The Perfect 2-Day Itinerary for your First Trip to Washington D.C.
When I visited D.C. last fall, I had not only never been before, but outside seeing it in the movies, I didn't even know what to expect. I knew there was a big White House, but other than that I didn't have a clue what I needed to see. As a Canadian, I never went here as a kid on a school trip as many of my American counterparts had, or even studied up on the state’s history in school. My opportunity to visit came when my husband was covering the America election down in D.C. I couldn't pass up the chance to fly down to join him over a long weekend and enjoy the free hotel room along with a weekend of sightseeing. I was blown away by just how easy it was to spend a weekend in D.C. and see so many things without ever doing any advanced planning. There are a few distinct neighbourhoods you can just wander around and stumble upon sight after sight without even knowing it.
When to Visit DC?
We were so lucky to have lovely crisp, fall weather the entire weekend we were there. Washington is one of those cities though that lends itself to every season. If it’s too cold, too hot or too rainy simply head inside a museum! If, on the other hand, the weather is perfect and you want to enjoy the sunshine, there are so many things to see that you could spend the entire day just walking around outside. No matter what time of year you decide to visit you'll have an absolutely fantastic time. This two-day guide can easily be adapted to different seasons throughout the year but I think works best over the weekend since many of the local activities are scheduled outside the work week.
Day 1 - The Landmarks
Washington, D.C. is the capital of the United States of America. It's here where laws are passed, protests are united, and some of the greatest moments in U.S. history have happened. Washington, DC is located between Virginia and Maryland along the scenic Potomac River. On your first day, you’ll be anxious to see all those amazing sight and buildings which make this city famous!
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and to start your day off right you should definitely head over to Founding Farmers. The name itself, a riff on THE Founding Fathers, makes it such a apt starting point for your trip in this historic political township. Founding Farmers prides itself on maintaining the traditional values of the American family farmer, and all their food is sustainably grown. This results in some incredibly fresh and delicious food! This place is famous for a reason, so getting reservations are recommended if you know when you're going to be visiting. The menu is a modern take on traditional American cuisine. Be sure to try Uncle Buck's Beignets with raspberry, chocolate & caramel sauces as well as the cast iron baked cornbread.
Once all filled up on breakfast, the best place to start your day in Washington is at the National Mall. The National Mall is a large public park, and in fact, it is American's most visited national park. Here is where you'll find some of the most incredible monuments dedicated to the American ancestors and heroes who shaped the history and face of this country. The National Mall is HUGE, and you don't want to miss out seeing all there is to see so warms clothes (or cool ones, depending on the time of year) and comfy walking shoes are essential for making it through the entire day without getting sore feet!
Start your tour of the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial. This incredible Grecian style building is dedicated to America's beloved 16th president, Abraham Lincoln and the race relations he helped mend. The structure was made to look like a Greek temple with 36 fluted Doric columns around the perimeter — one for each of the 36 states in the union at the time of Lincolns death.
As you walk up the steps towards the entrance, at the top facing the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting pool are the words, "I Have a Dream" etched into the stone. On these stones is where Martin Luther King Jr. gave this famous speech, and now they are embedded into the foundation of the building forever.
As you step into the building, you'll be struck immediately with the image of Abraham Lincoln himself, seated upon a chair, draped in the American flag. An inscription above him says,
Continue your tour of the Mall by heading off the left to visit the Vietnam Memorial. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial pays tribute to the brave members of the U.S. Armed Forces who fought in the Vietnam War and were killed or missing in action. The first thing you'll see upon approach is the Three Soldiers statue, which depicts the disparate groups that had to come together during the War. It is a powerful and evocative sculpture, the eyes of the soldiers are starring off towrd the Vietnam memorial wall and beckoning you to go towards it.
The Wall That Heals, as it is so named, is 246 feet long and lists over 58,000 names in chronological order based on the date of casualty. At the start of the wall, there is a book containing all the names if you're interested in finding someone you knew who fought in the war. I found it interesting to search for any members who had my same last name, and I ended up seeing three. Even though I did not know these people, I felt an immediate connection to even just the name and couldn't help but imagine the pain which this war would have brought upon that family. One of the most potent aspects of the wall is the marble's reflection as you look at the names. It reflects your face back at you as you gaze at the memorial, making you all too self aware of your privilege to be standing here and not be yourself a name along the wall. The design of this memorial was highly contested when it was first announced. The 21-year-old Asian American Maya Lin who won the design contest wanted to have the marble resemble a black scar on the ground — an unrelenting memory of the war that will last forever. Despite many people’s objections, when they finally saw the power which this sculpture had over those who viewed it, the design became one of the most highly regarding war memorials all over the world.
To the south of the wall is the Vietnam Women's Memorial, which commemorates the 265,000 women that served in the Vietnam War. This compelling sculpture is roughly carved, like it was made in haste. It depicts three female nurses attending a wounded soldier. The rush in which the statue was made, reflect the fast paced nature of the work these women had to do during the war to save as many lives as they could, together.
Lincoln Reflecting Pool
From here, head towards the Lincoln Reflecting Pool. Across the still waters you can get both a stunning picture of the Lincoln Memorial or the Washington Monument set across a blue sky. This is perhaps one of the most iconic images from D.C. The pools overwhelming size seems to draw visitors from all over towards the mirror like surface, to contemplate how they themselves can aim to change the world in even the smallest way, much like the man for whom the pool is named after.
World War II Memorial
At the end of the pool is the World War II Memorial. Despite it’s classical appearance, this memorial was only completed in 2004. The memorial is made up of 56 granite pillar surrounding the semicircular plaza with the triumphal arches on either side. The northern arch represents the Pacific wars, and the Southern archways represents the Atlantic wars. The rainbow fountain is so named because, during certain times of the day, the spray from the fountain creates a rainbow across the skyline in the sunlight.
Behind the fountain is the Freedom Wall. 4,048 golden stars glimmer in the sunlight, each one representing 100 American soldiers who died during the war. Below the stars are the words “The Price of Freedom” written out in large letters, so large the message is unavoidable and clear as day. When we visited, there was a group of veterans of the Korean war there to pay their respects. It was a moving moment to see them all together, still grieving for their fallen comrades even after all this time. The price of freedom, a debt forever unpayable.
As you continue to the east, towards the Washington Monument, take a moment to study the bas-reliefs which are embedded on either side of the walkway. These magnificent carvings represent different scenes of war. The expressions carved into the people’s faces are so emotive despite their diminutive size that they bring to life these scenes frozen in time.
The Washington Monument is one of those places you see on TV or in pictures, but until you are face to face, you really can't imagine how large it is. This obelisk was built to commemorate George Washington, and the construction began in 1848. The finished pillar wouldn't be completed until 1888. You can see the different periods of development in the various construction materials as your eyes go up the monument. The entire structure is 500 feet tall, capped with a 55-foot pyramidion. Today the memorial is surrounded by a circle of American flags. At one point you could even go up to the top of the obelisk, but it has been closed since 2018 which they modernise the elevator and constructs a permanent screening facility for visitors entering the landmark. They claim this might be completed by 2019, but be sure to check the website if you're interested in going up since renovations are often significantly delayed.
Before heading off for some lunch, walk north towards the Ellipse. The Ellipse is a 52-acre park which surrounds the White House. From here you have a great view of the exterior of the White House. This site is often a place for protesters, so it's always interesting to see what's going on here. I was amazed by the sheer size of the White House, for some reason on TV it looks so small but seeing it in person it really is more impressive!
Old Ebbit Grill
The Old Ebbit Grill is the oldest tavern in D.C. and it simply oozes that political ambience. Hushed conversations are happening all over the restaurant and it feels like deals are being made left, right and centre! Covered from head to toe, this restaurant is decorated in Victorian treasures making it seems almost like a museum. Their seafood platter is decadent for sure, but one of the most iconic dishes you can order! Perfect to share with friends over a discerning conversation.
The White House
After lunch, you'll be right near the front of the White House, so it's worth just popping over there to see this iconic building front and back! This view of the White House can be found on Pennsylvania Avenue and backs out onto Lafayette Square. Lafayette Square is a seven-acre public park and includes several majestic statues of early 19th century U.S. Presidents. This public area is home to many political protests and a great place to come and people watch!
We are heading back down to the National Mall, but on our way, stop along Pennsylvania Avenue for one of the best views of the Capitol Building you'll find anywhere in the city.
Choose a Museums in the Mall
Now that you've had a nice break and are full of food, it's time to walk off that lunch with a tour of the museums along the Mall. Washington has one of the largest collections of museums in one place. There is indeed something for everyone, and they're almost all completely free! This is great for those who might want to pop in and out of a few throughout the afternoon to see something specific and then head on to the next destination. For lots of people, the joy of visiting these incredible structures doesn't just lie in the exhibitions but rather in the design of the buildings themselves. If you plan on touring the entire place I recommend you choose just one museum for your afternoon visit. While every person will be interested in a different museum for different reasons here are my recommendations…
If you're visiting D.C., it seems a shame not to visit the American History Museum to admire their collection of American pop-culture memorabilia. They have Dorothy's ruby slippers, the first Star Spangled Banner which inspired the anthem, a selection of Michelle Obama's gowns and even Thomas Jefferson's writing desk.
The Air and Space Museum contains a vast collection of historical objects which took flight into space and sky! You’ll find real NASA spaceships, Russian spacesuits, rockets, airplanes hung from the ceiling and even one of the Wright Brothers first models. This is a great place to bring anyone interested in space exploration!
The National Museum of Natural History was first opened in 1910 and aimed to bring the wonders from across the world to the people of Washington, D.C. The museum seeks to amaze it's viewers, purely by featuring items from the world around us. Wander your way through the over 140 million natural science specimens and cultural artifacts. The Hall of Geology, contains the cursed Hope Diamond along with a rainbow of other incredible earthly delights. My favourite area was the Animals and Ecosystems hall on the second floor where you'll find some of the most dynamic taxidermy animals who seem to come to life inside their exhibits. It's a beautiful way to see different animals from all over the world as well as some which have since become extinct.
Dinner at Succotash
For dinner, header to Succotash in Penn Quarter. Succotash serves up comfort food at its bets inside a historical building which was once one of the largest banks in the city. This interesting interior gives the ambiance inside the restaurant a unique sense of gravitas. Despite the opulent setting, the food here is not only well priced but also incredibly delicious! Start with a fried green tomato salad, followed up with bourbon maple chicken and waffles or crispy blue catfish! Lastly, for dessert, be sure to order a plate of red velvet cookies to share!
Night Caps at Free State
To finish your evening off, and after all that walking, you certainly deserve a nightcap! D.C. is full of hip bars as the politico crowds love to chat late into the evening over delicious drinks. Free State is an awesome bar filled with character. They have an amazing selection of craft beers and beautifully made cocktails. But let's face it, it's all about the decor and this place aims to impress. It feels like a speakeasy mixed inside the bow of a ship. The perfect place to while the night away.
Day 2 - Georgetown and the Arts
Start the morning of your second day in Washington off in Georgetown. Georgetown feels so different to the area we were in yesterday. This part of the city is one of the oldest areas of D.C. and feels very academic due it’s proximity to the University. The crowds in this area of town are filled with students and teachers, aiming to inspire and educate the next round of Washington government employees. A large portion of the buildings here are protected by the historical society and preserved in an almost perfect way. Walking down the streets feels like stepping back in time.
Julia Child’s House
Start the tour along Rock Creek at 2706 Olive St NW. This butter yellow house was once the residence of Julia Child and her husband when they lived in D.C. Julia Child was one of the most influential American cooks who brought her love for French cuisine to the U.S. The buttery colour of the house seems almost too appropriate for the woman who loved to cook with it! The house is currently undergoing a huge renovation, which you can actually follow online!
Oldest Stone House in Washington
Continue down from Olive street and make your way along Main Street. At 3051 M St, you'll find the Oldest Stone House in Washington. This is one of the only remaining pre-Revolutionary Colonial style houses still standing today.
Down from the oldest stone house, south on Thomas Jefferson St. is one of the most famous bakeries and cafes in Georgetown, Baked & Wired. This adorable little hole in the wall is divided into two areas, one where you can grab your morning brew and on the other side, a wall of cupcakes! Their cupcakes are known across the city as being some of the best and a lineup forms almost every day. It moves quickly, so don't get discouraged. Be sure to ask if they have any seasonal options which are always extra special! Be warned, this cupcakes are HUGE, so either come hungry or bring a friend to share it with. Baked and Wired always has one flavour which is gluten free but it’s usually just the vanilla.
If you’re anxious to jump into the Washington D.C. cupcake rivalry, then you must also try Georgetown Cupcake. This place is recognized across the country. Their chocolate ganache cupcake, with Valrhona chocolate, is the one to try but they also have daily specials which are always too temping to pass up! This place also has gluten-free options daily and if you are eating gluten free they have the more interesting options. Which ever place you decide to visit, be sure to grab a coffee, tea or drink to go and enjoy on our Georgetown walk.
Chesapeake and Ohio Canal
Cross back over the canal, and take your time, sipping your coffee, while walking through the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. This scenic walkway is a quiet escape from busy city life. While the historic streets might be beautiful, they have recently been packed with expensive name brands and have lost some of their more unique storefronts. Especially on the weekends, the street is PACKED to the gills with shoppers while the canal is as peaceful as can be.
The canal also called the "Grand Old Ditch" was once the main waterway into the city where cargo and coal would be brought in. On either side of the canal, you'll see old industrial structures, most of which have been renovated into trendy restaurants and apartment buildings but whose exterior architecture retains that antique appearance.
At the end of Main street, you'll turn and head up a steep staircase to get to the upper part of Georgetown. If these stairs look familiar, that's because they were not only used in the poster for 'The Exorcist' but also were used in the itself movie. The entire film took place around Georgetown, so there are other places which were used in the movie to check out if you're a die-hard fan, but these stairs are the most iconic place to visit.
Up from the stairs, along some of the most beautiful looking row houses, you'll find the giant stone towers of Georgetown University. Because the main building of the university is located in one of the most elevated areas of the city, Georgetown University is often referred to as "The Hilltop". Healy Hall, the largest of the buildings on campus, was designed by Paul J. Pelz in a Neo-Medieval style and built in 1877. It looks more like a cathedral than a college, almost like the Hogwarts of Washington D.C.
Wandering the streets north of the campus is such a joy. We loved to pretend to be house hunting as we went, picking out our favourite house designs and garden landscapes. These houses are all from around the 1900s and pristinely preserved. While each of these houses no doubt has a story to tell, it’s just as fun to be none the wiser and imagine for yourself what living here during the early parts of the 19th century was like.
Walking up to this shop was like walking into a dream. This cotton candy pink florist shop is always decked out for the season. At Christmas it is dripping with fairy lights and baubles, Halloween is a surprisingly spooky affair and the rest of the year the entire exterior is always looking like a secret garden exploding out of from the window boxes. I was bummed to see that the interior is pretty much just like any other florist shop and not some wild 'Alice in Wonderland' but the exterior is what you'll come to see anyways.
Books Hill Park
Book Hill Park is a quaint little park along Wisconsin Avenue. It’s a great spot to take a break, read a book, or post some pics to the gram. Up the stairs, you have a charming view across the Georgetown skyline. In the springtime, summer and fall the foliage is breathtaking, a little microcosm of the D.C. flora and fauna.
Every Sunday, the Georgetown Flea, opens its tent and tables up to the public from 8 am till 4 pm. This market began in 1972 and has been open to the community even since with sellers peddling antiques, collectables, art, furniture, rugs, pottery, china, jewellery, silver, stained glass, books, photographs and more! This really is a great place to come to as a tourist and pick up a few pieces of historical memorabilia from Washington DC.
For lunch head over to Cafe Bonaparte, located along the most darling block of shops and restaurants under a dark red awning which is usually filled with happy customers enjoying their lunchtime delights. The cosy little restaurant serves up French comfort food and both sweet and savoury crepes! If you get the chance to sit out on the patio, grab the opportunity as people watching is half the fun of this location!
Library of Congress
Now, it’s time to jump into an Uber or take the metro across the city to visit the The Library of Congress. This place is, in my opinion, the most beautiful building in D.C. The inside is breathtaking and a perfect spot for some fantastic photos. The incredible and grandiose design of the library, now named the Thomas Jefferson Building, was inspired by the Paris Opera House. And it’s artistic and theatrical inspiration can be seen throughout. Inside the grey facade, you'll be wowed by the multitude of colours painted on the ceiling frescoes and the fascinating sculptures peeking out from behind ornate marble columns.
Across from the library, if you have time, try to visit The U.S. Botanic Garden. This is the place to come to feel like you're in the tropics even if it's blistering cold outside. The U.S. Botanic Garden is constantly changing, there is always something blooming or growing depending on the seasons so there's always something incredible to see. The gardens are divided into various sections based on their temperature, region or what the plants are used for. There is a room dedicated entirely to medicinal plants and its so interesting to see how plants are still used to this very day to help heal people despite all the advances in modern medicine. My favourite room for photos is 'The Tropics' where huge Swiss cheese looking leaves hang from giant trees and the air tastes almost taste sweet from the constantly growing flora. The glass windows of the greenhouse make for some incredible shots, not to be missed.
About this time you're probably getting a bit hungry so it’s time to head towards Hill Country Barbecue Market. Hill Country honours the barbecue traditions of Texas and offers some of the best live music and excellent hospitality I've ever had at a restaurant. Unlike some BBQ restaurants which only serve huge portions and set menus, this place allows you to get as much or as little of whatever you want! You bring your order form up to the different counters and ask for whatever amount of meat you'd like. You can go back and forth as much as you want so if you're going to start small and test out the different cuts and kinds of meat you're free to do so and then head back for seconds, or even thirds! The sides are almost as delicious as the main course here. Their smoky chipotle deviled eggs are to die for, and skillet cornbread is absolute perfection. As for the meat, it's moist, tender and FULL of FLAVOUR!
If you’re looking for a way to spend your last night in D.C. try to see if there is anything on at the National Theatre. Often plays which are on their way to Broadway will perform here before setting off to NYC. This means you have the chance to see a show in its late development stage, which means you might see a version of the show never seen again! We saw the pre-broadway run of 'Beetlejuice', and it was fantastic but also a great show to see to discuss what we thought might be cut when it finally makes its way to Broadway!
This brings us to the end of this 2-day itinerary! I think these sights and attractions along the way tell the story of D.C. superbly. While there is plenty more to see, Washington makes for the perfect weekend destination. You can easily hop on over and spend a whirlwind 48 hours wandering your way through one of the most historic cities in America. If you've ever been to D.C. let me know what your favourite thing to do was or if you're planning a trip let me know if you have any questions!