Quick trips are great for limited budgets but time can be an enemy. In planning a trip, it’s important to maximize the time that is available. Washington DC is full of things to see and do, so many that it can be intimidating at first, but planning is not as hard as it might seem. For starters, many things need advance planning since reservations come recommended. Second, many of the things will be similar in content: museums, memorials, tours, etc. Rather than a traditional itinerary post where we give a recommended schedule of events, we’ve put together a series of suggested activities for art lovers, history buffs and outdoor adventurers. There are also a few recommendations towards the end to pop in if you want to go off topic. Keep reading for more!
FOR ART LOVERS
From portraits to sculptures to magazine covers, there are plenty of options throughout Washington DC to fill the time with art-focused activities. The trick is to determine what you are most interested in and prioritize time for your top picks. The National Gallery of Art would have been my first choice if I did much art viewing. The National Portrait Gallery would have also been towards the top of my list.
Day 1: Tackle the Big Stuff
The National Gallery of Art, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian American Art Museum and Phillips Museum have some of the largest collections of art in Washington DC. It’s where many mainstream masterpieces are held like those from Picasso, Renoir and da Vinci. Other than hosting some of the more well-known artwork, these museums each take a chunk of time. You won’t be able to fit all four into your day so it would make the most sense to choose one or two and enjoy yourself. All but the Phillips Museum are located along the National Mall so if you choose any of these three, stop at the Garden Cafe for a bite to eat.
Day 2: Dive into Culture
One of the unique things about Washington DC is the number of cultural art museums to visit. See artifacts from sub-saharan Africa at the National Museum of African Art and immerse yourself in Asian art and artifacts at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens is home to a personal collection from Marjorie Merriweather Post who was passionate about French and imperial Russian art. The gardens are gorgeous if you can fit an hour or so into your schedule to walk through.
Day 3: Get Specific
DC has a variety of art museums that exhibit specific types of media. The National Portrait Gallery consists solely of portraits from presidents to public figures and celebrities. The National Museum of Women in the Arts hosts only artwork created by women with more than 5,000 pieces. The National Geographic Museum has an exhibit featuring all the magazine covers the publication has printed as well as exhibits featuring explorations, cultures and more.
FOR HISTORY BUFFS
History is everywhere in DC. From monuments to archived papers, there is a piece of history almost everywhere you step. It’s also where some of the more tourist-heavy traffic will be. After all, what’s traveling if you’re not waiting in line at least once? With there being so much history to experience in DC, it can be tricky to fit everything in only three days. So this itinerary breaks each day into specific themes: top tourist spots, museums, and special interest. If memorials are important to you, you might want to sacrifice one day or at least a half day of other activities to check a few off the list.
Day 1: Top Historical Tourist Sites
The good thing about many of these spots, reservations are either required or recommended in advance so it makes it a little easier to plan your day. The bad thing, they will take up a good fraction of the day and lines might suck up even more time. This reason alone is why it’s good to get these activities in the first day. It leaves two more to cram as much in as possible. The two big ones that take reservations are tours of the White House and the Capitol Building. The White House requires reservations and a screening process in advance. If this isn’t planned ahead, you won’t be able to do it. The Capitol Building does not require reservations but they are recommended. Availability for day-of tickets are scattered and unpredictable at best. If the Capitol Building is important to you, book the reservation in advance. Other sites to consider for your first day include the Library of Congress, Arlington National Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Washington Monument, memorials honoring wars and their veterans, and Ford’s Theatre among others.
Day 2: Museums
There are several history museums in Washington DC, five of which I go into detail in this post. A few of the larger ones include the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of Natural History. For a deeper dive into specific cultures, visit the new National Museum of African American History and Culture or the National Museum of the American Indian. Have a little fun at the International Spy Museum which takes a look at espionage throughout civilization or get a somber lesson in history at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Depending on the museum, it can take a few hours or half a day to make it through. The National Museum of American History took me about three hours and I didn’t hit all the exhibits thoroughly.
Day 3: Specific Interests
Similar to the art available in DC, there are also places to visit that cover specific historical topics. The Folger-Shakespeare Library has a special collection from William Shakespeare and hosts performances regularly. The Newseum features exhibits that focus on media and journalism from over the years. For those who love old documents and history by paper, the National Archives will provide an interesting visit. You'll feel like Nicholas Cage in National Treasure. This is also a good day to fit in any sites or museums from the first two days there wasn’t enough time for.
FOR OUTDOOR ADVENTURERS & NATURE LOVERS
From rivers to forests, there is plenty to do for those who enjoy the outdoors. Paddle Boating along the canal and hiking are just two things to plan ahead for to enjoy nature in the capitol. Explore nature by exhibit with visits to the American Museum of Natural History or the Botanical Gardens. With a milder climate, DC makes it easy to enjoy these activities almost all year round.
Day 1: Natural History & Sites
Experience cherry trees in spring unlike anywhere else at the United States National Arboretum or become an expert on flowers at the US Botanical Gardens. Get educated on the history of nature from extinct dinosaur age animals to prehistoric plant life at the American Museum of Natural History. Take a stroll through a smaller, private garden at the Tudor House for a relaxing afternoon.
Day 2: Take a Trip To Georgetown and Explore the C&O Canal
The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (C&O) is almost completely intact from the original build providing an authentic historical experience. Walking or cycling is available for free along the canal or rent boats for a canoe or paddle boat ride on the water. The scenery is gorgeous and the canal is a whopping 185 miles so there’s plenty to explore.
Day 3: Hike
There are many places to go for a hike around Washington DC but one of the most popular is Rock Creek Park. There are miles to run or bike as well as horse riding activities, tennis courts, golf courses and more. The national park has activities and tours for kids and adults for those interested in expert-led experiences. To get farther out of the city, Fort Dupont Park is an old Civil War fort with hundreds of acres of land for recreation, hiking and more. It includes a long trail, community garden and even hosts concerts and events during the warmer months. Great Falls Park is another great option for hiking and boasts beautiful views of the Potomac River flowing over rocks and cliffs.
Mix up the schedule by adding in a few random activities. The National Air & Space Museum is a favorite for visitors featuring airplanes, simulations and all kinds of interactive activities. Eastern Market on Capitol Hill is a fun indoor/outdoor market that opens weekly with artisans from all over selling anything from clothing to food. Walk through the National Mall whether it’s on the way to get from one museum to another or simply to enjoy the scenery. It’s a large expanse of greenery and there’s plenty to wander around and do. If you’re on a budget, check out our post sharing free things to do in DC. For other ideas on what to do while visiting, visit our post sharing six things you must do.