It is definitely a challenge to pick just a few tourist highlights to experience in 24 hours in Washington D.C.
I’ve spent quick visits in Chicago, New York, and Las Vegas, tagging on tourist stops when I was on trips for other purposes. That is how I found myself in Washington, D.C. I had gone there to attend the 2014 Global Issues Fellowsship sponsored by the UN Foundation as well as participate in the Shot@Life Summit. Because it had been almost 40 years since I was last in Washington, D.C., I decided to stay one extra day to catch some of the famous sites. After all, who knew when I would ever get back there again?
Why is it so hard to spend only 24 hours sightseeing in Washington, D.C? Because, there is just so much to see. While I felt I did a good job getting the flavor of Chicago, New York and Las Vegas in a few hours, Washington was definitely trickier. One thing in my favor was that since I had been there once before (all be it, I was 15 and the town was a lot different in 1975), I didn’t feel so compelled to see everything. I decided to fill my limited time with a little history, a little art, and some really good food.
One thing that benefited me in seeing as much as I could in 24 hours was the public transportation. It is awesome in D.C… Subway, bus, pedi-cab. You name it — the transportation choices are efficient, clean, and easy to maneuver. Also, it is a walking-friendly city. Major attractions are clearly marked, sidewalks are wide, and it is totally safe to wander around day or night.
Washington, D.C. in 24 hours: 9 Must See Sites
1) The National Mall. Anchored by Capitol Hill, The Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial and includes the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and World War II Memorial. I was told you could walk the entire stretch, so I did. I started at Capitol Hill and ended at the Lincoln Memorial – a 2-1/2 mile walk. Yikes. Be prepared and have good shoes. I wasn’t and my feet were killing me when I was done. Thus I took a pedi-cab back to the subway because I couldn’t walk any further. Hint: There is nothing more reverent or awe inspiring than seeing the Lincoln Memorial at night.
2) United States Capitol Building. The only way you can get inside is on a tour. Anyone can join a public tour, but if you plan ahead, you can contact your Congressman and arrange to have a tour by a member of their staff. I did both on this trip. Of course, I preferred the tour led by my Congressman’s intern because it was more personal and she could take me to areas the public tour could not.
3) The White House. While it is heavily barricaded, you can’t leave Washington, D.C. without getting a picture in front of this icon. Hint: Tours are offered sporadically but it requires a ticket obtained only from your Congressman who may or may not be able to hook you up. Plan way ahead and contact your Congressman early if you want a tour.
4) Georgetown. The first federal district founded in 1791 and home of fantastic colonial architecture, George Washington University, Georgetown Cupcake, shopping, and fabulous eateries. I plotted my own walking tour to see everything in a short amount of time. Hint: Georgetown Cupcake were the best I have ever eaten – and I’ve sampled quite a few designer cupcakes. They are well worth the wait in line to buy them.
5) National Portrait Gallery. A magnificent display to behold. Besides housing portraits of the Presidents and views of American history (all so great), it also features special temporary exhibits. My favorite current exhibits included Yousef Karsh: American Portraits and American Cool. I easily spent two hours enjoying all the beautiful art work. Hint: Check in with the docents when you arrive, find out what the special exhibits are and see them first, especially if you are short on time. You can always go online to see the pieces in the longstanding exhibits.
6) National Archives. The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution are housed here. These documents are heavily guarded in a darkened and chilled room. While the room was crowded, everyone was respectful and quiet viewing these words of our democracy. The famous papers are quite faded; even the most famous John Hancock signature was difficult to decipher. Hint: Don’t see the documents from left to right. There is such a bottleneck waiting to see the documents in order because everyone thinks that is what you need to do. Instead, work backwards. In fact, even the directions in the hall suggest you do this. Warning: People will give you strange looks for going against the grain. Who cares?
7) Ford’s Theater and The House Where Lincoln Died. My love and admiration for Abraham Lincoln took me back to Ford’s Theater, one of the places I had visited as a teenager. I was hugely disappointed however. Due to a new show opening in the still used theater, the stage area was closed to tourist groups. Heck, isn’t that the main reason why people go to Ford’s theater? Not seeing the famous box where Lincoln was shot was a real let down, I’m not going to lie
8) Eat Out. Washington D.C. has lots of great eateries. You don’t want to miss Old Ebbitt Grill near the White House. Almost every U.S. President has dined there. Another highly touted restaurant is Founding Farmers in Georgetown. This restaurant came highly recommended and thus was highly crowded. Being a party of one came in handy. I was able to bypass the 1-1/2 hour wait and got seated at the bar. I feasted on one of their specialties: chicken and waffles. Served with a Kale and Pear salad and a side dish of macaroni and cheese, it was delicious Hint: Most museums have on-site cafes offering healthy food choices at very reasonable prices. The café at the Portrait Gallery is housed in a beautiful atrium. And I heard the Native American Museum’s food is unique and delicious.
9) Smithsonian Anything. Take your pick from one of their many themed museums.
I didn’t have time to get to some of my past favorites like Arlington National Cemetery or Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s estate. They are magnificent but take a longer chunk of time to really absorb.
Twenty four hours in Washington, D.C.? It isn’t impossible but it is challenging. I was so glad I spent the extra day basking in the nation’s capitol at these 9 must see sites.
What are your top must see sites in Washington, D.C.?