Washington, D.C. Travel Guide

USA  #1 in Best Places to Visit in May
Credit

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.

    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.

    10 minute walk
  • 3
    #12
    National World War II Memorial
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    #12 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.

    10-20 minute walk
  • 4
    #14
    The White House and the Washington Monument
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    #14 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.

    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.

Day 2

  • 1
    #15
    U.S. Capitol and the Library of Congress
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    #15 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.

    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.

    5 minute walk
  • 3
    #13
    National Archives Museum
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    #13 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.

Day 3

  • 1
    #10
    Washington National Cathedral
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    #10 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.

    5-10 minutes by car; 15-25 minute walk
  • 2
    #18
    Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute
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    #18 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.

    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.

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