Locals Reveal The Best Way to Spend a Weekend in Washington D.C.

Watch the sun rise over the National Mall, eat great bagels and smoked sausages, and discover “D.C.’s Downton Abbey” over a long weekend in the city.

The Thomas Jefferson Building in Washington, D.C.

The Library of Congress occupies three buildings in Washington, D.C. including the Thomas Jefferson Building.

Photo by Alexey Rotanov/Shutterstock

You could spend a lifetime in Washington, D.C., and still not experience everything it has to offer. I’ve lived here for 15 years and am still endlessly discovering new gems. Founded in 1791, the city is well-known for its renowned cultural institutions, but it’s also home to wonderfully diverse neighborhoods, a thriving arts scene, and award-winning global cuisine. This itinerary, designed for a Thursday-to-Sunday long weekend, shares how to make the most of four days in the capital.

Thursday: Museum hopping from the National Mall to Penn Quarter

My favorite site in D.C., and what I consider a must for visitors, is the Library of Congress (open Tuesday–Saturday; reserve free timed-entry tickets in advance). Inspired by the design of the Paris Opera House, the building’s Great Hall is gorgeously adorned with marble pillars and mosaics. You can view the hallowed Main Reading Room, where scholars study materials from among 164 million items (this is the largest library in the world), and exhibits include Thomas Jefferson’s books—his collection of 6,487 volumes formed the basis of the library.

Directly in front of the Library of Congress is the U.S. Capitol, from which the two-mile-long National Mall unfolds. Ten of the Smithsonian Institution’s 21 museums line the mall, each of them spectacular and open daily with free admission; choose one to delve into for an hour or two. Kids especially love the Air and Space Museum and the Museum of Natural History, while the Hirshhorn’s thought-provoking interactive art installations are a feast for the eyes of art connoisseurs.

To see the entire mall—and city—from above, Chef Concierge Robert Watson of the Willard InterContinental Hotel recommends the Old Post Office Tower. Boasting a 270-foot-high observation deck, the tower is open daily and doesn’t require tickets, unlike the Washington Monument. “I find the view better as you have a 360-degree observation tower with no windows,” Watson says.

Just past the National Archives (where history buffs can see original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution) is Teaism, my go-to spot to grab lunch near the mall. The Asian-inspired local chain has three teahouses in D.C. that serve delicious bento boxes and noodle soups.

Continue a few blocks northward through Penn Quarter to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, or NMWA (open Tuesday–Sunday, entry $16), which reopened in October 2023 after a two-year renovation. “As a female artist, it’s great to have a national museum,” says Deb Almond, who creates striking feminist and protest art for her label Candid Almond from her home studio in the Trinidad neighborhood. Unlike the heavy focus on well-known male masters at many other museums, she says, NMWA displays often overlooked aspects of women’s lives and prominently features female Indigenous and minority voices. “I think the whole energy in the place is different,” Almond says.

Pop into the nearby National Portrait Gallery before dinner. My favorite of the Smithsonians, it’s open later than the other museums (till 7 p.m.). The presidential portraits are a highlight, and the glass-covered Kogod Courtyard has a dazzling annual orchid exhibition (Feb. 16–April 28 in 2024).

The surrounding Penn Quarter area has the best selection of D.C. restaurants, says Dewayne Wright, general manager of the Riggs Washington D.C. hotel. “Here you will find Michelin-star restaurants as well as favorites known only to local residents,” he says. Wright recommends Moon Rabbit for contemporary Vietnamese and the modern Indian cuisine at Rasika, helmed by James Beard Award–winning chef Vikram Sunderam. Several restaurants by D.C.-based superstar chef José Andrés can also be found in Penn Quarter, including Jaleo and Oyamel.

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

A 19-foot statue of the 16th president of the U.S. is seated in front of 36 columns at the Lincoln Memorial.

Photo by Zetong Li/Unsplash

Friday: Experience breathtaking monuments, gardens, and the arts

This morning, begin at the west end of the National Mall—the earlier the better. “There’s something really magical about sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and watching the sun rise over the National Mall,” says photographer Kelly Paras, who captures scenes of the city for her shop Flip Flop Caravan. She sells her photography and vintage home goods at pop-up artisan markets and at Femme Fatale in the Cleveland Park neighborhood, which hosts products from more than 60 women-owned local businesses.

One of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial has an inscription marking the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. The national memorial to the great civil rights leader, located on the Tidal Basin a 10-minute walk away, is my favorite place to visit during cherry blossom season in late March. The walkways around the memorial are lined with the trees, which create a canopy of blossoms overhead.

Grab a hearty breakfast bagel from the West End location of Call Your Mother Deli, a popular local chain, on your way to see Russian imperial treasures at Hillwood (open Tuesday–Sunday, entry $16). One of the grandest estates in the city, it’s been called “D.C.’s Downton Abbey.”

“This museum is located inside a beautiful mansion that was the former residence of philanthropist Marjorie Merriweather Post,” says Wright. “The estate is made up of 25 pristine acres with multiple gardens and one of the country’s finest orchid collections.”

For more grandeur and lovely gardens, you can swing by the Washington National Cathedral, less than a 10-minute drive from Hillwood, then take a cab another 10 minutes down Wisconsin Avenue to Georgetown, D.C.’s oldest neighborhood. Founded in 1751, it was already a bustling port town on the Potomac River by the time the District of Columbia was established 40 years later. Take a stroll along the waterfront and treat yourself to dinner at Fiola Mare (reservations recommended), acclaimed for its seafood and views of the Potomac. Rated one of the best restaurants in D.C., it’s a place to see and be seen, where world leaders and A-listers may be at the next table (Barack Obama, Emmanuel Macron, and Meryl Streep have dined here).

After dinner, walk along Rock Creek Trail as it traces the Potomac, and go up the pedestrian bridge to The Reach, the innovative expansion of the Kennedy Center that contains intimate performance spaces and hosts an array of cultural programming. “The Reach is so accessible,” says Graciano Petersen, who’s performed there with the D.C.-based Caribbean dance troupe Soka Tribe. “It often has free dance lessons, free art exhibitions, free yoga, and you can even watch performances in rehearsal. It brings you in close contact with people who are deeply committed to the arts scene.”

The Anacostia Riverwalk Trail in Washington, D.C.

The Anacostia Riverwalk Trail meanders through 12 miles of forests, fields, and marshland.

Photo by Liz Albro Photography/Shutterstock

Saturday: Explore the Arboretum and Anacostia

Hail a cab or Uber to enter another quadrant of the city—Northeast—and reach the National Arboretum, a 451-acre oasis. “The arboretum always amazes me, especially in the springtime,” says Franziska Boelke, the head concierge at the Hay-Adams hotel. “The flora is out of this world, and it’s about so much more than our famous cherry blossom trees. It also houses a bonsai museum, and on a hilltop you can find the National Capitol Columns—Corinthian structures made of sandstone—that originally supported the Capitol Building when it was built in 1828.”

Next snag a bike from D.C.’s bike rental program, Capital Bikeshare (racks are stationed throughout the city), to take a spin down the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. It meanders alongside the river and passes sites such as the Anacostia Park Roller Skating Pavilion, operated by the National Park Service. Wildly popular with locals, the rink offers free skate rentals in summer, and DJs play on weekends.

Once you reach the historic Anacostia neighborhood, break for lunch at DCity Smokehouse. The beloved barbecue joint serves award-winning brisket and ribs as well as spicy smoked sausages called half-smokes, D.C.’s signature dish.

Afterward, visit Cedar Hill, a national historic site (open Saturdays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays) that was the home of orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Rangers give guided tours of the stately main house, and you can peek inside the tiny cabin Douglass used as a writing studio. “The house itself is set on top of a hill that overlooks not only the Anacostia River but also D.C.,” says Paras. “You get some of the best views of the D.C. skyline.”

Cross the river on the 11th Street Bridge and put up your wheels at The Yards, a beautifully redeveloped waterfront area near the Nationals Park baseball stadium that’s filled with green spaces, boardwalks, and water features kids can splash in. Dining options abound; I love the crisp rosés and small plates (try the Maryland blue crab–stuffed arancini) at District Winery. For a taste of the city’s nightlife and its wide variety of live music venues, take a cab up to the H Street corridor, or venture back into the Northwest quadrant to U Street (famed for its jazz history) or Adams Morgan.

Historic Eastern Market in the Capitol Hill area, first opened in 1805.

Historic Eastern Market has been a community hub for 150 years.

Photo by cdrin/Shutterstock

Sunday: Go to the market(s)

Enjoy a leisurely Sunday brunch at Belga Café (reservations recommended), a staple of Capitol Hill for 20 years that’s celebrated for its Belgian cuisine. Chef Bart Vandaele, a Belgium native, competed on Bravo’s Top Chef. Then walk past elegant rowhouses to Eastern Market, which just celebrated its 150th anniversary last November. Every day except Mondays, merchants offer fresh meats, seafood, cheeses, and baked goods in the red-brick market hall, while on weekends farmers sell seasonal produce and artisan stalls line the streets. It’s one of the best places to find D.C.-themed souvenirs, like artistic prints of the monuments or cherry blossom–infused soaps.

Take the metro up to the Union Market district, which has a radically different feel from the genteel Eastern Market. “Because it used to be an old warehouse area, there’s a lot of hidden bars and restaurants,” says Almond. “It gives them a speakeasy vibe.”

The main market building’s gourmet food hall provides a sampling of local eats, such as D.C. Dosa, TaKorean, and District Doughnut. Grab a snack to take up to the Astroturf-covered rooftop, where you can play lawn games with views of the city. Next, browse the shops: Stores in the district include Shop Made in D.C., which exclusively sells small-batch products by local makers, ranging from jewelry to art to accessories and more. “It’s a good organization,” says Almond, whose artwork has been featured in several Shop Made pop-ups around the city. “Artists can apply to be in the store, and Shop Made gives a percentage of what sells back to them. You can’t ask for more—it supports artists.”

Continue the focus on local flavor by sampling Ethiopian food for dinner. The largest Ethiopian community outside of Africa lives in the D.C. area, and the city has numerous excellent restaurants; I recently had dinner with friends at the fantastic Chercher on Ninth Street. Close out the night at nearby Blagden Alley, a brick-lined hideaway filled with intriguing establishments like Michelin-starred The Dabney. Order the Send My Regards cocktail, featuring Virginia-Highland Whisky, and raise a toast to the city.

Karen Carmichael is a Washington, D.C.–based travel journalist. Production editor for AFAR, she has also been published in National Geographic, Budget Travel, and the Los Angeles Times.
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