Washington DC: 3-Day Itinerary For First Timers

As the capital city of United States of America, as well as a historically and culturally interesting city in its own right, you won’t be disappointed in spending three days in this amazing location!
The Capitol Building is just one of many attractions in Washington DC. Photo: Harold Mendoza | Unsplash

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Home to the three pillars of the US Government, large open spaces and spotless white neoclassical monuments, this incredible city is one not to be missed for any trip to the USA.

Whether you’re combining your visit with a trip to somewhere else in the States or just flying in to see the Nation’s Capital, in this guide we will tell you everything you need to know about spending three days in Washington DC.

There are many things to know before visiting the States, so why not get started by reading our guide to tipping in the USA?

Washington DC is full of amazing architecture!
Photo: Sara Cottle | Unsplash

With so many incredible sights to see and hundreds of possible ways to fill your day, it can be tricky to know where to start with exploring this auspicious city.

We have broken down the best places to explore in Washington DC and put them in a logical and easy-to-follow order, so when you land you know you can get straight on with the enjoying, without wasting time doing research in your hotel lobby.

Day 1: Exploring the monuments

The first day of our Washington DC itinerary will include all of the incredible monuments you’ve likely seen a million photographs of before. These will include government buildings, war memorials and statues, most of which are conveniently located within walking distance of each other.

Wondering what time of year to visit Washington DC or other places in the USA? Check our month-by-month guide on when is the best place to visit each major destination.

The Lincoln Memorial can be a great place to watch the sunset.
Photo: Casey Horner | Unsplash

What to do and see on day 1?

Washington DC can be a very walkable city for those arriving in good weather, and a lot of the main attractions are centred around the same area. This makes it a tourist’s dream when trying to visit as much as possible in this epic city. If walking isn’t your style, then DC also has a great metro system, which is easy to navigate and links most of the city.

We’re going to start our adventure at the National Mall. No, this isn’t the nation’s favourite shopping centre, the National Mall is in fact a huge system of parks and monuments that runs straight through the centre of the city. As well as being a beautiful walk in itself, this mall contains and connects many significant buildings, museums and monuments, making it the perfect location for exploring on the first day in Washington DC.

I’d start off your day as early as possible, as this whole area can get crowded during the middle of the day. Begin on the east side of the mall, close to Capitol Hill. You can easily take the metro here, to Capitol South Station, or if your accommodation is near then simply walk. I’d also highly recommend bringing a picnic for this day, as the route will mostly be in beautiful parkland and not through the main city itself. If the weather is cold and you don’t want to eat outside then there are also a number of restaurants in the area offering a cosy stopover.

Head up to Capitol Hill before the crowds and admire the world-famous view of the Capitol Building. After spending some time there start to head west through the mall, next up you’ll pass through the United States Botanical Gardens, famous for being the oldest botanical garden in the country. These beautiful gardens are best enjoyed during the warmer months, but also hold a special kind of beauty in winter. They’re free to enter and are open all day so it would be crazy not to spend a little time wandering around.

One of the most famous buildings in the USA – The Capitol Building.
Photo: Alejandro Barba | Unsplash

A short walk from the Botanical Gardens is the Smithsonian Castle. This incredibly designed building also contains the visitor’s centre for a lot of the museums in the area, so use this time to gather some information on what’s available. Tomorrow will be a museum day so it’s good to have a couple in mind to save time in the morning. Aside from this, it is a beautiful building in its own right and hosts a beautiful garden.

Once finished enjoying the architecture of the castle and getting vital museum information, keep heading westwards to our next stop, the Washington Monument.

This walk will take you right past the United State Holocaust Memorial Museum. This is a truly incredible and informative museum which I highly recommend. Entrance is free, but you will need to book a time slot in advance so make sure you plan for this. You have time to enter now and experience the well-laid out and harrowing journey the museum takes you on, or you can plan to visit tomorrow.

The Washington Monument, standing tall and proud. Photo: Brian Erickson | Unsplash

If you choose to visit the museum now (which I recommend, as there are many amazing museums in Washington DC and you want to try and hit up as many as possible) then upon exit is the perfect time to stop for lunch, sit by the Washington Monument and enjoy the reflecting pools and views of the whole park.

Now you are only a short walk away from the famous Tidal Basin. This man-made reservoir hosts many beautiful viewpoints around its shores and is lined with beautiful cherry trees, which blossom each year in spring. This blossom is so beautiful, it’s worth planning your trip for spring just to catch these incredible colours.

Continue wandering along the edge of the reflecting pool until you reach the famous Lincoln Memorial. Featured in many movies, postcards and other forms of media, there is little chance you haven’t seen a photo of this before, so why not head over and see it with your own eyes too?

Our final stop in the National Mall is a must-see for every Washington DC visitor – the White House. You can easily walk there by heading on the other side of the long reflecting pools and turning left when the park allows. Spend some time here just soaking it all in, thinking about all you’ve seen today before walking or taking the metro to Georgetown, where you’ll have dinner tonight.

You’ll find beautiful buildings with colourful decorations all over Georgetown.
Photo: Kevin Dooley | Flickr

Spend some time wandering Georgetown’s colourful streets, where you’ll see beautiful artwork and some of the city’s oldest buildings. This is one of the most-loved neighbourhoods in DC so spend some time getting lost here before settling in a place to eat. This area is also known as one of the best areas for dining in the city, so you’re in a good spot to tickle your tastebuds.

Where to eat in Georgetown?

  • Fiola Mare – For excellent seafood on the waterfront, known to play host to many celebrities and Presidents
  • The Alex – A unique fine-dining experience with a steampunk theme
  • 1789 – For classic American food and historic decoration

Where to stay in Washington DC?

  • $$$ – Riggs Washington DC
  • $$ – The Architect
  • $ – U Street Capsule Hostel

Day 2: Museum time

To say that Washington DC has excellent museums is a huge understatement. Not only are they some of the best in the country, but many have been classed as some of the best in the world. The best part of having all this information, culture and history at your fingertips? Most of them are completely free! Make sure to arrive early to guarantee a place, some of them also require you to book a time slot as well so make sure to check this before just turning up.

The cherry blossoms in spring around the Tidal Basin.
Photo: Reshma Mallecha | Unsplash

What museums to visit in Washington DC?

There are so many amazing museums to choose from and there are really no bad options here. Hopefully, you popped into the Smithsonian Museum Visitors Centre yesterday and got some idea of which ones you want to visit. Here I’ll list a few of the best and let you choose based on your own interest. Always check the website to see if you need to reserve a time slot and to check which days they are open, this information regularly changes and so I have not included it here.

  • National Air and Space Museum – In the National Mall, this free museum is dedicated to the US space program, all the way back to the first plane flown by the Wright Brothers
  • National Museum of the American Indian – Here you will learn about indigenous cultures and their practices
  • National Gallery of Art – For those interested in art, this is an unmissable stop! There are two buildings housing different exhibits and a sculpture garden to enjoy
  • National Museum of American History – Like all the others mentioned so far, this is a free museum. Here you will learn about American history, right back to before the USA was a country in its own right! A great one for history buffs and international tourists alike
  • National Museum of Natural History – Here you will experience fossils, Ancient Egyptians, animals and so much more
The Nation Museum of Natural History is a great way to learn about the world in which we live.
Photo: J. Amill Santiago | Unsplash
  • National Museum of African American History and Culture – Another free museum which will take you on a journey from the horrific slave trade, all the way to modern times
  • International Spy Museum – Yes, you read that right, this interactive museum teaches you everything you need to know to become a spy, as well as the little-known history of spying in various countries
  • National Museum of Asian Art – An amazing collection of Asian art featuring works from all over the continent both modern and old
  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum – This hard-hitting but informational rewarding museum takes you through personal stories of the holocaust

Where to eat on day 2?

  • Founding Farmers – A farm-to-table restaurant which is majority owned by American farmers and only serves fresh, local and made-from-scratch food
  • Call Your Mother – A Jewish-inspired restaurant that is committed to providing support and free meals to the community
  • Iron Rooster – For those with a sweet tooth, why not try their amazing homemade pop tarts?

Day 3: Explore the city

Today you will head away from the National Mall, a place which you’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of days, and into the rest of the city to visit some of the other incredible sights it has to offer.

You’ll find cool bars and colourful cafes all over H Street NE.
Photo: Ted Eytan | Flickr

What to do on day 3?

As a fairly large city, it goes without saying that there are many amazing sights to experience that don’t include museums or Presidential buildings.

If you don’t mind heading a little outside of the city then head for the United States National Arboretum. This is a huge area which you could easily spend an entire day wandering around its 9 miles of paths. This lush green is a great break from the chaotic city and will take you from cute gardens to immense rainforests.

After becoming one with nature, dive back into city life by visiting the Southwest Waterfront, wandering the many cute cafes, restaurants and shops that line DC’s iconic waterfront.

Some other amazing neighbourhoods to visit today are Foggy Bottom, a historic area named for the fog that often collects here, H Street NE, to experience the artistic and social side of DC, and Chinatown, which will land you close to Ford’s Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

Final thoughts

The interesting architecture of Washington DC.
Photo: barnyz | Flickr

Washington DC has so much to offer that it’s hard to condense a trip into just three days. One thing is for sure though, no matter how you choose to spend your time, you will walk away with a new insight into American culture and some incredible memories.


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