Last updated on February 27, 2024 by Stefano Ferro, founder of MEL365, following extensive travelling in Washington DC

Unique 3 days in Washington DC itinerary – 2 options for different type of travelers

There is so much to see in three days in the capital of the United States.

It is best to pre-plan your three days in Washington DC itinerary to ensure you don’t miss any attractions and local gems.

For this reason, I have organized below two detailed daily itineraries ideal for adults and couples, or families traveling with kids.

There is no one plan that fits all in this amazing city.

Let’s get to it

Unsure of where to stay? Check out my guide to the best areas of Washington DC based on your type of trip (family, couples, nightlife, with or without car, etc)

Unique 3 days in Washington DC itinerary
Unique 3 days in Washington DC itinerary

3 days in Washington DC itinerary – in a nutshell

Below is a map of central Washington DC with my favorite neighborhoods to explore and book your accommodation.

When you stay for over two days in Washington DC (the shortest stay in this iconic city that I can imagine), you will be surprised by how much there is to do and see.

Would it be more beneficial to spend four days in Washington DC, or even more? You can take a more relaxed approach as well as add a few gems that would be difficult to fit in otherwise.

Having said that, three days is an optimal amount of time to explore the capital of the United States.

Best areas to stay in Washington DC
Best areas to stay in Washington DC
  • 3 days in Washington DC: Start your breakaway in Washington DC on Day 1 with a visit to the iconic places of Washington DC. Then follow on Day 2 with the hidden side of the city, including street art and a visit to the Black Broadway. Finally, on Day 3, explore the National Gallery of Art and enjoy a local Brew Tour. Read more below for 3 days in Washington DC, with morning and afternoon plans. 
  • 3 days in Washington DC itinerary for families: this plan works great if you are traveling with kids. On Day 1 visit the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and National Mall. Meanwhile, on Day 2 have a tour at the National Museum of the American Indian and Capitol Hill, finishing your day at a river park. On Day 3 have fun at the Spy Museum and reserve the afternoon for a little gem. Read more below for the best family itinerary with maps and all the attractions for kids.
  • Best three hotels for 3 days in Washington DC: Accommodation’s availability and cost in this city are unique and they are based on the political calendar. The best time to visit the capital is in fact when the politicians are not there (weekends are usually more affordable). The best areas to stay in Washington DC are detailed in my dedicated guide, including a few selected accommodations. Having to name just 3 hotels, I would say the Motto by Hilton, one of the city bargains right in Penn Quarter, The Westin, in the Downtown area, and The Hay, a boutique accommodation a stone away from most attractions.

Here is a Google map I have organized with all the things to see, do and experience in Washington DC. You can save it or print it for future reference.

Things to do and see in Washington DC
Things to do and see in Washington DC- Check out my shared Google Map

3 days in Washington DC without kids

Day 1 – Iconic places of Washington DC

Washington DC has so many interesting and iconic landmarks and places to visit that the best way to explore them all (well, the most) is to take an Hop-On, Hop-Off Open-Top Bus Tour.

The open-deck offers you the opportunity to view the city while listening to an audio guide and stopping at places that interest you.

I have listed my suggested stops below, and keep in mind that the bus can be used all day long. 

In the morning, stop by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, for its amazing design, inspired by the Roman Pantheon.

Then have a walk in the unique Arlington National Cemetery and have a stopover at the Lincoln Memorial, where you will see also the Reflecting Pool and the Korean War Memorial

In the afternoon, get off the bus in Chinatown to visit the National Portrait Gallery (free entry). 

Then it is time to see and possibly visit the White House (including the Visitor Center).

Unmissable is also a walk around the US Capitol.

Last stop is The Wharf DC, where you can have a beautiful walk along the Washington Channel, do some shopping and have dinner or drinks in one of the many restaurants and bars

I have talked much more extensively about all the above sites in my day between the iconic attractions of Washington DC.

Hop-on, Hop-off Bus Ticket

The Lincoln Memorial
The Lincoln Memorial

Day 2 – Art and the hidden Washington DC

This is a day dedicate to the unusual and unique experiences of Washington DC.

Take the subway (Green or Yellow) in the morning to Mt Vernon Sq 7th St-Convention Center where you can visit the D.C. Alley Museum, an outdoor collection of public art murals.

Then make it by 11:30am to U street (2 subway stops north) for the start of the U Street Neighborhood Food Tour, one of the hidden gems of Washington DC.

In the neighborhood formerly known as Black Broadway, you’ll visit a variety of restaurants where you can sample unique DC foods and drinks.

In addition to the history of the restaurants, you will also learn about the important buildings in the area on this 2-hour tour.

You will definitely enjoy the tasting sessions, enough to fill you up for lunch. 

In the afternoon, you have a couple of options:

U Street Food Tour    ARTECHOUSE Tickets    Museum of the Bible Tickets

To close the night, for a romantic dinner, look no further than this 3-course dinner cruise on the Potomac River, aboard the luxury Odyssey.

Alternatively, take the Subway to Dupont Circle, the neighborhood that never sleeps, where you will find a great selection of cafes, restaurants and bars

The White House
The White House

Day 3 – National Gallery of Art & Brew Tour

In the morning, visit one of the most outstanding art museums in the country, the National Gallery of Art, where you will find the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the USA.

The amazing thing is that entrance is free, which helps a lot in the budget, of course.

The National Gallery of Art is a haven of art, culture and education.

The gallery hosts over 150,000 exhibits of sculptures, decorative art, photos, drawings, prints and paintings.

Each of these pieces tells the story of Western Art and the gains made in human creativity.

There are ongoing exhibitions any time you visit the gallery.

One of the exhibits is titled Clouds, Ice, and Bounty: The Lee and Juliet Folger Fund Collection of Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Paintings.

It consists of about 27 pieces that give a visual picture of the 17th-century Dutch and Flemish way of life.

Another exhibit is James Van Der Zee’s Photographs: A Portrait of Harlem, a documentation of the New York neighborhood starting from the 1920s and 1930s and beyond.

The interesting thing is that those that lived in this iconic area of the Big Apple reached out to James to take their pictures.

He also took pictures of stores, nightclubs and various community groups. A complete 100 years old documentation. So interesting.

Other collection pieces include Andrea del Castagno’s David with the Head of Goliath, Chalice of the Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis which is a 12th Century French mounting, and Albert Bierstadt’s The Last of the Buffalo.

There are many collection highlights, but you should be aware that not all 150,000 pieces are available for viewing (still you have plenty to see and experience).

The National Gallery of Art can be overwhelming. There is so much to see and do. 

It may be a good idea to take a guided tour that in 2-2.5 hours will introduce you to all the little gems as well as the iconic art pieces. 

In the early afternoon, have a stroll on the east side of the National Mall to see the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, the US Capitol, and the beautiful Library of Congress.

Then at 5:30 pm join this Brew Tour with Tasting & Dinner, where you will visit some of the DC’s best breweries.

You will learn more about the making process, the selection of the ingredients and, of course, you will get to taste the end result.

The tour, lasting 3 hours, includes the driving and dinner as well, which makes it a great bargain.

National Gallery of Art Guided Tour    Brew Tour with Tasting & Dinner

Accommodations and experiences:

The National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art

Check more photos below of a 2 day in Washington DC Itinerary.

3 days in Washington DC itinerary for families

Day 1 – Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and National Mall

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is a great place to start your trip, one of the city’s most family-friendly museums.

There is no doubt that this museum is popular, so long lines aren’t uncommon and that is why I always recommend buying the tickets in advance to skip the line.

Smithsonian History Museum Ticket

For lunch, have a walk 2 blocks north to Central Michel Richard, a lovely casual restaurant cooking modern American food, with a great selection of dishes satisfying every taste, also the most demanding ones.

In the afternoon, have a stroll in the National Mall, the most fascinating park in the city, a must visit.

I have organized a map (see below) that you can print or download through Google Map

National Mall Walk
National Mall Walk – Check the interactive Google Map here

Start your walk by visiting the White House Visitor Center and don’t miss the following places:

  • The White House
  • The President’s Park
  • Washington Monument
  • The Lockkeeper’s House
  • Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool
  • Lincoln Memorial
  • The Arts of War Sculptures

Finish your walk over the Arlington Memorial Bridge.

I have talked more extensively, with a description of all places, in my post about the walk in National Mall.

If walking does not appeal to you, you might think about taking this fun 2-Hour Tour by Electric Vehicle.

In addition to driving and seeing the complete National Mall (the above mentioned walk doesn’t cover the east side of the park, which would be far too much for an afternoon walk), you’ll be able to learn a lot from the knowledgeable tour leader.

National Mall Tour Ticket

Washington Monument from the Reflecting Pool
Washington Monument from the Reflecting Pool

Day 2 – National Museum of the American Indian & Capitol Hill

Use the morning of your second day in DC to experience the unique National Museum of the American Indian, with plenty of interactive exhibitions to entertain the little ones and educate the parents.

Then, have a walk around the United States Capitol and stop for lunch at Hawk ‘n’ Dove, in Capitol Hill, famous for its selection of dishes that work so well for the entire family.

In the afternoon, explore the Library of Congress before heading down to The Yards Park, to have some time off with the little ones (great place in summer thanks to its free to enter super shallow pool)

You can read more about all these attractions on this day in the Capitol Hill, including the National Museum of the American Indian.

US Capitol building dome
US Capitol building dome

Day 3 – Spy Museum

The International Spy Museum is a must visit for any family and 007 fan. It’s such a fun museum. There is something for everyone, doesn’t matter the age .

It’s a popular museum, and my suggestion is to visit it first thing in the morning, besides buying the tickets in advance.

This will avoid, or at list limit, the queues at the entrance and at the exhibits, too.

This beautiful building will have you aching to try out your spying skills.

There are unique exhibitions on multiple floors for you to try out.

The Go Undercover exhibit lets you test your spy skills at the physical and digital interactive sessions.

On the 5th floor, you will find the Briefing Center, where you receive your undercover identity and proceed with the rest of the mission.

Also on the same floor is the Steal Secrets exhibition.

It is here where you can view hundreds of old and new creative gadgets and inventions for stealing secrets.

There is also the Covert Action exhibition, where you learn about previous covert missions consisting of sabotage and lethal action.

When you visit the 4th floor, you will learn about the history of spying at the Spying That Shaped History.

There is also the Uncertain World and Debriefing centre as you keep learning more about the spy world.

There are also school visits and public participation forums held here all year long, so there is something for everyone.

Spy Museum Tickets

Head to Roti for your lunch, just meters from the Spy Museum. You and your family will love the Mediterranean inspired food.

In the afternoon, based on the weather and level of interest, you have a couple of possibilities.

You could opt to visit the National Building Museum, with sections especially designed for kids.

This museum was founded in 1980, and this was possible through an act of Congress.

Here, you can learn more about American architecture, engineering, planning, design, landscape and construction.

But don’t think it will be a boring visit. The museum has been built in an interactive way to please every age.

It is hosted at the historic Pension Building, which is a large Great Hall that features eight colossal Corinthian columns.

On the outside of the building is a 1,200-foot-long terra cotta frieze that wraps the building.

An interesting historical fact about the building hosting the museum is that it was erected between 1882 and 1887 and it was intended to hold the U.S. Pension Bureau headquarters for Washington’s social and political functions.

What can you see inside the National Building Museum?

Many works as the Wall/El Muro: What Is a Border Wall?, a design and architectural exhibition that tackles the sensitive matter of the border wall.

Another exhibition you can check out is the Towers of the WTC: 51 Years of Photographs by Jose Camilo Vergara with 53 images of the World Trade Center over 51 years.

There are many others exhibitions, like the Gun Violence Memorial Project and Play Work Build that you should check out.

Alternatively, take the blue, silver or orange Subway Line to Foggy Bottom and walk down to the lovely Georgetown Waterfront Park.

You will find beautiful trails to have a walk with a fantastic view of the Potomac River and the city.

You can also think to rent bikes or a boat to make it a fun day in the open-air.

Accommodations and experiences for families:

Georgetown, skyline on the Potomac River in the day.
Georgetown, skyline on the Potomac River in the day.

More photos of the 3 days Washington DC Itinerary

Walking in the National Mall at sunset time
Walking in the National Mall at sunset time
The United States Capitol view from the street.
The United States Capitol view from the street.
View to the US Capitol from Union Square
View to the US Capitol from Union Square
United States Supreme Court Building
United States Supreme Court Building
National Archives Museum
National Archives Museum
Close up of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Close up of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Inside the Smithsonian Arts + Industries Building
Inside the Smithsonian Arts + Industries Building
Old post office in Washington DC
Old post office in Washington DC
Spring season in Washington DC
Spring season in Washington DC
The Arlington National Cemetery
The Arlington National Cemetery
Georgetown, historic old brick warehouses and canals.
Georgetown, historic old brick warehouses and canals.
Exploring Georgetown
Exploring Georgetown
Washington National Cathedral
Washington National Cathedral
The 9:30 Club in Washington DC
The 9:30 Club in Washington DC
Inside the Union Station
Inside the Union Station
The Gallery Pl-Chinatown Metro Stop
The Gallery Pl-Chinatown Metro Stop
Waiting for the subway at U Street
Waiting for the subway at U Street

 

Stefano Ferro - MEL365.com Founder and Editor

About the Author

Stefano is a seasoned travel expert and the visionary founder of MEL365.com, a leading travel website with traffic across 6 continents. With a rich background in the travel industry, Stefano spent four pivotal years at Amadeus Travel Distribution System, gaining invaluable insights into travel technologies and distribution.

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