One Day & Night in Washington DC

The White House

Imagine you only have one day to experience the Nation’s Capital. What should you see? How would you see it?

Washington DC is a city of vistas. Because buildings in the Nation’s Capital may not exceed the height of that pointy obelisk, the Washington Monument, there is no interruption to the city’s panoramic skyline. From almost every spot on the National Mall, you will see an impressive collection of historic buildings and marble monuments.

Easy Summer nights on the National Mall
View of Washington Monument and the National Mall from the US Capitol Steps

The National Mall was designed in 1791 by Architect Pierre L’Enfant. Appointed by President George Washington, L’Enfant designed the 10-square miles of Federal land to feature “grand avenues” like Constitution, Independence Avenues and L’Enfant Plaza–his namesake. He included wide open spaces for the memorials and monuments.

All of the Smithsonian Museums are free including the National Museum of Natural History

If you only have one day to visit Washington DC, set your sights on exploring the National Mall. This isn’t a shopping mall—the National Mall refers to the 146-acres of green space overseen by the National Park Service. You may see Park Rangers, some on horseback and others on Segways, charged with preserving and protecting America’s treasures. They have visitors centers at many memorials and monuments; stop by with your questions or to ask for directions.

Transportation Options

Take out a paddleboat for a tour around the Tidal Basin at the foot of the Jefferson Memorial

With just one day, a bus or trolley tour offers visitors the most efficient way to see essential Washington D.C. attractions. These non-guided tour companies allow passengers to stop at the memorials, do a little exploring, and then hop back on to see more. After paying respects at the World War II Memorial, and stopping to feel the spray of the fountains at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, you will have examined two of 20 majestic monuments in Washington D.C. The most famous is probably the Lincoln Memorial at the end of the Reflecting Pool.

The National Museum of the American Indian has a great cafeteria and remarkable art collection

The US Capitol is on one end of the National Mall facing the Lincoln Memorial with the Washington Monument in between. Other options for scenic touring include renting a paddleboat at the Tidal Basin, renting a bicycle from Capital Bike Share or try our underground subway system called Metro. Of course, your trip is not complete without seeing the U.S. Capitol and The White House. These buildings are far apart, and The White House is a few blocks from the Mall on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue between 17th and 15th Streets NW.

Lincoln Memorial
Don’t miss the magnificent Abraham Lincoln Memorial

Smithsonian Museums–America’s Treasures

Allow time in the afternoon to tour at least one museum. The Smithsonian National Museums are all free, and their information booths provide easy-to-follow maps that help visitors find an exhibit that speaks to their passion. Maybe it’s seeing Lucky Lindy’s Spirit of St. Louis bi-plane in the National Museum of Air and Space.

Segways are a fun way to cover a lot of the National Mall

Perhaps you prefer to examine the only Leonardo DaVinci in the Western Hemisphere at the National Gallery of Art. In the National Museum of American History, visitors will gasp at the huge (30′ by 34′) American flag—flown during the War of 1812, it inspired the penning of the Star Spangled Banner. Try authentic Native American food at the National Museum of the American Indian. These treasures are all here, but you decide which artifacts hold the most meaning. The most recent addition to the Smithsonian collection is the National Museum of African American History and Culture with Chuck Berry’s cherry-red Cadillac.

National Mall Spring 2016 (15 of 16)
Use the Old Town Trolley to get around the National Mall

Also, consider an evening stroll on the Mall after dinner. Nighttime is one of the best times to visit. Everything is aglow at night; these iconic buildings are luminous, standing tall against the dark sky. I feel very safe walking around by myself as Park Rangers are on duty until 11:30 pm most nights, and there are still lots of visitors around. Another option is taking a tour with Monuments by Moonlight.

National Mall Summer 2016 sunset-12
Big Bus has hop on and off buses with open air tops for optimal viewing
Capitol Hill pics (3 of 6)
The US Capitol Visitor Center has informative exhibits and a movie to learn more about how government operates.

The short list of must-see Washington D.C.

  1. National Mall–whether you walk or ride, take in the magnificent memorials and monuments.
  2. Smithsonian National Museums–these free museums have unparalleled collections of artifacts.
  3. The White House
  4. U.S. Capitol–check out the Capitol Visitor Center for a tour and a movie

    National Mall Summer 2016 sunset-27
    The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, view from the World War II Memorial

For more details on the sites and attractions, transportation and hours of operation, check If you want more information about visiting Washington DC, check out my book: The Unofficial Guide to Washington DC. 

All photos on this blog are my originals. Please request to borrow them. Thanks!

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Freelance writer and photographer specializing in vivid, deeply reported stories about food, travel and family.

5 Comments Leave a comment

    • Hi Moritz
      Thanks so much for reading my blog and for your comment. I am fortunate because I actually live outside of Washington. Downtown is only a 20 minute Metro ride for me. I have tried to visit every museum, monument and landmark, but there are still a few I haven’t visited yet (Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and the National Museum of Health and Medicine are two on my list that I’ve yet to see). I did just check out the recently renovated White House Visitor’s Center, and it is really nice. I also love the newish museum across from Ford’s Theatre called the Center for Education and Leadership which celebrates Abraham Lincoln’s legacy. So, I hope you get to come back to DC soon and tour a few more attractions! Let me know if you have any questions! Renee

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s awesome. It’s amazing to see that you as a local experience so much in D.C. I feel like I have to visit a lot of places when visiting the city again. Thanks for the extensive answer. I’ll come back on you when I’m sure when I’m going to be back in Washington, if you don’t mind 🙂


  1. Moritz, I just checked out your blog and Wow! What a traveler you are. You have very helpful reviews, excellent travel advice and spectacular photos. So happy to discover you and Sabrina on Travelux. Good luck with your studies and do let me know when you might visit Washington DC again!


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