Home USA Washington DC in 2 Days – A Self-Guided Walking Tour of the Best Sites

Washington DC in 2 Days – A Self-Guided Walking Tour of the Best Sites

by Valerie Vanr

Washington DC, the capitol of the United States, is an amazing city. Visit free museums, memorials to iconic US presidents and to the sacrifices of US citizens around the world. These are all set in parkland on the banks of the Potomac River. Walk Pennsylvania Avenue, America’s Main Street and see the White House and the US Capitol.

This two-day walking tour is the perfect way to explore the best sites of Washington DC!

Washington DC 2-Day Itinerary

Day 1:

Day 2:

How to visit Washington DC

Washington DC is a planned city and designed as the seat of government over 200 years ago. Its core is the triangle created by the US Capitol, the White House and The Mall, known as Federal Triangle. The Memorial Parks are the lands to the west of the Washington Monument, reclaimed from the Potomac in the late 1800s.

Our itinerary concentrates on Federal Triangle and the Memorial Parks. The best way to explore the area is on foot.

Washington DC Walking Map

Washington DC Map walking path starred attractions
Click on the map for an interactive version.

Memorial Parks and the National Mall

The Memorial Parks in Washington DC are home to many historic monuments to US presidents, international conflicts and the sacrifices of US citizens.

We’ve listed the memorials in the order they are found walking in a counterclockwise direction. The loop from the Washington Monument to all the memorials is about 3.2 miles (5.1 km). The distance around the rectangle called “The Mall” between the Washington Monument and the US Capitol is about 2.8 miles (4.5 km). Many of the Smithsonian Museums are on The Mall along with the National Gallery of Art. Admission is free to all of these museums. There are lots of places to stop for a break. Food vendors are plentiful in this area.

Washington Monument

The Washington Monument stands 555 feet (170 metres) tall and is the perfect first stop to get an overall view of the area. Timed-entrance tickets are required to visit the 500 foot observation level. For information about obtaining tickets ($0.00 plus small service charge), visit the Washington Monument Reservation website before visiting. Don’t rely on getting a ticket on the day of arrival.

Washington Monument Washington DC
The original steam powered elevator took 10-12 minutes to reach the top. Some would consider that better than climbing the 896 steps to the top.

The view is stunning in all directions. To the west are the Lincoln Memorial and many of the veteran’s memorials. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial and the tidal basin are both visible to the south. To the east, see The Mall with the Smithsonian museums and the US Capitol. The Ellipse and the White House are directly to the north.

The monument’s stones are two different colors showing the two phases of construction. When completed in 1884, it was the tallest building in the world.

World War II Memorial

Dedicated in 2004, the stunning memorial is made of white marble. It honors the sacrifices of both the American people at home, supporting the war effort, and the 16 million who served overseas.  The Freedom Wall’s gold stars commemorate the more than 400,000 Americans who gave their lives in the war.

Fountains World War II Memorial Washington DC
On the west side of the memorial, just visible on the left of this photo, is the Freedom Wall of 4,048 gold stars. Each star represents 100 Americans who died in the war.
Pacific Gate World War II Memorial Washington DC
Under each of the Pacific and Atlantic pavilions four eagles carry an oak laurel wreath.

The Atlantic and Pacific arched pavilions remind visitors that the war theatre was across two oceans. Between the pavilions are 56 pillars, one for each US state and territory.

Constitution Gardens

This 50-acre garden and lake, a bicentennial project, commemorates American independence.  A monument, on the island in the middle of the lake, honors the 56 signers of the American Constitution. Military headquarters buildings occupied this spot until the 1970s.

Aerial view lake Constitution Gardens Washington DC
The lake in Constitution Gardens is about the size of 6 football fields

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Two black-granite walls, each about 250 feet (75 metres) long, form a “V”. The names of the more than 58,000 men and women who gave their lives or remain missing are etched into the walls in the order they died or disappeared. The walls point to the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. This sombre, subtle memorial was dedicated in November 1982.

People along black marble walls Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Each wall has 72 panels, 70 listing names. Lists of all names and their panel numbers help visitors find particular names on the walls.

Nearby is the 3 Servicemen Statue.  This realistic depiction of three Vietnam servicemen was dedicated in 1984.  The Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated in 1993, honoring the courage and sacrifice of all the women who served in the war.

3 bronze statues of Vietnam War servicemen
The statue shows 3 servicemen and what they carried in the Vietnam War.
Bronze statue of women helping wounded man
For the most part, women served as nurses, air traffic controllers and communication specialists during the Vietnam War.

Lincoln Memorial

Dedicated in 1922, this memorial to the 16th US President looks like a huge Greek temple. Each of its 38 columns is 44 feet (13 metres) tall and 7.5 feet (2.2 metres) across. Inside the memorial is a statue of Abraham Lincoln.  The seated Lincoln measures 19 feet (5,8 metres) from head to toe.

People on steps Lincoln Memorial
The massive marble memorial is 190 feet long, 120 feet wide, 99 feet tall.
Seated Lincoln statue in Lincoln Memorial
Made of Georgia white marble, the statue of Lincoln weighs 175 tons

His famous Civil War Gettysburg Address and his 2nd Inaugural speech are engraved on the north and south walls. Look for the engraving on the monument’s steps noting the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 overlooking the reflecting pool.

Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool

Constructed in 1922/23, the pool is 2,000 feet (610 metres) long and 165 feet (50 metres) wide about the size of 5 American football fields. It is 1.5 feet (0.5 metres) deep at its edges and 2.5 feet (0.75 metres) in the center. The 2011 renovation added the paved walkways on the north and south sides.

Washington Memorial reflected in Lincoln Reflecting Pool
Stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for a great picture of the Washington Monument reflected in the pool.

Korean War Veterans Memorial

Dedicated in 1995, the memorial commemorates the sacrifices of 5.8 million American service members during the Korean War (1950 to 1953). In that short time, 36,574 Americans died in hostile actions. Of those, 8,200 are listed as missing in action and lost or buried at sea. More than 100,000 were wounded.

The memorial displays nineteen stainless steel foot soldiers, in full battle gear, advancing through Juniper bushes separated by granite strips representing the rice paddies of Korea. The figures showcase both the various branches of the armed forces and the ethnic cross section of America. The reflective wall beside the statues is 164 feet (50 metres) long. The etchings on the wall are from hundreds of photos from the war.

Statues of soldiers moving through bushes Korean War Veterans Memorial
On the walkway between the mural wall and the advancing soldiers are markers listing the 22 nations who provided troops to the United Nations efforts.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

Two huge blocks of granite called the Mountain of Despair flank a 30-foot (9-metre) tall sculpture of King. His quotes are inscribed into the walls around the memorial. It was dedicated in 2011, the 48th anniversary of the August 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”.

King's sculpture stands alone with 2 mountains behind
The 30 foot tall sculpture and the Mountain were partially carved in the artist’s studio then transported to Washington, in 159 pieces, and completed on site.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

The memorial presents the story of Roosevelt’s 4 terms in office. There are statues, fountains and peaceful alcoves in red-granite rooms, spread over 7.5 acres on the southwest side of the Tidal Basin. It is a unique memorial to the longest-serving US president (1933 to 1945). The 2-term limit for US Presidents became law shortly after his death.

Thomas Jefferson Memorial

The memorial honors the 3rd president, drafter of the Declaration of Independence and founder of the University of Virginia.  Dedicated in 1943, its design resembles his library at the university.

Aerial view Thomas Jefferson Memorial beside Tidal Basin Washington DC
The bronze statue of Jefferson in the open air rotunda depicts him holding the Declaration of Independence in his hand.

This beautiful, 1940s carousel is unusual. Its horses are 4 abreast and all are jumping. It was moved to the Mall in 1981 from an amusement park outside of Baltimore.

Carousel showing 4 horses abreast
The carousel was designed to be folded up and moved from place to place as part of a travelling fair.

Ulysses S Grant Memorial and Capitol Reflecting Pool

The 17-foot (5.1-metre) tall statue of General Ulysses S Grant on his war horse stands out at the east end of The Mall.  Dedicated in 1922, the memorial honors the Civil War general and 18th US president. Its construction took 20 years.

Green lawn National Mall to Washington Monument
The green lawn of the Mall stretches between the Ulysses S Grant Memorial and the Washington Monument
Couple in front of Reflecting Pool and US Capitol
Beautiful afternoon sun on the Capitol Building and Reflecting Pool

This is a great spot for photos.  In the morning, to the west, is a stunning view of The Mall and the Washington Monument. In the afternoon, take the perfect picture of the US Capitol from the west side of the reflecting pool. 

The two buildings on either side of 4th Street NW are the National Gallery of Art.  An underground walkway connects the buildings. This was nice when the skies opened up during my visit.  Admission is free.

3 panelled art work National Art Gallery
This modern triptych, art in 3 sections, is in the East Building.

The east building displays modern and contemporary art in both permanent and temporary exhibitions over five floors. There are paintings, sculpture, photography, works on paper, and media arts. A recent addition increased the number of works displayed from 350 to 500.

Bronze cast Rodin's Thinker National Art Gallery
Rodin’s original of The Thinker is about 6 feet tall and is in the Musée Rodin in Paris. There were a number of casts made which are now in galleries worldwide.

The west building houses artwork from the 11th through the 19th centuries. Works are exhibited by period and national origin.

The sculpture garden to the north across 7th Street NW features large-scale works of modern sculpture. It is a great place to take a break. In the winter, weather permitting, an ice rink is added.

Smithsonian Museums on the Mall

The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum complex with over 150 million artifacts in trust for the American people. James Smithson, an English scientist, willed part of his estate to the United States for the increase and diffusion of knowledge and the Smithsonian was born. Admission is free to all Smithsonian Museums in Washington DC. Hours vary by museum so be sure to confirm each Smithsonian Museum’s hours before visiting.

Smithsonian Castle

Completed in 1855, this was the first Smithsonian museum.  It is the Smithsonian’s Visitor Center.

Note 2023: Beginning February 1, 2023, the Castle is closed for renovation. It is expected the renovation will take 5 years to complete. A Smithsonian Virtual Visitor Center website is available to help with questions.

The crypt in the North Tower holds Smithson’s remains. Originally buried in Genoa Italy, his remains were moved here in 1904. Interestingly, while alive, Smithson did not visit the United States.

Smithsonian Castle and Crypt
The Smithsonian Castle is home to the Visitor Center and the crypt holding Smithson’s remains.

Enjoy the beautiful Enid A Haupt Garden behind the Castle.

These 2 galleries showcase the power and grace of Asian art and its ability to reflect culture. Combined they are the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. The collections have more than 40,000 objects from the Ancient East, Asia, and the Islamic world. Their ages range from over 4 centuries to current times. These galleries connect underground.

Gold Ewer and bronze god Shiva Smithsonian Asian Art
Gold ewer from Iran and a bronze of the Hindu God Shiva both from the 10th century CE.

National Museum of African Art

The museum’s over 11,000 objects are some of the finest examples of traditional and contemporary African art. The exhibits show the beauty and diversity of African arts.

Museum African Art entrance and circular art
At the National Museum of African Art find the Rainbow Serpent created by Romuald Hazoumè from jerry cans.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

The Hirshhorn displays international modern and contemporary art. The exhibits change regularly and highlight major artists and trends. The sculpture garden across Jefferson Drive has works by Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore and even Yoko Ono.

Modern art in front of cylindrical Hirshhorn Museum
The plaza surrounding the cylindrical Hirshhorn Museum has several large pieces of modern art.

National Air and Space Museum

This is one of the most popular of the Smithsonian Museums. It is undergoing an extensive, multi-year renovation. The building remains open to the public with areas closing as they are renovated. A free timed-entry pass is needed to visit the museum. Visit the Air and Space Museum’s Timed Entry Pass webpage.

Museum visitors under aircraft hanging from ceiling, displ
At the National Air and Space Museum aircraft of all kinds are hanging from the rafters.

With more time, visit the Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly Virginia. Literally hundreds of historically significant aircraft and spacecraft are displayed in a former hanger.

National Museum of the American Indian

The museum’s collection of Native American arts and artifacts is one of the world’s most extensive. It covers over 12,000 years of history and includes all major cultural areas in the Americas.

National Museum of Natural History

Many know this museum from the 2006 Hollywood blockbuster ‘Night at the Museum’. Henry, the African Bush Elephant greets all visitors to the museum. He’s been on display in the entrance lobby since 1959. The museum is home to life-size sea mammals displayed in the Sant Ocean Hall, the 45.5-carat blue Hope Diamond and much more. It’s a “must-do” for kids and fun for adults too.

Full sized Elephant in lobby Natural History Museum
Henry the elephant weighs 11-ton and is 13 feet tall.
Hope Diamond display Natural History Museum
It is unclear who initially owned the Hope Diamond or where it was found though it is believed to have been mined in India in the early 1600s.

National Museum of American History

Fans of Americana – this is the museum for you. It is devoted to all aspects of the growth of America. Find everything from Washington’s military uniform and Jefferson’s portable desk to Dorothy’s Wizard of Oz ruby slippers.  This is a trip down memory lane for the over 40 crowd with lots of things for the kids as well.

American history museum display
Displays teach about the many wars Americans have served in worldwide.
3 guns on deck of wooden gunboat Philadelphia
The Philadelphia was one of the gunboats built by Benedict Arnold in 1776 to fight the British during the American War of Independence.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

The newest Smithsonian museum’s architecture stands out on the mall. It’s the only national museum focusing exclusively on African American life, art, history and culture. Begin in the underground levels.  Walk through history; from the Transatlantic Slave Trade of the 1400’s to the defining moments of the 1960’s. The 3 floors above the entrance level highlight African American contributions to American culture.

A free timed-entry pass is needed to visit the museum. Visit the African American History Museum’s Timed Entry Pass webpage.

Indoor waterfall and statues of Black power salute
Contemplative Court’s water feature and the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute

The White House

The White House is the oldest public building in Washington DC. Its cornerstone was laid in 1792. John Adams, the second president, moved in on November 1, 1800. Every president since has lived in the White House. Over the years, business and family needs required changes and expansions to the White House but the original structure remains. To enjoy a National Parks White House Tour be sure to apply several months in advance of your visit.

Aerial view Ellipse, south lawn and White House
The south lawn of the White House, while off-limits to the general public, is used for both official state events and informal gatherings including the annual White House Egg Roll.

The Ellipse

The park between the White House and the Washington Monument is a community gathering space. Recreational activities and many demonstrations take place on the Ellipse.

The north end of the oval walkway at E Street NW is the closest point to the south lawn of the White House. Just to the east is the National Christmas Tree, planted on the Ellipse in October 1978. Every year Christmas lights illuminate the tree and have since 1923.

Fences at edge south lawn White House
The “back” of the White House looks out on the south lawn and the Ellipse.

Walk west past the First Infantry Division Monument to 17th Street NW. Walk north past the huge grey 19th century Eisenhower Executive Office Building to Pennsylvania Avenue. Lafayette Square is just east along this pedestrian street.

Lafayette Square

The seven-acre park north of the White House is named for the Marquis de Lafayette, a wealthy French hero of the American Revolutionary War. The park has several statues of other European heroes of the Revolutionary War. The centerpiece is the 19th-century statue of President and General, Andrew Jackson on horseback. This is the first bronze statue cast in the United States.

Distant view crowd at fence north lawn White House
The North Portico of the White House is where visiting heads of state are welcomed for state dinners.
Mounted Andrew Jackson Statue and 3 wheeled cannons
General Andrew Jackson Statue is in the center of Lafayette Square.

St. John’s Episcopal Church

On the north side of H Street NW, across from the park, sits the pretty, yellow, Greek Revival, Episcopal Church. Completed in 1816, it is also known as the Church of the Presidents since every sitting president has visited at least once. It is a National Historic Landmark.

St. John's Episcopal Church Washington DC
The bell in the steeple weighs nearly 1,000 pounds and has been in service since it was installed in 1822.

From Lafayette Square walk east to 15th Street NW and south for about 3 blocks to reach Pennsylvania Avenue where it continues east.

Pennsylvania Avenue

The avenue between the White House and the Capitol Building is home to a number of monuments and museums. America’s Main Street often plays host to marches, parades, and protests.  Wander history on a stroll to the Capitol Building.

Aerial view Pennsylvania Ave Washington DC
Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site preserves significant structures and places.

World War I Memorial

This memorial honouring the more than 4.5 million Americans who served in the first World War was unveiled in April 2021. It includes a previously existing monument to John J Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. The Peace Fountain is in the center and, in 2024, the final installation called “A Soldier’s Journey”, will be completed. A representation is currently in its place. This is a peaceful spot in the middle of busy Pennsylvania Avenue.

Statue of Pershing Washington DC
Pershing and George Washington are the only US Generals awarded the rank of General of the Armies, the highest possible rank in the US Army.

White House Visitor Center

The visitor center is across Pennsylvania and south of the World War I Memorial. This is a chance to see some of the White House without an actual visitor’s pass. There are historical artifacts and interactive exhibits for all ages. Displays include archival photos and footage of White House events.

Displays in the White House Visitor Center
See many historical artifacts and learn about the White House and its occupants.

Freedom Plaza

The marble surface of the plaza shows a partial representation of the L’Enfant Plan for the city, developed in 1791. See how the streets on the walking tour still follow the plan. The best overall view is from the Clock Tower of the Old Post Office Building.

Aerial view Freedom Plaza Washington DC
Green lawns representing The Mall stand out when you see the marble Freedom Plaza from above.

Old Post Office Building

The beautiful building on the south side of Pennsylvania at 12th Street is the luxurious Waldorf Astoria hotel. This was US Postal Service’s national headquarters from 1899 to 1914 when they outgrew it.  The building avoided the wrecking ball several times until being placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Side view Old Post Office Building Washington DC
The Old Post Office Museum shares the building with a luxury hotel.

Enter the Old Post Office Museum at the back of the building. Early Washington DC photographs show how the city has grown over the years. Take the elevators to the Clock Tower and its observation deck for another aerial view of the city. The tower stands about 300 feet tall dwarfed only by the Washington Monument and the National Shrine.

Travel north on 10th Street NW for 2 blocks to #511.

Ford’s Theatre

President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in the theatre in April 1865. The building houses a Lincoln Museum and an active theatre. Lincoln was taken across the street to a room in Petersen House where he died the next morning.

For more information about visiting the theatre and Petersen House, including timed-entry tickets, check Ford’s Theatre’s Visit Us webpage.

Exterior Ford's Theatre and Petersen House
Ford’s Theatre and Petersen House

Take 9th Street back to Pennsylvania and continue east.

US Navy Memorial Plaza and the Naval Heritage Center

The memorial honors the men and women of the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and the Merchant Marine who serve in both war and peace. Adjacent to the memorial plaza is the Naval Heritage Center. Learn about the sea services. Registration and searching for active service members and veterans is also available.

National Archives Museum Washington DC
The National Archives Museum is framed by the flagpole masts of the US Navy Memorial.

National Archives Museum

Directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Navy Memorial, the National Archives protect items telling the story of the growth of US, its government and the American people.  See the original signed copies of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution of the United States, and Bill of Rights in the Rotunda of the National Archives. Admission is free and reservations are not required but recommended between March and Labor Day. See the National Archives Visit webpage for more information and current exhibits.

US Capitol

The United States Capitol is one of the most widely recognized symbols of democratic government in the world. Free tours of the Capitol, the Senate chamber and the House of Representatives are available. A separate timed-entry ticket to visit each one is needed. These are available at the Visitor Center in the basement of the Capitol. As only a limited number of same-day tickets to tour the Capitol are available at the Visitor Center, it is recommended to reserve in advance. The Capitol’s Book A Tour webpage has all the information.

Capitol building exterior Washington DC
Center block and dome of the US Capitol

Since 1800, the Congress has occupied the Capitol. The growing government’s space needs required expansion of the building several times. The original construction was less grandiose than what we see today. In December 1863, the Statue of Freedom was placed on the top of a new cast iron central dome. It stands 287 feet (87 metres) above the east plaza.

Crowds inside Capitol's Rotunda Washington DC
Tours of the Capitol building visit the Rotunda and marvel at the art and the dome.
Art and stonework on inside Capitol dome
Constantinople Brumidi painted “The Apotheosis of Washington” inside the dome in 1865

Across First Street SE is the Library of Congress in the Thomas Jefferson Building.

Library of Congress

In 1897, when the library’s collection outgrew the Capitol, the collection was moved across the street to the Thomas Jefferson Building. The Great Hall takes your breath away with its tile mosaics and marble sculptures.

This is the world’s largest library with more than 165 million pieces housed in a number of buildings in the area. The library began in 1800. When the Capitol burned in 1814, the original collection was destroyed.

2 level view of Great Hall Library of Congress
The Great Hall’s marble arches, staircases and pillars showcase the painted ceiling.
Overhead view of main reading room Library of Congress
Tours have a great view of the main reading room.

In 1815, President Thomas Jefferson offered Congress his personal library. It contained 6,487 books, the largest personal collection in the US at the time.  The books were the foundation for today’s great national library. An 1851 fire destroyed over half of the original books. Efforts are underway to replace the destroyed books and reassemble the original Jefferson library.

Circular bookcases of Jefferson library's books
Visit the 3rd floor to see many of the books of the original Jefferson library.

Supreme Court

To the north of the Library of Congress is the Supreme Court. It looks like a Greek temple. Its doors weigh 13,000 pounds.

Pillared Supreme Court building Washington DC
Completed in 1935, the Supreme Court is 4 storeys tall.

More Than 2 Days in Washington DC

Travel beyond the Washington DC core with more time.  We highly recommend these two places.

Arlington National Cemetery

This vast military cemetery is just across the Potomac from the Lincoln Memorial. Wander the cemetery’s 640 acres of headstones, monuments and memorials. They honor individuals and significant historical events in the history of the US. See the eternal flame at President John F Kennedy’s gravesite. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier includes the remains of unknown service members from World Wars I and II and the Korean War. Soldiers keep a 24-hours-a-day, 365 days-a-year vigil at the tomb. See the elaborate changing of the guard ceremony.

Changing of guard ceremony Tomb of Unknown Soldier
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been guarded continuously since 1937.

The trees on the rolling green hills are hundreds of years old. Originally, Robert E Lee owned the area. When Lee and his family left at the onset of the Civil War in 1861, federal troops occupied the area.  The first military burial occurred here in 1864. The government compensated Lee for the property after the war.

Rows of gravemarkers Arlington National Cemetery
Over 400,000 veterans and their eligible dependants are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center

Visit this huge facility the size of 3 aircraft hangers near Washington Dulles International Airport. There are hundreds of aviation and space artifacts. See pilot and astronaut equipment, the Space Shuttle Discovery, a stealth bomber and even a Concorde airliner. From the second floor, view the restoration lab where technicians work to bring battered aircraft back to life.

Space shuttle Discovery Udvar-Hazy Center
A separate area is dedicated to space travel including the Space Shuttle Discovery.
Many full-size aircraft Udvar-Hazy Center
Full-size aircraft hang from the ceiling and line the floor.

Know Before You Go

Are guided tours of Washington DC available?

There are lots of guided tours available. We chose Capital Segway. Our guides were great and the “wheeled” tour was a fun way to get our bearings. I was a newbie to a segway. A quick “how-to” at their base and about 15 minutes “on the road” and I was quite comfortable.

Is there public transit available in Washington DC?

The Washington Metro is the city’s light rail transit system. It reaches all parts of the city. Stops are positioned within a 30 minute walk of most of the major tourist attractions.

Couple in front of fencing north lawn White House

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