How to spend 48 Hours in Washington DC (best things to see and do)

Our trip to visit Washington DC came as a complete surprise. I don’t think you could get a bigger detour from our road trip around Australia than to be invited to attend an event at The White House!

National Mall, Washington DC
The National Mall, DC

We are used to our travel life taking twists and turns, but even we couldn’t envision a twist like this.

One minute we’ve got the towel laid out and soaking up the summer sun on the beaches in Western Australia, next minute we’re rugged up and exploring the best things to do in Washington DC during the US winter!

Crazy I know.

But when The White House calls and invites you to a travel summit, you say YES and just go! They probably won’t ask a second time.

Once our commitments were over at the travel blogger summit and we did a tour of The White House, we had roughly 48 hours to take in the top Washington DC things to do!

Washington DC was very impressive!

I remember saying to Caz that I feel like I’m walking around on a movie set, everything looks so familiar and everywhere you turn whether it’s a building, a street, an island or a park it’s named after someone famous and an important part of US history.

The monuments are worlds class, and the scale of the buildings just leave you in AWE.

Washington DC deserves more than 48 hours, there’s just so much to see and do, and I probably wouldn’t plan on visiting in winter again, although the Christmas lights and decorations and the festive feel makes it extra special.

But, if you’re on a tight schedule here are our recommendations to experience the highlights and the history of the United States in D.C in 48 hours. Got kids? Check out our 3 day itinerary for a Washington DC vacation.

Visit the National Mall (The Mall)

aerial views of the west side of the national mall across to lincoln memorial and the tidal basin

If you only have time to do one thing in DC, make visiting the National Mall your focus.

Spread out across two miles from the US Capitol Building to the Lincoln Memorial, The Mall is in the heart of downtown and home to the country’s most famous monuments and memorials.

Even though we were visiting in December and all rugged up (it was COLD for us Aussies), we enjoyed walking the pedestrian-friendly Mall and stopping at the various monuments and memorials. We were blown away by the world-famous museums and impressive federal buildings along Constitution Avenue.

What’s great about DC is that its monuments and memorials are FREE and open to the public 24 hours a day! You can’t beat free.

So with our winter thermals on we started at the Lincoln Memorial and headed east. You can read our full guide with 33 things to do and see in the National Mall

Abraham Lincoln Memorial

Abraham Lincoln Memorial - Washington DC
Abraham Lincoln Memorial

We started at the Lincoln Memorial at the west end of the Mall. It’s a very impressive memorial fitting for the man himself.

A white stone building with 36 columns and featuring a solitary 19-foot-tall statue of Abraham Lincoln sitting in contemplation, flanked on both sides with inscriptions of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address ( read about our trip to Gettysburg here)

Abraham Lincoln Memorial - Washington DC
Abraham Lincoln

From the steps the views over the reflecting pool to the Washington Monument are amazing.

Abraham Lincoln Memorial views over the National Mall
Views over the Mall from the Lincoln Memorial

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Vietnam War Memorial - Washington DC
Vietnam War Memorial

Close to Abe is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which honors members of the U.S. armed forces who fought in the Vietnam War, those who perished in Vietnam and South East Asia, and those missing in action.

The “wall” is made up of two identical walls that are each 246 feet and 9 inches long, and contain more than 58,000 names. So many names!

World War II Memorial

World War 2 Memorial - Washington DC
World War 2 Memorial

At the east end of the Reflecting Pool sits the World War II Memorial, which honors all 16 million people who served the American armed forces, including more than 400,000 who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

It contains 56 granite columns that symbolize unity among the 48 states, seven federal territories and the District of Columbia. And the two 43-foot tall structures highlight America’s victory on the Atlantic and Pacific fronts during World War II.

The Washington Monument

Washington Monument - Washington DC
The Washington Monument

The Pencil, otherwise known as the Washington Monument, is one of the nation’s most recognizable structures. It’s the first thing we saw in the distance driving into DC at night and it was very cool, in more ways than one, to be standing at the base.

It was built to honor George Washington.

The obelisk-shaped memorial is made up of marble, granite and bluestone gneiss. It’s the world’s tallest structure made of stone and the tallest obelisk, at 555 feet tall.

Washinton Monument - Washington DC
The base of the Washington Monument

Built in 1884, an elevator was added to the monument in 1889 which shuttles tourists to the top of the monument to this day. The National Park Service operates tours to the top.

The U.S. Capitol Building

US CApitol Dome and stairs leading to portico on the wing
The U.S. Capitol

The domed U.S. Capitol building is where the business of Washington – and America – happens, and is a massive network of buildings, offices and meeting rooms.

We didn’t do a tour and only got close to the Capitol Building at night time, it was nice to see the Christmas tree all lit up in the foreground, but unfortunately the “dome” was covered in scaffolding.

If you want to tour the Capitol, U.S. residents may book through their appropriate Congressional representative or Senator.

For more information on tickets go here.

This Washington DC half day tour includes priority access to the Capitol building. No long lines for you!

The Capital Building - Washington DC
Washington D.C. christmas lights

We didn’t have time to see everything along The Mall. Other famous monuments and memorials to see include:

  • The Jefferson Memorial
  • Martin Luther King, JR. Memorial
  • Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial
  • Korean War Veterans Memorial
  • Vietnam Women’s Memorial
  • Marine Corps War Memorial
  • Pentagon Memorial

Just off the Mall, you’ll find the National Archives, International Spy Museum and the Old Post Office Pavilion.

If walking the Mall isn’t your thing, you can also rent a bike, take a Segway tour, or see the sights via the hop-on, hop-off bus.

Alternatively, DC by Foot offers free, tip-based walking tours of DC.

International Spy Museum and the Hop on Hop Off bus is included in the Washington D.C. Sightseeing Pass, which will save you money on Washington D.C’s top attractions. See what else is included here.

Museums on the Mall

brown building of the national museum of african american history framed by tree
Museum of African American History

Being short on time, we didn’t plan to visit any of the Smithsonian Museums. And whilst we’re not typically big museum people, I’m sure these museums are fascinating and I would definitely like to return some day and explore a few.

If you do have time and are interested, the world-renowned museum and research complex actually consists of 19 separate museums and the National Zoo. A few examples include:

  • Air and Space Museum
  • Natural History Museum
  • American History Museum
  • National Museum of the American Indian

See the full list of museums here.

The International Spy Museum and National Geographic Museum are also included in the Sightseeing Pass. See current deals and prices here.

Visit The White House

The White House - Washington DC

No visit to DC would be complete without a visit to the most famous address in the US, and possibly the most famous house in the world.

Visiting the The White House
entering the East Wing

Of course, our trip was because of getting invited to The White House and taking a tour of the East Wing with all the pretty Christmas trees and lights on display was unforgettable.

Not to mention, we got photo bombed by Abraham Lincoln!

Visitng the White House
photo bombed by Abe

Our favorite room was the Library.

The Library Room inside the East Wing of The White House
The Library in the White House

Tours take visitors through the East Wing (the home’s entertaining space) and you’ll see the State Dining Room, the Red, Blue and Green Rooms, China Room, and the Library. The tour typically takes about 30 minutes and is self-guided.

Tour requests MUST be made through one’s member of Congress and will be accepted up to 6 months in advance.

Visitors who are not U.S. citizens should contact their embassy in DC. For more details click here.

Otherwise, you can just take the compulsory selfie from in front of the gate overlooking the lawn.

Compulsory selfie at The White House

Pay your Respects at the Arlington National Cemetery

As you can imagine, visiting Arlington is a very moving experience, even for us non-Americans.

Arlington National Cemetery - Washington DC
Arlington Cemetary

Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place of more than 400,000 fallen heroes from World Wars I and II, the Korean conflict, Vietnam, the Cold War, America’s Civil War, and the fronts of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Tomb of the Unknown Solider, Arlington National Cemetery - Washington DC
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

One of the must-see sites in Washington D.C. is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A white sarcophagus in the plaza of the Memorial Amphitheater pays tribute to an unidentified American soldier from World War I.

It’s guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by Tomb Guard sentinels, all volunteers, and considered to be the best of the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment headquartered at Fort Myer, Virginia – the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army, since 1784.

Every hour on the hour the changing of the guard takes place. Hat tip to these soldiers!

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery - Washington DC
Changing of the guard, Arlington

JFK Gravesite

Arlington National Cemetery - Washington DC

After President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, he became only the second U.S. president to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Arlington was chosen at the request of his wife Jacqueline who stated simply, “He belongs to the people.”

The eternal flame is the centerpiece of his resting place, and two deceased Kennedy children are buried alongside the President, as well as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who was laid to rest in 1994.

Arlington National Cemetery, Washington DC
JFK’s grave

Explore Georgetown

Georgetown - Washington DC
Historic Georgetown

Exploring Georgetown was a highlight of our visit to DC, and we were staying right on the border of this historic neighborhood at the Hilton Garden Inn which made it easily accessible on foot.

The other bonus was one of our readers, Maddie, a local resident in DC reached out to us online and offered to show us around.

We love meeting locals and readers and getting their insider tips, cheers Maddie!

Related Post – Things to do in DC by a local in the know!
Hanging out with Maddie was awesome!
Hanging out with Maddie was awesome!

Maddie took us for coffee at one of her fave cafes, Baked & Wired a family owned coffee shop and bakery.

The coffee was good and Maddie suggests going to Baked & Wired for cupcakes instead of Georgetown Cupcake! (Georgetown cupcake had its own TV show but they aren’t as good as Baked & Wired).

Baked & Wired - Washington DC
Baked & Wired

After getting cozy and warmed up at Baked & Wired we wandered along M Street which is home to all the boutique shopping, restaurants, and cafes and is a charming street to explore.

We took a right turn away from the Potomac River and headed a little uphill on 35th St, one of the old Cobblestone streets, I love Cobblestone streets, and then down Prospect St with all the pretty row houses.

Georgetown - Washington DC
Row Houses, Georgetown

In the warmer months, Maddie suggests heading to the Georgetown Waterfront down on the Potomac River for eating and drinking.

Even for us in the cold it was a nice place to walk and there was a temporary ice skating rink set up with people showing off their skills.

The Old Stone House, Georgetown, Washington DC
Old Stone House

One last point of interest was walking past The Old Stone House located at 3051 M Street, which was built in 1765, making it the oldest standing building in Washington, DC.

Where we ate in Washington DC

Food truck scene, Washington DC
D.C. food truck heaven

We got amongst the food truck scene in DC and were impressed with the global offerings available, and the prices, we typically love street food and just had to give it a go.

Caz had a taco bowl and I enjoyed a spicy Italian sausage. Good places to find the food trucks are around C street, Farragut Square or Franklin Square (or pretty much any square).

If you’re in town April thru October, Truckeroo is a monthly festival held at the corner of Half St. and M St., SE showcasing food trucks from the Washington, D.C. area.

A great deli style lunch spot we stumbled upon near the Capitol was the West Wing Cafe. Amazing sandwich selection, the soup of the day was delicious and they have a great selection of paninis, wraps, and salads in a casual setting and everything at very reasonable prices!

Around the corner from our hotel and near the Foggy Bottom Metro station was a Wholefoods store, the busiest Wholefoods we’ve ever been in, filled with students from George Washington University. We love Wholefoods for their soups and self-serve lunches.

We didn’t eat out a lot in DC but below are suggestions from our Facebook followers:

  • Eat at Matchbox in Chinatown. Incredible burgers!
  • Check out Alexandria beautiful area and The Bilbo Baggins restaurant is really neat!
  • Take the Foggy Bottom metro over to Arlington (Rosslyn or Courthouse) and make the trek up or down Wilson Blvd to Ray’s Hell Burger.
  • You must have Ethiopian food on U street.
  • Famous Ben’s Chili Bowl was recommended by a lot of people.
  • For great sushi – Sticky Rice in DC.
  • Other good eats include Eatonville (Soul Food), Busboys and Poets (Locations in Northern VA, DC and Maryland)
  • Brunch: Lavanga, NoPa, Blue Duck Tavern (one of best restaurants in DC)

Where to Stay in Washington DC

Hilton Garden Inn, Georgetown / Washington DC
Hilton Garden Inn, Georgetown

The Hilton Garden Inn in the Georgetown area / west end of downtown was our home for 4 nights, and met all our needs as a tourist AND business traveler.

Location is key in DC, you DON’T want to have to drive, and we always love being able to walk to many restaurants, cafes, and transport options.

The hotel was an easy walk to Dupont Circle Metro (Red Line) and Foggy Bottom Metro (Orange & Blue Line).

The Garden Inn is a modern and comfortable hotel and provided us with everything we needed, and most importantly a comfy bed and a good night’s sleep!

Georgetown was easily accessible on foot and we even walked to the National Mall from the hotel.

Complimentary in room WiFi is a must for us and one night we enjoyed a delicious room service dinner whilst catching up on some work.

Many thanks to Hilton for hosting our stay.

Check out more Washington D.C. hotels using the map below:

Washington D.C. Tours, Sightseeing & Passes


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