Best Things to do in Washington DC: one day plan
One day in Washington DC is actually enough time to see and do a lot. Don’t believe me? This one day itinerary for visiting Washington DC includes the best sightseeing around the US capitol, best things to do in DC, and an overall plan for an easy day trip to Washington DC.
We partnered with Best Western to visit Virginia and Washington DC, so for our recommendations for where to stay, check out our “hotels” section at the end!
What you'll find...
- Visiting the Smithsonian Museums
- The National Archives and Declaration of Independence
- National Capitol Building Tour with kids
- Visiting Ford’s Theater
- Walking the National Mall
- Planning a Day in Washington DC
- Ways to explore Washington DC
- Where to stay outside of Washington DC
Visiting the Smithsonian Museums
If you’re planning a day trip to Washington DC, you have to make time for at least one or two of the many Smithsonian Museums. Whether you’re looking for art or history, science or culture, there is a museum for every interest. See if any of these Washington DC apps will help your day!
Most of the Smithsonian Museums are located along the National Mall, which is the long lawn between the Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial. Several have cafes, so if you want to stay in the relative area, it makes for an easy day full of museum-going.
Note: Smithsonian museums provide free entry to US citizens and international visitors alike. There’s no cost and open almost every day of the year! If you are visiting during a government shutdown, check out these great DC museum alternatives.
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
Our favorite of the Smithsonian Museums, the National Museum of Natural History is a one of the best things to do in Washington DC. Sightseeing in the capitol isn’t complete if you miss the enormous gem collections, including the Hope Diamond.
And if you don’t see the largest taxidermy elephant ever, why are you even visiting DC? The mammal and undersea exhibits are incredible with kids. And then the new fossil and dinosaur exhibit is also exceptional.
Tip: get to the National Museum of Natural History AT opening to be able to beat the crowds and give kids an exciting start to the day.
Allot at least 90 minutes to 2.5 hours to visit. 90 minutes is ideal for visiting a little more than half the Museum of Natural History
There is a “hop on hop off” bus tour stop at the National Museum of Natural History
Museum of the American Indian
We first visited the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in New York City and loved the story telling and traditional costume collection. The Washington DC version is similar, but on a much larger scale.
Learning about the many tribes of American Indians / Native Americans is one of the most educational things to do in DC. The Museum of the American Indian shares the recorded history of tribes in the USA, including their displacement, Western Expansion, and current tribal issues. It’s one of the best, most meaningful museums we’ve ever visited.
Allot at least one hour for a quick visit, two hours is best to go through a majority of the exhibits.
US Botanical Garden
If you’ve been following us for any length of time, you know that botanical gardens are some of our favorite places to visit. If you’re sightseeing in Washington DC, especially on a cold day, visiting the US Botanical Garden is one of the best things to do.
Located between the Museum of the American Indian and the US Capitol Building, it’s easy to get to and like all Smithsonian institutions, is free of charge. Rotating exhibitions for holidays and special events mean that you’ll never have the same experience twice.
The collection at the US Botanical Garden is a great way to break up all the museum time and you get to learn new things!
Tip: there is a children’s garden in the middle of the conservatories, which is perfect for letting kids burn off energy and get their hands dirty.
Allot at least 45 minutes to visit each of the US Botanical Garden areas, more if there is a holiday exhibition.
There is a “hop on hop off” bus tour stop near the US Botanical Garden in front of the Capitol Building.
National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery has long been one of my favorite museums on earth. Not only is it home to the Gallery of Presidents (where the portraits on our money are kept), but it’s also got a wonderful collection of other American art.
Portraits, not just of influential Americans, but of our National Parks fill the walls. Photography of major events and capturing important moments in the evolution of America, are a bonus to all of the other incredible works of art.
If you’re wondering what to see in terms of the many art galleries in Washington DC, the National Portrait Gallery should be at the top of your list
Allot at least one hour to view the highlights of the National Portrait Gallery. You could easily spend two or more hours here, particularly if you took time at the cafe too.
Highlights for Kids in the National Portrait Gallery
We talk quite openly and frequently about US history with the kids. The Gallery of America’s Presidents is easily the most familiar of the many rooms, so our kids enjoyed being able to spot people they recognized and could say something about.
Secondly, the decorative arts exhibits actually were a big hit. Even if you think kids won’t be into 19th century paintings, sculpture and more, you’d be surprised. Our boys really enjoyed the fun and fancy pieces in the decorative galleries. Had to pry them away actually.
Additional Smithsonian Museums to Visit
You could spend a full week visiting all the Smithsonian Museums, so if you are left with extra time on your day trip to Washington DC, try to work in at least a quick visit to any of the following.
Museum of American History
The Smithsonian Museum of American History is more than battle artifacts and old photos. Here, you’ll find:
- the Star Spangled Banner (the enormous flag from Fort McHenry)
- Abe Lincoln’s famous top hat
- The lunch counter from the famous Civil Rights sit-in in Greensboro, NC – LOVE the interpretive live interaction!
- Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers from the Wizard of Oz
- an amazing collection of LGBTQ history
… and so much more.
Kids will particularly enjoy the Museum of American History for its highly recognizable collections of both political and pop culture importance.
Allot at least 90 minutes as once you’re in the doors, you’ll discover that there is much more here than you expect. This museum is one of the top tourist attractions in the United States
Museum of African American History and Culture
Documenting the struggle and celebrating the successes African Americans have faced from the origins of slavery in the USA to current issues plaguing Black America, this is a very serious museum to visit. Even if you know a lot about US history or have been to different Civil Rights sites, this museum is intense (also really fun/cool in the culture areas).
The Museum of African American History requires a lot of parent involvement when visiting with kids. The subject matter of slavery and segregation can be really emotional and baffling topics. Be prepared to cry a bit and be patient with questions.
Allot at least one hour. You could spend several hours, but it really is intense (IMO).
There is a “hop on hop off” bus tour stop near the African American History Museum.
National Air and Space Museum
If you’re into airplanes and learning about outer space, this is the spot for you. It really is a cool museum, but actually one we would recommend last. It is big and there are some interesting movies that play, but it’s a lot of just looking at planes.
For kids that want to be pilots and astronauts, it’s one of the best things to do in Washington DC, but when compared to the many other museums and places to visit in DC, I feel like the National Air and Space Museum takes a back seat.
Tip: if you’ll also be touring Virginia at all, or just want to do a day trip from Washington DC, the Udvar Hazy Air and Space Center is AMAZING! It’s also part of the Smithsonian, so is free (paid parking though), and it HAS A SPACE SHUTTLE!
National Gallery and Hirshhorn Museums
So much art I don’t even know where to begin. Both the National Gallery and Hirshhorn Art Museums are fascinating. Each represents a broad collection of art from around the world, from ancient art to classical pieces, sculpture to grand canvasses. And modern art.
If you don’t want to walk up to the National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery would be a very good idea, and it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in DC so you know it’ll be enjoyable. Believe me, you’ll recognize a TON of what you’ll see.
The Hirshhorn Museum is primarily modern art that you’ll not see the likes of anywhere else in the USA, including large scale installations. It’s not one of our top recommendations, but if you art particularly interested in eastern art, you’ll enjoy it.
Allot two hours for the National Gallery and 90 minutes for the Hirshhorn. Both museums are great to add to a day trip to Washington DC, but also aren’t must-visit things to do.
There is a “hop on hop off” bus tour stop at the National Gallery, not at the Hirshhorn
Dining at the many Smithsonians
“Unfortunately much of DC’s amazing dining scene is not convenient if you’re spending the day exploring the monuments and museums of the National Mall, but that doesn’t mean you’re relegated to snacking on granola bars. Mitsitam Cafe, located in the National Museum of the American Indian, features dishes indigenous to the Americas such as wild salmon and fry bread. At the National Museum of African-American History and Culture Sweet Home Cafe serves up regional African American specialties like duck, andouille, and crawfish gumbo or prailine bread pudding with bourbon caramel sauce.” – from our diehard foodie friend, Brianna, who visits DC often and knows her eats.
For more great tips for visiting Washington DC, check out our friend Brianna’s site, the Casual Travelist.
The National Archives and Declaration of Independence
Before you decide you don’t want to visit the National Archives, know that there is SO MUCH MORE in the Archives than just the Declaration of Independence. True, the Declaration is the highlight and what 99% of people see at this attraction, but there’s a whole museum underneath the rotunda.
After you visit the rotunda and see the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and a variety of other important historical documents, you can continue downstairs into the Public Vaults.
In the Public Vaults, you’ll find everything from early radio and television broadcasts to military records and artifacts. It’s almost like a small version of the Museum of American History. If you can spare time to explore the vault, do it! There are some wonderful exhibits that are designed with kids in mind.
Note: photography isn’t allowed in any part of the National Archives. None. Zero. Do NOT pull out your phone!
National Capitol Building Tour with kids
Prior to visiting Washington DC with kids, we weren’t sure that we wanted to tour the US Capitol Building, but I’m so glad we did. At just around an hour, the guided tour of the US Capitol Building is an easy activity in DC that kids and adults will enjoy.
Visiting several antichambers, the rotunda and the crypt, you get to see quite a bit of the building. The tour includes headsets connected to a tour guide’s microphone, so despite the number of tours going on, you can still ask questions and hear your guide well.
T’he US Capitol tour is VERY kid-friendly. The guides are awesome and deliver their tour for everyone to understand. So glad we included it in our Washington DC sightseeing!
Tip: there is a great scavenger hunt activity book available at the tour check-in desk. Get one for each kid you have with you!
There is a “hop on hop off” bus tour stop at the National Capitol on the WEST side of the plaza.
There are a limited number of walk-up spots available for tours of the US Capitol Building, so reservations are strongly recommended. There are two ways to do this. The website for National Capitol tours makes it seem like you MUST go through your local congressman, but that’s not so.
Yes, you can reach out to your local congressional representative and if they’re available and want to, they can provide you a tour of the US Capitol Building. Their tour may be much more in depth than the standard public tour, so if you can arrange that, do it!
In general though, you can make reservations through THIS WEBSITE. You can choose your date and time, and this will secure you a spot for a tour, so might as well book it here.
Tip: book the online reservation for a US Capitol Building tour, but also reach out to your congressman. I would’ve loved to tour the Capitol with Rep. Derek Kilmer (because he’s awesome and from our hood!).
Visiting Ford’s Theater
Sightseeing in Washington DC includes such a variety of tourist attractions and historic sites. One of these is Ford’s Theater, the place where President Abraham Lincoln was shot. I know this sounds like a terrible place to visit, but visiting is actually a really good thing to do with kids.
Between learning about the Civil War and how it tore the nation apart and getting an actual visual of life in the 1860s, visiting Ford’s Theater with kids is a good addition to a day trip to Washington DC.
Beyond the theater itself (which still operates as a working theater), there is also a good sized interpretive center under the theater, and then the Lincoln Education Center across the street. Also attached to the education center is the Petersen House, which is where President Lincoln died. So much to see!
There is a “hop on hop off” bus tour stop at Ford’s Theater / Madame Tussaude’s.
While reservations aren’t required to do tours of Ford’s Theater, they are recommended. You can go through the online process to secure your tour time. The fees for placing online reservations are considered a donation to preserve and protect this historic landmark. You can also walk-up, but it’s not a guarantee for visiting in the busy season (summer).
Walking the National Mall
The area between the US Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial is call the National Mall. This is NOT a shopping mall, but is a long public park with lawn space, 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.
Along the National Mall, you’ll find most of the Smithsonian Museums, an antique carousel, random food trucks, and sometimes big events. We’ve been during the National Book Sale and it’s bonkers!
Tip: for the math/science lover, plan some time to seek out the Albert Einstein Memorial. It’s just off the Mall and worth finding.
At the west end of the National Mall is the Lincoln Memorial. This is one of the most iconic places to see in Washington DC. Best viewed either up close or from across the reflecting pool, the Lincoln Memorial is a meaning place for many and should be visited with a quiet respect.
Also, the Lincoln Memorial is the site for many protests and public events, so check and see if anything is happening there before you plan your day trip to Washington DC. While it’s always good to be involved in history, something like a protest could really impact your Washington DC vacation.
There is a “hop on hop off” bus tour stop at the Lincoln Memorial.
Right in the middle of the National Mall is the Washington Monument. Even if you didn’t include it in your “things to see in DC” list you’ll see it anyways. Towering above the city, the Washington Monument is open to visitors, both to enjoy the plaza and go up in the tower.
There is a small museum at the top of the Washington Monument, but the real experience is going up in the elevator and looking out over Washington DC, including a view of the White House. Second best view in Washington DC (the first is the Post Office tower view).
Note: you do need tickets to go up in the Washington Monument. If you’ll be visiting in the summer, be sure to get them in advance!
The Lodge and Visitor Center
Check in for your trip up the Washington Monument happens at the base of the tower. Here you’ll find a tiny Visitors Center with some minimal info on the building of the monument and its architecture, but most importantly the elevator entrance.
The Lodge is, for us, the more important spot to visit, as it’s where you’ll get the National Park Passport stamps for EVERYTHING in Washington DC. Since many of the monuments and historic areas don’t have dedicated interpretive centers, this is the spot for stamps and souvenirs. This is also where you can get same-day reservation tickets to go up the Monument.
Like with Ford’s Theater or the Capitol Building, if going up in the Washington Monument is on your list of things to do in Washington DC on your day trip, you’ll want to reserve your tour in advance. It’s rare that it’s not busy, so having a reservation is the only way to guarantee a successful visit. Get your advance tickets here!
Planning a Day in Washington DC
Now that you know all of the amazing things to do in Washington DC on a day trip, you’ll want to be sure you can do the most important activities and museums. Everything listed CANNOT be done in one day, so here’s how you plan it.
Tip: Feel free to copy our spreadsheet to paste into your own spreadsheet program.
Remember as you’re planning your time, almost everything noted in our suggestions for what to see or do in DC isn’t open until 10:00 am. You may be able to schedule a tour that begins just before opening, but besides that, 10:00 am is your start time.
Also, nearly all of the museums close by 5:30 pm. The exceptions are:
- National Portrait Gallery – 7:00 pm
- Smithsonian American Art Museum – 7:00 pm
- National Zoo – 7:00 pm in summer
|10:00 am||_________________________________||90 minutes|
|12:00 pm||_________________________________||60 minutes|
|2:00 pm||_________________________________||60 minutes|
|4:00 pm||_________________________________||60 minutes|
The above planning table is perfect to make sure you can spend a good amount of time site-seeing at your favorite Washington DC attractions. There’s some buffer built in there so you can add to your plan as you see fit. And depending on the weather and how light it is out, you can add time at the National Zoo or walking the National Mall at the end of the day.
Download our daily activity planner sheet here!
Super schedule: a comprehensive 1 day itinerary
This itinerary is a high energy, just the highlights 1 day itinerary for Washington DC with kids. We recommend this if you’re visiting DC with kids who love museums, have a good and sustainable energy level and who are just as into history as some adults.
We used this exact itinerary with our kids and it was perfect!! Intense, but really ideal.
|10:00 am||Museum of Natural History||90 min|
|11:30 am||US Botanical Gardens||45|
|12:15 pm||Lunch at Capitol Cafe||45|
|1:00 pm||US Capitol Building tour||60 min|
|2:30 pm||Ford’s Theater and Museum||45 min|
|3:30 pm||National Portrait Gallery||45 min|
|4:30 pm||National Archives||45 min – stayed late|
|5:15 pm||Washington Monument / Mall||Visit Lodge and walk the mall before dinner|
This is an intense itinerary even though it doesn’t look like a ton of action. Planning a day like the plan above will make for a fun and comprehensive day trip to Washington DC. You’ll hit the big tourist attractions and won’t be short on things to do.
Ways to explore Washington DC
Whether you’re a walker or like to do cabs and buses, getting around the main tourist core of Washington DC is pretty easy. If you plan on walking, be sure you are wearing GREAT shoes with a very comfortable sole. A few hours on concrete or museum floors will wear you out.
Other options to get between the different attractions include taxis or Uber (for more than two blocks) or even hopping the Metro subway system. This is good on rainy days when you’re planning a more spread out day.
Hop on Hop off Bus Tours of Washington DC
Some people love doing the hop on hop off bus tours of cities, and in places like New York or Seattle it makes sense. In Washington DC, it is available, but it isn’t the most efficient way to hit all the places to visit. It’s a great way to save your feet, but not your time.
If you do want to do a Hop on Hop off tour bus, plan your day based on the bus route. Familiarize yourself with a map of Washington DC and the bus route.
Tip: doing a Hop on Hop off bus tour of Washington DC is great on a sunny day where you just want to go sightseeing. Sometimes just getting the audio tour and seeing things from the bus is all you need.
Where to stay outside of Washington DC
With the DC Metro system being as comprehensive as it is, you have lots of options of where to stay and be able to do a Washington DC day trip. Our recommendation is actually the Fairfax or Vienna areas and then take the train into the city.
Why stay all the way out in Fairfax? Simple. Traffic in the greater DC area is insane and driving to the metro stations closer to the city is just as much of a headache as driving into the city.
From the Fairfax area, you have easy access to the Vienna Metro station and Park & Ride. Traffic to get to it is awesome, even during rush hour, and when you’re done for the day, traffic heading back to your hotel is a breeze.
Recommendation: Best Western Fairfax
We stayed at the Best Western Fairfax, as they sponsored our trip around Virginia, and it was ideal for both our Washington DC day trip and for seeing more of the great DC area. The hotel has nice, clean rooms, offers a comprehensive complimentary breakfast, and in the summer has an outdoor pool.
It’s a pretty area even though it’s located off the thoroughfare, Chain Bridge Road. From the BW Fairfax it’s a strait shot into the historic downtown area (great restaurants!). Book the Best Western Fairfax here!
If you have any additional questions about what to see or other things to do in Washington DC, please let us know! Leave us a comment or send us a message and we’ll help you our as best as we can!!