For nearly 10 million Americans, a Washington DC day trip is just a few hours away. There is so much to do see in this great Capitol city, that it’s a must see and a fun family trip!
Our family has done multiple day trips to Washington DC and we discover something new each time we explore the city. On a few occasions, we’ve spent the night but most times we try to spend a full day and go home in the evening.
If you’re thinking about planning a trip, FIRST figure out what your options are to get in, out, and around the city. Driving and parking in the city can be maddening with traffic, time consuming, and expensive. I would highly recommend the Metro system. From the north, where we live, it made sense to drive to the Greenbelt Station with its ample parking, and take the Metro in and out of the Beltway. With snacks, lunches and drinks in everyone’s backpack (even the 4 year-old!), we were very mobile and able to see many of DC’s sites. Check out the WMATA Metro website, route map, and fare pages to see what option makes the most sense.
Many things will influence your Washington DC day trip, such as weather, mobility (are you able to walk a few miles?), tour availability, and preferences. Some of our favorite tours are listed, below. Each required some advance planning, schedule flexibility, but was well worth pursuing!:
- White House Tour:
To arrange this tour, you will need to submit your request through your Congressman approximately 4-6 months in advance. There are no guarantees of admission and you might find out if you have tickets just weeks before your trip – so plan a back-up! The tour takes your through the southeast gate into the China Room, Vermeil Room, East Room, Blue Room, Red Room, and Green Rooms. You will get some great stories about the construction, re-construction, and various touches that each of the Presidential families has imparted on the White House. You won’t see the oval office or see any of the cabinet meetings…but it was a great tour and a DC trip highlight!
- Capitol Building Tour:
This tour is also arranged through your Congressman and should be done so at least a month in advance to ensure that you get your desired time slot. This tour was very enjoyable from the opening movie to the walk around the offices and chambers. Note that on weekdays, the actual congressional staffers will likely conduct your tour.
- Pentagon Tour:
The Pentagon is the work place of over 25,000 Department of Defense employees and the halls of this amazing building are an Armed Services museum. As you could imagine, requirements for access and tour approval take some advance notice and application, but it’s worth adding to your itinerary! The Pentagon Metro stop brings you above ground at the main entrance…which couldn’t be more convenient. The 9-11 memorial is adjacent to the south parking lot that became the triage area, post attack. The memorial is a somber reminder of the events that took place that day, and a beautiful park to self-reflect and pay respects to our nation’s heroes. This tour was a family-favorite!
Once you have arranged what tours you would like to see, then your Washington DC day trip itinerary should be able to take some shape and you can figure out when & where you’ll be so that you can schedule the other many things to see and do.
As stated above, our capitol has so much to see and do that you’ll have to decide what you’d like to see this time and what can wait until next time. The places below are some of our family’s recommendations and the approximate time it will take to see & do. It’s worth noting that our family probably all has a touch ADD (no-patience-itis), so whereas we might spend 1-hour in a museum…another family might spend all day!
The Smithsonian Museums are amazing! And what’s even better – they’re FREE! You can choose to see airplanes, rockets, and moon landing vehicles in the Air & Space Museum, or see the mighty Dinosaur skeletons and much more in the Museum of Natural History. With 19 museums and galleries to choose from, there is something for everyone! We can spend 1-2 hours in each museum, before attention spans start waning…but as stated above, some families will spend much longer. In fact, these museums alone could be there own Washington DC day trip!
On a nice day, this is a fantastic walk with so much to see! Assuming that you’re starting near the White House, you can walk a long loop to see most of the monuments: Start at the WWII Memorial and walk by the reflecting pool towards the Vietnam War Memorial, then to the Lincoln Memorial, the the Korean War Memorial, the MLK Memorial, FDR Memorial, and around the tidal basin to the Jefferson Memorial, and up towards the Washington Monument. A leisurely walk stopping at each monument for picture taking and reading of inscriptions should take 2-3 hours.
- The Old Post Office:
The Old Post Office Pavilion is located at 1100 Pennsylvania Ave. Tours are run by the National Park Service and you can go up the old clock tower that gives you one of the best views in all of DC. We stumbled on this tour during one of our Washington DC day trips and it was the highlight of the day! Inside the Pavilion, there are plenty of tables and chairs to sit down and relax, along with some souvenir stores and concessions. There was a small line for the elevator to the top, and the view was amazing. Total time is less than an hour.
If your Washington DC Day Trip grows into multiple days, you might want to consider…
- Take a Bike Ride or Stroll on the Mount Vernon Trail:
This paved trail goes from Mount Vernon 18 miles north to Rosalyn along the Potomac River. You can take it from Crystal City across Memorial bridge to the monuments; You can take it to from Crystal City just 1 mile to the fields and park benches near Reagan International Airport, enjoy a picnic lunch, and watch approaching jets fly right over your head!
- Arlington National Cemetery:
Arlington Cemetery is 624 acres that are the final resting place of over 400,000 heroes that served our Nation. Visit the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater and witness the guarding of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. This perpetual ceremony of the guard marching 21 steps and facing north, then 21 steps and facing east, and returning has been occurring since July 2, 1937. Solemn place – every American or freedom-loving person should see it.
- Mount Vernon:
Located just 30 minutes south of DC, Mount Vernon is the 400 acre plantation estate of our first presidential family, George and Martha Washington. The grounds are beautiful and there’s a very nice restaurant that’s a great spot for dinner after your tour is complete. Drive back north along the George Washington Parkway and you’ll experience picturesque views along the Potomac River.
- National Cathedral:
Constructed in 1907 as the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, this Gothic architecture church has been the focal point of National celebration and mourning for over a century. It’s a beautiful church that looks a lot like the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Tours are reasonable (~$10), and it’s worth adding to your Washington DC day trip itinerary if you have the time.
- Library of Congress:
This is the largest library in the world, the Nation’s largest cultural institution, and the research arm of the U.S. Congress. it has millions of books, photographs, maps, and manuscripts. They have exploration ideas for those that have 15-30 minutes to explore to those that have over an hour. Some of the exhibitions are over 500 years old.
- Ford Theater:
Here you will find not only the sight of the Lincoln assassination, but it’s also home to the Lincoln Museum. Across the street, is the Peterson House where Abraham Lincoln, our 16th President, breathed his last. You can reserve free tickets for theater access ahead of time by going to the Ford’s Theater website. If your Washington DC day trip takes you north of the mall, this is a great 45-minute to 1-hour excursion. It’s also very close to the Metro Center (Red, Orange, & Blue lines).
Hopefully the ideas above have painted a picture of all that there is to see & do on a Washington DC day trip.
Have a great trip!