Once known best for monuments and museums, the White House and the Capitol; Washington DC has shed it’s formerly buttoned up reputation to become one of the most dynamic cities in the United States. A visit to the American capital today finds eclectic neighborhoods, an ever-changing roster of cultural events and one of the most exciting food scenes in the world. With so much to see, do and eat planning to travel to Washington DC can be a little daunting, but armed with these tips you can make your first trip to Washington DC one to remember.
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How to Travel to Washington DC
1. Getting to Washington DC. Washington DC is served by three major airports; Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport(BWI). All of them offer multiple domestic and international flights. Regan National Airport is the closest airport to Washington DC and is accessible by Metro on the Yellow and Blue lines or by taxi for about $15-$20. Dulles is 26 miles from Washington DC and a taxi will run about $60-$70. You can get from BWI to downtown Washington DC (Union Station) on Amtrak for $15-$30.
If you prefer to arrive by train Amtrak offers hourly service for the Northeast from New York City (between Penn Station in NYC and Union Station in Washington DC), the ride is about 3 hours one way. Purchase your train tickets in advance for best prices.
2. Driving and Parking in Washington DC The first piece of advice for driving in Washington DC is don’t. A labyrinth of traffic circles and one way streets, driving in Washington DC can be maddening to say the least.Park your car at your hotel or find and reserve a parking spot with the SpotHero app.
Getting around Washington DC
3. Washington DC has an excellent public transportation system including the Metro and bus system that are popular with both locals and tourists. The Metro consists of six color coded lines (Yellow, Blue, Silver, Green, Orange and Red) that connect with each other at transfer stations and service Washington DC as well as suburban Virginia and Maryland.
4. The following Metro stops are close to popular tourist sites in Washington DC. This is not an exhaustive list but should help with getting to most of the major tourist sights in Washington DC.
Arlington Cemetery (Blue line)– Arlington National Cemetery, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Lincoln Memorial (requires a walk across the Arlington
Smithsonian (Orange, Blue and Silver lines)– Smithsonian Castle, Middle portion of the National Mall, Washington Monument, National Museum of African American History, National Museum of African American History, National Museum of American History, National Museum of Natural History, National Museum of African Art, Hirshorn Museum, National Air and Space Museum, National Gallery of Art
Federal Triangle (Orange, Blue and Silver lines)-White House, Middle portion of the National Mall, Washington Monument, National Museum of Natural History, National Museum of American History
Federal Center (Orange, Blue and Silver lines)– East end of the National Mall, National Air and Space Museum, United States Botanic Garden, US Capitol Building, Library of Congress, Hirshorn Museum, National Gallery of Art
McPherson Square (Orange, Blue and Silver lines) – White House, Washington Monument, Renwick Gallery
Farragut West (red line)– White House, Washington Monument, Renwick Gallery
Archives ( Yellow and Green lines)– National Archives, International Spy Museum, Crime and Punishment Museum, Newseum,
Foggy Bottom (Orange, Blue and Silver lines)– West end of the National Mall, Lincoln Memorial, WWII Memorial
L’Enfant Plaza( Orange, Blue, Green, Yellow and Silver lines)-Hirshorn Museum, Sculpture Garden,Tidal Basin,Jefferson Memorial
Gallery Place/Chinatown( Green, red and yellow lines) -Penn Quarter, Capital One Arena, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, National Building Museum
Woodley Park/Zoo( Red line) -National Zoo, National Cathedral
5. The routes of the Circulator bus system connects many of Washington’s most popular tourist destinations and neighborhoods and at just $1 per ride( or $3 for a day pass) its one of the most affordable ways to get around the city.
When to Visit Washington DC
6. Spring and fall offer the most pleasant temperatures, but along with great weather comes more crowds and higher hotel room prices. Summers are hot and muggy and winter weather can range from mild to blizzard (often in the same week) but hotels are much more affordable.
Cherry Blossom Season in Washington DC
7. While a trip to Washington DC is great any time of year, it is particularly magical in the springtime when the cherry blossoms bloom in a burst of pinks and whites highlighting the beauty of the American capital. The timing of peak bloom varies wildly each yea making it difficult to plan a trip if you’re traveling from afar. While the average date for the peak bloom is April 4 it has happened as early as March 15 and as late as April 18. The National Park Service (NPS) is able to predict the peak bloom about 10 days before hand and provides up-to-date information on its website. The NPS also provides an annual Cherry Blossom Festival map to help you plan your trip as well as a calendar of cultural events including the National Cherry Blossom Festival Opening Ceremony and the Blossom Kite Festival. Check out more tips for enjoying the cherry blossoms in Washington DC.
Where to Stay in Washington DC
8. Hotels in Washington DC by Neighborhood
Downtown– hotels in downtown Washington DC will put you closest to the White House and National Mall, but these addresses usually come at a premium price though there are a few exceptions. Downtown Washington DC is home to some of the grandest and most storied hotels and is a great area if you’re looking to splurge. Another thing to note about staying in Downtown Washington DC is that your dining options are a bit limited and also tend to be on the pricier side.
Penn Quarter – Penn Quarter is a great area to stay in for it’s proximity to the National Mall, CityCenterDC, the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Capital One Arena and Chinatown. Penn Quarter also has an amazing array of dining options for every budget.
Dupont Circle -Dupont Circle is personally one of my favorite areas to stay in. A 20ish minute walk will bring you to the National Mall and Dupont Circle has great Metro access putting most of Washington DC at your fingertips. Dupont Circle has a great neighborhood feel with a mix of shops and restaurants. The Dupont Circle neighborhood is also convenient to Embassy Row and Georgetown.
Woodley Park – The Woodley Park area is close to the National Zoo and the Washington National Cathedral and with it’s own metro stop you can be at the National Mall in minutes. Woodley Park is in a quiet residential area and has a handful of restaurants.
Capitol Hill – The Capitol Hill area is convenient to Union Station, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and obviously the United States Capitol. Adjacent to the United States Capitol is a residential neighborhood filled with colorful homes and great restaurants.
9. Hotels in Arlington/Alexandria
With great Metro access to Washington DC hotels in Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia are often a fraction of the price of those access the Potomac River. Arlington tends to be more business oriented while Alexandria has a very charming downtown and makes a great weekend getaway in it’s own right.
Museums in Washington DC
10. Free Museums and Attractions– The Air & Space Museum, the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of the American Indian and the Museum of African American History; not only are these some of the best museums in the world but as part of the Smithsonian all of these museums offer free admission. (Be prepared for airport style security checks that include metal detectors and bag checks at many of the city’s museums and federal buildings). Other free museums include the National Gallery of Art, US Botanic Garden, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Castle, US Bureau of Engraving and Printing, National Archives and the Renwick Gallery
11. Museum that require advances tickets – While the Smithsonian museums are free to enter some of them do require advanced tickets. Make sure to get tickets ahead of time for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
12. Paid Admission Museums– With the number of free museums in Washington DC it can be tempting to skip the ones you have to pay for but these museums are well worth the price of admission. Featuring interactive spy experiences and the largest collection of espionage artifacts in the world the International Spy Museum is a must stop for any 007 fan. The Newseum aims to teach the public about the importance of the First Amendment and a free press. The National Building Museum explores the role of architecture in our society and often features large scale interactive exhibitions each summer.
Washington DC Sightseeing
13. At nearly two miles from the Capitol steps to the Lincoln Memorial the National Mall is a lot longer than many people think. Lace up your shoes and enjoy strolling among the monuments (the WW2 Memorial is especially moving) or if limited mobility is a concern try one of the many National Mall bus tours.
14. Spend a morning at the National Zoo with the famed pandas while they snack on bamboo or watch the sleek cheetahs sprint through their savannah inspired exhibit. As part of the Smithsonian admission to the National Zoo is free.
15. Interested in touring the White House during your visit to Washington DC? Be sure to plan ahead as far in advance as possible, lead times can vary from 3 weeks to 6 months. White House tours can be arranged by contacting your congressional office, further details can be found at White House website.
16. The US. Capitol Building is the seat of American Democracy and one of the most recognizable buildings in the United States. While you can get same day tickets its highly recommended to book tickets in advance. The standard guided tour does not include the Senate and House floors; contact your congressman to get passes to view the Congress and Senate galleries when in session.
17. The final resting place of John F. Kennedy Jr., countless servicemen and women and home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; a visit to Arlington National Cemetery is a solemn and profoundly moving experience.
18. Don’t miss a visit to the Library of Congress, home to the world’s largest collection of books. The Thomas Jefferson Room is a visually stunning Beaux Arts confection of frescoes and sculptures celebrating Western Civilization’s most influential thinkers.
19. Take a free tour of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Take the free shuttle from the Foggy Bottom Metro station (shuttles depart every 15 minutes starting at 9:45 am M-F, 10 am on Saturday and noon on Sundays). Guided tours start every 10 minutes and feature an interactive exhibit on the life of President John F. Kennedy and fantastic city views from the rooftop terrace.
20.Context Travel offers in-depth tours led by local historians and scholars. Learn about the history behind the monuments at the National Mall or explore the National Portrait Gallery with a PhD level art historian.
21. Cross the Potomac to visit George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon then explore the independent boutiques and restaurants that line the cobblestone streets of Alexandria. Check out my recommendations for other things to do in Alexandria.
Dining in Washington DC
22. In recent years Washington DC has become a culinary destination in its own right and from casual to fine dining there is no shortage of great places to eat. While I’ve got my own favorites DC’s culinary scene is always changing, here you can find a few of my favorite places to eat in Washington DC and I’m always following the recommendations from this guide on where to eat in DC as well as from my Washington DC based friend Jessica at the Dining Traveler.
23. Some of DC’s most unique dining experiences can be found at the cafes located within the Smithsonian musuems. A museum cafe you say? Here me out. At the National Museum of the American Indian Mitsitam Cafe features cuisine indigenous to the Americas with menu items ranging from wild salmon and forage mushrooms to bison chili and fry bread.After you’re done exploring the National Museum of African-American History and Culture be sure to get lunch at Sweet Home Cafe. Helmed by Chef Jerome Grant and Chef Ambassador Carla Hall the cafe features regional African American classics like pan-fried Louisiana catfish po’boy and duck, andouille & crawfish gumbo but be sure to save room for the praline bread pudding with bourbon caramel sauce.
24.Union Market, a revitalized mid-century food hall has turned the NoMa neighborhood into a culinary haven. Slurp fresh-from-the-Chesapeake oysters at Rappahannock, a chorizo burger from Red Apron Butcher or savor Michelin-starred Italian at Masseria.
25. Food tours are one of my favorite ways to explore an area in short amount of time. DC Metro Food Tours lead you through some of Washington DC’s tastiest neighborhoods allowing you to truly taste the best of Washington DC.