I recently came back from a trip to D.C., and as anyone who has ever visited can attest: there’s a LOT to see/do/learn! You can’t quite possibly fit everything in in one trip. Additionally, there is so much diversity in what you can do—it really depends on what you’re interested in to decide how you fill your time there. For this reason, I’m not necessarily going to suggest what to see in D.C., but rather want to provide some helpful tips & tricks to help you get the most out of your time there—however you decide to fill it.
When I’m responsible for other peoples’ enjoyment of a trip or place I’m a great planner. When it’s just me I tend to take “winging it” to the extreme. Now, as already mentioned, there’s so much to see that you could wing it and still see quite a lot—but with just a little extra planning you can get so much more out of your time (for less energy and walking)!
Take a moment to look at the many, many, museums, memorials, and sights D.C. has to offer and at the very list make a “must see” list and an “if there’s time” list. This will help you prioritize the time you have, even if it means “winging it” to see the priority list.
Plan Your Places
Any simple search of the internet will help you know what all is available to see in D.C. Many (most?) of the activities are free, but there are more and more paid specialty exhibits opening: Newseum, International Spy Museum, National Geographic Museum. If you want to see multiples of these paid attractions consider purchasing a GoCity Card which gets you tickets for multiple activities for a discounted price. The White House Visitor Center has a great map of the D.C. area which is worth picking up at the beginning of your trip.
Places that Require Advanced Planning/Tickets
Even though many of the museums are free, the most popular ones require you to reserve your free “ticket” in advance—sometimes months in advance. If you’re interested in: The White House, the Holocaust Memorial Museum (advance ticketing needed for the permanent exhibit only), going to the top of the Washington Monument, or touring the Pentagon, make sure you take the necessary steps to reserve your spot early.
Plan Your Route
You may think, like I did, that since “everything is pretty much in one area” you don’t have to spend much time planning the order in which you see things. Well, if you did’t know already, you’ll figure out as soon as it takes you 15 minutes to walk from one museum to the museum next door—that even if things are “in the same area”—that area is actually quite large!
To give you a picture: it’s 1.5 miles from the Capital Building to the Washington Monument, another 1 mile from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, almost .5 miles from the National Gallery of Art to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (museums that are just across from one another), and 1 mile from The White House to the Washington Monument. Even seeing things that are “near” each other will involve transition time.
Another example: doing the monument/memorial loop the wrong way could add about a mile to your route! FYI: the monument/memorial loop should go in this order: Washington Monument, National WW2 Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, FDR Memorial, Thomas Jefferson Memorial (or vice versa).
Options to possibly decrease time in-between different sights include: renting bikes through Capital BikeShare or taking one of the various hop-on hop-off bus tours (although, I heard the one at Arlington Cemetery isn’t worth it unless you really just want a way to get from one site to another—the commentary is apparently hard to hear over the noise of the motor). I ended up going the old-fashioned route and just walking everywhere—and ended up averaging over 10 miles a day according to my health app!
Take Small Bites
You may love art, or history or science—and be perfectly fine and entertained spending the entire day at one place (the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum for example)—for the rest of us, it might be best to take small bites.
Chose the top couple of exhibits at any one museum that you’re really interested in, and spend time truly enjoying those few exhibits—don’t feel like you have to see it all! Otherwise you might spend two hours casually wandering through a few exhibits before you find the section that truly excites you, only to realize that you’ve already been at the museum for two hours, it’s now past lunch time, and your hunger is outweighing your desire to see what you’re actually interested in. Sure you could just come back after lunch (most the museums are free after all) but now you’re spending a whole day at a museum you thought you’d only be at for a couple of hours and you’re having to cut something from your “must see” list. Pressing on could result in a concerned family member, friend, or stranger finding you collapsed in a corner from over-input-exhaustion! Take it from me, one of the worst offenders of this tip (my StrengthsFinder is input after all) take small bites!
Along the same lines: if you can split your time in D.C., do it! For example, I had two-and-a-half days in DC, then spent the weekend with a friend and her family in Annapolis, then had another two days in DC. I’m a go-go-go type of person, so after 2.5 days of full-on tourist mode, that weekend break was just the rest I needed to then return and go strong for another two full days before flying out.
Bring a Phone Charger / External Battery
Between using Google Maps for directions, Uber/Lyft to get around, Yelp to eat, and taking photos: your phone battery will wear down quite quickly. (I normally only have to charge my phone at night, but in D.C. it was usually going dead by 3pm). On top of this, many of the museums now have their own Apps to enhance your experience of various exhibits (GoFlight: National Air & Space Museum; National Museum of Natural History). Learn from my mistake. Bring your external USB charger, it will be worth the tiny bit of extra weight.
Get a Transport Card
D.C. has a fabulous public transportation system. Especially if you are traveling solo, public transport is going to be the most affordable option. If you have two or more, Lyft/Uber become more viable options. If you’ve never used Lyft or Uber, this is the perfect time to sign up an try it out as they’ll often give you money towards your first ride (I actually got $5 off my first 20 rides! Which meant I could basically take Lyft back to my friends’ house for free each night! Click here to sign up and get $50 Lyft credit). You can buy a SmartTrip Card at any Metro Station or online. These are “value added” cards that you can load with any amount of money and then use on the Metro and Buses simply by scanning when you get on/off. While you’re at it, bookmark this page that allows you to find out the ETA of any bus to any particular station.
Many but not all of the Smithsonian museums are open 10am-5:30pm (depending on holidays). However, especially during the summer, there are often extended hours. Your best bet is to check the individual sites of the museums you’re interested in (even many D.C. apps didn’t include the extended hour times)—pay attention to the sites that open before 10am or after 5:30pm—because those are the ones you can save for when everything else is closed. Also note that sites such as the monuments and memorials are open 24/7 which means if you’re a morning person they’re perfect to do before all the museums open at 10am, and if you’re a night person it’s the perfect thing to do after all the museums close. Especially during the summer there are a plethora of free activities at night including concerts at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage each night at 6pm, outdoor movies, and special museum events.
Whatever you choose, a great way to wind down after a long day of walking is to watch the sun set from the Washington Monument!
Take Advantage of the Free Tours
Many of the museums offer free informational tours and/or presentations each day (check their website or pick up a museum guide when you enter). These guided tours are a great way to get an overview of the museum or a specific collection. The National Gallery of Art provides an especially bountiful offering of guided tours.
Don’t Forget Lunch!
You can easily get so caught up in the various sites that you suddenly get to 3pm and realize you haven’t eaten. There are kiosks with food, snacks and drinks throughout the lawn area of the mall, but it’s typical “snack bar food”, small and overpriced. Meanwhile, just off of the north side of The Mall (and east of The White House) there are tons of food options. (The Ronald Reagan building on 14th St NW and Pennsylvania Ave even has a large food court with lots of options and outlets to charge your devices while you eat).
A Few Apps Worth Downloading
- National Mall & Memorial Parks and/or Visit Washington DC : These both utilize location services to give you information about what’s around you, background info on sights, website links, times, etc.
- DC Metro & Bus : Handy maps and arrival times for metro and bus travel.
And that’s it!
Have other tips about how to get the most out of a trip to D.C.? Please share them in a comment below! 🙂