Washington, DC, is not a particularly large city, but there is an abundance of things to see and do. In fact, there is clearly an over-abundance! It is estimated that it would take two-and-a-half weeks just to see everything on the National Mall. (To be clear, “seeing” the National Gallery of Art, for example, involves actually going in and viewing everything inside. Walking past and checking a box doesn’t count! And besides, you’d be cheating yourself out of an amazing experience.)
Over several trips to America’s national capital, we have developed a time-tested, surefire plan: Get to a museum or gallery early, stop for lunch at one of the many museum cafeterias, and then off to the next museum. Sounds great, right? Trust me, this.never.works. Ever. We usually end up pooped by mid-afternoon, take a breather for something nutritious and energizing – say coffee and gelato – and then seeing as much of the rest of the museum as we can before they kick us out. And rarely do we get to actually see everything, let alone get to that second museum. Instead, we lament our poor planning as we walk over to one of the memorials to snap a few (dozen) photos.
Obviously, we need a better plan. Towards that end, we’ve collected some Do’s and Don’ts for our time in Washington, DC. We want to share them with you, so you can make better use of your time in the Capital City than we generally manage.
DO prioritize. There are about 225 museums and galleries in Washington, and something like 140 monuments and memorials. Still think you can/want to see them all? Priority is the key. Figure out what your Must See sites are, then add those you’d like to see. I’d suggest two lists: one for museums and galleries, and one for monuments and memorials; you’ll see why later in this list. Of course, your priorities may change after our second DO just below.
DON’T expect to do everything. Forget about seeing ALL of those museums and monuments, and be realistic about what you can see during a day. Going into a five day trip with ten or more Must See museums is probably going to end in disappointment. Washington will always be there; you can always go back for more.
DO some research. (For convenience, we’ve sprinkled links to most of the places we mention throughout this list.) You’ll want to know what’s in the different museums on your list to make sure you don’t miss some Must Sees. Love art? You can find out what’s on display at the National Gallery of Art by checking its website. You wouldn’t want to be there and miss the only Da Vinci painting in the United States! Want to see a space shuttle? A quick look at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum web site tells you Discover is at the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport, not in the museum on the mall.
DON’T feel compelled to stick to your plan. Be flexible and move things around to fit the weather, or to spend more time at that one museum that turned out to be way cooler than you expected. (Hint: that will be all of them!) Be open to adding or deleting items on your plan to make the most of your visit. Also be sure to check the hours at the museums you’ll be visiting. Sometimes there are extended hours, and you may want to re-arrange your schedule to take advantage.
DO mix it up! You know how you get better results by changing up your exercise routine? The same thing applies here. This is where you combine the best of your two priority lists. One of the best ways to keep your group – and your mind and energy level – awake and engaged is to mix things up. See the world’s wonders at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History then, when you’re starting to glaze over, walk over to the Washington Monument or the Capital Reflecting Pool. Your mind will enjoy the opportunity to process everything you just saw, and the fresh air will do you good. Call it “interval sightseeing.”
This will also help make the most of your time in Washington. Since most of the museums and galleries close between 4pm and 7:30pm, go and see the monuments later in the day. The gift shops might keep business hours, but the Lincoln Memorial never closes. And, it’s beautiful at night!
DON’T expect to walk right into the White House, or the Washington Monument. These are two of the biggest attractions in town, and competition to get in is fierce. If you’d like a White House tour, start working on reservations with your congressional representatives about six months before your visit. (If you’re not a citizen, we suggest lobbying a few members of Congress for the best chance.) The White House occasionally offers special tours, like the Spring Garden tour, with first-come/first-served free tickets that usually disappear as soon as they’re available. Meanwhile, free tickets to go inside (and to the top of) the Washington Monument are distributed daily at the Washington Monument Lodge (near the base of the monument on 15th Street), or you can reserve tickets on-line several months in advance. Either way, the tickets are snapped up very quickly.
DO get a map or guidebook, or use Google Maps to help plan your visit, and arrange your schedule accordingly. Even if you have all day, you probably don’t want to visit the Library of Congress and the National Geographic Museum back to back because of the distance between them. On the other hand, if you are also interested in the Supreme Court and/or the Capital Building, they both neighbor the Library. Seeing all three is a good agenda for a day, especially knowing there are picnic tables in front of the Jefferson Building (Library of Congress), and cafeterias at the Capital and Supreme Court. (Pro tip: the Capital cafeteria gets very busy, but the cafeteria at the Supreme Court is often overlooked.)
DON’T be afraid to book a tour. There is no shame in hopping on a HO-HO (Hop On/Hop Off tour bus). After several visits, we took a night tour around Washington, and it turned out to be one of the best things we’ve done! There are dozens of do-it-yourself tours, but we actually recommend a professional tour, whether on foot, on a bike or Segway, or in a van/bus. (Okay, not so much with the buses.) Behind all of the monuments and museums, there is history and a long list of famous people. A good tour guide will fill you in on both with facts and stories you might not get on your own. (Pro Tip: Your Senators and Congressmen can arrange tours of the Capital with their staff for an inside look without as many long lines.)
DO download the apps. Most of Washington’s major attractions have free apps for Android and Apple. Many have helpful maps, information on exhibits, directions and hours. In most cases, the apps have all of the information once found in brochures and more, such as self-guided tours and activities to engage children with the exhibits. Many museums and monuments also have free Wi-Fi to make downloading the apps (and yes, uploading your selfies) fast, free, and easy.
DON’T forget that there is more to the DC area than the National Mall. While you can easily fill a few days in and around the 146 acres at the center of the city, there is much more to see. From the National Cathedral to the National Zoo, a host of universities, and lesser known attractions like the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and Meridian Hill Park (aka: Malcolm X Park), you can find something for everyone, often within walking distance. A short drive (or subway/bus ride) away are Mount Vernon, National Harbor, and the Goddard Space Flight Center.
We can’t stress enough how much there is to do and see in Washington, DC. After several visits, we still have things on our Must See list, not to mention places we want to visit again and again. Whether you’re planning a first time visit or a return to “the District,” you can use these tips to make the most of your time in the nation’s capital.
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