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DAY ONE: BE THE TOURIST’S TOURIST.
Lace up your sneakers and slather on some sunscreen. You’re in for a day of touring, sightseeing, walking—and more walking.
8:30 AM: Union Station
Your day begins at Union Station (50 Massachusetts Ave., NE), one of the city’s most popular destinations. This Beaux Arts-style train station is a bustling transportation hub, with the Red Line Metro, Amtrak, and Virginia and Maryland commuter trains making stops daily. It features three concourses: The top two house more than 100 shops and eateries, and the lower one features a food court and movie theater. In the marble foyer at the front of the station—a cavernous space with 96-foot vaulted ceilings—art and science exhibits and other public events take place throughout the year. Pick up a brochure at the visitors’ desk and take some time to explore the building before heading out for breakfast.
9 AM: Breakfast at Bistro Bis
A few blocks from Union Station is Bistro Bis in the Hotel George (15 E St., NW; 202-347-4200), a power-breakfast spot popular with Washington politicos. Enjoy a plate of eggs Benedict while you get a taste of DC hard at work.
10 AM: Tour the Capitol
Take a tour of the US Capitol and learn about the history of the building while you see it for yourself. After walking through the Hall of Columns, the rotunda, and the old Supreme Court chambers, it’s upstairs to where the action is: the House and Senate chambers. From the visitors’ gallery, you can watch history as it happens—see bills being debated, votes being counted, and speeches being given. But a word to the wise: Congress is on recess for the month of August, so if watching a bill become a law is important to you, don’t plan a visit that month.
Tickets are free but available only on a first-come, first-served basis at the Capitol Guide Service kiosk on the sidewalk on the Capitol’s southwest side (near the intersection of First Street and Independence Avenue, Southwest). Ticket distribution starts at 9.
• Insider tip: Lines for the ticket kiosk can be long, especially in the summer. If you’re a US citizen, you might try to arrange a tour with someone from your Congress member’s or senators’ office. It’s recommended that you call in advance of your trip to secure a tour time, but even if you don’t, it’s a worth a try just popping in and seeing if they’ll give you a tour on the spot. Often, they’re more than willing to accommodate—you are a voter, after all.
11:30 AM: Free Museums
Who says you need money to have fun? The ten museums along the one-mile span of the National Mall are all free of charge. There’s a museum to suit practically every taste, and because you’ll only have time for one, check out a map beforehand and pick one that appeals to you. We recommend hitting the National Gallery of Art—the 76-foot-long Alexander Calder mobile in the East Building is especially breathtaking—or the Natural History Museum, for a look at dinosaur bones, an insect zoo, the Hope Diamond, and more. The National Gallery comprises the two easternmost buildings on the north side of the Mall, along Madison Drive. The Natural History Museum is the third building on the same side, moving west. No matter which you choose, take a few minutes to wander through the National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden, which sits between the two museums.
For more free things to do in DC, click here.
1 PM: Lunch
By now, you’ll be starved and looking for a place to rest your feet. Central Michel Richard, one of the area’s most acclaimed new restaurants, is a short walk away at Tenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest (202-626-0015). Feast on bistro food gone haute: lobster burgers with crispy fries, fried chicken with mustard sauce, “faux gras” made from chicken livers whipped with butter. After all that walking, treat yourself to Richard’s signature “Kit Kat bar” dessert ($9). A word to the wise: The restaurant is pricey—sandwiches run $14 to $32 and lunch entrées $18 to $25—but if you’re here for only a few days, it’s worth the splurge.
A more wallet-friendly option is Aria Trattoria (1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-312-1250), located in the central plaza of the Ronald Reagan Building. In nice weather, grab a seat on the patio and take in the sights and sounds of this busy promenade while you munch on a grilled-vegetable panini with eggplant, zucchini, and portobello mushroom ($10). Or create your own pizza with toppings such as Gorgonzola, salami, and artichokes—a ten-inch pie costs $11 plus $1.50 for each topping.
For other ideas about where to eat, check out our guide to museum dining.