Washington, D.C., also known as “Washington,” “the District,” or simply “D.C.,” is the capital of the United States. It’s also the anchor of a major metropolitan area with anywhere from six to nine million people, depending on how generously you define its outer boundaries. Nearly 700,000 of the D.C. area’s population lives in the District itself, which is a discrete political entity outside the jurisdiction of Maryland or Virginia, the two bordering states.
If you’re planning a trip to D.C., this comprehensive guide will cover the best sights, when to go, where to stay, how to save, and much more.
Why Visit Washington, D.C.?
D.C. is different. Unlike other major American cities, it didn’t grow up organically to process natural resources or export finished goods to the far corners of the world. Rather, it was expressly planned to be the future capital of the United States. Its very location astraddle the Potomac River, a historically important dividing line between the agrarian (and slaveholding) South and the mercantilist North, was the result of a painful compromise that almost collapsed at the last minute.
While it’s impossible to know for sure whether a sizable settlement would ever have arisen in or near D.C.’s present-day footprint, it’s likely that that theoretical place would lack the import and global influence that the District enjoys today. And it almost certainly wouldn’t be as popular with tourists. As the seat of the U.S. government, D.C. has more than its fair share of grandiose edifices, soaring monuments, and immaculately designed public spaces. Many are free to enter and explore.
Despite the region’s relatively high cost of living – an artifact of a perennial economic boom and coastal location – D.C. is one of the country’s finest destinations for frugal culture buffs. If you plan your trip right, you’ll save a boatload on museum admission fees – as long as you don’t mind jockeying for position with the roughly 20 million other visitors who pass through each year.
Discounts, Deals, and Resources
Before you arrive in Washington, check out these discounts, deals, and resources. Depending on your plans, each could save you a significant chunk of change – or at least simplify your sightseeing schedule.
Destination D.C. is the District’s official visitor and convention bureau. For tourists, it offers a vast trove of practical information and money-saving resources:
- Comprehensive guides to all of D.C.’s major neighborhoods
- Exhaustive lists of things to do in D.C., including free and low-cost attractions
- Extensive guides to D.C.’s hotel options, including budget-friendly spots and independently operated boutique hotels
- Restaurant guides spanning unpretentious counter-serve joints to world-renowned chef-driven shops
- Neighborhood dining guides for quick, relevant reference
- Event calendars highlighting big and small events
You can book hotels, make reservations at popular attractions, and score package deals using Destination D.C.’s internal search and purchase tools too.
Keep in mind that while Destination D.C.’s resources are truly exhaustive, the organization does benefit from relationships with restaurant, hospitality, and entertainment partners. Before acting on any recommendations you find here, double check with another source. If you’re price-sensitive, you’ll also want to compare pricing for recommended merchants and activities with non-recommended alternatives. And don’t book travel through Destination D.C. without first checking pricing and availability at third-party travel booking sites, such as Expedia or Priceline.
Washington, D.C. Visitors Resource Center
The city of Washington, D.C. has a fantastic online resource center for out-of-town visitors. Here, you’ll find links to detailed information about free (or almost free) things to do in D.C., the local transit and transportation systems, opportunities to save on lodgings, and local sports and entertainment assets, plus a general-purpose visitor’s guide and a more specific guide to the National Mall. No matter what you’re planning while you’re in D.C., check this page before you arrive – even if it doesn’t directly reduce the cost of your trip, it’ll make planning a heck of a lot easier.
Washington, D.C. Explorer Pass
Though many of Washington’s monuments and museums are free to the public, the city has enough pay-to-play institutions to weigh on your travel budget. Backed by Smart Destinations, the Washington, D.C. Explorer Pass (Go Card) offers discounted, paid-up admission to your choice of three ($54) or five ($84) attractions from a list of 14. Depending on which attractions you choose, you can save up to 40% off the full price of admission. The pass is valid for 30 days after first use.
Attraction options include:
- The Newseum
- International Spy Museum
- National Geographic Museum
- Washington Nationals Ballpark Tour
- National Building Museum
- And more
Free Tours By Foot
Free Tours By Foot is a multi-city walking tour service with friendly, super-knowledgeable guides. I didn’t have time to take a tour while I was in D.C., but I’ve walked with FTBF before (in Charleston, South Carolina), and I can’t recommend it highly enough. As the name implies, it’s free, though you’re strongly encouraged (some might say obligated by peer pressure) to give your guide a healthy tip at the end of the tour – the going rate is $10 to $20 per hour, depending on your degree of satisfaction.
In D.C., Free Tours By Foot covers a lot of ground. Sample tours include:
- National Mall and Tidal Basin
- Arlington National Cemetery
- Historic Georgetown
- White House at Night (adults only)
- Embassy Row and Historic Dupont Circle
- And more
Big Bus Washington, D.C.
D.C.’s hop-on, hop-off bus tour market is highly competitive. Big Bus D.C. is one of the best-known and highly regarded of the bunch. You’ll see their distinctive maroon double-decker buses around town, even if you’re not looking.
Big Bus D.C. tours follow three prescribed circuits: Red, Yellow, and Blue. Red, which spends a lot of time around the National Mall, is the most popular. Each tour is narrated by an expert guide or prerecorded commentary, with translation to other languages available. You can hop on and off at any point. Most stops are fairly accessible by other modes of transportation.
Regular (Patriot) tickets cost $39 per adult, last for one full day, and include access to the Red Route only. Premium tickets cost $49 per adult, last for one full day, include access to all three routes, and extend free admission to Madame Tussauds. If you’d like to see another side of D.C., opt for the $39 Night Tour – a similar experience with less natural light.
Old Town Trolley Tours
With 25 stops and over 100 points of interest, Old Town Trolley Tours is another great tour for D.C. visitors seeking flexibility and variety. Expert guides narrate live, with prerecorded commentary in other languages. Choose from the $39.95 one-day tour or the $59.95 two-day tour. Look for the distinctive orange and green trolley buses around the Mall and elsewhere in central D.C.
City Sights D.C.
Like Big Bus D.C., City Sights D.C. runs its distinctive (bright red) double-decker buses in various loops around the District. The best value is the $49 Two-Day All Loops Tour, which includes an escorted night tour to key points of interest. For a budget-friendly alternative that sticks to only the essentials, try the $29 One-Day Express Tour (Monuments & Landmarks). Or, combine on-the-ground sightseeing with the $79 FreeStyle Pass D.C., which includes a two-day bus pass and discounted admission at up to five D.C. landmarks.
City Trails D.C.
D.C. Trails is a slightly more upmarket option that uses snazzy coach buses modified to include outdoor seating up top. Its buses don’t stop as often, and the price of admission is slightly higher, so this is a solid choice for families looking to devote a significant amount of their day to seeing D.C. by coach. Choose from a $42 one-day pass or a $59 two-day pass. Night tours are available at no extra charge, space permitting.
The Smithsonian Institution – National Museums
The Smithsonian Institution calls itself “the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex.” Founded in the 1840s with seed money from a prominent Englishman named James Smithson, the Smithsonian Institution boasts 19 museums – some of which are big enough to spend days in – and one of the finest zoos in the country. Best of all, it’s free to enter and explore every single one.
Your entire trip to D.C. could consist of nothing but trips between your hotel and various Smithsonian facilities, and you’d still barely scratch the surface of this national treasure. Since they’re all free, you don’t have to feel obligated to linger and get your money’s worth – though you definitely should, because there’s a lot of good stuff to discover.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5:30pm
Open only since 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is the newest addition to the Smithsonian Institution family. On account of its novelty and the intense anticipation surrounding its long-awaited opening, it’s also the most sought-after of the Smithsonian bunch.
Though free, admission is strictly controlled through timed passes that stagger entry throughout the day. To get same-day passes, log onto the museum’s ticketing portal at 6:30am Eastern sharp and choose your time. Have a few backup times handy, as morning slots go fast. Walk-up passes are available on weekdays only. You can reserve advance passes online, but there’s typically a months-long backlog, so you’ll need to plan your trip well ahead of time to make it work.
The hassle of getting a pass is well worth it. The NMAAHC is hands down the most poignant museum I’ve ever visited – though, to be fair, I didn’t have time to visit the Holocaust Museum while I was in D.C. No matter how little you know about the African American experience, you’ll come away from your time here a changed person. Plan to devote at least three hours – you’ll need every minute, and it still won’t be enough.
National Museum of African Art
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5:30pm
The National Museum of African Art isn’t nearly as popular or extensive as the NMAAHC, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a visit. Conveniently located on the south side of the National Mall, near the Smithsonian Castle, this is arguably the most extensive collection of African diaspora art in the Western Hemisphere. Check out the 50th Anniversary Room, which celebrates the much-expanded museum’s half-century mark.
National Air and Space Museum
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5:30pm
Located on the south side of the Mall, the National Air and Space Museum is a treasure trove of aviation artifacts. Highlights include the Wright Brothers’ original plane, the first plane to cross the Atlantic in continuous flight, and the legendary Apollo 11 command module. About 25 miles west of the District, in Chantilly, Virginia, is the much larger Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, where you’ll find supersonic stealth aircraft, the Space Shuttle Discovery, and the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima during World War II.
National Museum of the American Indian
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5:30pm
Housed in a soaring sandstone structure within sight of the U.S. Capitol, the National Museum of the American Indian is a tour de force. I spent an entire morning here and still didn’t feel like I got the full measure of its collection. The “Our Universes” collection, which showcases various North and South American cultures’ origin stories and spiritual traditions, is especially powerful and illuminating. And the cafeteria, a multi-station tour of the Americas’ indigenous foodways, is the best museum restaurant I’ve ever had the privilege of dining at.
Anacostia Community Museum
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5pm
Tucked away in often-forgotten Southwest D.C., where few tourists venture, Anacostia Community Museum pays homage to the District’s rich African American history and culture. The collection is rooted in the here and now, focusing on “a range of topics and issues facing urban communities today” in partnership with local stakeholders, community leaders, and rank-and-file District residents who’ve done far more to advance the city’s interest than the national politicians who get the lion’s share of attention here.
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Museum
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5:30pm
The Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Museum are closely related sibling institutions devoted to Asian and Middle Eastern art. If you’re a fan of cat videos, don’t miss “Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” – a look back at a dystopian past before we could capture feline misbehavior in real time. Note that the museums’ hours will be curtailed during the summer and early fall of 2017 as long-planned renovations get underway. Call ahead for open times and availability.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5:30pm (Garden open daily, 7:30am to dusk)
The Hirshhorn Museum is a soaring, modernist structure that evokes New York’s Guggenheim Museum. I didn’t get a chance to go inside, but the sweeping internal plaza was a sight to behold. The adjacent sculpture garden is fantastic as well. If you have time, check out the Masterworks collection, a mash-up of sculpture, painting, and mixed media art that skews modern. “Big Man,” an alarmingly lifelike sculpture depicting a naked man of ample proportion, is among the exhibition’s most popular sights.
- Hours: Daily, 8am to 7pm (last admission at 6pm)
Located in Northeast D.C., away from the hustle and bustle of downtown and the Mall area, the National Zoological Park is among the country’s most beloved zoos. The National Zoo’s unwavering focus on conservation and education makes it a great place to see exotic animals in the appropriate context. Even if you breeze through in an hour or two, you’ll undoubtedly come away with a dozen or more facts to recite to your jealous friends. Bei Bei the panda is the zoo’s most popular resident, but don’t miss the big cats and large game beasts either – they’re even more impressive up close.
National Museum of Natural History
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5:30pm
The kid-friendly National Museum of Natural History celebrates human and ecological diversity in all its forms. If you have limited time, swing through the “Human Origins” exhibit on the first floor, the “Birds of D.C.” exhibit on the ground floor, and the “Live Insect Zoo” (yes, really) on the second floor. Don’t miss the Victory Garden on your way out. It’s a re-creation of the World War II-era victory gardens planted to supplement Americans’ meager rations during the conflict.
National Portrait Gallery
- Hours: Daily, 11:30am to 7pm
Located in the heart of downtown D.C., the National Portrait Gallery is probably the best place in the country to see, well, portraits. It’s not as boring as it sounds. The thematic exhibitions are vehicles to explore epochs of American history or running strains within the national culture: “The Face of Battle: Americans at War, 9/11 to Now” and “One Life: Babe Ruth” are representative exemplars. You’ll find plenty of presidential portraits and busts here too, if that’s your thing. Linger over a light meal in the Kogod Courtyard, a soaring, fully enclosed space filled with natural light and vegetation.
National Postal Museum
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5:30pm
The National Postal Museum is a (mostly) uplifting celebration of the U.S. Postal Service’s history and human story. You don’t have to be a stamp collector to appreciate the dizzying array of postal artifacts on display here, from rare stamps and mailboxes to historic mail collections from pivotal points in history (the “Hindenburg Crash Mail” exhibition is particularly poignant). The museum devotes a lot of bandwidth to the dangers and logistical challenges of mail delivery during the colonial, early federal, and frontier periods.
Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery
- Hours: Daily, 11:30am to 7pm (Renwick Gallery open daily, 10am to 5:30pm)
The Smithsonian American Art Museum has a vast trove of paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures and more from every period of American history. The permanent collection is enough to spend days with, but the rotating displays are worthy of attention too. They explore American grit (“Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography”) and glamor (“American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times”) in equal measure. Don’t miss the Renwick Gallery, a separate facility with a more modern, experimental bent.
S. Dillon Ripley Center
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5pm
The compact S. Dillon Ripley Center is like an iceberg: The bulk of its mass lives underground, with only a quaint copper dome pointing the way in. The collection is small enough to breeze through in an hour, but you shouldn’t miss the Discovery Theater. Check ahead for schedules and programming.
Other Museums and Attractions
Not every museum in D.C. falls under the Smithsonian aegis. These are some of the District’s finest public and private collections not directly affiliated with the world’s largest museum complex.
National Geographic Museum
- Adult admission: $15
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 6pm
No disrespect for National Geographic’s amazing photographers and beat writers, but the National Geographic Museum (or Nat Geo Museum for short) blows the magazine out of the water. The “Earth Explorers” exhibition is tailor-made for families with kids. If your little ones can handle up-close-and-personal encounters with life-sized shark photos, so is “Sharks: On Assignment With Brian Skerry.” Before you arrive, check the event schedule and try to time your visit to coincide with one of the many lectures and multimedia shows Nat Geo sponsors.
- Adult admission: $24.95
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 5pm
As a writer by trade, I might be biased, but I think the Newseum is fantastic. If you have even a passing interest in the history or trade of journalism, I’d strongly recommend spending a few hours here. In an increasingly polarized political climate, where journalists all too often end up vilified or scapegoated for their work, it’s worth remembering what it takes to collect and report the facts. And if you’re not a political person, no worries – much of the Newseum is given over to less controversial topics like travel and lifestyle.
The Newseum’s admission fee is expensive, but well worth the price if you can spend some time here. Call ahead before your visit, as the place is occasionally closed for special events.
International Spy Museum
- Adult admission: $21.95 ($28.95 combined admission with Operation Spy)
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 7pm
The International Spy Museum is all about espionage. If you spend enough time here, you’ll learn everything (at least, everything that’s not a state secret) about how spies do their work: cover identities, covert communications, influence campaigns, counterintelligence, and much more. And you’ll learn how spies’ tradecraft has changed over the years. Don’t miss “Operation Spy,” an hour-long video experience that costs an extra $7 with the price of admission. The special exhibits are worth your attention too: “Exquisitely Evil: 50 Years of Bond Villains” is a nice mash-up of pop culture and real-life espionage.
National Building Museum
- Adult admission: $10
- Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10am to 5pm; Sunday, 11am to 5pm
The National Building Museum is devoted to the intersection of art, architecture, and urban design. For a topic that’s often ballyhooed as remote or dry, there’s a lot of engaging stuff here: paper models of 80 well-known structures from around the world, multiple kid-proof areas where youngsters learn about architecture through everyday play materials, an engrossing exhibit about high-tech timber-based construction, and an interactive station devoted to the history of residential construction. Check ahead for family-friendly events, like bike tours of architecturally significant D.C. neighborhoods.
The Phillips Collection
- Adult admission: $12
- Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 5pm; Sunday, 12pm to 7pm
Founded by two early 20th century philanthropists, the Phillips Collection is a tidy repository of modern art. The museum’s temporary exhibitions tend to take deep dives into the work of a single artist – for instance, the George Condo collection includes more than 200 individual pieces from Condo’s career. If your trip schedule allows, consider visiting on the first Thursday of the month, when the monthly Phillips After 5 event (complete with drinks and appetizers) shows a rowdier side of the Phillips Collection.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 6:20pm
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is not for the faint of heart, but it might be the most moving part of your trip to D.C. The museum takes an unflinching look at one of the 20th century’s great tragedies through the eyes of the people who lived through it – and those who didn’t. When you arrive, you’re matched with a real person, whose journey you then follow through the hellish years of the Holocaust. Some make it out; many don’t.
In addition to the awful experience of the Holocaust itself, the Holocaust Museum devotes a lot of space to examining the Holocaust’s aftermath, legacy, and contemporary echoes – including the virulent strains of anti-Semitism that lurk in the shadows and occasionally explode out into the open in the U.S., Europe, and beyond.
Like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Holocaust Museum uses a timed pass system to control entry on busy days. Check the website for more information about getting timed passes during peak periods. No matter how long you have to wait, the experience is worth it.
Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
- Adult admission: Free ($1.50 to reserve a guided tour)
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 5pm
Frederick Douglass National Historic Site is the eight-acre estate where legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass spent his later years. You’re free to explore the grounds on your own, but you need to catch a guided tour to explore the interior of the meticulously preserved house. There’s a nominal fee to reserve a guided tour ahead of time, which may be necessary on busy days.
Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 5pm
President Abraham Lincoln’s amazing life journey began in a rickety cabin on the Kentucky frontier. It ended at Ford’s Theatre, now a National Historic Site, where he was fatally shot by a Confederate sympathizer days after the Civil War ended. This is a great place to learn more about that fateful evening, the life and times of Lincoln, and the history of Ford’s Theatre itself. On busy days, you may need timed entry tickets for guided tours of the theater grounds, but the adjacent museum is yours to enter and explore.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5:30pm
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection occupies a stately Georgetown mansion, the former home of blue-blood philanthropists Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss. Now operated by the Trustees of Harvard University, who maintain its extensive collection of ancient artifacts and works of literature, it’s nothing less than a sanctuary of scholarship. Indeed, the founders directed that the museum and grounds be a perpetual “home of the Humanities, not a mere aggregation of books and objects of art; that the house itself and the gardens have their educational importance and that all are of humanistic value.”
Monuments and Memorials
Washington, D.C. is a city of monuments and memorials. Unless otherwise noted, all the places on this list are free to enter and explore. Most are open around the clock, though lines or crowds may form during peak periods (especially on nice weekend days), and visitors are advised to use caution at night. With many of these monuments tucked into the extensive parkland on the banks of the Potomac, it’s possible to hit many of them over the course of a leisurely morning or afternoon walk.
One of the country’s most photographed, immediately recognizable public monuments, the Lincoln Memorial is a stately, permanent backdrop to history. If you don’t mind exerting yourself, climb to the top of the stairs and look out over the Reflecting Pool toward the Washington Monument. It’s a truly iconic view – and it’ll cost you nothing to take in.
The Reflecting Pool sits at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. It resembles the biggest swimming pool you’ve ever seen, though it’s much shallower and you don’t want to take a dip in it. The photo opportunities don’t get much better than this.
The soaring Washington Monument is the tallest structure on the Washington skyline. Unfortunately, it’s shuttered until 2019 for repairs to damage sustained in a 2011 earthquake. You can still view the monument from the base, but access to the viewing station at the top is closed. Before you visit, check with the National Park Service for updates.
Located in a secluded area near the banks of the Potomac, the Jefferson Memorial isn’t as prominent or heavily trafficked as the Lincoln Memorial. But it’s still a worthy tribute to the complicated, enigmatic Founding Father and third U.S. president – not to mention a great photo opportunity.
A memorial to the longest-serving U.S. president, who shepherded the country through the Great Depression and most of World War II, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is a more human-scale alternative to the awe-inspiring structures honoring Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
This simple monolith pays homage to the Civil Rights movement’s leading light. And the location, on the northwestern edge of the quiet Tidal Pool, is a destination in and of itself.
American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial
The centrally located American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial is a tribute to the American servicemembers who made it home from the war – but found their lives forever changed upon their return. It’s a potent reminder that the cost of war is far greater than the casualty count.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Located near the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a lengthy wall that lists every one of the more than 58,000 American servicemembers who gave their lives during the Vietnam War. The chronological account is a poignant yet direct reminder of the long war’s toll on the country’s fighting men and women – and the public consciousness.
Korean War Veterans Memorial
The Korean War Veterans Memorial is a secluded, triangular parklet that’s perfect for quiet reflection. Like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, it honors those who gave their lives in the Korean conflict – many of whom also served in World War II, less than a decade earlier.
World War II Memorial
The World War II Memorial honors those who fought and died in the 20th century’s highest-stakes conflict. Like the nearby monuments to America’s early presidents, it’ll no doubt remain long after the last World War II vet has passed – and, it’s hoped, will serve as a sobering reminder of the stakes of war.
National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial
The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial pays tribute to the nearly 200 men and women who died at the Pentagon on 9/11. Located in northern Virginia, just across the Potomac from central D.C., it’s easily accessible by public transit and well worth a visit – especially for those too young to recall the events of 9/11 firsthand.
Washington National Cathedral
The National Cathedral isn’t a monument per se, but it’s awe-inspiring nonetheless. This is about as close as you can get to an Old World cathedral in the nation’s capital. If you’re a fan of soaring architecture, it’s absolutely worth a visit – though be mindful of scheduled services and other events that may close or restrict access.
Federal Buildings and Agencies
Though the federal government is far more decentralized than many people realize, most agencies are headquartered in the District or its immediate environs. The three branches’ most recognizable landmarks – the White House, the U.S. Capitol Building, and the Supreme Court of the United States – are all located in the District as well.
White House Visitor Center (President’s Park)
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Daily, 7:30am to 4pm
As the residence of the U.S. president and daily workplace for hundreds of staffers, the White House is the executive branch’s seat of political power. Though most of the executive branch’s “real” work happens at the agency buildings scattered across D.C. and the surrounding cities and counties, the White House is the most visible symbol of executive power.
And it has a storied history to match. With artifacts and interpretive exhibits galore, the White House Visitor Center is a fantastic place to learn about the history of the stately mansion and its grounds. For a more immersive experience, reach out to your local member of Congress to schedule a self-guided tour. (You can’t make reservations directly with the White House or National Park Service.) Tour space fills up quickly, so you’ll want to do this as soon as you set your dates to visit D.C. – but no more than three months and no less than 21 days in advance. Security is understandably tight here, so check the list of prohibited items in advance.
U.S. Capitol Visitor Center
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Daily, 8:30am to 4:30pm
Home to both houses of Congress, the U.S. Capitol is the seat of the federal government’s legislative branch – where laws are written, debated, amended, and passed. Located below ground on the east side of the building, the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center is the public’s window into where the magic happens.
Exhibition Hall is filled with artifacts from U.S. history; it’s worth a look, even if you don’t have the time or inclination to take a tour. If you do want to tour the grounds, you can book a tour in advance through your elected representative (House or Senate) or show up early at the Visitor Center’s information desk for a shot at same-day passes. Like the White House, security is tight at the Capitol, so plan ahead and leave dicey items behind.
Supreme Court of the United States
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Monday through Friday, 9am to 4:30pm
The third and lowest-profile branch of government is the Supreme Court of the United States. The court’s nine justices wield immense power to interpret statutes and establish legal precedents that can endure for generations. Over the generations, they’ve weighed in on the most controversial and emotional issues facing the country: slavery and personhood (Dred Scott), racial segregation (Brown v. Board of Education), reproductive rights (Roe v. Wade), and much more.
The Supreme Court does most of its work out of the public eye, but their staff welcomes members of the public to see their digs. If you have an hour, take a self-guided tour of the grandiose court building. Law buffs are welcome to sit in on oral arguments, though space is limited and offered on a strictly first-come, first-serve basis. Before your visit, check the calendar to see if the court will be in session while you’re here.
United States Treasury
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Saturday, 9am to 11:15am
The U.S. Treasury is open to the public on a limited basis only. You can make guided tour reservations through your elected representative (House or Senate). If you’re interested in monetary policy and the history of the U.S. dollar, it’s worth a visit, though you’ll need to set time aside on Saturday morning – the only time the building is open to the public. You also need to provide identifying information, including your Social Security number; the tour isn’t open to nonresidents of the United States.
Library of Congress
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Monday through Friday, 10am to 3:30pm; Saturday, 10am to 2:30pm
The Library of Congress is not your typical library. It’s a vast repository of published material – literally millions of distinct volumes in physical and digital form, presided over by an army of librarians, archivists, and researchers. Only a small section of the library is open to the public. Most visitors take self-guided tours of the Jefferson Building, the facility’s nerve center. You can also arrange thematic tours of different parts of the collection.
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5:30pm
Like the Library of Congress, the National Archives contains a treasure trove of printed and digital material. In the Public Archives, the Rotunda for Charters of Freedom, and the East Rotunda Gallery, you’ll find copies or originals of some of American history’s most iconic documents: George Washington’s first inaugural address, the speech Franklin D. Roosevelt gave after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights.
Parks and Natural Areas
For a busy, densely populated city, D.C. has an amazing lineup of parks and natural areas. These are among the most popular. Unless otherwise noted, they’re free to enter and explore. Even in the absence of posted hours, use caution in secluded areas at night.
The National Mall is America’s front lawn – a sweeping, larger-than-life expanse of grass, gravel, and simple landscaping stretching from the Washington Monument to the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Many of the museums and points of interest listed above can be found on or just off the Mall, including some of the Smithsonian Institution’s highest-profile facilities. If you’re doing the D.C. tourist thing, you’re almost certain to find yourself on the Mall at some point. The best vantage points for photographers lie at either end – on the steps of the Capitol Building or the elevated ground around the base of the Washington Monument.
Located on the grounds of the iconic Smithsonian Castle, the Smithsonian Gardens is a remarkable piece of landscaping. When I visited, in mid-April, the entire place seemed aflame with color, and I imagine the experience is much the same throughout the growing season. I had a huge list of places to photograph that day, so I didn’t have time to take a load off as I passed through, but the garden’s benches and alcoves were thick with office workers enjoying the beautiful weather. If you’re looking to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the mall without venturing too far, I can’t think of a better spot.
Rock Creek Park
At nearly 1,800 acres, Rock Creek Park is more than twice the size of New York’s Central Park, the gold standard for urban oases. Operated by the National Park Service, it’s also far more rugged and wild – the park’s forested gullies and hillsides exist largely as they did two centuries ago, long before D.C. had grown into the thriving metropolis it is today. Despite its popularity, Rock Creek Park is large enough to get lost in – something to keep in mind if you’re looking to escape the crowds, or simply get a taste of D.C.’s wilder side.
United States Botanic Garden
Located in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, the United States Botanic Garden has an indoor (the Conservatory) and outdoor (National Garden and Bartholdi Park) section. Both are open daily, 10am to 5pm, and cost nothing to enter and explore. Thanks to the climate-controlled Conservatory, there’s always something blooming here, so your visit is never wasted – even in the dead of winter. This is a great place to take a break on your circuit around the Mall, or while you wait for your Capitol tour.
United States National Arboretum
The United States National Arboretum is another stunning outdoor space. Not quite as manicured as the U.S. Botanic Garden, not quite as wild as Rock Creek Park, this is a great place to burnish your botanical knowledge and get some light exercise in the process. Admission is free and the grounds are open 8am to 5pm daily. The best times to visit are spring and summer, when most of the trees, shrubs, and ground cover are in full bloom. Don’t miss the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, an impressive repository of miniature trees.
Perched atop Capitol Hill, not far from the Capitol Building itself, Lincoln Park is a conveniently located oasis amid the hustle and bustle of central D.C. Named for Abraham Lincoln, it’s also home to the District’s first monument to a Civil Rights icon – Mary McLeod Bethune, who founded the National Council of Negro Women.
Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens
Located on a secluded bend of the Anacostia River in Northeast D.C., Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens is a serene space that feels (and, in fact, is) miles away from the Mall. Don’t miss the boardwalk through the aquatic gardens section, one of the best places in town to spot waterfowl and songbirds.
Meridian Hill Park
Tucked inside Rock Creek Park, Meridian Hill Park was President John Quincy Adams’ post-presidency home, a campground for Union soldiers during the Civil War, and later a city park. Purchased by the National Park Service in the early 20th century, it now boasts several features worth noting: a grandiose fountain, a memorial to much-maligned President James Buchanan, and a statue of Joan of Arc.
Adjacent to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Constitution Gardens is a quiet, reflective space with great views of the Lincoln Memorial, Reflecting Pool, and Washington Monument. There’s no need to spend hours here – you can simply pass through as you explore the monuments beyond the western end of the Mall.
Fort Dupont Park
Fort Dupont Park surrounds the site of an old Civil War fort. Thankfully for nearby residents, the fort never saw action during the war, but its grounds have since been put to good use: You’ll find an ice rink, golf course, community garden, picnic areas, nature trails, and much more here. Near the picnic area, the fort’s now-dilapidated earthworks remain visible in the grassy hillside.
Glover Archbold Park
A dissociated subunit of Rock Creek Park, 220-acre Glover Archbold Park is a narrow rivulet of green that twists through the District’s stately Georgetown neighborhood. If you’re in the area already, it’s a great place to escape for quiet reflection – especially on hot summer days, thanks to its dense tree cover.
Neighborhoods and Local Attractions
If you have more than a day or two to spend in D.C., or you’re down on the idea of trudging through yet another museum, head away from the tourist crowds and explore D.C.’s beautiful, historic neighborhoods and inner suburbs. Most of these locations are easily accessible on foot, bike, or the Metro.
Georgetown is a well-to-do neighborhood in Northwest D.C. It’s home to some of the city’s finest restaurants and stateliest homes. With the eastern terminus of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and Glover Archbold Park, it’s also a great place to explore the outdoors. Book Hill, along Wisconsin Avenue, is rife with art galleries. And the aptly named Old Stone House is the oldest continuously standing structure in the District – no small feat.
One of the most cosmopolitan enclaves of famously cosmopolitan D.C., Dupont Circle is a gorgeous neighborhood with stunning architecture, leafy streets, and a polyglot sensibility. If you have an hour, take a walk down Embassy Row, a two-mile stretch of Massachusetts Avenue (not all of it contained within Dupont Circle) that hosts more than two dozen foreign embassies and missions – most housed in stunning 19th-century mansions. Dupont Circle Fountain, the neighborhood’s centerpiece, is among D.C.’s best people-watching venues. The quieter Spanish Steps aren’t far behind.
Logan Circle is a fashionable neighborhood in central D.C. Its axis is 14th Street NW, a bustling street with independent shops, restaurants, bars, and music joints galore. Some of D.C.’s top “underground” performance venues can be found here, including the locally famous Black Cat (the secret has long gotten out). ChurchKey is one of America’s best places to try new and unusual varieties of craft beer, full stop. And Logan Circle’s namesake traffic circle is a wonderland of residential Victorian architecture.
Capitol Hill isn’t all business, all the time. (Nor all government, all the time.) It’s also an eclectic, thriving collection of distinct enclaves with personalities all their own. Historic Barracks Row, practically in the shadow of the Capitol, is one of D.C.’s oldest commercial districts. Eastern Market is arguably the best place to find affordable crafts and trinkets from local makers. And many of the free attractions mentioned above sit within Capitol Hill’s bounds.
Downtown & Chinatown
These neighborhoods comprise (part of) the District’s commercial heart. Unsurprisingly, Chinatown is an amazing place to grab a quick, cheap bite to eat – you could eat lunch in the area every day for a week and still barely scratch the surface. After filling up, rub shoulders with the elite at massive CityCenterDC, an urban indoor mall featuring a who’s who of designer brands. (Just resist the urge to buy anything.) And check out the Temperance Fountain, an unusual late 19th-century monument to the virtues of sobriety – featuring, what else, a dry water fountain.
Nestled up against Rock Creek Park, Woodley Park is a lush enclave with a hipster vibe. If you spend any time in the park or at the National Zoo, you’ll probably find yourself wandering the side streets and commercial drags here. (Or, if you’re splurging on lodgings or redeeming all your hotel credit card‘s rewards points in one go, perhaps you’ll stay at the super-luxe Omni Shoreham.) While you’re in the area, look for the (locally) famous Marilyn Monroe mural on the upper floors of a building near the intersection of Connecticut Avenue NW and Calvert Street NW.
Adams Morgan is a hip, upscale (but not too upscale) district with dozens of popular watering holes and a delightful menagerie of independent eateries, boutiques, and novelty shops. The multicolored facades along 18th Street are a sight to behold, especially from the rooftop of ever-popular Roofers Union. If you’re into live music, Songbyrd Music House & Record Cafe is a must-visit. The nearby U Street area, technically its own neighborhood, builds on Adams Morgan’s lively vibe, with an extra helping of live entertainment.
Foggy Bottom / West End
Home to the U.S. State Department, Foggy Bottom and the adjacent West End are less stuffy than you’d expect. One of the area’s highlights is the Kennedy Center, whose legendary free music shows are popular with visitors of all ages. Other points of interest include the State Department itself, the infamous Watergate Hotel, and the Textile Museum at George Washington University – a paradise for needlepoint fans and amateur interior decorators alike.
Day Trips and Excursions from Washington, D.C.
Plotting an escape from the city? The Mid-Atlantic region has an embarrassment of historical and natural treasures waiting to be discovered. There are far too many to name here, so I’ve included a representative sampling of the region’s high points.
Shenandoah National Park
Two hours west of the District by car, Shenandoah National Park is a stunning expanse of heavily forested mountains and bucolic valleys. It encompasses part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which run for miles through central and western Virginia, preserving some 200,000 acres of pristine woodlands and meadows in all. Highlights include 500 miles of hiking trails at all levels of difficulty and the stomach-churning Skyline Drive, one of the East Coast’s premier mountain byways.
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park
Stretching nearly 200 miles along the Potomac River, Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Park takes visitors back more than two centuries, to a time when the best way to move goods and people was by boat – not rail or road. Now that the canal is thoroughly obsolete, it also serves as a cautionary tale of the disruptive power of technology. You don’t have to travel the whole length to get a feel for this massive public works project, of course. The canal starts in Northwest D.C., then heads northwest through Maryland and West Virginia, but you can turn back whenever you’d like.
Gunpowder Falls State Park
Preserving a vast tract of pristine Maryland woodland, Gunpowder Falls State Park is one of the largest and most popular natural areas in the Old Line State’s ample public parks system. In addition to the namesake falls, you’ll find more than 100 miles of multiuse trails and a slew of different ecosystems, including brackish wetlands frequented by hungry birds.
Maryland’s Eastern Shore
Maryland’s Eastern Shore region stretches along and inland from the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s a largely rural, agrarian region dotted with quaint towns and a few larger communities. The best way to explore is by car – a leisurely day’s drive will take you by many of the high points. Points of interest include the well-preserved settlement of Chesapeake City, pristine Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway – a tour of local stops along Southern slaves’ road to freedom.
Rehoboth Beach, Delaware
Stretching along a glorified sandspit on southern Delaware’s Atlantic Coast, Rehoboth Beach is one of the Mid-Atlantic’s most popular beach destinations. During the summer, residents of D.C. and Baltimore flee their oppressively hot hometowns for the slightly less oppressive beach. During the high season, the bustling boardwalk is a sight to behold. If possible, try to visit on summer weekdays, when most businesses are open and crowds are manageable. For a more natural beach experience, check out nearby Cape Henlopen State Park, whose dunes are the stuff of local legend.
Antietam National Battlefield Park
The Battle of Antietam was the Civil War’s bloodiest: In half a day, more than 20,000 soldiers on both sides of the battle had been killed, maimed, or left unaccounted for. Antietam National Battlefield Park memorializes the grisly clash, which was also a turning point in the Civil War – though not the last time the Confederate armies would breach Union lines. Spend an hour or two reliving the day in complete safety at this somber central Maryland park.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway is the southern continuation of Skyline Drive and one of the true marvels of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. Heading south out of Shenandoah National Park, it continues for hundreds of miles down the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains. If you visit the D.C. area during the fall foliage season, I’d strongly encourage devoting two days – one down, one back up, with an overnight interlude – to a leisurely drive along as much of the parkway as possible. You won’t be disappointed.
When to Visit
When should you schedule your visit to Washington, D.C.? Besides your own personal schedule and the timing of any special D.C. events you don’t want to miss, your two biggest considerations will likely be weather and crowds.
Washington, D.C. has a subtropical climate with chilly winters, largely pleasant if unpredictable shoulder seasons, and torrid summers. Precipitation is common throughout the year – the Capital region gets more rainfall than ostensibly wet Pacific Northwest cities like Seattle and Portland.
During the winter, highs typically rise into the 40s and lows drop down to the freezing mark or below. Cold rain is common. Cold snaps can bring frozen precipitation. The District typically experiences a few such events each year and is not well equipped to handle them. Icing events and heavier snowfalls basically shut down the city, significantly impacting tourists’ itineraries and mobility. If you’re worried about crippling weather events throwing your plans into chaos, avoid the coldest months.
Summers are unpleasant for a different reason: uncomfortable heat and humidity. Heat indices routinely rise into the 90s and occasionally top 100 degrees from June through September. Cooling rains bring fleeting relief, but sometimes leave even more oppressive air masses behind. If you’re sensitive to heat and plan to spend lots of time outside, avoid summer.
That leaves spring and fall. Both seasons are pleasant, if somewhat unpredictable. When I visited in mid-April, high temperatures ranged from the mid-50s to the low 80s, with two brilliantly sunny days, one overcast day, and one washout day. More often, spring and fall weather is an average of those extremes – highs in the 60s and 70s, with regular precipitation. If that sounds acceptable to you, plan to visit in April, May, October, or November.
Washington, D.C. is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States. No matter when you visit, you’re going to run into plenty of other people. The question is how many, where, and whether their presence affects your experience.
Crowd-wise, the best times to visit D.C. are the dead of winter (January and February) and the doldrums of August, when many locals escape to the mountains or beaches. Not coincidentally, both periods have less-than-ideal weather.
If you’d prefer to visit when conditions are more temperate, time your visit to coincide with a Congressional recess. With Congresspeople and their support staffers out of town, you’ll face a bit less traffic on roads and public transit – though you probably won’t notice the difference at most major tourist attractions. Unless you’re visiting for a specific reason, try to avoid planned protest marches and signature events like the Cherry Blossom Festival.
Keep in mind that D.C.’s heightened state of security can compound the inconvenience of jostling with crowds. Even if you don’t mind standing in crowded exhibition halls or dodging pedestrian traffic on sidewalks, you’re almost certainly going to find yourself waiting in line to pass through a metal detector at some point. Virtually every major museum and all government buildings have security checkpoints out front, and while the professionals staffing these outposts are highly efficient, they can only process so many comers at once.
What to Bring
Your D.C. packing list should include:
- Rain Gear: D.C. has no dry season. No matter when you visit, you need to be prepared for rain. Depending on the time of year, pack a poncho, lightweight raincoat, or water-resistant jacket for outdoor use on icky days.
- Seasonally Appropriate Outerwear: If you visit D.C. during the summer, you’ll want to wear as little clothing as practically possible (and socially acceptable). You’ll want it to be breathable too – no synthetic fabrics, if possible. During the shoulder seasons, a windbreaker or light jacket is likely fine for daytime use. In winter, a medium to heavy jacket or coat, gloves, and hat are recommended. Check ahead before you visit, as an unseasonable winter warmup or unusually deep spring cold front could affect your planning.
- Sturdy Footwear: If you’re planning to do the sightseeing thing in D.C., you’ll need sturdy footwear. In summer, walking or hiking sandals work well. In other seasons, quality running shoes or even hiking boots are appropriate. Either way, make sure your footwear has adequate support. You can find low-cost orthotic insoles for less than $15 per pair at most drugstores.
- Hydration Gear: Humid D.C.’s heavy atmosphere doesn’t insidiously rob the body of moisture like high, dry Denver‘s. As you walk around the District on a hot day, you know you’re losing water, because you can feel it soaking into your clothes. It’s therefore easy to remember to pack hydration equipment, be it a refillable water bottle, flexible pouch, or back-mounted pack.
- Sun Protection: The sun does come out in D.C. If you’re outside when it does, you’ll want some protection. Don’t forget to bring sunblock, sunglasses, a cap, and possibly a long-sleeved shirt. Street vendors and brick-and-mortar stores in central D.C. tend to overcharge for these everyday items, so you’ll come out ahead financially if you pack in advance.
- Camera: If you own a proper camera, don’t forget it. While in D.C., I took smartphone and digital camera pictures around the Mall and beyond, and the digital camera shots came out far better. The scale of the buildings and monuments, and the often large distances over which you’re required to shoot, overwhelm smartphone cameras.
- Backpack or Satchel: You’ll need a backpack or satchel to carry all your gear while you’re out and about, especially if you’re bringing a camera and water bottle. If possible, wear something with adjustable straps and zipper access for expeditious passage through the District’s ubiquitous security checkpoints.
Getting There: By Air
If you live more than a few hours from Washington by car or train, you’ll likely fly into one of the D.C. region’s three major airports.
By passenger volume, Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) is the least busy of the three D.C. airports. It’s the main entry point for overseas visitors to the D.C. area, and if you’re planning an international jaunt before or after your trip to D.C., you’ll likely fly through. Located far out in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, Dulles is spacious and well-served by major highways, so it’s an ideal starting point for visitors planning trips to D.C.’s hinterlands.
The downside is that it takes a while to get from Dulles to central D.C. The most direct transit option toward the central District is the Silver Line Express Bus ($5 each way) to the Wiehle-Reston East Metro station. From there, you can take the Silver Line Metro train into central D.C. A one-way ride to Metro Center station, in the heart of the city, is $5.90. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority expects to have Silver Line train service to IAD itself by 2020.
If you’re driving toward D.C. from Dulles on a weekday morning or afternoon, you’re certain to hit traffic. And, depending which way you go, you may encounter tolls on the Dulles Toll Road.
Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) technically serves Washington and Baltimore, but it’s much closer to the latter. It’s the busiest of the three D.C.-area airports, and in my nonscientific scanning of travel booking sites, is price-competitive for many U.S. destinations. BWI is particularly popular with discount carriers like Southwest Airlines – an important point for budget-conscious travelers to remember.
The problem with BWI is that it’s even farther from central D.C. than Dulles. The airport does have a shuttle-connected Amtrak station about a mile out from the main terminal that provides hourly (or more frequent) train service to D.C.’s Union Station. It’s pricey though – expect to pay at least $15 for a one-way ticket, and possibly up to $45, depending on the time of day and fare class.
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) is by far the closest commercial airport to central D.C. It’s located on a swampy bend of the Potomac, less than five miles as the crow flies from the White House.
If you’re flying in from somewhere in the continental United States, it’s more likely than not that you’ll land here. All major U.S. airlines have berths at National. So do discount and regional carriers, such as Southwest, Spirit, and Sun Country. I’ve only flown through National twice, but both times were smooth and pleasant – the place is small enough not to be overwhelming for time-crunched travelers, but big enough not to be boring for those who arrive early.
Plus, it’s easy to get in and out of National. It’s served by the Metro’s Yellow Line, on which central D.C. is just a few stops (and less than $5) away.
Getting There: By Train
If you live in the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic, you should at least consider arriving in D.C. by train.
Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor has the best passenger rail service in the country, with hourly or more frequent departures from major cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Acela, North America’s pokey excuse for high-speed rail, rolls from Boston to D.C.’s Union Station in less than seven hours – faster than driving, even in ideal traffic conditions. Amtrak’s standard-speed Northeast Regional service takes about eight hours, depending on the time of day and exact mix of scheduled stops.
Unfortunately, Amtrak isn’t all that cheap, and fares increase with distance. Depending on fare class, you should expect a one-way Acela seat from Boston to D.C. to cost at least $150, meaning a round-trip seat costs at least $300. That’s more expensive than a flight, and twice the time investment (including time spent in the airport). Northeast Regional fares are more reasonable, but you’re still looking at $100 each way. For more insight into fares between D.C. and specific destinations, check out Amtrak’s fare calculator.
Ditching Your Car in D.C.
Notorious for its nightmarish traffic and long commutes, D.C. isn’t the most pleasant place to drive a car. If you’re including Washington, D.C. on a multi-stop road trip, but don’t want to worry about your car while you’re in town, consider ditching your vehicle somewhere safe and convenient for the duration of your stay.
It’s not wise to park your car on the street overnight or for multiple days, especially in the District itself or busy suburbs. There are simply too many parking regulations to keep track of. You’re more likely to get an expensive residential permit violation or abandoned vehicle ticket, and possibly booted or towed as a result, than to get away scot-free.
Unless you know a local with an off-street parking space, your best long-term parking bets are the long-term lots at the major D.C. airports or the long-term sections at the four Metro stations that offer overnight parking: Greenbelt, Huntington, Wiehle-Reston East, and Franconia-Springfield. Metro station rates are reasonable – at Wiehle-Reston East, just $4.85 per day. However, space is limited, with most stations reserving just a couple dozen spots for overnight parking on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Long-term airport parking is a spendier but far more reliable choice. The Dulles economy lot has more than 12,000 dedicated spaces. Parking costs a flat $10 per 24-hour period. From the lot, you can take a shuttle to the terminal area, and from there the $5 Silver Line Express Bus to the first stop on the Metro. At $17 per 24-hour period, the Reagan National economy lot is a bit spendier, but it’s also much closer to the District.
Your long-term parking choice will depend on where you’re coming from – for instance, Dulles and Wiehle-Reston East are best for drivers arriving from the west, while Greenbelt is best for drivers heading down from points northeast.
Getting Around in Washington, D.C.
Once you’ve arrived in D.C., here’s what you need to know about getting around.
Public Transportation in Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C. has an extensive public transportation network operated by Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). WMATA is more complicated than your typical regional transit authority. If you plan to use it extensively, spend some time figuring out how it works – and how to use it in the most cost-effective way possible – before arriving in D.C.
It’s still possible to pay WMATA bus fares with cash, but the system is moving inexorably toward a stored-value scheme anchored by the SmarTrip card – which regular D.C. commuters already use and (hopefully) love. If you plan to use WMATA buses more than once or twice while you’re in town, or want to ride Metrorail at all, purchase a SmarTrip card online or at a transit center or Metrorail station kiosk. Cards cost $2 up front, plus whatever stored value you choose to load.
WMATA operates more than 300 bus lines through its Metrobus service. The bus system has 11 transit center hubs scattered around the D.C. metropolitan area, served by a mix of local and express buses for short trips and longer commutes alike. Regular bus fares cost $1.75 per ride, express bus fares cost $4 per ride, and airport express bus fares cost $7 per ride.
A 7-day Metrobus pass costs $17.50 and requires a stored-value SmarTrip card. It negates out-of-pocket regular bus fares and reduces express bus fares by the regular fare rate ($1.75). If you plan to ride Metrorail as well, consider a Metro SelectPass. Like the 7-day Metrobus pass, it negates the cost of regular-fare bus rides and reduces the cost of other bus rides by the regular fare. It also negates fares for point-to-point Metrorail rides costing less than $2.25 or $3.75, depending on your chosen price point. Costlier Metrorail rides are discounted by either $2.25 or $3.75, with the remainder deducted from your card’s stored value.
Metrorail, or simply “Metro,” is WMATA’s rapid rail transit system. Coverage is extensive in the central District – most major tourist attractions are within a 10-minute walk of a Metro station. The system has six lines altogether: Silver, Orange, Blue, Yellow, Green, and Red. All pass through the District and terminate in suburban Virginia or Maryland.
During normal weekday service, trains reliably come at least once every 10 minutes from the morning rush through evening, and less frequently during the early morning and late evening hours. The last trains usually finish their runs by 1am and start up again by 5am. On weekends, the first trains start running at 7am.
Metrorail fares are a function of distance traveled. When you enter your origin station, you tap your SmarTrip card to the RFID reader. When you exit your destination station, you tap again, and the appropriate fare is automatically deducted from your account. In the central District, you can expect to pay less than $5 for point-to-point rides. If you’re traveling farther out into the suburbs, your fares may be higher.
Personal Cars and Rental Vehicles in Washington, D.C.
Parking and traffic are both nightmarish and confusing in D.C. Based on my limited experience, I wouldn’t recommend driving your personal vehicle or rental car around the central District unless you’re averse to public transit or rideshare apps, or need to carry lots of luggage or groceries.
Residential parking permits are generally required in outlying neighborhoods, where street parking is often unmetered. In metered spaces, you can expect to pay anywhere from $0.75 to $2.30 per hour, depending on the location and level of demand. Check with DDOT, the local motor vehicle transportation authority, for more specific information. Pay close attention to time limits and time of day restrictions, as expired meter tickets can be costly.
If you need to rent a car while in D.C., the best place to do so is at one of the three major airports. Check travel booking aggregators like Priceline or Expedia to find the best published deals. If you’re not picky about the exact make and model of your rental vehicle, use a blind-booking tool like Hotwire to get even deeper discounts.
Ridesharing and Carsharing
If you don’t have a personal vehicle while you’re in town, and you don’t mind spending a bit more than you would for public transit, you’ll do fine in D.C.
- Uber and Lyft: Washington, D.C. is crawling with rideshare vehicles. Aside from San Francisco, home to both Uber and Lyft, I’ve never been somewhere with more responsive and plentiful rides. In central D.C., I never had to wait longer than two minutes for a ride, and my average wait time was closer to 60 seconds. Though I didn’t have to use Lyft or Uber out in the northern Virginia suburbs, where I kept my rental car, I checked the apps frequently and was impressed by the level of coverage. Without demand surcharges, which are common during the morning and afternoon rush hours and can reach crushing heights in nightlife districts, regular Lyft rides carry a $1.14 pickup fee, $1.02 per mile fee, and $0.17 per minute fee, or a $5 minimum ride fee. Budget-friendly UberX rates are comparable. Lyft Line and UberPOOL, the companies’ carpooling options cost about half as much. The rub is that you often have to ride with other passengers and may follow a circuitous route to your ultimate destination.
- Zipcar: The D.C. area has plenty of Zipcar hubs. Most reside on or near university campuses and public transit hubs in the District, Northern Virginia, and close-in Maryland suburbs. You need to purchase a plan before you can use Zipcar in D.C. Depending on the plan, you can expect to pay $8 to $10 per hour (up to $79 per day) when you’re behind the wheel, plus a monthly or annual membership fee ranging from $7 per month for occasional drivers to $50 per month for heavy drivers. Unless your hometown has a Zipcar service that you can use when you return, it’s probably not worth the time or money to buy a Zipcar membership just for your trip to D.C.
- Car2Go: Car2Go is a demand-based carsharing service with no monthly or annual membership fees – you only pay for the time you’re behind the wheel. Car2Go D.C.‘s tiny smart fortwo vehicles cost $0.32 per minute, $15 per hour, and $59 per day, plus tax. Its more spacious Mercedes-Benz CLA and GLA vehicles cost $0.45 per minute, $19 per hour, and $79 per day, plus tax. There’s a $5 one-time sign-up fee in either case, but you can more than offset it with a $10 first-drive credit. Some other fees may apply, such as an excessive driving fee (over 150 miles per day) and a driver protection fee (which subsidizes Car2Go’s insurance policy). One major advantage of Car2Go is that you can find and leave vehicles in any legal parking space within the service area – you don’t have to start and end your trip at designated hubs, as with Zipcar.
The Washington, D.C. area has excellent bikesharing coverage thanks to Capital Bikeshare, one of the country’s largest programs. The network is particularly dense in the District and close-in Virginia and Maryland suburbs, with tentacles extending out along Metro lines and isolated pockets in busy satellite cities, such as Rockville, Maryland, and Herndon, Virginia.
Capital Bikeshare has several pricing options. If you plan on occasional point-to-point, the $2 Single Trip option is your best bet – you can ride between any two stations for up to 30 minutes. Each subsequent 30-minute period incurs escalating usage fees.
If you plan to stay out longer or take lots of point-to-point rides on any given day, opt for the $8 24-Hour Pass, which allows unlimited 30-minute rides for a full 24-hour period. Another popular alternative for tourists is the $17 3-Day Pass, which allows unlimited 30-minute rides for a full 72 hours. With either pass, you pay for each additional 30-minute segment on an escalating schedule. On longer rides, it’s therefore in your best financial interest to plan routes that frequently pass bike stations. With careful planning and clement weather, a 24-Hour or 3-Day Pass can be the most cost-effective way to get around central D.C.
Where to Stay
Where you choose to say in D.C. depends in part on what you plan to do while you’re here and how much you’re willing to spend per night. Here’s a look at some of the more popular, reasonably priced D.C. neighborhoods and close-in suburbs:
- Georgetown: “Georgetown” and “affordable” are rarely uttered in the same sentence. Local hotels tend to be exclusive, or at least pricey. However, if you don’t mind sharing space with others, you’ll find a great selection of private rooms in historic townhouses on Airbnb and other short-term rental apps. On a quick search for travel dates a month in the future, I found more than a dozen private rooms under $80 per night.
- Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle: There aren’t many hotels in these trendy, proximate neighborhoods, but there are plenty of Airbnb rentals. On account of a slightly denser environment and higher renter population, the selection is even better than in Georgetown.
- Northeast Washington: Cut-rate hotels and motels are plentiful in this part of town, especially along the New York Avenue corridor. If you don’t mind staying in the likes of Days Inn or Budget Motor Inn, you’ll reliably find clean, name-brand accommodations for well under $100 per night here.
- Downtown: If your budget allows you to pay a premium for convenience, there’s no better place to be than downtown D.C. – within walking distance of many of the city’s top (free) attractions. Expect to pay at least $150 per night for a basic room here, and probably more like $200 to $250 per night during peak periods.
- Crystal City: Located in the shadow of Reagan National, Crystal City is a businesslike swathe of Arlington, Virginia. It has a couple dozen name-brand hotels, including budget-friendly marques like Hilton Garden Inn. On a cursory search, I found at least five places advertising rooms for $90 per night or less – a rare feat so close to a major airport.
- Rosslyn: Rosslyn is another northern Virginia business center on the banks of the Potomac. Compared with Crystal City, the hotel selection is neither ample nor particularly affordable. But it’s one Metro stop from D.C., and the surrounding area has restaurants and shopping galore. If you’re seeking reasonably priced, full-service accommodations at the three- or four-star level, don’t overlook Rosslyn.
Note that this isn’t an exhaustive list of places to stay in the District and its environs. I’ve left various neighborhoods and communities off due to high average lodging costs, remoteness from major tourist attractions, or general accessibility issues. You can learn more about areas not included here at Destination D.C.’s lodging portal.
You’ve probably heard the old saw about New York City: “It’s a great place to visit, but I’d never want to live there.” I love the Big Apple, so I’m not sure how I feel about that one. But I can confidently apply that saying to Washington, D.C.
Forget the tired tropes about the pettiness of the political class or the harrowing frenzy of life in a city dominated by the 24-hour news cycle and endemic partisan bickering. Like any other big city, D.C. isn’t at all like its on-camera portrayal. It’s built on the backs of hundreds of thousands of decent, regular folks who live in the “real” District – the neighborhoods and outlying communities into which tourists and news crews rarely venture. They’re hard-working, low-key people with deep connections to the local culture and little time for the scandal du jour.
My issue with D.C. is more generic. As a modern boomtown driven by the dramatic expansion of the federal government and its countless contractors, the District is louder, busier, and more expensive every time I visit. I’d personally prefer to sacrifice some of the energy and vitality generated by the District’s boom for a quiet, reasonably priced patch of land to call my own. In the D.C. area, you have to venture far afield to meet those criteria.
That’s not to say D.C. shouldn’t be high on your list of places to visit. With world-class museums, awe-inspiring monuments, beautiful parks, and a cosmopolitan culture that puts the world’s staggering diversity at your fingertips, the District is a unique and special place.
Have you ever been to Washington, D.C.? What’s your favorite thing to do or see there?