Washington DC Travel Planning Tips

The Washington DC skyline at dawn. Shot using HDR.

Matthew T. Carroll / Getty Images

You've learned about Washington DC 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. Take a look at some photo galleries and you'll find images to inspire you to travel to Washington DC to see our national historic landmarks and enjoy a wide range of activities.

5 Reasons to Visit Washington DC

  • To enjoy free museums, concerts, and entertainment 
  • To pay tribute to American heroes
  • To be inspired and educated
  • To see the U.S. Government in action
  • To exercise your freedom of speech and petition

Following is a travel guide with tips for planning a vacation in Washington DC including information on the best time to visit, how long to stay, where to stay, what to do, how to get around, and more. 

Best Time to Visit and How Long to Stay

Washington DC is a fun place to visit throughout the year. The best time to visit depends on your personal preferences.

Weather: With four distinct seasons that are equal in length, the weather in DC is relatively mild although it is unpredictable. Generally, the most pleasant weather is in the spring and the fall. Winters may be cold and snowy and summers tend to be hot and humid. The nation's capital offers a wide range of activities year-round, with each season offering something special. 

Crowds: In general, popular attractions are busier on weekends than weekdays and summer is busier than winter. The most crowded day of the week is Saturday. The city is especially busy on holiday weekends and during school vacation breaks. The famous cherry blossoms bloom in late March or early April luring huge crowds to the Tidal Basin. Memorial Day Weekend and the Fourth of July are also among the busiest times of the year to visit.

Costs: Hotel rates are lowest in the winter and when you book far in advance. There are plenty of free attractions and entertainment in DC. Whether you are looking for some family fun, an excursion out with friends or even a quiet day to yourself, the nation's capital is a great place to experience a wide variety of cultural and recreational activities. There are always free attractions, entertainment, and cheap hotels, dining, and shopping options.

Events: There's always a wide selection of things to do in the nation's capital. A Washington DC Event Guide will give you a summary of the events that are held each year.

How Long to Stay

  • If you have just one day: It is impossible to see all of Washington DC in one day. If you have limited time, here is a guide to help you get the most out of your visit: See a One Day Tour of Washington DC.
  • If you have a weekend: You will have time to take a guided sightseeing tour to gain some insight and learn about the history of the city's most popular landmarks. Be sure to note which attractions require advanced planning and take some time to get off the National Mall and visit some of DC's historic neighborhoods. See a Two-Day Itinerary for Visiting Washington DC. 
  • If you have 3 to 4 days: If you are here for several days, you will want to make sure that you enjoy the Top 10 Things to Do in the Washington DC Capital Region. If you are lucky enough to have good weather, be sure to enjoy some time outdoors on the Tidal Basin or at any of the city's parks.
  • If you have 5 to 6 days: After several days in the city, you may want to take a day trip to visit one of the many interesting places within the capital region. Within a few hours drive, you can visit big cities, small towns, beaches, and mountains. 

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.

Things to Consider Before Making Your Hotel Reservation

  • Location: There are a lot of wonderful hotels tucked away in DC's historic neighborhoods. Look at a map and choose your lodging based on its convenience to the attractions that you plan to visit. 
  • Parking: If you are planning to drive to the city, call the hotel and ask whether there is parking available and check on the daily parking rates.
  • Hotel Tax: DC has a 14.5 percent hotel tax. Keep that in mind when planning your vacation budget.
  • Conventions and Events: Hotels book up early and can be expensive when demand is high. See what's happening around town before you schedule your trip so you can plan accordingly.

Here are some resources to help you find a great place to stay:

What to See and Do in the District of Columbia

There is so much to see and do in the District of Columbia that it is a good idea to plan ahead to make sure that you see the attractions that interest you most. People come from all over the world to visit the monuments and museums on the National Mall. There are also many interesting places to explore throughout the city.

Sightseeing - Most Popular Attractions

Some of the most popular DC landmarks require tickets in advance. Here are additional resources to help you plan what to see and do:

Attractions for Kids

Be sure to visit the attractions that appeal to your child’s interests and age level. Explore interactive exhibits at the museums and government buildings. Visit some of the national monuments and take a walk in front of the White House. Throughout the city, you will find a variety of family programs, arts, sports, and special events. Here are some resources to help you plan ahead:

Festivals & Special Events

There are plenty of events that are held each year in different months. 

Entertainment and Nightlife

The Washington DC area has a wide variety of arts and entertainment ranging from formal theaters to casual nightclubs. There are also some sightseeing tours available in the evening. 

Where to Eat

When you are on vacation, you want to eat well without breaking your budget. Washington DC has a huge selection of restaurants ranging from formal dining to casual family-friendly eateries. You can find just about every type of cuisine from around the world. 

Here are a few resources to help you plan ahead:

How to Get to Washington DC

By Plane
The capital region is served by three different airports: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), Dulles International Airport (IAD), and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. National Airport is the closest to DC, but the other airports may offer better schedules and prices from some destinations. 

Taxicabs are readily available outside the terminals. Advance reservations are not needed.

SuperShuttle, a van service offers shared rides within the metropolitan area. For information, call 1-800-BLUEVAN.

By Train
Amtrak operates approximately 85 trains daily into and out of Washington, DC, primarily on the 457-mile Northeast Corridor that runs between DC and Boston. Union Station is located in the heart of the city at 50 Massachusetts Avenue NE Washington DC. 

By Car
If you are driving to Washington DC, you should know that the city is not easy to navigate and traffic is very congested. There are plenty of public transportation options. 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. With one-way streets and traffic circles, it is easy for even locals to get confused and turned around. If you are planning to drive into town to visit the National Mall, prepare for parking ahead of time. It might also be helpful to get your bearings by taking a look at some maps of DC before your visit.

Was this page helpful?