So you have only one day to see Washington, DC, and wondering what you can really do? Quite a lot actually, if you have a plan!! One day in Washington DC is enough time to see a few sites, experience the capital of the United States and even try some food trucks.
I was on a weekend trip to DC to celebrate a friend’s birthday in Leesburg, VA. Here is what our one day itinerary for visiting Washington DC looked like: some sightseeing around the US capitol, a few things to do in DC (missed those Cherry Blossoms by 2 weeks though), and museum visits. I was surprised as to how much we got to do during our 24 hours in Washington DC. Use this plan for a relaxed & easy day trip to Washington DC.
Where to Stay in Washington DC
Let’s talk about where to stay in DC. There are many hotels like Four Seasons, MO, and Hilton— all located near the White House and National Mall. If you want something small with a boutique fell, you can’t go wrong with DC’s most iconic luxury boutique hotel, Jefferson, or The Kimpton George Hotel, a stylish boutique hotel in Washington DC located near the Union Station.
My friend decided to book us a super cute Airbnb for this trip. Our little apartment was located in Foggy Bottom (which I kept calling Soggy Bottom!) It was well furnished one-bedroom apartment with a living room sofa bed and a small kitchen, equipped to make morning coffee or breakfast.
After morning coffee and a few giggles, we headed out to see the Hope Diamond located in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum complex, with approximately 155 million artifacts and specimens. As a center for research, they are also dedicated to public education; national service; and scholarship in art, design, science, technology, history, and culture.
Most of the Smithsonian Museums are located along the National Mall, which is the lawn between the Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial. Food trucks line up here during the summer months and many museums have cafes, so grab breakfast/lunch here and plan for a full day of museum hopping!
Tip: Smithsonian museums provide free entry to US citizens and international visitors alike. They are open almost every day of the year till about 5:30 pm.
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
If you visiting only one museum in DC, then I would suggest The National Museum of Natural History. It is one of my favorite of the Smithsonian Museums. Start at the Museum’s Rotunda, graced by an 11-ton, 13 feet tall African elephant that has graced the entrance since 1959. Sometimes called the Fénykövi elephant, after the Hungarian game hunter who donated the hide of this mammal.
After a quick Hello to Henry, we dashed upstarting to the Gem Collection. IMHO this is one of the best things to do in Washington DC if you are here on a Girls Trip! Sightseeing in the capital isn’t complete if you miss the enormous gem collections, including the Hope Diamond, deep blue Sapphires, and ginormous Emeralds from Burma!
The National Gem collection at the museum includes about 7500 gems — ranging from less than half-carat to some a whopping 23000 carats. The necklace in the middle is the Napolean Diamond Necklace made with 172 diamonds that came from India and Brazil. Set in silver and cut in an old world style, this was probably my favorite piece of jewelry after the famous light blue Hope Diamond necklace!
The Washington D.C. Natural History Museum also has a Moai from The Rapa Nui, Easter Island. Located some 2,000 miles (3,219 km) from the coast of Chile, Easter Island has over a thousand stone statues, giant heads that were carved centuries ago by the island’s inhabitants, scattered on the island. They are the soul of the people and are considered to carry the “mana” or spiritual essence or sacred spirit. I believe the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History has two Moai statues in their collection.
If you are visiting Washington DC with kids, they will enjoy the undersea exhibits and dinosaur exhibits.
Smithsonian Institution Building (The Castle)
Right across from the Natural History Museum is a castle you can’t miss. Completed in 1855, the Castle is home to the Smithsonian Visitor Center. If you have 2 or 3 days in Washington DC, this is a great starting point to map out your journey. Get some pastries from the Castle Café or some coffee from Peet’s while you get a grasp of the scope and scale of the Smithsonian. See collections highlights from each of our museums, and also see what’s going on at all the museums, or consult with our in-house experts about what to see and do.
A few other Washington DC museums to add to your one day itinerary:
National Portrait Gallery
National Portrait Gallery tells the story of America by portraying the people who shape the nation’s history, development, and culture. The Gallery of America’s Presidents is one of the most popular rooms. Stop here if you are short on time. You will need about an hour or so. See some online exhibits here.
If you love art you are in for a treat! I didn’t have time to make it to any DC art museums this time around but plan to go back! You will want to start with the National Gallery and Hirshhorn Art Museums, both are fascinating. Each represents a broad collection of art from around the world, from ancient art to modern art, paintings, sculptures and so much more.
The Hirshhorn Museum houses more of the modern art, it holds one of the most important collections of twentieth-century art in the world. They also collect significant works by contemporary living artists.
National Museum of Asian Art, also located on the National Mall in Washington, DC works on preserving, exhibiting, and interpreting exemplary works of art from Asian Art. The museum’s exceptional collections of Asian art include more than 45,000 objects dating from the Neolithic period to today and originating from the ancient Near East to China, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, and the Islamic world.
Museum of the American Indian
At the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, you can learn about the many tribes of Native Americans. The Museum of the American Indian shares the recorded history of tribes in the United States, including their displacement, Western Expansion, and current tribal issues. It is considered one of the best, most meaningful museums and most educational things to do in DC.
Museum of African American History
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is a place where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African American experience, what it means, and how it helped shape this nation. Housed in a beautiful building, the museum is a must see for anyone visiting Washington DC. The Museum of African American History has powerful first person accounts of slavery and segregation and is deeply moving. Come prepared with a handkerchief. There will be tears.
National Air and Space Museum
Years ago when we visited DC, this was the museum we visited. Mr. Suburbia is into airplanes, aerospace, and outer space. National Air and Space Museum is his favorite museum. You can easily spend a whole day here, so save it for last and hang around till they close. It really is a cool museum.
US Botanical Garden
Located between the Museum of the American Indian and the US Capitol Building, US Botanical Garden is easy to get to and like all Smithsonian institutions, is free to visit. It houses roses, orchids, from the rainforest to the Mid-Atlantic, many rare and endangered plants, you will find a world of plants, in their permanent exhibits and gardens
You know how much I love visiting botanical gardens and flower fields. I’m adding US Botanical Garden to my Washington DC itinerary next time. If time permits, plan for their free 45-minute highlight tour of the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory.
Built to honor George Washington, the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and the first president of the United States, the Washington Monument is the world’s tallest stone structure and obelisk. Did you know it was once the tallest building in the world at just over 555 feet?
You can take a minute-long ride elevator ride up 50 stories to the top of the world’s tallest free-standing stone structure. From the observation deck, you can see nearly 25 miles into the horizon in every direction. On a clear day, you can see landmarks like the U.S. Capitol, the White House, Arlington National Cemetery and the Washington National Cathedral.
Watching the Fourth of July Fireworks here is truly an amazing Washington DC experience! Works only if you plan your Washington DC vacation in summer!
Walk the National Mall
The area between the US Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial is called the National Mall. It is a long public park with a variety of memorials and the Reflecting Pool. The National Mall is a part of the National Park System but is open to the public with no admission charge. You can download National Mall & Smithsonian Museum Map or pick one up from one of the museums.
One of the most iconic places to see in Washington DC is the Lincoln Memorial. It is located at the west end of the National Mall and is best viewed either up close or from across the reflecting pool. The Lincoln Memorial is where the 16th president of the United States sits immortalized in marble as an enduring symbol of unity, strength, and wisdom. Pay your respects to the Nation and its leader here.
Tip: The Lincoln Memorial is the site for many protests and public events, so make sure to check and see if anything is happening there before you plan your one day trip to Washington DC.
Math and science lovers will want to see the Einstien Memorial, which is not too far from the National Mall area. Other top Monuments and Memorials around the National Mall:
- Korean War Veterans Memorial
- Martin Luther King, Jr
- Vietnam Veterans Memorial
- Jefferson Memorial
- World War II Memorial
- FDR Memorial
The United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., is the meeting place of the nation’s legislature and a symbol of the American people and their government. It is the House of the Congress! The cornerstone was laid in 1793 by President George Washington and later completed in 1863, when the 19-foot, 6-inch Statue of Freedom was placed atop the dome, at the height of the Civil War. It was also that same year that Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation.
Plan and do the hour-long guided Capitol tour, especially if you are visiting Washington DC with kids. The tour includes the Crypt, Rotunda, National Statuary Hall, the Old Supreme Court Chamber, and the Old Senate Chamber. Both adults and kids can learn so much about the country, Congress, and the Constitution. See Visitor Center to book your tour of The Capitol. Sometimes it is worth checking out even if you haven’t planned ahead, you might be lucky and be able to join a tour with same-day passes!
National Mall & Smithsonian Museum Map
If you go to the Arlington National Cemetery, pause and pay your respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. After the end of World War I, a movement was formed to honor soldiers who were killed in battles that could not be identified. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier contains the remains of such a soldier but the tomb itself speaks for all of those that were not given a proper burial and consigned to anonymity. The tomb is guarded by members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment.
WASHINGTON DC HOLIDAY TIP: If you are short on time, book a hop on hop off tour to see all the sights and monuments or two hour tour to see all the Washington DC Mall highlights, in an electric vehicle.
Best Spots to see the cherry blossoms in DC
A spring trip to Washington DC is extra special! You can see cherry blossoms all around the Mall. The cherry trees in Washington DC were a gift of friendship to the People of the United States from the People of Japan. When they are in peak bloom, it is a sight to behold! The best viewing of the cherry blossom trees typically lasts four to seven days after peak bloom begins. For the latest information regarding peak bloom and safety protocols, see the National Park Service’s website.
Also remember, to do your part in helping to protect the trees by never picking the cherry blossoms, it’s against the law.
See a Visual Story here!
The National Cherry Blossom Festival (March 20 – April 17) in DC is a citywide event that celebrates the 1912 gift of 3,000 cherry blossom trees to Washington, DC by the mayor of Tokyo. This year’s festival will feature a range of celebrations, including:
- Opening Ceremony (March 20)
- Blossom Kite Festival (March 26)
- The National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade (April 9)
- Petalpalooza (April 16)
- Art in Blossom will feature many installations across the city
- Local restaurants get into the spirit with unique menus and Cherry Picks programs
Here are 3 top places to photograph the Cherry Blossoms in DC:
1. Jefferson Memorial
The marble steps at the Jefferson Memorial are the perfect place to sit and snap a panoramic view of the blossoms along the Tidal Basin. You capture a perfect landscape shot with the Tidal Basin in the foreground and the Washington Monument in the distance.
2. The Banks of the Tidal Basin
To get shots of the blossoms from up close and from every angle, take the time to do walk a full loop around the Tidal Basin. Depending on the time of day, stop at different spots to capture the light just right. Sunsets are particularly beautiful, but sunrise comes with the advantage of not being so crowded. This would be my favorite place to spend during Cherry Blossom Season in Washington DC.
3. Japanese Stone Lantern
Dating back nearly 400 years, the stone lantern is another place for iconic photos when cherry blossoms are in full bloom. One of a pair ( its twin still resides at a temple in Tokyo, Japan), the Japanese lantern was carved to honor the Third Shogun of the Tokugawa period. Each year, to mark the National Cherry Blossom Festival, the lantern is lit by the Cherry Blossom Princess representing the Embassy of Japan.
Another great place to take a photo of the DC monuments and cherry blossoms is from the water. Hop in a two- or four-person paddle boat, paddle yourself to the middle of the Tidal Basin for a wide shot of the cherry trees, or to the Jefferson Memorial for a shot of flowers and people sitting on marble stairs.
End the Day with a nice Dinner
With beautiful brownstone buildings, some with gas lamps at the entrance, Washington, D.C.’s 14th Street corridor has all the European vibes. We decided on dinner at Le Diplomate. Seemed fitting after a day of exploring the capital of one of the largest Democratic Nations in the world.
Dinner started with some bread, whipped butter, flaky mushroom tarts and a S’epanouit, made with Belvedere Vodka, Lillet Rose, elderflower, Luxardo Maraschino, Pimm’s, blueberry, pomegranate, topped with a purple viola flower.
I don’t exactly remember what we ordered for dinner but it was delicious and the conversation flowed. We had met my friend’s daughter and her niece, who both worked in the area. They mentioned that VP Kamala Harris was spotted at the restaurant earlier that week and that the spot is frequented by many locals and diplomats. We ended our night with some Pot de creme and Vanilla Crème Brûlée for dessert.
I had a short but sweet time catching up with my Girlfriend on this one-day trip to Washington DC, I hope you find this post useful when planning our trip to the capital of the nation!
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