This is a great question because it leads to more questions ... but most visitors need at least three days if not a full a week.
If you are planning your trip with a Guild professional they'll tell you that when you travel and who is traveling with you change the answer. Lines are longer in the spring, and you may need up to 90 minutes just for security at the United States Capitol. You may need to plan for another 90-minute wait to get inside the National Archives building. Guild guides know the best time of day to visit these sites, and working with a guide means you may see more in three days than you could have seen in five days on your own.
An excursion to nearby sights is something to consider as well, like Old Towne Alexandria, or Arlington National Cemetery, or George Washington's home at Mount Vernon.
A three day plan might look something like this:
Day 1: The United States Capitol, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress, the White House and a visit to a Smithsonian museum or two.
Day 2: The memorials and monuments along the National Mall and a tour of Arlington National Cemetery, with a visit to the United States Marine Corps Memorial-- also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial. In the evening you might take in a free 6:00 pm concert on the Millennium Stage at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and enjoy nighttime views of Georgetown and Washington, D.C.
Day 3: Ford's Theater and souvenir shopping might be fun, with a trip to the Washington National Cathedral and a chance to see the pandas at the Smithsonian's National Zoo if you have children with you. But maybe you had your heart set on seeing the only Da Vinci portrait painting in the western hemisphere at the National Gallery of Art?
What's the single most important thing for me to see?
Most people would say the US Capitol. Its dome is world famous as the symbol of American democracy. We are a nation of laws though, not rulers, so try to save time to see the original Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights in the National Archives building.
On the other hand, a visit to the National Building Museum might be the most memorable stop on your trip if you are bringing toddlers. You could relax in the Great Hall where Presidents hold their inaugural balls and sip a latte while the youngsters hang out in the Building Zone playing with giant Lego blocks.
Since so many sites in Washington are free, why should I hire a guide for sightseeing?
More than just showing you around, professional guides interact with guests on several levels including conversation, storytelling and humor. If your time is short guides can offer a sharp focus to your sightseeing and they can also help you with "what next" if you have more time to spend on your own.
If you are revisiting Washington, D.C. Guild guides can offer tours off the beaten path and offer sites without lines and hidden gems that only a local could share. Just as important, tour guides know when best to visit sites, which places you can skip when the lines are long and how to avoid rush hour traffic. Washington, D.C. and the surrounding areas are exceptionally rich in historical and cultural significance and knowledgeable Guild guides offer a depth of experience and knowledge no guidebook or plaque-reading will come even close to.
When you know the dates that you will be in Washington, DC and have made your travel plans, you can hire a professional guide for a half-day or longer after filling out the HireGuides4DC form on this site. If you need group travel arrangements, contact one of the tour guide companies in the Affiliates Directory on this site.
Do I need to purchase tickets or make any reservations in advance?
Several free venues offer advanced purchase tickets. For example, the United Sates Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and Ford's Theatre offer free same day tickets from their ticket windows, but unless you are standing in line very early in the morning it is likely you will miss out. Advanced tickets for the Capitol are free; Ford's Theatre, the Washington Monument, and the Holocaust Museum charge a small convenience fee for tickets obtained online:
If you'd like to tour the Bureau of Engraving and Printing advance tickets are only available through your Congressperson or Senator. Otherwise, same day tickets are usually gone by 9:00am, so plan on being in line early.
Do any venues require advanced planning to get into?
Both the Pentagon and the White House require advanced reservations. The White House requires that you go through your Congressperson or Senator up to six months in advance, and arrangements must be made no later than 15-days prior to your tour. In busy seasons tickets are hard to get because of limited availability.
Washington DC is a very safe and friendly place to visit. Like any large city, usual precautions are advised. Keep your purse or wallet secure, stay in well-lit areas, and don't wander around alone at night in less-traveled areas.
Security is in place for almost every building. The United States Capitol is unusually strict and they will not allow anything which could be thought of as a weapon, and no food or drinks, although empty water bottles are permitted. Check their website for restrictions.
The Smithsonian and other museums and even the Washington Monument all have security checkpoints you'll need to pass through. Each venue has its own restrictions which can be found on their websites. If you are working with a Professional guide, however, you'll always know in advance what's what!
I want to visit The Smithsonian. Where is it?
The Smithsonian is actually the world's largest museum complex and includes 19 different museums, 9 research centers, and the National Zoo. Ten of the museums are found along the National Mall and are within walking distance of each other. You really won't be able to visit them all in just a few days, let alone see everything unless you've really planned in advance or worked with a professional tour guide.
An excellent first stop might be the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall. Here you'll find an Information Center including a fun video narrated by Ben Stiller, one of the stars from the movie "Night at the Museum." You'll also find a scale model of the city and brochures in several languages. They even offer free Wi-Fi.
The best place to start, though, is with a Guild guide. They'll help orient you for a visit no matter where you start. They might offer a map and sit with you to highlight routes and help with parking.
Where can I park?
Parking in Washington DC, like any large city, can be challenging, even to locals. While there is some free parking, it is most often restricted to two-hour stays. Limited but free day long parking can be found along Ohio Drive, SW which is along the Potomac River south of the Lincoln Memorial or in East Potomac Park south of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. You'll have some walking to do, though, if you park here. The nearest metro stop is about a mile away.