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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
The short list of must-see Washington D.C.
- National Mall–whether you walk or ride, take in the magnificent memorials and monuments.
- Smithsonian National Museums–these free museums have unparalleled collections of artifacts.
- The White House
- U.S. Capitol–check out the Capitol Visitor Center for a tour and a movie
For more details on the sites and attractions, transportation and hours of operation, check nps.org 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!
Attractions; Free Things to Do in DC family travel Food for Thought Kid Friendly MidAtlantic Travel Musings About the DC Area Top sights in DC Travel National Mall National Museum of American History Pierre L'Enfant Smithsonian Museums The White House Trolley Tours Washington DC
Freelance writer and photographer specializing in vivid, deeply reported stories about food, travel and family.