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