What do you think of when you imagine Washington, DC? Smart-suited politicos going about the people’s business? Legions of lobbyists wielding their influence?
Chances are good you’ll see a few of each, but Washington, DC is so much more than just the nation’s political capital—it’s a vibrant city, rich in history, with amazing architecture, magnificent monuments and museums, and gorgeous green spaces perfect for kite-flying or an afternoon picnic.
It’s a city with an incredible food culture—you can find any ethnic specialty you like in swanky Adams Morgan, and the Ethiopian restaurants in Shaw are delightful and exotic. Love trendy shops and a thriving nightlife? You can live like a Kennedy for a day in posh Georgetown.
And all around you are the signs and symbols of America’s rich history, calling your inner patriot.
So if you’ve got 24 hours in Washington, DC, here are the things you really shouldn’t miss.
Get your political fix with a glimpse of the White House and a tour of the Capitol Building.
Admit it: You’re dying to see the nation’s most famous address, and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue doesn’t disappoint. Home to America’s First Families since John Adams moved in in 1800, the White House is a symbol of national pride. You can take a self-guided tour if you contact your local senator or representative at least three weeks in advance.
And if you’re a history buff and know your presidential trivia, you’ll definitely want to tour the U.S. Capitol Building and see the Statuary Hall. You may even be able to sneak a peek at the House and Senate galleries if you make arrangements in advance.
Have a “Forrest Gump” moment as you stroll along the National Mall.
The National Mall is one of the most iconic sights in DC, especially if you loved the scene where Forrest and Jenny reunited after he returned from the war.
This lovely stretch of green is punctuated by the Washington Monument, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and other commemorative monuments before culminating in the majestic Lincoln Memorial, nearly two miles from the steps of the Capitol.
Bookworms rejoice! You can visit the U.S. Library of Congress for free.
If you’ve ever wanted to see one of the largest libraries in the world, you’re in luck when you visit DC. With over 161 million items, including almost 24 million books, this massive collection of words is spread out over three buildings near Capitol Hill. Best of all, admission and guided tours won’t cost you a thing.
And if that’s not enough prose for you, the Folger Shakespeare Library, just a few short blocks away, holds the world’s largest collections of writings by the Bard himself. Take a guided tour so you don’t miss a thing.
Grab a crab cake sandwich for lunch at the Washington Harbour.
You can’t come to Washington without having an authentic Maryland crab cake, so why not enjoy one for lunch at one of the most scenic places in DC? Washington Harbour offers amazing views of the mighty Potomac—you can see the Key Bridge and the Kennedy Center while you stroll the boardwalk.
Washington Harbour is right next to the Georgetown Waterfront Park, a charming place to take an after-lunch walk or enjoy a scrumptious cupcake dessert from Georgetown Cupcake. Yes, the lines may be long, but trust us, the confection is most definitely worth it.
Pay a visit to the pandas at the National Zoo.
You might be surprised to know that the zoo is actually part of the Smithsonian Institution; it was originally part of its conservation program. Today, however, it’s a gorgeous 162-acre park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (did you know he also designed Central Park in New York?), home to some 300 different animals.
Its most famous residents, however, are Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the giant pandas, who arrived in 2000. Can you believe they get over 1.6 million visitors per year? You don’t have to say goodbye when your visit ends—you can watch them from home on the zoo’s Panda Cam.
Ride the amazing Capital Wheel at the National Harbor.
Not to be confused with the Washington Harbour in Georgetown, the National Harbor, on the other side of the Potomac, is made for fun.
Completed in 2008, this lovely waterfront development has chichi restaurants, upscale shops, a piano bar, and all sorts of interesting events—outdoor concerts and movies, farmers markets, and even kayak and paddleboard rentals. And if the weather’s warm and you time your visit right, you can even take an open water swim.
Pay your respects to the heroes at Arlington National Cemetery.
Our nation’s most hallowed ground, Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting spot for over 14,000 veterans, including those who lost their lives in the Civil War. Visiting JFK’s gravesite and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and witnessing the changing of the guard are experiences that will change your life. You’ll definitely want a picture of the Iwo Jima Memorial in nearby Arlington Ridge Park.
If you don’t have time to take a self-guided tour or a more formal visit, you can experience the scale and somber grandeur of the cemetery by driving along Memorial Avenue.
Take a stroll along Embassy Row.
Mass Avenue is one of the toniest addresses in DC; the elaborate mansions that sprung up there earned it the nickname “Millionaire’s Row.” During the Great Depression, however, the owners were unable to maintain them, and Embassy Row was born.
Now you can see some 175 different embassies and missions along the two-mile stretch running from Scott Circle to the Naval Observatory, currently home to Vice President and Mrs. Pence.
Indulge your inner military history buff with a visit to the famous war memorials.
The spectacular and moving World War II memorial was completed in 2004 and is one of the most popular and beautiful of the capital’s military monuments; walk through the 56 stone pilings representing the 56 states and territories and gaze at the Rainbow Pool.
Be sure to wander the length of “The Wall,” the long, black expanse of the Vietnam War Memorial commemorating the 58,000 Americans who lost their lives during the war. Then make your way to the eastern side of the Mall and see the haunting steel statues of soldiers in combat, honoring the 1.5 million who served in America’s “Forgotten War” in Korea.
Honor America’s foremost civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr.
Appropriately located near the Tidal Basin, perhaps the most tranquil and lovely place in DC, a 30-foot granite sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr towers over the western side of the National Mall. The sculpture shows King emerging from the “Mountain of Despair,” and reflects his incredible contribution to American culture. Even the statue’s address, 1964 Independence Ave., contributes to the monument’s powerful symbolism.
Completed in 2011, it’s the capital’s newest monument, and the only one on the Mall dedicated to an African American.
Take the King Street trolley through charming Old Town Alexandria.
Old Town Alexandria is the place George Washington called home, and its lovely cobblestone streets and red brick sidewalks never fail to delight visitors from all over the world. King Street, nationally recognized as one of America’s “Great Streets,” is a one-mile stretch of restaurants, museums, boutiques, and galleries. Take the free trolley—or enjoy the walk!
End your visit to Old Town with a visit to the waterfront; grab drinks or dinner and enjoy the stunning views of the DC monuments across the Potomac. Or grab a bench along the water and watch the planes as they make their approach to Reagan National Airport. There’s no better place to people- and pet-watch in Washington.
Shop for mementos at Union Station.
You can’t leave DC without doing a little shopping, and Union Station is the perfect place to browse for something special and grab a bite to eat. Completed in 1907 as one of the nation’s foremost railroad terminals, Union Station hit its heyday in the 1940s, when some 40,000 passengers passed through its walls each day.
Today, this beautifully preserved structure still serves as a transportation hub, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a gorgeous space filled with shops and restaurants and cozy spaces to sip a cup of coffee and jot a postcard to family or friends back home.
Ready to go?
If you’ve never been to DC, this year’s a perfect time to visit. Get in touch and let us help you plan your adventure with a guided tour of the city. And if you’re not quite ready to firm up your plans, sign up for our free email course, packed with useful tips and information for planning your Washington, DC, vacation.