Passing through the National Capital Region on your next big road trip? Be sure to carve out at least one day in Washington, DC. With famous historical monuments, a handful of world-renowned museums, and top-notch dining, exploring the nation’s capital is a must for every traveler to the United States.
24 hours in Washington, DC, may not seem like a lot of time, but thanks to the capital’s close quarters, there’s plenty to do here on a time-crunched layover.
Besides touring the US Capitol Building and White House, which are pretty much obligatory, you’ll have your pick of exciting attractions on your Washington, DC, itinerary, like the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. (Don’t forget to take a selfie with the dinosaurs!)
Not sure what to do in Washington, DC, in one day? Pack your vacation to the brim with this complete guide to the ultimate 1-day DC trip itinerary!
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Where to go in Washington, DC, in one day: A complete itinerary
Fuel up with breakfast and coffee in Capitol Hill
Since you have a busy day of touring DC ahead, you’ll want to ensure you have an ample morning caffeine boost to get you going. Start your day off in Capitol Hill neighborhood, full of excellent cafes and breakfast restaurants.
If you’re looking for eggs, bacon, and a big stack of hotcakes, look no further than Jimmy T’s Place. Located on East Capitol Street Southeast, Jimmy T’s Place is DCs premier breakfast joint, serving a good old American diner breakfast in a converted Victorian-era home. Don’t forget to ask for a bottomless cup of diner coffee, so you don’t need to make a second stop!
Are you a bonafide coffee snob? Put Peregrine Espresso on your travel radar. Many of the cafe’s baristas have participated in formal coffee education and competitions, so you know it’s going to be one of the tastiest brews you’ve ever had.
Plus, this family-owned cafe is dedicated to supporting all the causes that matter to you most. Peregrine Espresso is super committed to wage transparency, runs off of wind power, and has extensive recycling and composting programs. When you can feel this good about supporting a coffee shop, your morning cup of joe is sure to come with a great big smile!
Need a tasty, reliable breakfast/coffee combo that you can grab and go? Hype Cafe has everything you need to hit the road with a full belly and a clear mind. That’s not all: This coffee shop comes with a little bit of spice. During the day, Hype Cafe serves up some Ethiopian specialties. If you happen to visit Capitol Hill again after breakfast, you need to give this a try.
Embark on a guided tour of the U.S. Capitol Building
To learn a little bit (or a lot!) about American history and current politics, plan a visit to the U.S. Capitol Building. From Seward Square in the center of the Capitol Hill neighborhood, it’s a short 12-minute walk to the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, where you’ll start your visit.
The U.S. Capitol Building is known as one of the most architecturally beautiful buildings in the country—even in the world—attracting architecture buffs from near and far. Since 1793, this is where the Senate and House of Representatives have sat. But that’s the least impressive thing about this landmark building.
If you want to get inside the U.S. Capitol to observe its intricate carvings and opulent decor, you’ll need pre-purchased tickets for a guided tour from the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, as this is the only way it is open to the public.
Tours of the U.S. Capitol Building run daily from Monday to Friday from 9 am to 3 pm and may require a little bit of advance planning.
Take flight at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
After you’ve toured the capital building, embark on a ten-minute walk to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum—and take flight! This vast collection of aviation and space artifacts is the largest in the world. The museum will get you up close and personal with preliminary aircraft made by the Wright brothers themselves, a retired Mars rover, and Apollo 11 astronaut suits.
A great, surefire way to fill your one-day DC itinerary with exciting attractions is to turn your visit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum into a little walking tour. There are plenty of great stops en route to the museum, including the United States Botanic Garden. This self-proclaimed “living plant museum” is home to thousands of tropical plants, blossoming bushes, and giant cacti.
If you want to turn your trip into a full-day affair, or you have just a little extra time to play with, you may even want to consider a slight detour. A few historical landmarks along the way that you’ll want to see are the Peace Monument and the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial.
Take selfies with dinosaurs at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Why not visit one of the most famous museums in the world when it’s located right here in Washington, D.C.? The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is another top pick for museum lovers, bucket-list travelers, and dinosaur enthusiasts alike, and it’s only a ten-minute walk away, towards the Penn Quarter.
From fluttering butterflies and towering skeletons to ancient mummies and shimmering gems, there’s nothing you can’t learn about the world around you at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. It’s an especially fun destination in you’re traveling as a family with kids in tow.
Alternatively, or in addition, if you really want to invest your time in Washington DC’s museums, you could check out the Smithsonian National Museum of American History or the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Both are incredible collections in their own regard.
Savor lunch in the Penn Quarter
Starting to feel that grumble in your tummy? A jam-packed day of sightseeing sure does work up an appetite! From the Smithsonian museums, venture up to the Penn Quarter to refuel at some of DC’s top lunch spots.
The Smith is where the modernist and the old-world enthusiast meet for a casual lunch. The atmosphere alone is reason enough to stop at The Smith. But, of course, you’ll want to know about the food. Good news: It’s delicious, too!
The restaurant has a raw seafood bar with oysters and shellfish galore, a selection of crowd-pleasing small plates like shishito peppers and truffle arancini, plus pasta and steak options for those who want to splurge on lunch.
Down for some southern flavors served up in a classy, old-world atmosphere? SUCCOTASH is the Penn Quarter restaurant for you. The restaurant’s signature dishes include Succotash curry, hush puppies, and bourbon-pickled jalapenos. Travelers with spicier palates can try the “Taste of the South” fusion brunch menu with interesting dishes like green tomato-kimchi devilled eggs or Kimchi with country ham.
Looking for an elevated slice of ‘za? Move over, New York: Matchbox is the industrial bistro of your dreams. Their specialty? Drool-worthy brick oven pizzas.
Visiting Matchbox on the weekend? The restaurant’s boozy brunch bundle stays in service until 3 pm and comes with bottomless, mix-n’-match mimosas, shareables for the table, and one giant brunch staple of your choice. Yum!
Tour the White House
If you’re visiting the capital of the United States of America, visiting the White House is a non-negotiable, especially if you only have one day in Washington, DC. It’ll take about 18 minutes to walk to the famed residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW from the Penn Quarter, but it’s definitely worth the effort!
As the White House is not just an iconic symbol of Americana, but the home and office of the U.S. President, self-guided tours are not permitted. Like the US Capitol Building, you’ll need to plan this one a tad.
Guided tours of the White House are available to the general public from Tuesday to Saturday beginning at 8 am. As you might expect, the tours are in high demand, and you’ll need to secure your tickets a minimum of 21 days prior to your visit.
Soar above DC at the Washington Monument
What’s that giant tower you can see poking into the skyline from nearly any vantage point in the city? The Washington Monument, of course! Located 20 minutes south of the White House inside the National Mall, this obelisk stands some 555 feet tall in honor of the United States’ first president, George Washington.
Pro tip! If you book your tickets in advance, you can take a ride to the observation deck at the top of the Washington Monument for epic views of the city below. From your perch high in the sky, you’ll be able to see several of the top historical landmarks in the area from a birds-eye view, including the White House and the U.S. Capitol Building.
Swoon at the beautiful views from the Lincoln Memorial
Another can’t-miss historical landmark in Washington, D.C., is the Lincoln Memorial, just 15 minutes by foot from the Washington Monument. The monument provides a great chance to learn about the history surrounding the 16th U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln, and it’s also a lovely, free pitstop with beautiful views over DC.
Once again, the journey to the Lincoln Memorial is well taken as a walking tour, with stops like the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool along the way. Though this monument doesn’t offer any activities, it’s a pretty spot to stop and take photos, have a moment of peace by the water, or even enjoy a picnic.
To build out your afternoon DC itinerary a little bit further, you can always take a couple of detours. Not too far off the beaten path, you’ll find both the Constitution Gardens and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Enjoy dinner in Foggy Bottom
Ready to treat yourself? Washington, DC, is known for its world-class restaurants, so there’s no way you can visit without wining and dining yourself at one of the city’s top eateries. From fancy fine dining to culinary excellence, deconstructed, there’s a perfect atmosphere for every traveler.
Founding Farmers DC is taking comfort food and farm-to-table to a whole new level. The restaurant is owned and operated by local farmers, and everything is made from scratch. And we do mean everything!
Even extras like ice cream, bread, butter, and booze are all made by hand, in-house. With cozy classics like a 7-cheese mac, pot roast, and honey thyme spatchcock, the menu at Founding Farmers DC is sure to hit the spot on a cooler day.
Though Circa is described as an American-style bistro, there’s plenty of international influence on this menu, with dishes like tuna poke nachos, bulgogi lettuce wraps, and jambalaya featured heavily. Traveling with dietary restrictions? Circa at Foggy Bottom is a great choice, with an entire menu dedicated to visitors with gluten sensitivities/allergies.
Craving some Mediterranean flavors? Taberna del Alabardero is Foggy Bottom’s resident Spanish cuisine specialist. Order tapas for the table or a massive bowl of paella just for you. As long as you don’t forget the Sangria, there’s no wrong way to do it!
If you happen to be traveling in a larger group of 8 or more, be sure to request one of the Taberna del Albaradero’s private dining rooms, where the period decor really elevates the ambiance. This is an experience you’ll want to dress up for!
Sip cocktails in Georgetown
Of course, there’s no better way to end your big day in the city than with a celebratory nightcap. And one of the best destinations to do it in The District is Georgetown. Cheers, Washington!
Nothing says celebration quite like champagne, and there’s nothing Martin’s Tavern holds to be truer. They even have a dedicated champagne menu with plenty of options by the glass or by the bottle.
What pairs perfectly with an after-dinner cocktail? Martin’s Tavern knows that the only good answer is dessert, and that’s why you’ll find different dessert options listed right alongside the pours.
Whether you want craft cocktails or craft beer, there’s one thing The Sovereign does well, and that’s innovative, small-batch beverages with superb attention to detail. This Swedish bar is known for its creative sips, including 50 beers on tap and a further selection of craft bottlings.
Plus, if you happen to make it to The Sovereign in time for happy hour, you can indulge in a selection of their signature pints, spirits, and snacks for just five bucks a pop.
Nothing says “cool kid” quite like a rooftop bar, and The Rooftop at the Graham: is definitely the “it” place to be in Washington, DC. The bar offers sweeping views of the city, cozy lounge seating, and a set of bright blue statement chairs perfect for a social media post that’s dripping in wanderlust.
Come early and watch the sunset or arrive after dark and party into the night. Just a word to the wise: Be sure to adhere to the Graham’s dress code if you want to get in. This isn’t any old bar!
More 1-day Washington, DC, itinerary ideas
Thomas Jefferson Memorial
Got more time to spare on your day visit? Detour 20 minutes south of the Washington Monument, around the Tidal Basin, to check out another tribute to one of the Founding Fathers: the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. Inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, the massive rotunda shows off a dramatic Neoclassical architecture style and is one of the most beautiful destinations in the city.
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial is particularly worth visiting in the spring. The area surrounding the memorial teems with Japanese cherry trees, planted in 1912 as a gift from Japan. During DC’s cherry blossom season, the trees erupt into a cavalcade of pink blossoms for a sight unlike any other in The District.
Arlington National Cemetery
For a more somber experience on your DC trip, cross over the Potomac River and pay tribute to America’s fallen at the Arlington National Cemetery. Spread out over 639 acres, the massive cemetery is the final resting place for over 600,000 veterans and other notable figures in American history, including John F. Kennedy.
The best way to experience the Arlington National Cemetery is on an interpretive tram tour. The tours depart every 30 minutes daily, between 9 am and 4 pm, and include live commentary. For more information, check out the official site.
Best hotels for 24 hours in Washington DC
If you’re on a tight DC layover, the best areas to stay in Washington, DC, ring around Downtown DC, including Logan Circle, Dupont Circle, Capitol Hill, and Foggy Bottom. These popular neighborhoods are home to many of The District’s best hotels and are great spots to start your DC accommodations search.
Set on a quiet street near Dupont Circle, Hotel Madera offers guests spacious modern rooms doused in soothing tones. Step outside the door of the hotel and you’ll find everything from restaurants and bar to boutique shops and art galleries within a short walking distance.
One of the city’s top mid-range hotels, the Eaton DC is a fantastic destination for creative types, thanks to its slew of unique features. If you’re on a quick business layover, the 4-star hotel offers both private meeting facilities and co-working spaces. After a day of sightseeing, give the hotel’s curated vinyl collection a spin on your in-room record player or enjoy a quiet night of reading with one of the books from its library. The on-site speakeasy, Allegory, is also a great spot to unwind.
With nearly a century of history to back it up, The Hay-Adams is like no other hotel in DC. This historic luxury hotel is the perfect spot to add a dash of elegance to your trip itinerary, with luxurious extras like goose-down pillows adding to the comfort. On your stay, don’t miss the chance to end the evening sipping a drink to beautiful views of the White House and Lafayette Square at the hotel’s roof terrace bar, Top of the Hay.
When to visit Washington, DC
The best time to visit Washington, DC, is in from September to November. The fall months fall outside of DC’s tourist high season, leaving plenty of room to explore the city without the summer crowds. Although temperatures can get cooler, the weather in autumn is still quite pleasant, with the bonus of catching The District bathed in beautiful fall colors.
Alternatively, many visitors will love checking out DC in the spring, particularly during cherry blossom season. In spring, you’ll enjoy mild weather (albeit with a tad more rainfall than fall) without the peak tourist crowds of summer. Still, if you’re visit on a holiday weekend, you’ll want to book your flights, hotels, and tickets in advance.