If you’re planning a tour of D.C., there are a few things you should know before you go. After all, you want to have a great experience and see the things that are most important to you.
Here are a few of our most important tips for first-time visitors to Washington, D.C.
1. If You Want To Visit The White House, Plan Well In Advance
For many visitors, just viewing the People’s House from the street and snapping a few photos is more than enough. But if your heart’s set on a tour, you’ll be disappointed if you just show up and expect to get in.
You need to submit a request to a member of Congress—not less than 21 days in advance of your proposed tour date. If you’re a citizen of another country, you need to work with your embassy to get your request approved.
Once you know the dates you’ll be in D.C., it’s a good idea to put plans in motion if you hope to get inside the White House.
2. Choose Your Time Of Year Wisely
Summer is extremely popular, especially with families, but D.C. weather is known for high heat and humidity, so consider your comfort level before you book a summer trip.
On the other hand, if you book a guided tour, you’ll be in air-conditioned comfort for much of the adventure, which a great bonus for summer travelers. This makes sightseeing enjoyable, no matter the season!
Spring and fall are wonderful seasons to experience the city—and there’s nothing like the cherry blossoms in D.C.! Winter is relatively quiet, visitor-wise, which makes it appealing, despite the often frosty weather. You can also see some amazing holiday lights and the national Christmas tree.
3. Start With A Guided Tour
Washington, DC is an exciting place with lots of monuments, memorials, museums, and historic neighborhoods.
If you’ve never been before, it’s hard to know where to start. A guided tour gives you a good overview of the city, gives you a taste of the most popular places, and helps you get oriented so you can better explore the places that interest you on your own later on.
If you’d like a little more independence—without losing the advantages of a guided tour—a combination guided tour and hop-on, hop-off tour bus pass is a great way to see the city on your own terms.
4. The National Mall Is A Lot Bigger Than It Looks
If you watched “Forrest Gump,” you might think the Mall is little more than a few blocks, but in reality, it’s a two-mile stretch from end-to-end, and many of the most fascinating monuments and museums line this grassy stretch.
If you only have 24 hours in Washington, D.C., this is the place to start—and you’d be forgiven if you spent your entire day browsing the Mall’s attractions.
5. Save Money Visiting Free Museums And Attractions
Like any international capital, D.C. is an expensive place to visit. The good news is, you can save a lot by spending your time doing all the free things. All the Smithsonian museums are free—including the National Zoo. Ditto all the monuments and memorials.
Many of the art museums and galleries are also free, including the National Gallery, the Hirshhorn, and the Freer and Sackler Galleries. And you can spend hours enjoying the gorgeous parks and green spaces that dot the city. Pack a picnic lunch and plenty of water, and you really can enjoy an entire day in D.C. without spending a dime!
6. The Monuments Are Open 24 Hours A Day—Enjoy Them At Night!
Want to avoid the crowds and get some amazing photographs to boot? Plan an evening monument tour. There’s nothing quite so spectacular as the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Washington Monument, and the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial brightly lit against the night sky.
7. Bring A Refillable Water Bottle, Your Pocketbook Will Thank You
Why spend $3, $4, or $5 for a bottle of water when you can refill your own for free at locations all over the city? Besides saving lots of money, you’re also helping to control the plastic pollution that plagues major cities.
D.C. has a TapIt program that partners with over 750 businesses and attractions around the District to provide free tap water to residents and visitors. No one will think you’re strange for refilling your water bottle—and D.C. tap water actually tastes pretty great. Buy yourself something to remember your visit by with all the money you save.
Don’t have a bottle? If you take a guided tour, you will get a free bottle of water on your bus.
8. Skip Paper Tickets And Get A Rechargeable Metro SmarTrip Card
SmarTrip cards are refillable cards you can use on just about every transit provider in the D.C. metro area—including the bus, light rail, subway, and even the transit lines to popular D.C. suburbs in Maryland and Virginia.
Buy one before your trip; you can always add to it throughout your stay. A one-day unlimited pass is just $14.75, which is a great value if you plan to see a lot of different parts of the city.
9. Don’t Forget The Magical City Views From The Water
D.C. is a waterfront city and a Potomac River boat cruise is the perfect way to see a whole different side of the city.
You can also enjoy other water activities like kayaking the Potomac River, riding paddle boats in the Tidal Basin, or taking a Duck boat tour.
Don’t miss some of the gorgeous harbors in the area, especially the Washington Harbour in Georgetown and the National Harbor in Maryland. Treat your family to a ride on the National Wheel for spectacular views of the city.
10. Function Over Fashion When It Comes To Your Footwear
Washington is an extremely walkable city—it’s probably the best way to explore the neighborhoods and charming districts. And even if you book a guided city tour, you’ll still have to walk a good bit to get from parking spaces to the attractions themselves.
Our best advice is to forget your stylish shoes and go for the ones that make your feet happy. You’ll be able to enjoy your trip so much more if your feet aren’t sore.
11. Do Yourself A Favor—Don’t Even Think About Driving a Car Here
D.C. drivers are always in a hurry, and the traffic is pretty terrible, too. If you want to ruin a pleasant afternoon in the city, spend it behind the wheel of a car all tangled up in traffic or searching for a parking spot. Honestly, it’s such a great city for pedestrians, and public transportation is so good, there’s really no reason to bother with a car.
And if you want to see areas of interest outside D.C., like Old Town Alexandria or George Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon, you can book a guided tour to take you there in comfort and style without ever needing your own car.
12. Cheaper Hotels Are Easy To Find Outside The District
During the week especially, hotels in the city can be exorbitantly expensive—$400 a night is not uncommon. But you can find some quality hotels in the areas around D.C. for around $100 a night or so, pretty significant savings if you’re watching your budget.
Look for hotels near a metro station in places like Rosslyn, Crystal City, or Falls Church. You can hop on a train and be on the National Mall in 30 minutes or less, depending on where you stay.
13. D.C. Is A Foodie’s Paradise—Enjoy It!
You’d expect a thriving, well-heeled metropolitan area like the District to have an equally thriving food scene – and it does!
Washington, DC’s rich food scene has every kind of ethnic cuisine and options to suit every budget. Adams Morgan is a great place to sample international fare (think Ethiopian, Lebanese, Nepalese, and Afghani, for example).
If you’re not sure where to start, check out this list of great things to eat in D.C. There are iconic local favorites, swanky bistros, and even world-class restaurants to try.
14. Don’t Try To Do It All
Overplanning your visit is a classic rookie mistake—you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to fit everything into one trip. A better way is to schedule just one activity per day (a walking tour, exploring the U.S. Library of Congress or a Smithsonian museum, for example) and leaving plenty of time for magic to happen. Sometimes the best vacation experiences happen when and where you least expect them!
Ready To Plan Your Trip To Washington, D.C.?
We’d love to help you put together a great itinerary and find the tour that’s just right for you.
Get in touch today and we’ll put your plans in motion. If you’re not quite ready to plan your trip, sign up for our free email course with lots of useful information about visiting our nation’s capital.
USA Guided Tours Blogging Team