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TWO DAYS IN WASHINGTON, DC
Would you like to travel to a place where you can immerse yourself in history, art, culture and nature? You can find all of this in “America’s front yard.”
Washington, DC is not just a city of heated political debates. The area is packed full of many things to do.
It would be impossible to see everything the area has to offer in a couple days. However, you can check off a monstrous portion of this massive to do list in just two days.
We will explore twenty interesting things to see in Washington, DC. Get ready to plan your trip to the heart of America’s capital.
NATIONAL MALL & MEMORIAL PARKS: BASIC INFORMATION
Is it really possible to see this much in 2 days? Yes, it is absolutely possible. Julie and I did it. And, we are not exactly marathon runners.
Many of our recommended things to see are on the National Mall.
What is the National Mall?
No, it is not the nation’s largest shopping center.
The National Mall is a large section of green grass that stretches from the United States Capitol to the Potomac River behind the Lincoln Memorial. This area has been affectionately dubbed “America’s front yard.”
The National Mall houses many iconic memorials, monuments and museums. These sites pay tribute to the people and events that have defined our history and shaped our nation.
The National Mall and Memorial Parks is an official unit of the United States National Park System. It spans more than 1,000 acres.
Viewing these historical sites may stir up emotions. One minute, your eyes water for the sacrifice others have made for the greater good. The next, your heart swells with pride to be part of such a great nation.
Operating hours & seasons
Most of the historical memorials and monuments on the National Mall are open to the public 24 hours a day.
The Washington Monument can be viewed from the outside 24 hours a day. However, it does have specific hours for tours. Since the pandemic, this has been a bit of an evolving situation. Please check the Washington Monument website for current updates.
Note that each museum has its own hours of operation.
Would you like some good news? To spend time on the National Mall does not cost a thing. It is free!
There may be nearby attractions and tours that charge fees. However, all the green space, historical monuments, memorials and museums on the National Mall are free.
To actually tour the Washington Monument, you will need a reservation. There is a $1 charge. You can reserve your spot online at the Washington Monument tour website.
Self-guided walking tour
When traveling to a new city, driving can be stressful. You are not familiar with the area. Traffic can seem overwhelming.
We have more good news. All of these wonderful things to see can be accomplished on foot. Yes, you can easily walk to all of these attractions.
You will get fresh air and light exercise. Time spent at each location is completely up to you. Control is in your hands.
NATIONAL MALL: WHERE TO SPEND YOUR TIME
With so many historic sites in the area, how should you spend your time? What should you see?
Everyone has different interests, but we have compiled a list of twenty interesting things to see. All of these are either on or near the National Mall. This list will give you a good variety and check all the boxes for:
The monumental column to honor George Washington is located in the center of the National Mall. It is approximately 555 feet tall and is predominantly made of stone.
It is hard to miss the Washington Monument. It towers far above everything else and demands your attention. The Washington Monument is easily one of our country’s most symbolic structures.
We owe a great deal of gratitude to George Washington. He was commander of the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War and our first president. For these reasons alone, he will forever be one of America’s most important figures.
You may notice color differences in the monument stones. Why is this?
Construction started in 1848, but was halted for over two decades due to a lack of funds and the Civil War. When construction resumed, granite and marble had to be obtained from a different quarry. So, the stones did not match. Construction was finally completed in 1884.
WORLD WAR II MEMORIAL
The World War II Memorial honors Americans who served in the armed forces and as civilians during World War II. It sits in a direct line between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
An oval fountain and plaza is at the center of the memorial. Unfortunately, during our visit, there was no water in the fountain. Around the outside, there are 56 granite pillars, one for each state and United States territory.
There are two large triumphal arches on opposite sides. One bears the name “Atlantic” while the other says “Pacific.”
The tribute includes the Freedom Wall, which has 4,048 gold stars, each representing 100 Americans who died in the war. The price of freedom is indeed costly. As my mind started to comprehend the staggering number of Americans who sacrificed their lives, I instantly felt numb.
The Tidal Basin is a water reservoir in West Potomac Park. Tidal Basin Loop Trail is a circular walking path lined with cherry trees that takes you around the entire area.
The walk is so peaceful and beautiful. Ducks often float and play in the reservoir. Iconic monuments loom on the horizon. Plus, Tidal Basin Loop Trail takes you directly tosome of our other recommended things to see.
If you happen to be there during peak bloom of the cherry trees, you will be mesmerized by popping, bright white and pink blossoms all along the path. It is breathtaking!
As you can imagine, the Tidal Basin gets a lot of attention in early spring. For more information on the Washington, DC cherry blossoms, see our National Cherry Blossom Festival complete guide.
THOMAS JEFFERSON MEMORIAL
The iconic Jefferson Memorial is an open-air domed structure with columns. It is located on the south side of the Tidal Basin. The memorial is constructed primarily of white marble and granite.
A statue of Thomas Jefferson stands inside the chamber. Four quotations from some of his most famous writings are inscribed on the walls. One of these is from the Declaration of Independence.
From the Jefferson Memorial, you can look out across the Tidal Basin and see the Washington Monument and the White House. This view is even more spectacular when the cherry blossoms are in peak bloom.
FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT MEMORIAL
The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial takes you through all four of his terms as president. It is located along the western shore of the Tidal Basin.
The Roosevelt Memorial is a sprawling tribute set up as four outdoor rooms. I must admit that this memorial is unique.
One section has an alluring set of cascading waterfalls. Another is like a scene from the Great Depression with people waiting in a bread line. You will also find a sculpture of Roosevelt with his dog.
Because it is so different, the Roosevelt Memorial is often busy with people taking pictures. We were certainly moved to take photographs here ourselves.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. MEMORIAL
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is located on the western side of the Tidal Basin. It includes a magnificent granite statue of King. The Stone of Hope was inspired by King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
The memorial honors King for his tireless and peaceful efforts to end racial inequality and to help the oppressed.
It is a beautiful and moving tribute. The memorial is a vivid reminder of how far we have come and how far we have to go.
KOREAN WAR VETERANS MEMORIAL
The Korean War Veterans Memorial honors those that served in the Korean War. It is just a bit southeast of the Lincoln Memorial.
The heart of the memorial is a triangular section that contains statues of a platoon of soldiers. The section is vegetated to represent the actual field conditions in Korea.
The mural wall is sandblasted with images of the conflict to represent troops fighting by land, sea and air.
The Pool of Remembrance is a large, but shallow pool of water lined with black granite. You can see inscriptions bearing the numbers wounded, killed, missing in action and held as prisoners of war. These numbers cast a somber shadow over your mind as you stare at the memorial.
Another wall displays the message, “Freedom is not free.” This is a humbling reminder of how fortunate we are in America.
The memorial wall displaying the names of those who died in the conflict is under construction. It is scheduled to open July 27, 2022.
The neoclassical temple to honor Abraham Lincoln is at the western end of the National Mall, just in front of the Potomac River.
The walk along the large, rectangular Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool is so pleasant. Ducks are often seen floating in the water. When you look into the pool, you can see a reflection of the Lincoln Memorial.
To reach the iconic temple, you must climb a series of steps. When you get to the top, be sure to look out over the reflecting pool. From this vantage point, you can see the Washington Monument reflecting in the water.
To be in the presence of these two monuments is quite humbling. The monuments are gorgeous. The history and the symbolism are enormous. It can be quite moving.
Inside the temple is a giant sculpture of the man himself. You will also find inscriptions of the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. To say there is a lot of history here is an understatement!
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
Arlington National Cemetery is a military cemetery across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial. The sprawling grounds cover more than 600 acres. It was established during the Civil War.
These hollowed grounds are beautiful and tranquil. It is sobering to see so many gravesites for military members and their families.
You can visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and watch the Changing of the Guard. The ceremony is moving. Julie and I both got emotional.
ALBERT EINSTEIN MEMORIAL
I was surprised to stumble upon a statue of Albert Einstein in a city that primarily honors political and war heroes. His memorial is near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Constitution Avenue.
The bronze statue depicts Einstein sitting casually on a three step bench. The set up practically begs you to pose for a photo. Think about it. You can have a picture with the man who revolutionized our understanding of space and time. Cheese!
VIETNAM VETERANS MEMORIAL
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial honors those that served in the Vietnam War. It is located north of the Lincoln Memorial.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial has three main components:
- Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall
- Three Servicemen statue
- Vietnam Women’s Memorial
The tribute includes over 58,000 names of the men and women who gave their livesin service during this conflict. There is also a plaque recognizing those that passed away later as a result of injuries suffered in the war.
Constitution Gardens is a 50-acre park between the World War II Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
A small island sits in the park lake. If you cross the wooden foot bridge to the island, you will find a memorial honoring the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence.
With shade trees, a large grassy area and a lake, Constitution Gardens is a great place to relax and appreciate nature.
Pennsylvania Avenue runs diagonally through town and directly connects the White House and the United States Capitol. The section between the White House and the Capitol Building has been dubbed “America’s Main Street.”
There is a special energy on Pennsylvania Avenue. I can’t really explain it, but you can feel it. It is an odd sensation, knowing that many parades and protests have occurred here over the years.
It is just one of those places you need to see and feel for yourself. You will be glad you walked along America’s Main Street.
THE WHITE HOUSE
It was recently announced that public tours of the White House will resume April 15, 2022.
Public White House tour requests must be made through your member of Congress. The request must be made up to 3 months in advance and no less than 21 days before your visit. Requests are filled on a first-come, first-served basis. As you can see, an official tour will require some advance planning.
Even if you are unable to take a tour, seeing the White House from the outside is still a big deal. Just knowing our president lives and works in the White House makes it worth seeing. The history and prestige make it a must-see spot. A trip to Washington, DC does not feel complete unless you catch a glimpse of the White House.
ULYSSES S. GRANT MEMORIAL
You can see Union Square at the foot of the Capitol Building on its western side. Along with it, you will find the Capitol Reflecting Pool and the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial. Grant is honored as both an American Civil War general and a president.
The sculpture depicts Grant on horseback looking out toward the reflecting pool. He was known for being calm even in the midst of chaotic battle. The statue perfectly captures this.
Grant is surrounded by four shorter pedestals each supporting a protective lion. The pedestals are marble and the statues have been cast in bronze. They are striking behind the reflecting pool and in front of the Capitol Building.
UNITED STATES BOTANIC GARDEN
The United States Botanic Garden is a living plant museum on the grounds of the United States Capitol. This is a concept George Washington envisioned years ago to educate people about the importance of plants.
You can find everything from rare plants to common home garden plants.
The gardens include:
- National Garden
- Bartholdi Park
The exhibits are both lovely and educational. This place is very peaceful and a nice change of pace from everyday life. Knowing this idea was conceived by George Washington just makes me appreciate it even more. I think you will enjoy your time at the gardens.
UNITED STATES CAPITOL
The United States Capitol is located on the eastern end of the National Mall. The Capitol Building recently opened back up for tours on a limited basis. You can go through your member of Congress or check the United States Capitol website to inquire about tours. Even if you are unable to see the inside, I firmly believe seeing the Capitol Building from the outside is worth your time.
The building houses our legislative branch of government. History surrounds the building, and not just because of recent events.
Just seeing the elegant, iconic domed building stirs emotions inside me. I am reminded of American history classes in school. Memories of noteworthy news events flood my mind.
Legislation impacting all of us happens right here. That starts to sink in when you see the building in front of you. It is rather surreal.
SUPREME COURT BUILDING
The Supreme Court of the United States is located on 1 First Street behind the Capitol Building. It houses the judicial branch of our government. The Supreme Court Building is sometimes called “The Marble Palace.”
The Supreme Court is currently closed to the public until further notice.
This is another building that I think is worth seeing, even if only from the outside. The architecture is gorgeous and it is the highest court in the land. It just gives you chills knowing that historic decisions are made here.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
The National Museum of Natural History is located on the National Mall at 10th Street and Constitution Avenue. This museum tells the history of our planet and the interaction between humans and the environment.
Upon entry, you are greeted by a massive African elephant. This sets the stage for a fabulous journey. There are many interesting things to see in the museum.
There are exhibits on bones and fossils. You can see the internal structure of different types of creatures. There are bones of dinosaurs and mammals that once roamed the planet millions of years ago. They have a whole exhibit on human origins where you can learn about evolution.
The museum has exhibits on mammals, sea life and epidemics. There is a whole exhibit on gems and minerals. You can even see the Hope Diamond.
This place really is fascinating. There is much to see. There are things that will appeal to all family members. You really cannot go wrong by visiting the Museum of Natural History.
NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART
Julie loves art. She is a very creative person. I, on the other hand, do not have an artistic bone in my body. They should study me in the Museum of Natural History…
I was reluctant to go to this museum. I have to admit that it was fantastic. I absolutely loved it. There are many rooms of paintings from different countries, eras, and styles. The rooms felt spacious and it was easy to move around.
The art was gorgeous. The details in the paintings blew me away. I was particularly impressed with paintings that were done centuries ago. In an age where we focus so much on digital media, I could not help but to stare in awe at the heavenly, intricate handiwork.
I would go back again without hesitation. In fact, this is something I want to do. The National Gallery of Art is located on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets on Constitution Avenue.
TIPS FOR VISITING WASHINGTON, DC
- Wear comfortable shoes – You will do a lot of walking. It is important to have comfortable footwear. Your feet, legs and back will thank you! I wear Nike Revolution 5 runnng shoes. They are lightweight, breathable and comfortable. When not hiking trails, these are my go to shoes!
- Drink plenty of water – The walks are not strenuous, but staying hydrated will keep you feeling well so you can enjoy your time.
- Bring your camera – With all this history, art, culture and nature, you will want to capture the memories.
- Do not forget about nature – While strolling on the National Mall, keep your eyes out for flowers, trees, birds, ducks and squirrels. The monuments get most of the attention, but there are plenty of plants and animals to admire as well.
- Verify museum hours – Be sure to monitor the museum websites to verify days and hours of operation. We admittedly did not do this and discovered that the American History Museum is closed on Wednesday and Thursday. Learn from our mistakes. We made them for you.
- Book your tour – If you plan to tour the White House or the Washington Monument, be sure to plan ahead and book your reservations.
- Plan each day – Plan on one museum each day along with roughly half of the historical sites. Or, you can visit two museums in one day along with a few nearby sites. Then see everything else on the list on your other day.
- Consider other modes of transportation – If you prefer to walk a little less, you may want to look into:
BEST TIME TO VISIT WASHINGTON, DC
Washington, DC typically has cold winters and hot, muggy summers. More tourists, as you would guess, visit in summer. The best times to visit are September to November and March to May.
Temperatures are cooler in autumn. I can picture colorful fall leaves in the foreground of iconic monuments. Sounds like DC is calling…
Although early spring can be a bit unpredictable with the weather, it is a great time to visit. This is when the cherry blossoms appear. See our post on planning a trip to see the cherry blossoms for more information. As spring settles in, temperatures become more predictable and are usually comfortable.
In general, regardless of season, it is less crowded on weekdays. If possible, try to go during the week rather than on a weekend.
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO WASHINGTON, DC
Where to start
- Monitor the National Mall and Memorial Parks website for current information and updates.
- Watch our Washington, DC walking tour video for additional travel tips.
- Use the interactive map below to view the area and plot your course.
- If you do not find our recommended museums appealing, there are plenty of other options. You can simply substitute with museums that are of interest to you. Go to the Smithsonian website for a complete list of museums.
Where to stay
We stayed at Hampton Inn Washington, DC/White House. A hot breakfast is provided. The room was clean. The staff was friendly and helpful.
The hotel is less than a 5 minute walk from the White House and a 20 to 25 minute walk from the Tidal Basin.
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About the author
We are Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey. After nearly 30 years, we took a leap of faith out of the corporate world to enjoy a life of travel and adventure. We hope to inspire you to find ways to travel more and enjoy life now.