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In three days, you’ll tour the Capitol, catch a few museums, snag a photo-op at the White House, explore our neighborhoods, and eat at some of the area’s best restaurants. Oh, and did we mention sipping George Washington’s favorite drink at one of his favorite bars? Pack your bags—we’ve got the rest of your trip covered.
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.
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 three days, it’s worth the splurge.
For other ideas about where to eat, check out our guide to museum dining.
2 PM: History Lesson at the National Archives
Don’t miss the National Archives (700 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-501-5000), where you can see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and hundreds of other historical documents on display. The museum also hosts rotating special exhibits that have included a showing of the Magna Carta, audiotaped conversations of former Presidents, and videos on important historical periods, such as the New Deal era. Free.
3:30 PM: City Views at the Old Post Office Pavilion and Clock Tower
Skip the lines at the Washington Monument and take in a view of the city from downtown DC’s second-highest point: the clock tower at the Old Post Office Pavilion (1100 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-289-4224). This free tour is one of DC’s best-kept secrets. The observation deck provides 360-degree views of the city. The tower is home to the Congressional Bells, a gift from Britain for our country’s 200th birthday; they ring on Thursday evenings and special occasions.
4:15 PM: White House or Bust
It’s off to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a look at the President’s home sweet home. Because tours of the inside of the White House are hard to come by—they must be booked months in advance, they’re reserved for groups of ten or more, and they’re available only during certain hours—you’ll have to take in the sights from behind the fence. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty to see.
The White House complex consists of the main building, which is the executive residence space, and the East and West Wings. The East Wing, visible from Pennsylvania Avenue to the left of the executive residence, houses office space for the First Lady and her staff and the White House Social Office. Below it is a secure underground bunker, where the President goes in the event of an emergency. The West Wing is where the business of the White House happens. From the Pennsylvania Avenue side, it extends to the right of the executive residence and houses the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room, the White House Situation Room, and the Press Briefing Room. Outside the West Wing, on the White House lawn, you’ll might see camera, sound, and lighting equipment—this is the area from which White House correspondents videotape their reports.
Snap a few photos, and you’re off.
Just down the street is the Round Robin Bar at the Willard InterContinental (1401 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-628-9100), a swanky cocktail spot where Washington’s power players rub elbows around the circular mahogany bar. It’s not cheap—cocktails range from $12 to $15, and the cheapest beer will set you back $6.50—but you’re paying for the atmosphere and a chance to taste a bit of history; it was here that Henry Clay introduced George Washington to the mint julep in the early 1800s. You can try the famous drink—made the way Washington liked it with Maker’s Mark, mint, sugar, and branch water—for $15.
6:30 PM: Dinner
For a fun, delicious dinner just a short walk from the Willard, visit one of superchef José Andrés’s lively small-plates spots in the Penn Quarter neighborhood. His flagship, Jaleo (480 Seventh St., NW; 202-628-7949), features traditional and updated tastes of Spain; Oyamel (401 Seventh St., NW; 202-628-1005) is regional Mexican; and Zaytinya (701 Ninth St., NW; 202-638-0800) offers Mediterranean fare. All have tasty cocktails and a hip vibe. Even better, they’ve all been recognized among the area’s best restaurants on The Washingtonian’s most recent 100 Best Restaurants list.