Washington DC in 5 Days: everything you need to know

In this post, I present a 5-day itinerary for your next visit to Washington DC: you will immerse yourself in the history and patriotism of this country, while getting lost in the best museums in the world.

Laura Gómez

Laura Gómez

12 min read

Washington DC in 5 Days: everything you need to know

Washington DC Monument | ©National Park Service

Washington DC is not only the command center of the United States, but it is also home to several parks, museums, monuments and picturesque neighborhoods that offer a wealth of things to see and do in the capital of the United States for anyone who visits.

In the itinerary I recommend here you will learn about the "must-sees" of this great little city and its history.

1. Day Start your trip with a very patriotic day

Dupont Circle by Night| ©Mike Maguire
Dupont Circle by Night| ©Mike Maguire

On your first day it is normal that you are looking to recover after a long trip, so my recommendation is to schedule a quiet day.

How about starting with a patriotic tour? You are in the capital of one of the most powerful countries in the world and this theme is present everywhere you look. If it's not a monument, it's a museum, or a flag flying over any building, and what better place to start than the National Mall.

In this huge complex, your starting point will be the White House, then you will head to the Washington Monument and, passing through the most important memorials of this country, you will arrive at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.

In the afternoon, you will tour the Dupont Circle area, one of the most recommended historic neighborhoods for leisurely strolls. Let's get started!

The White House

The White House is one of the most iconic and representative buildings of the power of this American nation.

All U.S. presidents have occupied it as their official residence since the early 1800s, with the exception of George Washington, who despite having been the main figure behind this project, could not get to inhabit it because of his sudden death, months before the inauguration.

If you come from abroad and want to know the inside of the White House, there are tours available and free of charge. And, of course, you can add a guided tour of Washington DC Of course, you'd better be prepared, because it can take up to three months to get clearance.

Check with your country's embassy in Washington DC for guidance with this process.

Book a guided tour of Washington DC

Washington Monument

After a 15-18 minute walk along 15th st. NW, you will arrive at the Washington Monument. Standing nearly 170 meters tall, the "world's largest obelisk" is a familiar sight in action or thriller film productions.

However, the most memorable (and out of fiction!) appearance ever recorded on this stage occurred in 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr.* during a famous civil march was inspired for his "I have a dream" speech in front of over 200 thousand people.

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World War II Memorial and Korean War Veterans Memorial

If you're in the mood for a bite to eat, I recommend stopping at the Sweet Home Cafe, located just steps from the Washington Monument inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

After this break, follow the route in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial. It will be easy to find... a huge reflecting pool more than 600 m long will accompany you all the way.

In your first steps, you will find several monuments called "Lincoln Memorial", among them the Memorial of the II World War II. War Memorials and Arlington National Cemetery in WashingtonAmong them is the World War II Memorial, which honors the 16 million soldiers who served in the U.S. armed forces during the conflict. Since 2004 when it was inaugurated, it is a very popular space among visitors.

If you walk along the left edge of this large pool, in just 10 minutes you will find the access to reach the Korean War Veterans Memorial. This space with 19 steel sculptures, commemorates the sacrifice of the 5.8 million American soldiers in this war, considered one of the toughest in history.

Book an African American history tour in Washington

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial| ©John Brighenti
Lincoln Memorial| ©John Brighenti

And maybe you've noticed by now, but all along this part of the loop since you left the Washington Monument, you've had the Lincoln Memorial in front of you. Now you have arrived. Only now it's up a few steps.

This monument, like Abraham Lincoln, is considered one of the most loved and remembered...

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Now, head in the direction of the Potomac River and, a few meters walk (10 minutes) over the riverbank, you will find the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the 32nd President of the United States. 32nd president of the United States.

The design includes different open rooms with bronze sculptures recounting different historical episodes during his tenure, such as the Great Depression and World War II, but also honors those who always accompanied him, such as Fala, his loyal and charming canine companion. You can explore which visit to the Arlington War Memorials and Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC interests you the most.

At this point, the first part of the tour will be over. To get out of this area, I recommend taking one of the DCBUS Circulator buses, or take the Metro Red Line. Take it towards Shady Grove to your next destination: Dupont Circle.

Dupont Circle: a quick getaway to a city neighborhood

This nineteenth-century neighborhood with a bohemian atmosphere has a little bit of everything for everyone. Just outside the Metro station, a little less than 200 meters away is The Phillips Collection, considered the first modern art museum in North America. I recommend you to visit it, from Renoir to Rothko, there are several works hidden in this unconventional museum.

Walk towards Connecticut Avenue NW and you will find the restaurants and bars that fill the soul of this neighborhood. Here you will have many options in international cuisine for a delicious dinner... all in one neighborhood! The live music in bars and nightclubs is incredible.

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2. Day Visit some of the "Smithsonian" Museums

National Museum of American History| ©Carol M. Highsmith
National Museum of American History| ©Carol M. Highsmith

The Smithsonian Institution is the world's largest educational, research and museum complex, and from this day, you can see for yourself.

National Museum of American History

This free, three-story museum houses collections related to American culture. You can find everything from George Washington's favorite armchair to the Batmobile, Muhammad Ali's gloves or a Swedish chef from the Muppets show. It doesn't matter! If you walk into this museum, you'll stumble upon something interesting, fun and unique from American history and pop culture.

To make the best use of your time here, I recommend you check out the available exhibits and choose ahead of time which one you don't want to miss. In case you want to grab a snack before continuing, you can go to the LeRoy Neiman Jazz Café, conveniently located on the second floor of the building.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

The galleries of the National Museum of African American History and Culture showcase the raw journey of rejection and mistreatment that more than 3 million West Africans have experienced. The elevator that takes you from one gallery to another simulates time travel with key episodes of their history. Thus, on the deepest and darkest floor, the "less luminous" chapters occurred and, as you go up and the picture becomes clearer, the freedoms and rights of the black community also become more visible. A space for education and reflection of an issue that is still current today.

The museum opened in 2016 and is very busy, so much so that you are encouraged to book online up to 30 days before your visit.

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An ideal night tour to review and look under a different sky

I'm sure you've already done a lot of walking during the day, and maybe you're up for the next activity in a comfortable seat. How about booking a night tour in a minivan?

The three-hour tour will take you to sites you already saw during the first day, such as the White House, the World War II Memorial and the Washington Monument, so brushing up with a guide wouldn't hurt.

Other stops are included, such as the Capitol, FBI Headquarters, the Jefferson Memorial and some museums that at night, turn into luminous giants that must be seen.

Book a night bus tour of Washington

3. Day Trip to Mount Vernon and a date night at Adams Morgan

George Washington's Mansion| ©Paull Young
George Washington's Mansion| ©Paull Young

Mount Vernon is the home of George Washington. Here, he lived with his wife and 20 other family members for decades. This property, originally over 3,000 acres, was also the source of the wealth and status of the man who would become the first president of the United States.

The estate is located in Mount Vernon, Virginia, about 12 km south of Alexandria. It can be easily reached from Washington DC by public transportation, the Potomac River by boat or tour buses, although it may be more convenient to book a bus tour from Washington.

What you will see on this tour

In addition to the massive estate where you'll see the residence museum, gardens and farms, this tour will take you through the older Alexandria area.

Here, the home of an American Civil War character, General Edward Lee, old churches of the town and other buildings of the colonial era of Virginia surrounded by the eternal Potomac, are some of the attractions that will be waiting for you. Without a doubt, a very interesting tour that you can't miss.

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And returning from Mount Vernon? A stroll through the Adams Morgan Neighborhood

Adams Morgan is a neighborhood that draws attention for its nightlife and beautiful 19th and 20th century architecture.

On the main thoroughfare, 18th Street, bars and live music venues share the street with quirky boutiques. Among the most famous bars you'll find here are the Amsterdam Falafel and the Jumbo Slice where, as the name suggests, you can eat the biggest slices of pizza of your life!

If the night has fallen and you're in the mood for more, how about karaoke? Don't worry, if you like to sing, but don't dare to do it in front of a bunch of strangers, here you will find a private karaoke version called muzette, where only you and your friends will have ears for your performance. It's a city with an excellent public transportation system, but you can also take the DCBUS Circulator or even get there by bike.

Book a bike tour in Washington

4. Day One Day on the East Wing of the National Mall

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

On this fourth day it's time to head to the other end of the National Mall, near the Capitol. This tour will take you to spend a day enjoying works of art on walls and walls, but also in hedges and pots.

Of course, to make the most of the tour and avoid the midday sun, I suggest you arrive early (between 8 and 9 am) to your first destination: the Botanical Garden.

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U.S. Botanical Garden

Established in 1820, it is one of the oldest botanical gardens in North America. A conservatory, an outdoor garden and Bartholdi Park are part of this attraction that, in addition to creating a very aesthetic environment, seeks to promote the economic, cultural and ecological importance of plants.

It is also a space for education and training where demonstrations are given on sustainable practices.

Start your tour through the outdoor gardens and the Bartholdi fountain, so that once the conservatory opens (10 am) you will be on time for the tour inside, where you can spend about two hours getting to know it.

Hirshhorn Museum

Around noon, you will be entering your second museum... Another Smithsonian! With this, you should already know that it will be worth it and besides, it's free. To get there, you must have taken SW Independence Avenue towards the Washington Monument. It will take you about 12 minutes of quiet walk.

This museum opened its doors in 1974. It exhibits some of the most extraordinary works in painting, sculpture and photography related to modern and contemporary art.

  • It has a collection of over 12,000 pieces and growing! For this museum, I also recommend that you check the available exhibits in advance to get the most out of your tour.
  • An average length of stay for this museum is 2-3 hours, including the Sculpture Garden (in the outdoor area in front of the museum).
  • If your body is already asking for lunch, I suggest you visit Pavilion Cafe, a restaurant with a panoramic view of the Sculpture Garden across the street from Madison Dr and with a varied menu of salads, soups and sandwiches. Note that it closes at 4:00 pm.

National Gallery of Art

Although not owned by the Smithsonian, this art gallery is also free. Its many rooms house art gems from periods ranging from Byzantine and Medieval to Pop and Conceptual art in America and Europe, a treasure trove for art lovers!

  • This museum, where you will have the opportunity to admire the only da Vinci in the United States, opened its doors in 1941, and since then is one of the major attractions in Washington DC and one of the most visited museums in the USA.
  • This gallery closes at 5:00 pm. If you arrive 1.5 or 2 hours earlier, you will have enough time to walk around and see the most recognized works exhibited here.
  • When you finish, you can take advantage of the evening light to take some pictures and get close to the Smithsonian Pollinator Garden. Just take Madison Dr again and cross 7th NW and 9th Street. It's lovely.

If you feel like more, you can walk or take the Metro to Chinatown to the north.

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5. Day And a couple of other Smithsonian museums you can't miss before you go

National Museum of Natural History| ©Cynthia LaRue
National Museum of Natural History| ©Cynthia LaRue

In the same sector of the previous itinerary, you'll find two other museums that you'll dedicate your last day to: the National Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space Museum.

Although at this point you may already be feeling a little tired, come on, there will be time to rest and reminisce about this extraordinary trip!

National Museum of Natural History

This museum is dedicated to the knowledge of the natural world and our role in it. As you walk through its exhibits, you will learn about the theories on the origin of life, climate change, the evolution of species and other events that have been present in this "experimental field" for millions of years.

If you want to learn more about what this museum has to offer, you can take a look at their website here.

This museum, with over 145 million artifacts and specimens recorded, is recognized as the largest natural history collection in the world. It will be impossible to see it in one day, although as a recommendation, reserve at least two and a half hours for your visit, for which you can book a tour

The next visit is to the National Air and Space Museum. To get there, just walk down Madison Dr NW towards the National Gallery of Art and, at 7th St, turn right and walk a few more minutes to Jefferson Dr SW, where the museum is located.

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National Air and Space Museum

With over 60,000 objects, this museum is recognized as the largest collection of aviation and space travel related objects in the world. With engines, airplanes, space modules and artifacts to flight simulators and a planetarium, this place seems "from another planet."

A tour of the most important exhibits can be done with a minimum of 3 hours. If you think you're going to be on a tight schedule, or prefer to just walk around with a guide, you can join a 2-hour private tour, where an expert guide will take you through the must-see images of this place in an orderly fashion.

Towards the Potomac

During the previous days, you could see the Potomac in the landscape again and again, but on this last day... Why not sail over its waters on one of its cruises?

Say goodbye to this extraordinary trip by booking a cruise on the Potomac, getting to know the banks of this massive body of water and contemplating the illuminated monuments of the National Mall as night falls.

On this 3-hour tour, you will enjoy a delicious three-course dinner, with live music on board and a very pleasant atmosphere.

Book a dinner cruise in Washington DC

Things to consider

Washington Obelisk Bike Tour| ©Tony DeFilippo
Washington Obelisk Bike Tour| ©Tony DeFilippo
  • Don't rely on distances on the National Mall If you look at a map, you'll notice that the various attractions are in a very small space, but don't be fooled! If you are going to look for shortcuts or change some destinations, study the route in advance and take advantage of some apps for your cell phone designed for this purpose.
  • Take advantage of public transportation This city is very interconnected and with excellent transportation (buses, Metro, bicycles, electric vehicles...). The service is affordable and there are even ways to save even more with passes, prepaid cards, etc.
  • Eat at least something before leaving and don't forget the water. Although it receives thousands of people every hour, the National Mall is not exactly a place to find a lot of food options. For that, eat a full breakfast if possible, and take advantage of the outings to the different neighborhoods to the north, which, as I said, are small but you can try everything.

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