Five Washington DC Do's & Don'ts via

Five Washington DC Do’s & Don’ts

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, 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.

Five Washington DC Do's & Don'ts via

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.

Five Washington DC Do's & Don'ts via

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.

Five Washington DC Do's & Don'ts via

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.

Five Washington DC Do's & Don'ts via

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.)

Five Washington DC Do's & Don'ts via

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.

We’d love to hear about your favorite things to do and see in Washington. If you have tips to share about DC, we’d love to read those, too! Just leave us a note in the Comments below. And if you liked this post, you can Pin it for later and share it with your friends and followers!

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42 comments on “Five Washington DC Do’s & Don’ts

  1. What a great, great post! I’ve just been planning the two days I will have in Washington D.C. when I visit, and was just checking with this post to see if I needed to tweak it. So much good advice..! And hadn’t heard of the Goddard space center, that just made the list as well 😛

    • Yay! Really glad you found it useful! It was a ton of fun to “research” because we love DC. You will too, but it’s easy to over do. Can’t wait to read about your visit! 🙂 Thanks for the kind words.

  2. Sound practical advice here, that could easily be applied to other destinations, eg. maybe Florence, Italy. Planning and managing expectations really can help you make the most of a trip. As for Washington DC, my family visited when I was a kid and all I remember is the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and the Air & Space Museum. Apparently we passed the White House, but nope, I remember having fun in the museums haha.

    • Hi David! You’re right Florence – and lots of Italy, for that matter – has the same “problem” – so much to do and see! Also have to admit, Air & Space is WAY more fun than the White House…even as an adult! 😉 Thanks for your comment.

  3. I had no idea there were so many museums and galleries in Washington!! Great tips…we have still to visit the US capital so this will come in handy. Thanks for the shout out and linking to #citytripping

    • To be honest, we didn’t know that either! I mean, we knew there were A LOT – but wow… I wonder who counted them all? And whether you get some special badge for visiting them all. So glad we found City Tripping! Hopefully, we’ll have more to contribute, and we’ve already discovered more to do and more awesome bloggers to follow. Thanks back for visiting us!

  4. Great tips – Washington is somewhere I’ve always fancied going, and there are a few very quirky museums (like the Spy museum) which would definitely be on my list. #citytripping

    • I cannot believe that I still haven’t been to the Spy Museum! And that does seem to be the kind of place I would love. Back to that giant list of places to see in Washington…I feel like we’ll have to visit a lot before we really make a dent! Thanks for stopping by the blog – we appreciate it!

  5. It’s funny – I rarely see posts about Washington DC, so in my head I decided there can’t be that much there beyond the White House and a few monuments. Turns out that may be because it’s so exhausting! Interesting post and, I’d imagine, very helpful for anyone planning a trip! It hadn’t occurred to me to think about how to get to tour the White House either. If I am ever in the area…

    • I hope the post is helpful – there really is a lot to do. Even if you see a lot of what you hoped for, it’s easy to think you haven’t made a dent! I hope you do get to the area. There is so much history and culture from around the world – literally something for everyone! Thanks for stopping by; we appreciate your comment!

  6. These are great tips. i would add that from May through October the city is very hot and very muggy. And each museum or federal building is huge, sometimes one building has a block to itself. This is important to keep in mind if you are planning to “hop” from one end for the mall to the other. Walking from one museum to another 2 museums down will take some time. Also, Alexandria and Mount Vernon are wonderful, as are several DC neighborhoods. So i agree it does pay to get away from the mall!

    • Hi Eileen – thanks for your comment! It’s true, some of the buildings are astonishingly large! It’s interesting to compare the original Smithsonian Castle to the Museum of Natural Science across the mall. The size difference will amaze you. Speaking of walking the mall from one place to another – much of the area between the Capitol and the Washington Monument is under construction, so it’s not as easy to cross from one side to the other. (The work should be done by the end of this year.) Alexandria is a great place to spend a day, maybe two if you want to really see Mount Vernon also. Great tips – thanks for sharing!

  7. These are absolutely fantastic tips! I definitely agree about mixing it up and not doing lots of museums in one go. I’d always rather do one museum well than see bits in lots of different places which is more tiring, especially when you’ve got children in tow. I’m a big fan of being flexible when you’re travelling too – the best experiences are sometimes the ones that just happen to be hidden around the corner from the place you’ve been planning to visit for ages.

    • Hi Clare – So true! More than once, I’ve come home from a trip talking about some little place I never heard of instead of whatever it was I went to see. That’s the beauty of our big world – you just never know what you’re going to find! Thanks for your comment and kind words. Both are much appreciated!

  8. Great tips! We always plan to do more than our energy ends up allowing. I also find that I can get “museumed out,” no matter how interesting a museum may be. I’m all about mixing up the types of activities in an itinerary. I have yet to tour D.C. I’ve only been there for a couple of business conferences with very little time to explore, so your tips will come in handy.

    • Actually, I think the best way to see DC is over several business trips. That’s how I first met the city, and it’s great because it forces you to concentrate on just one or two highlights. Then you can dream about coming back to see more, which really builds up the anticipation and excitement. Thanks for your comment, Connie!

  9. I have been to D.C. a few times, but not really as a tourist for many years. I just remember how much walking we did and being so tired! My favorite experiences were being able to visit the Capitol with our state representative and the White House. I would love to return to revisit some of the museums and monuments and to take my husband who has never been.

    • Hi Jessica! One thing for sure, if you’re using a Fit Bit or other fitness tracker, it will be proud of you in Washington! Soooo much walking. To be fair, though, it’s easy to break it up, and Uber or mass transit is all over the place. I hope you do get a chance to visit again – it’s such a great city! Thanks for stopping by.

  10. When I was planning our 5 day trip to Washington, D.C., my husband kept teasing me that I listed about 3 weeks of activities. It’s definitely a place that you can return to again and again while still seeing something new. I like your suggestion of mixing things up a la “interval sightseeing.” I was quite bummed that we didn’t get White House tickets even though I requested them months beforehand. (I guess Ted Cruz wasn’t desperate for my vote after all.)

    • You sound as bad as me! I was told not to over-plan for this one – I think I wore everyone out on our last trip. Talking with a few of the interns who do the Capitol tours, I learned that six month ahead is about the magic number for a White House tour. Even then, they said sometimes less than half of the people who apply get to go, especially during Spring Break or over the summer. But now I wonder if maybe we’d have a better chance after the primaries??? 😉

  11. Love your tips! You’re so right: there’s quite a lot to see and do in DC. And if you go in early spring when the Cherry Blossoms are in bloom, forget about indoors. You’ll want to take photos from every location downtown. That’s what happened to me a few years ago, I didn’t get to see much else.

    • Thanks Marcia! You are so right about the Cherry Blossoms – there’s a beautiful picture around every corner! We were a couple weeks too late this year, but we still managed to find a few beauties. Of course, we also got a couple of rainy days, which is a great reason to get indoors. Thanks for your comment!

  12. I get your feeling. I did an internship in Maryland many years ago and we ended every single weekend in DC. Even thought I visited about 8 consecutive Saturdays, I didn’t see everything I wanted to see. I will really want to go back but will to use your tips. You never want to accept you will never have time to see everything (as a traveler eager to see as much as possible) but it is a reality.

    • Hi Ruth – I feel the same way and try (sometimes in vain) to see everything. I have accepted that I will have to go back – many times, probably – because I don’t want to rush through and miss something awesome just so I can “check off” more museums and galleries. Luckily, it doesn’t take us long to get to Washington, and flights from our area are often very inexpensive. I hope you get back to DC soon, and have the time to see everything you want! 🙂

  13. A really useful list. DC is definitely a time-sink. We each chose one museum that we really wanted to see (Mine was the National Museum of American History because I really wanted to see Julia Childs Kitchen and the Ruby slippers) and went from there. The hours just zip by especially in the air & space museum. We decided we would rather see 3 properly then more half-heartedly. We did say “we’ll do that next time” more than anywhere else on our trip. We ended up doing a monuments by night tour which was brilliant. A lot of the HOHO tours do discounts for night tours or throw them in for free if you buy a two day bus ticket

    We did the Capitol Building tour. It is worth noting that no food or beverage of any kind even sealed stuff is allowed in and there is nowhere to store your bags outside the building. They were very very strict. There were a few people who had brought their packed lunch who gave up on the tour as they didn’t want to throw it away.

    • Thanks Boss! 🙂 That’s a good point about food/beverages not allowed in the Capitol. There is a coat check in the Visitor’s Center, but you can’t keep something like a lunch there. They do allow small backpacks (although not in the House/Senate galleries), but you can’t sneak in a bottled water – they check. I think the closest lockers are at American History or Union Station, but that is so inconvenient. We wholeheartedly agree on the Monuments by Night tour!! So glad we did that. Sure you can walk around the mall at night, but most of the tours will also take you by the Pentagon, Arlington, the Marine Corps Memorial, and the Air Force Memorial where the night view is astounding! Highly recommended. Thanks for stopping by!

  14. Oh goodness, I had no idea there were so many things to do, especially 225 museums and galleries, in Washington!! I love museums, but I think I’d be worn out trying to see as many as possible… exhausting! Thanks for the tips 🙂

    • Hi Lyndall – thanks for the comment! You’re right, it’s exhausting! But talk about being spoilt for choice! Really, I don’t think anyone would be interested in every topic of all those museums and galleries. I’ll pass on the Museum of Crime & Punishment, for example, but I’d get in line repeatedly at the Brewmaster’s Castle! 😉 (Shame they don’t have samples!)

  15. I’ve only been to DC once – in 8th grade or something haha but I remember that I really liked it! I have no excuse – I need to get back. #WeekendWanderlust

  16. Good tips. I couldn’t believe how many museums etc there were in DC. Not that I went to many 🙂 Not really my thing ! I remember just sitting for hours at the White House watching people come and go and the media contingents hoevering around the doors and gates. Amazing. #theweeklypostcard

    • Hi Kerri – Thanks for your comment! I have to admit, I find all of the protesters and media at the White House and Capital Building to be an interesting nuisance. Nuisance because they get in the way of my pictures! But interesting to see. Last year, there was a group at the White House drawing attention to atrocities ISIS was committing, not just human tragedies, but cultural as well. Which is one thing I do like about all of the museums – Great displays of history and culture from around the world.

  17. Excellent tips, Rob! I especially agree that the HOHO is worth it, if for no other reason than you get a great vantage point for excellent photos. Oh, and don’t forget how cool Georgetown and Foggy Bottom are. BTW, do you have a favorite museum?

    • Thanks Linda! I also like the HOHO as a break from the walking! You’re right – Georgetown, Foggy Bottom, Morgan Adams, Chinatown…so many great neighborhoods to explore! Georgetown is one of my favorite areas, actually. Favorite museum? I’m a boy who’s fascinated by rockets and airplanes, so the Air & Space museum is #1 in my book! National Gallery of Art is a very close second. This is fun – I should have asked everyone to comment with their favorite museum!

  18. Great tips! We always underestimate the time we will spend in museums there. Good tip to not expect to do everything. Love it when you travel to a place and it keeps you wanting more! Thank you for linking up with #WeekendWanderlust!

    • Hi Guys! Thanks for the kind words. I am horrible at figuring how much time to spend someplace. I always try to plan a half day for museums, but end up spending all day there and still not seeing everything! But, like you said, it’s awesome when you leave wanting to come back for more. Thanks again for stopping by!

  19. I had no idea there were 225 museums and 140 memorials/monuments! I will certainly take your advise to prioritize and plan before spending sometime in Washington DC. Thanks for the tips!

    • Right??? I looked it up when a tour guide mentioned that it would take two weeks to see everything. That’s crazy! Lumped in there are a few things that I put at the top of my list, like the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution at the National Archives. I still want to go to the Bureau of Engraving – aka The Mint – but when I found out they don’t give out samples, that slid way down the priority list. 😉 Thanks for stopping by, Amanda. BTW, we enjoyed your awesome post on San Diego!

    • Hi Lyn – Well that is good timing! How exciting – I always look forward to Washington. It really is one of my favorite cities. I’m also looking forward to reading about your experience there! Let me know if we can answer any questions for you; we’re no locals but we are getting to know the area. Thanks for stopping by!

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