The Ultimate 4 to 5 Days in Washington, DC Itinerary

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by Audrey Webster

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Planning out a Washington DC itinerary can be a challenge when you consider all there is to see and do in the US capital. History aficionados will fall in love with Washington DC. There are few other places in the world that house so many museums and monuments from a single country’s history.

During your 4 or 5 days in Washington DC, you’ll have access to the Smithsonian’s iconic network of museums, historical monuments, and slices of history that you won’t easily find anywhere else.

How Many Days in Washington, DC?

If you’re wondering how many days to spend in Washington DC, it can vary dramatically based on what you want to see. It’s a city that is loaded with activities that could keep you busy for several days.

You should plan to spend a minimum of 3 days in Washington DC. This will grant you ample time to catch the highlights at a leisurely pace. Even then, you’ll still have to prioritize what you see during your visit to the nation’s capital.

With 4 days in Washington DC, you have a little more time to see the museums and historical landmarks.

5 days in DC allows you to take a day trip to a nearby site like Arlington Cemetery, Mount Vernon, or somewhere even further. You can easily hop on the metro for a quick day trip out of the city itself.

You also could easily use this time to explore some of the other neighborhoods around DC, such as Dupont Circle or Georgetown.

US Capitol Building
US Capitol Building on Capitol Hill

Getting To & Around Washington, DC 

If you’re coming from far away, you’ll likely arrive in Washington DC by plane. There are three major airports: Dulles, Ronald Reagan, and Baltimore-Washington.

Visitors can use the metro to reach inner-city Washington DC from these airports. Alternatively, rideshare services and taxis are easily available and you can also book a transfer ahead of time.

DC is also well-connected via rail to a number of other cities on the East Coast, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia and even Providence. You can view train schedules here.

When getting around the city, take the metro. It’s clean, reliable, and reaches all the city’s main landmarks. That said, you should walk around the National Mall and Tidal Basin. You can easily reach most major monuments and museums just by walking around the National Mall.

The Tidal Basin offers its visitors a pleasant walk any time of day while getting to see iconic memorials and monuments. 

The White House
The White House

4 to 5-Day Washington DC Itinerary

For the days with two museums, we recommend visiting one in the morning and one in the afternoon after taking a lunch break. You can mix and match depending on your interest, but consider the highlights listed below to be the most highly recommended stops for your DC itinerary. 

Day 1 – White House, Tidal Basin, Memorials & More!

While the sites on the first day of this itinerary can be visited independently it is also possible to take several guided tours such as this bus tour, this bike tour or this evening tour if you want to see the monuments at night.

Washington Memorial and White House

We’ve added the White House and Washington Memorial to the top of your itinerary because they are can’t-miss sites in Washington DC. These two marble structures are iconic.

The Washington Monument stands at just over 555 ft tall. There is an observation deck at the top that grants visitors excellent views of the National Mall.

You can also book a tour of a portion of the White House to see some of the building’s most famous rooms. 

Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial is a favorite monument for many first-time visitors to Washington DC. It’s the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Where he stood at the top of the monument’s stairs is marked by an engraving.

The reflecting pools before the monument make for an iconic Washington DC photo op. Make sure to check out the Lincoln Memorial at night too. The monument lit up is a stunning sight to see. 

Walk the Tidal Basin

Walking the Tidal Basin is an absolute must no matter what time of year you’re visiting, but the spring and fall are the most stunning.

Every spring the cherry blossom trees bloom casting the basin into a beautiful pink floral park. Here you’ll find the Jefferson Memorial, Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, and MLK Jr. Memorial.

You can rent paddle boats to explore the basin from the water. It’s a highlight of your Washington DC itinerary. 

Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC, USA
Thomas Jefferson Memorial

Vietnam Veterans and Korean War Veterans Memorials

Continuing your walk of the National Mall, visit the Vietnam and Korean War Veterans Memorials. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, also known as “the Wall”, is a long black granite wall with the names of 58,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War. It’s a solemn and thought-provoking memorial.

Next, the Korean War Veterans Memorial pays homage to the over 1.5 million of soldiers who served. These 19 stainless steel statues march in a triangle formation toward an American flag. 

World War II Memorial

The World War II Memorial is a stunning white memorial dedicated to the 16 million Americans who served in World War II. It’s a circle of 56 columns that represent all U.S. states and territories around the Rainbow Pool.

Here is another memorial you want to make sure you visit after dark. At night, lights shine on the columns and from the pool making it an eye-catching site. 

World War II Memorial in Washington, DC
World War II Memorial

Day 2  – Museum of Natural History, National Archives Museum & the US Capitol

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Perhaps one of the most iconic museums in the United States is the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. It’s an absolute must for all visitors to Washington DC.

The museum, part of the Smithsonian museum network, is an especially great stop for a Washington DC itinerary that includes children and they are free to enter.

There are over 147 million items on display that range from marine life to geology to ancient Egypt. You can spend anywhere from two hours to about half a day exploring this museum and there is no doubt that it is one of the best things to do in Washington DC. It is also possible to take a guided tour if you want to learn more from a guide.

If you’re more interested in American History, then consider visiting the adjacent Smithsonian National Museum of American History during this time instead. Here you can find exhibits that are important to the history of the USA and it’s a wonderful place to visit.

Natural History Museum Exhibit in Washington DC
Natural History Museum Exhibit

National Archives Museum

Where can you find the true Declaration of Independence, the American Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the surviving copies of the Magna Carta all in one place? The National Archives Museum.

Make sure you reserve a timed slot in advance to avoid waiting in the long line at the entrance. Here is the only place where visitors can view the country’s founding documents. 

U.S. Capitol & the Library of Congress

The U.S. Capitol building is one of the most impressive working government buildings in Washington DC. With its towering white marble dome, it stands out in the National Mall. Inside, you can see where both houses of Congress reside.

Visitors can enter the capitol, but you must make a reservation in advance. You cannot visit the Capitol without a reserved tour – you can book a small group tour here.

Nearby you’ll find the Library of Congress. Here is where you’ll find hundreds of years’ worth of historical books and documents in a beautifully-designed building. 

Day 3 – Air and Space Museum & the Holocaust Memorial Museum

Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum

The Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum is a treasure trove of the country’s most iconic advancements in air and space technology. Here you’ll find Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega 5B, the Apollo 11 Command Module, the Wright Brothers’ 1903 Wright Flyer, and much more.

There is also an IMAX theater, Einstein Planetarium, and flight simulators to enjoy. You can easily spend several hours wandering the massive hanger filled with excellently-preserved planes. You can organise a guided tour here.

Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Exhibits
Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Exhibits

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum is a sobering experience. The stories of Holocaust survivors are told through film footage, photography, artefacts, and more. It tracks the rise of Hitler through propaganda and World War II.

There are several special exhibits–most advise a minimum age warning due to the graphic nature of the material on display. Portions of the museum have walls raised so young children cannot see over them.

It’s an informative and impressive museum that is well worth adding to your itinerary if you have 3 days in DC. 

Day 4 – Museum of African American History, National Gallery & the JFK Center

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History

If you’re seeing Washington DC in 4 days, you should mix and match your museums to make sure you see the ones you’re most interested in. However, ensure you visit the National Museum of African American History.

This museum is a relative newcomer to the National Mall, opening in 2016. It contains over 40,000 artefacts that trace the experiences and lives of African Americans from the country’s earliest years to present day.

The museum is expertly curated and you could easily spend half a day wandering its halls. If you want to learn more about African American history, you can take a half-day tour that includes some time in this museum.

National Gallery of Art

Art fans should prioritize a visit to the National Gallery of Art. There are two wings: the East Building which is home to modern art and the West Building home to classic art pieces. The collection is huge.

You could easily spend a couple hours or an entire day wandering between these two buildings. Don’t leave without visiting the rooftop where you’ll get great panoramic views of the city. You can organise a guided tour here.

Those traveling with children or who simply don’t want to visit more museums, then consider using this time to visit the Smithsonian National Zoological Park – also known as the National Zoo. Easily reached on public transport, this zoo is free to enter and you can see incredible animal exhibits – including Giant Pandas!

National Gallery of Art
National Gallery of Art

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

From dance performances to musicals, the shows at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is an excellent way to spend an evening.

You’ll want to look at the schedule and reserve your tickets in advance. However, if you don’t have time to see a performance, visiting the center is still worth it.

There is a rooftop garden and bars that boasts incredible views of the National Mall. There is an art gallery and sculpture garden to explore as well. It’s a great addition to any trip to Washington DC.

Day 5 – Arlington National Cemetery, Rock Creek Park or Mount Vernon

Arlington National Cemetery

Located just across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia is one of the nation’s most famous cemeteries.

Arlington National Cemetery is about one square mile and houses the graves of over 400,000 service members as well as former presidents. Highlights include John F. Kennedy’s grave and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

If time allows, you should watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This memorial is dedicated to all those who have lost their lives, but their bodies were never found or identified.

You can opt for a tour of Arlington Cemetery if you want to learn more about the memorials and gravesites. Arlington isn’t far from DC itself, so it’s easy to add on to a 4-day itinerary or if you’re seeing Washington DC in 5 days. 

Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery

Rock Creek Park

If you’ve had enough of being in the city, head to Rock Creek Park. Here you’ll find over 32 miles of hiking trails, tennis courts, biking paths, and a golf course. It’s a great way to spend a day or afternoon after spending a few days seeing as much of Washington DC as possible.

Should you want to explore the park further, pay a visit to the Nature Center, the Peirce Mill, and the Old Stone House. 

Mount Vernon

A visit to Mount Vernon is a step back in history. It’s the former home of the nation’s first president, George Washington.

Here you’ll find an immaculately preserved home, the tombs of George and Martha Washington, and a memorial dedicated to the enslaved people who worked on the property. Over 96 million people have visited Mount Vernon since it opened to the public in 1860. 

There are several options for getting to Mount Vernon. It’s located about 15 miles from Washington DC. You can take a guided tour bus, public bus, or Metrorail. If you have a rental car, parking is also available at Mount Vernon, but the lot fills up very quickly.

If you want the more scenic route, consider taking a boat along the Potomac River. Note that you will not be allowed on the property without a ticket – you can pre-book tickets here.

Washington's House in Mount Vernon
George Washington’s House in Mount Vernon

Where to Stay in Washington, DC

Phoenix Park Hotel – This hotel is an excellent choice for mid-range visitors looking. They have many great rooms to choose from, a central location for exploring the city and breakfast available in the mornings.

Hotel Washington – Those looking for a high-end stay in the US capital will love this swanky hotel. Located within easy reach of the National Mall, they have numerous delightful rooms to choose from along with plenty of great amenities – including a spa/wellness center and an on-site restaurant/bar.

Highroad Hostel Washington, DC – Budget and solo travelers will love this highly-rated hostel located in the center of DC. Situated close to all of the top attractions of the city, they have both dorms and private rooms available along with good common spaces.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Washington, DC hotels!

Whether this is your first time seeing Washington DC or you’re a return visitor, this itinerary will help guide your exploration of the US capital.

Are you visiting Washington, DC? Have any questions about this itinerary? Let us know in the comments!

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Audrey Webster is a writer for The World Was Here First. She is an Oregon native who has visited countries across the globe and currently spends her weekends exploring the Pacific Northwest and surrounding states. Her approach to traveling combines exploring famous tourist sites and wandering off the beaten path to discover new destinations.

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