Part 1 in my Washington, D.C. Travel Guide Series – Follow the links to see Part 2: Smithsonian Favorites, Part 3: Tried and True D.C. Restaurant Guide, and Part 4: Ten Free Things to Do in D.C. for more.
This summer I’ve been getting requests from friends planning trips to D.C. for suggestions. So it seemed a good time to pull together a list of my best recommendations for all of you, as well!
When my husband got a job in D.C. a few years ago, it seemed like everyone I met in the city told me it wouldn’t be long before I stopped going to all the museums and events right down the street. Determined to NOT let that happen to me, my mantra quickly became: “Pretend you’re a tourist for as long as possible”.
And I think I lived up to that pretty well — while also figuring out how to do D.C. like a local! It’s the best of both worlds.
Having recently moved away from that great city, here are some of the things I learned about playing tourist in Washington, D.C. while my impressions are still fresh.
1. The Very Best Map
If you’d allow me to save you some time, let me suggest just getting yourself this map. It’s a great walking map of all the monuments and memorials, and includes bonus maps of Greater Washington, Dupont Circle and Georgetown. If you want something that’s super easy to read, the most compact you’ll find, easy to fold because of its pop-up style, and cheaper than anything else, then this is for you. Plus it includes a quick map of the Metro system. You’re welcome!
(If you need a driving map, I’d suggest something larger and with more detail but for most people’s purposes this will be just right.)
2. Annie’s Favorite Guide Books
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Washington, D.C. – I love the Eyewitness series and find their guidebooks to be packed with good info. They also weigh as much as a small puppy, so probably better to consult this at your hotel before you head out for the day and leave it behind.
Peaceful Places: Washington, D.C.: 114 Tranquil Sites in the Nation’s Capital and Beyond – As an introvert, I tend to be overstimulated easily by crowds and museums, so I love that this book gives options for quiet places to regroup off the beaten path.
Very Washington DC: A Celebration of the History and Culture of America’s Capital City – Pretty and practical, this one also makes a great souvenir.
3. To Cherry Blossom or To Not Cherry Blossom?
That is such a good question. The cherry blossoms are gorgeous and certainly a D.C. treasure. Usually peak bloom is around the first week of April — but the ambiguity can make planning around them challenging.
I will say that the city is absolutely ba-na-nas at that time, with people jams everywhere you look. So, that factor can make other aspects of your visit like museum-seeing or eating (!!!), more challenging. Also, if you have terrible pollen allergies – just don’t do it — you will be a walking bobble head. But, basically, it all really depends on what you’re hoping to accomplish in your trip. The National Cherry Blossom Festival always overlaps the peak bloom with its special events. But that’s certainly not the only fun time to visit D.C. A few favorites of mine are:
Passport DC (Usually two weekends in May): Sponsored by Cultural Tourism DC, this annual event opens the doors to embassies all across the city. While you are always able to do a walking tour around Embassy Row, it’s not often that you can just waltz right in to the embassy buildings of the nations’ of the world to get a peek inside! And, bonus, there is almost always food on site too!
Smithsonian Folk Life Festival (usually late June – early July): Each year, the festival highlights one or two cultures from around the world in a colorful display of visual art, agriculture, dance, and cuisine on the national mall. Delegates from each culture or country are stationed all across the mall to demonstrate their artisanal skills. You’ll learn a lot and eat well too.
National Book Festival (Saturday in Late September): If you’re a book lover, this Library of Congress sponsored event is a great chance to attend author talks, special programming and book signings, including some kid-friendly events. Plus there’s usually a lot of swag to be gotten!
Fair warning: Starting in March, gaggles of children dressed like highlighters so their teachers’ don’t lose them, descend upon the city with their entire eighth grade classes. This lasts through May and transitions right into summer break when the families arrive and the heat and humidity with them. If you don’t like crowds or gaggles of children, the best time to come is in late August or September before Congress is back in session.
4. Call Ahead
If you are planning on visiting any of the following, make sure to make reservations ahead of time because they can book up months in advance.
- The Washington Monument (if you wanna go up!)
- The White House (at least 21 day notice is needed to tour inside)
- Supreme Court (check to see when court is in session and check the website for arrival times to secure a place in line)
- The Holocaust Memorial Museum (you’ll need an advance ticket March through August)
- Capital Building Tours can fill up as well – call your state or local representative to find out about getting a personalized tour!
5. The Bathroom Situation
It can be a bathroom desert out there! Especially after all the museums and Capital Hill close up for the day and you’re stranded out on the Mall in a suddenly desperate situation. Luckily for you, I’ve been there and lived to tell about it. Store these away for safe keeping because they’re not in any guidebook I’ve ever seen.
- The gorgeous little marble building (left) in front of the Washington Monument (on the Capital side) – it’s not well advertised but there’s a public restroom in there and it’s open late, bless its heart.
- Union Station – if you’re riding the Metro Red Line you can hop off and instead of taking the escalators up to street level, walk through the double doors to the food court in the basement and follow the signs. This is also close about a ten minute walk from Capital Hill if you’re in the neighborhood and everything else is closed. Metro Center, Gallery Place, and DuPont are also Metro stops with more commerce close to their exits and could be good stop offs if needed.
- National Building Museum – Right across from the Judiciary Square Metro stop. It’s free to walk into their lobby and use their restroom. Also a great place to cool off on a hot day.
- There are 7 public restrooms scattered around the west end of the Mall and the East and West Potomac Parks, maintained by the National Park Service. They’re not pretty but if you are in need, they are there for you.
Of course the Smithsonians’ are always options, though you will have to go through security to get in, and I am told you can badger a metro stop manager to ask them to use the “secret” bathroom at any stop, but I’ve never met anyone who has done this, if that is any indication.
Stay hydrated out there! And have a bathroom plan.
6. Where Should I Stay?
This is a toughie because it depends so much on personal preference and budgets, but here are some neighborhood considerations:
D.C. Proper – Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, and NOMA neighborhoods will put you in short range of the major tourist attractions and are most accessible by public transit. They also have many options in terms of night life and food. Georgetown is lovely, but also a little more challenging when it comes to parking and transportation, as Metro Rail does not service it.
Maryland Options – Silver Spring, Bethesda, and even Rockville, MD are often affordable options for families. Make sure your lodging is close to a Metro stop, and keep in mind that you’ll be about 1/2 hour to 45 minute train ride into the heart of the city.
Virginia Options – Arlington, Crystal City, the Ballston neighborhood, or Old Town Alexandria are all good options across the Potomac. Again, check the accessibility of your chosen lodging to public transportation options. You’ll be looking at a 30-45 minute in to the attractions from most of these locations.
7. Getting Around
Your car: If you are driving – which may be cost effective if you are with a large family – we have found the site Parking Panda and Spot Hero to be great for saving some serious dough on parking garage rates. But, fair warning, it’s a traffic zoo out there! So, you might want to consider some other options as well.
Metro Rail: Probably your best bet for getting into the city if you are staying in outlying Maryland or Virginia. But here’s the thing about D.C.’s train system, the Metro — it’s reputation precedes it. And that is not a good thing. If you last came in 1996 I’m sure it was awesome! But it’s currently struggling with infrastructure issues, track closures, and delays. Fares vary based on time of day, as well and you must pay per ride or buy a $15 day pass which can be cost prohibitive for some. That said, it’s still often the best way to get around. Oh, and if you find yourself waiting on the platform for your train while the arrival sign blinks here’s an insider tip. Check out @fixwmata and @unsuckdcmetro (pardon my French), on Twitter to see crowd sourced information regarding delays. It could save you some time if you’re trying to decide to wait out the delay or not.
Bus: The Metro bus system is pretty easy to navigate as long as you pick up a SmarTrip farecard online ahead of time or at a Metro station (same cards work for Metro rail and bus). But there is also the Circulator which has routes through most of the major tourist areas, and each ride is only $1!
Car Share: Uber and Lyft are two popular alternatives (you can download their apps on your smartphone and request a driver from wherever you are in the city) though make sure if it’s raining or rush hour that you’re aware of the current fare rates as both companies have surge pricing for busy times.
Bikeshare: D.C. also has a great bikeshare program called Capital Bikeshare, where you can join for a day, 3 days or longer. Most of the memorials, monuments and museums are conveniently clustered together in walking or biking distance, so this can be a great option.
Note: I have accidentally ended up walking a half marathon on more than one occasion on the National Mall – everything looks close together and it is sort of, but that can also be deceptive in that it’s not all THAT close. Especially if you have kids, be cognizant of this and plan to break up the walking with some biking or Circulator rides if you can.
8. Be an Escalator Pro
If you want to blend in with the locals — and coincidentally not incite the wrath of the fifty-some commuters behind you — one way to do it is to look like a pro on Metro escalators. It’s simple: Stand Right, Walk Left. And if you are with someone else or are part of a group riding the escalator, make a single file line to the right so people can still get past you on the left if they are in a hurry (as is most often the case). And if you have a stroller – just don’t. Take the elevator instead. Everyone around you will be in a much more pleasant mood, I promise.
(Fun fact: The Wheaton Metro stop has the longest escalator in the western hemisphere. Hang on tight!)
9. Download These Apps
A few free apps that can make your life easier if they’re not already on your phone:
- Smithsonian Mobile (iphone/Android)
- U.S. Capital Visitor Center Apps (iphone/Android)
- Visit Washington DC by Dizgo Inc (iphone)
- National Parks Service Mobile App (iphone/Android)
- DC Metro & Bus (iphone)
- Uber (iphone/Android)
- Lyft (iphone/Android)
- Yelp (iphone/Android)
10. The Best Gift Shops!
If you want to commemorate your trip with a souvenir, you’ll have plenty to choose from! My favorite is the Building Museum Gift Shop. It’s filled with unique souvenirs and items I’ve not seen elsewhere. They also have a room devoted to toys and games. The Library of Congress has an excellent shop, as does the National Postal Service Museum which has a working post office where you can purchase a greater assortment of stamps than most local branches offer. And the Natural History Museum has a good one too!
I’ll post more soon about my favorite Smithsonian spots that the tour books might not tell you about, free stuff to do in D.C. that the locals know about, and some of the best food in town. But in the meantime, feel free to pop in National Treasure and start planning your next trip to the Capital!