Washington, D.C. in four days
This article provides readers with a sample itinerary of how to see Washington, D.C. in four days. This guide is not totally comprehensive, and should be tailored to your individual interests and abilities. While many of the primary attractions in D.C. are suited for visitors of all ages, a number of recommendations may not appeal to families; alternate family-friendly recommendations are provided where possible.
Washington, D.C., draws more than 15 million visitors each year. Most first-time visits involve touring the U.S. Capitol, viewing the White House, experiencing the Smithsonian Institution museums on the National Mall, and visiting monuments. This itinerary focuses on planning out visits to D.C.'s primary attractions. However, visitors should also be aware that Washington offers much more than museums and federal buildings around the National Mall. Consider exploring more of Washington's neighborhoods listed on the city's main article.
When to visit
With a limited amount of time to spend in Washington, it is typically worthwhile to visit the museums during the day, and tour monuments in the evening. All of the monuments and memorials are open and lit at night. Additionally, D.C. can be hot and muggy during the summer months, and you will most likely want to be indoors during the hottest part of the day.
Winter has the fewest visitors. Temperatures in D.C. are cold but seldom below freezing. The winter season typically offers the best bargains on hotels and fewer crowds. But, of course, it is the capital of America, expect crowds year round.
Consider where you will stay. Hotels in the city are the most convenient; however, Washington's subway system (known locally as "the Metro") extends into Maryland and Virginia, allowing visitors easy access to the city from suburban hotels. Make sure that any hotel you stay at is within walking distance of or has a shuttle service to a Metro station. Also remember to account for transit time when planning out your final itinerary.
In Washington, be prepared to do a lot of walking and to use public transportation. Driving a car in the District is rarely practical. Parking restrictions are especially problematic, and many attractions are within a mile of each other on the National Mall. Make sure that your hotel has parking available, especially if driving and staying in the city.
During the hot and humid summer months, take a bottle of water, sunscreen, and all other normal needs for a day outdoors. Good walking shoes are a must for touring the mall and city. For those who have trouble walking, you may wish to consider utilizing the tour operators such as Tourmobile, which provides transportation around the National Mall. Download and print the City Walking Guides to help you explore the city.
Chances are that you will ride DC Metro, and knowing how it operates ahead of time can mean the difference between catching the train that just arrived in the station and having to wait another 15 minutes for the next train to arrive. Depending on what type of pass you purchase (see the Washington, DC guide in the Get Around section) you will have one of two types of cards:
You save money by buying the $5 SmartTrip card instead of paper tickets if you plan to take five or more Metro trips during your stay, as paper fare card fees include a $1 surcharge per ride.
As a rule, remember "walk left, stand right." You should stay on the left side of escalator if you want to walk up. If you plan to stand, stay out of the way of the walkers by standing on the right side. Some locals may become irritated and repeat the "walk left, stand right" rule verbally if you do not comply.
Food and drink are not allowed in the stations or on the trains. There have been instances reported where metro personnel will harshly punish violators.
Finding which exit to leave the station from is just as important as getting off at the correct stop. Many stations have several exits that can put you right next to where you want to go. Most exits are labeled according to which street they exit to. Check the station's neighborhood map to find out which exit to head to.
The fastest way to get into DC is to fly into Reagan National Airport (DCA). Terminals B and C, served by American, Delta, United, and US Airways, offers quick access to the blue Metro line.
Alternatively, Dulles International Airport (IAD) offers more straightforward connections to DC than Baltimore-Washington Airport (BWI).
DC is home to Union Station, a major Amtrak station. Acela service takes you to DC via a high speed train from as far away as New York (3-4 hours) or Boston (8 hours). Other routes come in from Western Virginia, Richmond/Norfolk, and Pittsburgh.
Again, travel by car into DC during workdays or holidays is not recommended.
I-66 and I-395 provide easy access from Virginia. By far, the best scenic route is to take the George Washington Parkway, which connects to the Western and Southern sides of I-495. Traveling along the entire parkway is a very rewarding experience, as it takes you past Mount Vernon, Old Town Alexandria, a great view of DC from across the river, Arlington Cemetery, a great view of Georgetown, and the cliffs overlooking the Potomac.
I-295 and US 50 provide quick access into the district from Maryland. There are also several secondary highways that take you into DC from Maryland. A great scenic route from Maryland is the Clara Barton Parkway which lines the old canal system along the Potomac. Another great route is the Rock Creek parkway which takes you through a lush "canyon" - you wouldn't believe you're in the District! Rock Creek Park is also the fabled dumping ground for many murder victims.
Must see attractions
A list of the "must see" attractions of Washington would probably include the following:
Morning: Take a tour of the Capitol, the meeting place the US Congress, and learn about the history of the building. Admissions is free on a first-come, first-served basis.
Noon: Lunch at the Tortilla Coast, which is conveniently located at the intersection of D St. SE. and 1st St. SE. Care for a bonedaddy's nachos or bbq chicken salad? This Tex-Mex restaurant has got it all.
Afternoon: Hit the free museums along the gorgeous and lengthy National Mall. Notable exhibits are the National Gallery of Art and the Natural History Museum.
Evening: Drive through the empty, lit-up city, preferably after midnight. Circle around the handsome Washington Monument. Sing to the cool evening breeze under the Department of Energy skybridge. Experience the most scenic and relaxing excursion along DC's majestic boulevards.
Most of the sightseeing is done in the Mall area, but it can be difficult to find interesting or cheap food. There are a plethora of fast food stands selling hot dogs and pretzels, but this can get old, fast.