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Washington, D.C., is one of the United States’ top tourist destinations, with more than 20 million domestic travelers filtering in and out of the city every year. It’s the heart of the U.S. politically speaking, with most of the country’s various major institutions housed there—the White House, Library of Congress, and the U.S. Capitol—as well as iconic historical monuments like the Lincoln Memorial and museums like the Smithsonian. Thanks to its deep historical and political roots, the city is popular with history buffs and politicos, as well as families with school-age kids. Aside from the sightseeing, the city also has a dynamic food and culture scene, with trendy restaurants and chic nightlife spots in neighborhoods like Adams Morgan and Georgetown.
The hard part with D.C. is knowing where to start—and for that, a handy travel guide makes for a good planning companion. We’ve rounded up a handful of the best, from those tailored to first-time visitors and foodies to outdoor enthusiasts and history junkies.
Our Top Picks
DK Top 10 Washington, DC: 2019
Updated for 2019, this comprehensive guide is a great resource for first-timers to the city or those who fly to D.C. frequently on business but have to do their exploring a bit at a time. The pocket-sized guide is easy to take along at just 144 pages, and it clearly lays out the city’s biggest attractions—and, handily for those in town on a whirlwind trip, the walking routes that will take visitors to the maximum number of sights in the smallest amount of time.
The book is packed full of maps, from a laminated, color-coded pull-out that includes public transit maps to others that are handily marked with the attractions recommended in the guide book. One other thing we enjoy, especially for those caught on a rainy day, is that the book also includes museum floor plans so you don’t get too lost in D.C.’s vast institutions.
Frommer's EasyGuide to Washington, D.C. 2019
Planning a trip to D.C. can be overwhelming, The Smithsonian museums alone could take days to explore, never mind seeing anything else in town. If you’re on a limited time frame, this book might just save the day as it boils down the best sights and spots in the city into the true essentials.
Written by local journalist Elise Hartman Ford, the book contains great suggestions for restaurants in-the-know locals love and up-to-date public transit information, including easy-to-read maps and pricing, so you’re never caught short or out in the rain. She’s not afraid to get honest, either, with opinionated reviews that do a great job of guiding visitors to meals they’ll remember for years. (We also love the walking tours of D.C. neighborhoods that she lays out.) Conveniently, the book comes in both paperback and in Kindle format for those who are packing light.
National Geographic Walking Washington, D.C.
There’s plenty of walking to do in Washington D.C., with neighborhoods like The Mall and Penn Quarter playing host to a bevy of visitor attractions—not to mention vast museums like the Smithsonian that will more than do their part ensuring you get your steps in for the day. National Geographic’s guide gets specific, though, laying out the best routes through the city for visitors who like to take destinations in on foot.
The book is updated yearly and lays out one- and two-day itineraries, as well as information about some of the major landmarks and context for the bigger sights in D.C. It’s slim enough that you can tuck it into a daypack or tote bag, too. Readers say that this book really helps them get the most out a trip to the capital and that it’s great for even longer stays of four or five days. The author, Barbara Noe Kennedy, has lived in D.C. for 20 years and has also been a senior editor for National Geographic Travel Publishing for just as long—so it’s safe to say she knows her stuff.
50 Amazing Things You Must See and Do in the Greater D.C. Area
Sure, there’s plenty to do in the capital, but once you’ve gone a few times—or if you just can’t get enough of the great outdoors, this book will come in handy. The area surrounding D.C. has some seriously breathtaking scenery that stretches from northern Virginia to central Maryland, and it’s easily doable in a day trip or over a weekend stay. Whether you’re into hiking, cycling, birdwatching, or taking in some splendid seasonal blooms and foliage, this book has activities for people who love getting out of the city and into nature.
It makes it easy to plan those trips too, with clear, well laid-out information about how long it will take to get there and when it’s the best time to go during the year (and yes, there’s something for any time of year). It’ll leave you inspired—and excited for many weekends of adventures.
Secret Washington D.C. (Local Guides by Local People)
This 2018 update to the much-loved 2015 guide explores the sides and sights of Washington, D.C. that most guidebooks don’t include, like a Darth Vader figure on a church and the longest elevator in the world. Yes, it’s definitely quirky, but it’ll give you deep insight into a side of the city you’ve never seen, probably never heard of, and likely never expected.
There’s also information on the world’s oldest continuously operating airport and the nation’s only state embassy. All types of travelers, from families to couples of all ages and solo travelers, will love the off-the-beaten-path info detailed within. At a purse- and backpack-friendly size, it’s got plenty of portability to be your companion for days of adventure.
Moon Washington DC
Moon guides are known for their local insights and thorough coverage of a city’s best offerings, and the D.C. edition is no exception. Author Samantha Sault specializes in the intersection of politics and culture, making her book—about a city she’s lived in since childhood—deeply compelling. The guide is extremely well laid-out, with information that’s both accessible when you need a quick reference and thorough when you want a deeper read.
Sault does an especially great job at highlighting the city’s local culture, from live music venues to D.C.'s up-and-coming bar scene. She also includes day trips out of town, for those who want to break up their time in the city. Ideas include places like Annapolis, Shenandoah National Park, and Old Town Alexandria.
Another bonus: Sault also includes great advice for LGBTQ+ travelers, seniors, families, and those with disabilities.
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Washington, DC
DK Eyewitness’ travel books are known as some of the best in the industry: they’re comprehensive but still accessible and at just 204 pages, they’re smaller than other leading travel guides (though still just as chockful of info). This edition of the book, which was released in November 2019, covers major neighborhoods like Foggy Bottom and Penn Quarter, and it’s full of helpful information for first-time visitors, including detailed maps and top sights to explore.
For repeat visitors, we particularly like the year-long calendar of events, so you can plan a trip that lines up with a cool festival, as well as the walks and itineraries that let you discover the city's many diverse neighborhoods.
Great Food Finds Washington, DC: Delicious Food from the Nation's Capital
It’s no secret that Washington D.C. is a city for foodies. From restaurants like Black Strap Bakery to Michelin-starred Blue Duck Tavern, the scene in the nation’s capital is famous for its variety and caliber of places to dine at. This 288-page book—enough to keep you occupied planning your meals on the flight there—lays out the top destinations for any trip.
Unusually, the book isn’t just about restaurants, either, it also features recipes from the cafes and restaurants mentioned so once you go, you can come back and recreate your favorite dish. The book makes a great gift for a local resident, too. No matter how good their restaurant game is, there’s bound to be at least a couple of places in here they haven’t visited—or, if they’ve managed to achieve that impossible feat, they’ll also appreciate the insight about cooking and life that the institutions’ owners themselves share with the reader.
Our writers spent 2 hours researching the most popular Washington D.C. guidebooks on the market. Before making their final recommendations, they considered 19 different guidebooks, screened options from 12 different publishers, and read over 40 user reviews (both positive and negative). All of this research adds up to recommendations you can trust.