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Washington DC in 2 Days: everything you need to know

Two days is the minimum time you need to see the highlights of the capital of the United States and here you will find the best itinerary for it.

Carlos Bleda

Carlos Bleda

10 min read

Washington DC in 2 Days: everything you need to know

Abraham Lincoln Memorial | ©Pixabay

Washington DC is a gigantic city, but fortunately the most important places in the capital are all concentrated in a specific area known as the National Mall. An extension of gardens and streets about three kilometers long where you will find all the buildings and most of the attractions you must see: The Capitol, the White House, the Washington Monument... All concentrated in the same area.

However, there are so many things to do and places to see in Washington that one day is not enough. The minimum recommended time to visit the National Mall is 48 hours. Enough time to visit all the buildings where the country's major decisions are made, the monuments and memorials to the great figures of the United States and some of the most important museums in the world.

Day 1: Library of Congress, Capitol Hill, Washington Monument

Sunset at the Capitol| ©Anthony Quintano
Sunset at the Capitol| ©Anthony Quintano

Although both days of this itinerary run along the National Mall, the first day is focused on touring this area from the west to the east. That is, from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, passing by the famous Washington Obelisk.

It is about 3 kilometers from one end to the other that can be done in 1 hour, but with the corresponding stops it will not take all day.

Library of Congress

The starting point of this itinerary is the Library of Congress. This impressive building located next to the Capitol is somewhat overshadowed by the Capitol until we go inside.

This is one of the most important libraries in the U.S. and the planet and proof of this is its beauty.

Its architecture and decoration highlights its Beaux-Arts style facade, the murals and mosaics inside, the impressive reading area and the recreation of Thomas Jefferson's book collection. As a curiosity, one of the original Gutenberg Bibles is kept here, among other priceless works.

All this can be seen with a guided tour of just over half an hour that organizes the library itself from Monday to Saturday from 8:30 in the morning until 17:00. The library itself is connected by subway corridors to our next stop, the Capitol.

The Capitol

The most representative building in Washington, with permission of the White House, is undoubtedly the Capitol. The center of political power in the United States. And fortunately you can visit it for free.

Of course, you will need to book the visit from their website and it is not easy, since the demand is very high. Booking well in advance is more than an advice, it is an obligation.

If you get it you can visit the building for 1 hour with a guided tour of some of the most important rooms of the Capitol, such as the rotunda room under its huge and beautiful dome, the room of the statues, etc.. Tours are available from Monday to Saturday from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm. In this link you can find all the information to visit it.

If you don't manage to get in, no problem, because the building is equally spectacular on the outside and you will want to spend a few minutes to admire it. On the way to the next stop you can also stop at the Capitol Botanical Gardens, located very close to the same building.

Book a tour of Capitol Hill in Washington

National Archives Museum

Although there are endless museums in the area, on this first day I only recommend you stop at one, leaving the rest for the second day.

This is the museum of the National Archives of the United States and is a visit very much in keeping with the character of the monuments that you will see this first day.

And this is because this building is home to the most important founding documents of the country, such as the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence, as well as a host of documents, illustrations, photographs, etc..

It is a very interesting and quick visit, in just 1 hour you can visit the archives museum and follow the route without losing too much time. In the winter season the museum is open from 10:00 to 17:30 and in the summer season it is open until 19:00 hours.

At this point it is probably close to lunchtime. Fortunately, there is no shortage of options around the National Mall: from street stalls to fast food restaurants to more gourmet options.

My recommendation to eat American style, without having to travel far and at a good price, is the Shake Shack chain just a couple of blocks from the archives museum.

George Washington Monument

National Mall| ©Sebastian Bassi
National Mall| ©Sebastian Bassi

The centerpiece of any visit to the capital of the United States is the George Washington Monument. And I say central, since this famous obelisk is located in the center of the National Mall, right in the middle of all the places that make up this itinerary.

Inaugurated in 1884, this monument in the shape of an Egyptian obelisk was erected as a tribute to the first president of the United States, George Washington, and took more than 30 years to build.

When the work was finished, it became the tallest building in the world thanks to its 170 meters high, until a few years later the Eiffel Tower in Paris snatched this title.

Its main attraction, in addition to its spectacular nature, is its views. You can climb to the observation deck at the top to enjoy the best views of Washington and the National Mall.

As in the capitol, tickets are free, but require advance reservations. The ticket office opens at 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. and tickets can be reserved up to one hour before the last entrance.

Since the demand is very high, I always recommend going before 9 am to be able to reserve tickets. Another option is to do it online through their website, but in that case they do charge a small amount for handling fees.

Abraham Lincoln Memorial

The ideal place to end the first day of this itinerary is the Abraham Lincoln Memorial. It is located on the opposite side of the Capitol, on the west side of the National Mall on the banks of the Potomac River.

Most likely you know this place, as it has been the scene of some famous movies or historical events as relevant as the speech of Martin Luther King in 1963, where he uttered his famous phrase "I have a dream".

The monument is a building inspired by Greek temples, inside which rests the famous statue of Abraham Lincoln seated. This 6-meter sculpture was sculpted by artist Daniel Chester and is one of the most photographed places in Washington.

To visit you do not have to book or pay tickets, since you can visit freely and whenever you want, as the memorial is permanently open to the public 365 days a year and 24 hours a day.

At the end of the day you will want to recharge your batteries with a good dinner. In that case I recommend you to leave aside the fast food restaurants and opt for good restaurants.

In the vicinity of the White House, for example, we find restaurants like Old Ebbitt Grill, one of the most emblematic of the capital, or the famous Art and Soul fried chicken just 10 minutes walk away. In any case, the area around the National Mall is full of restaurants.

Day 2: Museums, Memorials and the White House

White House| ©Rob Young
White House| ©Rob Young

Once you have seen most of the government buildings and some of the monuments of the National Mall, it is time to reserve this second day to see the rest.

Starting with the home of the President of the United States, the White House, and continuing with the museums in the area, of which there are dozens, and among which you will have to choose which one to visit. Finally, nothing better than visiting the memorials that you did not see on the first day.

The White House

The perfect place to start the second day is visiting the famous White House. The building that since 1800 is home to the presidents of the country.

Normally you will have to be satisfied with seeing it from the fence on each side, but there is the possibility of taking a tour of the interior of what is one of the most important and famous buildings in the world.

You can request a guided tour for free, but it is not an easy task. You have to book this visit at least 21 days in advance, but to be sure, I recommend that you do it about three months in advance.

There are several ways to do this. The most common is to request it through a U.S. Senator on this website, but this is complicated if you are not a U.S. resident.

Through the embassy of your country or specialized companies you can apply for it, although doing it through this type of companies has additional costs. In any case, in this link you have all the information about it.

If you finally manage to visit it, you will be able to see the Blue Room, the Red Room and the Green Room, the State Dining Room, the China Room and a view of the White House Rose Garden. And no, you won't be able to access the Oval Office if you're wondering.

But in any case, it's quite a privilege to visit. Keep in mind that, unsurprisingly, the security measures here are extreme.

Washington Museums

Thanks in large part to a historic institution like the Smithsonian, Washington is one of the best cities in the world to visit museums because of its variety and because many of them are among the most important in the world.

Most of them are located in the vicinity of the National Mall and that is why it will be your second stop on this second day.

Unfortunately, there are so many options that 2 days is not enough to see them all. But you can dedicate part of the day to visit at least a couple of them.

As there are so many and everyone has their own tastes, I leave you a summary list of the Smithsonian museums near the National Mall for you to choose which ones you want to visit:

  • Air and Space Museum: It is one of the most important museums in Washington for the value of the pieces on display and for being almost unique in the world. Here you can see the Apollo 11 module, the first manned mission to reach the moon, Kennedy's Air Force One or the Spirit of St. Louis, the first plane to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The museum is free although there is an admission fee for certain attractions inside and is open all year round from 10:00 to 17:30.
  • National Museum of Natural History: Administered by the Smithsonian Institution, the natural history museum has one of the most complete and important collections of animals, fossils, minerals, meteorites and all kinds of natural elements in the world. This makes it the second most visited museum in Washington. It is also free and open Monday through Sunday from 10:00 to 17:30.
  • National Museum of African American History This is the best place to learn about the short but interesting history of the United States through unique exhibits and artifacts displayed on its three floors. Like all Smithsonian museums, it is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and admission is free.
  • National Gallery of Art: One of the most complete art collections in the world. The museum is divided into two wings, one for art before the twentieth century with works by Rubens, Rembrand or Monet and another wing for art from the twentieth century. Admission is also free and the opening hours are Monday to Saturday from 10:00 to 17:00 and Sundays from 11:00 to 18:00.

In a morning, or a little more, you have time to visit a couple of them. If you do not have a predilection for any in particular, I recommend the Air Museum and the American History Museum, as you will not find this type of museums in other capitals of the world.

Of course there are many more, but I leave you this link where you will find the best museums in Washington with all the information you need to visit the ones you choose.

Book a guided tour of the Washington Air & Space Museum

Tour the Memorials

Dr. King Memorial on the National Mall| ©Daniel Lobo
Dr. King Memorial on the National Mall| ©Daniel Lobo

After visiting some of these museums it is time to recharge your batteries and here there are two options. Either eat in the cafeterias of the museums themselves, something I do not recommend unless you want to save time, or choose from the multitude of options in the surrounding area.

For example, a couple of blocks behind the National Gallery of Art are concentrated a lot of restaurants among which I recommend the legendary Penn Quarter Sports on Indiana Avenue.

When you finish eating it is time to continue the tour and visit theimportant war memorials.

Memorials are another hallmark of Washington. These monuments, built to honor different personalities and victims of some of the historical moments that marked the U.S., are counted by dozens on the National Mall.

Most of them are located on the west side of the National Mall starting from the Washington Monument. The first one I recommend visiting is the World War II memorial. Located directly in front of the obelisk, this tribute to the combatants of the war is formed by a shallow pool 70 meters long surrounded by sculptures.

Next stop may be the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial. A polished black marble wall on which are the names of the more than 50,000 who died in the war. Along the same line you can also see the Korean War memorial.

If you turn off onto Independence Avenue you will find a large lagoon with several other memorials lining its shores. The Martin Luther King Memorial, the Holocaust Memorial or the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial are some of the memorials you can visit in this area.

With nightfall approaching, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial is the best place to end your two-day visit to the capital of the United States, Washington DC.

If your visit ends on time and you want to say goodbye to Washington with a good dinner, go to The Wharf area. This is a modern area on the waterfront of a canal on the Potomac that is home to an endless number of restaurants and a very pleasant nightlife.

Book a guided tour of Washington's National Mall