One Day in D.C.
If you have a day or less (and even a dollar or less!) in D.C., your sightseeing strategy is simple: take the Metro to the Smithsonian stop and explore the area around the Mall. You'll be at the undisputed heart of the city—a beautiful setting in which you'll find America's greatest collection of museums, with the city's spectacular monuments and the halls of government a stone's throw away.
Facing the Capitol, to your left are the Museum of Natural History, the National Gallery of Art, and the National Archives. To your right are the Museum of African Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, the National Air and Space Museum, and more. Head in the other direction, toward the Washington Monument, and you're also on your way to the World War II Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and more monuments to America's presidents and its past. A lover of American history and culture could spend a thoroughly happy month, much less a day, wandering the Mall and its surroundings.
If you're here first thing in the morning: You can hit monuments and memorials early. They're open 24 hours a day and staffed beginning at 8 am. The outdoor sculpture garden at the Hirshhorn opens at 7:30, and the Smithsonian Institution Building ("the Castle") opens at 8:30. In the Castle you can grab a cup of coffee, watch an 18-minute film about D.C., and see examples of objects from many of the 18 Smithsonian museums.
If you have only a few hours in the evening: Experience the beauty of the monuments at dusk and after dark. Many people think they're even more striking when the sun goes down. National Park Service rangers staff most monuments until midnight.
Five Days in D.C.
With more time at your disposal, you have a chance both to see the sights and to get to know the city. A guided bus tour is a good way to get yourself oriented; if you take one of the hop-on, hop-off tours we recommend, you'll get genuine insights without a lot of tourist hokum. S
Because you can get on and off wherever you like, it's a good idea to explore Georgetown and the Washington National Cathedral while on a bus tour; neither of which is easily accessible by Metro.
Devote your next day to the Mall, where you can check out the museums and monuments that were probably a prime motivation for your coming to D.C. in the first place. There's no way you can do it all in one day, so just play favorites and save the rest for next time. Try visiting the monuments in the evening: they remain open long after the museums are closed and are dramatically lighted after dark.
Keep in mind that the National Museum of Natural History is the most visited museum in the country, while the National Air and Space Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and the Museum of American History aren't too far behind; plan for crowds almost anytime you visit. If you visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, plan on spending two to three hours. If you're with kids on the Mall, take a break by riding the carousel.
Cafés and cafeterias within the museums are your best option for lunch. Two excellent picks are the Cascade Café at the National Gallery of Art and the Mitsitam Café at the National Museum of the American Indian, where they serve creative dishes inspired by native cultures. Just north of the Mall, the newly opened Newseum features a food court with a menu designed by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck. If you've got more time (and more money to spend), drop by the Source, a ritzy Puck-owned restaurant behind the museum.
If the weather permits—and you're not already weary with museum fatigue—consider the healthy walk from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial and around the Tidal Basin, where you can see the Jefferson Memorial, the FDR Memorial, and the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Nearby, nestled north of the Mall's reflecting pool, is "The Wall," a sobering black granite monolith commemorating the 58,272 Americans who never returned from the Vietnam War.
Make this your day on Capitol Hill, where you'll have the option of visiting the Capitol, the U.S. Botanic Gardens, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Call your senators or congressional representative (or your country's embassy, if you are a visitor from outside the U.S.) for passes to see Congress in session. There's also the option of venturing into one of the congressional office buildings adjacent to the Capitol, where congressional hearings are almost always open to the public. (Visit www.house.gov and www.senate.gov for schedules.) Likewise, check the Supreme Court's website (www.supremecourtus.gov) for dates of oral arguments. If you show up at court early enough, you might gain admission for either a short (three-minute) visit or the full morning session.
Head to the National Zoo and say good morning to the pandas. If the weather is bad, you can still enjoy the numerous indoor animal houses. Then hop on the Metro to Dupont Circle for lunch. Walk west on tree-lined P Street NW to Georgetown, where you can shop, admire the architecture, and people-watch.
If you got a good dose of Georgetown on your first day, consider instead hopping on the Metro to the International Spy Museum, a Chinatown attraction that tends to be less crowded after 2 pm. From there you can easily walk to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, which stay open until 7.
Spend the morning at Arlington National Cemetery. While you're there, don't miss the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, every hour or half hour, depending on the time of year. A short detour north of the cemetery brings you to the Marine Corps War Memorial, a giant bronze rendering of American soldiers planting the flag on Iwo Jima during World War II—one of the most famous images in U.S. military history.
After your quiet, contemplative morning, head back across the Potomac to spend the afternoon in Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle. Lunch at one of Adams Morgan's Ethiopian, El Salvadoran, or Mexican restaurants, and take in the Dupont Circle art scene—there's an assortment of offbeat galleries tucked into the side streets, as well as the renowned Phillips Collection.