiest (and most affordable) way to reach the Smithsonian's National Zoo – which sits in Woodley Park, a D.C. neighborhood found about 2 miles north of downtown – is to take the Metro's Red Line to Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan station or Cleveland Park station. Visitors can also drive and park at the zoo, but space is limited and a flat fee of $22 applies. The zoo welcomes travelers every day (except Christmas Day) from 8 a.m. to 5 or 7 p.m. Reduced hours apply for exhibit buildings, the visitor center, shops and food vendors. Additional information about the zoo's animals, facilities and events is available on the property's website.

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    10-20 minutes by car
  • 3
    #6
    The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
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    #6 in Washington, D.C.
    Entertainment and Nightlife, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Entertainment and Nightlife, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    Many travelers highly recommend a visit to The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, built and named for America's beloved Camelot president. The Kennedy Center houses the National Symphony Orchestra, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet and the Washington National Opera, as well as a number of other theater and musical performances throughout the year. Although ticket prices run a bit high, you can take in a performance for free on the Millennium Stage.

    Past visitors loved taking in a show at The Kennedy Center, adding that the venue's rooftop terrace offers breathtaking views of the Potomac River and the surrounding area. To learn about the theater's history and architecture, recent travelers recommend joining one of the building's free guided tours. Tours are offered several times a day by theater volunteers on weekdays between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

    You can get to The Kennedy Center via a free shuttle bus that runs from the Foggy Bottom-GWU Metro station. Fee-based parking is also available in the property's garage between 6 a.m. and midnight daily. Theater performances are scheduled throughout the day, and the box office is open daily from 10 a.m. or noon to 9 p.m. Restrooms, a gift shop and two eateries are available inside. For more information about upcoming show times and ticket prices, check out The Kennedy Center website.

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