BEST 3-DAY WASHINGTON DC ITINERARY- BEYOND THE MONUMENTS

As someone who loves exploring new cities, I was incredibly excited to plan my three-day Washington DC itinerary. The nation’s capital has been on my bucket list for years, with its world-class museums, iconic monuments and memorials, and rich history around every corner.

With only three days to experience the best of Washington DC, I knew I needed to plan my 3-day Washington DC itinerary carefully to maximize my time.

That may not be enough to enjoy everything this city has to offer, but if you schedule your time and plan well ahead of time you can definitely enjoy most of the attractions important to you.

Washington, DC, the capital of the United States, was founded after the American Revolution so that the federal government of the newly independent nation would not have to rely on any state for the country’s governance.

Built on the banks of the Potomac River on land donated by adjacent states, Washington incorporated the already existing towns of Georgetown and Alexandria.

The city grew quickly over the decades along with the expansion of the federal government. A “City Beautiful” movement in the 1900s transformed the city with an urban renewal project.

The 1930s saw the construction of the many neoclassical buildings, memorials and museums we see today.

The neoclassical Supreme Court building in Washington DC.
The Supreme Court Building

Today Washington DC is one of the most visited cities in the world with over 20 million visitors a year.

As a national capital and home to the world’s embassies, it is also one of the most international and diverse cities anywhere.

Similar to New York City, you can hear dozens of languages spoken on the streets of Washington and see people in their national apparel strolling the neighborhood streets.

Museums on the National Mall

Washington Monument in a sea of flags
Sea of flags on the National Mall

The best place to start your 3-day Washington DC itinerary is at the National Mall. The Mall is a beautiful, landscaped area where most of the city’s spectacular museums are.

Although Washington DC has many world-class museums throughout the city, the National Mall is where the big boys are.

Pick one, two, or three museums for your first 3-day itinerary in Washington DC, and take it from there. Don’t imagine you have to see the entire museum.

Just research the topics that interest you in a museum and see those. You could see two or three exhibits per museum and still have time to explore the city.

National Gallery of Art. Established in 1937 by Congress for the people of the United States, the collection includes, among other works, the only Leonardo da Vinci painting in the Americas.

Lobby of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC
Lobby of the National Gallery of Art

The architecture of the building is almost as impressive as the exhibits themselves.

National Air and Space Museum. This is a must-see for all aviation and space aficionados.

National Museum of Natural History. Opened in 1910, this 325k square feet exhibition features over 500 million species of plants, fossils, animals, meteorites and other artifacts.

National Museum of American History. This fun museum is an eclectic collection of all things American. It houses classic collections of Americana as well as temporary exhibits.

National Museum of African American History and Culture. This museum is one of the most recent additions to the Mall.

Established in 2003, the museum houses more than 40,000 objects documenting the history of African-American culture in the United States. It is an emotional journey that will leave you shaken.

Among the artifacts are:

  • A stone platform where enslaved people stood to be displayed before being sold.
  • A handmade purse an enslaved woman made to give to her 9-year-old daughter as she was being sold.
  • An original stool from the 1960 sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter that helped ignite the Civil Rights movement.

The museum also celebrates African American culture and the contributions made to the nation’s development.

Due to the museum’s popularity, it is difficult to get in to visit so plan way ahead of time. Check the website first to reserve your timed tickets.

Façade of the National Museum of African American Art and History
National Museum of African American Culture and History

Holocaust Memorial Museum. Similar to the African American History Museum, you will find this exhibit very hard to take.

This museum contains millions of pages of photographs and archival documents of the Holocaust.

A testament to man’s inhumanity to man and a warning against this ever happening again.

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. These wonderful museums form the Smithsonian’s collection of Mediterranean and Asian Art.

National Museum of African Art. The museum began as a private collection and then became part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1979.

Much of the artwork comes from Sub-Saharan Africa and includes over 9,000 pieces of sculptures, paintings, photographs, and jewelry.

The museum is subterranean – yes, you read that right – and is connected to the Freer Gallery and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

So, it makes sense to see all three of these little gems in one fell swoop if you are interested in international art.

International Spy Museum. The only museum of its kind in the United States, it may also be one of the most fun museums in Washington.

When you enter you are assigned an undercover identity and…well, you’ll have to visit to see what happens next.

Museum of the American Indian. The collection spans over 12,000 years of American Indian history.

Make sure to start on the top floor and work your way down. The exhibits start with the history of the native Americans before the Europeans.

It proceeds to give an unvarnished account of the Europeans’ and later Americans’ cruel and unfair treatment of Native Americans.

The exhibit also documents their many achievements and contributions to the country.

Woman in front of the National Museum of the American Indian
National Museum of the American Indian

There are so many other fascinating museums beyond those on the Mall. Honorable mention goes to Planet Word, one of the newest museums in the city.

This lovely museum in a historic building bills itself as “the place where language comes to life.”

Some of the cool activities you can engage in include: recording yourself giving a famous speech, karaoke your heart away, making a statement in your own language and hearing it back in languages from common Spanish to obscure Bambara spoken in Mali, and much more.

This place loves words and languages and conveys this passion to visitors beautifully.

The interactive exhibits for children (and big kids) are amazing. If you’ve got a kid, bring her. If not, go get one, but definitely share the experiences at Planet Word.

Staying in a hotel in the National Mall area will give you a good base from which to explore.

Day One – National Mall, museums, Logan Circle and The Wharf

For the first day of our Washington DC adventure, I thought it important to create an eclectic mix of Washington DC activities and combine visits to museums with explorations of interesting neighborhoods and fun places to eat.

This led us to Federal Circle, Logan Circle – there are lots of “circles” or roundabouts in DC – and The Wharf. These three Washington DC areas are as different from each other as they are unique.

One of the city’s charms is its neighborhoods. If you want to spend 3 perfect days in Washington DC, delving into its many interesting neighborhoods is a must-do activity.

Start day one of your three-day Washington DC itinerary with visits to one or more of the incomparable museums in the Mall then move on to Federal Circle.

Federal Circle is the area north of the National Mall packed with enormous government buildings in the Neoclassical architecture style.

It’s fun to walk around the area and get lost in the broad avenues, massive buildings, and soaring arches. Architecturally it is a very impressive area.

Continuing north you’ll reach Logan Circle. This area is rumored to be one of the most posh and sought-after neighborhoods in DC.

It is a great place to stroll among the Victorian houses and tree-lined streets.

a street in Logan Circle
Logan Circle neighborhood

Fourteenth Street is the place to be where you find restaurants in all price ranges, art galleries, all kinds of stores and outside cafés where you can people-watch with a beverage.

Many of the properties in Logan Circle are on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Although famous for history and architecture, Logan Circle has another side.

The area’s U Street is a hub of live music venues, bars, and boutiques all contributing to make for a cool and energetic nightlife.

Either stay in the Logan Circle neighborhood for the rest of day one of your three-day itinerary in Washington DC or head over to The Wharf.

The Wharf, on the water of the Washington Channel, is the city’s newest dining and entertainment venue and the city’s wildly successful attempt at revitalizing the Southwest and Wharf neighborhoods.

With over 20 restaurants and 4 piers – each with its own entertainment – hotels, performance venues, and more, The Wharf is a fun place to explore.

A wharf in The Wharf, an entertainment venue in Washington DC
The Wharf

The Wharf is also home to the Main Street Fish Market which has been at the same location since 1805! Buy your seafood or fish at the market and have it cooked and served right there.

Or eat at one of the many interesting and ethnic restaurants nearby.

A seafood platter
Freshest seafood at Wharf restaurants

Day Two – More museums, historic neighborhoods, and Chinatown

On day 2 of your 3-day Washington DC adventure, finish seeing the museums you missed on the first day. Remember, don’t feel overwhelmed by the size and scope of the museums.

You don’t HAVE to see it all. Google the museum’s permanent and temporary exhibits that you find interesting and just see those.

Using this strategy we were able to visit The National Gallery of Art, Museum of the American Indian, National Museum of American History, National Museum of African American Culture, and Planet Word in the first two days.

Some of the other museums we had already seen and others will go on the “must-visit” for the future list.

For another cool neighborhood exploration, head over to Dupont Circle.

Like many urban centers in the northeast, Dupont Circle has undergone many ups and downs. The area has been home to everything from a slaughterhouse to an embassy enclave.

One of the country’s important centers of the gay movement, Dupont Circle has been at the forefront of social movements since its inception.

Today the neighborhood is trendy and more mainstream with all the trappings of a cool neighborhood; restaurants, chic shops, and bars overflowing with local crowds.

A fountain in Dupont Circle
Dupont Circle fountain

Many of Dupont Circle’s homes are on the National Register of Historic Places. You will find many of the embassies on Embassy Row are housed in historic residences.

Embassy Row runs from 18th Street to 35th Street where you’ll see up to 150 embassies in magnificent mansions.

Many of these structures once belonged to wealthy investors and business magnates who were forced to sell during the Depression.

It is a peek into the luxurious lives of some of the wealthiest people of the Gilded Age that you usually see in places like Newport, Rhode Island, New York City, or the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, so seeing it in Washington DC provides a different perspective.

If you like architecture and history, you’re in for a treat. Bring a reference book with you or take a walking tour to enjoy all the backstories and historical details of this very interesting neighborhood.

Chinatown and Penn Quarter. Chinatown in Washington DC is small but fun and, like most international cities, it has several good authentic Chinese restaurants.

The Friendship Arch announcing the beginning of Chinatown is the largest freestanding arch in the United States and merits a look-see.

Nearby is Penn Quarter which some refer to as old downtown. This previously rundown neighborhood is now re-energized with art galleries, performance venues, nightclubs, trendy eateries, and shops.

Within the neighborhood’s limits are culturally significant institutions like the National Portrait Gallery (definitely see this if you have the time) and the Verizon Center sports arena.

Day Three – Markets, a ferry ride on the Potomac and historic Georgetown

Wake up on day three of your 3 day Washington DC itinerary and make your way to Eastern Market.

This self-described “community hub for the Capital Hill neighborhood and cultural destination for visitors from around the world” does not disappoint.

The market is a combination indoor and outdoor farmers market, an artist community selling crafts, art, and antiques, and restaurants ranging from high-end/high prices to a table on the sidewalk.

Start your day with a hearty and healthy breakfast at any one of the market’s cute coffee shops.

Eastern Market n Washington DC

Built in 1873 on space originally designated for local markets by Pierre L’Enfant, Washington’s city planner, it is the only local market in the city that has operated continuously since its inception.

Eastern Market is designated as a national historic landmark and looks much as it did almost 150 years ago.

Let’s face it, no three-day Washington DC itinerary is complete without a visit to Georgetown, and the best way to get there is with the ferry.

After breakfast at Eastern Market, head to The Wharf and catch a ferry to Georgetown for a 45-minute ride where you can see the monuments from a different perspective.

Make sure you get on the right ferry because they also go to other destinations like Alexandria and National Harbor.

The ferry drops you off at Georgetown’s Waterfront, a lovely restaurant and entertainment venue similar to the Wharf.

The Waterfront in Georgetown
Georgetown’s Waterfront entertainment venue

Here is a tidbit of information you may need should you ever get on the Jeopardy gameshow and are asked the question, “Who was Georgetown named after?”

The answer is NOT George Washington (that was my guess). Instead, it was named after England’s King George II the grandfather of George III whom the American colonies would rebel against seeking- and winning- independence.

 

Georgetown was founded on the Potomac River in 1751, way before the United States was even a glimmer in anyone’s eye.

The entire district of Georgetown is a National Historic Landmark District. Many of the buildings are from the colonial and Federal periods which is reflected in the architecture.

An old building in Georgetown
Historic architecture in Georgetown

Georgetown is famous for being the home of Georgetown University. Other claims to fame include the Old Stone House.

Built in 1756, it is the oldest unchanged building in Washington and the city’s last pre-revolutionary structure on its original foundation.

You can visit the house and see exactly how people lived in the mid-1700s.

Old Stone House in Georgetown
Old Stone House in Georgetown

The city is frequently used as a backdrop for movies. Perhaps the most famous one is The Exorcist. You can find the 97-step stairs between M Street NW and Prospect Street.

The steps have been declared a National Historic Landmark not because of The Exorcist but because of their historical significance.

Despite the city’s historic pedigree, most people go to Georgetown for shopping and entertainment.

The neighborhood boasts an amazing variety of shopping opportunities from brand stores to independent boutiques.

There are also many art galleries and antique stores. The biggest concentration of shops is on Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW, the two most prominent intersecting streets.

Along with the shopping comes restaurants of all types and ethnicities.

Most are on street level but don’t miss out on the array of fine restaurants in the inner malls and on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal which runs behind Georgetown.

The canal area also makes for a lovely walk.

Another Georgetown star attraction is Blues Alley on Wisconsin Street. Founded in 1965, this cozy legendary jazz club is the oldest continuously operating jazz club in the nation.

The club has hosted many jazz greats through the years including Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, and Arturo Sandoval. If you are a seasoned jazz aficionado or a wannabe, spend an evening here.

A visit to Georgetown is the perfect way to end your 3-day itinerary in Washington DC.

If you want to stay in the Georgetown area, accommodations in Georgetown, especially around the waterfront, are plentiful and in all price ranges.

Learn more about Washington DC before you visit so you can maximize your time. Use these handy guides to help plan your visit.

How to get around Washington DC

There are a few things to consider when visiting Washington DC. If you happen to arrive in Washington by train, take a moment to check out the architecture in Union Station.

Completed in 1907, the building is considered to be one of the finest examples of Beaux-Arts architecture in the United States.

Union Station

Washington DC has an excellent, color-coded, user-friendly metro system, the WMATA, that will take you pretty much anywhere you want to go.

The best way to get around the city is with a multiday metro/subway pass.

These are available for purchase at ticket vending machines in train stations and are valid for trains as well as buses.

Buying an unlimited 3-day pass will save you money and time. Just tap your multiday pass on the turnstile and off you go.

When To Visit Washington DC

The timing was everything as I planned my 3-day Washington DC itinerary. The nation’s capital truly is a year-round destination, but each season offers its own unique advantages and considerations for visitors.

Spring is an immensely popular time, especially around the city’s iconic cherry blossom season in late March/early April.

The mild temperatures and explosion of pink blooms create a postcard-perfect setting for exploring the Tidal Basin and other monuments and memorials.

However, this does mean facing larger crowds and higher hotel rates if you schedule your 3-day Washington DC itinerary during the peak bloom period.

I opted to visit in early fall, which turned out to be an ideal window. From September through October, the brutal summer humidity has subsided, leaving crisp and pleasant weather for strolling the National Mall or enjoying an outdoor meal.

Fall foliage around the National Arboretum and Rock Creek Park provides a vibrant backdrop. Best of all, the tourist crowds have thinned from summer’s peak.

Winter holds particular magic, with iconic attractions like the Lincoln Memorial and National Cathedral taking on an almost fairy-tale quality blanketed in snow.

However, you’ll need to pack warmly and perhaps adjust your 3-day Washington DC itinerary to account for potential closures due to inclement weather.

The upside is significantly lower hotel rates and smaller crowds.

No matter when you go, Washington DC offers a robust calendar of festivals, exhibits, and ceremonies year-round thanks to its rich cultural tapestry.

Plan ahead, pack layers, and you’ll be able to make the most of the city’s cornucopia of offerings.

Where To Stay In Washington, DC

As I was planning my 3-day Washington DC itinerary, one of the most important decisions was choosing the right accommodation to serve as my home base for exploring the nation’s capital.

With its diverse neighborhoods and a wide array of hotels, finding the perfect place to stay in Washington, DC requires some research.

For first-time visitors like myself looking to be in the heart of the action, staying in the Downtown area is hard to beat.

I opted for a hotel just steps from the National Mall, putting iconic attractions like the Smithsonian museums and Washington Monument right at my doorstep.

While pricier than other areas, the convenience of being able to walk to so many sights made it worth the splurge for my short 3-day Washington DC itinerary.

Those on a tighter budget may want to consider hotels in the lively Dupont Circle neighborhood. Filled with restaurants, bars, and embassies, it has a distinctly cosmopolitan feel while still offering easy Metro access to Downtown.

Adams Morgan is another vibrant area popular with a younger crowd for its energetic nightlife scene.

Families may prefer the more residential Georgetown neighborhood for its quaint charm and riverfront parks.

With prestigious universities like Georgetown and George Washington, some visitors find West End or Foggy Bottom appealing for their proximity to campus life.

No matter where you stay for your 3-day Washington DC itinerary, Washington, DC’s fantastic public transportation system makes it easy to hop around different areas.

Just be sure to factor in time to navigate the city’s notorious traffic if driving from your hotel.

Where To Eat In Washington DC

As an avid foodie, figuring out where to dine was a top priority when I was mapping out my 3-day Washington DC itinerary.

The nation’s capital is a true melting pot of cuisines and culinary experiences to suit any palate and budget.

Given the short nature of my stay, I wanted to maximize my time while still sampling some of DC’s can’t-miss eateries.

For that quintessential DC dining experience, I made reservations at the iconic Old Ebbitt Grill near the White House.

This beautifully restored 19th-century saloon has been a District institution since 1856, serving up classic American fare in a historic setting.

Another evening, I ventured to the vibrant 14th Street corridor for its trendy restaurants and buzzing atmosphere.

I savored innovative New American small plates at Le Diplomate, a stylish French brasserie. Bars like the raucous Black Jack offered delicious craft cocktails.

With limited time, I appreciated the walkable concentration of eateries in Penn Quarter and Chinatown. From iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl to hole-in-the-wall ethnic gems, I could sample diverse flavors without straying too far.

No foodie visit is complete without trying the local specialty – a classic DC half-smoke sausage. I waited in line at the no-frills U Street corridor spot, Ben’s Next Door, to savor this smoked meat delicacy capped with a dusting of tangy chili spices.

Whether you crave Michelin-starred splurges or authentic global street food, DC’s dining scene has it all within easy striking distance of major attractions.

Just come hungry when you map your 3-day Washington DC itinerary.

Conclusion

As my whirlwind 3-day Washington DC itinerary drew to a close, I found myself utterly enamored with the nation’s capital.

In just 72 hours, I had walked in the footsteps of presidents at iconic landmarks, gained profound perspective at powerful memorials, and experienced the vibrant culture that makes DC such a unique world-class city.

My 3-day Washington DC itinerary began by exploring the National Mall, that gorgeous two-mile park lined with monuments, Smithsonian museums, and the iconic United States Capitol building. If you have more time to explore Wahington, there are lots of amazing day trips from Washington to add to your itinerary.

From the Lincoln Memorial’s majestic marble to the somber, black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, each stop left me in awe.

I immersed myself in history and culture at museums like the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Yet I also carved out time to connect with DC’s spirited local fabric by dining at beloved eateries, strolling colorful neighborhoods like Georgetown, and catching a show at an iconic venue.

While I knew three days wasn’t nearly enough to experience everything DC has to offer, I carefully curated my itinerary to strike a balance between the legendary highlights and off-the-beaten-path gems.

From the haunting Holocaust Museum to indulging my sweet tooth at the Old City Farm & Guild, it was a delightfully eclectic sampling of America’s capital city.

This city has left an indelible mark on my heart and mind. I’ll be back!

What are your thoughts on this 3-day Washington DC itinerary? What attractions would you add or delete?

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Talek Nantes

This blog was created to inspire your travels and to explore experiences in fascinating locations. What you will find are thoughts on how to immerse yourself in local culture, food, history and people. On your way to these adventures I hope to provide you with useful information to help you get there. Come see the world with me!

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I may earn from qualifying purchases. Posts may contain affiliate links. If you click on one of them, we may receive a commission at no cost to you.



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