don't miss the abe lincoln memorial in washington dc

24 Hours in Washington DC: The Perfect One Day Itinerary

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If you want an exciting day trip, then look no further than Washington DC. DC is a wonderful choice for travelers who are seeking an action-packed vacation that’s also intellectually meaningful and poignant.

As the nation’s capital, DC has literally everything at an intrepid traveler’s fingertips. Arts and culture, terrific food, cool neighborhoods, history, and so much more. So much more.

Honestly, I feel like Washington DC is a place that I could move to and live for years, and still not see everything this city has to offer. 

obama national portrait gallery

For example, I am someone who loves museums.

And Washington DC? Boasts the best museum collection (in my opinion) in the United States, thanks to the Smithsonian Institution. Washington DC’s many Smithsonian museums appeal to all ages and topics, and as a result, they draw visitors from all over the world. And do you want to know the best part? Smithsonian museums are free to visit.

What else could I ask for? At the same time, though, I was astounded at the number of choices I had when I visited here, so it was so hard to decide what I wanted to see and do.

In summary, Washington DC is wonderful, but at the same time, I want to help you plan your day to avoid feeling bombarded by options. 

mlk memorial at night
24 Hours in DC: Don’t Miss the Monuments at Night.

I do value being honest on this blog, though. So I want to get something out of the way: as fun as Washington DC is for a day trip, I also think having only a brief 24 hours in Washington DC isn’t ideal.

You’ll have a very busy day, and only feel like you’ve barely scratched the surface of what this city has to offer. And then you will want to come back. I feel like I missed so much on my visit that I’m already planning another trip in the future. 

However, 24 hours in Washington DC is still far better than never visiting Washington DC, haha! The capital of the United States is super popular with both domestic and international tourists for a reason. 

solo trip to washington dc includes the capitol building

24 Hours in Washington DC: Practical Advice

Before going deeper into this single day itinerary, I wanted to share a couple of tips for planning your trip to Washington DC.

I actually traveled alone to Washington DC quite recently, so I definitely feel like I’m in a good place to help you save time and perhaps even money. This isn’t a cheap place to visit, so preparing in advance is important. 

washington dc's famous monuments are gorgeous

Transportation Around Washington DC

Washington DC has a strong public transportation system. So, even though it’s a large city, I wouldn’t stress too much about getting around the city. Here are a few suggestions for navigating the District:

  • The Washington Metro, also known as Metrorail, is a subway system with six color-coded lines. It’s a convenient way to travel between different neighborhoods and major attractions.
  • Washington D.C. is a bike-friendly city with dedicated bike lanes and trails. Capital Bikeshare allows visitors to rent bikes – which could be a lot of fun in the warmer months.
  • Hop-on-hop-off tour buses go to major attractions, and you can hop on and off at different stops throughout the day. This is especially appealing for only 24 hours in Washington DC, because you don’t need to waste time figuring a public transportation system and can enjoy a fully guided day.

As much as I love my Honda, unless you’re traveling from a nearby city and have a designated place to park, then I highly recommend not renting a car in DC, especially if you’re only visiting for the day.

DC traffic is notorious, especially during rush hour. I live in New Jersey, which is the most densely populated state in the USA, and I still hear about how bad Washington DC traffic is on a regular basis. That should tell you all you need to know. Not to mention, parking is a nightmare if you’re hoping to rock up and find a spot on the street. 

Trust me, you’re much better off using public transportation, as well as rideshares to save yourself the aggravation. 

don't skip the portrait museum with 24 hours in washington dc
Don’t Forget Comfortable Shoes for Museums in Washington DC

What to Bring for 24 Hours in Washington DC

Washington DC has very diverse weather, ranging from raw and wet cold in the winter and sweltering humidity in the summer, so your clothing will drastically differ depending on the season. 

The four items below are essentials for whenever you decide to spend a day in DC.

  • Comfortable Shoes: You will walk a LOT in DC. The National Mall is sprawling and much, much larger than I had originally expected. So pack high-quality walking sneakers with you instead of adorable heels. Your feet will thank you.
  • Guidebook to Washington DC: Despite only having 24 hours in Washington DC, it’s still nice to have a little guidebook with you, such as Lonely Planet’s Washington DC guide, which you can purchase as a physical copy or download to a device.
  • Sunblock: No matter what time of year, you want to protect your skin from the Mid-Atlantic sun. So always bring sunblock with you to Washington DC. 
  • Travel Insurance: If you’re an international traveler, then I highly recommend insurance if you are visiting the United States. Healthcare is good but, uh, expensive. My personal favorite is World Nomads

the park hyatt is a delightful place to stay

Where to Stay in Washington DC

With only 24 hours in Washington DC, you need to be mindful of where you want to stay in this sprawling city if you choose to spend the night (which I recommend that you do).

Since you’re visiting for a short time, don’t stay far on the outskirts, or even in nearby cities such as Arlington. Arlington wouldn’t be a bad option for a longer visit, say three or four days, in Washington DC, because you would save money. However, for this itinerary, what you would waste in time wouldn’t be worth it.

Stay close to the attractions. Sure, you’re spending more money to stay in Washington DC, but like I said, for such a brief period of time, the extra costs are worth every penny.

I’ve included a few suggestions in this post to get you started on your hotel research. 

with 24 hours in washington dc, don't skip the white house

Hotel & Hostel Suggestions

  • Eaton DC: This trendy boutique hotel is a welcoming place and cultural hub. Eaton DC is also ideally located near many Smithsonian museums and Capitol Hill. See prices on Expedia.com and Booking.com.
  • HighRoad Washington DC: This adorable pod hotel is perfect for young travelers who want to meet other people. Located right in the heart of the popular Adams Morgan neighborhood. See prices on Expedia.com and Booking.com.
  • Park Hyatt in Georgetown: Haha, I stayed at the Park Hyatt, and it was honestly a big splurge for me. As a solo traveler, sometimes it feels great to be pampered. So, if you want to enjoy a sophisticated stay in DC, then look no further than here. See prices on Expedia.com and Booking.com.

don't miss the memorials with 24 hours in washington dc

24 Hours in Washington DC: Detailed Itinerary 

In this itinerary, I did my best to stay reasonable about everything that you can see and do in only a day. Packing too many activities in would a ridiculous and unrealistic whirlwind. 

Furthermore, I tried to still stay flexible, though, because I know everyone is different. For example, I won’t tell you what specific Smithsonian museums to see, nor will I dictate what Monuments you need to go to. 

Let’s go!

delicious bagels are everywhere in milwaukee

Explore and Eat in Georgetown 

Georgetown, a youthful college area that’s well-known for its prestigious university, is one of my favorite neighborhoods in the entire city. It’s located a bit outside the National Mall, but I still think it’s worthy of a visit, even if you only have 24 hours in Washington DC.

In particular, I like that Georgetown’s overall style is different compared to other areas in Washington DC. The cobblestone streets and Federal-style architecture makes you feel as if you’ve been transported back in time. Georgetown has plenty of adorable coffeeshops and bagel shops to grab breakfast before starting your day in the District.

One of my favorite places to eat was Call Your Mother Deli. I loved their bagel sandwiches so much that I went back twice!

wandering the national mall in washington dc

Check Out the National Mall

It’s impossible to come to Washington DC and not visit the National Mall. Impossible. 

The National Mall is open 24 hours a day. However, the park rangers and certain sites have designated hours that you want to check in advance. On a beautiful day, you can easily rent a bike or join a Segway to see a lot of the Mall in the sunny morning hours. 

As a personal suggestion, if you know in advance the weather will be nice, then it might be worth while to book a ticket to the top of the Washington Monument, which is the city’s truly iconic obelisk. You can take the elevator to the top for excellent panoramic views of the city. Tickets need to be booked in advance.

Of course, in addition to the monuments, the National Mall is also home to some of the most famous Smithsonian Museums in Washington DC.

Which leads me to our next item … 

with 24 hours in washington dc, don't skip the museums

Museum Hop Through the Smithsonian Museums

You cannot come to Washington DC and skip out on the Smithsonian Institution’s wide collection of museums. I would pick at least one or two museums to visit while you’re here, even though you only have a day.

On the flip side, don’t even try to see all the Smithsonian Museums in one day. It’s literally impossible, and you will burn out. Instead, I would pick two museums that stand out to you and explore those options until you want to move on. 

You will also want to consider the distance between museums to get the biggest “bang for your buck.” For instance, both the National Museum of American History and National Museum of African American History & Culture are within a close walking distance of each other. 

Last but not least, the Smithsonian Museums are free for visitors. Regardless, some museums might require you to pick a time slot in order to keep crowds to a reasonable amount. Check websites in advance so you’re not turned away from your museum of choice. 

gorgeous fountain inside the african american history museum
24 Hours in DC: Exploring the African American History Museum.

Most Popular Smithsonian Museums

  • National Air and Space Museum: One of the most famous museums in DC. Established in 1946, the National Air and Space Museum is all about aviation and space exploration. Entrance is free, but you need to reserve a time slot in advance. Parts of the Air and Space Museum are under renovations until 2025. 
  • National Gallery of Art: Art fans will feel like they are in heaven in this massive museum. This Smithsonian contains over 150,000 paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, photographs, and more. It’s easy to lose yourself for three hours or more here. 
  • National Museum of African American History and Culture: One of DC’s newest history museums. This Smithsonian explores the history, culture, and contributions of African Americans in the United States. Like some other popular options, you need to reserve a time slot in advance for your visit.
  • National Museum of American History: A true journey through the pages of this country’s complicated history. This museum chronicles the history and culture of the United States through exhibits on everything from the First Ladies’ Inaugural Gowns to the Star-Spangled Banner.
  • National Museum of Natural History: This museum is absolutely perfect for visitors fascinated by the natural world. Learn all about this beautiful planet that we call our “home.”
  • National Portrait Gallery: This art museum features portraits of famous individuals in US History. The collection has gotten more diverse in recent years, and it’s so cool to learn about people who I didn’t read about in history books. A great museum. I also enjoyed seeing the presidential portrait collection. 

a solo trip to washington dc needs to include this library

See the Library of Congress 

I also suggest seeing at least one government building in Washington DC. Okay, I get I get it. It sounds boring. I promise you that it’s not.

My favorite place to go was the Library of Congress, which is a dream come true for book lovers and free to enter.

Keep in mind that you can’t just show up to the Library of Congress. You need to make an appointment slot, and bring your ticket with you in order to go inside. Furthermore, you need to go through security in advance, so make sure to allocate enough time. But, oh my god, the exhibits and reading room are so beautiful. Photos don’t do justice.

You’re more than welcome to visit the Library of Congress on your own. However, if you want to do a small group tour, this highly rated small-group tour of the Library of Congress not only includes a knowledgable guide, but also an additional stop to the Capitol building. 

vietnam war memorial at night in dc

Go on a Nighttime Monument Tour

Truthfully, the National Mall at night is one of the prettiest city experiences that I’ve ever had. It’s very, very popular to explore the National Mall at night when the memorials and monuments are lit up, so don’t worry too much about safety when you visit this area again.

However, as you already know, the National Mall is very spread out, so if you want to see the most important monuments lit up, then you need to go on a guided tour. It’s well worth the cost, I promise.

On tours, I like avoiding big buses and group, and when it comes to the nighttime National Mall tours, you have soooo many options to choose from. As for me, I opted for the award-winning Small Group National Mall Night Tour.

I loved this particular tour! We took around a small van, and could easily connect with other travelers. Not to mention, our guide was a local law student at Georgetown, and just truly animated and fun. As a smaller group, we could see more monuments and truly experience the magic of exploring the National Mall at night.

with 24 hours in washington dc, don't forget to explore at night

Experience Washington DC’s Nightlife  

Last but not least, if you’re not too tired, then I recommend exploring Washington DC at night once you’re finished checking out the monuments. 

You can go back to Georgetown, which has a ton of great options for dining and drinks, and draws enough of a crowd to make it a safe option when the sun goes down. 

Washington DC has a wide variety of evening entertainment options. Check the big venues, such as the popular Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, to see what shows are playing.

As for me, I love a unique cocktail bar, so I personally went to check out Allegory, which is a very cool bar with a historical twist. My other suggestion is to come to Allegory early. This amazing bar fills up and fast. How do I know? From experience!

No matter your tastes, you are bound to find something fun to see in Washington DC at night!

with 24 hours in washington dc you will see a ton of cool exhibits.

I hope you had fun reading about how to spend 24 hours in Washington DC! Have a great time visiting this amazing city. I’m sure you’ll plan a return trip sometime in the near future.