How to make the most of one day in Washington, DC


Washington, D.C., offers visitors world-renowned museums and iconic landmarks like the White House, the Capitol and the monuments along the National Mall. The city isn’t only about history, however. There’s a booming food and entertainment scene, too.

Many Americans first come to the nation’s capital on a school trip. But if you’ve never been to Washington, it can be hard to prioritize the highlights, or enjoy some sights and experiences that veer off from more well-trod itineraries.

For those who might not be familiar with the city, my colleague, Emily Thompson, and I traveled there together in an attempt to craft the perfect one-day field trip to Washington. Of course, your perfect day may differ from ours, but here are our must-visit destinations for anyone looking to explore the District, along with some ways to maximize points and miles along the way.

National Zoo

  • Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Cost: Free, but entry passes are required for all guests.
  • Getting there: Three blocks from Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Metro station or a 15-minute Uber from downtown. If you drive yourself, the National Zoo charges $30 for parking, so we recommend taking advantage of the plentiful street parking nearby.
  • Time required: One hour (8 a.m. to 9 a.m.).

Start your day bright and early so you can arrive at 8 a.m. for the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute. You’ll likely see the 2,000-plus animals being more active in the morning than in the afternoon.

Emily and I arrived via the Connecticut Avenue entrance and walked down the Asia Trail, where we passed by the clouded leopard, sloth bear and red panda exhibits.

But the real highlight of the zoo was seeing Xiao Qi Ji, the 2-year-old giant panda. His name means “Little Miracle,” a reference to the fact that his 22-year-old mom became the oldest giant panda to give birth in the U.S.


Many kids were fascinated by Kamala (meaning “lotus”), the 48-year-old Sri Lanka-born Asian elephant, while we were there. She arrived with Swarna (meaning “gold”) and her second calf, Maharani (meaning “princess”), from the Calgary Zoo about 10 years ago.

After an hour or so at the zoo, you’ll have hopefully worked up an appetite.

Related: It’s Panda-monium at the Smithsonian National Zoo in honor of popular panda family

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Weekend brunch in Georgetown at Farmers Fishers Bakers

Weekend brunch is a big deal in D.C. and Washingtonians fiercely debate about the best brunch spot, but I’m a big fan of Farmers Fishers Bakers.

Serving what it calls “a festival of food,” Farmers Fishers Bakers offers an elaborate brunch spread with fresh, sustainable ingredients from local farms and producers.

The buffet includes options like the famous bananas Foster French toast, butterscotch bread pudding, a live omelet station, molasses-glazed ham, freshly cut roast beef, spicy fried chicken, seafood jambalaya, apricot-glazed salmon, chips and guacamole and much, much more.

There are also cold options like bruleed grapefruit, housemade granola and coconut chia bowls.

The dining room is lively and boisterous, and we estimate the restaurant serves around 500 hungry brunchers on peak weekends. Consequently, the buffet line can get a bit long. Ask your server for the bakers pizza, farmhouse sushi and cinnamon rolls — these dishes are brought to your table upon request.


Our tip: Before you leave, grab some Instagram-worthy pics at the Georgetown Waterfront.

Related: Off the beaten path in DC: From a historic garden to a travel-inspired restaurant

National Mall (Smithsonian museums)

From the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol, the National Mall was designed in the 18th century by French American urban planner Pierre L’Enfant. He envisioned a dramatic grand promenade similar to the Tuileries Garden in Paris.

In addition to the stunning views of the Capitol and Washington Monument, the National Mall offers ample gardens and is fringed by several Smithsonian museums. Here’s an overview of the museums you can access from the National Mall:

  • National Museum of African American History and Culture.
  • National Museum of American History.
  • National Museum of Natural History.
  • National Gallery of Art.
  • National Museum of the American Indian.
  • National Air and Space Museum (open but currently undergoing significant renovations).
  • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (stop at the Sculpture Garden if you’re craving a cup of coffee).
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (more commonly known as the Smithsonian Castle).
  • Freer Gallery of Art.
  • Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
  • National Museum of African Art.

The Holocaust Museum and International Spy Museum are a block south of the National Mall. The Spy Museum has an entry fee of $18.95 to $29.95 per person.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. EMILY THOMPSON/THE POINTS GUY

Plan to use the restrooms inside the museums, and skip the food trucks and underwhelming museum cafeterias since there are plenty of great restaurants to enjoy in Washington.

Since time is limited (and you need a couple of days to see all these museums), we recommend selecting one or two museums that interest you the most. As an aviation enthusiast, I needed to keep my eyes on the time at the Air and Space Museum so I didn’t miss out on our other stops.

Related: The best times to visit Washington, DC

Afternoon tea at The Ritz-Carlton, Pentagon City

Since you’ve been on the go for a couple of hours at the National Mall, a posh afternoon tea across the river in Virginia is the perfect way to recharge for the afternoon and evening activities ahead.

The Ritz-Carlton, Pentagon City offers one of the most decadent afternoon teas in the area. Though expensive, it’s a surprisingly good value as it’s difficult to find similar experiences for under $90 in Washington.

When Emily and I were here, they served a slightly enhanced Cherry Blossom afternoon tea for $75, including a glass of Champagne or a mimosa.

The tea sandwiches and pastries were scrumptious, and the homemade scones served with clotted cream and local jam paired excellently with the sakura cherry rose white tea.

Related: The next time you travel, take your kids to afternoon tea

Arlington National Cemetery

  • Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Cost: Free for all, but you must present an ID.
  • Getting there: 10-minute ride-hailing service ride from Pentagon City.
  • Time required: One hour (3:45 p.m. to 5 p.m.).

The final resting place of some 400,000 American veterans and statespeople, Arlington National Cemetery is a place to recognize the sacrifices made by those who have served our country.

Stop by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, dedicated to unidentified soldiers who have lost their lives in service to the country. The changing of the guard ceremony, which takes place at the tomb, is a solemn and moving event every half-hour from April to September and on the hour from October to March.

Another must-see site at Arlington National Cemetery is the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame. This flame marks the gravesite of President Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963. The flame symbolizes the president’s enduring legacy and is a poignant reminder of his service to the country.

Visitors who prefer a narrated hop-on, hop-off bus tour can reserve a ticket here, though a ticket isn’t required to enter the cemetery.

After, take a little break to freshen up at your hotel before the evening activities.

Related: TPG’s guide to Washington, DC’s Union Station

Night monument tour


If you have a little time before the tour (as we did), stop by the lobby atrium of the Waldorf Astoria for drinks or tapas at The Bazaar by José Andrés.


Then, it’ll be time for your monument tour. Every night, D.C.’s monuments come to life with dramatic lighting displays.

When I had family and friends visit me when I was a student at American University, this was my favorite go-to evening excursion. You can opt for an open-air trolly, electric cart or bus, which all offer comparable experiences. The electric cart is a more intimate experience with fewer people, but it doesn’t go to the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington.

Whichever tour you select, it’ll hit the highlights, including the Capitol, White House, World War II Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lincoln Memorial and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Just book a tour that lets you get out and take photos rather than just a quick drive-by.

Since our visit fell during peak cherry blossom season, petals rained down on us as we passed by MLK’s quotes — truly an extraordinary memory of our epic day.


Ben’s Chili Bowl

  • Hours: Monday to Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 a.m.; and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
  • Cost: $10 to $20 for a complete meal.
  • Getting there: 10-minute ride-hailing service ride.
  • Time required: 30 minutes (10:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.).

Few things are more D.C. than Ben’s Chili Bowl.

Founded in 1958 by Ben Ali and his wife Virginia, Ben’s Chili Bowl became a popular gathering place for civil rights activists during the 1960s. The U Street Corridor, known as Black Broadway, is rooted in the thriving African American arts and entertainment scene outside Ben’s doors.

Ben’s has gone hand-in-hand with civil rights in D.C. by donating food and providing shelter to those in need during the 1963 March on Washington and 1968 D.C. riots.

The restaurant is still famous for its half-smoke chili dogs, fries and milkshakes. But more than the food, it’s about the establishment’s legacy as a gathering place for civil rights activists during the 1960s.


This is a good opportunity to wind down your whirlwind day with some casual, yet filling, comfort food.

Related: Racing to the capital: What’s the fastest way to get from New York to Washington, DC?

Bottom line

Feeling a yawn come on?

If you made it this far, you’ve been out of your hotel room for around 15 hours, as Emily and I were, but with any luck, the rest stops throughout the day have made it more manageable.

Truthfully, there’s no way to see everything in one day. After all, if you have the time, I’d reserve an entire day at the National Mall alone, hopping from museum to museum.

But a proper field trip to D.C. goes beyond the museums and monuments, highlighting American culture and D.C.’s vibrant neighborhoods, including Georgetown, the U Street Corridor and Columbia Heights. Hopefully, you’ll be eager to plan your next trip to Washington before this one is over.


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