Washington, D.C. Guide: Planning Your Trip

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You've learned about Washington D.C. in school and seen images of the city in dozens of movies and television shows, but there’s nothing like seeing the nation’s capital in person.  The District of Columbia is best known as the home to the federal government, but it is also a vibrant city and a great vacation destination with a wide range of attractions, events, entertainment, shopping, dining, and outdoor recreation opportunities.

This is a place where you can see national historic landmarks, visit free museums and see national treasure, take in a concert, and enjoy an amazing meal. 

Read on for tips on planning a vacation in Washington D.C including information on the best time to visit, how long to stay, where to stay, what to do, how to get around, and more. 

Planning Your Trip

Best time to visit: The city has four distinct seasons, and generally the most pleasant weather is in the  the fall and the spring (plus, the cherry blossoms are in full bloom during late March and early April).

Language: English

Getting Around: Forget the region's notorious traffic and rely on the Metro to hit all the tourist highlights. Taxis and Uber and Lyft are also easy to hail here.

Travel Tip: Take out a Capital Bikeshare for the day for National Mall sightseeing (and wear good walking shoes to tackle the museums).

Whether you're looking to join the crowds during Cherry Blossom season, Memorial Day Weekend and the Fourth of July or escape them, here's a guide to the best times of the year to visit.

Meanwhile, this Washington DC Monthly Event Guide will give you a month-by-month summary of the events that are held each year.

Things to Do

If you've never been to the District of Columbia, visiting the monuments on the National Mall is an absolute must — as is the U.S. Capitol Building and the White House.

 Then head to one or more of the 17 world-class museums and galleries in the Smithsonian Institution in the area, which are all open to the public for free. After that, leave the tourist track and spend time in a lively, historic neighborhood like Georgetown or Adams Morgan.

Explore more attractions with our full-length articles on the best things to do in D.C., the best free things to do, and the best things to do with kids.

Where to Eat and Drink

In the past 10 years, the nation's capital earned a place among America's best cities for dining out. In terms of local cuisine, the hot dog-like half-smoke smothered in chili and cheese at historic Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street draws in lines of tourists. But Washington D.C. has a huge selection of restaurants ranging from formal dining to casual ​family-friendly eateries. The city is home to embassies and thriving immigrant communities, and you can find just about every type of cuisine from around the world here from Filipino fare at Bad Saint to Ethiopian at Zenebech.

This city is serious about drinking too. Where you go out for a stiff drink just depends on your mood. Beer drinkers will love brewpubs like Right Proper and Blue Jacket or the many outdoor beer gardens like Dacha that flourish in the summer. Wine bars are popping up too, along with rooftop bars and craft cocktail spots including José Andrés’ rarified Barmini.

Explore our articles on the best restaurants in D.C., the best family-friendly restaurants, and the best bars.

Where to Stay

Where to stay when visiting Washington DC really depends on your budget. The city has a wide range of accommodations ranging from large convention hotels to small boutique-style properties to economical youth hostels. You should book your hotel early to confirm a reservation to suit your needs. Staying downtown can be expensive, but you'll be very close to tourist attractions on the National Mall and it's central enough to D.C.'s many neighborhoods that anywhere you want to go is probably a short Metro or taxi ride away.

However, those looking to save money could stay in close-in suburbs like Alexandria, Arlington, or Bethesda, and simply take the Metro in during the day at off-peak hours.

Explore the different neighborhoods you can stay in, and our recommendations on the best hotels.

Getting There

The capital region is served by three different airports, and Amtrak operates approximately 85 trains daily into and out of Washington's Union Station. If you are visiting from around the region, you might consider leaving your car and taking Metrorail into the city. If you do drive, be patient and use a GPS to navigate your way around since with one-way streets and traffic circles, it is easy for even locals to get confused and turned around. 

  • Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA): Located in Alexandria, this airport the closest to the city (a 15 minute cab ride without traffic or take the Metro in), but the other airports may offer better schedules and prices from some destinations.
  • Dulles International Airport (IAD): One of the busiest airports in the world, this is a huge hub for travel but it's also a 45 minute drive or more (or you could take a public bus or shuttle bus to the Metro).
  • Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport: This airport near Baltimore is the furthest away from the District at 50 minute drive or more, but tickets can be the most affordable and the MARC train is an option for getting into the city.

Money Saving Tips

  • Visit the Smithsonian museums, which boast free admission and enough to see that you could spend an entire day in each one. In fact, many educational attractions in D.C. are free to the public.
  • Time your Metro trips to off-peak hours when fares are cheaper (not during rush hour).
  • Rent a Capital Bikeshare bike for the day and wheel around on the cheap.
  • Take advantage of the free nightly shows at Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage.
  • Eat at gourmet food trucks for lunch (you'll find them downtown in spots like Franklin Square and Union Station where office workers duck out for a meal).
  • Food halls like Union Market are also exploding in popularity, with affordable, interesting food.
  • Enjoy free concerts outside during the warm months, along with outdoor movies.

Learn more about the cheapest ways to have fun by exploring the best free things to do in D.C.

 

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