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Visitors’ Guide: One Day in Washington, DC

Only in town for 24 hours? We help you squeeze in sights, entertainment, dining, and more.

24 hours is plenty of time to take in a lot of DC's top sites, like the United States Botanic Garden. Photograph courtesy of United States Botanic Garden.

The Mall by Day, the U Street Corridor by Night

Breakfast: Le Bon Café

Grab a seat at one of the outdoor tables at this cozy Capitol Hill cafe for a plate of French toast, a waffle, or a made-to-order egg sandwich; or pick up a croissant or bagel to enjoy on the road.

AM: Tour the Capitol Building

Visiting the Capitol takes a little planning. Tour slots are free and can be booked online as late as the day before, and a small number of same-day tickets are available at the information desks on Emancipation Hill. The basic tour includes a short history lesson and an introduction to the building. The House and Senate galleries are also open to visitors, but you’ll need to arrange separate passes ahead of time through your senator or representative. The Visitor Center is also open 8:30 to 4:30 Monday through Saturday, and you can stop in to the exhibit hall, the cafeteria, and the gift shops any time.

Library of Congress. Photo by Randy Santos.

Next Stop: Visit the Library of Congress

Next to the Capitol sits the largest library in the world, where more than 500 miles of bookshelves house books, photos, maps, and other items. In 1814, the original building and its contents were burned by the British, and since Thomas Jefferson offered his own collection as a replacement, the main building now bears his name (Adams and Madison are the other two buildings in DC). More than 151 million items are housed in the library, and free tours are offered between 10:30 and 3:30 on weekdays and between 10:30 and 2:30 on Saturdays.

Lunch: On Pennsylvania Avenue, Southeast, at Good Stuff Eatery, Sonoma, or We, the Pizza

Pennsylvania Avenue, Southeast, near the Capitol, abounds with lunch options. Top Chef alum Spike Mendelsohn has made a home at Third and Penn, where he runs burger joint Good Stuff Eatery and casual pizzeria We, the Pizza, both in converted rowhouses with patio seating out front. At Good Stuff, make sure to pair your burger with a milkshake (we suggest the toasted marshmallow). At We, the Pizza, you can opt for a slice or a full pie—we can’t resist the spinach and artichoke.

For a longer-lasting sit-down meal and a glass of wine, head to Sonoma, a few doors closer to the Capitol. This restaurant’s charcuterie and extensive wine list are highlights, but the creative salads and pizzas are also worth a try.

PM: Take In Art for Free at the National Gallery of Art

The National Gallery of Art’s West Building is home to one of the world’s best collections of paintings, sculpture, and more dating from the 13th to the 20th century. Highlights include pieces by Monet, Renoir, and Cezanne, and the only Da Vinci in the Western hemisphere, “Ginevra de’ Benci.”

The I.M. Pei-designed East Building, meanwhile, houses mostly modern and contemporary pieces, including a huge Calder mobile that hangs from the ceiling and works by Picasso, Pollock, Matisse, and Mondrian. The Gallery’s sculpture garden also sits on the Mall (next to the West Building), serving as home to works by Louise Bourgeois and Sol LeWitt.

Next Stop: The Newseum

This seven-level complex opened in its current location near the Mall in 2008, notable for the First Amendment quote emblazoned on its facade. Inside, you’ll find 15 main exhibition galleries covering major events like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the September 11 attacks. Other not-to-be-missed highlights include the Pulitzer Prize Photo Gallery, the NBC News Interactive Newsroom—which allows guests to read the news themselves from a teleprompter—and the views from the sixth-floor terrace. This is not a Smithsonian museum, so a two-day pass costs $21.95.

Highlights from the izakaya-style menu at the Source Lounge, on special during a weekday happy hour. Photograph by Erik Uecke.

Happy Hour: The Source

There’s nothing Washingtonians love more than a good happy hour, and celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck’s the Source created a menu with that in mind. The Source (which is in the Newseum) makes it possible to squeeze dinner out of a few specials. Monday through Saturday from 4 to 6, you can get three dishes—like shrimp tempura rolls, pork-belly-stuffed bao buns, and miniature bánh mì—from the downstairs lounge’s izakaya menu for $20.12, and beer and sake are, of course, available to wash down the cheap snacks.

Dinner: 14th Street

The 14th Street, Northwest, area is awash with new, interesting restaurants and bars; you may have trouble choosing just one. Some options include Pearl Dive Oyster Palace for exceptional fresh seafood and El Centro D.F. for a menu that’s entirely gluten-free. For small, shareable plates, try Estadio, which offers great Spanish tapas near Logan Circle; or Bar Pilar, where the options change seasonally but always include strong vegetable and pork dishes.

Post-Dinner: Explore the U Street Nightlife

If you’re looking for live music, you couldn’t be in a better neighborhood. Options include the 9:30 Club, which is consistently voted one of the best music venues in the country by Pollstar; dance/electronica venue U Street Music Hall; and the New Vegas Lounge, which has live Motown and blues on weekends.

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