Destination Guides

Exploring America: 24 Hours in Washington DC

Shaun Edmond

13th March 2024

Washington DC

In my backpacker days, I paid a flying visit to Washington DC – the price of dorms in this city allowed me one night to stroke the surface of the US capital before I moved on to New York. It was an active day to say the least, but nonetheless proved that it is possible to get a taste of what this stately city has to offer in a short time span. Here’s how, with the benefit of eighteen more hours, you can experience the best of this city.

Spend the morning walking around the National Mall and monuments area, a route that will take you past the White House, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and the cherry blossoms. In the afternoon, visit some of the city’s long list of museums, then top it off with some great food and drink in the evening.

Morning: Quintessential Washington DC

Grab some breakfast at your hotel then head into town – if you’re heading in on the city’s modest subway system, McPherson Square is the best station to get off at. Head south down 15th Street NW to pass the White House, and then take your first right for a view of the Oval Office. While you’re here keep an eye on the left too for the National Christmas Tree, a living fir tree that gets decorated every year, with an address from the President when the lights come on.

Double back to 15th Street and keep heading south – i.e. the direction of the unmistakable Washington Monument. Designated a national park, the Washington Monument took a long time to complete thanks to politicking (how fitting) and you may note the point at which the stones’ colour changes – they had to source stones from a new quarry. You can go up the monument to its observation deck for a hefty $1, which must be reserved in advance. If you haven’t managed to bag a ticket, you should still be able to see the Lincoln Memorial in the west from its mound.

Head down in this direction, passing several other memorials including the poignant though impressive World War II memorial, a ring of wreaths representing each state surrounding a fountain. Once you reach the marble statue of the emancipator, turn around for an iconic view of the Washington Monument and Capitol Building, the aptly named Reflecting Pool in the foreground.

Head back the way you came a little then head down to the Tidal Pool once you see it on your right. Here you’re treated to a view of the Jefferson Memorial across the pond, one that becomes especially spectacular come March when the cherry blossoms bloom into a forest of pink.

Note: If you’d like a lie-in you could also do this section at night when all the buildings are floodlit, with the exception that you won’t be able to go up the Washington Monument.

Washington DC

Lunch down by the docks

Take a quick detour down to the Wharf for a spot of lunch. There’s everything here from fine dining (one restaurant is Gordon Ramsay’s famous Hell’s Kitchen) to street food – the crab soup at the Municipal Fish Market is some of the freshest fast food you’ll ever taste.

Afternoon: Museums, museums, museums

Heading directly north and passing briefly beneath the highway, the cluster of memorials in the morning gives way to one of museums. Washington DC has over 70 museums, so you really are spoilt for choice – since some of them are huge, we’d only recommend attempting one in your afternoon.

Since you’re in the US, we’d highly recommend one that showcases the country’s rich history – the Air and Space Museum is the best-known, one that offers fun for all the family and proudly displays the country’s history of taking to the air. The Wright Brothers, Amelia Earheart and the Space Shuttle are all here, along with flight simulators and a planetarium. Another family-friendly option is the International Spy Museum for an ironically in-depth insight into the world of espionage.

Restaurant in Washington DC

Otherwise, there’s the National Archives where you’ll find the Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence (please don’t try to steal it), the Museum of the American Indian with its extensive collection of Native American artifacts, clothing and artwork, and the Museum of African American History which covers every aspect of its namesake – both the sobering and the stirring.

Of the aforementioned museums, only the International Spy Museum and the flight simulators and planetarium in the Air and Space Museum have an entry fee. The rest are free to enter, though some have limited spaces so be sure to book your slots in advance.

Evening: Whisky or a wander

Cities are known for their culinary diversity, and Washington DC is no different. Even in the prim and proper Penn Quarter, the closest to the major government buildings, you’ll find Italian pizza, Peruvian ceviche, burger and beer joints, Argentinian steakhouses and a nearby Chinatown  – take your pick and fill your belly.

If you’ve got the energy for more activity after the events of today, Washington DC offers no shortage of options. For one thing, the city loves a tipple, from George Washington’s personal distillery (which still brews whisky to this day) to the city’s more recent microbrewery craze. For another, if you chose to have a lie-in this morning you can still go for that wander around the National Mall area when everything (including the cherry blossoms) is lit up by floodlights. You can also combine sightseeing with a spot of dinner on a cruise down the Potomac.

To find out more, browse our range of tailormade holidays to Washington DC and the Capital Region.

Images courtesy of washington.org

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