DC Travel Guide  |  Things to Do

How to Spend a Day in Washington, DC

So you’ve got just 24 hours to spend in DC and you want to make the most of it? No problem—we’ve got the skinny on what to do and where to eat for a day chock-full of fun.

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8 AM: Breakfast at Bistro Bis

On such a short visit, you don’t have time to waste, so set out early for a breakfast to remember. Head to DC’s Capitol Hill neighborhood for a taste of Washington politicos hard at work—yes, even at 8 in the morning. Bistro Bis in the Hotel George (15 E St., NW; 202-347-4200), in view of the Capitol’s big white dome, is a power-breakfast spot where you’re likely to see Hill honchos meeting over perfect plates of eggs Benedict. Even better? The restaurant is just a hop, skip, and a jump from Union Station (on Metro’s Red Line), so it’s easy to get to practically anywhere in the city.

9 AM: Hit the Hill

Now that you’ve seem ’em eat, head to the Hill to watch ’em work. 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.

10:30 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. You’ll have time for only two at the most, so we recommend the National Gallery of Art—the 76-foot-long Alexander Calder mobile in the East Building is especially breathtaking—and the Natural History Museum, with its dinosaur bones, insect zoo, Hope Diamond, and more. Go to the National Gallery first (it comprises the two easternmost buildings on the north side of the Mall, along Madison Drive). On your way to the Natural History Museum (the third building on the same side, moving west), take a few minutes to wander through the National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden, which sits between the two museums.

12:30 PM: Lunch at Central Michel Richard

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 day, it’s worth the splurge.

For other ideas about where to eat, check out our guide to museum dining.

1:30 PM: White House or Bust

It’s off to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a look at the President’s home sweet home. Since tours of the White House are hard to come by—they must be booked months in advance, are reserved for groups of ten or more, and are available only during certain hours—you’ll be taking in the sites 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.

2:15 PM: Shop Till You Drop

Now that you’ve seen the sights, it’s time to shop, so you’re off to Georgetown. From the White House, walk three blocks north on 17th Street to K Street, where you’ll catch the Circulator bus to Georgetown (the stop is on the northeast corner of the intersection). The red Circulator bus comes every ten minutes and costs $1 a ride. Get off at 30th and M streets, the easternmost boundary of the neighborhood.

M Street and Wisconsin Avenue, Georgetown’s two main arteries, are home to many shops and boutiques. Retail chains such as H&M, Urban Outfitters, and J. Crew have found homes here along with smaller boutiques like A Mano (for leather goods) and Wink (known for carrying designer jeans).

Georgetown University begins at 37th Street. Take time to tour the campus, where you’ll see Gothic-inspired architecture, views of the Potomac River, and, during the school year, students bustling between classes. You might even catch the Hoya spirit.

5 PM: Happy Hour, Georgetown Style

Lucky for you, there are plenty of places in Georgetown to sip predinner drinks. Our pick is Mie N Yu (3125 M St., NW; 202-333-6122), a trendy Middle East-inspired spot that offers interesting fusion drinks, such as Emperor’s Nectar (peach-flavored vodka with white-cranberry and blood-orange juice) and the Dancing Shiva (Bulleit bourbon, sweet and dry vermouth, mint, an orange slice, and a splash of bitters). If you’re going during the week, the after-work menu offers drink and food specials at the bar. The Marco Polo martini, made with Centenario tequila, Cointreau, lime, and sours, is just $4.25; red and white wine are the same price. Appetizers such as fried calamari or crab with cream cheese, sambal, and Japanese mustard cost $2 to $4. The after-work menu is available Monday and Tuesday from 5 to 7 and Wednesday through Friday from 4 to 7.

For more ideas of fun, food, and shopping in Georgetown, check out our neighborhood guide.

7 PM: Dinner on U Street

Head back across town to one of the newest centers of DC nightlife, the U Street corridor, where you can have dinner at Marvin (2007 14th St., NW; 202-797-7171). It’s easiest and fastest to get there by cab (about $6.50 for a single passenger; $1.50 each additional passenger). If you choose public transportation, make sure to factor in extra time for your trip (approximately 45 minutes, depending on bus and train schedules).

To get there from Mie N Yu via public transportation, walk one block west to Wisconsin Avenue and catch the 34 Metrobus heading toward Naylor Road. Get off at Pennsylvania Avenue and Seventh Street, and transfer to the subway at the Archives-Navy Memorial stop (Yellow line). Board the train headed toward Fort Totten and ride four stops to U Street. From there, it’s a short walk to Marvin; go one block west on U Street and turn right on 14th. Total public transportation cost will be $2.70.

Marvin, a new hotspot, offers an unconventional mix of soul food and Belgian fare. Don’t miss the chicken and waffles. If the weather’s nice, linger over a postdinner drink on the upstairs terrace before moving on to your next destination. Even when it’s a little chilly, the heaters up there keep it cozy.

9 PM: Dance the Night Away

Now that you’ve eaten, it’s time to stretch your legs. Just a few blocks away is the Black Cat (1811 14th St., NW; 202-667-7960), a popular nightclub and live-music venue of local hipsters. Downstairs, you’ll find the Red Room Bar, a dimly lit spot with a well-stocked bar of microbrews and imports, Belgian beers, bourbon, Scotch, and more. Strike up a conversation with a stranger; or if you’re more bold, challenge someone to a game of pool. You can also play pinball or play DJ for the night on the jukebox.

Adjacent to the bar is the club’s Backstage, a small performance space that hosts lesser-known bands of all stripes, from punk and indie to garage bands as well as soloists. The stage also features spoken-word events, film screenings, and DJ dance nights.

Upstairs is the main concert space, a 7,000-square-foot venue that hosts national touring acts, popular local bands, and monthly DJ dance events. The upstairs bar has a smaller selection than the one downstairs, serving predictable—and high-price—beers and mixed drinks. There are a few tables and chairs in the back for conversation, but most people crowd near the front, where the band plays.

The no-cover Red Room Bar is open from 8 PM to 2 AM during the week and 7 PM to 3 AM on Fridays and Saturdays. Doors open for the Backstage at 9, and the act goes on at 9:30. Door times for the Mainstage vary; check the Web site. Tickets for shows on both stages are required and can be purchased from the box office (cash only) starting at 8 PM or through Ticketmaster.com.

12 AM: Midnight Snack

Before calling it a night, there’s one more place in the neighborhood to check out. Ben’s Chili Bowl (1213 U St., NW; 202-667-0909) has been a favorite of Washingtonians since 1958, when legends such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, and Martin Luther King Jr. frequented the spot. The most famous dish at this diner-style comfort-food joint is the chili half smoke, DC’s signature sausage swimming in Ben’s warm chili. It’s reportedly Bill Cosby’s guilty pleasure.

This busy late-night hotspot is open until 2 AM Monday through Thursday and 4 AM Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, it closes at 8 PM.