Washington, D.C. in 5 Days: 15 Must-Visit Attractions

When we first started planning our trip to the United States last year, Washington, D.C. wasn’t part of the itinerary. Several weeks before flying out, we reshuffled the route we had initially planned and decided to do a cruise to the Bahamas instead, which I wrote about here: Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas – 9 Night Southeast Coast & Bahamas Cruise Review; and subsequently, we made a five-day stop in the nation’s capital.In a city with a multitude of attractions & places to visit, and for free – might I add, it was difficult to jam everything we wanted to see in five days. Luckily, we were able to see many of the city’s highlights, which I have decided to list herein. While it might be difficult to zone-in on the must-sees while in the U.S. capital, given that there really is just so much to do and see in Washington, D.C., this list will allow you to experience the city from a great perspective no matter how short your visit may be. Though my previous lists were never listed in a particular order, let me do something different this time around, and count it down to my favorite attractions in the city, listing it in reverse order of importance – at least from my point of view, after having visited the gorgeous city of Washington, D.C. for the first time ever.

Note that everything on this list can be visited for free, as I will note moving forward.

15. Hirshhorn Museum

Despite never being too interested in art museums, it didn’t stop us from exploring the exhibits that the city had to offer. And one of the two art museums that we visited during this trip was the Hirshhorn Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution. This museum is filled with modern and contemporary pieces, in a building designed cylindrically.Admission: Free
Open: Daily from 10AM to 5:30PM (closed on 12/25)

14. National Archives of the United States

Home to the documents that built the very foundation of the United States and its government, namely: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights; the National Archives is one of the most highly-acclaimed buildings in the city, as it contains many of the country’s prized items and documents that are etched in history.Admission: Free (US$1.50 for timed-entry reservations booked online)
Open: Daily from 10AM to 5:30PM
Tour Option: Mondays through Fridays at 9:45AM for a complimentary guided tour

13. Pennsylvania Avenue – Penn Quarter

There is much to see when it comes to indoor attractions in D.C., but the outdoor areas are just as beautiful, with Pennsylvania Avenue, right by Penn Quarter being a testament to that. The architecture takes you back from the high-rise and urbanized capitals of the world, and allows you to see the city in a new light, with intricately-designed buildings greeting you at every turn. For a moment, it reminded me of the character or Paris intertwined with the sophistication of London.

12. Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Now, moving on to yet another museum that is a must-visit: the National Museum of American History, whose exhibit entails the heritage and progression of the country spanning from political, cultural, and social pieces, that’ll take you back in time from more recent history to decades back.My main recommendation should you visit this museum, is to take a look at the interactive area called the Places of Invention, where you’ll learn about different technology-altering pieces that will remain in history.Admission: Free
Open: Daily from 10AM to 5:30PM (with some days with extended hours to 7:30PM; closed on 12/25)

11. Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

Dating back to the mid-1800s, the Castle is otherwise known today as the Smithsonian Visitor Center, which is a great way to jumpstart your trip to the capital to get a snapshot of the places to see and attractions to visit in the area.In addition to this, you’ll get to see the lovely 19th-century architecture that is beautiful both from the interiors and its exteriors.Admission: Free
Open: Daily from 8:30AM to 5:30PM (closed on 12/25)

10. National Gallery of Art

Established back in 1937, the National Gallery of Art is a museum that has evolved over time, exhibiting architecture that very-well reminded me of the Pantheon in Rome.It holds several pieces that could be of interest whether or not you’re an art aficionado.The piece that we went to this museum for, however, that I strongly suggest you do not miss-out on if you’re ever in the city is the portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci by no other than the famed Leonardo da Vinci – this, being his only painting displayed in the Americas. Admission: Free
Open: Daily – Monday to Saturday: 10:00AM to 5:00PM | Sunday 11:00AM to 6:00PM (closed on 12/25 & 1/1)

9. National Air And Space Museum

Yet another museum part of the Smithsonian Institution is the National Air and Space Museum, commissioned in the mid-1900s as the National Air Museum, is a must-see when in the capital. As the third most-visited museum in the world, annually welcoming more than 7 million people from around the globe, this massive museum is home to air and space exhibits dating back to history and to our world today.Admission: Free
Open: Daily from 10:00AM to 5:30PM (closed on 12/25)

8. The White House

And of course, the White House, which is the very icon of Washington D.C. is a must-see; despite us not visiting the interiors when we were there, seeing it from the both the North and South lawns were already impressive in its own right.Admission: Free – but visit requests have to be submitted three months in advance, with the schedule varying day-per-day

Right by the North Lawn of the White House, you can also get a glimpse of the exteriors of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, pictured below. A charming little park, called the Lafayette Square also sits across the North Lawn, where you can easily spend some time walking around, and must not be missed while in the city.

7. Lincoln Memorial & The Reflecting Pool

The quest to get to The Lincoln Memorial & The Reflecting Pool was quite a long one for us, but was definitely worth it when we got there, regardless of the fact that the Reflecting Pool had no water in it.The view from the Lincoln Memorial was breathtaking, as you can see the Washington Monument from afar, which leads me to the next attraction on the list.

Admission: Free
Open: Daily – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year

6. Washington Monument

Standing nearly 170 meters tall is the gorgeous Washington Monument, an obelisk landmark that is a highlight in the midst of Washington, D.C.’s skyline. Currently, the elevator is being renovated until Spring 2019, but the architecture can still be admired from the outside. Admission: Free – but the elevator to the top is closed until Spring 2019, as it goes under renovation

5. National Mall

The open space that sits in the middle of Washington, D.C., spanning through nearly 2 miles is the National Mall, where majority of the city’s main attractions and museums are located.Given that this is an outdoor area, it is open all day, everyday, and is a great place to go for a morning jog, and afternoon stroll, or an evening walk.

4. United States Capitol

The Capitol Building is the magnificent building that sits atop the Capitol Hill, by the eastern end of the National Mall. Seeing it from the outside is already spectacular on its own, but if you have the time, you should give the interiors a visit as well.By sundown, the area is also a fantastic place to spend golden hour in, watching the sun set on this absolutely mesmerizing city. Admission: Free – tours should be booked in advance online, should you want one
Open: Mondays through Saturdays from 8:30AM to 4:30PM (closed on Thanksgiving Day, 12/25, 1/1, and Inauguration Day)

3. World War II Memorial

If there is something that has always intrigued me, it would have to be museums, exhibits, and memorials related to history, and this is why the World War II Memorial makes it to my Top 3 Must-Visits when in the city. Opened back in 2004, it is dedicated to the 16 million brave souls who made a sacrifice for their country. This memorial stands as a tribute to the 400,000+ people who died. Admission: Free
Open: Daily – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year

2. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum makes it to the top of my list for museums to visit in Washington, D.C., in a sea of several museums to choose from while in the city. Let me leave it at this: I have gone to a concentration camp in Poland, which I wrote about in Never Forget: Auschwitz and Birkenau, and I honestly felt like though this wasn’t the actual thing, it was heart-wrenchingly built and designed parallel to what you would have seen & felt had you gone to Poland.I left my camera in the lockers when we went inside, which I suggest you all should do, if ever you visit, so you can truly grasp & learn from this museum. 

Admission: Free
Open: Daily from 10:00AM to 5:20PM (closed on Yom Kippur and 12/25)

1. Tidal Basin | Jefferson Memorial

Making it to the top of my list would have to be the Tidal Basin. What has long been on my list of places to visit, as I’d seen it several times on films and television shows, was not at all a disappointment when I finally saw it with my own eyes. Aside from being a sight to see, to walk around this man-made reservoir that sits in the midst of the Washington Channel and the Potomac River is a wonderful experience. You don’t have to do the whole walkabout, if you don’t have enough time, but do ensure to at least get to the Jefferson Memorial, depicted in the photos above and below.From there, you’ll get an impressive vantage point of the Tidal Basin, with the Washington Monument in the background. Admission: Free
Open: Daily – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year

To end this post, let me leave you with a tip that several friends and family told me, when we were contemplating whether or not we should visit the US capital: I say, just go for it, and you won’t regret it one bit! An incredible city filled with many things to see and do, and everything being within walking distance – Washington, D.C. surely makes for a great adventure. Without spending a single dime on transportation – aside from getting to and from the train station when we had our luggage upon arriving and departing, of course, we got to see all those listed above, and even more.So should you ever end up in this part of the United States, I’ll give you one last bonus food tip: try one of the super delicious and cheap hotdog stands that you’ll see scattered all around the city. Surely, a trip to Washington, D.C. is one for the books, and a place you’ll see yourself hoping to visit time and time again.