EXPLORE

The Travel Guide to Washington, DC

Good to Know
Safety:
A
Budget:
$$$$
When to go:
Mar-May, Sept-Oct
Average Costs
Basic
Baller
Dinners
$10
$80+
Drinks
$7
$15+
Hotel
$180
$300+

Even if you’re not a fan of politics, there’s a lot to love about DC, or as locals call it, “the District.” Stage performance and literature thrive here, and accomplished mural artists have painted the town in a rainbow of hues. DC’s huge Black population has long shaped the “Chocolate City,” known for great jazz, soul food, and visual art, as well as insightful words. And 15% of this diplomacy-focused city’s residents were born in another country, infusing DC with their cultural customs and favorite foods. 

Theaters here (from lavish to scruffy) fairly burst with excellent plays, musical acts, and comedians. The city’s museums are amazing, offering a well-rounded education in history, art, and science. But be aware that the non-profit Trust for Public Land has deemed DC’s park system the best in America, with a whopping 20% of its landscape devoted to green space that includes the National Mall—so far beyond reserved seats and the legendary Smithsonian, this is a great city for getting outside.

Before you go, read more about the history and culture that make DC special.

Who’ll Love Washington, DC

Foodies who’d like to travel around the world without a passport, fans of American history and grand architecture, garden lovers who pine for amazing plant specimens, and enthusiasts of global art from the last 2,000 years. All age groups will find excitement here, but it’s especially romantic for couples and fun for kids.

How to Budget for a Trip to DC

DC is not the least expensive city you’ll ever visit; a basic hotel room here averages $180 a night, and luxury digs hover/soar above $300. Airbnbs and hostels average $100 a night, and often less. 

Fast-casual dining is widely available in DC, from a $6 half-smoke hot dog to bowl-based entrees (e.g., ramen, poke, salads, etc.) that cost about $10-14. A casual sit-down dinner will set you back around $20-25 per person, while three courses and a beverage start around $40 per person and go way up from there. 

Safety Considerations

In the 1990s, DC was known as America’s drug-riddled murder capital—but in 2020, The Economist’s SafeCities Index named it the safest large city in the US. Just be mindful to secure your belongings in crowded areas, especially in nightlife zones like Shaw, Adams Morgan, the H Street Corridor, and around the Chinatown-Gallery Place Metro stop. 

Weather in Washington, DC

Average spring and fall temps range from 55-75 degrees Fahrenheit, with rain a common occurrence in either season. Summers are hot and humid. Winters are relatively mild for the East Coast, but you can still expect snow and ice.

When to Visit DC

Weather-wise, spring and fall are the seasons of choice. The famous Cherry Blossom Festival happens in late March-early April, while May sees an open-embassy event called Passport DC and the Memorial Day Parade. The National Book Festival and DC JazzFest are held in September, and Capital Pride and the Smithsonian Food History Weekend are in October. 

Summers attract fans of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in June and July, the Giant National Capital Barbecue Festival in June, and Fourth of July Fireworks on the Mall. Throughout the season, you’ll find families making the museum-y most of their kids’ school holidays. 

December rewards you with the National Christmas Tree Lighting, the US Botanic Garden’s “Seasons Greenings” displays (including a themed miniature train), and skating on the ice rink at Georgetown’s Washington Harbour. January sees the exciting New Year’s Parade in Chinatown and various MLK Day celebrations. In February, make a toast to winter at the DC Chocolate, Wine, and Whisky Festival and/or the DC Cocktail Festival.

Note that April through June is the high season for hotels, while December through February is the low. 

Money Saving Tips 

All the Smithsonian museums are free to enter. There are 19 of them, from the National Zoo to the Renwick Gallery, and each one is worth (at the very least) an hour of your time. 

Book a free (or name-your-price) walking tour with Free Tours by Foot or download one or more of the $9 themed audio tours from DC Walkabout

Happy hour is a revered local pastime in DC, and a delicious way to save on weeknight dinners. Many restaurants feature bar-bite versions of their bestsellers, and drinks tend to run $5-8. Bar Charley in Dupont Circle has one of the few 7-days-a-week happy hours in town, but you’ll find other great options on Eater DC.

What to See, Do, and Eat in Washington, DC

The Top 10 Things to Do in DC

aerial view of the National Mall and US Capitol building
  1. Tour the White House to see where America greets its guests. Note that requests for tours must be made through your member of Congress. 
  2. Book a free tour of the US Capitol (once they’re offered again) to see the Crypt, Rotunda, and fascinating National Statuary Hall, and consider booking separate passes to view the Senate and House Galleries. 
  3. Reserve your timed-entry pass to the Library of Congress’s stunning Thomas Jefferson Building, a marble and mahogany palace housing a trove of maps from the early exploration of the Americas, as well as beautiful mosaics and the Gutenberg Bible. 
  4. Take a paddleboat out on the Tidal Basin, ideally when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. While there, climb the grand steps to the Jefferson Memorial for a gorgeous view, and take a stroll around the Basin to see stirring monuments to MLK and FDR. 
  5. Book a timed-entry pass to the extraordinary National Museum of African American History and Culture, which includes a full-size slave ship and a heartbreaking memorial to Emmitt Till.
  6. Book an entry pass to visit the Giant Pandas, beavers, lemurs, lizards and much more at the National Zoo.
  7. Reserve timed-entry tickets to the National Archives to view the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. 
  8. Visit the sprawling World War II Memorial during the day, when the bereaved bring flags and flowers to pay their respects, or at night, to experience quiet reflection beside gracefully lit fountains and pools. 
  9. Go for a stroll in the peaceful Constitution Gardens, which unfurl between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument. Consider this one-stop shopping for a taste of presidential glory. 
  10. Explore both the East Wing and West Wing of the stunning National Gallery for an art-based trip through time. 

The Local Picks for Top Attractions and Activities in DC

stairs lead through a flower-lined forest in the National Arboretum
  1. For a forest bath within city limits, take an early morning or late afternoon hike in the 9-mile Rock Creek Park. Start and end your hike at Pierce Mill, a water-powered grain mill built in 1829, and pack a picnic to enjoy beside the creek. 
  2. Hit the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, which runs roughly 12 miles (and ultimately will run 20) along both sides of the Anacostia River. 
  3. Along the Riverwalk Trail, stop in Navy Yard for a baseball game at Nationals Park, a lobster roll on the riverside patio at The Salt Line, and/or a beer at the Bluejacket micro-brewery. 
  4. Promenade around the Kennedy Center (with or without a performance) on a free tour of the magnificent Hall of States. Head outside to the REACH/ Victura Park complex to enjoy a drink at their riverview cafe, then wander along the adjacent reflecting pool and through the sculpture gardens. 
  5. Paddleboard, canoe, or kayak to your arm’s content on the Potomac River. Boating DC has three equipment-rental boathouses on the Potomac—Key Bridge, Fletcher’s, and The Wharf. 
  6. Head southwest to Culture House DC, the wildly muraled reinvention of the former Friendship Baptist Congregation, for cutting-edge installations by local artists. 
  7. Frolic amongst the water lilies at Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens, a 30-acre shrine to lotus flowers in a quiet northeast corner of the city. Well-trodden walking paths take you around ponds, over bridges, and along the wetland edges of the Anacostia. 
  8. Spend a few hours at the glorious, 446-acre US National Arboretum. Free to enter, here you’ll find a ton of azaleas, a lilac meadow, a tree from every state in the Union, a sensory herb and flower garden, shaded forest paths, and a pavilion full of bonsai trees.

What to Eat and Drink in Washington, DC

plate of oysters on the half-shell

The nation’s capital is America’s diplomatic welcome wagon, so it’s not surprising the city has a top-notch, fascinating restaurant scene. Think of a cuisine from anywhere in the world, and you can count on finding it in the DC metropolitan area. Local purveyors make a strong showing all across town, from coffee to bagels to wood-fired pizza. DC cocktail culture is brilliant, and micro-breweries and wine bars are plentiful. Here are a (very) few of our favorite spots: 

  • Union Market is a hip, fun food hall with some of the best local food purveyors in the city, serving everything from oysters to pastries, and soul food to Indian, open daily from breakfast through dinner
  • The Dabney is a one-Michelin-starred treasure of Mid-Atlantic-sourced cuisine, with spins on historic American recipes and a wood-fired hearth
  • Thip Kao is Laotian at its most creative, with coconut rice, bold curries, green papaya, and cocktails to match the menu’s zing and spice
  • Florida Avenue Grill has been a DC soul food staple since 1944, with all-day breakfast, strong coffee, cozy booths, and signed photos of local Black celebrities
  • Ethiopic is only one of a slew of great Ethiopian restaurants in the city, but gets high marks for a deliciously nuanced use of spices, elegant presentation, and especially tangy injera bread 
  • Columbia Room offers a swanky night out at its best, with intricate mosaics and sexy lighting, a Spritz Garden and Spirits Library, and flat-out fabulous (if not cheap) cocktails made by experts
  • Daikaya is a ramen paradise, with every element perfectly prepared; arrive hungry at 11am (to beat the crowds) and you won’t need food again ‘til dinner
  • Zaytinya is but one jewel in Chef Jose Andres’ DC crown, but it’s arguably the most popular, serving gorgeous dishes from throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East in a polished, glassy space
  • Supra offers artful presentations of traditional feasts from the Republic of Georgia, from soup dumplings to the cheese-bread heaven of khachapuri
  • Maketto is a 6,000-square foot streetwear shop, wi-fi cafe, and restaurant, the latter serving artfully presented Cambodian and Taiwanese street food that’ll make your palate sing 

Where to Stay in Washington, DC

Top DC Neighborhoods for Visitors

gate in DC's Chinatown

We’re not suggesting you skip the bars and shopping in Adams Morgan, the quiet canal paths in Georgetown, the Dupont Circle farmers market, or the around-the-world dining options in Columbia Heights, but here’s where there’s always a whole lot happening:  

Penn Quarter/Chinatown

On the eastern edge of the Mall, this busy slice of downtown is an ideal spot to have dinner, lunch, and/or cocktails while exploring Smithsonian outposts like the side-by-side National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum, as well as the International Spy Museum

The Wharf 

Perched beside the Potomac River just south of the Tidal Basin, this snazzy mixed-use development brings new life to a long-neglected swath of Southwest DC with excellent restaurants and lively bars lining the riverside boardwalk. Snuggle by the firepit on chilly evenings, hop on a water taxi to cross the river, or enjoy live music at venues like The Anthem and Union Stage.

Shaw

Evolving between quaintly historic and uber-modern, this still gentrifying area is chock full of trendy local eateries and bars along 9th Street, Blagden Alley, and 7th Street, starting at the Convention Center and ending at the lovely campus of historically Black Howard University.

U Street/14th Street Corridor

This solidly gentrified district is known for great boutique shopping and buzzy nightlife. In addition to booze gardens, casual global eateries, and a mix of chain and independent shops, you’ll find Harlem Renaissance-era landmarks like Ben’s Chili Bowl and the Lincoln Theater

Capitol Hill

Just south of the US Capitol Building, this sprawling hilltop haven is home to some of the best dining and bars in DC (such as Rose’s Luxury and The Betsy). Most of the area dates to the early 1800s, with graceful row houses and brick-paved sidewalks. Check out Eastern Market’s flea market on weekends, and on summer Fridays, reserve your seat for a band concert at the Marine Barracks. 

Recommended Hotels in DC

Getting Around in Washington, DC

Public Transportation Options in DC

If you’re staying in the city center, don’t rent a car. Parking anywhere near museums, monuments, and downtown hotels is notoriously difficult and expensive. DC taxis can be very costly, too, so if you must travel by car, fire up those rideshare apps and avoid travel during pricey traffic surges.

Consider relying instead on DC’s extensive Metro system of public transport. Download the MetroHero app to have schedules and maps at your fingertips, then buy a $5, refillable SmarTrip card on the SmarTrip app or in any Metro subway station. To save a little money on each subway ride, avoid peak riding times (5-9:30am, and 3-7pm).  

For $1 (or less) a ride, hop on the DC Circulator, an ingenious bus that travels the city center’s most popular spots. Download the Circulator’s PDF map to your phone, and to ride, use your SmartTrip card or bring exact change. Senior fares are 50 cents, and kids under five ride free.  

If you’d rather travel outdoors, bring good walking shoes and your GPS app of choice, or rent Capital Bikeshare bikes all over town with either a 24-Hour Pass or 3-Day Pass

Washington, DC Airports

There are three major international airports serving the Washington, DC metro area.

  • Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), often called simply National Airport, is the smallest of the three and the closest to downtown—it’s only five miles away from the city. It’s a hub for American Airlines.
  • Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), most commonly called Dulles, is about 26 miles from DC and a hub for United Airlines and Southern Airways Express. It’s the busiest of the three DC airports.
  • Baltimore/Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport (BWI) is typically referred to by its airport code—BWI. As the name suggests, it serves Baltimore as well as the DC area. It’s less than 10 miles from Baltimore and about 30 from Washington, DC. It’s a focus city for Southwest Airlines.

How to Get to Washington, DC from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA)

National is close enough to DC to be linked to the city’s subway system. Both the Blue Line and Yellow Line serve the airport. The Metrorail takes less than 20 minutes to reach the city center and the fare ranges from $2.25-6 (depending on time of day). Taxi service from National into DC takes about 10 minutes and fares start at $14. Rideshare options are Lyft, Uber, and Via, and those fares start in the $14 range, too.

How to Get to Washington, DC from Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD)

Dulles isn’t on the Metrorail line, but travelers can connect to the subway via Metrobus from the airport. The 5A bus ($7.50) connects Dulles to a subway station served by the Orange, Silver, and Blue lines. There’s also the Silver Line Express bus, which connects to a station on the Silver Line and costs $5 one-way. Taxi trips take at least 40 minutes with fares starting around $65, and both the duration and cost of the ride can increase dramatically if traffic is bad. Lyft, Uber, and Via serve Dulles, with fares starting in the $45 range.

How to Get to Washington, DC from Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI)

The best options for public transit from BWI into DC are trains. Both Amtrak and Maryland’s commuter rail (MARC) serve the airport and connect to Washington, DC (as well as other parts of the metro area)—and trains don’t get stuck in traffic jams. The train trip to DC’s Union Station is usually 30-35 minutes and tickets start at $7. Taxi trips often take an hour or more because of traffic, and $100 fares aren’t uncommon. Lyft and Uber rides can cost nearly as much.

Where Else to Go from Washington, DC 

Day Trips from DC

historic buildings in Alexandria, VA

Alexandria, Virginia dates to the 18th century, with some of the most beautifully preserved historical architecture in the country. You’ll also find peaceful riverside walking paths, a hip music scene, craft galleries, and great curio shopping. (~20 minutes away)

Home to the U.S. Naval Academy and the state capital, Annapolis, Maryland is renowned for its charming historic buildings, sailing culture, and restaurant and bar terraces overlooking the picture-perfect Chesapeake Bay Harbor. (~60 minutes away)

Long known for farming, Loudon County, Virginia is now a wine country destination, with 40 wineries (and a handful of cideries and breweries). Take the Silver Line Metro to Leesburg, rent a car, then taste popular local varieties like Cabernet Franc and Viognier at hotspots like Stone Tower Winery, 8 Chains North, and Bluemont Vineyard. (~60 minutes away)

Baltimore, Maryland (aka “Bawlmer”) is home to the fascinating American Visionary Art Museum, stunning National Aquarium, and elegant Walters Museum of Art; 18th-century clapboard and brick buildings in Fell’s Point; and the oldest food market in the US, where you’ll find the city’s best crab cakes at Faidley’s Seafood. (~90 minutes away)

Where Else to Visit from Washington, DC

Richmond, Virginia, the state’s genteel capital, is chock full of artists and makers; a thriving beer scene; the biking heaven of the 50-mile Capital Trail;  the neighboring Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Virginia Museum of History & Culture; excellent farm-to-table restaurants; stunning gardens like Maymont and the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden; and as of the September 2021 takedown of Robert E. Lee, a dearth of Civil War monuments. (~2 hours)

The 200,000-acre Shenandoah National Park wends its way through Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains to highlights like the cascades at Hazel River Falls, the meadows and forests of Sugarloaf Loop, and the Instagram-worthy Miller’s Head lookout. Part of the Appalachian Trail runs through here, although there are some far easier hikes, as well. Springtime rhododendron blooms are dazzling, as are colorful oak, birch, and maple leaves in autumn. (~2 hours)

Books, Movies, and TV Shows Set in Washington, DC

From The West Wing to House of Cards, Minority Report to Legally Blonde 2, and just about anything by DC’s resident crime novelist George Pelecanos, Washington, DC has long been the subject and setting of countless books, movies, and TV shows. Here are some of our favorites. 

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian: With a blockbuster cast (including Robin Williams) depicting a slew of historical celebrities, this family-friendly romp uses special effects to tell the stories behind some of the Smithsonian’s most significant artifacts.

Veep: In this HBO portent of a still-possible future, a female senator from Maryland (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) becomes Vice-President and then President of the United States. Though a satire, this snarky picture of how politics really work in the Nation’s Capital is impressively accurate.

Lost in the City: Written by DC’s own Edward P. Jones, these short stories focus on ordinary African-American men and women living in the District back in 1992, just as gentrification was starting to transform historically black neighborhoods like Shaw and the U Street Corridor. With allusions to specific corners all over the city, a whole DC tour could be designed from this book.

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