There are two attractions voted #1 and #2 on Tripadvisor for things to do and see in Washington, DC that would make a great first-time day trip to the capital!
I lived in MD, near DC, for a year and have been to the US capital probably 30 times since and still haven’t seen or done everything!
A one-day trip to Washington, DC is going to mean you need to be super focused and quite ruthless about what you will do – and more importantly, what you will leave out.
I mean, you could spend two weeks here and still not thoroughly visit all the Smithsonian museums – which are free to enter. And there’s a whole lot more too, like the Hirshhorn, the Holocaust Museum and more private and paid galleries and museums to while away days.
Even the National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian Institute, and if you have small kids, you’ll know you could spend all day here!
So I’m going to break this post into a feasible one day in DC, because I know sometimes we are just transitting through, or maybe we only have a day before a work conference, or heck, maybe you live within cooee and you’re going to bring a friend and make a day of it in the capital.
And read on to find out what the two most popular places to visit are.
Here is what I would do on a day trip to Washington DC:
Take a Monument Cycle Tour
The most efficient way to get around the vast amount of miles between each incredible monument is by bike (ok, you can also take a hop on hop off bus tour if you don’t want to expend the energy!)
The last time I was in DC we did a Monuments by Night cycle tour. It was something that had been on my must-do list for years but I never got organized enough to do it. So this time we did. You can do them day or night, and actually the day tour will allow for better pics unless you have super night photography skills.
Start at the bike rental down at The Wharf and your two-hour begins and ends here with a local guide who will stop and tell stories and explain what you’re looking at along the way.
Where to eat in Washington, DC
Aha! Now this is a great place to come back to after your cycle tour, or just head here for lunch/brunch/dinner or a glass of wine at one of the restaurants or a Guinness at Kirwan’s Irish pub.
This new neighborhood was built within the last five years, you guessed – down at the wharf. It is still being developed with apartments, offices and a great hospitality scene.
It would be a great place to live (note to self if we ever end up in DC for work!) It’s a great place for live events with boats bobbing at their berths, and if you want fresh seafood to cook yourself (in your waterfront condo), the old crab and seafood shacks are still here holding on to tradition while the waterfront grows up right beside them.
Oyamel Cocina Mexicana
Back near the Mall, we stopped for lunch. I LOVE Mexican food and was thrilled to find Oyamel Cocina Mexican with a guacamole making station at the entrance. They make huge bowls of it fresh to order, which goes perfectly with a Margarita, I might add!
We worked through some of the highlights of the extensive menu. There were three of us, so I loved getting little tastes of everything.
Location: 401 7th St NW
Take a Capitol Building Tour
The tours are free, but you need to get your timed tickets online as it’s super popular. Then on the day, you line up at the visitor entrance on the east of the famous domed building, go through security then line up to present your timed ticket and get another ticket and wait for the next guided tour to begin.
Then you’ll walk the corridors of presidents past and future. You’ll get a sense of where the shocking riots took place on January 6, 2021. You’ll see statues sent by each state to represent them. The architecture alone is worth taking a tour for.
My pick for one Smithsonian Museum to visit in a day
If you only have a couple of hours on your one day in Washington DC, the most popular museum is the Natural History Museum. Followed by the Air and Space Museum, which has had a post-Covid makeover, I might add.
Natural History Museum
It’s the most popular Smithsonian museum for a reason!
It was established over 100 years ago, in 1910, and is enormous. The best thing to do is work out the most important things you want to see. You could spend a whole day here otherwise – and we have a monument to get to!
What NOT to miss at the Natural History Museum:
You’ll enter into the impressive atrium with the even more impressive African Bush Elephant greeting you, trunk raised ready to check you out. (Don’t worry, he’s stuffed).
If your kids are not scared of butterflies landing on them, head into Butterfly Pavilion on the 2nd floor.
The Hope Diamond is worth an ogle. This 45.5 carat blue diamond was donated to the Smithsonian in 1958 by Harry Winston. You’ll find this and other gob smacking gems, like the 168-carat Mackay emerald and diamond necklace and the massive Carmen Lúcia ruby in the Janet Annenberg Hooker hall of geology, gems and minerals on the 2nd floor.
There’s bones and fossils and stuffed animals and then there’s the O. Orkin LIVE insect zoo on the 2nd floor. Brace yourself to come face to face with a tarantula, or maybe hold a hissing cockroach. The last time I came in here I was terrified and yet fascinated by the bird-eating spider.
If using Metrorail, take the Orange or Blue lines to the Smithsonian Station and use the Mall exit. If taking Metrobus, use the 32, 34 or 36 routes.
If you want all the inside goss on the Natural History Museum, you can book a private guided tour which will save time – and you won’t get lost!
The other most popular attraction to see in DC is the Lincoln Memorial. It’s iconic.
President Lincoln, all 19-feet of him (sitting down), faces the Washington Monument with the Reflecting Pool in front of him. He’s seen a lot of things from this vantage point, Martin Luther King Jnr’s famous speech being one.
The last time I visited Abe we were on our night time cycle tour – which I loved (can I say that again!) and can thoroughly recommend if you’re not dashing home before you turn into a pumpkin.
If you have more time, you might like my post on all my favorite things to in Washington DC for first timers.
Great tours to take in Washington, DC
If you’d like all the work done for you, you can take a one day guided tour of Washington, DC. It includes a bit of walking as well as being transported around the city by coach, ensuring you see as much as possible. You’ll visit all the top memorials, the White House, the Capitol Building (not entry, but you will get off the coach and have a guided walk around it). Plenty of fantastic photo ops await.
If you don’t want to do too much walking but you do want to see everything, take a Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour. That way you can leap off where you like and just catch the next bus when you’re ready.
If you have the energy for a bicycle tour around the monuments with a local guide, take this Monuments and Memorial Bicycle Tour.
How about nipping up to New York on a day trip?
I have this post on how to have the Perfect Shopping Trip to NYC in a day.
And this one on How to See Brooklyn in a Day, if you’ve done NYC before.