Washington, DC in a Day: Should You, Really?

In late September 2019, our family of five found ourselves in the Historic Triangle area of Virginia for a vacation steeped in American History. We were planning to visit Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown. We had never been to the area before, but when I was planning the trip, I realized that Washington, DC is only about a 2-1/2 hour drive from the Williamsburg area. How could we be that close to our nation’s capital for the first time and not go see it? So, we decided that we’d get up early one morning and drive into DC for a day trip. You can read an overview of the whole trip on my post, A Homeschool Mom’s Dream Trip! Williamsburg, Jamestown, & Yorktown, VA + Washington, DC.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “So, what’s the answer? Should we do DC in a day?” Honestly, that’s a question only you can answer for yourself. I’m going to share what our day was like with three teens/young adults and their middle-aged parents, and I hope it will help you decide whether you want to tackle DC in a day.

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Parking in DC

We got up early on a Friday morning and headed out before daybreak. The traffic really wasn’t bad at all. We weren’t worried about finding a parking space, because we had reserved and prepaid for one the night before using ParkWhiz. Driving into the city for the first time was so exciting! We caught glimpses of the Capitol and Washington Monument from the freeway, and we just couldn’t believe that we were actually in Washington, DC! Once we made our way down to the National Mall area, our parking garage was easy to find with the directions from ParkWhiz, and they even texted us to make sure everything went well. The elevator up from the parking garage landed us inside an office building. When we came out, we happily discovered that we were just a block or two from the Capitol! Contrary to what we had read online, parking in DC was really a breeze since we planned ahead.

Have a Plan

We knew there was no way we were going to see everything in Washington, DC, or even everything along the National Mall, in one day. We had picked out a handful of places that we deemed as “absolutely can’t miss” and a few more that were our “really don’t want to leave DC without seeing these, either” choices. At the top of our list were the Capitol, the White House, Library of Congress, National Archives, Lincoln Memorial, and Washington Monument. Next, were the Smithsonian museums-Air & Space, Natural History, and American History.

We quickly discovered that people are telling you the truth when they say that the National Mall is spread out! It would not have been possible to walk to all of our top of the list priorities first and still make it back to the museums before they closed. We decided to take a zig-zag approach and hit all of the places on our list, including the museums, as we came to them, starting at the Capitol, taking a detour off of the National Mall to see the White House, circling around to the Lincoln Memorial, and then back to the Washington Monument. Had we realized just how far we’d be walking, we would have used the DC Circulator more than the one time we used it at the end of the day. But, we were busy taking in the sights and didn’t realize what we had gotten ourselves into until our legs were about to give out!

The US Capitol

We had plenty of energy as we started our day at the US Capitol! Stopping for a few photos along the way, we followed the signs around until we found the area where we could enter for tours of the Capitol. (Hint: You don’t actually go into the Capitol building to start your tour. You go in through the Capitol Visitor Center located a good walking distance away, and then they will take you underground to the Capitol.) This long stroll was our first clue that we would be walking a lot that day! Luckily, the weather was really pleasant in late September.

PRO-TIP: Make sure you check out the website for prohibited items to save yourself some frustration…you can’t take food or water into the Capitol, folks! You will have to go through security at every building you enter, so travel light!