Whether you’re heading to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration, the Women’s March or simply a winter or spring jaunt, there’s always loads to see and do. But if you only have a few days, how should you fill your itinerary? Below is a list that includes some of my favorite spots, which I discovered when I lived in D.C. for a year, as well as suggestions from friends who still call the nation’s capital home.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
This museum, which opened in September and is the “only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history and culture,” is the hottest ticket in town right now, and, like all Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., is free. Unfortunately, reserving your free spot can be a challenge. A batch of same-day timed-entry passes are released each morning — you can reserve up to four — until they run out, but they run out quickly. On weekdays only, there are also a limited number of walk-up passes (one per person) made available starting at 1 p.m. Get them on the Madison Drive side of the building. Advance timed passes are released monthly and are sold out through April; May passes will become available Feb. 1. You may reserve up to six passes in advance. Learn more at nmaahc.si.edu.
More museums of note: The National Portrait Gallery (npg.si.edu), the National Air and Space Museum and its Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (airandspace.si.edu/udvar-hazy-center) are highly recommended, and free. The National Museum of Women in the Arts (nmwa.org) is free Jan. 21-22 ($10 admission otherwise). The Newseum (newseum.org) and the International Spy Museum (spymuseum.org) are worth a visit, too, although getting in will cost you.
Washington, D.C., is a history- and architecture-lover’s paradise. First, go for a stroll through the stunning National Cathedral (cathedral.org), where you’ll be awestruck by its incredible Rose Window, which was installed in 1976, is 26 feet tall and contains more than 10,000 pieces of glass. Next, visit important landmarks at Arlington National Cemetery (arlingtoncemetery.mil), including President John F. Kennedy’s gravesite, the U.S. Coast Guard Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with Arlington National Cemetery Tours (arlingtoncemetery.mil/Visit/Tours-and-Groups), which offers tours daily. President Lincoln’s Cottage (lincolncottage.org), where Abraham Lincoln lived and worked for over a quarter of his presidency, is another fascinating stop.
On the outskirts
If you can make the time, you have to squeeze in an afternoon at Mount Vernon (mountvernon.org), which, despite being just 15 miles from Washington, D.C., feels a world away. Highlights include George and Martha Washington’s mansion, a working distillery and gristmill and stunning garden. In spring, you can even get there via a sightseeing cruise up the Potomac. Learn more here. Old Town Alexandria (visitalexandriava.com/old-town-alexandria) is another historic and picturesque place to explore, especially on a mild day where you can take your time along the red-brick sidewalks flanking cobblestone streets.
Food and drink
Eastern Market (easternmarket-dc.org) and Union Market (unionmarketdc.com) are both fun places to grab a bite and do some people-watching. Mitsitam Cafe inside the National Museum of the American Indian (nmai.si.edu/visit/washington/mitsitam-cafe) also comes highly recommended. And the buzzy bar and restaurant district these days lies on 14th Street between V and M, I’m told.
If you go
D.C. has three main airports: Dulles, Reagan and Baltimore-Washington, and many airlines offer nonstop service from Austin. Because lodging in the district can get pricey, it is often a good idea to explore options in Virginia and Maryland as well. Learn more at washington.org.