2 Days in Washington DC: A local’s guide to the PERFECT DC itinerary

The White House is one of the most important attractions to visit if you're trying to see Washington DC in 2 days.

The White House. Congress. The Smithsonian Museums. The National Mall. The capital of the United States has so much to do — and most of it’s free. So it’s the perfect destination for a weekend trip on a budget. With 2 days in Washington DC, you can hit the highlights and a few off-the-beaten-path gems.

I’ve lived in the District my entire adult life. I’ve visited just about every museum and landmark in the city. And I’ve served as a local tour guide for countless family members and friends. I even volunteered as a guide for DC’s biggest hostel for several years. So I’ve developed the perfect DC itinerary for a quick trip.

In this post, you’ll find the best itinerary for 2 days in Washington DC. I’ll take you beyond the tourist traps and into the neighborhoods where you might shoot pool with a Member of Congress in dingy bars on a Tuesday night. Or where you can find some of America’s best restaurants for travelers on a budget. Don’t worry — you’ll still get to see the main attractions. But I’ll also show you the real DC that only the locals know.

And of course, this being Trains, Planes and Tuk Tuks, I’ll tell you all about how to save money in this pricey city. I won’t even think about suggesting restaurants that you have to work in a K Street lobby shop to afford. Sound good? Read on for all the details!

Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you decide to purchase through these links, I receive a percentage of the sale at no additional cost to you, which helps me keep this site up and running.

When is the best time to spend 2 days in Washington DC?

Many people time their Washington DC itineraries with the Cherry Blossom Festival
If you want to do a Washington DC weekend trip during cherry blossom season, brace yourself for the crowds.

When you’re planning a weekend trip to Washington DC, it’s important to keep the weather in mind. This city is, famously, a swamp — and you don’t want to be caught in the worst of it.

The best time of year to see Washington DC in a weekend is fall. Temperatures during the day are in the high 60’s to the low 80’s. We get very little rainfall in autumn. The leaves change color all over the city. And it’s not a particularly touristy time of year. October is particularly perfect, but anytime from mid-September through Christmas is very pleasant.

Many tourists want to time their visit to DC with the famous Cherry Blossom Festival. If you want to see the Mall at its most scenic, you’ll have to be flexible with your travel plans. Peak cherry blossom season typically occurs in March or April, but it’s unpredictable. The blossoms sometimes come late as a result of a freak cold spell. The city is also absurdly crowded at this time of year — so much so that after checking it out the first year I lived here, I’ve never been back to the Mall during cherry blossom season. Aside from the cherry blossoms, spring is a generally nice time to visit DC if you don’t mind a little rain.

I’d recommend avoiding undertaking this Washington DC 2 day itinerary in winter or summer. Winter is okay if you don’t mind the cold, but it’s also very gray and dreary. If you visit in June-September, prepare for heat indexes of 110 and higher — the humidity is awful (although the 4th of July is a popular time to visit). Locals flee for cooler locales in August when Congress is in recess.

Day One of your Washington DC Itinerary: Museums and Monuments

All Washington DC tours should take in the Lincoln Memorial
Make sure to include the Lincoln Memorial when you’re planning a trip to Washington DC.

With limited time in the District, you’ll have to pack a lot into your first day. Today you’ll cover some of the main attractions in the city.

Warning: You’ll be walking a lot today. Wear sneakers and weather-appropriate clothes (Washingtonians carry umbrellas with us everywhere).

Breakfast: Florida Avenue Grill

It may not top many lists of what to see in Washington DC, but the historic U Street neighborhood is a great breakfast spot.
The egg breakfasts at Florida Avenue Grill are legendary.

Start your weekend in DC right with a delicious, artery-clogging breakfast at Florida Avenue Grill. This tiny restaurant at Florida and U St. NW is a local favorite for soul food and one of the best cheap breakfasts in the city.

It only has a handful of tables, so get there right when it opens at 8 am. Order eggs with a half-smoke (always with a biscuit on the side), or splurge on the Fish & Grits special. Florida Avenue Grill is the perfect response to anyone who tries to claim that DC isn’t a “real” Southern city.

The sidewalk tables provide a great view of this historical DC neighborhood. For decades, U Street was the center of Black culture in the “Chocolate City.” It attracted performers such as Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes with venues like the Howard Theater. But the riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 left much of the neighborhood in ruins.

Today, U St. has rebuilt and gentrified like crazy. The jazz club where Duke Ellington got his start has closed. High-end condos have replaced old row houses (and the real estate market is just ridiculous enough that things like this can exist). But elements of tradition remain, like Florida Ave. Grill itself, the nearby Ben’s Chili Bowl, and the mainstay of Washingtonian nightlife — endless pizzerias offering “Jumbo Slice.” Sitting at a sidewalk table at the Grill, you’ll see the contradictions between the city DC was and what it threatens to be in 15 years.

(Alternative if you want something healthier — Slipstream is a lovely cafe on 14th St. just a few blocks away.)

Morning: Old-School Smithsonian Museums in Washington DC

The Castle is in the middle of the classic Smithsonian museums to visit on a Washington DC trip.
With just 2 or 3 days in Washington DC, you’ll have to narrow down the Smithsonians you want to visit.

You can’t spend 2 days in Washington DC without paying a visit to some of the city’s classic Smithsonian museums. These museums contain some of the nation’s most important historical and cultural relics. Every single one of them is free to visit.

There are more Smithsonian museums in Washington DC than you could possibly visit in a weekend, so you’ll have to pick what you’re most interested in. But everyone should at least pop into the Air and Space Museum for a few minutes. It may feel like a relic of the 80’s, but the model lunar module is still pretty damn sweet. (Bonus tip: If a Star Wars movie is in theaters when you’re in DC, the IMAX Theater in the Air and Space museum is a totally awesome place to see it and is cheaper than the other movie theaters.)

The Portrait Gallery is another must-visit. It’s gained even greater love among locals recently for its unveiling of the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama. The gallery is enormous and impossible to take in with just one visit, so focus on the presidential galleries.

Finally, the Natural History Museum is an old favorite. The museum has gotten a significant upgrade in recent years (think “fewer taxidermy animals”). Check out the T-Rex skeletons and the butterfly exhibition.

Lunch: Hip City Veg, Teaism, or Chinatown Express

Duck noodle soup in Chinatown, Washington DC
Don’t be fooled by its typical greasy-Chinese-American-food exterior: Chinatown Express has great duck noodle soup.

Many itineraries for 2 days in Washington DC will direct you to have lunch at the Museum of the American Indian. Don’t do it. The cafe used to be excellent, but its quality has plummeted in recent years and it’s an expensive tourist trap. Instead, walk up to Gallery Place for some excellent budget eating options.

Vegetarians and vegans will appreciate the Philadelphia transplant Hip City Veg. This fast-casual chain serves the best not-chicken Buffalo-style chicken I’ve ever had. Their sweet potato fries are also to-die-for. Better yet, you can get out of there for under $10.

Alternatively, check out Teaism. This simple Japanese-inspired cafe has both veg-friendly and meat dishes, but the menu is explicitly designed to accommodate a huge range of dietary needs. Everything is awesome, including the tea. You’ll pay around $10 for a meal here as well.

Die-hard carnivore? Then head to Chinatown Express. I know, Google it or look at it from the outside and you’ll be super skeptical. It looks just like every other greasy American-influenced Chinese take-out place in America. But locals know the truth. This place serves the most awesome duck noodle soup around. It’s under $10 for a huge bowl. Don’t even think about ordering anything else on their menu.

Afternoon: The Museum of African American History and Culture

Once you’ve refueled, walk back to the Mall to see the Smithsonian’s newest, best museum — the Museum of African American History and Culture. This massive museum took years to complete and was the subject of intense debate among policymakers, historians and cultural experts.

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The museum isn’t perfect, but it’s still a pretty remarkable achievement that will take you several hours to thoroughly explore. Start in the underground floors, where you’ll learn the history of Black life in the Americas. As you wind up the ramps taking you through five floors — and over 300 years — of history, you’ll see artifacts from the earliest slave ships to the 20th century.

Then, make your way upstairs to the more culturally focused exhibits. There’s a heavy emphasis on the Civil Rights era in this section. The room focused on housing policy is also fascinating.

Getting into the Museum of African American History and Culture is a bit of an art. If you’re visiting outside of peak season and your 2 days in Washington DC include a weekday, you can walk up and enter anytime. Better yet, grab a same-day ticket online in advance. The rules for visiting in peak season are more complicated and always changing, so check the website for the latest policies.

If you can’t get a ticket to the Museum of African American History and Culture, a few good alternatives are the Museum of the American Indian, the Freeman and Sackler galleries, and the Hirshhorn. You could also pop into the National Archives to see the original document of the Constitution.

Early evening: Concert at the Kennedy Center

The Kennedy Center is a great place to catch a free concert on your Washington D.C. itinerary.
If you want to thoroughly explore Washington DC in 2 days, you can’t miss the Kennedy Center.

It’s hard to beat the Kennedy Center’s location. Washington DC’s top performing arts venue sits directly on the Potomac River, with incredible views over the National Mall.

The Kennedy Center’s headline performances are well out of the budget of a backpacker. But every night, the Millennium Stage hosts a free concert. Normally it’s either classical or world music, but occasionally you can catch a jazz or pop-art performance.

Performances start at 6 pm every night. If you want a seat in a chair (as opposed to sitting on the stairs), try to arrive at least 15 minutes early. Usually the performance lasts about an hour.

Even if you don’t come for a performance, it’s still worth dropping by for a drink at the rooftop terrace bar. Yes, it’s pricey, but you can’t beat the views — especially around sunset.

Dinner: Zenebech

Zenebech is one of the best restaurants in Washington DC to sample Ethiopian food.
You can’t spend two days in DC without eating Ethiopian food. Zenebech is the most authentic place in the city.

Back in its pre-gentrification days, Washington DC’s Shaw neighborhood was known as “Little Ethiopia.” It had the largest Ethiopian diaspora in the world. And where lots of Ethiopian immigrants live, you have lots of awesome Ethiopian food.

While the Ethiopian community has largely been pushed out of Shaw, relics of its presence remain throughout the city. In particular, the beloved Zenebech Restaurant relocated from Shaw to Adams Morgan a few years ago.

Zenebech is one of the only restaurants outside Ethiopia where you can get truly authentic injera (the spongy flat-bread that comes with all meals). This is because it’s extremely difficult to get the grain injera is made from — teff — outside Ethiopia, and the government doesn’t allow it to be exported. Most Ethiopian restaurants make injera with a blend of teff and other grains. But at Zenebech you can get 100% teff injera.

Go for a vegetarian platter with a glass of honey wine on the side — you can split it between 3-4 people. If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, try the kitfo (raw beef; it’s delicious). Since you’re meant to share all the main dishes, you can easily spend less than $10 per person on a meal here.

Washington DC Night Tours: The National Mall Monuments After Dark

One of the best Washington DC night tours is to walk around the monuments.
Seeing the national monuments at night is a highlight of a Washington DC trip.

Hopefully you have some energy left, because after dinner comes the highlight of your 2 days in Washington DC.

The monuments of the National Mall are the most iconic of all Washington DC attractions. But too many visitors to DC brave the crowds and the heat to see them in daylight. By going at night, you’ll have a far better experience.

Start at the Washington Monument. The best view is from the corner of 15th St. and Constitution Ave. NW, where you can also see the White House all lit up. Try to find where the bricks change color slightly (about 2/3 of the way up) — a relic of the Civil War, when construction was paused and the quarry where they were hauling bricks from ran out. And if you look very closely, you can see where the earthquake in 2011 cracked the side, causing the monument to be shut down for years.

Continue to your right toward the Lincoln Memorial. After a short walk, you’ll come across the World War II Memorial. Look for your state or territory around the outside. This is one of the most beautiful monuments when the fountains are on.

Then, walk along the Reflecting Pool until you reach the Lincoln Memorial. Climb the steps and ponder Lincoln’s statue from the inside. You’ll also get one of the best views of the Washington Monument and Capitol Building on the other end of the Mall from here.

Many tourists stop here, but if you keep walking, you’ll soon come to the Vietnam Memorial and the Korean War Memorial (my personal favorite). If you want to find a relative on the Vietnam Wall, you can look them up by name in the books along the side.

If you go all the way around the Tidal Basin, the next monument you’ll reach is the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Some of his most famous quotes are inscribed in the granite around his statue. Keep walking and you’ll find the massive FDR Memorial — with a special tribute to his dog (!). Finally, you’ll arrive at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial on the far end of the Tidal Basin.

Washington DC night tours of the Mall are 100% safe, even in its quieter sections. You can go inside all the monuments 24/7 except the Washington Monument. Allow two hours for the full circle. It’s impossible to get lost — there are plenty of signs and the trail is very clear.

Nightlife: Dive bar crawl through Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights and Petworth

The best Washington DC nightlife is outside the typical tourist neighborhoods, at the dive bars in Northwest.
Skip the crowds around U St., Adam’s Morgan and Dupont and head for the dive bars in Petworth instead.

DC does dive bars really well. These are the types of places that politicos gather over beers to dissect the latest awful Trump tweet. So skip the touristy nightlife neighborhoods and instead, do a dive bar crawl through Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights and Petworth.

Start your bar crawl in Mount Pleasant at the Raven. Yes, the booths are really gross and uncomfortable. Yes, the Jukebox is awesome. No, you really can’t order anything besides Natty Bo and Jameson. It’s one of the oldest bars in the District and it has a great vintage vibe. A few tourists do make it here, but I promise, it’s the favorite neighborhood bar of the locals too (I used to live down the street and went almost every Friday night).

Next, wander over to Georgia Ave and pop into the Looking Glass Lounge and/or DC Reynolds. DC Reynolds is a favorite due to their 2-for-1 happy hour deals and great outdoor space. The Looking Glass is less crowded and more divey.

Finally, finish up your bar crawl at Red Derby and Lyman’s — next to each other on 14th St. NW. They attract some of DC’s most entertaining crowds, from the drunks who hang out on the street corner to biker gangs to hipsters to interns on the Hill.

A word of caution: Petworth is dodgy at night. Keep your guard up when walking between the Georgia Ave. bars and the 14th St. bars. I’ve lived in Petworth for almost four years and I try to avoid walking alone after dark.

Day 2 of your Washington D.C. itinerary: Capitol Hill and Anacostia

A tour of the Capitol Building is a highlight of any Washington DC weekend trip
The Capitol Building is one of the most iconic Washington DC landmarks.

Since you spent the first of your 2 days in DC doing all the typical tourist stuff, you have some time on your second day to see more of the neighborhoods. Some of these activities are very off the beaten path — but they’re also some of the highlights of the city. Still, I’ll give you a couple alternatives for your afternoon if you aren’t up for the “long” metro ride east of the river.

Brunch: Busboys and Poets

The Eggs Benedict at Busboys and Poets is one of the best brunches in DC.
Busboys and Poets is a must-visit brunch spot in DC for its excellent Eggs Benedict.

Busboys and Poets is a mainstay of the DC dining and cultural scene. Part bookstore, part cultural center, part restaurant, it’s the perfect local chain for a pretentious city obsessed with work. (Okay, that makes it sound kind of awful, but I swear it’s really cozy and has the city’s best brunch food.)

Start your day off with an early-ish brunch at the Brookland location. The Eggs Benedicts are the highlight of the menu, and they do a mean Bloody Mary. Definitely get a side of home fries and indulge in a few cups of the bottomless coffee.

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It’s not the cheapest — you’ll spend around $15 for brunch here, but considering you won’t have to eat again until dinner, it’s worth it. For the full effect, go alone, sit at the bar, and pick up a book in the bookshop to read while you eat.

Morning: Eastern Market and the Capitol

The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building
The Capitol Building is worth touring just to see the iconic dome.

After brunch, make your way to Capitol Hill and walk over to Eastern Market. This is the city’s biggest and best traditional market (only open on weekends).

In the main market, you’ll find lots of craftspeople, Amish veggie vendors, and gourmet food producers. Browse the free samples if you’re not totally stuffed from brunch. But the real highlight is around the corner at the flea market. Whatever you do, don’t miss the Map Guy — he has a massive collection of historical maps from all around the world. You might find a map of your hometown from the 1600’s!

Next on your Washington DC trip, pop into Capitol Hill Books. It can get claustrophobic with a couple dozen people in a space the size of a closet, but it’s one of the locals’ favorite shops. Alternatively, drop into Peregrine Espresso next-door — it’s DC’s best third-wave coffee shop.

Next, continue to the main attraction: the U.S. Capitol Building. The seat of Congress is a gorgeous architectural accomplishment. It’s one of the best Washington DC tours.

You should arrange a tour in advance through the online reservation system or by contacting your Member of Congress. Tours take about 90 minutes. You’ll see the dome from the inside, as well as a few of the most famous chambers, and you’ll learn all about the history of the building. If you’re in DC when Congress is in session and you’re an American resident, you can even arrange to sit in on legislative proceedings by contacting your Member of Congress in advance.

Finally, before you leave the touristy parts of DC, walk across the street and check out the Supreme Court. You can take a short guided tour of the building, or if the Court is in session, you can watch (you have to be in line very early). More entertaining than watching from inside, though, is watching from outside on a big decision day — one of DC’s most hilarious traditions is the mad dash of all the news network interns sprinting to collect notes from the reporters inside after a decision is issued.

Afternoon: Anacostia – Frederick Douglass’s house

Anacostia has lovely row houses -- the classic DC architecture.
Get off the beaten path in Washington DC by visiting Anacostia, one of the least touristic neighborhoods.

Now that you’ve hit most of the top Washington DC tourist attractions, it’s time to get off the beaten path. Hop on the Metro for the ride across the river to Anacostia — one of DC’s most historic neighborhoods, still relatively un-destroyed by gentrification.

The main reason to come to Anacostia is to visit the Frederick Douglass House Museum. Frederick Douglass was a long-time DC resident and a leader in the fight for social justice during the Civil War era. He lived in the District while he held high-ranking leadership positions in the federal government.

You can only visit the museum on a guided tour. You can usually walk up and join a tour after a short wait, but if you want to be certain, reserve online in advance (for a modest $1 fee). The tour is free.

Anacostia also has some of DC’s most beautiful row houses — many of which are still in something close to their original condition (i.e. not subdivided into condos). The area around Good Hope Road is pleasant for wandering around to see the traditional architecture.

Once you’ve finished exploring the neighborhood, take a walk on the stunning Anacostia River Trail to Kingman Island. This is one of the best outdoor playgrounds in the city. You can rent a bike and ride further (without hordes of Spandex-clad racers getting in your way) or just enjoy the river views. The island hosts regular outdoor activities, including the top-notch Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival in the spring. If you’re lucky enough to be here in July, walk all the way up to the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens for the spectacular Lotus and Water Lily Festival.

One note about Anacostia: Tell DC locals you’re visiting this neighborhood and many of them will advise you not to. The truth is, while most of the city’s crime happens here, it’s a huge neighborhood. The areas around Good Hope Road, the Metro station, the Frederick Douglass House, and the river trails are totally safe. Most young professionals living in DC are scared of it because they’ve never actually been here (insert snarky comment about racist stereotypes here), but I volunteered on Good Hope Road every week for over a year and felt safer than I do in my own neighborhood, even after dark.

Alternative touristy things to finish up your 2 days in Washington DC

Visit the National Arboretum to see a huge collection of Bonsai trees.
The collection of Bonsai trees at the National Arboretum is truly remarkable.

If exploring a historic neighborhood doesn’t sound like an exciting enough way to end your Washington DC itinerary, no worries. I have a few alternative options for you.

If the weather is nice, you could head out to the National Arboretum. It’s a lovely expansive area for an afternoon stroll. The highlight is the massive collection of Bonsai plants.

Or, you could go back to the Mall and check out some of the museums you missed yesterday. And if you haven’t done it yet, walk over to Lafayette Square and take some selfies with the White House.

Finally, consider taking a water taxi from L’Enfant Plaza to Old Town Alexandria. I know, it’s technically not in DC, but this historic neighborhood is beautiful and has lots of things to do, and the water taxi is a very novel experience. Visit the Torpedo Factory — one of the DC area’s best arts spaces — while you’re there. You can take the Metro back from King St.

Dinner, drinks and music: H Street Northeast

The Rock & Roll Hotel on H St. is a great low-key music venue.
H Street has good restaurants, timeless DC bars, and a decent live music scene.

Finish up your 2 days in DC with an evening on H St. NE. This neighborhood is starting to get touristy on weekends, but during the week, it’s still very local. Assuming you’re spending a weekend in Washington DC, by Sunday night it’ll be pretty low-key.

The best place for dinner on H St. is Toki Underground. This fusion-style Ramen joint has been a hallmark of the DC dining scene since before H St. was cool. You used to have to wait in line for hours for a spot in their tiny upstairs space, but now your can make a reservation during peak dinner hours. The menu has vegan- and vegetarian-friendly options.

After dinner, see what’s on at the Rock & Roll Hotel. This little music venue often features artists from NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, local punk acts, and whatever weird trends are coming down to DC from Baltimore. Concerts are usually around $12 a pop and you can see some really talented musicians in an intimate environment.

Lastly, end your weekend with a glass of the house frozen punch at Little Miss Whiskey’s (and brace yourself for a hangover tomorrow). This old-school DC dive has long been a favorite with the Capitol Hill crowd — including, frequently, Members of Congress themselves. It leans lefty, so if your political persuasions are more conservative, consider Tortilla Coast on the Hill instead.

Staying longer? Check out these day trips from Washington DC

Harpers Ferry is one of the best day trips from Washington DC
Harpers Ferry has hiking, tubing, and history — and it’s less than two hours from DC.

Not ready to leave the District quite yet? I’ve got you! DC’s central location in the Mid-Atlantic makes it a great base for day trips throughout the region.

If you like the outdoors, don’t miss Shenandoah National Park. If you make the drive at an off-peak time, you can get there in 90 minutes — plenty of time for a full day of hiking. The Maryland side of Great Falls is a favorite hike closer to the city (20 minutes’ drive).

More of a history buff? You can check out Baltimore, Richmond, or even Philadelphia on a day trip from Washington DC. And don’t overlook the many historic towns in Maryland. Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia is another favorite (and a great spot for river tubing during the summer).

The immediate suburbs are full of additional possibilities for day trips from Washington DC. Old Town Alexandria and Arlington National Cemetery are the most famous. But if you’re a political geek and you want something more off-beat, trek out to the parking garage where Woodward met Deep Throat. It’s in Rosslyn, and the exact spot is marked with a plaque.

Finally, if you’ve been researching Washington DC itineraries with other sources, you probably noticed that I didn’t include Georgetown on my list. This historic neighborhood is very popular with tourists, and worth a visit if you have extra time. But it’s kind of gross, a heavy Republican stronghold, expensive, and less interesting than Anacostia. If you go, make sure you walk all the way to the end of M St. to see the Exorcist Stairs and have a coffee and cupcake at Baked & Wired.

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Where to stay in Washington DC for a two days trip

Adams Morgan has a couple cute, affordable guesthouses.
If you plan to see Washington DC in 2 days, you’ll need to stay near the city center. Adams Morgan is a good neighborhood option.

Finding accommodation on a budget for your 2 days in Washington DC is no easy task. This goes double if you visit during a peak tourist time like cherry blossom season. Still, there are good-value options.

The hostel crowd should look no further than HI-DC. It has clean, modern facilities, the staff are great, and you can join daily activities to meet folks and learn more about the city. I used to volunteer as a guide and ran their Monuments by Night tours. Plus you can’t beat its location, less than a 5-minute walk from Gallery Place.

If you want your own room, and you’re willing to stay a bit outside the city center, Adam’s Inn is a fantastic option. It has a few rooms spread across a couple row houses in a quiet part of Adams Morgan. Bonus: you get free parking. Asante Sana is another good option in Columbia Heights.

For something more central but more basic, the Pod Hotel in Chinatown works well. I’ve never stayed there myself, but I have several friends who swear by it.

Whatever you do, please do not book an entire-unit AirBnB in DC. My city is experiencing an affordable housing crisis, and some developers are buying units just to rent out on the site, further driving up prices and competition. Renting a room in a home your host lives in is fine, of course.

With only two days in Washington DC, I don’t recommend booking a hotel in the suburbs. You’ll spend too much time in transit (especially if you don’t have a car and you’re visiting on the weekend). But if you really must save money, Downtown Silver Spring has a Holiday Inn where you can get a last-minute room.

How to get to DC: Airports, trains, and buses

 

For the ideal Washington DC 2 day itinerary, don't waste time in transit -- fly into National Airport.
National Airport is the closest airport to downtown Washington DC.

If you’re flying in and trying to see all of DC in two days, try to find a flight that lands at Reagan National Airport. This airport is just a few minutes by Metro from downtown DC — hop on the Yellow Line.

The next-best option is to fly into BWI (Baltimore-Washington Airport). A free shuttle will take you to the MARC regional train station, where a $6 ticket will take you to Union Station in DC. It takes about an hour.

Only fly into Dulles International Airport if you’re a glutton for punishment. While Metro will theoretically one day extend to Dulles, the project has suffered from endless delays. Your best bet at this point is to take the 5A bus from outside Arrivals to L’Enfant Plaza Metro. It takes about 90 minutes and buses only leave once every half-hour to an hour. You can also take the Silver Line Express Bus to the end of the Metro line, but unless you’re really unlucky with bus times, it takes longer and costs more.

If you arrive in Washington DC by train, you’ll get off at Union Station. The train station is beautiful and one of the best views of the Capitol dome is from right outside the main entrance. The station doubles as a shopping mall and has plenty of eating options.

Most long-distance buses also arrive at Union Station, in a parking garage on the upper level. If you’re taking a bus from DC, try to arrive 30 minutes early — finding your bus, or even your bus company, isn’t intuitive in the garage.

How to get to all these great places on your Washington DC itinerary

Wondering how to get around in Washington DC? The Metro is the best option for tourists.
Locals curse it for unreliability and a frightening number of fires, but Metro is still the best way to get around during your 2 days in Washington DC.

As I said earlier in this post, when you spend 2 days in Washington DC, you have to be prepared to walk a lot. Walking is the best way to get between attractions in the same neighborhood — and on the National Mall, it’s really the only viable option. You could even cover this entire DC itinerary on foot if you have a lot of stamina.

But what about for longer distances? Should you rent a car in DC? What about the Metro? And what the hell are those obnoxious scooters that nearly run pedestrians over?

In my opinion, you’d have to be completely insane to drive in Washington DC. We have some of the worst traffic statistics in the country. When you can find it, parking is outrageously expensive. Vehicle break-ins are very common in some neighborhoods. And did I mention the horrible traffic?

For most short-term visitors, the Metro is the best way to get around. (~Resists the urge to launch into a six-paragraph rant about how much the Metro sucks that is totally irrelevant for visitors but an extremely sensitive subject among locals — but I’m definitely going to leave you lots of links in case you’re interested~)

You need to buy a SmarTrip card (which also works on the less-tourist-friendly buses) from a machine in any Metro station and load it up with money. Fares vary depending on time of day and distance. And please, if you remember one rule about traveling in Washington DC, it should be: Stand on the right, walk on the left on the Metro escalators. If you stand on the left, locals will trample you and we won’t even feel bad about it.

Finally, brave visitors to DC can try using the bike and scooter rental systems. Capital Bikeshare was the original (and is still the best). But now Jump Bike operates dockless electric-assisted bikes as well. An ever-evolving set of companies offers scooter rental, which is app-based and really not the best idea in the world from a safety perspective. If you rent a bike or scooter, you’ll find good bike lanes on 15th St NW (north-south), Pennsylvania Ave NW (diagonal from the Capitol to the White House), V and W Sts NW (east/west), and I St NE.

DC also has the usual rideshare services. Locals prefer Lyft over Uber. And of course you can flag a taxi just about anywhere — all taxis take credit card and they’re not significantly more expensive than Lyfts.

A few other insider tips for your 2 days in Washington DC

The Korean War Memorial is the highlight of the National Mall.
Don’t miss the Korean War Memorial on your DC itinerary.
  • Tourists call the city “Washington,” but locals call it “DC.” We say “Metro” or “Metro-ing” instead of “the Metro”; “The Hill” instead of “Capitol Hill”; the airport closest to the city is “National,” not “Reagan”; and we always ask what you do for a living.
  • Happy hour culture is huge in DC. If you visit during the week, try Lincoln, Georgia Brown’s, Pizzeria Paradisio, DC Reynolds, Oyamel, or any roof deck on H St. NE between 5 and 7 pm for great drink specials.
  • DC’s streets are a grid system. North-south roads are numbered, east-west are lettered, and diagonals are state names. The city is split into four quadrants — Northeast, Northwest, Southeast and Southwest — by Capitol Street and Independence Ave. If you’re asking for directions, be sure to give the name of the quadrant — 14th St. NW is a long way from 14th St. NE. And it’s not “the Northwest/the Northeast” — just “Northwest” or “Northeast,” etc.
  • If you’re using Metro on weekends, try to avoid changing lines. It’s faster to get off at a stop on the same line and walk 15-20 minutes than to wait for a second train.
  • The best source of information about weather — especially during summer storm season — is Capital Weather Gang’s Twitter account
  • The best source of local news is PoPVille
  • Go to the suburbs for the best food — specifically Eden Center for Vietnamese, Rockville for Chinese, Langley Park for Indian, Silver Spring for Ethiopian, and Annandale for Korean.
  • Keep an eye out for DC’s traditional license plate: “Taxation Without Representation.” This refers to our lack of representation in Congress or budget autonomy. It was a huge deal when President Obama acknowledged the DC statehood fight on the presidential motorcade’s license plates. As you talk politics with locals, remember that you have significantly more political power than we do — it’s a sore spot for us.
  • Even though Trump is president right now, DC is still a very progressive city. The Trump-ites stick out like a sore thumb. Most locals are disgusted about having to share a city with them. Don’t assume we all support/work for Trump.
  • I said it before, but I’ll say it again here: Do not stand on the left on Metro escalators. Washingtonians are very friendly with the one exception of when you’re in our way on Metro.

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Find out how to spend an incredible 2 days in Washington DC. This Washington DC itinerary was written by a local. Discover all the best things to do in Washington DC on a weekend -- yes, we have the Smithsonian Museums and the National Mall, but we also have off-the-beaten-path gems. Get the insider tips to DC with this guide. #washingtondc #travel

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Nicole Claesen
2 years ago

We cannot wait to FINALLY get to DC! Thanks for all your great restaurant suggestions, Busboys and Poets sounds great! Love all your pictures too. Pinning this for when we visit!

Bliss Eatts
2 years ago

DC is such a cool city to visit. Great guide for it!

Vanessa Shields
2 years ago

What a great post! I’ve been to DC for work but have never done any site seeing. After reading this I want to go back and see so many of these sights. 😁

Natalie
2 years ago

Such a helpful guide!! Loved it.

Natalie
2 years ago

Loved this! Such a helpful guide

April
2 years ago

I love DC and all the history in it. I completely agree when you say you can’t do all the Smithsonian Museums in one weekend. They are all so big with so much to take in. One of my favorite escapes that feels like you’re miles from the city but still in the heart of it is the Teddy Roosevelt Island (metro stops right there). Lovely park with trails in the Potomac.

Agnes Groonwald
2 years ago

As someone who lived out there for a while, your tips are right on the money…especially that bit about the happy hours. 🙂

Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad

Absolutely love your photos of the Lincoln Memorial with the cherry blossoms! I don’t know why I never thought of doing a tour in the Capitol Building. It looks stunning in there. I was really underwhelmed by the White House, and I remember being really creeped out by the Korean War Memorial! I’d quite like to go back one day, so this is a really good itinerary to use.

Alexandra Booze
2 years ago

This makes me miss Washington, DC so much! I lived there for almost 9 years. Spent many nights at Rock and Roll Hotel and a lot of these places that you mention above. Such good memories. Thank you for a trip down memory lane!

Hannah
1 year ago

I was never really bothered about visiting DC until I was there on a work trip and I fell in love with the place! There is SO MUCH to see and do! I’m hoping I’ll be able to return when we’re able to travel to the US again as there is so much more I’d like to see. Thanks for the great guide!

Tiffany Smith
1 year ago

This is great! I’ve been before, but never got to explore the neighborhoods and my husband has never been. Can’t wait to put this article to good use!

Megan
1 year ago

This is a great itinerary! I use to live out there and loved seeing the cherry blossom trees. I’d love to go back and see all the things I missed!

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