Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States of America and the seat of its three branches of government, has an unparalleled collection of free, public museums, and the lion’s share of the nation’s most treasured monuments and memorials. The vistas on the National Mall between the Capitol, Washington Monument, White House, and Lincoln Memorial are iconic throughout the world.
D.C. has shopping, dining, and nightlife befitting a world-class metropolis. The city is exciting, cosmopolitan, and international.
Virtually all of D.C.’s tourists flock to the Mall—a two-mile long, beautiful stretch of parkland that holds many of the city’s monuments and Smithsonian museums—but the city itself is a vibrant metropolis that often has little to do with monuments, politics, or white, neoclassical buildings. The Smithsonian is a “can’t miss,” but you haven’t really been to D.C. until you’ve been out and about the city.
|Downtown (The National Mall, East End, West End, Waterfront)
The center of it all: the National Mall, D.C.’s main theater district, Smithsonian and non-Smithsonian museums galore, fine dining, Chinatown, the Capital One Arena, the Convention Center, the central business district, the White House, West Potomac Park, the Kennedy Center, George Washington University, the beautiful Tidal Basin, Nationals Park, Audi Field, and the Wharf.
|North Central (Dupont Circle, Shaw, Adams Morgan-Columbia Heights)
D.C.’s trendiest and most diverse neighborhoods and destination number one for live music and clubbing, as well as loads of restaurants, Howard University, boutique shopping, beautiful embassies, Meridian Hill Park, U Street, and lots of nice hotels.
|West (Georgetown, Upper Northwest)
The prestigious, wealthy side of town, home to the historic village of Georgetown with its energetic nightlife, colonial architecture, Georgetown University, and fine dining; the National Zoo; the massive National Cathedral; bucolic Dumbarton Oaks and Hillwood Estate; the bulk of D.C.’s high-end shopping; more Embassy Row; American University; and several nice dining strips.
|East (Capitol Hill, Near Northeast, Brookland-Petworth-Takoma, Anacostia)
Starting at the Capitol Building and Library of Congress, and fanning out past grandiose Union Station and the historic Capitol Hill neighborhood, to the less often visited neighborhoods by Gallaudet and Catholic University, historic African-American Anacostia, D.C.’s “Little Vatican” around the National Shrine, the huge National Arboretum, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, offbeat nightlife in the Atlas District, and a handful of other eccentric neighborhoods to explore.
Washington, D.C., is a city born of politics, by politics, and for politics. It wasn’t the first national capital: Baltimore, Lancaster, York, Annapolis, Trenton, and even New York City all tried their hand at hosting the national government. For a time, it seemed like Philadelphia would stake a claim as home to the federal government. However, Congress soured on the “Cradle of Liberty” after disaffected American soldiers, with the tacit sanction of the Pennsylvania government, chased the legislators out of the city to Princeton. That incident made clear that the nation’s capital would need to be independent from the then-powerful state governments and that the southern states would refuse to accept a northern capital.
Three of the nation’s founding fathers, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, agreed in 1790 to a compromise location for a new national capital on largely uninhabited land along the Potomac River in the Mid-Atlantic. The exact location was left up to George Washington, who carved a diamond-shaped federal district out of land donated by the states of Maryland and Virginia, which happened to be near his plantation at Mount Vernon. The new territory also included two existing settlements: Georgetown, on the Maryland side of the Potomac, and Alexandria, Virginia, at the district’s southern tip.
That which we call a District by any other…
Washington, D.C., is known to locals as D.C. or the District, and it is rare to hear it called anything else. Locals usually use the name Washington to refer to the national government and the political world, rather than the city itself. The full title Washington, D.C., and the official name, District of Columbia, are rarely used by non-bureaucrats unless the speaker is trying to clearly distinguish the city from the state.
The French-born architect Pierre L’Enfant was charged with planning a new federal city on the north side of the Potomac, next to Georgetown. L’Enfant’s plan, modeled after some of the leading cities in Europe, envisioned large parks and wide streets, including a grand boulevard connecting the “President’s House” to the Capitol building. However, L’Enfant was an eccentric and fought bitterly with the commissioners appointed to supervise the capital’s construction. President Washington eventually dismissed L’Enfant, but the problems didn’t end there. Issues with financing and a lack of skilled craftsmen slowed the construction of the city. The commissioners relied on African slaves lent from nearby plantations to complete construction. The federal government finally moved to the new capital in 1800, which by then had been named Washington in honor of its founder, though he still preferred to call it the “Federal City.”
British forces invaded the city during the War of 1812, burning and gutting the Capitol Building, Treasury, and White House, although they were all rebuilt shortly thereafter. Things didn’t get much better for the new national capital. When he founded the city, President Washington thought that a flourishing trade would help support the capital, but the idea was short-lived. The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal was built in 1831 to bypass the treacherous rapids of the Potomac River and move goods from the western territories along the Ohio River all the way to Georgetown, where they could then be loaded onto ships. However, the canal was unable to compete with the more efficient Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which was completed around the same time as the canal. Alexandria suffered disproportionately, since the government’s plans favored the port at Georgetown and all government buildings were, by law, built within the City of Washington. The economic stagnation, combined with fears that the federal government would ban Alexandria’s thriving slave trade (and it eventually did), caused Congress to return all the District’s land that had been donated by Virginia. The 1846 “retrocession”, as it is now known, spoiled the city’s fine diamond shape, leaving under federal control only the land that had been donated by Maryland.
Washington’s compromise location on the border of North and South proved precarious during the Civil War. Caught between Confederate Virginia on one side of the Potomac, and southern sympathizers in surrounding Maryland, President Abraham Lincoln established a network of forts surrounding the capital, which were put to the test in the Battle of Fort Stevens, a minor diversionary attack in July 1864. As the center of war operations for the Union, government workers, soldiers, and runaway slaves flooded into the city. Despite the city’s growth, Washington still had dirt roads and lacked basic sanitation. After the war, some members of Congress suggested moving the capital further west, but President Ulysses S. Grant refused to consider such a proposal.
In 1871, Congress created a new territorial government for the whole District of Columbia charged with modernizing the capital. Sewers and gas lines were installed, streets were paved, and the town was transformed into a modern metropolis. However, the high cost of the initiative (and alleged cronyism) ultimately bankrupted the District government and later public works projects could not keep up with the city’s growing population. By the early 1900s, L’Enfant’s vision of a grand national capital had become marred by slums and randomly placed buildings, including a railroad station on the National Mall. A plan enacted by Congress in 1901 beautified Washington’s ceremonial core, re-landscaping the Capitol grounds and the National Mall, clearing slums, and establishing a new city-wide park system, finally developing the city into L’Enfant’s intended grand design. The New Deal spending of the 1930s under president Franklin Delano Roosevelt led to the construction of even more federal buildings, memorials, and museums. With the start of World War II, government spending in Washington increased, a trend that has continued over the decades.
In 1957, Washington became the first major city to have a majority African-American population and the population of the city exceeded 800,000. The March on Washington and the I Have A Dream speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 were major events in the civil rights movement. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968, riots broke out at the intersection of 14th St and U St and 1,200 buildings were badly damaged or destroyed. Many businesses were forced to close and thousands of jobs were lost permanently.
The influx of crack cocaine marred the District in the 1970s and 1980s. Government services and the public school system went into disrepair. The expanding suburbs, with excellent schools and lower crime and tax rates, became more desirable places to live for many. The population of the District fell below 600,000, shrinking the tax base. The arrest of Mayor Marion Barry on drug charges in 1990 also hurt the city’s reputation. In 1991, D.C. led the country in homicides and many of the buildings destroyed in the 1968 riots still remained in rubble. Several government agencies, including the Patent and Trade Office, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), moved their offices to the suburbs.
A wave of change began in the late 1990s. The construction of the Capital One Arena and the nearby Metrorail station in 1997 led people to return to the East End for the first time in years. Further revitalization efforts in the late 1990s, supported by President Bill Clinton and Mayor Anthony Williams, led to D.C. becoming one of the fastest improving cities in the U.S. and the population again began to climb.
D.C.’s culture is in no small part defined by a divide between black and white, native and transient, as well as cultural diversity from around the world.
According to census data, the population of D.C. is approximately 705,000 and is 46% black, 38% white-non-hispanic, and 11% Hispanic and 14% are foreign-born.
As a result of its large black population, D.C. has long been a national center of African-American, notably Ethiopian-American culture. Known as the “Chocolate City” due to its black heritage, it was the first black-majority city in the country, and until the 1920s (when it was surpassed by New York) D.C. was home to the largest black population of any city. The famous U Street in Shaw was known as Black Broadway, with native Washingtonian Duke Ellington performing in the jazz clubs on this street. The District was long an attractive destination for African Americans leaving the South, as it was both nearby and viewed as a bastion of tolerance and progressiveness in race relations. It was the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the first of the formerly-segregated U.S. cities to integrate its public schools in 1954. D.C. is also home to Howard University in Shaw, one of the nation’s most important historically black colleges. The persisting influence of African American culture upon D.C.’s identity is obvious in the popular consciousness, the city’s government, local sports, high culture and, above all, the local intellectual and philosophical movements.
Compared to other American cities, relatively few residents are home-town natives, rather than transplants from elsewhere. According to data published by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2011, only 37.3% of D.C. residents were born in D.C. The transient population is overwhelmingly professional, young, white, affluent, and highly educated, drawn to the city for its government-related work and booming economy. This is in stark contrast to the local African-American population, which has deep roots in the community, leading to socioeconomic diversity—some areas of the city rank among the nation’s poorest, most alienated, and underprivileged, plagued with serious problems in the public schools and violent housing projects.
P Funk on D.C.
We didn’t get our forty acres and a mule,
The sometimes uncomfortable blend of the semi-transient professional population and permanent residents is often the source of controversy, especially as D.C. has been experiencing a wave of neighborhood rebuilding and gentrification. Young professionals with tight budgets and distaste for long daily commutes have relocated into poorer neighborhoods in search of low rent and easy access to city amenities. But while there is inevitably some conflict around neighborhood change, these changes have also created D.C.’s most diverse, culturally vibrant, and exciting neighborhoods—just walk up U St or 18th St in Shaw or Adams Morgan, and you’ll see that it’s not a vain hope that the city’s various cultures can come together to create something greater.
D.C., and particularly the metro area beyond the city limits, is impressively international. In the immediate metro area a whopping one third of the population is foreign born. The biggest immigrant group is from Central America, mostly from El Salvador. Latino culture finds its home in the city in Columbia Heights—where you’ll find all the various cultures of the city intermingling. D.C. also has a big African immigrant population, with an exceptionally large Ethiopian community (the second largest in the world after Addis Ababa), which has bestowed the city with a love for Ethiopian food, and which finds its urban center in D.C.’s own Little Ethiopia. The international culture extends well beyond the immigrant communities, though, to the big foreign professional population, as well as the brain drain of Americans from all around the country looking for work in the international relations field—D.C. is, simply put, the nation’s most international town.
Local politics, and local anger at the relations between the city and the national government, are perhaps the glue that binds all Washingtonians together. The District of Columbia is under the ultimate control of the U.S. Congress. District residents are able to elect a Mayor as well as representatives to the D.C. Council, although Congress retains the right to overturn laws passed by the city. The city lacks representation in Congress since the residents of D.C. are not in one of the states of the union, although they have been granted electoral college votes for presidential elections since 1961. District license plates bear the Revolutionary War slogan “Taxation Without Representation” as a contemporary reference to their lack of voting rights. The District is strongly progressive, having voted overwhelmingly (>70%) for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 1964.
|Climate chart (explanation)|
D.C.’s climate has a bad reputation; there is a popular myth that the city was intentionally built on a swamp to keep the federal bureaucracy small (by making the place too unpleasant for civil servants to live in). In truth, what is now the National Mall had been mudflats, but there was no swamp, and in the early 1800s, most of the city’s land was used to grow tobacco, corn and apples.
The weather is actually quite pleasant during the spring and fall. It’s hard to beat spring in D.C. The northerly subtropical climate results in cool breezes, moderate temperatures, lush growth, flowers, budding trees, and, of course, the cherry blossoms. The most beautiful time of spring usually falls from April to mid-May. Domestic tourists know this, though, and you can expect the cherry blossom walk around the Tidal Basin to see (pedestrian) traffic jams that put the Beltway to shame, although truly savvy tourists can escape the crowds but still enjoy the cherry blossoms at the National Arboretum in Near Northeast. Fall rivals spring for perfect temperatures. It’s also a lovely time for a walk in Rock Creek Park, where the dense forest bursts with multicolored confetti. Winter is a great time to visit, as museums are nearly empty and theaters are all in season. Winter temperatures are relatively mild, with very sporadic snow. However, it’s very hot and very humid during the summer, due to the miserable, impenetrable humidity. On a hot day in D.C. in July or August, you will sweat like a dog, the kids will complain incessantly, and you’ll want to spend as much time indoors as possible. It is not the best time to visit.
It’s worth considering the political climate as well. Before heading to D.C., research which events will coincide with your visit. Major international conferences, political events (elections/inaugurations) or protests often prompt road closures and additional security checks, and also send lodging prices through the roof. There are also several weeks during the year, as well as most of August, when Congress is on recess. During these weeks, there are fewer official visitors, elected officials, and staff members; the Metro becomes less crowded and there are overall fewer people in the city.
Washingtonians are avid readers, and not just of the news—each Metro car at rush hour is a veritable library. Nonetheless, there is only a little “D.C. literature” to speak of. The handful of notable works focused on DC as a city/metro area include:
- Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears is set in a gentrifying Shaw during the 1990s, where the protagonist, an Ethiopian refugee, and his other African immigrant friends struggle to find their identities as they’re caught between the past and the present, their old and new countries, and their changing neighborhood.
- Edward P. Jones’ Lost In the City is a collection of short stories revolving around African-American life in D.C.’s outlying neighborhoods. Jones’ intimate writing style has been compared to that of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov.
- George Pelecanos’ Sweet Forever. Pelecanos is one of D.C.’s rarest authors—one who knows the city beyond the politics, in and out, and uses it extensively and effectively as the backdrop for some amazing mysteries. In this one, detective Nick Stefanos investigates a drug-related murder on 1980s U St, leading him into a maze of basketball, dirty cops, the beginnings of the local crack empire, underground music, a thoroughly corrupt mayor’s office, and all-around grit in a dangerous city.
The city’s culture has always been overshadowed by national politics, and those looking for local flavor will mostly find political works: political chronicles, political histories, political hot air, political historical fiction, and of course political thrillers, including:
- Henry Adams’ Democracy is President John Quincy Adams’ grandson’s satirical send-up of the moral morass that is politics. (Things haven’t changed in the 120 years since he wrote it.) Almost certainly President Rutherford B Hayes’ least favorite book, this remains a great read two centuries later.
- Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol sold one million copies on the first day it was published, so it’s fair to assume that this 2009 book by the author of the Da Vinci Code could become the most famous D.C. work of fiction of all time. It’s a mad chase of arcane conspiracies around D.C.’s Masonic Temple, National Cathedral, Smithsonian, Washington Monument, and every darkest nook and narrowest cranny of the Capitol Building.
- John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief. Intrigue, corruption, and homicide on the Supreme Court, and some good chases around the capital city in one of Grisham’s most famous thrillers. Republicans may get an unfair portrayal, but this is a good page turner.
- Ron Suskin’s Hope in the Unseen and The One Percent Doctrine are both political, but about very different sides of Washington. The former chronicles the experiences of Cedric Jennings from his nightmarish Ballou High School in Anacostia to the Ivy League. The One Percent Doctrine, on the other hand, is an inside look at the run up to the Iraq War, predicated on the infamous one-percent doctrine coined in the wake of 9/11 by then-Vice President Dick Cheney.
- Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. America’s legendary master of political historical fiction turns his pen on the Lincoln Oval Office, bringing the administration’s central figures to life in a way that no biography could. Vidal is famous for his lack of charity to beloved national figures, but even his sharp pen can’t quite tarnish the nation’s greatest.
- Bob Woodward’s All the President’s Men is perhaps the nation’s single most famous political chronicle: the story of the investigative journalism that unearthed the Watergate Scandal and led to the impeachment and political demise of President Richard Nixon. Woodward remains a huge influence in Washington, particularly due to his eminently readable insider accounts of the workings of the Bush Administration. Bush at War and Plan of Attack stand out. The first is a chronicle of the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent decision to invade Afghanistan, and the second addresses the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
In addition to the above, a trip to D.C. is a good time to pick up a presidential biography or two. Favorites include:
- Arthur Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House is the most famous account of the JFK presidency. Biased, certainly, but it’s hard to beat an account by a Harvard historian turned special advisor who was there in the Oval Office to see every decision being made.
- Stephen Oates’ Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin Luther King isn’t closely associated with the city, but this is a great inspirational read to keep in mind on the Mall, thinking of his I Have a Dream speech.
- Lou Cannon’s Ronald Reagan: the Role of a Lifetime is one of the few mature Reagan biographies that is neither a tribute nor an attack, written about his years in office by the inner-circle chronicler who knew him best.
- Frank Friedel’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny. FDR’s presidency was so influential, and just plain long, that it’s difficult to find good one-volume biographies—look no further than this definitive work.
- Joseph Ellis’ His Excellency: George Washington. A Washington biography is an obvious reading choice on a trip to his namesake city, as his story is the story of the founding of both the nation and the capital (and his estate is an easy day trip outside the city). Ellis’ account is very travel-friendly—accessible, humanist, and mercifully short.
There is no end to the list of films set in D.C., as the nation’s capital provides the essential backdrop to just about every political thriller and practically every alien invasion or other disaster movie set in the U.S. There are a proud few, though, that stand out either for their creation of national myths or for having actually captured something of the real culture of the city.
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939) is the defining American myth of the ability of political idealism to stand up for the people against entrenched political interests and corruption, and, just maybe, to win. Nary a cynic remains tearless through Jimmy Stewart’s defining performance.
- The More the Merrier (George Stevens, 1943): A goofy romantic comedy, widely hailed as one of the best of its kind, set in WWII-era D.C., amidst the acute housing shortage faced by war workers, soldiers and other travelers during WWII.
- The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951): This classic black-and-white sci-fi film, in which aliens land on the National Mall to deliver a message about nuclear weapons and peace, holds a special place in Washingtonians’ hearts because it involves not only high-powered scientists and military leaders, but also ordinary Washingtonians (one of the main characters is a single mother and a secretary in the Department of Labor).
- The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) is a rare film in that it is both unmistakably Washingtonian and entirely unrelated to politics. It’s best remembered for terrifying audiences with a story uncomfortably plausible to those raised in the Catholic Church. Formidable evil forces and equally formidable Jesuits collide in the struggle for the soul of a young girl living in Georgetown, in a tale where the modern humanist world quivers in the face of the ancient and the mystical.
- All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976): An unflattering and historically accurate portrayal of the events surrounding the Watergate scandal and the subsequent investigation by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
- No Way Out (Roger Donaldson, 1987): Set in the post-Watergate Washington, Kevin Costner plays a Soviet mole at the Pentagon who becomes involved in a political murder and its coverup. The movie features the Pentagon and an exciting scene in the Metrorail system.
- A Few Good Men (Rob Reiner, 1992): A dynamic Navy JAG attorney blends two D.C. professions often overlooked beneath the glow of the Capitol Dome. As LT Daniel Kaffee, Tom Cruise realizes that his Naval service is more than just a resume bullet as he defends two Marines charged with murder. From the Navy Yard to a seedy New York Avenue motel to the leafy streets of gentrified Adams Morgan, this film gives Washington, D.C. an honest portrayal. More importantly, the story is a window into the idealism of many young D.C. transplants who move to town in search of a chance to change lives for the better.
- In the Line of Fire (Wolfgang Petersen, 1993): How do you make a D.C. political thriller stand out among all the rest? Simple: Clint Eastwood is the Secret Service agent, and John Malkovich is the psychopathic assassin. If you intend to watch, you should also plan to add the legendary Old Ebbitt Grille in the West End to your dining itinerary.
- The Nine Lives of Marion Barry (2009) is an HBO documentary that takes a look at Washington during its boom-and-bust period under the city’s most infamous local politician, four-term mayor Marion Barry. The film provides a balanced and unique insight that is necessary to truly understand America’s capital, including the areas dismissed by most visitors to the city.
- See also: Air travel in the United States
Washington, D.C. (WAS IATA for all airports) is served by three major airports. All three airports offer unlimited free WiFi.
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA IATA) is the closest and most convenient airport to D.C., 3 mi (4.8 km) south of the city in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River. However, there are no customs clearance facilities and therefore it can only serve destinations in the United States or airports in Canada and the Caribbean that allow U.S. customs pre-clearance. Moreover, due to the noise created by planes flying directly over a heavily populated area, the number of non-stop long-haul flights is limited. At Gravelly Point Park, directly north of the runway, you can watch planes takeoff and land, providing some great photo opportunities.
DCA has 3 terminals, which are connected by walkways and by shuttle bus:
- Terminal A (gates 1-9) – Air Canada, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Sun Country
- Terminal B (gates 10-34) – Alaska, American, Delta, United
- Terminal C (gates 34-45) – American
To get to D.C. from the airport:
- WMATA operates Metrorail service to the airport via the Blue and Yellow lines. The trip to the East End takes approximately 15 minutes and costs approximately $3. Hours of operation are generally M-Th 5AM-11:30PM, F 5AM-1AM, Sa 7AM-1AM, and Su 7AM-11PM
- Uber, Lyft, and Via shared rides generally cost under $10 to the East End.
- Taxi service to the East End takes approximately 10 minutes and costs about $15.
Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD IATA) is 26 miles (42 km) west of D.C. in Sterling, Virginia and serves as D.C.’s primary international and intercontinental airport. The main terminal is an architectural masterpiece, with a curved roof that arcs gracefully into air, suspended over a huge open ticketing and check-in area. Unfortunately some functionality was scrapped in pursuit of aesthetics—the layout includes lengthy corridors and long escalators and you will have to take a train between the main building and the concourses, so expect that you will need some extra time to get to the gate. Many carriers serve the airport, which serves as an East Coast hub for United Airlines.
If you have extra time to kill at Dulles, consider taking Fairfax Connector Bus #983 to the free Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, which includes an unrivaled collection of spacecraft and aircraft, most famously the space shuttle Discovery. The bus departs from the airport every 20 minutes daily, costing $2.00 and taking 12 minutes to reach the museum.
To get to D.C. from the airport:
- The Silver Line Express Bus operates every 15 minutes between the airport and the garage near the Wiehle-Reston East Metrorail Station (Silver Line). The bus journey takes 10 minutes and costs $5. From there, after crossing the pedestrian bridge over the highway to reach the Metrorail station, the journey by Metrorail to the East End takes another 45 minutes. A cheaper but slower option to get from the airport to the garage near the Metrorail station is to take Fairfax Connector Bus Routes 981/983 which depart the airport every 20 minutes from 9AM-7PM and every 40 minutes from 6AM-9AM and 7PM-11PM. The bus journey takes 30 minutes and costs $2.00. The Silver Line of the Metrorail is in the process of being extended to the airport, with a possible opening in late 2021.
- Metrobus 5A makes stops in Herndon, Tysons, Rosslyn Metrorail Station (Blue and Orange Lines), and L’Enfant Plaza Metrorail Station (Green, Yellow, Blue, and Orange Lines), a few blocks south of the National Mall. It generally departs from the airport every 30-40 minutes on weekdays and hourly (though not on the hour) on weekends, taking 40-50 minutes to the Rosslyn Metrorail Station and 50-60 minutes to the L’Enfant Plaza Metrorail Station. The fare is $7.50 one-way (no change given). The bus stops near Curb 2E outside of the airport terminal.
- Uber, Lyft, and Via are popular methods of transport between the airport and the city due to the complexity of public transport. A trip to the East End costs around $45 for a private ride or around $35 for a shared ride and takes about 40-60 minutes. The pickup points can be reached by walking up the ramps after exiting the baggage claim area.
- Washington Flyer Taxi is the exclusive provider of taxis from the airport. A taxi trip to the East End costs around $75 and takes about 40-60 minutes. The taxi stand is down the ramp from the baggage claim area.
Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI IATA) is 30 mi (48 km) northeast of D.C. and 10 mi (16 km) south of downtown Baltimore, near Glen Burnie, Maryland. Compared to IAD and DCA, BWI is the farthest from D.C., but also offers the nicest in-airport experience.
To get to D.C. from the airport:
- Metrobus B30 operates between the airport and the Greenbelt Metrorail Station (Green Line) on weekdays only. The fare is $7.50 one-way (no change given) and takes about 40 minutes. From there, the Metrorail to the East End takes another 25 minutes. The bus makes 2 stops on the lower level of the airport: outside Terminal A (Southwest Airlines) and Terminal E (the international terminal).
- ICC Bus 201 operates hourly service between the airport and Gaithersburg, with a stop at the Shady Grove Metrorail Station (Red Line). The fare is $5 one-way (no change given) and takes about 70 minutes. From there, the Metrorail to the East End takes another 35 minutes. The bus makes 2 stops on the lower level of the airport: outside Terminal A (Southwest Airlines) and Terminal E (the international terminal).
- MARC commuter-rail train and Amtrak operate between BWI Rail Station and Union Station on Capitol Hill, also stopping at the New Carrolton Metrorail Station (Orange Line). A free “Amtrak/MARC” shuttle bus runs from the airport terminal to the BWI Rail Station every 12 minutes. The journey takes 10 minutes. If you are in a rush, you can can take a taxi for $8–9. MARC service to BWI is available on the “Penn” line and costs $7 one-way. MARC service is infrequent on the weekends; check the online schedules. Amtrak service costs $13-22 and is cheaper if purchased online in advance.
- Uber, Lyft, and Via are popular methods of transport between the airport and the city due to the complexity of public transport. A trip to the East End costs around $50 and takes around 45-75 minutes.
- Taxi service to the East End takes around 45-75 minutes and costs around $100.
- See also: Rail travel in the United States
Washington is a major rail hub with Amtrak trains arriving many major cities in eastern and southern USA, particularly along the Northeast Corridor route running from Boston via New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, with some trains continuing south to Richmond. Premium Acela Express trains run hourly during peak hours along the route. Somewhat slower Northeast Regional trains also ply the route, calling at smaller cities and in suburban areas.
All trains call at Union Station in Capitol Hill (Red Line Metro), a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol Building. A few lines also stop in adjacent Alexandria, Virginia, very close to the King Street stop on the Blue/Yellow Metro lines.
The following long-distance trains serve Washington:
Additionally, the daily 17.5 hour Auto Train provides a convenient alternative if you want to bring your car, but not do tedious driving. Connecting nearby Lorton with Sanford, just outside Orlando, its a great way to bring both you and your car on the train.
Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) provides weekday service to/from Baltimore’s Camden Station and daily service to Baltimore Penn Station, via the Camden or the Penn Line, both of which operate from D.C.’s Union Station. Only the Penn Line stops at BWI Airport. MARC also provides service on the Brunswick line towards western Maryland through the suburbs of Silver Spring, Kensington, Rockville, Gaithersburg, and Germantown, on the way out to Frederick and on to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia on Monday through Friday.
Virginia Railway Express (VRE) provides weekday rail service between Union Station and points southwest, starting in the Virginia suburbs of Manassas and Fredericksburg.
D.C. is primarily served by the coastal superhighway, I-95 from Baltimore or Richmond. It does not go into the city itself, dodging the District by running along the eastern portion of the Beltway (I-495). Coming from the south, I-395 serves as a sort of extension of I-95 going past the Beltway into the city. The original plan was to run I-95 straight through the city towards Baltimore, but locals scuttled the plan, leaving this section’s terminus in the East End.
I-495 is the Capital Beltway. The Beltway is reviled across the nation for its dangerous traffic patterns and miserable rush hour congestion. Still, the Beltway is often the only practical way to travel between suburbs. Because the Beltway is a circle, the direction of travel is often referred to by which “loop” is being used. The Inner Loop runs clockwise around the city, and the Outer Loop runs counter-clockwise around Washington, D.C.
Other particularly notable routes include: I-270, which connects I-70 in Frederick to I-495 in Bethesda; I-66 starts at the western part of downtown and goes 75 mi (121 km) west, ending near Front Royal, Virginia; US-50 traverses D.C. primarily along city roads east–west, heading east toward Annapolis and Ocean City (the latter by way of the Bay Bridge), and west across the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge into Northern Virginia and then all the way cross-country to Sacramento, California; the Baltimore-Washington Pkwy (also “B-W Pkwy”) starts at I-295 in Anacostia, crossing Central Maryland, passing near BWI Airport and terminating in Baltimore.
Inside the Beltway, I-66 is HOV-2 only (all cars must have at least two passengers) eastbound 6AM-9:30AM and westbound 4PM-6:30PM on weekdays. The HOV-2 restriction applies to the entire highway, not just specific lanes. US-50, US-29, and the George Washington Pkwy are the alternatives.
Parking regulations are complicated in D.C. on weekdays. Metered parking is available throughout commercial areas, but meters limited to two hours during the daytime. Zoned parking is free, but you are limited to parking for two hours in each designated zone per day, although there is no parking time limit between 10PM and 7AM. Check the signs! Presumably, you could move your car to a different zone every 2 hours during the day and then find a metered spot to ditch your car overnight, but that would not be practical. Weekends and federal holidays are more accommodating to guests as there are less parking restrictions.
So if you are coming by car during the week, what do you do? There are plenty of public parking garages and many hotels have garages but the cost will be $15-30 per day. The huge Union Station parking lot ($24/day) in Capitol Hill is convenient to many attractions and costs $24/day. If you have a friend in the city, they can go to their local district police station to get you a temporary visitor parking permit, good for 15 days.
There are garages offering parking for as low as $5 per day near several metro stations. Parking at Metrorail station lots is free on Sundays and federal holidays. Three stations have a very limited number of multi-day parking spots, up to ten days: Greenbelt, Huntington, and Franconia-Springfield. And if you just don’t want to pay for parking at all, head over to a residential area in the suburbs outside of D.C. near a Metro station to ditch your car, then walk or catch a bus to the station and head into D.C.! However, if you are staying for a while, be aware that enforcement is strict on “abandoned” cars in the outlying counties.
- See also: Long-distance bus travel in the United States
Many bus companies operate service to/from New York City. Greyhound offers the most options to smaller cities around the United States. Most bus companies stop at Union Station in Capitol Hill; however, you have a lot of bus choices if coming from New York City – there are bus companies that stop at Dupont Circle, the East End, Bethesda, Maryland; and/or Arlington, Virginia and these may be much more convenient to your accommodation – check where you are staying before you book a bus. It may be cheaper to book online rather than pay cash on board. Buses are more crowded on Friday and Sunday evenings since weekend trips are popular among the locals. Most buses have power outlets and WiFi access on board, although the WiFi is not always reliable. Bus companies advertise a 4-4.5 hour journey time to/from New York City but delays are common:
- BestBus, Union Station @ 50 Massachusetts Avenue NE, ☏ , toll-free: . Operates service to/from Penn Station in New York City and, in the summer, weekend service to Dewey Beach and Rehoboth Beach in Delaware; Stops at Union Station and Dupont Circle (Massachusetts Ave NW & 20th on island between CVS Pharmacy & PNC Bank). The buses to/from New York also stop in Manassas and at the Silver Spring, Vienna, Franconia-Springfield Metrorail stations. Buses offer free Wi-Fi, electrical outlets, and free water. $20-$50 to/from New York City, $40 to/from Delaware.
- BoltBus, Union Station @ 50 Massachusetts Avenue NE; and 1610 Connecticut Ave NW near Dupont Circle (Verify stop locations with tickets), toll-free: . Bolt Bus services to/from New York City, Newark NJ, Philadelphia PA and Baltimore in one direction and towards Wilmington in the other are operated by their parent company Greyhound Lines. Bolt Bus brand has temporarily suspended services. Fares range from $1-45 depending on advance purchase and departure time.
- Flixbus (Operated by Far Eastern Bus Line), (ticket office) 716 ‘H’ St NW, alternative stop at Renaissance Hotel at 999 9th St NW (bus will board at either 716 ‘H’ St or the Renaissance Hotel, see ticket for boarding location.), ☏ . Service to/from Penn Station and Allen St in New York City ($10-25) as well as Richmond and Baltimore. Stops in D.C. are at 715 H St NW and 999 9th St NW, near the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metrorail station in the East End, with limited pickups from Rockville.
- Go Buses (Operated by Academy Bus Lines), (L’Enfant Plaza DC bus stop) 400 ‘C’ St SW (In front of McDonalds), ☏ . Stops at L’Enfant Plaza in D.C., Goes up to 450 West 30th Street in New York City via Mt Holly NJ. They also have an ‘Eastern Market DC’ stop at 801 Pennsylvania Ave SE, at the SE corner of Pennsylvania Ave and 8th St SE, across from Dunkin Donuts. Power outlets. Free water. $20 on weekdays, $22 on weekends with advance purchase.
- Greyhound Lines & Bolt Bus, Union Station @ 50 Massachusetts Avenue NE, toll-free: . Operates service to/from almost every major city in the United States. Stops at Union Station. There are other Greyhound stations in Silver Spring and Arlington, with limited service.
- Megabus, Union Station @ 50 Massachusetts Avenue NE, toll-free: . Operates service between Washington D.C. and over 20 cities including New York City, Baltimore, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, and Atlanta. Stops at Union Station. Power outlets. Wheelchair accessible. Fares start at $1 when reserved far in advance.
- Our Bus, ☏ . Operates service to/from New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. Stops at Union Station. Stops in New York at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Fares range from $11 if purchased in advance on the internet to $45 on the departure date.
- Peter Pan, Union Station @ 50 Massachusetts Avenue NE, toll-free: . Operates service to/from New York City, with onward connections to several cities in New England. Stops at Union Station. Fares to New York City range from $11 if purchased in advance on the internet to $45 on the departure date.
- Tripper Bus, toll-free: . Operates service to/from Penn Station in New York City (254 W 31st St between 7th & 8th Ave). Stops in Bethesda, Maryland (4681 Willow Ln at Wisconsin Ave across from Panera Bread) and the Rosslyn Metrorail station in Arlington, Virginia (1901 N Moore St @ city bus stop at Moore & 19th Ave N ). Power outlets. $27-37 one way with discounts possible for advance purchase. Elite bus for $50 each way. Free one-way ticket with every 6 tickets purchased.
- Vamoose Bus, (bus stop) VRE Lorton Station at 8990 Lorton Station Blvd, ☏ . Operates service to/from Penn Station area in New York City (7th Ave & W 30th St). Stops near the Metrorail station in Bethesda, MD (7401 Waverly St @ Waverly & Montgomery Ave, 1 block east of Metrorail Station); the Rosslyn Metrorail station in Arlington, Virginia (1801 N Lynn St @ Lynn & 19th St N in front of Cosi Cafe) and the Lorton VRE Lorton Station (8990 Lorton Station Blvd, in parking lot by pathway to trains). Operates a “Gold Bus” once per day which features large leather seats with plenty of legroom. Power outlets. $30-40. Free one-way ticket with every $120 spent. “Gold Bus” costs $60 each way.
- Washington Deluxe, Union Station @ 50 Massachusetts Avenue NE, toll-free: . Operates service to/from New York City. Stops at Pentagon City in Arlington VA (1100 S Hayes St, across from California Kitchen and half block south of the Pentagon City Metro Station); Dupont Circle (1610 Connecticut Ave NW @ Connecticut & Q St); and Union Station in DC and Penn Station, Times Square, and sometimes Prospect Park in New York City. Power outlets. $23 on weekdays with advance purchase, $26-34 weekends or walkup. Free ticket with every eight purchased. Deluxe bus for $40 each way..
Be prepared to walk until your feet hurt! It’s no surprise that D.C. has been cited as the fittest city in the country; residents and visitors get a lot of exercise simply getting around the city! Even if you plan on taking public transport or driving, you will often find yourself walking or biking for a large portion of the day. Most of the city’s attractions, such as the museums and monuments along the National Mall, are located near each other, which makes driving or taking Metrorail between the sights either impractical or impossible.
Therefore, make sure to wear good walking shoes and, especially during the spring and summer, wear comfortable and light clothing, a wide-brimmed hat, apply sunscreen, and carry a bottle of water. During the summer, visit air-conditioned museums during the day, and save the monuments, neighborhood tours, and other outdoor attractions for the cooler early morning and evening hours.
The city is split into four quadrants of unequal size, which radiate out from the Capitol Building: Northwest (NW), Northeast (NE), Southeast (SE), and Southwest (SW). The NW quadrant is by far the largest and SW the smallest. Addresses in the city always include the quadrant abbreviation, e.g., 1000 H Street NE. Take note of the quadrant, otherwise you may find yourself on the exact opposite side of town from your destination!
City streets are generally laid out in a grid, with east-west streets primarily named with letters (A–W) and north-south streets named with numbers. The street numbers and letters increase as the distance from the Capitol building increases. The numerous diagonal avenues, many named after states, serve as the city’s principal arteries. The grid has a few peculiarities that are a legacy from the city’s foundation. The City of Washington originally occupied only a portion of the total area of the District. As a result, outside of what is now often called the “L’Enfant City”, streets do not strictly adhere to the grid system. However, you will find that many street names were simply extended where practical and, past the letter “W”, for east-west streets, two-syllable street names (e.g., Irving Street, Lamont Street) follow the single-letter streets in alphabetical order, followed by three-syllable street names.
There is no “J” St. This is because, until the mid-19th century, the letters “I” and “J” were largely considered interchangeable. Following that same idea, “I” Street is often written as “Eye” Street, to distinguish it from the letter “L” and the numeral “1”, and “Q” Street is often written “Que,” “Cue,” or “Queue.”
By public transportation
It is usually easier to use public transportation as opposed to driving in traffic and paying expensive parking rates. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) operates the city’s public transportation system. Information about all modes of local public transportation is available on the tourist-friendly website goDCgo.
A SmarTrip debit card ($2 cost), which can be purchased and refilled at any Metrorail station, is necessary to ride the Metrorail and can also be used on Metrobus, D.C. Circulator, and many suburban bus systems. Buses also accept cash, but the SmarTrip card will save you the hassle of carrying exact change. SmarTrip cards also can be used to pay for parking in Metrorail parking lots.
The Metrorail is D.C.’s intra-city train system. It is composed of six color-coded rail lines that run primarily underground within the District and above ground in the nearby suburbs. It’s clean, safe, user-friendly, and sports a surprisingly elegant and pleasing brutalist aesthetic.
Check the upcoming track work website before traveling, since track work, especially on weekends, may result in long delays and station closures.
The departure times for the first and last train at each station are available online. Hours of operation are generally M-Th: 5AM-11:30PM, F: 5AM-1AM, Sa: 7AM-1AM, and Su: 8AM-11PM.
In some areas, up to three different lines may share the same track. Trains may terminate before reaching the end of the line, especially during rush hour. Therefore, be careful to note both the color and final destination indicated on the electronic displays and train cars before boarding.
Absolutely no smoking, food or drink is allowed on trains or in stations. Metro employees, police officers, and even fellow riders will ask you to dispose of any food before entering. Violators are subject to fines or even arrest, including a rather outrageous incident from 2000 when a 12-year-old girl was handcuffed for eating french fries. If you are carrying food/beverages, keep them closed and in a bag.
Rider etiquette is key to smooth travel in the heavily-used system. Washingtonians are particularly sensitive about escalators: when using them, stand on the right, and leave the left side free for those who want to pass, or you may be admonished. Additionally, try not to obstruct train doors when passengers are leaving the train, keep belongings off of the seats, and fold strollers at all times on the trains and in elevators.
Metrorail fares depend on the distance traveled and whether the trip starts during a peak or off-peak time period.
Peak fares are in effect Monday thru Friday from 5-9:30AM and from 3-7PM.
Off-peak fares are in effect at all other times.
Peak period fares range from $2.25 to $6.00, while off-peak period fares range from $2.00 to $3.85, depending on distance traveled. Up to two children ages four and younger may ride free per paying adult. Seniors can purchase a Senior SmarTrip Card from a Metrorail office for $2, which charges the user half the normal peak travel cost on Metrorail and half price on the bus, but the hassle of purchasing the card may not be practical or worthwhile unless staying in the city for quite some time.
Riders must swipe their Smartrip card at both the entrance and exit stations. Consequently, travelers cannot share cards, and instead each traveler needs their own card.
Posted guides will help you calculate the appropriate fare for your ride, but since the SmarTrip cards are reusable and refillable, it’s often easier to not worry about the fare; just refill when you are running low on funds.
Flat-rate Metrorail passes, good for an unlimited number of trips for 1 day ($13), 3 days ($28), 7 days ($58), or monthly, are available for purchase at Metrorail stations. However, the passes are rarely a good deal for most tourists; the cost is usually more than you would spend by paying as you go.
D.C.’s bus system is visitor-friendly and includes access to destinations that are hard to reach by Metrorail.
By Circulator bus
The tourist-friendly $1.00 D.C. Circulator buses operate between main attractions and the city’s most popular neighborhoods for visitors. It is useful to print the handy route map. The next arrival time for a bus at any stop can be checked online. There are six routes:
- Dupont Circle – Georgetown – Rosslyn “Blue” Line — operates service between the Rosslyn Metrorail Station in Virginia to Georgetown and Dupont Circle Su-Th 7AM-midnight, F-Sa 7AM-2AM.
- Georgetown – Union Station “Yellow” Line — runs between Georgetown and Union Station in Capitol Hill Su-Th 7AM-9PM, F-Sa 7AM-9PM with additional night hours of 9PM-2AM between Georgetown & McPherson Square Metrorail Station in the West End).
- Eastern Market – L’Enfant Plaza “Navy” Line — runs between Eastern Market in Capitol Hill, through the Waterfront, stopping at Nationals Park and the Wharf, before terminating at L’Enfant Plaza, just south of the National Mall.
- Woodley Park – Adams Morgan – McPherson Square “Green” Line — runs a limited-stop route through the “Liquorridor” between the National Zoo, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, U Street, Logan Circle, and McPherson Square in the West End Su-Th 7AM-midnight, F-Sa 7AM-3:30AM. These neighborhoods are home to some of the best restaurants, shopping, art galleries, local theaters, and nightlife in Washington.
- Congress Heights – Union Station “Yellow” Line — runs from Union Station past Eastern Market in Capitol Hill and the Navy Yard to Anacostia M-F: 6AM-9PM; Weekends: 7AM-9PM.
- National Mall Route “Red” Line — circumnavigates the National Mall including the museums, monuments, and the Tidal Basin, with a stop at Union Station. M-F 7AM-7PM & Sa-Su 9AM-7PM October-March, M-F 7AM-8PM & Sa-Su 9AM-8PM April-September.
Metrobus operates hundreds of routes throughout the D.C. metro area. Metrobus will take you places hard to reach via Metrorail or the Circulator, and can be a convenient, comfortable way to travel. In addition, some Metrobus lines operate later into the night than Metrorail. WMATA’s website publishes maps and timetables for all routes, as well as system maps for its entire network. Most routes cost a flat fare of $2.00 if paying with cash or SmarTrip card, with a free transfer if paying by SmarTrip card. Seniors pay only $1.00 by showing an identification card to the driver and up to two children ages four and younger ride free per paying adult.
Every bus stop has a number written on it, which you can enter on the WMATA Next Bus Arrivals website or by phone (☏) to get an estimate of when the next bus will arrive to that stop. Free iPhone and Android apps that provide live Metrobus data are also available.
The following important routes provide reliable and direct service along the city’s most well-traveled corridors, running about every 10-20 minutes:
- S2, S4, S9: 16th St Line operates north-south service on 16th St between the Silver Spring Metrorail Station on the Red Line and East End. It’s the route of choice to reach the Meridian Hill Park, Fitzgerald Tennis Center, and Carter Barron Amphitheater at Rock Creek Park.
- N2, N4, N6: Massachusetts Ave Line runs along Massachusetts Ave between the Friendship Heights Metrorail Station in Friendship Heights and Farragut Square in the West End Metro stops. The bus provides an excellent view of the 50+ embassies located along Embassy Row. It’s also a good way to travel from Dupont Circle to the hard-to-reach National Cathedral, as well as to American University.
- 90, 92: U St-Garfield Line offers service from the Zoo at Woodley Park through Adams Morgan/18th St, U St, Gallaudet University, and then on to Eastern Market.
- 31, 33, 32, 34, 36: Pennsylvania Avenue-Wisconsin Avenue Line operates along Pennsylvania Avenue through Capitol Hill, downtown, Georgetown, and neighborhoods along Wisconsin Avenue. These buses run during late night hours as well and will take you to areas not serviced by Metrorail such as Georgetown, Glover Park, and the National Cathedral.
There are approximately 6,500 licensed taxicabs in D.C. Unlike ride-hailing services, taxis are able to be hailed from the street.
Roof lights on all D.C. cabs have LED text that explicitly state whether or not the cab is available for hire.
The largest taxi operators are
Taxicab drivers are required to take passengers anywhere within the D.C.-area. With the exception of rides to and from the airport, it is illegal for cabs to pick up passengers outside the jurisdiction in which they are based.
All cabs are required to accept credit cards and provide receipts on request.
Taxi rates for all D.C.-area taxicabs are fixed by the jurisdiction in which they are based and the rate does not change when state lines are crossed. Rates for DC-based taxicabs are $3.50 for the first eighth of a mile and 27¢ for each additional eighth of a mile. There is a $1.00 surcharge for additional passengers, regardless of the number of people. There is no rush hour fee, although meters do charge a “wait rate” of 42¢ for each minute the car is stopped in traffic or traveling under 10 mph.
Rates for cabs based in Montgomery County, Maryland include a $4.00 initial charge plus a $2.00 per mile distance fee. Rates for cabs based in Virginia include a $3.00 initial charge plus a $2.16 per mile distance fee.
By ride-hailing services
Ride-hailing services such as Uber, Lyft, and Via are extremely popular in D.C. Base rates are much lower than those of taxis.
Driving in downtown D.C. is difficult, particularly during rush hour, where traffic can make it take 10 minutes to drive a couple city blocks. In addition, limited and expensive parking, ruthless enforcement of complicated parking rules, sadistic traffic circles, fines from automated red light cameras and absurd speed traps, potholes, frequent street direction changes, and street closures without warning make driving in D.C. a headache. A 2012 report showed that D.C. drivers were the most prone to accidents of any city in the U.S.
Street parking downtown is limited to two hours only (even at meters), so be prepared to park in a private lot or garage, which cost anywhere from $10–25 per day. Avoid driving and parking during rush hour (weekdays, 7AM-10AM and 4PM-7PM), since this is when the majority of the city’s traffic congestion, street direction changes, and parking restrictions are in effect. If you do park on the street, pay close attention to traffic signs. Most streets downtown restrict parking during rush hour and visitors often return to the spot where they parked only to find that their vehicle has been ticketed or towed!
In the 1950s, local opposition prevented the construction of interstate highways directly through Washington, which would have cut off access to certain neighborhoods and required demolition of historic buildings. The two freeways that feed into the city from Virginia, I-66 and I-395, both terminate quickly. Washington and its innermost suburbs are encircled by the Capital Beltway, I-495, which gave rise to the expression “Inside the Beltway” (which refers to matters only relevant to people in D.C. political circles).
Washington has several classic drives:
- Pennsylvania Ave from Fourteenth St NW toward the Capitol.
- Eastbound Independence Ave from the Lincoln Memorial, from the right lane of which you can continue in a loop around the Tidal Basin.
- Rock Creek Pkwy, one of the world’s earliest highways, and which was planned as part of an inner beltway, follows Rock Creek through D.C.’s own central park, then traces the Potomac River to the Lincoln Memorial. This roadway becomes one-way (and terribly confusing) during weekday rush hour (6:45AM–9:30AM southbound only, 3:45PM–6:30PM northbound).
- Canal Road heading west from Georgetown’s M St, which turns into the leafy Clara Barton Pkwy alongside the C&O Canal, continuing to the Capital Beltway.
- Embassy Row, Massachusetts Ave between Scott Circle and Wisconsin Ave.
- George Washington Memorial Pkwy, which follows the Potomac on the Virginia side of the river to Mount Vernon.
By bicycle and scooter
D.C. is ranked as one of the top cities in the U.S. for bicycling. Many streets, including the iconic Pennsylvania Ave, have dedicated bike lanes and there is plenty of bike parking available. Most of the downtown area is flat, although areas north of downtown are more hilly. The vehicle traffic is slow enough, but helmets are recommended (and required for those under age 16) as drivers in the city are often distracted and do not see cyclists, even when the cyclist is in a protected bike lane. Biking in the street is legal and biking on the sidewalk is legal for non-electric bikes everywhere except downtown. Bicycle maps of the city center are available at this site.
You may also take advantage of some of the fantastic biking trails in the greater D.C. area:
- Capital Crescent Trail connects Georgetown to Bethesda and Silver Spring, Maryland.
- Metropolitan Branch Trail connects Union Station to Silver Spring, Maryland.
- Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park offers a shaded trail from Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland. passing through the waterfalls at Great Falls, 15 mi (24 km) up-stream from Georgetown.
- Mount Vernon Trail (18 mi (29 km)) offers a direct bike connection between downtown D.C., Alexandria, and George Washington’s former estate in Mount Vernon.
- W&OD Trail (45 mi (72 km)) offers a tour of the Virginia suburbs from dense urban Alexandria, through the leafy tech-company suburbs of Reston, Herndon, and Ashburn, into bucolic Loudoun County and onto Leesburg. For an ambitious all-day ride, try branching north at Leesburg, crossing the Potomac River on White’s Ferry, and riding on the C&O Canal towpath to return to D.C.
Bicycle and scooter rental
- Capital Bikeshare, owned by Lyft, operates a bike sharing network that has over 4,300 bicycles available at over 500 bike stations throughout the Washington, D.C. area. This is the second-largest bike sharing network in the country, after that of New York City. Users can take a bike from any station and return it to a different station. Single rides of 30 minutes or less cost $2. Alternatively, membership fees are $8/day or $17 for 3 days, payable by using a credit card at the automated kiosks attached to every Capital Bikeshare station. The first 30 minutes are free to encourage people to use the system for short place-to-place trips; if you keep a bike out for longer, you’ll begin to accrue increasingly expensive usage fees. However, after riding for close to 30 minutes, you can dock your bike into a station, wait a second, and then take the bike out again to restart the timer.
- Dockless bikeshare offers a convenient alternative to Capital Bikeshare. To find a bike, users may download the Transit app, which displays the nearest bike from any provider. Once you have located a bike, you will need to download the app from the bike’s provider to unlock the bike. Rates tend to be around 25 cents per minute. When your trip is complete, you can park the bike anywhere on the sidewalk where it is not obstructing the right of way.
- Dockless electric scooters operate similar to dockless bikes, and can also be found on the Transit app. Rates vary by provider, but are typically $1 to start and an additional 15-30 cents per minute. You’ll see many others treating them like a toy, and they are indeed a blast to ride, but don’t get complacent — they require at least as much responsibility and situational awareness to operate safely as do bicycles.
- Bike shops are plentiful and may be a better option if you plan on using a bike for an extended period.
Pedicabs (bicycle rickshaws) are regulated, insured, and licensed and offer tours or pre-arranged rides. Prices per vehicle range from $90-$175/hour. Companies offering services include D.C. Pedicabs, National Pedicabs, Nonpartisan Pedicab, and Adventure DC Tricycle Tours.
Most of the attractions in D.C. are on the National Mall, the West End, and Capitol Hill. While there are many maps on display throughout the city, you should print out and carry with you the official National Mall map, which also includes most of the West End and Capitol Hill. For a map that encompasses a larger portion of the city, print out the DC Circulator Route Map (pdf).
The National Mall is a unique National Park, filled with an intense concentration of monuments, memorials, museums, and monumental government buildings instantly recognizable to people all over the world. The Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the National Gallery of Art, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Natural History, National Museum of American History, and the Holocaust Museum, are just a few of the top attractions on the National Mall. To walk down the National Mall is to thread the halls of world power in the modern era. Here the world’s most powerful politicians and their staffs fill the grand neo-classical buildings of the three branches of US Government, making decisions that reverberate in the remotest corners of the world. The National Mall is larger than it looks, and a walk from one end of the National Mall to the other will take a while and may wear you down a bit. Plan ahead what you want to see and concentrate your activities in one section of the National Mall each day.
The East End, just north of the National Mall, includes many more museums and attractions, including the National Portrait Gallery, the American Art Museum, and the home of an original copy of the Constitution at the National Archives.
The White House, as well as the Textile Museum and the Kennedy Center, are in the West End. The Capitol Building and the Supreme Court are on Capitol Hill. Another attraction here that shouldn’t be missed is the Library of Congress, which has some of the most beautiful architecture that can be seen in the city.
The free National Zoo in Upper Northwest is one of the nation’s most prestigious zoos, and the National Cathedral is an awe-inspiring mammoth. Dupont Circle is home to much of Embassy Row, an impressive stretch of some 50 foreign-owned historic and modernist mansions along Massachusetts Ave, as well as several brilliant small museums, such as the Phillips Collection and the Woodrow Wilson House.
The historic neighborhood of Georgetown is the oldest part of the city, full of beautiful old colonial buildings, the 200+ year-old Jesuit campus of Georgetown University that resembles a Harry Potter film set, restaurants along the waterfront, the C&O canal, and the infamous Exorcist steps.
By car or bus, you can get to some of the capital’s more far-flung and less-frequented attractions, like the National Arboretum in the Near Northeast, or the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in eastern Anacostia. By taking the Metro red line to Brookland-CUA, you can easily visit the magnificent Catholic Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in North America.
Views and panoramas
D.C.’s famous building height restrictions—no taller than the width of the street the building is on plus 20 feet—have resulted in a skyscraper-less downtown, giving D.C. a distinctly muted feel for what is actually the heart of a huge metropolis. The obvious downside to this law is that it limits the supply of housing and office space and tax revenues and results in very high rents. Since many buildings downtown are of the same height level, many rooftop terraces offer great views.
There are several classic spots to get a look out over the city:
- Kennedy Center Rooftop Terrace (free), in the West End, or Arlington House (free), in Arlington National Cemetery, provides a nice skyline somewhat removed from the city, with the Lincoln Memorial prominent in the foreground.
- Washington Monument (free), on the National Mall, though as a vista point its small, bunker-like ports covered with scratched plastic make it less inspiring than might be expected.
- Old Post Office Tower (free) at the Trump Hotel in the East End, the second-tallest structure in downtown D.C., offers great views in all directions. Although entwined with the hotel, it is run by the National Park Service, so it is a friendly environ for liberals and others uninclined toward Trumpism.
- W Hotel, in the West End, just a block from the White House, has a rooftop terrace, bar, and lounge called POV (Point of View) with a view of the White House from above, close enough to make out the Secret Service overwatch. Sitting at a table requires a $40/person minimum spend, but you are welcome to have a drink at the bar or just get a quick photo and return to the elevator.
- Top of the Gate at the Watergate Hotel in the West End is a rooftop bar with great 360-degree views.
Outdoor activities and parks
D.C. is 21.9% covered in parkland, one of the highest ratios among U.S. cities. Many of these parks are crowded with soccer, football, rugby, kickball, baseball, and ultimate frisbee players. The National Mall may be the most famous park, but there are several other large beautiful parks in the city.
The 2,000 acre Rock Creek Park, a national park, bisects the city north of the Anacostia River. The park is full of deer (who overpopulate, due to lack of predators), squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, birds, and even a few coyotes. The park includes paved biking/running trails that extend from Maryland to the Lincoln Memorial and connecting with the Mount Vernon trail in Northern Virginia. There are also plenty of hiking trails, picnic spots, a golf course, a variety of Ranger-led/educational programs, and boats can be rented for kayaking ($16-22/hour) and sailing at the Thompson Boat Center on the Potomac River. There are plenty of nice outdoor spaces just beyond the park. South of Massachusetts Ave, you can take a path west out to the beautiful Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, and then on to enormous Archibald-Glover Park, where the trails can lead you as far south and west as the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park and Palisades Park. Following the main trail along the creek all the way south will take you under the Whitehurst Freeway and down to the National Mall, where joggers avail themselves of the incredible path right along the Potomac beneath the monuments.
Roosevelt Island is one of those gems just far enough out of the way that it is missed by most tourists. The Teddy Roosevelt Memorial is at the center of the island, which includes a couple fountains and several stone obelisks inscribed with his quotes. The rest of the island is a nice natural park of woods and swamp with a boardwalk in the center of the Potomac, with great views of Georgetown University on the northwest side and of the Kennedy Center on the east. What could be better befitting the “conservationist president” than an island park memorial? To reach the island, walk down the stairs at the Rosslyn side of the Key Bridge—which connects Rosslyn with Georgetown—then head east on the trail (the Mount Vernon Trail) to the footbridge to the island. Rosslyn is the nearest Metro stop. By car, you can access the parking lot just north of the Roosevelt Bridge from the northbound lanes of the George Washington Pkwy only.
There are several other parks worth visiting, including the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Anacostia, the National Arboretum in Near Northeast, Meridian Hill Park in Columbia Heights, and the C&O Canal Towpath in Georgetown.
Free in DC, PopVille, Washington City Paper, Washingtonian, and the Going Out Guide by the Washington Post are websites that will keep you up-to-date on current events in the city. Look for unique events that can only be experienced in the nation’s capital – many embassies offer regular events open to the public that showcase their country’s music, theatre, and culture, sometimes for a fee. These events are listed on the websites noted above as well as on this site.
D.C. has a bustling live music scene, most of which takes place at small and medium sized bars and clubs. More information on these venues is available in the Drink section of this article.
The Kennedy Center, which is in the West End and is administered by the Smithsonian, offers a free 1-hour show every day at 6PM on its Millennium Stage. Shows range from poetry to plays to music to dance and are always top-notch. The Washington National Opera and National Symphony Orchestra also both perform here, although these events are rarely free.
In the summer, the weekly Jazz in the Garden on Friday evenings on the National Mall and the Sunday Drum Circle in Meridian Hill Park in Columbia Heights are both free events that are extremely popular with the locals and tourists alike.
Major concerts and gatherings are held at the 18,200 seat Capital One Arena in the East End. There are more intimate classical music concerts in various locations. Try the Dumbarton Concerts by Candlelight in Georgetown!
Well-known Broadway shows are generally performed either at the Kennedy Center or at one of 3 theatres in the East End: Ford’s Theatre, the National Theatre, and the Warner Theatre.
There are also multiple options for seeing top-notch performances of Shakespeare’s works; the Shakespeare Theatre Company performs at both the Lansburgh Theatre and Harman Hall in the East End, while smaller performances are held at Folger Shakespeare Theatre on Capitol Hill.
Other great theatre options that generally show lesser-known plays include Woolly Mammoth Theatre in the East End, the Atlas Theatre in Near Northeast, and the Studio Theatre in Shaw. The GALA Hispanic Theatre @ The Tivoli Theater in Columbia Heights produces works in Spanish and English.
Farther afield (but still readily Metro accessible) are Round House Theatre in Bethesda and Synetic Theater in Crystal City (known for its wordless, dance-heavy, and impressively staged Shakespeare renditions).
Free Outdoor Movies
During the summer, there is generally a free outdoor movie shown every weekday evening on a large outdoor screen at one of several locations in D.C. There are also similar movie showings in nearby suburbs such as National Harbor, Columbia, Bethesda, Frederick, Hagerstown, and Ellicott City. It’s good to show up as early as possible to stake out a good spot, lay down the picnic blanket, and socialize. People start arriving at 7:00PM and films generally start at sunset, approximately 8:30PM. The movies being shown as well as the days of the week and locations change yearly but are aggregated on this site.
D.C. has a vibrant social dance scene. The Josephine Butler Parks Center is a popular spot for swing dancing on Tuesdays. To the northwest, Glen Echo Park, a former amusement park converted into an arts and culture center, hosts social dance events most days of the week, including a popular contra dance series on Fridays.
D.C. is awash in free public events all throughout the year, but especially in the summer. A few highlights include:
- A Capitol Fourth. 4 July. The nation’s capital is the best place to celebrate Independence Day! Fireworks over the Potomac River, the National Independence Day Parade, and a huge orchestral concert on Capitol Hill all make for a big time celebration. Expect enormous crowds.
- Around the World Embassy Tour (Embassy Day). First two Saturdays of May. You can go into most of the embassy buildings, learn about the countries, view presentations and performances, eat food (sometimes free, sometimes for purchase), and buy souvenirs. Expect long lines, especially during peak hours and at larger countries.
- National Cherry Blossom Festival. Late March–early April. Washington’s cherry blossoms do not necessarily bloom during the festival—the bloom varies every year, depending on the winter weather. When the blossoms are in bloom, which lasts for about a week, Washington is at its prettiest. The traditional cherry blossom promenade is around the Tidal Basin, although you will have to go very early in the morning to avoid the crowds. You will pay top dollar to stay at hotels during cherry blossom season.
- Blossom Kite Festival (at the Washington Monument). Late March. The main attraction is of course all the people showing up to fly their kites by the Washington Monument, but there are also a bunch of tent exhibits on topics from things like West Indian kitemaking to U.S. wind power projects. There are several kite flying competitions throughout the day, the most popular being the Rokkaku Kite Battle.
- Shakespeare Free for All, 610 F St NW (Harman Hall), ☏ . Early September. Free performances of a different Shakespeare play every year by the renowned Shakespeare Theatre Company in the Harman Center for the Arts. You can get free tickets via the online lottery or same-day tickets available at the door (via queue) in the morning.
- Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Late June–around 4 July. This annual festival normally has three topics: a country, a region of the U.S., and another subject, which varies from year to year. Previous festivals have featured the country of Oman, the ancient Silk Road, and music in Latino culture.
The convention center in East End hosts several major annual events:
- Library of Congress National Book Festival, Washington Convention Center. One Saturday in early September. Sponsored by the Library of Congress, this festival celebrates books, authors, and reading. Highlights include listening to your favorite author speak, queuing up to have a book signed, taking the kids to visit their beloved PBS Kids characters, and collecting stamps from all the US states and territories in the Pavilion of the States.
- 1 Otakon, Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Three-day weekend in Jul or Aug (varies). One of the largest and longest-running anime conventions in the United States. Even if you are not into anime, you’ll get to see throngs of Japanese cartoon-inspired costumed attendees (cosplayers) take over the Convention Center during the convention. You need to buy an admission badge to enter the convention, but you can just stand on the street and ogle the costumes for free. The best times for this are Thursday evening (a long line often forms for picking up badges) and Saturday, the day when the most people are in costume. Admission $100 at door; discounts online until a few weeks before the con.
- Washington Auto Show – late January
- Washington Travel Show – late January
The NFL team previously known as the Washington Redskins are one of professional football’s most established and storied clubs, boasting five NFL championships. Valued at $3.2 billion, the team is one of the most valuable NFL teams. The team plays at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland. To get there using public transport, take the Blue Line Metrorail to the Morgan Blvd stop, then walk one mile straight up Morgan Blvd to the stadium.
The University of Maryland Terrapins, representing the main campus of the University of Maryland, also has a large following in the area. The team plays just outside D.C. in College Park.
The Washington Capitals, under coach Barry Trotz and led by superstar Alexander Ovechkin, won the Stanley Cup in 2018. The team plays at the Capital One Arena, in the East End.
The Washington Wizards also play at the Capital One Arena. The Wizards were known as the Washington Bullets until 1995, but the name was changed by then-owner Abe Pollin due to the unpleasant irony in the homicide-heavy 1990s.
The Washington Mystics, a women’s team owned by the same company as the Wizards and the NHL’s Capitals, plays in the WNBA, and were once famously the league’s regular “attendance champions.” That is, they didn’t often actually have winning seasons, but they do have plenty of fans. That changed when the Mystics picked up superstar Elena Delle Donne in a 2017 trade, followed by the team’s first WNBA Finals appearance in 2018 and first WNBA title in 2019. The team had played at Capital One Arena throughout their history, but the 2018 season was their last in that venue. The team’s ownership group opened a much smaller arena in the southeastern neighborhood of Congress Heights in fall 2018 (after the WNBA season). The new venue, seating about 4,200, is now home to both the Mystics and the Capital City Go-Go, a farm team for the Wizards in the NBA G League.
The Georgetown Hoyas men’s basketball team is far and away the most popular college sports team in the city, and the Hoyas often sport a more exciting season than even the Wizards. The team also plays at the Capital One Arena since the crowds for the Hoyas’ games are too big for the University to hold.
The University of Maryland Terrapins also have a large following in the area. The team plays just outside D.C. in College Park.
Three other NCAA Division I teams play in the District, and a fourth plays in the immediate metropolitan area. The District also has the George Washington Colonials in Foggy Bottom, the American Eagles in Tenleytown, and the Howard Bison in Shaw. The George Mason Patriots are in Fairfax County, Virginia.
- See also: Baseball in North America
The Washington Nationals, a.k.a. the Nats, formerly the Montreal Expos, have been playing in DC since 2005 and at a stadium by the Waterfront since 2008. Star pitcher Stephen Strasburg brought baseball fever back to DC for the first time in 100 years, selling out games (at least until being sidelined by Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow) and leaving the city abuzz with baseball talk. After Strasburg’s return, the emergence of superstar outfielder Bryce Harper and acquisition of another pitching star in Max Scherzer increased the buzz around the team. Harper left after the 2018 season for the Philadelphia Phillies, but other stars (most notably Anthony Rendon) emerged, taking the Nationals to the World Series crown in 2019—the first championship ever for the franchise, and the city’s first World Series championship since the original Washington Senators (now playing in Minneapolis as the Minnesota Twins) won in 1924.
Previous D.C. baseball teams include the aforementioned first version of the Washington Senators, which played in the city from 1901–1960, and the second Washington Senators, which joined the American League immediately after the original team’s departure but themselves moved to the Dallas–Fort Worth suburb of Arlington, Texas after the 1971 season to become the Texas Rangers. Both suffered from a singular inability to win. The first incarnation was quite successful for its first twenty years, but by WWII they earned the city the slogan “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”
Americans often forget that the country has a professional soccer league, but that’s not the case in D.C. D.C. United has the most honors of any Major League Soccer team, with 4 MLS Cups (league championships) under its belt out of the league’s 24 seasons, as well as successes in international competition in CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, where the club has both a CONCACAF championship and a Copa Interamericana. D.C. is a big soccer town, owing to the metropolitan area’s very international population and its big Latino communities, as well as to a home-grown affection for soccer in this section of the Mid-Atlantic, and the games are high-energy and well attended. United plays at Audi Field in Waterfront.
The area has another top-level team in the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League, though that team has enjoyed much less success than its men’s counterpart. Through the 2019 season, their home field has been the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown, but the upcoming 2020 season will mark a transition from that location, with only four home games (out of 12) at the SoccerPlex. They will play four other home games at Audi Field, with the remaining four in Loudoun County, Virginia at Segra Field in Leesburg. Starting in 2021, the Spirit will leave the SoccerPlex entirely, using only Audi Field and Segra Field.
Speaking of Segra Field, it’s also home to Loudoun United FC, which plays as the reserve side for D.C. United in the second-level USL Championship.
The Washington Kastles have won 5 consecutive Mylan World TeamTennis titles. Since the franchise’s launch in 2008, the Kastles have featured many stars including Serena & Venus Williams, Leander Paes, Rennae Stubbs, and Victoria Azarenka. With an exciting team format, music between points, no-ad scoring and dramatic overtimes, attending a Kastles game can be a fun experience.
D.C. has a long list of highly accredited universities. It’s a political town, and the best known institutions are undoubtedly those with the political connections. Georgetown University, George Washington University, and American University are arguably the best academic options period for those looking to cozy up to the Washington elite and/or launch a public career. They are also excellent bets for international students looking for a politics-oriented exchange program, as their international politics programs are consistently ranked among the world’s best, producing world leaders from kings to African finance ministers. D.C. is also home to a number of acclaimed universities with a more specialized focus: Gallaudet University is the world’s only university for the deaf, Howard University is one of the nation’s most esteemed historically black universities, and the prestigious National Defense University serves the military elite. Other large and well-respected institutions include The Catholic University of America and graduate-level programs such as the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The only public university in D.C. is the University of the District of Columbia, which serves mostly local students.
D.C. has more think tanks than anywhere else in the U.S., most of which are located along Massachusetts Ave’s “think tank row” in Dupont and Downtown. They host frequent free talks and panels during lunch hour (free food is often included) and happy hour. Topics include a variety of policy issues, some of which are very technical or esoteric and others of which are more generally accessible. Each think tank has a different culture and political orientation, ranging from culturally conservative (e.g. the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute) to libertarian (e.g. CATO) to center-left (e.g. Brookings, New America) to progressive (e.g. Center for American Progress).
Many of the book stores in D.C. also host frequent free author talks, most notably Politics and Prose.
Certain career fields find a natural home in D.C. While everyone knows that this is where politicians go, you can also find a fair share of diplomats, lawyers, lobbyists, journalists, defense contractors, and civil servants. Good fields for international visitors to pursue include the various NGOs, national lobbying groups, and for the select few, embassies and consulates. Many ambitious young people come to Washington for internships, and the huge student-aged population peaks in the summer.
With so many high-powered career types out to change the world, the need for child care is obvious. Nannies and au pairs, mostly placed through agencies, provide child care to many of Washington’s elite; the city has the highest proportion of in-home childcare in the country. U.S. citizen nannies are especially sought after as government types carefully follow employment law to avoid problems with security clearances or negative publicity. Wages for legal U.S. residents with experience can top $800 per week, room and board included.
Souvenirs are easy to find at stands and stores near the National Mall and East End. However, these offerings tend to be tacky (shot glasses, magnets, t-shirts, etc…). The gift shops of the Smithsonian museums have unique but more expensive offerings and are great places to buy gifts.
Eastern Market in Capitol Hill is a favorite Saturday or Sunday afternoon shopping destination for locally produced food and artwork. Even if you’re not buying, it’s a great time.
Eclectic boutiques and vintage stores abound in Georgetown, Adams Morgan, Upper Northwest, and Shaw. However, prices are high; you are not likely to find many bargains.
Art galleries are plentiful throughout the city and make for great browsing, although the prices are on the high side.
Specialty book stores such as Politics & Prose, Kramerbooks, and Second Story Books in Dupont Circle carry a nice selection of political humor-themed accessories.
Walmart, with a location near Union Station, and Target are the best bets for cheap groceries and household items.
Clothing and household goods
East End has several brand-name clothing stores such as Macy’s, H&M, Urban Outfitters, Zara, and Guess, while Marshalls is the best bet for discounts within the city limits, with stores in Columbia Heights and Upper Northwest.
Washington has a little bit of everything, from really good ethnic takeout to high-dollar lobbyist-fueled places that will cause your credit card to burst into flames.
Most of the high end cuisine is available in the West End, the East End, Georgetown, Capitol Hill, and Dupont Circle—offering dining experiences ranging from steakhouses packed with powerful suits to Minibar by Jose Andres, a 12-seat restaurant offering a 30-course meal for $275.
D.C.’s international might draws representatives from all corners of the globe, and they all need ex-pat cafes and restaurants to haunt. Notable “ethnic” enclaves include wonderful Ethiopian food in Shaw and Chinese food in what remains of D.C.’s disappearing Chinatown.
Salvadoran cuisine such as the pupusa is common in Columbia Heights. Pupusas are thick corn tortillas stuffed with cheese, optionally fried pork, refried beans, or all sorts of other things, then topped with a tart cabbage salad and an Italianesque red sauce.
Ethiopian food is a D.C. staple due to the city’s large Ethiopian community. Ethiopian food is a wild ride of spicy stewed and sautéed meats and vegetables served atop a plate covered with a spongy bread called injera. You eat the dishes with your hands, using an extra plate of injera (similar to bread) as your sole “utensil”—rip off a piece of the injera and use it to pick up your food. It’s proper in Ethiopia to use only the tips of your fingers in this exercise, and with good reason: you’ll have a messy meal otherwise. It’s also perfectly proper to feed your date, making this a fun cuisine if you know your date well. The best places to try Ethiopian food are in Shaw, which includes Little Ethiopia.
Chinese food can still be found in D.C., though with much of the ethnic Chinese community having moved to the suburbs, most of the restaurants in Chinatown are tourist traps. While good to excellent authentic Chinese food remains available in the metropolitan area, these days the best Chinese restaurants are located in the suburbs. Two noteworthy suburban locations for authentic Chinese cuisine (in various regional styles) are Rockville, Maryland and Wheaton, Maryland. Rockville Station is on the Western Branch of the Metro’s Red Line and Wheaton Station is on its Eastern Branch. Both stations are about 25 minutes from downtown D.C. The Rockville area is a bit more refined, and the restaurant quality is generally good to excellent. Wheaton is busier than Rockville, with a semi-urban density, and dozens of Chinese and other Asian ethnic restaurants. They tend to be smaller, with modest decor, and the food quality ranges from fantastic to just so-so. Check Washingtonian Magazine’s annual “Cheap Eats” article on the web for reliable ethnic restaurant recommendations throughout the Washington Metropolitan area.
The closest thing that D.C. has to a unique local cuisine is the half-smoke: smoked half-beef, half-pork sausages. They have a firm “snap” when you bite into one, are served on a hot dog bun, and are often topped with chili. They are commonly sold at food trucks on the National Mall. If you want a true, quality half-smoke, you should visit the landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl in Shaw.
Cupcakes are a popular local treat. Popular cupcake establishments include Georgetown Cupcakes ($3.25 each), Baked & Wired ($3.75 each), and Sprinkles in Georgetown and Red Velvet Cupcakery ($3.25 each) in the East End.
There are only two kosher restaurants in D.C., and they are very casual: Char Bar (meat) near West End and Silver Crust (dairy) inside the JCC. However, there are several other options for kosher dining in neighboring Montgomery County. Metro accessible kosher restaurants in Montgomery County include: Max’s Kosher Café (meat) and Nut House Pizza (dairy) in Wheaton; and Siena’s Restaurant (dairy) near the Twinbrook metro station. There are also several kosher restaurants in Montgomery County accessible by car, mostly in Rockville and Kemp Mill.
The legal drinking/purchasing age is 21 and it is strictly enforced in D.C. Be prepared to have your identification checked, even if you appear to be well over 21.
Bars and dance clubs
The downtown nightlife is lacking – many bars in the East End are tourist traps and the West End is generally quiet at night despite the student population.
Bars and dance clubs, many of which have live music, are plentiful along 18th St in Adams Morgan, along 14th St and along U St in nearby Shaw, and in Near Northeast, which are the 3 main areas of the city for going on pub crawls. Several hotels in Georgetown include very classy popular bars.
D.C.’s classiest dance clubs are along Connecticut Avenue in Dupont Circle. Music genres played at clubs here include pop, hip hop, and Latin. Many of these bars and clubs have a dress code. Dupont Circle and Shaw also have many bars/clubs that cater to a gay crowd.
Live music clubs
Pop and rock
There are several 500-1,500 person music venues in Shaw, Waterfront, and Capitol Hill that bring in internationally-known acts. The Fillmore Silver Spring, which also features international acts, is located just outside of the city limits in Silver Spring, and is Metro accessible.
Jazz and Blues
Live jazz is very popular in D.C. Jazz legend Duke Ellington frequently played at clubs in Shaw, centered around U St. Blues Alley in Georgetown is the city’s most prestigious jazz club – the interior looks like it is from a Spike Lee movie – straight from the 1920s! There is a weekly $5 blues performance called Blue Monday Blues at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Waterfront and there is a weekly Saturday night jazz/swing band performance at Glen Echo Park in Potomac.
Go-go is a musical genre related to funk and early hip-hop that originated in D.C. in the 1960s. Go-go clubs were once probably D.C.’s most distinctive nightlife scene and were concentrated in Anacostia. Chuck Brown, “the Godfather of Go-Go,” lived in D.C. However, many clubs now refuse to host go-go bands due to the staggering number of stabbings and homicides that occurred at these events. If you’re looking for live go-go, look for big outdoor events or head out to Takoma Station Tavern near Takoma Park, the only venue in D.C. that still has regular go-go acts. (Aside: This is the source of the name for the city’s NBA G League team.)
Hotels of all classes and price ranges can be found in many neighborhoods of D.C., as well as in the nearby suburbs. If you are coming by car, be sure to factor the cost of parking, which can be free in hotels outside the city limits but can cost over $35 per day in hotels in the downtown area. The hotel tax in D.C. is 14.5%, while the tax is 13.0% in the nearby suburbs of Arlington and Bethesda, and 12.00% in Tysons, Reston, and most of Herndon. Hotels in the D.C. area are generally most expensive on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, when business travel reaches its peak, and cheapest on the weekend.
The hotels of the East End, the business-centric West End, and charming Georgetown (which features many boutique choices) are the most popular accommodation options due to their proximity to the tourist attractions and top dining spots. If booking in these areas, be aware that the West End consists mainly of office buildings and is generally dead after dark, and Georgetown is not accessible by Metrorail, although it is easy to travel to/from Georgetown by bus or a ride-hailing service.
Better bargains may be had in the nightlife-centered districts of Dupont Circle, Shaw, Near Northeast, and Capitol Hill, all of which are a short metro or bus ride to, or, when the weather is nice, a nice walk to, the National Mall. These areas may actually be preferable because their nightlife options make a late night out more convenient. Moreover, it is easier to find street parking on the weekend.
There are also many hotels of all classes located close to metro stations just outside the city limits in Arlington and Alexandria, Bethesda, and Silver Spring. If you are flying into or out of Dulles Airport, you may want to look into hotels in the nearby areas of Tysons, Reston, or Herndon, although the ride to D.C. via public transport can take up to an hour. These hotels are generally much cheaper than hotels in D.C., especially on the weekends.
There are approximately 10 hostels in D.C., several of which are in the northern part of the East End. Dorm bed rates are generally just under $40 per night, including taxes.
The number of reported incidents of certain types of crime, but not all types of crime, within a certain proximity to any street address can be tracked on the DC Crime Map. The police presence in the city is predictably very heavy, especially in tourist areas and near government buildings. In general, the often-traveled areas, like the area around Smithsonian, the monuments, and the Kennedy center, are safe to walk around, even in the evening. The areas east of the Capitol are generally less safe, but visitors can safely see attractions there if they stay aware of their surroundings.
The number of annual homicides has declined from 479 in 1991, when Washington was known as the “murder capital”, to 105 in 2014. As a visitor, you are extremely unlikely to be the victim of a homicide; the vast majority of homicide victims in the U.S. are acquainted with their murderer long before the crime. The majority of homicides occur in the less-traveled parts of the city, like Anacostia and the Northeast and Southeast, especially near public housing projects.
Muggings and robberies
Muggings are a problem in the nightlife-centered neighborhoods of Shaw, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, and Near Northeast and the area around the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station. However, visitors should not avoid these areas—on the contrary, it would be a shame to miss out on them—but visitors should be vigilant. In particular, avoid walking at night on side streets—stick to the well-lit main commercial strips, travel in groups, and maintain a basic level of sobriety.
Be extra vigilant with your mobile phones; they are a very popular snatch-and-grab item around the Metro stations and on the trains.
For health emergencies, George Washington University Hospital is on Washington Circle in Foggy Bottom, adjacent to the Foggy Bottom Metro station. This is where former Vice President Dick Cheney went in 2004 for his irregular heartbeat, and where the President would go in event of a medical emergency. Other hospitals in the city include Howard University Hospital, Georgetown University Hospital, Washington Hospital Center, and the Children’s National Medical Center.
Most people in Washington DC have liberal, cosmopolitan, secular and environmentalist values by American standards. This spares both domestic and foreign tourists from cultural clashes which might be imminent elsewhere. However, some strict rules of etiquette are almost distinctive in Washington DC.
On the Metro
When boarding at the station, let those exiting the train step off onto the platform before boarding, and once aboard move to the center of the car. If you have luggage, move it as far out of the path of others as possible. Certain stations have escalators to cover the distances between platforms — walk on the left and stand on the right!
People in Washington DC are punctual, so show up on time. The standard greeting is a firm handshake. Washingtonians generally do not hug, especially if it is someone they have just met, and doing so would probably make your host feel awkward. Business cards are always exchanged when people meet for business for the first time. Small talk and bringing up the subject indirectly are neither necessary nor expected. Most meetings get straight down to business.
Similarly, salespeople, waiters and other service employees are usually less attentive than their colleagues in other states, to respect customers’ privacy, except a short “hello” to entering customers. Customers are supposed to call for attention.
With its highly educated, professional, and political populace, D.C. is a relatively formal and fashion-conscious city. Even in the summer, t-shirts and shorts are in the minority downtown or at bars and restaurants. However, if you just want to enjoy being a tourist, wear what is comfortable and don’t worry—you’ll be in good company! But if you prefer to blend in, a safe bet anytime of day for men are nice dark jeans and an un-tucked button-up or polo shirt, and perhaps dark sneakers or something a little nicer and more stylish. Women will often blend in better in a nice pair of sandals, boots, or other nice shoes, and maybe skipping the T-shirt and sneakers in the evening.
For fine dining or the theater, expect to dress nicely. A good button-up shirt and slacks are a must for any nice restaurant. Ties are never a necessity, but the most formal restaurants (mostly steakhouses and French) will require men to wear jackets (but will usually have courtesy jackets on loan in case you forget). Women will be fine in a dress, skirt, or nice pants.
The D.C. government operates a network of free, public WiFi hotspots across the city. Free WiFi is also available at metro stations, D.C. public libraries, and many local coffee shops, which are also nice places to relax. If you need to use a computer, the libraries have public computer terminals. As in most of the U.S., Internet cafes are a rare phenomenon.
The telephone area code throughout the District is 202, with 771 to be introduced in 2022. You will also see a lot of Maryland (301 and 240) and Virginia (703 and 571) area codes.
Smoking is banned within almost all enclosed public spaces, including shops, restaurants, bars, and clubs. Most restaurants allow smoking in patio seating. If there are no ashtrays, ask for one to double check. Businesses relying principally on tobacco sales are exempt, so smoking is allowed in tobacco shops, cigar bars, and hookah bars.
The possession of up to 2 oz. of marijuana is legal, however the sale of marijuana by anyone except licensed dispensaries is illegal. Anyone must be 21 or older to consume or possess marijuana – it doesn’t matter if its for recreational or medicinal reasons and the laws are strictly enforced. Consumption of marijuana in public is illegal and enforced; therefore, you should consume it only in private. It is illegal to smoke/consume marijuana on someone else’s private property without their consent. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, so you could still be under scrutiny. DO NOT attempt to bring marijuana out of D.C., even to another jurisdiction where it is legal, or you will be charged under federal law.
Talking on your phone while driving carries a $100 fine, a rule that is strictly enforced within D.C. Hands-free devices are permitted to be used while driving, but if you get pulled over for another violation while using one, expect a hard line from the police, who are sick of dealing with accidents caused by distracted drivers.
When visiting federal buildings and museums, you will pass through metal detectors and have your bags inspected. Some buildings (such as courts, etc.) even ban mobile telephones and recording devices. Security personnel have no sense of humor — if you so much as utter the word “bomb,” you will be in for a bad time. You give implied consent for your property and person to be searched when entering a government building or public event such as a concert or sports match.
- Washington Post. The Post is both one of the country’s preeminent newspapers and a great source of information for what is going on in the city. The Going Out Guide section of its website has listings for virtually every known restaurant, bar, theatrical production, music concert, etc. in the city.
- DCist The online “unofficial home page of the District” features coverage of local happenings and issues.
- Washington City Paper. The City Paper, an alternative weekly newspaper distributed on Thursdays, is easy to find around Metro stations and in hotels, and has a listings section in the back that serves as a good, quick reference for what live music, DJ events, theater, gallery openings, etc. will be going on over the weekend (and the following week). The calendar on their website is particularly handy. The cover story can give you a good taste of the sorts of issues actually on the minds of locals—well detached from the culture and priorities of the national politics features in the Post!
- Washingtonian Magazine highlights events in the city as well as dining recommendations.
- Where Magazine. “Where” is a monthly glossy geared towards tourists, and is a fantastic source of information on upcoming happenings, particularly useful for listing the current exhibitions in the city’s museums in a convenient fashion (this information is often overlooked by journals tailored to locals, jaded and spoiled from living in a city full of free museums).
As the capital of the United States, the D.C. area is home to one of the largest concentration of diplomatic missions in the world, and any country without one will have consular representation one way or another. Most are housed in beautiful old buildings (or impressive modern ones), especially those most prominently located along Embassy Row on Massachusetts Ave through Dupont Circle and Woodley Park. If you just want to visit one for the heck of it, try ringing the buzzer of one from a small, lesser-known country—they may well let you in and give a little tour! Each May, dozens of embassies open their doors to the public for the Passport D.C. festival, which showcases the buildings themselves, as well as exhibits, talks, and performances. A number of countries have a (separate) consulate for their consular services such as issuing visas, passports, notary services, etc through a separate entry next to the embassy chancery or in a different location. Check their website or call before going to the embassy.
One inevitable problem with sightseeing in D.C. is that few major attractions will let you bring in bags (or cameras, in the case of the White House) and baggage storage options are limited for security reasons. Free lockers are available at many Smithsonian museums; however, they are only big enough to store small bags and are only supposed to be used while visiting the museums. There is baggage storage near Gate A in Union Station but it is extremely expensive, costing as much as $50 per bag per day. Otherwise, use a mobile app such as Bounce to find a baggage storage location or give a tip of at least $20 to a hotel bellman and ask nicely if he might store your bags.
- Alexandria is south of Arlington, along the Potomac River, and a short metro ride away from DC. Old Town Alexandria features cobblestone streets, nearly 4,000 buildings dating as far back as the 1600s, and shops and good restaurants. The George Washington Masonic Memorial, dedicated to George Washington, is a must-see. Alexandria also includes Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, the first President of the United States. The mansion overlooks the Potomac River and includes a huge museum dedicated to the life of America’s first president.
- Annandale and Centreville are the D.C. area’s Koreatowns, with some of the best Korean BBQ you’ll find anywhere outside Seoul, many of which are open 24 hours per day!
- Arlington is directly across the Potomac River from D.C. and includes attractions such as the Pentagon, Arlington National Cemetery, the Iwo Jima Memorial, as well as Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, an indoor shopping mall. Accessible by Metro.
- Charlottesville, 114 mi (183 km) southwest of D.C., is home to the University of Virginia, as well as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate and vineyard, Ash Lawn-Highland, the former home of President James Monroe.
- Falls Church is home to the largest Vietnamese community on the East Coast, and the food is magnificent!
- Fredericksburg, roughly halfway between D.C. and Richmond and accessible via Amtrak, was founded in colonial era as a “port city”. The town was heavily contested in the Civil War and has a historic district with galleries, music venues, and fine dining. The downtown area and battlefields have been well preserved due to strong local commitment to historic preservation, providing a unique blend of old and new culture.
- George Washington Memorial Parkway is a scenic road that runs along the Virginia side of the Potomac River between Mount Vernon and Great Falls. Two trail networks for running/walking/cycling intersect the parkway: the 18-mile Mount Vernon Trail and the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, which runs between Theodore Roosevelt Island and Mount Vernon.
- Great Falls includes Great Falls Park, an 800-acre park along the Potomac River, 14 mi (23 km) northwest from Washington, DC. The park includes many beautiful hiking trails and the area’s largest waterfall. Great Falls also has the area’s most beautiful homes and is compared to Beverly Hills.
- Hampton Roads has the Norfolk Navy Station, Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Virginia Beach, all about a 4-hour drive away.
- Leesburg is a historic city that includes Simon’s Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets.
- Manassas is a quaint town near Manassas National Battlefield Park, which contains two major Civil War battlefields.
- McLean and Tysons have beautiful mansions and very large shopping malls.
- National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, near Dulles International Airport, houses large air and spacecraft including an SR-71 “Blackbird” spy plane, a Concorde supersonic jet, and the space shuttle Discovery. Admission is free. Parking is available for $15/vehicle or take the public bus from the airport.
- Reston offers some nice restaurants, shops, and bars with nightlife.
- Richmond, which includes a historic downtown, confederate civil war museums, and Carytown – a walk-able strip of trendy restaurants and shops – is a logical stop if you are heading south. Flixbus, Greyhound, and Megabus operate bus service to Richmond for around $15. Amtrak also serves Richmond.
- Shenandoah National Park is a 2-hour drive west on I-66.
- Woodbridge is the location of Simon’s Potomac Mills, a humungous shopping mall that has the best discounts in the D.C. area.
- Annapolis is 32 miles east of Washington DC, along Route 50. It is the Maryland state capital and home to the Naval Academy. Its historic district has numerous shops and restaurants along the Chesapeake Bay waterfront. It is a good place to take a boat trip.
- Baltimore is easily accessible using the MARC train ($7, 1 hour). The Penn Line is the only MARC train line that operates on the weekends. If you are only going for the day, the last train back to D.C. is around 9PM; however, Greyhound Bus and ride-hailing services are viable alternatives if you can’t make the last train. The Inner Harbor is home to the National Aquarium, the U.S.S. Constellation, and great restaurants. During the spring and summer, Camden Yards is a good place to see a baseball game, and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum is near the ballpark. The South Baltimore, Midtown and Fells Point neighborhoods also have many popular bars and restaurants, especially in Little Italy. From spring to fall, you can take a water taxi from the Inner Harbor to historic Fort McHenry.
- Bethesda is accessible using the Red Line Metro and features almost 200 restaurants with food from all over the world.
- Bowie is accessible using the MARC train and is home to the Bowie Baysox minor league baseball team.
- Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park features several hiking trails as well as Great Falls, the most impressive waterfall in the area. The park also offers kayaking and rock climbing. It can be accessed from the Maryland and Virginia sides off of I-495 or via a 13-mile scenic hiker-biker trail from Georgetown.
- College Park is a vibrant college town just outside the D.C. city limits that is home to the University of Maryland.
- Eastern Shore (Maryland) is a great place to charter a boat for the day or eat Maryland’s famous crabs.
- Ellicott City is 14 mi (23 km) west of Baltimore and 29 mi (47 km) north of Washington DC. It is known for its historic district which contains a number of buildings dating back towards the 1800s, in addition to restaurants, boutiques, and antique stores.
- Frederick, 40 mi (64 km) northwest of Washington DC and accessible via the MARC Train, is a charming city, dating back to the mid-18th century. It is a major antique center with many shops, eateries, galleries and antique dealers and there are also several Civil War sites nearby including the Monocacy National Battlefield.
- Greenbelt includes the NASA Goddard Visitor Center, which is a great attraction, especially for kids.
- Kensington hosts an amazing annual Christmas light display at its massive Mormon Temple visible from the Beltway, which looks a lot like the Emerald Palace of Wizard of Oz fame. Antique Row is also worth a look.
- Largo (Maryland) includes the Six Flags America theme park, featuring roller coasters and a water park.
- National Harbor, accessible by MetroBus, includes the Tanger Outlets at National Harbor, the Marriott Gaylord National Convention Center, and the Capital Wheel, a 180-foot ferris wheel.
- Ocean City is a 2- to 2.5-hour drive away on US 50, and has entertainment, beaches, shopping, and dining.
- Potomac is home to the Glenstone, a contemporary art museum featuring architecturally strikingly pavilions nestled among beautiful rural landscaping.
- Silver Spring is accessible using the Red Line Metro and features the American Film Institute’s Silver Theatre, the Fillmore Silver Spring concert venue, along with plenty of restaurants and retail, and upscale parks.
- Takoma Park, a bohemian Victorian suburb, is accessible using the Red Line Metro and has eclectic shops.
- Wheaton is accessible using the Red Line Metro and has some of the best ethnic dining in the entire metro area.
- Philadelphia is only a short Acela Express ride, or a 2 1/2-hour drive away on Interstate 95. Philadelphia is home to the Liberty Bell, and Philadelphia cheesesteaks.
- The city that never sleeps, New York City is a four-hour drive away from Washington, D.C., or an Acela Express ride away. Also accessible by Greyhound, Flixbus, or Megabus.
- New Jersey has a lot of sights such as Six Flags, the Jersey Shore, and Atlantic City, and is a short 3-hour drive from DC.
- Boston is only a 4-hour train ride, or a 7-hour drive, without traffic which is unlikely, and offers the Freedom Trail, prestigious universities, and sports teams.
|Routes through Washington, D.C. (by long-distance rail)|
|Routes through Washington, D.C. (by car)|
|Routes through Washington, D.C. (by commuter rail)|