Washington, D.C. in four days
- This article is an itinerary.
This article provides readers with a sample itinerary of how to see Washington, D.C. in four days. This guide is not totally comprehensive, and should be tailored to your individual interests and abilities. While many of the primary attractions in D.C. are suited for visitors of all ages, a number of recommendations may not appeal to families; alternate family-friendly recommendations are provided where possible.
Washington, D.C., draws more than 15 million visitors each year. Most first-time visits involve touring the U.S. Capitol, viewing the White House, experiencing the Smithsonian Institution museums on the National Mall, and visiting monuments. This itinerary focuses on planning out visits to D.C.'s primary attractions. However, visitors should also be aware that Washington offers much more than museums and federal buildings around the National Mall. Consider exploring more of Washington's neighborhoods listed on the city's main article.
When to visit 
With a limited amount of time to spend in Washington, it is typically worthwhile to visit the museums during the day, and tour monuments in the evening. All of the monuments and memorials are open and lit at night. Additionally, D.C. can be hot and muggy during the summer months, and you will most likely want to be indoors during the hottest part of the day.
Winter has the fewest visitors. Temperatures in D.C. are cold but seldom below freezing. The winter season typically offers the best bargains on hotels and fewer crowds. But, of course, it is the capital of America, expect crowds year round.
Consider where you will stay. Hotels in the city are the most convenient; however, Washington's subway system (known locally as "the Metro") extends into Maryland and Virginia, allowing visitors easy access to the city from suburban hotels. Make sure that any hotel you stay at is within walking distance of or has a shuttle service to a Metro station. Also remember to account for transit time when planning out your final itinerary.
In Washington, be prepared to do a lot of walking and to use public transportation. Driving a car in the District is rarely practical. Parking restrictions are especially problematic, and many attractions are within a mile of each other on the National Mall. Make sure that your hotel has parking available, especially if driving and staying in the city.
During the hot and humid summer months, take a bottle of water, sunscreen, and all other normal needs for a day outdoors. Good walking shoes are a must for touring the mall and city. For those who have trouble walking, you may wish to consider utilizing the tour operators such as Tourmobile, which provides transportation around the National Mall.
The Metro 
Chances are that you will ride DC Metro, and knowing how it operates ahead of time can mean the difference between catching the train that just arrived in the station and having to wait another 15 minutes for the next train to arrive. Depending on what type of pass you purchase (see the Washington, DC guide in the Get Around section) you will have one of three types of cards:
- SmarTrip card: A plastic stored-value smart card that you simply touch on the special circle at the turnstile. The circle is illuminated and has the white and green "SmarTrip" logo printed on it. Sometimes, the reader will not read your card and a small LCD screen will tell you to swipe your card again. Try running it by the sensor at a slower speed. These cards cost $5 for the card itself, not including the fare.
- Paper farecard: A paper card with a dollar amount printed on it.
- Pass: A paper card that functions as a pass for for unlimited travel within a specified period of time. A One Day Pass and 7-Day Short Trip Pass are available. (Note: On the 7-Day Short Trip Pass, if your trip costs more than $3.50 at peak travel times (5-9:30 am and 3-7 pm on weekdays), you will need to pay the balance of the trip at an Exit Fare machine. The One Day Pass provides unlimited travel for the day, regardless of the trip price.)
Using farecards and passes: For paper farecards and passes, you will insert your card or pass into a slot on the front of the turnstile. The card will exit a slot on the top of the turnstile unless you are using a handicap (wider) turnstile, in which case the card will reemerge from the same slot. The gate will not open until you retrieve your ticket. In in some stations, there are SmarTrip-only turnstiles that do not accept paper farecards and passes. Avoid these lanes if you do not have a SmarTrip card.
As a rule, remember "walk left, stand right." You should stay on the left side of escalator if you want to walk up. If you plan to stand, stay out of the way of the walkers by standing on the right side. Some locals may become irritated and repeat the "walk left, stand right" rule verbally if you do not comply.
Food and drink are not allowed in the stations or on the trains. There have been instances reported where Metro personnel will harshly punish violators.
Finding which exit to leave the station from is just as important as getting off at the correct stop. Many stations have several exits that can put you right next to where you want to go. Most exits are labeled according to which street they exit to. Check the station's neighborhood map to find out which exit to head to.
Get in 
By plane 
The fastest way to get into DC is to fly into Reagan National Airport (DCA). Terminals B and C, served by American, Delta, United, and US Airways, offers quick access to the blue Metro line.
Alternatively, Dulles International Airport (IAD) offers more straightforward connections to DC than Baltimore-Washington Airport (BWI).
- From Dulles airport, you can take the WMATA public bus to connect to the Metro subway system at either Rosalyn or L'Enfant Plaza, which is a major transfer station in the heart of Washinton. This bus runs about every 40 minutes and the fare is $6. You can also take the privately operated Washington Flyer coach to the West Falls Church (orange line) metro station for $9.
- From BWI, you can take a shuttle bus to the Greenbelt (green line) metro station. There is also a free shuttle that will take you to the MARC/AMTRAK rail station. MARC or AMTRAK trains take you as far as Union Station near the Capitol, where you can connect to the Metro subway. MARC tickets are generally cheaper and available for purchase on the day of travel. AMTRAK is typically more expensive but is the only option during late night hours.
By rail 
DC is home to Union Station, a major Amtrak station. Acela service takes you to DC via a high speed train from as far away as New York (3-4 hours) or Boston (8 hours). Other routes come in from Western Virginia, Richmond/Norfolk, and Pittsburgh.
By car 
Again, travel by car into DC during workdays or holidays is not recommended.
From Virginia 
I-66 and I-395 provide easy access from Virginia. By far, the best scenic route is to take the George Washington Parkway, which connects to the Western and Southern sides of I-495. Traveling along the entire parkway is a very rewarding experience, as it takes you past Mount Vernon, Old Town Alexandria, a great view of DC from across the river, Arlington Cemetery, a great view of Georgetown, and the cliffs overlooking the Potomac.
I-295 and US 50 provide quick access into the district from Maryland. There are also several secondary highways that take you into DC from Maryland. A great scenic route from Maryland is the Clara Barton Parkway which lines the old canal system along the Potomac. Another great route is the Rock Creek parkway which takes you through a lush "canyon" - you wouldn't believe you're in the District! Rock Creek Park is also the fabled dumping ground for many murder victims.
Must see attractions 
A list of the "must see" attractions of Washington would probably include the following:
- The Smithsonian Institution, 202-633-1000, . Most museums open every day 10AM-5:30PM. The Smithsonian is a series of government supported museums lining the National Mall and elsewhere. You could easily spend a month or more visiting all the specialized museums. But if you are in a rush, most people find the Museum of Air and Space and the Museum of Natural History to be the best. Closely rivaling these two, the new Museum of the American Indian and the Museum of American History (re-opening in 2008) are extremely popular. The Smithsonian's information center (8:30AM-5:30PM) is located in "The Castle", a distinctive red sandstone building directly on the National Mall. All Smithsonian Museums are free for visiting.
- The National Mall. Flanked by the Capitol Building on one end, and the Lincoln Memorial on the other, with the Smithsonian museums on either side, the National Mall is America's front yard and the center of almost any visit to DC. No one should miss it. However, the wide open spaces make walking the mall punishing in the sun. Plan to walk the mall at night when it is cooler and all the monuments are lit.
- The Washington Monument Located in the center of the National Mall, the Washington Monument is an imposing presence. If you have time, definitely ride the elevator up or even opt for a ranger-led walk down. If you don't have time to wait to go in (lines can be very long), you can at least take some great photos of the monument and the area around it. The monument was damaged during the Virginia earthquake of August 23, 2011; it remains closed to the public indefinitely while the structure is assessed and repaired.
- The Tidal Basin. The Tidal Basin offers a spectacular grove of Japanese Cherry blossom trees as well as paddle boats that can be rented to use in the Basin. The Cherry Blossom Festival, when the trees bloom in the Spring, is a fantastic, and very popular event.
- The Capitol Building and the White House offer front-row views to history being made. Visitors to the White House must reserve tickets through their Senator or Congressman. Foreign nationals must reserve tickets through their embassy, usually six months in advance. Visits to the Capitol Building can be booked online free of charge (http://www.visitthecapitol.gov/) or taken on a walk-in basis - tickets are usually available, especially during off-peak season. These tickets, however, can only be used for visit to the historical part of the U.S. Capitol, while visits to the wings where the Senate and the House are located should also be booked through your Congressmen. Tickets including walk-ins can be picked up at the Visitor Center located at the foot of the Capitol Hill (the entrance is at the back of the Capitol building, right across the Library of Congress). The tour of the Capitol Building will allow you to see the interior of the building which is decorated like a palace with paintings and reliefs on the ceiling. For those that do not have the time or inclination to join an organized tour, keep in mind that you can still go to the outside of both the Capitol and White House, and take photos in front of them. You will be kept at a distance from the buildings by security, but this is not much of an issue as you will probably want to step back to take a picture anyway. If you're lucky, you may see protesters in front of the White House and see American Democracy in action.
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Most of the sightseeing is done in the Mall area, but it can be difficult to find interesting or cheap food. There are a plethora of fast food stands selling hot dogs and pretzels, but this can get old, fast.
- The American Indian museum has a great (but expensive) cafe serving food inspired by Native American cuisine. Everything from tacos to buffalo burgers to smoked turkey can be had here, and it is of decent quality.
- The Reagan Center right across the street from the American History museum (on 14th St and Constitution) has a typical food court in the basement. A search of your belongings is required to enter. This is also convenient to White House visitors.
- L'Enfant Plaza provides not only metro access to the Air & Space Museum, but also a small array of restaurants, such as Au Bon Pain.
- The Hotel Washington's Sky Terrace Restaurant provides decent food with an amazing view during the warmer months. You can look directly over the White House and see several Secret Service agents watching you eat through their massive binoculars. The only down side is that getting a table can be difficult.