Trip planning - a week in DC/Virginia/Maryland

My wife has a business trip in Washington DC coming up in the middle of March; 4 days of meetings (Tue - Fri), and wants me to come along. I’ve never been there, so this is an exciting opportunity.

Roughly, we plan to land in the area the weekend before, and spend a few days doing touristy things. Then while she’s in her meetings in DC, I tour Our Nation’s Capital. So my trip planning request is in 2 parts:

For the pre-meeting free time: she’s been to Chesapeake Bay and would like to return; she’s also open to seeing Virginia. Any ideas on where to go, what to see, what to do, what to eat?

I’m assuming that I would hit the DC high points: Capitol, Smithsonian…White House? National Archives? Library of Congress? Arlington? What’s cool that I might not have thought of? What is absolutely Don’t Miss, and what is Don’t Bother?

Bit biased here, but I strongly recommend the Marine Corps Museum in Triangle, VA. It’s just outside the main gate of Quantico, and is a really wonderful afternoon trip. Be sure to walk the grounds as well.

It might help to know some of your interests. For example, if you like aviation, the Air and Space annex out by Dulles may be worth the trip. History? Mt Vernon is near.

Weather in mid March can be variable–maybe snow or maybe high 50’s and sunny, so outdoor activity could also depend on what you like doing.

If you’ve never been, The Smithsonian obviously should be on high on the list–Natuaral History, Art, and Air and Space are very popular but there’s much more. I’ve never been but have heard the Spy Museum and the Newseum are cool, but may charge admission. White House may need pre-security screening, but I’m not sure.

Where are you staying and how are you getting around? If you are interested in history, Virginia offers Monticello, Mt. Vernon, numerous civil war battlefields and Arlington Cemetery, but you will need to be selective. Those sites are spread out and traffic can eat up a lot of time. You mentioned the Whitehouse, but I believe you still need to take some extra steps to secure a tour, I don’t think you can just show up.

Of the museums, I really like the National Galleries East and West, there is a nice cafeteria in the museum of the American Indian, but the museum itself is not worth wasting time in. The National Zoo has a new panda that is sometimes out in public, but the weather might still be cold.

ETA: just saw this is for mid-March, a walk around the tidal basin is lovely in the spring.

We’re planning on renting a car for the front end free time. I’m not sure where the hotel is for the business portion of the trip; I’ll find out.

I’m very interested in history; my wife is more art & culture-y.

For getting around near the Mall, I’d recommend using the Metro, rather than driving in the city, which can be initially confusing with all the circles and squares and diagonal avenues, and trying to find parking. Metro is easy to figure out–just know the color of the line and use the endpoint station to figure out which direction the line goes when looking for the right platform.

Luray Caverns is a couple hours away. Admission fee includes the caverns, a Shenandoah Valley museum, and an automotive musuem.

Find out how parking is handled by your hotel. For stuff in town, you probably would be better off using Metro. You really will only need the car for going to sites in Virginia and Maryland, you may just need it for the first couple of days.

If you’re flying into National, the Metro is right there and it’s a very easy trip into DC.

ETA: Shenandoah National Park is a nice day trip from DC and you can lunch in Sperryville, where you can tour Copper Fox Distillery.

Thanks for the feedback; keep it coming!

No votes for Baltimore, Annapolis, Chesapeake Bay?

It really depends on what you want to do. I love Baltimore, but DC is similar enough (sorry, B’more) that you’ll probably want to do something different on the weekend if you’re in DC all week. The Bay is lovely, but a big area and it depends on what you want to do. The Eastern Shore of MD has nice cafes and shops if you like that, there is good fishing if you like that and then there are Chinkatink and Assotink islands, but you’re not going to do all that plus the Manassas Battlefield and Monticello in a weekend, you’d spend all your time in traffic.

My recommendation would be to skip the WH. The tour only covers a small number of rooms, and there’s typically a lot of waiting. The Capitol is a more interesting tour.

The Holocaust Museum is extremely well-done, but it’s also a really brutal experience and not necessarily something that you might want to tackle during a short vacation.

The Spy Museum and the similar crime museum are fun but are targeted at kids in a lot of ways.

Monticello is fascinating, but it’s 2 1/2 hours each way. You can get much of the same colonial experience from Mount Vernon.

The Bay in March is likely to be cold and blustery. Annapolis has always struck me as one big crab-themed gift shop. Baltimore has a certain appeal all its own, but it involves knowing the right little funky places to seek out. It’s not worth making the trip just for the tourist attractions.


  • Ft. McHenry - A bit of a rip-off at $7 a head but if you’re a history buff you’ll like it.

  • Aquarium - REALLY pricey but also just a fabulous aquarium. Worth 1 trip. Probably not a return trip.

  • Inner Harbor/Fells Point/Fed Hill - Side-by-side-by-side districts of bars, shops, and piers that you can stroll about. Each has its own particular mix of boozy young professionals, boozier older non-professionals, and touristy-ness.

  • There’s more to see, and it’s worth seeing but I’d say just set aside 1 day for Baltimore and hit the major points because DC/Va has more worthwhile sights.


  • Udvar-Hazy Center. It’s an annex/hanger for the overflow of the Air and Space museum. That sounds worse than it is. It’s basically all the big stuff that you can’t logistically get into a small museum in the heart of DC. The Enola Gay, a lockheed SR-71, a concorde, the space shuttle Discovery are all there. Admission is free but parking’s $15. Worth it. Once, I think randomly, they did a special exhibit where they brought in local military/police/rescue helicopters.

  • Old Town Alexandria - Right by the Potomac looking into DC. It’s got cobbled streets, ghost tours, and just about every building is a restaurant.

  • Arlington Cemetery - It’s in Virginia an it’s weird to get to. I’d suggest you rent a bike and pedal to it if you’re physically able and inclined. It’s within pedal, or even walking distance from DC (the Lincoln Memorial), but it’s not exactly adjacent either. Probably 2-3ish miles.

Rosslyn/Courthouse/Clarendon/Ballston/Falls Church. These are the sequential stops on the Orange line as you leave DC. The farther you go, the more suburban the environment. Falls Church is about how far you want to go (and then south towards Annandale) for delicious, cheap, ethnic eats. Chinese/Indian buffets. Korean BBQ. Sushi. Pho. Schnitzel. Tacos. Pupusas. Kabobs. Schawarma. Pizza. Since you’re getting a rental car, I suggest that you eat a lot of your meals here. Yelp will tell you specifically which ones to hit up.

Monticello/Luray/Shenandoah - These places are far. Very far. In fact, Richmond is closer than these places and there’s more than just 1 thing to see in Richmond. I wouldn’t recommend these places unless you’re dead set on it.

Richmond on the other hand, has a delightfully underrated park (Maymont), a dangerously undersupervised Island (Belle Isle), Bobby-Flay-beating BBQ (Buzz and Ned’s), several civil war battlefields/museums/monuments/buildings, and one of the most accessible secrets in world-renown Chinese cuisine: Peter Chang’s. Oh, and there are breweries out the ass (Hardywood), but there are breweries and wineries out the ass all over most of Virginia in general. I’d say do a day-trip in Richmond if you really want to put miles on your rental car in favor of Luray Caverns.


  • Zoo, yes. Best $0 you’ll ever spend on a zoo anywhere.

  • Georgetown waterfront - Nice place to drop some coin on a delicious yet overpriced brunch and people-watch while you digest.

  • Smithsonian. You can’t go wrong. Madmonk is right though, stay away from the American Indian museum, and gravitate towards the Art Galleries. There are 2 buildings (wings). The more modern building is smaller, and holds more modern art. The older building is massive and holds tons of art spanning time and cultures. There is an underground moving sidewalk that connects the two.

  • Other museums, (moving from the capitol building end west towards the river) I would go to: Library of Congress, Botanical gardens, art gallery east, art gallery west, natural history, american history. Yes, I left out air and space, but if you won’t miss much IF you go to Udvar Hazy. Spirit of St. Louis, some WWI/II biplanes, the lunar module, and about 5000 of the loudest, stickiest kids you’ll ever hope to encounter. Yes, I also skipped the archives because the exhibit(s) is sparce.

  • Off-mall museums. Right next to Union Station is the post office museum, which is NOT to be confused with the old post office building. The building is tall and you can go up, but the museum is a museum. Across the street from the Chinatown metro station is the national portrait gallery which holds even more art. Not many people go there because it’s off-mall but it’s just as good imo as the main galleries. There are pay-museums like the National Building museum, the Newseum, Holocaust museum, and the spy museum that are also worth it, but aren’t as good as the Smithsonian ones and yet are at a financial premium.

Past the museums are the monuments. Korean, WW2, Washington, Einstein statue, Vietnam, MLK, and the Lincoln Memorial. Once you get to the lincoln memorial you can continue east/southeast to the tidal basin which is a loop in which is the FDR memorial, the jefferson memorial, and the cherry blossoms.

Keep walking (if you’re not dead) and you’ll get to the fish market where you can get a quick bite, or just make note that DC has a fish market. There’s a Phillipp’s seafood buffet and some yachts tied up there too.

Famous DC “must-eat” is called the half-smoke from Ben’s Chili Bowl where many famous african american celebrities like Cosby and Obama have eaten. It’s good and even with the hype, it’s within budget.

Others? Arboretum (it’s a drive into the not-so-nice part of DC though). Dupont Circle (bars, restaurants, and just about every one of them has a great brunch option). Embassy Row (a lot of them hold open parties where you can buy a ticket for $30-$60).

And hiking. Great Falls (MD side) is a phenomenal hike. It’s also called the Billy Goat Trail. Great Falls (VA) side is merely a good hike. Both go along the potomac and has good views of the river before it reaches DC proper and eventually the Bay.

I’ve lived in DC ~2 years now, but I’m not home much so I might as well be a tourist. Thanks for these tips.

If you do end up in Richmond, it has a surprisingly nice art museum.

Let us know when you’re coming to D.C., and we’ll have a dopefest for you.

The Phillips Collection is free on weekdays and has Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party”. Near DuPont Circle , two blocks from the metro. National Gallery on the mall has a nice collection. American Art museum is a couple of blocks from the mall (across from the Verizon Center) and it is open later than the other Smithsonian facilities. has discount tickets for attractions and shows in DC and other cities.

Another vote for Mount Vernon (George Washington’s home) He and Martha are buried on the grounds. It’s just south of Alexandria, VA. Beautiful drive along the Potomac to get there.

The Washington Monument might be open by the time you get here but if it is not the Old Post Office tower offers similar views. You have to arrange a White House visit with your congressman. DC has two spectacular cathedrals if you like that kind of thing. Arlington cemetary has a metro stop and parking if you want to go there. The Ray’s Hell burgers nearby in Arlington are must eat if you are close. The Zoo is free but parking is not and the zoo is very hilly. The National Portrait Gallery is really nice and not far from the mall and not crowded. Mount Vernon is great and close. Monticello is great but far away, Montpelier is a little closer than Monticello. DC has the best Ethiopian food in the country, the best Salvadorean, the second best Korean, and the second best Vietnamese.

I’m a big fan of the cluster of memorials at the west end of the Mall. If you’re on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, looking at the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument, the Vietnam Memorial is off to your left at about 10 o’clock, and the Korean War Memorial, which I personally find to be one of the most moving memorials in the city, is at 2 o’clock. All within very easy walking distance of each other.

So where do you park? At the FDR Memorial, which has a small parking lot, or on nearby Ohio Drive. (Map.) If you draw a line from the Lincoln Memorial to the Korean War Memorial and keep going, you hit the FDR Memorial, which is a mediumish walk away. Ohio Drive is close to that line, along the river. I’m a big fan of the FDR Memorial also. Also in that cluster is the MLK Memorial. I haven’t been down to see the monuments since they completed it, so I can’t tell you about that one.

But the Lincoln, Korean War, and FDR memorials have long been my top three favorites of the DC-area memorials.

It’s worth driving down fairly early on a Sunday morning, so you can park easily and walk around all five of those.

Perhaps it should be made clear that one week of touring in the D.C. area won’t allow you to see anything except a small portion of the sights. It would take two weeks just to see all everything in the Smithsonian. I just wanted to warn you in case you’re overestimating what you can see.