Washington, DC is so full of museums, monuments, and historic sights that it can feel overwhelming to try and see the city in 5 days. Having lived in DC for 7 years, here are my suggestions for seeing DC’s top sights in 5 days.
Download a map of the Mall and Monument area and follow this trail around Washington’s key monuments.
Start at the Washington Monument – at the end of the Mall on the opposite end from the Capitol Building. Go to the top and get some wonderful views of the surrounding area, including the White House, Capitol Building, and DC area.
Once you depart the Washington Monument, walk toward the WWII/Korean War/Lincoln Monuments. Stop at the WWII memorial and take a look at the columns, each dedicated to the 50 states and those that sacrificed their lives. Stay left and continue your walk to the Korean War Memorial. Take some time to look at this beautiful area with its statues and reflections of the soldiers in the field.
With your back to the Korean War Memorial, go across the pathway past the Reflecting Pool to the Vietnam Memorial. One of Washington DC’s most iconic memorials, see the 58,318 names on the wall as it reflects modern day DC back to you. The memorial was designed by Maya Lin from Athens, Ohio and a Yale University student who won the design competition for the wall. As you depart this area, stop by the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. This beautiful memorial reflects women’s roles during the Vietnam War. Notice each woman’s role and facial expressions. This somber scene shows a group of female medics attempting to evacuate an injured male soldier. As they wait for the helicopter, one looks out for its approach, another tends desperately to the soldier, and still another appears to be emotionally overcome. Spend a quiet moment here before moving on the next stop.
Next make you way up to the famous Lincoln Memorial. This beautiful statue has been seen the world over, in magazines, movies, and Instagram photos. Note that there is a very small souvenir shop here and a bathroom for those needing one.
Next swing back toward the Washington Monument, but on the other side of Independence Avenue. Here you will see the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. A newer installation among the DC memorials, this 2011 monument signifies King’s key quotations and symbolizes King’s idea “Out of a Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope.”
Swing to the right of the Tidal Basin toward the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial (FDR Memorial). Take some time in the area to read FDR’s many famous quotes.
Keep walking around the Tidal Basin over the bridge to the left to get to Thomas Jefferson’s Memorial. This will be the last stop on the Monument Tour. This schedule will take you most of the day. Please note there are no restaurants in this area. I recommend bringing something to eat with you and taking a leisurely stop at one of the benches along the way. Make sure you also bring bottled or thermos of water to remain hydrated during this tour, especially during the summer months.
Today, take a look at a few of the museums along the Mall area. Stop by the Smithsonian Castle to obtain more information on their museums. I recommend seeing the Holocaust Museum first (toward the end of the Mall near the Washington Monument). This museum is very popular so I recommend getting advance tickets. I also recommend the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of American History, and the National Museum of the American Indian. Again, keep in mind that restaurants are not commonly found in this area. Consider having lunch at one of the museums during your day. Today is a good day to visit Capitol Hill for a tour if desired. Advance tickets are not required, but recommended for ease of entry. Tickets are free.
Arlington National Cemetery and Other Downtown Sights
Start the day visiting Arlington National Cemetery. This beautifully laid out cemetery is where American military personnel and their spouses are laid to rest. The cemetery is open 365 days a year. Stop first in the Welcome Center to obtain maps and information. Take a look at the exhibits and displays that tell you more about the cemetery. Make a stop at the Memorial Amphitheater, which was dedicated in 1920. Visit John F. Kennedy’s grave site. Kennedy is one of only two presidents buried at Arlington, the other is William Taft (d. 1930). Notice the Eternal Flame that burns at the center of the site. This flame was lit by Mrs. Kennedy who was buried next to him at Arlington on May 23, 1994. Visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, perhaps the most symbolic grave on site. The Unknown Soldier is from WWI, but there are additional Unknown Soldiers from WWII, Korea, and Vietnam wars located on site. Read more about the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington National Cemetery website. Finally, take time to view the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The change occurs every hour October 1 until March 31. From April 1 until September 30, the changing occurs every hour and every half hour. These guards remain on duty 24 hours a day 365 days a year, in storms, extreme heat, and freezing weather. As you watch the ceremony, remember to remain silent and attentive out of respect for those buried at Arlington and for the ceremony.
Visit Ford’s Theater – the location where President Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865. Take a tour of the basement museum before seeing the theater. Across from Ford’s Theater is the house in which President Lincoln died. This is also open for visitors. The Spy Museum and the National Law Enforcement Memorial are within walking distance of Ford’s Theater.
If you have the inclination, line up outside the nation’s Supreme Court early in the morning and see if you can get in to view the day’s proceedings. Also, take a tour of the Library of Congress. Take a look at the building’s murals and statues. If you have not gotten into a Supreme Court proceeding, then use the rest of the day to see additional museums located around the Mall.
Today, make your way out to see Old Town Alexandria and Mount Vernon. Old Town Alexandria, accessible via metro, boasts George Washington’s Masonic Temple, the Freemason building where President Washington was a member. Go to the top of the building for great views of Alexandria and its surrounding area. Take the King Street Trolley to the downtown area (or walk it). See historic Gadsby’s Tavern, walk King Street, and have lunch at one of the many pubs and restaurants on the street. Finally, go see Mount Vernon. About a 20-minute drive from Old Town Alexandria, Mount Vernon was George Washington’s beloved home. Learn more about Washington’s life and legacy here. Tickets may be purchased in advance.
In and Around DC
On any given night, consider visiting the following areas for additional experiences.
Georgetown: See live jazz at the famous Blues Alley founded in 1965.
Annapolis: Take a trip north to Annapolis, Maryland to see the waterfront, enjoy blue crab crabcakes, and take a tour of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Dupont Circle: Visit embassy row – a 2-mile stretch of international embassies. See the Phillips Collection for modern art exhibits, including Renoir, Rothko, and O’Keefe. Try Michelin rated Sushi Taro for some of DC’s best Japanese food.
Washington, DC: See a performance at the Kennedy Center. Eat dinner at one of the many award-winning restaurants in DC. Try Founding Farmers known for its farm-to-table seasonal dishes. Founding Farmers is located on Pennsylvania Avenue and offers weekend brunch, lunch, and dinner. Visit Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street for a DC landmark experience.