You may not believe it, but I visited Washington, D.C. twice in a span of three months last year. I planned a long weekend trip for my partner’s birthday, and it was love at first sight for him, so we ended up going again soon after. I decided to put together this guide with some of my favorite things and places in D.C., and it’s based on how I would spend my weekend if I were to go again.
D.C. has a lot to offer for a compact city, including many landmarks, great restaurants, and the most incredible museums. Your travel style might be different from mine—I have friends who want to fit in every single museum and gallery they can into a vacation and friends who only want to focus on eating the best food on a trip. Personally, I love building in some extra time to walk to the next place I need to be at or take a coffee (or cocktail) break if needed. But in case you wanted to add a few more things to do—or sub in something a bit more laid back than what’s in the agenda—I’ve got some extras for you at the end!
Please note that some of the places mentioned in this post may be temporarily closed or require reservations due to the pandemic. Restrictions and entry requirements are always changing so check before you go!
What to Know Before Getting to D.C.
If you’re planning on coming to D.C. by plane, there are three different airports that you can fly into. Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is just across the Potomac River and also has the easiest public transportation option to get to and from the city. Reagan Airport has its own stop on the Blue and Yellow Metro lines that will get you into D.C from Arlington in under 20 minutes. Washington Dulles Airport is a bit further at 26 miles from downtown D.C. and has an express bus running to a Silver line Metro stop that you can purchase at the airport. Alternatively, you can get a taxi or rideshare to get downtown. Baltimore/Washington Airport is the farthest from D.C., and you can get into the city by taking the MARC train from the airport to Union Station.
Alternatively, you can get to and from D.C. via Amtrak, which will land you right at Union Station. From there, you can get to other parts of the city through the Metro Red line!
The Metro is the D.C.’s public transportation system, and in my opinion, it is the easiest and most convenient way to get around town. The cost to ride varies based on the day, time, and length of your trip, ranging from $2-6. While D.C. is quite walkable and you have to walk in certain areas like the National Mall, many things are quite spread out and require the Metro, so it may be worth getting the 1-day pass for $13 or the 3-day pass for $28.
Another really fun way to get around D.C. is by electric scooter! Scooters that are on the street and have battery left are available to rent by scanning their QR codes with your phone. They are priced by the minute, with most scooter companies charging around $0.40 per minute. While these scooters aren’t the cheapest method of transportation, they can come in handy if you are trying to get to or from a location that isn’t close to a Metro stop. Plus, they’re incredibly fun to ride and well worth a try, even if it’s just for a few minutes! (I wish they’d bring these scooters to New York!)
There are plenty of hotels in D.C. available at different price points, as well as a good number of Airbnb options. If you’re on a budget, there are a couple of hostels around the city as well! Choose whatever fits your budget and taste, however I would highly recommend choosing a place to stay relatively close to a Metro stop.
Day 1: A Chill Night Out
Let’s paint a picture; you arrive in Washington, D.C. after your workweek, and it’s Friday night. It’s definitely time to relax, right? To start your low-key night, head to Right Proper Brewing Company’s Shaw brewpub. The brewpub has around ten of Right Proper’s beers on top, with enough varieties among those ten to satisfy all types of beer drinkers. As a lover of sours, I lucked out during my visit and got to try three different tart beers that were all unique and unlike other beers I’ve had before.
The brewpub also has a good selection of standard pub fare like burgers and fries, but they also have other offerings like soups and desserts. They’ve got a cheese counter too and you can build a cheese board, if that’s your jam! I recommend grabbing some grub here on your own or with your entourage, and sampling any beer that piques your interest. Pro tip: ask for half pours so you can try out a few different beers in smaller portions before ordering a tall glass of your favorite! If you don’t get a chance to visit Right Proper Brewing but want to try their brews, their beers are offered at many different bars and restaurants across the city.
After getting your food and microbrew fill at Right Proper, you could call it a night…or you can make your way down to Penn Quarter and grab some dessert at Pitango Gelato. If Pitango is closed, Dolcezza Gelato is also nearby for your sweet fix. I personally would say that Pitango wins at the sorbet game and Dolcezza has the best gelato, but both shops make great frozen desserts.
Once you have your treat in hand, walk on down to the National Mall where you can catch a nighttime view of brightly lit buildings and monuments. Things look completely different from how they appear during the day, and there is less of a crowd. It’s quite a long stretch between the Capitol Building on the east end and the Lincoln Memorial on the west end, so this is the perfect chance to zoom around on an electric scooter! This is a relatively calm and peaceful way to spend the night until you decide you need to catch some z’s.
Day 2: Museums, Strolls, and Birds
On Saturday, you can sleep in! But once you’re caught up on your rest, pick up some pastries from Rose Ave Bakery. Founded by Rosie, a former pediatric nurse who took up baking with the goal of auditioning for Masterchef, Rose Ave Bakery has some of the best pastries, doughnuts, and other baked goods in town. Most of the offerings boast awesome Asian flavors, including pandan, ube, and passionfruit. Get the ensaymada cruffin, which is a sweet cheese pastry, and any of the scallion-based pastries (though their menu may vary by the week). Pro tip: order ahead on Sundays for pickups on Wednesday through Saturday to get first dibs on what you want. But if you don’t make the preorder cut, they have plenty of goods to go around for walk-in customers!
After filling up on pastries, check out the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. While the Smithsonian and D.C. have so many great museums, if I had to pick one must-see museum, this would be it. At the Museum of Natural History, you can learn about evolution through seeing animal bones from different time periods or about geology with an extensive collection of rocks and gemstones. Don’t think that this museum is just for kids; there is an incredible amount of information available in their permanent and temporary exhibits, and you will leave having learned so much. The exhibit for human origins gives you the option of traveling backwards or forwards in the timeline of evolutionary history, which is very cool.
Since the Museum of Natural History takes about two to three hours and covers a lot of ground, it’s nice to take a bit of a break after. This is a great chance to see the National Mall in the daylight. Stroll around and wander into the Sculpture Garden next to the National Gallery of Art, or sit on the grass by the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and people watch. Contemplate the meaning of life if you want.
Next stop: the National Portrait Gallery. Why is this my next museum pick? The Portrait Gallery is open until 7pm, which is later than the other museums, giving you some additional time to admire and think about the artwork in the gallery. I also think that people are often the most interesting subjects and portraits of people paint a picture of not only their faces and bodies but also the context of the environment and time period they were in. The museum is pretty large, so there are many permanent and temporary exhibits—the 20th Century Americans exhibit was my personal favorite!
After your gallery adventures, grab a drink and walk along the Southwest Waterfront. There are many bars to choose from and most of them have outdoor seating so that you can enjoy the view, which is especially amazing at sunset. One of the bars at the Wharf is Tiki TNT/Thrasher’s Rum, which specializes in—you guessed it, rum. Their cocktails are made with Thrasher’s rum which are made on site, and the six different types of rum are worth trying on their own.
For dinner, go to none other than Rooster & Owl in Columbia Heights! Run by a husband and wife team, R&O is an unpretentious fine dining restaurant (which may sound like an oxymoron, but trust me that it’s not!) that offers a four-course meal for $75. The menu is very seasonal—for example, my partner and I dined in early September when a summer fish offering was still on the menu, but they had also just added a duck with red curry on the menu for the fall. There are four options to choose between for each of the courses, and at least one is always vegetarian. The food here is delicious and presented beautifully, however the service is also a highlight at R&O. The staff is incredibly friendly and happy to make thoughtful recommendations on the food and wine, and the chef pops out from the kitchen to say hello. If you go, keep your eyes peeled for the fun rooster and owl themed decor as well!
Day 3: Rise and Fly!
It’s the day you’re (unfortunately) getting back home and facing the reality of Monday eve. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t start your day with some great brunch! Busboys and Poets is a restaurant and bar, but it’s also a bookstore and a community spot with several locations in the DMV area. They have art and poetry focused events, including regular open mic nights and art exhibits. Whether you’re a breakfast-y brunch kind of person or a lunch-y brunch kind of person, Busboys and Poets has something on the menu for you. There’s often a wait during peak hours, but this time can be well-spent browsing through their curated book selections.
My museum suggestion for your final (half) day is the National Air and Space Museum. Why this one, you ask? I think that this museum has fewer exhibits than many of the other Smithsonian museums, and it’ll fit perfectly into your Sunday schedule. There’s a good amount of information on aviation and space exploration, and while some of the exhibits are designed with kids in mind, there’s plenty of information about space exploration and aviation equipment that will get your brain working. Alternatively, I’d also recommend visiting the Museum of American History or the Museum of the American Indian on your last day. These two museums are very insightful, but you may find yourself having to leave before you get through all of the exhibitions.
After your museum trip, it’s sadly time to go home. Grab your bags, say goodbye to the nation’s capitol (and their awesome Metro), and head back to face Monday head-on.
Other Cool Things to Do in D.C.!
Get a morning-appropriate beverage at Compass Coffee: Compass Coffee is a D.C.-based coffee roaster with a number of stores across the city. Some locations are closed during the weekends, but if you need a morning joe or afternoon pick-me-up, this is the place! The espresso-based drinks and drip coffee are great, and the blended frappe-style drinks are better than their coffee-chain counterparts. If you’d like, they have roasted beans and K-cups that you can take home with you as well!
Have a meter of beer and giant pretzels at Prost: Prost is my partner’s number one favorite place in D.C. They serve up a selection of German beers, and here you can order “the meter” which is quite literally a meter-long flight of ten different beers. It’s quite fun to try if you’re there with someone—I’d say it’s hard for one person to finish this—and it’s perfect paired with one of their house-made pretzels. Supposedly they have a dedicated pretzel chef, but even if that isn’t true, these are damn good pretzels. Prost is the place to have a jolly weekend evening or to just satisfy your German beer curiosity.
Visit the Library of Congress: If you’re a book nerd like me, you can’t miss this one. The collection is incredible, and the architecture is stunning! The Library of Congress is unlike any other library in the U.S. and a place you can get lost in (and not mind that you’re lost at all). There are also exhibitions throughout and if you meet certain requirements, you can can register to have space to study or research at the library.