24 Hours in DC: Best One Day Itinerary Washington DC
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You know the place nearly every high school in the US plans a senior trip to? Maybe you went on one, maybe you didn’t. But if you’ve never been to Washington DC or it’s been years since you last visited, now is the time to plan a trip!
While DC is the capital of the United States, it’s a relatively small city. It currently sits at the 24th largest city in the US with a population of around 712,000. In terms of size by area, DC is around 68 square miles. New York City sits at over 302 square miles to give you a comparison.
While Washington DC is a relatively small area, it still has so much to explore. It’s a great place to plan a weekend trip, wander around during a layover, or stop by for just a day. There are a ton of fun things to do in 24 hours in DC. So let’s get into it.
The United States Capital: 24 Hours in DC
Breakfast at Toastique
Start your day off right in Washington DC with a hearty breakfast at Toastique. Their twists on breakfast classics are so delicious; you can get an Acai bowl, salmon toast, loaded avocado toast, and more, along with coffees and smoothies.
If you’re on the north side of DC, near the White House, I recommend breakfast at Greenberry’s Coffee Co. They have a wonderful selection of drinks and breakfast plates. This is close to the next activity of the day too.
Another great option for breakfast is Founding Farmers & Distillers. If you’re a fellow donut lover, you need to plan a visit here. Grab a coffee and donut to-go, or sit down and enjoy your breakfast before your day of exploring.
United States Capitol
You can’t visit DC without paying a visit to the Capitol Building. Situated at the eastern end of the National Mall (an outdoor area where you’ll find the most famous monuments in DC, not an actual shopping mall), you’ll see the Capitol in all its glory.
The best view of the capitol, in my opinion, is from across the Capitol Reflecting Pool. If you want to take the extra time, go for a walk all around the building to view it from all sides. And get some awesome photos because why not, you’re in DC!
Are you interested in seeing more? Check out this guided tour of the Capitol.
Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden
From the Capitol, start heading down Jefferson Drive SW to the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden. This installation doesn’t take very long to walk through, but it's free and is a great place to admire on your way to the next stops of the day.
Snack from Food Truck Row
If you’re feeling hungry at all, make a pit stop at one of the food trucks. Generally during the middle of the day, there will be food trucks offering a wide variety of cuisines on 4th Street and 7th Street. It’s a fun place to grab a quick bite and it's a Washington DC classic.
You can’t miss the famous Washington Monument looming overhead as you continue to make your way through the National Mall. It’s a DC must-see, and you can even go to the observation deck at the top! It's free, but you must reserve a time.
Did you know the Washington Monument changes colors a third of the way up? The first construction phase came to a halt when funding ran out, and when they began the second phase to complete the monument, they used a different stone that changed color over time due to erosion.
World War II Memorial
Next on your way through the National Mall is the World War II Memorial. It’s a sight to see and pays tribute to the Americans who served in World War II. There is an information center if you’re looking to learn more about the memorial or get a National Park Service passport stamp. Any other national park lovers here?
Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool
Snap a photo of the Lincoln Memorial in the distance, then walk along the edge of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting pool for an authentic DC experience. Once you get to the other end, turn around for the most iconic photo of the Washington Monument. It is the largest of all the reflecting pools in Washington DC and a must-see while here.
At the western end of the National Mall is the famous Lincoln Memorial. The memorial itself is actually inspired by the iconic Greek Parthenon. You can’t miss the giant replica of Abraham Lincoln himself, the 16th president of the United States.
Did you know there are 87 steps up to the Lincoln Memorial? This is to mark exactly “four score and seven” steps from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Lunch at Immigrant Food at The White House
Time for some food and a break. Head to Immigrant Food at The White House for a delectable meal. Here you can order dishes from all around the world, like Bahn mi, shakshuka, West African gumbo, and so much more.
Grab a sangria to pair perfectly with any meal, or sip on a Cafe Calma, or Nicaraguan coffee with Medjool dates, agave, and oat milk. By the way, it’s not actually at the White House, it’s just the restaurant’s name.
The White House
You’re in DC, you can’t miss the White House! See for yourself where the president of the United States lives. Head to the General Andrew Jackson Statue for the best view of DC’s big white house.
Is it possible to tour the White House?
You technically can tour the White House, but you must request a tour well in advance, and there’s a high chance you will be rejected. They have incredibly detailed security, for obvious reasons, so if you are even accepted, you’ll have to go through intense security measures. But you can skip this hassle and still admire the White House from the outside.
If you’re a museum lover and you have a few hours to spend before heading to dinner, this is your chance to head to a Smithsonian Museum. This is the world’s largest museum complex; there are 21 locations in total, with two in New York, as well as the National Zoo.
With so much to see, it would be impossible to visit them all in 24 hours, probably even 24 years, so pick one that stands out to you and tour the famous museum of Washington DC. Choose from history, art, science, and space. They are all free to visit, which is an incredible opportunity for you! Here are some popular locations:
African American Museum
Air and Space Museum
American Art Museum
American Indian Museum
Freer Gallery of Art
National History Museum
Dinner at Succotash
It’s time for dinner after a long day of exploring DC’s most iconic locations. End your 24 hours in DC at Succotash. This eatery offers southern staples with an Asian twist from Chef Edward Lee. Along with delicious dishes to enjoy after a busy day, the service here is exceptional and really completes the experience.
Try the fried chicken and waffles or shrimp and grits for the authentic experience, or opt for the Delta rice bowl for a yummy vegetarian option! And don’t forget dessert, their hummingbird cake is a must-try. If you want to enjoy something besides southern cuisine with an Asian twist, take a look at my recommendations below.
More dining options:
The Capital Grille - American fine dining $$$
Daikaya - Japanese noodle shop $
Ristorante Tosca - Northern Italian cuisine $$
Rice Bar Market Place - Korean cuisine $
And that’s how you can spend 24 hours in DC! If you find yourself with more time to explore Washington DC, check out some of the best places to go below. From free gardens best admired in the spring and summer to fun museums for the whole group, DC is small but has so much to offer its visitors.
Other places to visit with 24 hours in DC:
Bartholdi Fountain and Gardens
First Ladies Water Garden
The Moongate Garden
Museum of Illusions Washington DC
Thomas Jefferson Memorial
International Spy Museum
Old Post Pavillion
Where to Stay: One Day in Washington DC
With a plethora of hotels to choose from in DC, the choice can be overwhelming to make. Below you’ll find a few of the best hotels in Washington DC that are either budget or mid-tier cost. They are all in great locations and within walking distance of most sites listed above. They are also currently included in the Booking.com Genius rewards program so you can save more money.
Club Quarters Hotel White House - $140 average per night
Hotel Zena - $190 average per night
District Hotel - $110 average per night
Duo Housing (hostel style) - $60 average per night
How to Get Around Washington DC
The easiest and cheapest way to get around Washington DC is by walking. I mentioned above that it’s not a very large city, so if you’re feeling up to it, a great way to see more of the city is by walking. However, make sure you are wearing very comfortable shoes as you’ll rack up steps very quickly.
It’s fun to get around cities by walking because you see things you would probably miss if you were in a car or on a bus.
Biking is another great option if you want to see more of the city, but want to be able to get around a bit faster.
Capital Bikeshare offers rentable bikes at docking stations located all around the metro DC area. You can pay per minute, or if you plan on biking around all day, grab a day pass. This is a fun and eco-friendly way to get around Washington DC!
You can also utilize public transportation in DC by downloading the SmarTrip app. Buy your tickets before you get on board a train or bus. You can pay per ride, or purchase a day pass if you plan on using the trains and buses multiple times in a day.
This is a great way to visit more places while exploring for 24 hours in DC. You’ll be able to get to places much faster, and it is still a relatively affordable method of transportation here. This is also a great way to get to and from the airport (Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport) or go on a day trip to Alexandria, Virginia.
Can you see everything in Washington DC in one day?
While it would be impossible to literally see everything in Washington DC in one day, I believe it is very possible to see the main monuments and even a museum if you plan well. I recommend starting your day early so you can make the most of your 24 hours in DC.
The main “attraction” in Washington DC is the National Mall. This is where you will find the Capitol Building, Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, the White House, and more. Here are the main sights in National Mall:
Capitol Reflecting Pool
World War II Memorial
Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool
If you have an hour or two to spend walking around a museum, I recommend heading to one of the Smithsonian locations. Because they’re free, they make for the perfect afternoon adventure after you’ve made your way through the National Mall.
What to do with 5 hours in DC?
If you only have a few hours to spend in DC, like if you have a flight layover here, I still think it is worth going out to explore. I’d recommend heading to the National Mall to see the free sights, and maybe stopping for a meal.
Another great way to spend 5 hours in DC would be joining a tour. There are several guided tour options in DC that will allow you to learn a lot about the US capital from a knowledgeable local guide. These generally last 2 to 5 hours, so double-check the duration before you book. Here are some of the top-rated tours in DC:
Essentials for One Day in Washington DC
You definitely want to be prepared when planning a day exploring DC. If you plan on walking or biking everywhere, comfortable shoes and clothes are a must. I would lean towards athletic clothing if you go this route. Here are some more essentials to help you make the most of your 24 hours in DC:
One Day in Washington DC
You now know how to spend one day in Washington DC exploring the most famous sights, admiring and learning about iconic monuments, and eating some delicious food to fuel your adventures. While you could easily spend a few days exploring the capital, there’s a lot you can conquer in a day.
Plan your own trip and spend 24 hours in DC and see for yourself what the United States capital has to offer. Wander through the National Mall, admire the Capitol building and monuments like the Lincoln Memorial, or book a guided tour to learn from a local guide.
Will this be your first time visiting Washington DC? Or have you explored the US capital before?
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