What can you do in Washington DC in only one day? During our road trip through New England, we decided to stop for an overnight in Washington DC. giving us one day in the city to explore. (Click here to see our entire road trip itinerary.) While I know that it is impossible to see everything that Washington DC has to offer in only one day, we did our best to see many of the major sites and we had a wonderful (and thoroughly exhausting!) day.
Washington DC in Only One Day
Since we always travel on a budget, a drawback to a D.C. visit is often the cost of lodging. We solved this problem by finding a campground in nearby College Park at the Cherry Hill Park Campground. While this was the most expensive campground I have ever stayed at (we paid over $70 a night!), it was much more budget friendly than staying at a hotel for our family of 6. The campground is not perfect- it was pretty crowded during our late summer visit with large church and school groups and the sounds of the adjacent highway are audible from the tent sites. I couldn’t help but giggle when we were setting up and Sophie made the declaration- “This is NOT wilderness!” However, it was safe and convenient and the kids enjoyed swimming in the pool. Bothered by the noise, Dave made a run to a nearby Walmart the night we arrived to purchase fans to drown out the highway sounds and they did wonders to help us sleep. Even with its faults, if you are traveling to D.C. on a budget, camping here is a good option and I would stay here again to save the cash.
First Stop: Arlington National Cemetery and Arlington House:
Many of the major sites in DC have limited hours which makes it difficult to see all of the many attractions in a short visit. Since we we were exploring Washington DC on only one day, we woke up bright and early to get started. Arlington National Cemetery is open during the summer at 8 AM so we decided to start our day there. Public transportation is usually cost effective and very convenient but with our larger family, it actually saved us money to drive into the city and park all day at the Arlington parking lot while we walked to explore. There is plenty of parking in the lot adjacent to the cemetery. Rates were quite reasonable for the area with a rate of $1.75/hour for the first three hours and $2.50/hour for each additional hour. For $25, we parked our car there the entire day while we toured DC. It is an easy walk of about a mile across the Arlington Memorial Bridge into the city right to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. That being said, the roads into town are crazy as they are crowded and confusing! Dave drove while I navigated but we still made a wrong turn a couple of times before we figured out where we needed to be. If you do drive into the city, grab a coffee, take a deep breath and brace yourself with patience! You’ll need it.
While we have visited DC several times over the years, this was our first time visiting Arlington National Cemetery and I am thankful we did because it is an unbelievably special place. Read a full report of our time in both the cemetery and Arlington House here.
Next Up: The National Mall
It was late morning when we left Arlington Cemetery and walked across the Arlington Memorial Bridge. Our plan was to spend the day walking the National Mall and exploring the numerous memorials. Starting at the Lincoln Memorial, we stopped at one of the many National Park Service kiosks located throughout the mall and picked up Junior Ranger Packets. The Junior Ranger program for the National Mall has activities for each memorial and can be turned in at any one of them once the packet is completed to receive the earned badge. I highly recommend earning the Junior Ranger badge at any National Park you visit as we have always learned a great deal from the various programs. Requirements vary between facilities to earn their park’s badge and the one for the National Mall did take a great deal of time since there are 8 memorials covered in the booklet. If time is an issue, you can print the booklet ahead of time to work on it prior to visiting. Click here for a link.
We spent several hours walking the Mall and visiting the various memorials which is obviously a meaningful experience for any D.C. visitor. My kids are older and were able to understand much of the history that was being memorialized but children of any age would be able to learn a great deal. Even during our visits when the kids were babies were special. It is a truly moving experience to visit here.
At some point throughout the afternoon we picked up lunch at one of the nearby concession stands. I am sure there are more varied choices than the hot dogs and salads we ended up with, but since time was limited we didn’t want to spread out too far and we enjoyed our picnic on benches in the shade.
United States Holocaust Museum:
We finished up our tour of the Mall Memorials around 2:00. At this point, an obvious choice would be a visit to any wing of the Smithsonian Museum. But since we had visited many of the Smithsonian buildings on previous visits, we chose instead to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The museum closes at 5:20 leaving us with only a few hours so we stopped at the information desk to get advice on how best to visit. The attendant urged us the visit Daniel’s Story- Remember the Children, an exhibit told through the voice of a child. Appropriate for children of all ages, this is a meaningful introduction to the horrors of the Holocaust.
We were also very fortunate to be able to get tickets to the permanent exhibition- The Holocaust. While tickets are free, timed entrance tickets are required March through August and must be picked up in advance. If you are planning to visit this museum, reserve tickets early in the day as they often run out. Tickets were already gone for the day of our visit, but the attendant pulled strings and gave us some when she found out I was a pediatric nurse. Yay! I was thrilled because I really wanted the kids to be able to experience the exhibit. Since Sophie and Naomi are in high school and were mature enough to process the content, I let them explore on their own. Maya and Garrett are only ten so Dave and I each paired with one of them so that we could shield them from some of the more horrific images. While I wanted them to experience the museum and understand the atrocities that had been committed, I also did not want to expose them to images beyond their age and innocence. The museum does an amazing job of positioning videos and pictures under ledges so that parents can choose to shield children from images they don’t want seen. I can not recommend enough a visit to this museum. Even though our family had knowledge of the Holocaust, the exhibits here led to a much greater understanding for each of us. I have very few pictures from inside the museum since picture taking is understandably not permitted in the permanent exhibit.
We ended our visit to the Holocaust Museum in the beautiful Hall of Remembrance. An eternal flame burns in the hall with an inscription from Deuteronomy etched in the pedestal- “Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children, and to your children’s children.” While of course the subject matter is beyond horrifying, I am really thankful I brought the kids here and this verse explains it perfectly. People throughout the world continue to commit atrocities against each other and I want my kids to understand the importance of standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Making us remember is vital and I am so thankful this museum exists.
Georgetown for Cupcakes:
One difficulty in visiting D.C. is the limited hours of the museums and exhibits, with most closing at 5, so by this time many of the area attractions were closed for the day. Honestly, I was more tired from all the walking then I have been on some all day hikes so I was secretly glad to not have many choices! We slowly walked back over the Arlington Memorial Bridge to where our car was parked and we headed to nearby Georgetown. The kids had been talking about visiting Georgetown Cupcakes from the minute they found out we were visiting D.C. Big fans of the show D.C. Cupcakes, they couldn’t wait to try some for themselves! We had a delicious (and budget friendly!) dinner at Harmony Cafe before heading to the line winding down the block at the cupcake shop.
I’ll be honest, I expected to be underwhelmed by the cupcakes, but they were delicious! Not only that, the girls working inside were friendly and efficient making it an all around fun experience. Don’t be daunted if the line seems too long, it really did move quickly and it was a party atmosphere while the line progressed. Definitely worth the wait.
By the time we polished off the cupcakes, it was dark and we tumbled into the car totally worn out. Our day in D.C had been wonderful! Obviously there is a lot more to see here, but if you must tour Washington D.C. in only one day, you can still see a great deal! Once back at the campground we took a quick swim in the pool before turning on our fans to block out the noise and crawling into our tents. It was a great day.
Washington DC in Only One Day:
If You Go:
–Beyond the National Mall, there is so much to see and do in Washington DC in only one day. We used a great little book- Frommer’s Washington D.C. Day by Day
–If you go during the busy summer, expect crowds! It was amazingly crowded, reminiscent of Disney World, around the entire National Mall and Holocaust Museum. By starting out early in the day, we were able to avoid the crowds at Arlington National Cemetery but it was quite filled up by the time we left mid morning.
–Pack refillable water bottles to take with you. By filling our bottles at the many drinking fountains, we were able to avoid paying the ridiculous price for bottled water. Better yet, pack a picnic if you plan to tour all day as we did. While we were able to buy lunch, it wasn’t anything special and was quite expensive.
–Wear comfortable shoes. I cannot stress this enough- you will walk A LOT. As I said before, I felt more tired here than I have felt on all day hikes in the woods.
–Besides parking and food, everything else was free! By saving cash by camping, this was a very economical day considering the experience it was.
Even with just a day, we had a great time and our visit to Washington DC is something we will never forget.
Did I miss anything I should have visited with one day in Washington D.C.? I’d love to hear your suggestions!