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Towering monuments, world-class museums, a thriving food scene, and-oh yeah- The White House. Washington DC is more than just an 8th grade field trip. In fact, it’s the perfect spot for a short break no matter what your age! 3 days in Washington DC is the perfect amount of time to really get a taste of the nation’s capital, as well as experience a few off-the-beaten-path moments.
After having spent 4 years dating a Washington DC local, and even showing my own friends around the city when they come to visit, I think I’ve got a pretty good grip on some of the best things to do in Washington DC. So I decided to put together this Washington DC itinerary in the hopes that you, too, can spend a fantastic 3 days in Washington DC (or more!).
From how to get to Washington DC, to the best places to eat, to the perfect 3 day Washington DC itinerary, this post has it all. So let’s dive right in!
HOW TO GET TO WASHINGTON DC
As the nation’s capitol there are a plethora of ways to get to Washington DC. Here’s a short overview of how to get to Washington DC.
There are 3 different airports which serve the greater Washington DC area: Ronald Regan National Airport (DCA), Dulles International Airport (IAD), and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI).
Ronald Regan National Airport (DCA) is the closest to downtown Washington DC, and is only a 20-minute metro ride from the National Mall. If you’re flying from elsewhere in the United States and staying in Washington DC proper, this is definitely the best airport to fly into.
Dulles International Airport (IAD) is located in the suburbs of Washington DC in Northern Virgina, approximately 26 miles from downtown. If you’re flying internationally or staying in the NOVA area (e.g. if you’re visiting family/friends), this is the best airport to fly into.
Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) is located outside of Baltimore, Maryland and is more than an hour away from downtown DC. Unless you have someone to pick you up, it can be a pain to get from BWI to Washington DC. However, you will also find the cheapest flights flying into and out of BWI.
Although train isn’t the most popular mode of travel in the United States, it is possible to reach Washington DC by rail. Washington DC’s Union Station is served by Amtrak, and you can find trains from both major cities and small towns all over the United States.
The Acela fast train serves DC by way of Boston, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore and is the fastest option if you’re coming from one of these cities. If you’re coming from New York City, there’s even an Acela non-stop train to Washington DC which will get you there in 3 hours. I took this train once and it was a surprisingly pleasant experience!
If you’re on a budget, it’s also possible to get to Washington DC by bus.
Greyhound Bus has routes all over the country, making it possible to easily reach Washington DC from anywhere (although it may take you a little while). There are direct routes from New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond, VA to name a few.
GETTING AROUND WASHINGTON DC
As a major metropolitan area, it’s thankfully incredibly easy to get around Washington DC, especially by public transport.
- The Metro – The Washington DC metro doesn’t have the greatest reputation, but it is… functional. And it’s definitely the easiest way to get around DC by public transport! You can find a complete guide to navigating the DC Metro here.
- Buses – WMATA also has a HUGE bus service, so if you can’t get somewhere with the metro it’s likely possible via bus. The DC Circulator has 6 different routes and is free for all riders!
- Uber – If you need to get somewhere that’s not well-served by public transport, then Uber will be your cheapest and easiest option.
WHERE TO STAY IN WASHINGTON DC
There are plenty of places to stay all throughout the city for your 3 days in Washington DC, but here are a few of the best options. Alternatively, you can check out campgrounds near Washington DC.
- Highroad Hostel – Located in the trendy Adams Morgan neighborhood, this boutique hostel is the perfect option if you’re on a budget or just want to meet cool people. It comes with 9.5/10 ratings on both Hostelworld and booking.com.
- The Embassy Inn Hotel – This modern boutique hotel has absolutely gorgeous design and is a great choice for travelers on a mid-range budget. Best of all, it’s located just a short walk away from the Dupont Circle metro station.
- The Graham Georgetown – If you want to get a taste of the life of the DC elite, then this is where you need to stay. Located in the gorgeous historic neighborhood of Georgetown, this hotel has classy modern luxury down to a tee.
WHERE TO EAT IN WASHINGTON DC
There so many great options for food for your 3 days in Washington DC. Here are just a few of my favorite places to eat in Washington DC (+ a few suggestions from Daniel, my local food expert).
- District Taco – Local Mexican chain serving Yucatan-style food.
- Ben’s Chili Bowl – A city landmark. Get the classic chili bowl.
- 2Amys Neopolitan Pizzeria – Delicious wood-fire pizza. A little bit expensive but their dough is to die for!
- Ted’s Bulletin – By far the best place to go in Washington DC for brunch. Be sure to order one of their homemade pop tarts!
- Good Stuff Eatery – A small, locally-grown burger chain. Their Michelle Melt and Prez Obama Burger are both delicious!
- Da Hong Pao – Some of the best dim sum in Washington DC
- Food Trucks – Washington DC has a bustling food truck scene, and you honestly can’t go wrong with any of them. Check out Food Trucks of DC for an up-to-date list of DC food trucks and their locations!
- Eastern Market – A great public market in a 19th-century brick building. The surrounding area also has a bunch of yummy treats!
3 DAYS IN WASHINGTON DC ITINERARY
3 days in Washington DC is the perfect amount of time to see all the monuments as well as explore a bit more of the city! After 4 years of dating a DC local, here is my optimal Washington DC itinerary for 3 days.
WASHINGTON DC ITINERARY // DAY 1
On the first of your 3 days in Washington DC, you’re going to want to do all of the typical touristy stuff, of course. So let’s get right to it!
Walk the National Mall
Start your morning off right by heading to the National Mall to see all of the iconic DC monuments. I suggest getting there as early as possible to beat the crowds.
My favorite thing to do is start at the Lincoln Memorial end and then walk towards the Washington Monument, where there are a good number of delicious food trucks for lunch! Taking this route also means that you won’t have to backtrack at all. Which is an oft-overlooked thing on people’s itineraries – the National Mall is a lot bigger than you think it is!
The Lincoln Memorial
Built to honor the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, the Lincoln Memorial is located on the far end of the National Mall and is an icon of Washington DC. As a native Illinoisan, this is definitely my favorite monument on the mall.
Inspired by Greek temples, the Lincoln Memorial is a stately sight to behold. 36 columns raise up from the ground (1 for each state at the time of his assassination), and the absolutely HUGE marble statue of Lincoln sitting inside will have your jaw on the floor in no time.
Be sure to take a look to the left and right, though, as the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address are etched into the walls on either side. You can also get great photos of the Reflecting Pool and Washington Monument from the top of the Lincoln Memorial.
The earlier you get to the Lincoln Memorial, the better – especially in the summertime or on weekends. It gets very crowded in the middle of the day, so if you want pictures without a million people in them, early morning or late night is the best time to go.
The Washington Monument
Located in the middle of the National Mall, in between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument rises up 555 feet into the sky and is the defining feature of the DC skyline.
For the past few years, the Washington Monument has been closed for renovations, but as of September 19, 2019 it’s opening up to the public again with a new and improved elevator and security system!
If you’re interested in going up to the observation deck to get a bird’s eye view of the city, it’s definitely worth it. Otherwise, just take a few pictures of the outside of the building and move on.
Admission to the Washington Monument is free, but it’s a good idea to reserve your tickets ahead of time. You can do so here.
Other Memorials Along the Mall
Along with the big 2 memorials along the mall, there are a bunch of other, smaller memorials that aren’t as well known but seriously touching. These include:
- The Korean War Veterans Memorial – 19 statues of soldiers in the shrubs, representing a squad on patrol. The 19 soldiers create a reflection on the wall which symbolizes the border between North and South Korea – the 38th parallel.
- The Vietnam Veterans Memorial – Divided into 3 parts: The Three Soldiers Statue, The Vietnam Women’s Memorial, and the well-known Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. This dark marble wall chronologically lists the names of all 58,000 Americans who gave their lives in service to the country. It is a deeply reflective spot, and many relatives and friends make the pilgrimage to the wall to grieve their loved one.
- The National World War II Memorial – Located on the end of the Reflecting Pool opposite the Lincoln Memorial, the World War II Memorial is comprised of 56 granite columns (1 for each state and federal territory and Washington DC) surrounding a fountain. There are also 2 arches to the north and south symbolizing victory in the Atlantic and in the Pacific.
I definitely suggest making a stop by some of the lesser-known memorials while you walk along the National Mall.
Pass the Washington Monument and cross the street and you’ll come across a long row a stately buildings. These are the Smithsonian Museums.
Spending an afternoon at one (or more) of the Smithsonian Museums is the perfect way to round out your first day in Washington DC. They’re all free, so you can spend as much or as little time in them as you’d like!
Here are a few of my favorite museums along the mall:
- National Museum of African American History and Culture – Start in the basement and work your way up for a sobering walk through the timeline of African American history, from 15th century Africa up to the present day. The upper floors are a celebration of African American culture. Book your tickets ahead of time. Though entrance is free, it is in high demand!
- National Museum of American History – Head here for all things Americana, including the Star Spangled Banner and Lincoln’s Top Hat. There is a huge range of types of exhibits, so there’s sure to be something for everyone.
- National Museum of the American Indian – This museum covers more than 12,000 years of history for more than 1,200 indigenous cultures across America. The actual building of the museum is impressive in and of itself, designed to mimic the curve of rock formations.
- National Museum of Natural History – A classic natural history museum filled with all things nature. Be sure to snap a picture with the elephant in the main entrance!
White House & Dinner
Getting an actual tour of the White House is a hassle, and requests must be submitted through your member of Congress. It’s only a short walk away from the National Mall, though, so stopping by to snap a few pictures on your way to dinner is always an option!
After you’ve gotten your fill (which won’t take long, as you can’t actually get that close and you’re really just staring at a building), head to dinner. There’s a District Taco location (on my list of recommended restaurants in DC) just 2 streets down from the White House, so it’s a great choice!
For a fancier, sit-down option, head to Founding Farmers, which is also nearby.
WASHINGTON DC ITINERARY // DAY 2
For your second day in the nation’s capitol, I suggest finishing off your time on the National Mall with a tour of Capitol Hill in the afternoon. In the morning, depending on where your interests lie, you can either take a trip to the National Portrait Gallery or visit some more memorials over by the Tidal Basin (or both if you’re a real go-getter!).
Morning Option #1: National Portrait Gallery
One of my favorite museums in all of DC is the National Portrait Gallery, and I highly suggest a visit on the morning of your second of 3 days in Washington DC. Along with the presidential portraits (of which Barack and Michelle Obama’s are a real highlight), there’s a huge and diverse range of exhibitions that are absolutely worth exploring.
The National Portrait Gallery is a part of the Smithsonian Institution, so entrance is free.
Morning Option #2: Jefferson Memorial & Tidal Basin
If you’re more of a memorial person, the other option for your second morning in Washington is to take a walk around the Tidal Basin.
By far the most famous part of the Tidal Basin is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, which is a stately round structure with a stunning dome. Even though I don’t love Jefferson as a person, his memorial is certainly a sight to behold!
Also along the Tidal Basin are the lesser-known Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorials. The FDR Memorial comprises of 4 open-air rooms, 1 for each of his terms as president, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial includes a jaw-dropping 30-foot statue of Dr. King partially carved in the Stone of Hope.
You can also spot the Washington Monument from the Tidal Basin.
If you’re in Washington DC during Cherry Blossom Season, then a walk around the Tidal Basin is an absolute must! Just be sure to get there as early as possible to avoid the crowds (and seriously trust me on this one. They’re absolutely crazy during the cherry blossoms.).
Capitol Hill Tour
Your 3 days in Washington DC itinerary wouldn’t be complete without a visit to perhaps my favorite building in the city: the Capitol Building. The gorgeous dome is a sight to behold from both inside and out, so definitely try to get inside if you can.
One way to get a tour of the Capitol Building is to contact your local representative. If you do this ahead of time, you can get a semi-private tour of the Capitol with one of their interns, which is definitely preferable to the big, public tours.
If you’re not a big planner, though, then I have another option for you.
By far one of my favorite tours I’ve ever been on is Free Tours by Foot’s Capitol Hill & Library of Congress Tour. This tour takes you all over Capitol Hill with a super knowledgeable local guide. You’ll head inside the Library of Congress, see the outside of the Supreme Court and the Capitol Building, and finally get tickets for a docent led (big) public tour of the Capitol Building at the end.
WASHINGTON DC ITINERARY // DAY 3
For the last of your 3 days in Washington DC, I highly recommend going a bit further afield and getting out of the downtown, major touristy areas.
One of my favorite neighborhoods in Washington DC is actually just across the river: Georgetown. This historic neighborhood full of stately townhouses and home to a world-class university is the perfect place to spend a day, which is why I’m including it in this Washington DC itinerary.
Here are a few of my favorite things to do in Georgetown:
- Wander – One of the best things to do in Georgetown is one of my all-time favorite things to do when traveling: just wander. Take random turns down side streets and see how many gorgeous houses you can find. Choose the one you’d like to live in. There’s also great shopping along the main street.
- Grab a cupcake at Baked & Wired – Although Georgetown Cupcake certainly hogs all the limelight, the best cupcakes in Georgetown are actually down the street at Baked & Wired. These seriously huge cupcakes are to. die. for. – and they also have great coffee! Don’t be surprised if there’s a line out the door, but trust me: it’s worth the wait.
- Walk the C&O Canal – The tree-lined C&O Canal Towpath is the perfect place for a leisurely afternoon stroll to work of those cupcakes.
- Rent a boat at the Key Bridge Boathouse – Another great way to escape the hustle & bustle of the city is to grab a kayak or stand-up paddle board at the Key Bridge Boathouse and paddle down the Potomac (just be careful not to fall in – the water is a bit disgusting).
- Visit Crumbs & Whiskers – If you’re a cat person, then be sure to stop by Georgetown’s fabulous cat cafe, Crumbs & Whiskers!
Day 3 Alternative: Day Trip to Mount Vernon
If you’re in DC for the complete American experience, then you might want to forego a chill day in Georgetown for a day trip to Mount Vernon.
From the stately house that was home to the Washingtons itself, to the expansive grounds and the extensive program of tours and demonstrations, there’s more than enough to do here to take up an entire day.
Mount Vernon is approximately 15 miles from downtown Washington DC and is an easy drive. Alternatively, you can get there by public transport or with a guided tour. For full details on getting to Mount Vernon, check out their website.
Perhaps the most scenic way to visit Mount Vernon, though, is by boat! Both Spirit of Mount Vernon and the Potomac Riverboat Company offer 3-hour round trip boat rides which also include entrance to & time to explore the estate.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON 3 DAYS IN WASHINGTON DC
3 days in Washington DC is the perfect amount of time to get a taste of everything that this great city has to offer. I tried to include a mix of classic, can’t-miss tourist sites and slightly more off-the-beaten-path options in this Washington DC itinerary. I hope that it’s as helpful as I want it to be!