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How to Spend 1 Day in Washington, DC: A 1-Day Itinerary

How to Spend 1 Day in Washington, DC: A 1-Day Itinerary

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Washington, DC, has been the capital of the USA for over 200 years, so it’s no surprise that there is a ton of history here.

From memorials and national monuments to federal government buildings, DC is a unique place. Given its title, we were prepared to feel like we were on a class field trip but were pleasantly surprised with all the fun activities to do in the capital.

From river cruises to sightseeing tours, Washington, DC, is a really cool place to visit. There are beautiful neighborhoods to explore, plenty of fun bars, and excellent food! Even if you’re only here for a day, we’ve got a full itinerary for a great stay in Washington, DC!

Don’t have time to read the full article? If you’ve only got 1 day in DC, we recommend joining a sightseeing tour, checking out a Smithsonian Museum, and enjoying a drink at one of the beautiful cocktail bars in the city. If you can, definitely visit Georgetown too!

Day 1

Go on a full-day city tour (morning)

Bailey and Daniel Take a selfie with the Lincoln Memorial in Washington Dc
Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC
Bailey on a tour bus in Washington DC with the Capital Building in the background
The sightseeing tours are the best way to see a lot in a day!

One of our favorite ways to get to know a new city is by going on a sightseeing tour. We’ve been on amazing sightseeing tours in New York City and Philadelphia, so we were really excited to join a sightseeing tour of Washington, DC.

This guided sightseeing tour is one of our favorites and it covers many of the main attractions in DC. You’ll see the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, and even the US Capitol building, although if you want to get inside, you’ll have to join a separate US Capitol tour.

We also got to enjoy some downtime at Georgetown Waterfront Park which was a lovely surprise because it’s in our favorite neighborhood in DC, Georgetown. But we’ll talk more about this later.

Another amazing experience was taking a Potomac River Cruise which ended up being one of my favorite activities on this tour. It was quite hot and humid when we were there, so taking a boat ride on the cool water and traveling in an air-conditioned bus was very convenient and made the whole trip much more comfortable.

Bailey walks along the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC
Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Visiting the memorials was another highlight. There are so many, and our guide was fantastic about explaining the significance of each one and kept it interesting. Since this tour takes up the majority of the day, we were very grateful for this.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial were all really interesting. Since we are not from the US, it’s always fascinating to hear different perspectives about America’s history.

All in all, this tour lasts 6 hours and costs $89 USD per person. If you want to travel in a fancy glass-top bus, you can pay $10 USD more. While lunch is not included, there are plenty of restaurants in Georgetown where you can enjoy a meal. We mentioned the river cruise being part of this tour, but please be aware that it only runs between April and October. For one of the best ways to get acquainted with Washington, DC, you can reserve this sightseeing tour here.

If you’d rather have a more personal experience, this private city tour is a great alternative. It includes stops at all the same monuments and memorials as above, but you’ll ride in style in a luxury vehicle with just your group. This tour lasts about 4 hours and costs $550 USD for a group of up to 5, or $650 USD for up to 14 people. If you have a large group, it actually ends up being cheaper than the other sightseeing tour, and if you book on Viator, you’ll get free cancellation up to 24 hours before the tour time.

Visit one of the Smithsonian museums (afternoon)

Dinosaur at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC
Dinosaur at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
An elephant statue at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC
They are impressive!

As the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex (which is pretty impressive), the Smithsonian Institution is a huge complex consisting of museums, galleries, and even a zoo! Luckily for you, most of them are located right here.

While you’re in the city, we recommend visiting one of the Smithsonian museums – especially since it’s one of the best free activities in Washington, DC. We know it can be difficult to choose, so we’ll touch on a few of our favorites to help you decide which one sounds the best!

Our personal choice is the National Museum of Natural History, and honestly, this is just a cool place. There are so many exhibits where you’ll see fossils, mummies, ocean life, geology, and so much more. It’s open from 10 am to 5:30 pm daily and it’s free to visit. There are some places inside the museum that do charge a fee like the butterfly pavilion, which is $8 USD to enter, but if you’re visiting on a Tuesday it’s also free! It’s perfect for kids and adults and is the most visited museum of the bunch.

Next, there’s the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) which has some incredible artwork, so if you’re always looking for new pieces, this is the place for you. There are paintings, sculptures, and multimedia collaborations, and it’s got a good mix of traditional and contemporary work. The SAAM is open from 11:30 am to 7 pm, and Renwick Gallery is nearby, which features crafts and art from the SAAM’s collection and is open from 10 am – 5:30 pm. Both are free to visit, so the choice is yours!

Another option is the National Postal Museum, which is conveniently located next to a historic DC post office. If you’re a fan of collecting stamps or other postal artifacts, you might enjoy walking through the exhibits here. You can learn about the role of the US Postal Inspection Service, see the stamp gallery, and get a detailed explanation of how mail gets from one place to another. It’s open from 10 am to 5:30 pm every day, and like the other museums, it’s also free to enter.

One of the most popular Smithsonian museums is the National Museum of African American History and Culture. While it’s also free to visit, you need to reserve a pass on their website to receive an entry time, which you can do 30 days in advance or at 8:15 am the morning of your visit. This is a beautiful place and it’s the only national museum that exclusively documents the lives and contributions of African Americans. It’s open Monday from 12-5:30 pm and Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 5:30 pm.

Related Read: There are also plenty of museums in New York City! One of the most moving ones is the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

OR

Explore Georgetown (afternoon)

Georgetown Old Stone House in Washington DC
Georgetown Old Stone House
Daniel enjoys a slice of pizza on a food tour in Georgetown Washington DC
Yum!

If you’ve already seen the museums or are just looking for a different DC experience, we highly recommend heading over to Georgetown.

This charming area is the oldest neighborhood in Washington, DC. It’s full of cute shops, beautiful buildings, cobblestone streets, and some tasty restaurants too. Plus, everything here is walkable so if you’re renting a car, you can park it in a garage or find street parking. Be sure to check this website for parking information in Georgetown before your visit.

To start your morning off right, we suggest heading over to Baked and Wired. It’s a family-run cafe that sells an assortment of baked goods and scrumptious coffee too. They only prepare small batches so it’s always fresh! We tried the muffins and they were incredible, but you’re going to want to get there early for the best selection. It’s located by the canal and is open from 8 am to 4 pm every day.

For something more savory, you can’t go wrong with 90 Second Pizza. They spend 48 hours making their dough from scratch and then pop it in the oven for 90 seconds for a fast-food pizza that is pure perfection. Their Georgetown location is on Wisconsin Ave.

Alternatively, you can go across the street and get a classic lobster roll at Mason’s Famous Lobster Rolls. They use lobster imported from Maine (which is known for high-quality lobster), and one roll will cost about $20 USD. Since these restaurants are so close to each other, it makes sense to try both…right? I mean, pizza and lobster sounds like a great pair.

For a fancy little treat, we enjoyed the macarons at Ladurée off of M Street. They are as beautiful as they are delicious and we think they’re worth the splurge.

Of course, one of the most convenient ways to try different foods in a limited amount of time is by going on a Georgetown food tour. This tour stops at four different eateries, all while your guide explains the culture and background of this historic neighborhood. It’s a 2-for-1 tour history and food tour, which is great when you’re short on time. It costs $129 USD per person and is available Thursday through Sunday. Tour times are at 11:30 am and 1 pm, so you might need to adjust this itinerary a bit to make it work.

Bailey looks at the canals in Georgetown Washington DC
The history of Georgetown is so interesting!

If you don’t go on the city tour we mentioned first, it’s still worth visiting Georgetown Waterfront Park. There are amazing views of the Potomac River, gardens, a fountain, and plenty of open pathways to enjoy a stroll. It’s one of our favorite things to do in summer in Washington, DC.

Some other fun places to visit are Georgetown Park and the Washington Harbour which are great for shopping (or window-shopping) and people-watching. If you’re visiting during the winter, Washington Harbour has a huge ice rink that is super fun. It costs about $11 USD for 1.5 hours of skate time, and we hear it’s even more magical at night because of all the twinkling lights.

A great way to learn more about Georgetown is by taking this historic walking tour. Your guide will point out houses that belonged to former presidents, and important landmarks like the Old Stone House and Martin’s Tavern where presidents and celebrities have dined for years. This tour is a fantastic introduction to Georgetown and it helped us fall in love with this neighborhood. It costs $65 USD when you book online and lasts about 2 hours so it’s great for a one-day stay!

Enjoy a meal at the oldest restaurant in Washington, DC (dinner)

Daniel enjoys a drink at The Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington DC, USA
The old-fashioned was amazing!
Bailey sits down with her meal at The Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington DC
Yum!

Choosing a place for dinner is always a difficult task for us. There were so many options, but we always try to find one that ties into the city’s history.

After a full day of sightseeing, we recommend taking a break at the Old Ebbitt Grill. It’s a stunning building with a Victorian-era interior design, and while it originally opened as a boarding house, it’s also Washington DC’s oldest saloon!

Since it opened in 1856, the Old Ebbitt Grill has been visited by entertainers, celebrities, and even former presidents. It’s been in its current location since 1983 and is a historic landmark in the DC area. This place has an atmosphere of old-school American glamour, from its oil paintings, antique lighting, and mahogany accents, eating here is like stepping back in time. 

But it’s not just about the decor – the food here is incredible! If you like seafood, be sure to order the crab dip to start! For our entrées, we had salmon and trout which were both outstanding, and we shared the salted caramel bread pudding for dessert. I’m not exaggerating when I say their bread pudding is a revelation – seriously.

While we didn’t try them this go around, the Old Ebbitt Grill is famous for their oysters and even has a designated oyster bar. All in all, for the quality of the food, we thought the prices were very reasonable. It’s around $25-$40 USD for main meals and there are plenty of options, and there’s even an oyster happy hour from 3-5 pm, and 11 pm – 1 am every day.

Since you’re only in DC for the day, we strongly encourage you to book a reservation in advance as this restaurant is very popular. It’s open from 8 am until 2 am and opens at 9 am on the weekends. While this itinerary is based around having dinner here, you can also come for breakfast, brunch, or to enjoy a late-night cocktail which happens to be our final activity on this itinerary!

Related Read: If you’re traveling on this side of the country, it’s worth it to eat at the Chelsea Market and take a tour of Central Park in NYC.

Go for cocktails (night)

Cocktails at Round Robin Bar in Washington Dc
Round Robin!
A cocktail at Round Robin in Washington DC
Ahh cocktails!

After a busy day, we think grabbing a drink at one of the DC’s excellent cocktail bars is the perfect way to round out the night.

Our first stop is at the restaurant we mentioned above. The Old Ebbitt Grill has a few bars onsite that are great for a nightcap. We love the atmosphere here, and they have some really good cocktails as well. If you like rum, try the Fog Cutter. Or, for a unique twist on a classic, we suggest the Spiced Apple Sangria. If you’re there during one of the OEG Happy Hours, there are champagne specials by the bottle on top of their oyster deals.

A personal favorite of ours is Round Robin Bar which is located inside the Willard Washington Hotel. Their cocktails and service are both outstanding and sipping a Mint Julep (their signature drink) at their classy round bar is definitely a fun experience. Round Robin opened in 1847, and it’s been nicknamed the “Oval Office of Bars” since many political figures have been known to grab a drink here. There’s an air of sophistication with their leather seating, chandeliers, marble tabletops, and portraits of American icons on the walls, and you can feel even more fancy by adding smoke to your cocktail (for $5 USD).

For those interested in a classic American tavern experience, head to Shelly’s Back Room to enjoy some whiskey and a cigar. This is more of a laid-back spot with a log cabin feel, large couches and chairs, and plenty of big-screen TVs to watch the games. They even have a good air purification system, so you won’t suffer from cigar smoke if you want to make a stop here.

Shelly’s Back Room is located just a few blocks from the other bars we mentioned, so if you want to go all out, you can have a mini DC pub crawl on your last night! Each place stays open until at least midnight so you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy some cocktails before your next adventure.

Other Things to do While You’re in Washington DC

Bailey enjoys a beer on a pub crawl in Washington DC
Cheers!

If you’re looking for more fun things to do in Washington DC, look no further! This city isn’t just about history, museums, and monuments, there are plenty of other ways to explore. Whether you have a few more days to fill or simply want a range of activities, check out these other awesome things to do in DC.

  • Segway Sightseeing Tour – Cruise around Washington, DC, in style on this segway sightseeing tour! If you’ve never been on a segway, you’re in for a treat – they are super fun and you’ll spend 2.5 hours passing by 24 iconic locations. Plus, the local guides are so great, so it doesn’t feel like your typical sightseeing tour. You can reserve this tour for only $75 USD.
  • Food, History, and Street Art Tour – U Street is another legendary Washington, DC, neighborhood, so what better way to discover its culture than through a food, history, and street art walking tour? You’ll have three hours to learn about the area called “Black Broadway” and experience what makes this area so unique and important to the nation’s capital! Part of the ticket price goes toward feeding those in need in this neighborhood – so it’s a good cause too. Book tickets in advance here.
  • History Tour Pub Crawl – If you love history and craft beer, this tour is perfect for you! Your local guide will share the history that isn’t necessarily in the textbooks, all while stopping at important historical locations where a deal or two was struck over a pint of beer. I like how unique this tour is, and I really love that you get 4 beers included in the price! This tour can be booked here in advance for $100 USD.
  • Sightseeing Tour by Electric Cart – While there are a lot of sightseeing tours out there, this one has nearly 2,000 positive reviews on Viator, so you can’t miss out! This 2-hour electric cart tour visits the monuments and Capitol Hill, passing by 11 important sites. Riding in an electric cart lets you see more and is suitable for any traveler, and it’s fun! You can book a small group tour or a private tour, depending on your budget – check all the details and book your tour here!

Where to Stay in Washington, DC

the pool at Pendry hotel in Washington DC
The pool at the Pendry is so nice! Photo Credit: Pendry Washington DC

Now that you’ve planned out your day in Washington, DC, you might need a place to stay! To help you narrow it down, we’ve highlighted our top choices. We’ve included everything from budget hostels to luxurious hotels, so you’re bound to find something you like whether you’re here for the day or planning to stay for two days or three days!

Pendry Washington DC – $$$

For the ultimate luxury and convenience, opt for the Pendry Washington DC. This 5-star hotel has free bikes, an outdoor pool, a hot tub, a fitness center, a rooftop bar, and a large terrace overlooking the wharf. Plus, it’s just a 5-minute walk to the docking port if you choose to do a river cruise (you might even see your boat from your window!). The rooms are spacious, modern, and super comfortable.

There’s a wide range of room options, ranging from $260 USD to over $1,000 USD, depending on what you choose. However, you’ll find the best deals when you book your stay in advance.

Hotel Madera – $$

Hotel Madera is a great mid-range accommodation in the heart of DC. You can have a taste of American comfort food and cocktails at their on-site restaurant – or grab a complimentary glass of wine at the bar. It’s located close to many bars and restaurants and is just a 5-minute walk to Dupont Circle. Rooms are quite large and well-equipped, and some come with balconies to view the city.

Prices start at $170 USD which is a great value for what you get! Snag this deal by booking online here.

Duo Nomad – $

Duo Nomad is our top choice for budget accommodations in DC. It’s a clean place with complimentary breakfast, a garden, a terrace, and a shared lounge to meet other travelers or relax after a day of sightseeing. It’s located just off Capital Hill and a 10-minute drive to the wharf.

Prices run from $39-$59 USD for a bed in a shared dorm. However, if you’re two people traveling, get a 2-bed shared dorm, and voila – it’s your own private accommodation! If you’re on a budget, reserve a bed at Duo Nomad on Booking.com or through Hostelworld.com.

Thanks for reading!

Daniel and Bailey take a selfie in front of the White House in Washington DC
Thanks for reading!

Washington, DC, is such a fun place to visit, even if you’re just here for the day. We hope this itinerary has helped plan your stay. And even if you’ve already been, maybe it’s provided some new ideas for your next visit!

We love traveling and have been fortunate enough to go across the USA and all over North America. If this blog has been helpful, maybe some of our others will be too! Here are a few to get you started:

The 10 BEST Washington, DC History Tours for First-Time Visitors

30 BEST Free and Cheap Things to do in Philadelphia

How to Spend ONE DAY in Philadelphia: 1-Day Itinerary

34 BEST Things to do in New York City in Summer – Events, Festivals, and More!