Surprising Washington D.C.: What To Do in 72 Hours
What To Do With 3 Days in Washington D.C
I’ll admit, for a long time, I didn’t really know what to do in Washington D.C. An Anglophile at heart, I’ve always been more drawn to Boston and New York City. When someone would tell me they’re were headed to Washington D.C., I’d think “that’s nice. Enjoy the museums, I guess?” Still, when someone in my life proposes a trip, I’m not very likely to say no, regardless of destination. When Andy proposed we visit Washington D.C. in February 2018, I immediately started throwing together a three-day itinerary for a brief visit the nation’s capital . . . and realized I’d totally underestimated the capital city of the USA.
Turns out 72 hours isn’t much time to spend in Washington D.C. In fact, three days in Washington D.C. proved just enough time to squeeze in all our “must-see” attractions. If possible, I recommend at least five days for a first time visit to Washington D.C. to allow time to get off the Mall and also linger at especially interesting places.
Here’s what we managed to squeeze in during our brief three-day visit to Washington D.C.
Our Three-Day Itinerary for Washington D.C.
- Arriving Washington D.C. via the George Washington Memorial Parkway
- Washington D.C. accommodations: AKA White House
- Self-guided Washington D.C. Mall Walking Tour
- DC Dining: Old Ebbitt Grill
- Self-guided Washington D.C. monuments walking tour
- The Smithsonian Museums
- The National Gallery
- DC Dining: Rasika West End
Arriving Washington D.C. via the George Washington Memorial Parkway
If you’re driving into Washington D.C. and approaching from the north, definitely take the George Washington Memorial Parkway into the U.S. capitol city. After a couple hours of interstate driving from Gettysburg, PA, the two-lane parkway provided a beautiful and dramatic introduction to Washington D.C. This scenic drive overseen by the National Park Service connects several important locations in American History including Arlington National Cemetery and Clara Barton’s house.
Although we didn’t make any stops along the parkway, we enjoyed the oak tree-lined roadway’s stately natural beauty. The 25-mile-long parkway winds along the Potomac’s south bank, offering views of the Potomac River Gorge and Georgetown. We crossed the Potomac on the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, placing us on the far western edge of the Mall, giving us a clear view of the Lincoln and Washington Memorials and U.S. Capitol Building. Welcome to Washington D.C.!
The AKA White House Apartment Hotel
The first order of business was checking into our hotel, the AKA White House at 1710 H St NW. We got our keys and instantly fell in love with our spacious apartment suite. With two beds, two baths, a full kitchen, living room, and even a washer and dryer it definitely felt like home. Best of all, its central location (the actual White House is only two blocks away) allowed us to walk to most Washington D.C. must see spots. I also may have been pretty excited to discover the hotel offered a bar, as well as roof-top terrace and fitness center.
Self-guided Washington D.C. walking tour
What To Do in Washington D.C. Now That We’d Arrived?
We needed to stretch our legs so we headed to the closest D.C. attraction – Lafayette Square and the White House. A stroll past the Treasury Department and then a turn toward the Washington Monument shot us straight onto the Mall. Since we visited smack dab in the middle of the Washington Monument’s three-year closure for repairs, it wasn’t looking its best, so we headed west toward the World War II and Lincoln Memorials. After obligatory photo ops at the Lincoln Memorial, we headed up 23rd Avenue, past the State Department and the old CIA headquarters to lay in some provisions for the apartment at the Whole Foods on I Street.
Washington D.C. dining: Old Ebbitt Grill
We unloaded our haul of snacks and breakfast items and decided on nearby Old Ebbitt Grill (675 15th Street NW) for dinner. Established in 1856 and reputed as Washington D.C.’s oldest saloon, Old Ebbitt Grill sits basically across the street from the White House in a Beaux-Arts building. It was a busy place on a Sunday night, but happily, even without reservations, it only took a few minutes to get a booth. Known for its seafood and oysters, I ordered the Oyster Gumbo and everyone seemed pleased with their meal and drinks. Personally, the biggest appeal felt like people watching and taking in the restaurant’s curated Victorian décor.
Who Was Old Ebbitt?
William Ebbitt owned the boardinghouse which housed the first Ebbitt Grill. Just in case you’re wondering why he’s “old” that’s because back in 1910, a New Ebbitt Café opened. Eventually the two locations merged into one. Although Ebbitt grills and cafes have been kicking around central DC since the 19th century, the restaurant’s only been in its current location since 1983.
Make way for the Commander-in-Chief
To return to the apartment, we planned to cut in front of the White House and through Lafayette Square, but found the route barricaded. Back in the hotel, Andy happened to glance out the window just as a police officer pulled up to block 17th St. intersection. After a few minutes of vigilant watching, the entire Presidential motorcade drove by. Regardless of what you think of our Commander-in-Chief at the time, a Presidential motorcade is an impressive spectacle, even if it’s just the President coming back to work after a weekend in Mar-A-Lago.
Monuments and The Mall
We knew two full days wasn’t much time to do things in Washington D.C. so we plan to get much beyond the Mall during our visit. However, most things on the Mall don’t open until 10 a.m., allowing us to enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the apartment. Even as the apartment door locked behind us at 9 a.m., we still had about an hour to kill until the Smithsonian Museums opened. Just the right amount of time to see some more monuments!
Self-guided Washington DC Tidal Basin Monument Tour
We hiked past our old friend, the Washington Monument, past the John Paul Jones Memorial on a triangle of grass in the middle of Independence Ave and started looping around the Tidal Basin. Turns out, going clockwise around the Tidal Basin – not the ideal direction to loop around the Tidal Basin! We ended up going through the Roosevelt Memorial backwards. At least it didn’t matter which way we approached the Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorials. . . .
Off to the Smithsonian Museums
The National Museum of American History
Our first official stop of the day was the National Museum of American History. I’d wanted to see Julia Child’s Kitchen since Julie and Julia came out, but the museum contains so, so much more than that. We ended up spending a decent amount of time on the second floor (which contains an entire house!) before heading downstairs.
In hindsight, I found the exhibits on the first level more interesting. That’s where you’ll find Julia Child’s kitchen tucked into a fascinating exhibit about American food. Another noteworthy first level exhibit is “America on the Move,” which focuses on modes of transportation throughout the centuries. If you grew up listening to NPR’s Car Talk show, be sure to check out the part of the exhibit that features actual problem cars that callers needed advice on!
Remember there’s no food on the Mall
If you do any research before a Washington D.C. vacation beforehand, you’ll read over and over again that there is no food on the Mall with the exception of snack kiosks and the museum cafes. And yet, somehow, the lunch hour came, our stomachs growled, and we realized . . . there is no food on the Mall. Since all the Smithsonian Museums allow food and beverages in resealable containers, a picnic lunch is the fastest and most economical option if you need lunch on the Mall. Did we pack a lunch? No, we did not. Instead, we went on an hour-long spirit quest through Smithsonian Museum cafes which eventually ended with overpriced lomo saltado in the National Museum of the American Indian.
Before you go, think about the museum’s target audience
Compared to the American History Museum, the American Indian Museum’s exhibits seemed a little sparse so rather than staying to peruse the exhibits, we boogied over to the National Air and Space Museum after lunch. Designed to feel like walking into an airplane hanger, historic aircrafts fill the museum’s rafters. I especially enjoyed seeing the original Wright Flyer from Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first flight 1903.
The National Air and Space Museum exhibits captivate visitors of all ages, but have special appeal to elementary-aged kids. After spending our visits to both The National Museum of American History and The National Air and Space Museum dodging school groups, we needed a break. We cut across the Mall to the National Gallery, hoping its halls wouldn’t reverberate with the squeals of small children.
The U.S. National Gallery
The National Gallery provided us with just the serenity we needed after a full day of museum going. The only museum along the Mall not connected with the Smithsonian Institute, the National Gallery has a little more elegant, and dare I say it, European feel than its neighboring museums. With free admission, we didn’t even feel guilty that we spent a good portion of our visit sitting in the West Building garden court under the rotunda figuring out that evening’s dinner plans.
We eventually ventured beyond the peaceful rotunda to take in the museum’s impressive collection, which includes the only Da Vinci in the Western Hemisphere. In several rooms, artists worked to produce incredible reproductions. I always love a good art museum and next time will come earlier in the day with fresher senses.
Washington D.C. dining: Rasika
We chose Rasika West End (1190 New Hampshire Avenue, NW) for dinner, in part because of its convenient location to our apartment and also its large selection of vegetarian items. A busy, highly-rated modern Indian restaurant, we definitely indulged at Rasika. Washington D.C.’s plethora of free attractions greatly increased our dining budget for the trip and we went for it.
Appetizers? Why not! We shared a fried spinach salad that’s one of Rasika’s signature dishes. Cocktails? Of course! I apparently must order Pimm’s whenever it’s available, so I enjoyed a Kaminee cocktail made of Pimm’s, chili gin, lime juice, ginger syrup, and cucumber. Everyone had an excellent meal and went to bed with a full stomach and very sore feet. By the end of the day, we’d clocked in just shy of 13 miles!
DAY THREE in Washington D.C.
We knew we wanted to make the most of our last day in D.C., but other than wanting get a little beyond the Mall, we weren’t sure where to start. Should we stand in line outside of the Supreme Court in hopes of being admitted to listen in on a case? Should we head over to the U.S. Capitol Building even though we didn’t have an advanced tour reservation?
Touring the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington D.C.
The odds seemed to favor touring the U.S. Capitol Building, so we climbed Capitol Hill, and easily nabbed (free) tour tickets for a tour starting in 10 minutes. The tour begins with a short audiovisual presentation and then you join up with your tour guide. She lead us through the National Statuary Hall, the Crypt where Congress intended to inter George Washington, the original Supreme Court Chamber, and ended in Exhibition Hall.
The day-to-day work of the U.S. government influences each tour of the Capitol Building. For example, on our tour, we had to skip the Rotunda because Capitol staff were busily preparing it for Billy Graham’s lying in honor. You also can’t see the Senate or House Galleries unless you have a pass from your senators or representative, so plan ahead.
Off to Arlington National Cemetery
It was early in the 11 o’clock hour when we exited the Capitol Building and seemed too early for lunch, so we headed for the nearest Metro station to get ourselves over to Arlington National Cemetery. Once there we hightailed straight up the hill to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to catch the changing of the guard at noon. During the winter months, the guard is changed on the hour while in the summer (April 1 – September 30), it’s changed on the half hour.
Immediately following the Changing of the Guard, we observed a wreath laying ceremony which families of veterans can request to honor their loved ones. After the two ceremonies, we wound our way back down the hill past Arlington House, the Kennedy graves, and out through the visitor center.
At some point in Arlington, the almonds in my bag were completely consumed between the four of us and when we reached the Arlington Metro station, our next stop was clear: lunch! We decided to return to the general area of our hotel since we’d read about a food truck scene around Farragut Square. We ended up at a great hole in the wall in the middle of George Washington University – Leo’s GW Delicatessen. It proved the perfect place to grab a quick lunch when everyone in your group is ravenous.
U.S. Botanic Garden
After enjoying (demolishing?) our lunches on benches in Kogan Plaza under bright blue skies, we realized it was now or never time for things to do in Washington D.C. I’d been intrigued by the U.S. Botanic Garden located at the far eastern end of the Mall and since the sun was shining for the first time during our entire visit, we opted to return to the Mall for some greenery and photographs.
Although the U.S. Botanic Garden doesn’t merit a long visit, it sure felt good to be some place warm and lush when I knew I’d be return to the snows of Minnesota the next day! I especially enjoyed the orchid displays. Afterwards, we made our way slowly back to the hotel stopping to take photos of D.C. landmarks.
Home to the AKA White House and take out from Baan Thai
After so much time on our feet actively exploring the city, we were ready for low-key evening. We grabbed a drink in the hotel lounge and enjoyed takeout from Baan Thai. Everyone loved their food, however the chefs at Baan Thai weren’t kidding around with their spicy ratings! (Although Baan Thai closed in 2019, their chef has moved on to Baan Siam.)
My Washington D.C. take-aways
I felt we really filled our days well in Washington D.C. but my inner planner wishes we’d done a little more due diligence, like requesting Senate and House gallery passes from our elected officials, before our visit. However, the only major regret I have is not visiting the Newseum which permanently closed on December 31, 2019 due to financial difficulties. I definitely plan to return to Washington D.C. and when we do, we’ll probably stay at the AKA White House again. Its location allowed us to walk basically everywhere and its apartment amenities made us feel so settled in the city.
I didn’t expect to like Washington D.C. as much as I did, but in many ways, it reminds me of London with its walkability and plethora of free attractions. If we’d stayed another day, I think we would have ventured farther from the Mall to take in the many, many other attractions and neighborhoods that we didn’t even set foot in during our brief visit. Top of my list next time are the George Washington University Textile Museum and touring National Public Radio headquarters.
Have you been to Washington D.C.? If so, did anything surprise you about it? What were your favorite parts?
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