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The best things to see in Washington DC in five days

Historic houses along the C&O canal in Washington DC

When my husband suggested Washington DC for our New Year holiday, I won’t lie, I wasn’t massively enthusiastic. It’s not a city I had on my travel list. However, having now been I can say that it’s a great city with plenty to see and do – whether you have two days or five!

What State is Washington DC in?

Fun fact that I only found out at the airport… Washington DC isn’t part of a US state! It’s a district, with ‘DC’ standing for District of Columbia, however it acts and operates as a state. The creation of the city comes directly from the US Constitution, which states that the district, “not exceeding 10 Miles square,” would “become the Seat of the Government of the United States.”

Getting to Washington DC

There are three airports serving Washington DC. The closest one, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, only serves domestic flights within the US as well as some Canadian destinations – which is a shame as it’s only a 15 minute ride into the city. For international flights you have two choices – both are in different states but are roughly the same distance to Washington DC.

We flew into Washington Dulles International Airport, which is in Virginia, and then flew home from Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, which is in Maryland. Both airports were around a 50 minute drive to our hotel in Georgetown.

How many days should you spend in Washington DC?

Washington is the kind of city that you could spend two days in or a week. Of course if you’re only going for a couple of days you will want to plan a robust itinerary to make the most of your time. We spent five days in Washington DC and it was enough time to see pretty much everything we wanted to see.

Getting around Washington DC

We found Washington to be a very walkable city and did a lot of walking. There is a Metro, with six different lines serving the city. It’s really easy and affordable to use and the stations are very cool, clean and felt safe.

It’s also really easy to get cabs and Ubers, and of course there are buses. You can also hire bikes (Capital Bike Share has 350 bike stations) for $1 per hour or $8 a day and cycle around the city.

Here’s the best things to see in Washington DC in five days

Explore Georgetown

Georgetown is such a beautiful neighbourhood, filled with gorgeous historic buildings, shops and restaurants. We stayed in Georgetown during our five day trip to Washington DC and found it to be a great location, although it’s about a 15 minute walk to the nearest Metro station. If you enjoy walking, you can walk to downtown in less than an hour.

Here’s some things not to miss in Georgetown:

  • Walk along the historic C&O Canal, which runs for 185 miles to Cumberland in Maryland! There are some pretty, colourful, historic houses along the towpath that were built after the Civil War in 1865 for artisans and labourers.
  • Visit the Old Stone House museum, which is one of the oldest buildings in Washington and was built around 1765.
  • Have a meal at legendary Martin’s Tavern, which was established in 1933. It’s played host to many historical figures and is where John F Kennedy proposed to Jackie Onassis. You might even find yourself seated in Senator Ted Kennedy’s ‘cosy corner’.
Martin's Tavern in Georgetown

  • If you don’t mind queues, treat yourself to a cupcake from Georgetown Cupcake.
  • Wander around the streets and take in the historic homes of Georgetown. Look out for plaques which tell you if someone famous lived there.
  • Descending from the corner of Prospect St and 36th St NW, you’ll find the stairs from The Exorcist (also known as ‘Hitchcock Steps’, after Alfred Hitchcock). They feature in the 1973 horror film by director William Friedkin. Highly recommend playing the theme tune from the film whilst you walk down them!
The stairs from the film The Exorcist

Visit the Capitol

The Capitol is a must-see when in Washington DC and tourists can visit the Capitol for free. During the hour-long guided tour, you’ll hear about the history of democracy in the U.S and also see the impressive artworks on display.

The US Capitol Building in Washington DC

Across from the Capitol is the Library of Congress, which is the largest library in existence with more than 38 million books! Unfortunately because we visited during the holidays it was closed for the majority of the days we were there. I’m kicking myself for not visiting straight after we toured the Capitol as it was open but I hadn’t realised it would be closed on the other days – so don’t do what I did and make sure you visit it! It’s also free to visit.

Walk along The Mall

One of my favourite things that I did in Washington was walk from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. It’s quite deceptive because it looks quite close but it actually took about an hour. Stretching for around 2 miles, The Mall is home to one of the densest concentrations of museums in the world – and many of them are free to visit.

Some of these famous museums include:

  • National Air and Space Museum
  • National Gallery of Art
  • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
  • National Archives
  • National Museum of African Art
  • National Museum of African History and Culture
  • National Museum of American History
  • National Museum of Natural History
  • US Holocaust Memorial Museum
  • International Spy Museum
  • Smithsonian Quadrangle
Smithsonian museum in Washington DC

Go up the Washington Monument

One of Washington’s most iconic landmarks, the Washington Monument, stands over 550 ft tall and is the tallest freestanding stone structure in the world. It was built to honour George Washington and took nearly four decades to complete.

Washington Monument

You can head up to the top, via an elevator, where you can see a panoramic view over the city.

Visit the Memorials

The Memorials lie in the western part of The Mall and around the Tidal Basin. You can spend a whole afternoon visiting them, and they are all free. The three past presidents that are commemorated are Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.

Lincoln Memorial in Washington

The Reflecting Pool stretches for 350 ft in front of the Lincoln Memorial to the National World War II Memorial. When we visited over New Year it was frozen over in places. If you look at the photo below, you’ll see people standing on the ice – we also saw someone fall in!

The Reflecting Pool in Washington frozen over.

The Korean War Veterans Memorial honors those who fought in the Korean war (1950 -1953) and consists of nineteen men in combat rain gear and a wall that has the faces of more than 2,500 servicemen and women etched on it.

Korean War Veterans Memorial

Close to the Korean War Veterans Memorial is the most recent addition to the Tidal Basin, the Stone of Hope which has Martin Luther King Jr carved into it. Behind the memorial are 14 quotes from some of his famous speeches, etched on granite walls.

Martin Luther King Jr Memorial

Across on the other side of the Reflecting Pool you will find the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which is also known as ‘the Wall’. Along the Wall are the names of 58,000 men and women incised into the granite, in alphabetical order.

Visit the White House

You can’t not visit the White House when you’re in Washington. It’s like going to London and not visiting Buckingham Palace! Unfortunately if you’re not a US citizen, it’s unlikely you can actually tour the White House as a tourist.

Head to Pennsylvania Avenue NW and Lafayette Square for the best view of the White House. The Ellipse has the worst view, in my opinion. However if you’re visiting DC during the Christmas holiday then definitely head there to see the National Christmas tree.

The White House is a pretty easy walk from the Reflecting Pool.

The White House in Washington DC

Wander around Union Station

The train station, which is called Union Station, is an absolutely beautiful building and definitely worth a visit. In 1907 when trains first pulled into the station, it was the largest train station in the world. It was renovated in 1986-88, after it had fallen into a state of deterioration. Today it’s estimated that 90,000 people a day travel through the station! Within the station there are also shops, restaurants and a food court.

Union Station in Washington DC

Check out Chinatown

If there’s a Chinatown in a city we’re visiting, we always have to check it out. Washington’s Chinatown is not that impressive as it actually doesn’t have many Chinese shops or restaurants anymore. Also the area is a bit dodgy, to be honest – I wouldn’t go at night. But it’s an easy walk from Washington Union Station if you want to see the Friendship Archway.

Friendship Archway in Chinatown

Do a walking tour of Dupont Circle

Dupont Circle is a trendy neighbourhood whose roots go back to the 1870s. It was the preferred neighbourhood of those with money! You can do a 1 to 3 mile walking tour of Dupont Circle and the surrounding vicinity where you can see historic buildings such as the Sulgrave Club, McCormick Apartments and Patterson House. Look out for the historic fact signs to learn more about a building or street.

Dupont Circle historic facts sign

Eat a Half Smoke

You cannot visit Washington DC and not try an original Half Smoke from Ben’s Chili Bowl in U Street. Opened in 1958 by Ben and Virginia Ali, it’s not only been a pillar of the community but it’s seen many a famous face (including Presidents) through its doors. The walls are covered with photos of famous people, which is fun to look at whilst wolfing down the Half Smoke.

Half Smoke from Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington DC

Explore Embassy Row

Given that Washington DC is the seat of the US Government, it’s a given that there would be lots of embassies and consulates. Embassy Row is a two-mile area where around 50 diplomatic buildings are located – you can find them along Massachusetts Avenue with a noteworthy portion between 22nd Street and Observatory Circle.

As well as embassies, there are some notable houses in this area. One of which is Woodrow Wilson House, the retirement home of 28th US President Woodrow Wilson. It’s now a museum.

Woodrow Wilson House in Washington DC

Washington DC is a great city to explore and learn more about American history. It’s brilliant that so many of the museums, buildings and Memorials are free to visit.

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Best things to see in Washington DC

Kirsty Marrins

Reader, writer, occasional runner, travel lover.

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2 COMMENTS

  • Neha

    So much to do and that half smoke – yum

    • Kirsty Marrins
      AUTHOR

      Washington is a great city! And the half smoke was very yum 🙂

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