How to Spend 3 Days in D.C.

Updated July 10, 2020.

Whether it’s a weekend getaway, a whirl-wind trip to visit friends in the area, or a quick trip because you found a deal on a flight, you can see a lot of DC in just three days! You want to see the monuments, the documents, the museums! You want to eat the food and catch a show! Here is your ultimate guide to D.C. (and a little more!) in just three days.

Feel free to rearrange these days in the order that suits you (Day 1 is good to plan for a rainy day if there is one in your forecast). However, keeping each day’s sites in order will help you see everything most efficiently!

Day 1

Morning: National Archives

If the National Archives is high on your list, make it your first stop! The line can be long, but the wait is worth it. Highlights include the Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, and more. There are exhibits inside, too, and a great gift shop–you can even purchase a copy of the Declaration just like Nicolas Cage in National Treasure. You will be going through a metal detector (here and elsewhere in the District), so be prepared for that. You can have a bottle of water with you, but you may not eat or drink inside.

*Note! The photos below were taken in 2008, befor the rule about no photography in the National Archives Rotunda was made.

The Magna Carta
The Real Deal

Mid-Morning: Old Post Office Clock Tower

No matter your political leanings, the Old Post Office Pavilion, now the Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C., is an historic landmark. The clock tower is operated by the National Park Service, and they have a great little museum in the hall to the elevator as you walk in (the entrance is at the Starbucks around the back) where you can learn the history of the building. Did you know it’s been slated for demolition (and saved) six times? Additionally, since the Washington Monument is closed for some work, this is now the best place to get a bird’s eye view of the Nation’s Capital!

Old Post Office Tower
The View from the top!

Lunch: Downtown, Food Trucks, or Smithsonian Cafes

Since you’re downtown and close to the National Mall here, you have plenty of lunch options! The Trump International has a restaurant, of course, if you want something fancy. If you want a pub atmosphere, Elephant & Castle a couple of blocks down is a great option, or perhaps you prefer something fast, like food trucks on the National Mall. You can also a quick bite in the American History Museum, Smithsonian Castle, or Natural History Museum. Many of the museums have cafes inside, which is convenient since the Smithsonians are you next stop!

More inspo here: Where to Eat in Downtown D.C.

Afternoon: Smithsonian Museums

Ready for museums? Take your pick! D.C. is the home to the majority of the Smithsonian Institution’s 19 museums. For an exhaustive list, take a look at A Guide to D.C.’s Smithsonian Museums. My top picks are the American History Museum, Natural History Museum, Smithsonian Castle, and the Air and Space Museum. Spend 5 minutes, spend an hour, go museum hopping and see them all–they’re FREE!

Smithson and the Smithsonian Castle
George Washington’s Continental uniform
Lunar Lander
Details here: Your Ultimate Guide to D.C.’s Smithsonian Museums

Dinner: At the Ballgame, Downtown, or Chinatown

Dinner will depend on your pick for an evening activity. If you’re heading to a hockey or baseball game, get the full experience and eat at the venue! Heading to a musical, play, comedy, ballet, or another show? Downtown is your best bet–maybe KAZ Sushi Bistro for sushi or Oyamel for Mexican. Want to explore the Portrait Gallery (open until 7:00pm)? Chinatown is full of incredible food options! Try Zaytinya for Mediterranean fare or City Tap House for All-American!

Grab a burger at Shake Shack inside the ballpark!
Love baseball? Check out How to Tour Nats Stadium!

Evening: Ballgame, Show, or Portrait Gallery

D.C. is not known for its sports teams… at least it wasn’t until recently. The Capitals is the hockey team, and they have been doing great the last several years! And the Nationals is our baseball team. Nats games are easily one of my most favorite things to do in D.C.!

Not your thing? Take in a show at the National Theatre, Kennedy Center, Warner Theater, Shakespeare Theatre, or Ford’s Theater. At Ford’s you can visit their museum before your show as well. Depending on the show and day of the week, tickets can be very affordable, and each of those theaters is historic!

Neither of those calling to you? Looking for something free? Try the Portrait Gallery in Chinatown! It’s part of the Smithsonian Institution, so it’s free, and it’s open until 7:00pm, which is later than most other museums!

Presidents conversing after a race at the Nat game.
Heading to a classic musical!
George Washington at the National Portrait Gallery
More ideas here: Date Night at the Ballet in D.C.

Here is your Day 1 map!

National Archives, Old Post Office Tower, Smithsonian, Dinner, and a Show or Ballgame

Day 2

Morning: Arlington Cemetery

Arlington Cemetery opens at 8:00am year-round and has its own Metro stop on the Blue line. It’s on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, and it also boasts stunning views of D.C. Be sure to stop by the visitor center when you arrive to make your visit 100% worth your while. Highlights include the Mast of the Maine, Arlington House (the reason Arlington Cemetery is where it is), Pierre L’Enfant’s gravesite, the Kennedy gravesite, and of course the Changing of the Guard of the Unknown Soldier. Please be self-aware and respectful. The guards have been known to call people out for talking and disrespect in the middle of the ceremony, and they will do it to you if you deserve it.

Arlington National Cemetery
Changing of the Guard
Pierre Charles Le’Enfant, Washington, D.C., planner; he has a stunning view of the city he designed

Lunch: Vendors around the Monuments, Food Trucks, or Smithsonian Castle Cafe on the Mall

You have plenty of options for lunch! If you’re crossing the bridge to your next stop, you can stop at any of the food and beverage kiosks around the monuments for a hot dog, sandwich, wrap, and water or other beverage (hydration is important!). If you prefer to Metro into D.C. and take the typical monument loop, take the Blue line toward Largo and step out at Smithsonian Station for food trucks and cafes inside the Smithsonians. I like the Castle Cafe inside the Smithsonian Castle!

Afternoon: Monuments

The monuments and memorials in D.C. are an absolute must. If you’re coming from Arlington Cemetery, you can either take the Blue line toward Largo and get out at Smithsonian station to make the typical monument loop, or you can walk across the Memorial Bridge and start your monument tour with Lincoln. Just make sure you make the loop headed right toward the Korean War Veterans’ Memorial (ultimately ending at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial), otherwise you’ll visit the FDR Memorial backwards!

Lincoln Memorial
Here’s my guide to D.C.’s Monuments and Memorials!

Don’t forget to stop off at the White House for a photo-op, too! It’s located north of the World War II Memorial at the most famous address in the country: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW.

The White House

Evening: FREE Kennedy Center Show

The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is known for its world class performances, but it’s motto is “performing arts for everyone.” Every night at 6:00, the Kennedy Center puts on a performance free of charge for the public at their Millennium Stage in the back lobby! You can catch the free shuttle there from the Foggy Bottom Metro Station (Blue, Orange, and Silver Lines), or you can walk. Be sure to take a look at the equally famous Watergate Building next door! (Yes, THAT Watergate!)

Making our way to the Millennium Stage
Taiko Drum Performance at the Kennedy Center during the Cherry Blossom Festival
More here: How to Tour the Kennedy Center

Dinner: Foggy Bottom or Georgetown

There are new restaurants popping up all the time in DC, but my go-to spots in Foggy Bottom are Tonic and Founding Farmers. They’re just a quick walk from Foggy Bottom Metro Station, and they’re delicious! If neither of those tickles your fancy, walk down M Street in Georgetown. Call ahead to check the wait at Martin’s Tavern (where JFK proposed to Jackie O.), or stop into Old Glory BBQ for some down-home, All-American fare! Georgetown does not have its own Metro station, but it’s a 1/2 mile or so walk from Foggy Bottom or a quick Uber ride if you’re all walked out for the day.

Take Your Pick!
7 Things to Do in Foggy Bottom
What to Do and See in Georgetown

Here’s your Day 2 map! 

Arlington, Monuments, Foggy Bottom

Day 3

Morning: Capitol Tour, Library of Congress, and Supreme Court

First up, get in line for the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. It opens at 8:30am, but certain times of the year, you will find a long line. That’s why I suggest doing this first thing. Also, once you’re through security, remember that you can take the tunnels to the most beautiful building in D.C., the Library of Congress, and the place where our country’s most important and historic courtroom decisions are made, U.S. Supreme Court! If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see them in session and possibly sit in on a hearing!

U.S. Capitol: The Statue of Freedom at the top is the highest point in all of DC!
Library of Congress
U.S. Supreme Court
More here: How to Tour the U.S. Capitol
and Your Ultimate Guide to the Library of Congress

Lunch: Union Station

Since you’re already on “the Hill,” walk the couple of blocks north to Union Station for your choice of lunch options (my favorites are Chop’t, Au Bon Pain, and Roti). From there you can catch the Red line in the direction of Shady Grove. Get out at the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan stop for your next activity!

Afternoon: Zoo

How often do you get to go to a world class zoo for free? Never? Well, you can in D.C.! Because it’s part of the Smithsonian Institution, the zoo in D.C. is free of charge and is one of the best in the country. Between the monkeys, pandas, elephants, and flamingoes, I could spend all afternoon here, and you can, too!

At the ZOO!

Dinner: Adams Morgan or Metro Center

Walk a few blocks back down to the Adams Morgan neighborhood and take your pick of awesome restaurants. Adams Morgan is known for its food scene–Mediterranean, Asian, Indian, French, and more! Try Ankara for authentic Turkish food, or perhaps Danburi for Japanese rice bowls.  Not into the trendy Adams Morgan scene? Hop on the Metro toward Glenmont and get out at Metro Center. You can’t walk more than a block without running into 4 or 5 great restaurants. For something fancy, try Pennsylvania 6. If you’re feeling a little more casual, people love District Taco or Fire & Sage.

Evening: Monuments at Night

You’ve already walked the monuments during the day, but at night they’re positively magical. If you’re here in the late spring to early fall, the water features will be flowing for that added bit of wonder. You don’t have to walk the whole loop again, but definitely walk from the Washington Monument over to Lincoln. It’s a lovely way to spend your last night in D.C.!

Washington Monument at sunset
WWII Memorial with Lincoln Memorial in the background

Here is your Day 3 map!

Capitol Hill, National Zoo, and Monuments at Night

A Few Notes

These days can go in any order that works for you. If the forecast calls for rain on the third day of your trip, do your Day 1 activities (they’re all indoor activities!); save Day 2’s activities for a sunny day. Day 3 is an indoor/outdoor day, so if you have rain on one side of your day or the other, you can switch those activities around.

You can mix and match these activities any way you like, but they are organized this way because each day’s activities are either close together or convenient to do together. Look at a map of DC before you set out for the day.

Washington, D.C., Bird’s Eye View!
Not sure how to read a map? Read my blog about How to Read a Map!

Wear your walking shoes! This is not the trip for heels or even ballet flats–and certainly not new shoes! D.C. is best enjoyed in comfortable walking shoes. Your well-being is worth it!

Bring water! Along the same lines of well-being, bring or budget for plenty of water. Shoot for a gallon a day, particularly in the summer. And if you have kids, check out my Ultimate Guide to doing D.C. with Kids!

Everyone loves riding the Metro!
Last but not least, here is everything you need to know to master the Metro! 
DC’s Metro System: A Guide

I hope you’ll come to my adopted hometown and enjoy it with this itinerary! Before you go, take a look at my ded icated Washington, D.C., Page and Everything You Need to Know Before You Visit D.C.!

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