Washington DC is a walkable city with wide open esplanades and a well-planned layout to align the many monuments, memorials, museums and government buildings that make up this District of Columbia. For a visitor with a day or less to get a good sample of the city, it can be tough to fit everything in if you are not well prepared. We’ve compiled this guide to get to the sights you want in the most efficient way possible.
Stop 1: Smithsonian Castle
The Smithsonian Institute runs 19 museums in the USA with 11 located on the National Mall of Washington DC within easy walking distance of the Smithsonian Castle. Entry to all museums is free with extra charges for some special exhibits. The Smithsonian Castle, also located on the Mall houses the visitor’s centre to all the museums where you can pick up a map and get some more insider knowledge from the helpful staff. They also have a toilet!
Pick your Washington DC museums or galleries
Let’s face it you will not make it to all the museums in a day. So it’s best to go in with a priority list. At best you will manage two on the mall and perhaps one further afield. For this walking tour, pick 2 museums on the Mall and one downtown. It may not seem like much but the other must-see sights really only allow it. So make your choices and move on!
On The Mall (pick 2)
These are located on The Mall and appear clockwise when looking out onto the Mall from the Smithsonian Castle.
- Museum of Natural History – All about what Mother Nature has created both in the past and present. Good for kids.
- Gallery of Art and Sculpture – A nice garden surrounds this sculpture gallery and an ice rink operates during winter.
- National Gallery of Art – American and European art works. Is made up of two buildings.
- Museum of Native American Art – Get a look at native America artefacts and art.
- Air and Space Museum – A popular museum containing aviation and exhibits of space exploration.
- Hirshorn Museum – A modern & contemporary art museum.
- Museum of African American History & Culture – A relatively new museum in a modern looking building. Very popular so go early or ask for advance tickets at the visitor centre.
- Museum of American History – A large museum chronicling US History.
Downtown (pick 1)
- National Portrait Gallery – Famous for having portraits and interesting write-ups on all the past US presidents.
- National Postal Museum – For stamp collectors and understanding the US Postal Service history.
- Freer | Sackler Museum of Asian Art – Asian inspired artworks
- American Art Museum – The first museum of American art and history.
Stop 2: Museum #1 on The Mall
Based on your museum selection, head to the #1 museum on The Mall. Spend an hour or two absorbing as much as you can including any additional exhibits.
Stop 3: Washington Monument
Head west towards the unmissable Washington Monument. This stone obelisk at 169m is the world’s tallest. Until Spring 2019 access to the top of the Washington monument is not possible while the elevator is being replaced. So just take in this dominant structure of the Washington skyline while walking west toward the Lincoln Memorial.
Stop 4: World War II Memorial
A well designed fountain-based memorial highlights the commitment of US troops to the World War II effort in Europe and the Pacific. Each state and territory of the USA is given it’s own column dedicated troops coming from all over the country.
Stop 5: Lincoln Reflection Pool
One of the most iconic views of Washington is overlooking the Lincoln Reflection Pool towards the Washington monument and all the way up The Mall towards Capitol Hill. Walk along the edge of the long rectangular pool before reaching the steps of the Lincoln memorial. On each side of the reflection pool lies a memorial to the troops of both the Vietnam and Korean wars.
Stop 6: Lincoln Memorial
The Lincoln memorial itself hides the enormous statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln behind the large greek columns that run around the perimeter. Inscribed on the walls are speeches made at the Gettysburg address among others. It was on the steps of the Lincoln memorial where Martin Luther King Jr made his ‘I have a dream’ speech back in 1963.
Stop 7: The White House
Home to the US President and Presidential staff, the Whitehouse has been the home of every US President since 1800. Walking from the Lincoln memorial, walk past the Vietnam War memorial and past the Constitution Gardens. Then head north past the Elipse and the southern rear entrance of the Whitehouse will appear. You also have the option of walking to the front entrance which is another kilometre north along 17th St NW.
Stop 8: Downtown Museum/Exhibit
From the list you made, now is time to visit the choice of museum chosen to visit downtown. Head east from the White House into the grid like streets of the downtown precinct. The most popular choice here is the National Portrait Gallery, in particular the portraits of all the US Presidents. Each painting has an informative biography of the president including both their successes and failures. Other sights along the way include Ford’s theatre (where Lincoln was assassinated) and the International Spy museum which is a more commercial/tourist attraction with interactive exhibits for kids.
Stop 9: The Mall Museum #2
If you still have time and energy, head back south towards The Mall to visit your second choice of museum. Take time to enjoy the wide open spaces of The Mall and the 13 or more gardens that surround the Smithsonian Museum buildings. Also take in Capitol Hill home to all government dealings which is off in the distance.
Map: Washington DC Walking Tour
Regardless of the route you take, you’ll enjoy your time just soaking up DC. Our friends at Everyday Wanderer have put together an awesome list of the best places to stay in Washington DC so definitely check it out as part of your planning too.