How to Spend 1 Day in D.C.

Updated July 10, 2020.

It’s Motivation Monday! Have you ever found yourself with a day in a new city–no more, no less? Maybe you were on a business trip and decided to take a personal day after, or maybe you just felt adventurous and took advantage of an incredible travel deal! No matter the circumstances, if you find yourself with a free day in DC, here is a killer itinerary to make the most of your experience!

Times below are suggestions only, and these options are for most days–the exception is that some of these sites are closed on Sundays, as noted. Read the end of this blog post for an alternative if you’re only in town on a Sunday–or simply a second itinerary option if Capitol Hill is not on your agenda!

 Study Up on Metro

Hours: 5:00am-11:30pm Monday-Thursday; 5:00am-1:00am Friday; 7:00am-1:00am Saturday; 8:00am-11:00pm Sunday

Instead of wasting precious minutes trying to figure it out on the fly, take a minute in advance to review the basics: D.C.’s Metro System: A Guide

You will need a SmarTrip Card!

 Breakfast at Union Station: 7:30 am

Grab a quick breakfast at your hotel or perhaps at one of the restaurants at historic Union Station. Union Station is a major hub for Amtrak, D.C. area buses, and Metro’s Red Line. If you’re coming into D.C. for the day from Wilmington, DE; Philadelphia; or New York via Amtrak, you will come into Union Station. Check out breakfast options at Pret a Manger, Starbucks, Potbelly, Au Bon Pain, or another spot inside the station. Choose something hardy!

Tour the U.S. Capitol: 8:30 am (closed Sundays)

Walk just a couple of blocks south (or toward the Capitol dome) and follow the signs toward the Capitol Visitor Center. If you have a few days’ or weeks’ notice, you can schedule a tour with your Congressperson, but if not, try to get to the entrance a little early (maybe 7:45 or 8:00am) to get right in for a public tour. Do not bring food with you, and you will also be going through a metal detector, so be prepared for that. You will be going through multiple metal detectors if you are in D.C. all day, so just leave your metals at home! Here’s some more info: U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.

Don’t forget to look up to see the beauty!
More here: How to Tour the U.S. Capitol

 Step inside the Library of Congress and Supreme Court:
9:30 am (both closed Sundays)

Pick one or pick both, but please do take the tunnels from the Capitol to these buildings! You will save time by not standing in line and going through more security again if you take the tunnels. The Supreme Court is well worth a visit, especially if you’re lucky enough to see the U.S. Supreme Court in session. And seriously, the Library of Congress Jefferson Building is the most beautiful building in D.C., bar none.

Library of Congress Main Reading Room
More here: Your Guide to the Library of Congress
The Supreme Court

Need a visual? Here’s a map!

Map of Capitol Hill

Pick a Museum: 11:00 am

The Smithsonian Institution is an incredible resource! But there are other museums on the Mall as well, so take your pick! Not only are they incredible and do they boast interesting artifacts, they’re all FREE! So choose one, choose two, choose as many as you like. Here’s a rundown of the museums on the National Mall, starting from the Capitol Building and working down the Mall toward the Potomac:

  • National Botanic Gardens (not a Smithsonian, but free and open year-roud)
  • National Museum of the American Indian (Native American artifacts, and yes, that’s it’s official name)
  • National Gallery of Art and Sculpture Garden (not a Smithsonian, but it is a free museum on the Mall)
  • National Air and Space Museum (full-size planes and space history)
  • National Museum of Natural History (see the Hope Diamond, animals of every sort, dinosaur bones)
  • Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (modern art)
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (The Castle: the original Smithsonian museum)
  • National Museum of American History (Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers, First Ladies’ gowns, and impressive war exhibits)
  • National Museum of African American History and Culture (may need to reserve tickets in advance)
The Smithsonian Castle
More here: Your Ultimate Guide to D.C.’s Smithsonian Museums

Not sure where to start or don’t have a museum in mind? I suggest starting at the Smithsonian Castle for an overview and to find more information specific to what you want to see!

Here’s a visual of how to walk from Capitol Hill (the U.S. Capitol, Library of Congress, and Supreme Court) to the National Mall where most of the Smithsonian museums are.
Handy map for you!

 Lunch: 1:00 pm

By now you should have worked up an appetite! There are restaurants at some of the museums on the National Mall, but D.C. is home to an awesome and ever-growing food scene! While you’re on the National Mall, you may see some food trucks, which have some pretty cool options for lunch and change daily, or you can call ahead to historic Old Ebbitt Grill to see what their wait is like. For something quick, try the Corner Bakery Cafe at 14th and F Streets.

If you’re in town on Saturday or Sunday, Lunch could easily be Brunch!
More here: Legendary Restaurants in D.C.

 The White House: 2:00 pm

The restaurants I mentioned are close to the White House, which should be your next stop! You can only get so close these days, and you will probably see protestors (as we do with all administrations), but as long as you’re respectful and don’t call attention to yourself, you can get a good picture. It’s a must-see when in the District!

A View of the White House
Here’s a map of your walk from the National Mall to the White House.

The Monuments and Memorials: 2:30 pm

I’ve saved the best for last! There is nothing I’d rather be doing in D.C. than walking the monuments and memorials. Be sure to stop in at their gift shops or small museums  on site, and if you get your timing right, you can take a ranger-led tour. Here’s the route I like best:

  • Washington Monument (you can’t miss it!)
  • WWII Memorial (with fountains flowing every season except winter)
  • Vietnam Veterans Memorial (to the right as you look at Lincoln)
  • Korean War Memorial (to the left as you look at Lincoln)
  • Lincoln Memorial (be sure to walk around the back for a stunning view of Arlington House and Arlington Cemetery)
  • DC Great War Memorial (just follow the signs!)
  • Martin Luther King Monument (the newest monument as of this writing)
  • FDR Memorial (see all four terms as they played out)
  • George Mason Memorial (sometimes called the forgotten founding father)
  • Jefferson Memorial (most beautiful in spring when the cherry blossoms are blooming!)
  • Back up to Washington Monument
Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 4.32.05 PM
Smithsonian Metro to Lincoln via 56 Signers Memorial
Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 4.34.41 PM
Lincoln to Smithsonian Metro via FDR
Read next: Your Ultimate Guide to D.C.’s Monuments and Memorials

This route will take you by the essential monuments and memorials in just over an hour if you’re pressed for time, or two hours if you want to go a little slower and take it all in. Ending back at the Washington Monument will give you access to buses and Metro stations (Smithsonian Station for Blue, Orange, and Silver Lines; L’Enfant Station for Green, Yellow, Blue, Orange, or Silver Lines; or Metro Center for Red, Blue, Orange, or Silver Lines).

WWII Memorial with Lincoln Memorial in the background

 Free Time: 4:30 pm

This is your time to get back to your transportation. If you’ll be in town over night, you can head into Chinatown (Red, Yellow, and Green Lines; or walk to 7th and H Streets) for dinner and to visit the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery (open until 7:00 pm). Need some more culture in your life? Take the Metro to Foggy Bottom (Blue, Orange, and Silver Lines) and get supper at Founding Farmers or Tonic, then hop the free shuttle from Foggy Bottom Station to the Kennedy Center for a FREE show at 6:00 pm!

Shows start at 6:00pm daily!
Read next: What to Know Before You Visit Washington, D.C.

***If You’re in Town on a Sunday***

Start at Arlington National Cemetery on the Metro’s Blue line, and work your way up this list backward! Since the sites on Capitol Hill (Capitol Building, Library of Congress, and Supreme Court) are closed on Sundays, I like to suggest people grab breakfast in the Rosslyn area around the Rosslyn Metro and start their day at Arlington National Cemetery (opens at 8:00am). Be sure to see the changing of the guard, Arlington House, and the eternal flame at the Kennedy Gravesite. Plan to finish around 10:00am and walk across the bridge to start your Monument tour starting with the Lincoln Memorial, or Metro to Smithsonian Station and start on the museums!

Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
More here: Your Guide to Arlington National Cemetery

Is that enough to keep you busy? Wear your walking shoes and drink plenty of water throughout the day! There are restrooms at all the museums (I may have stepped into a museum just to use the restroom a time or two myself) and at the Washington, World War II, Lincoln, FDR, and Jefferson Monuments and Memorials, so you can drink that water with confidence! There are also snack stands along the monument and memorial route if you need food or water. I hope all that’s helpful!

Are you heading into D.C. soon? Check out my Washington, D.C., Page!

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8 responses to “How to Spend 1 Day in D.C.”

  1. I visited D.C. so long ago I really want to go back … and my boyfriend really wants to explore! I loved the Smithsonian museum of natural history and still remember seeing the Hope diamond in the sixth grade! 🙂 great tips! 🙂

    1. I always recommend DC! Be on the lookout for my 3 day itinerary and 1 week itinerary in a couple of weeks!

  2. Hi!
    I’m going to DC for a conference next month but have friday and Saturday evening free to myself. What can you recommend I do alone after 5:30pm in the city other than have dinner? Thanks for any info!
    Sonia Santos

    1. quickwhittravel Avatar

      Hey there! I would check out the Kennedy Center’s free performance those nights at 6:00pm!

      If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, I’d recommend walking the monuments (, go to the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery since it’s open until 7:00pm (, or if you’re a shopper, take a walk through Georgetown’s M Street and Wisconsin Ave! All my DC guides are here if you want more ideas!

      Have so much fun!

  3. Hello! Your page is full of great tips! I’m coming to DC in a few weeks with my husband and my parents. We are very excited, but I’m a little concerned about the walking. Do you have any recommendations to minimize the amount of walking required and still get to see everything? Or is there a place I should look into getting a wheelchair for the day? Thanks for all your help!

    1. Hey there! Unfortunately there are not many convenient ways to get around besides walking. I would recommend choosing one neighborhood per day and just exploring that area! Take your time, enjoy leisurely lunches and frequent breaks (all the museums will have benches or other seating in common areas), and if you need to go a distance you’re not comfortable with walking, get an Uber. They are less expensive than the metro when you have four people taking one! Please let me know if you have more questions!

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