6 Common DC Myths and Misconceptions

April 19, 2020 in Blog

Most visitors from around the world see Washington, DC in TV and movies long before they step foot in the capital city. Since we meet so many visitors, tour guides hear a lot of DC myths and misconceptions. Here are six DC myths we’d like to put to rest.

1. DC is just a bunch of government buildings.

This one couldn’t be further from the truth. Typically I hear this one when someone has just arrived into town and hasn’t ventured out past the National Mall yet.

Washington, DC is the seat of the U.S. government, so of course there are a lot of government buildings, but there are a lot of other things, too! Even downtown you’ll find plenty of hotels, restaurants, and private office buildings. 

I do recommend checking out some DC’s many neighborhoods, because you’ll get to see lots of things beyond the big government buildings. 

And since we’re on the topic of buildings, one DC myth straight out of Hollywood is that…

2. We all hang out at the Lincoln Memorial.

This one is pretty funny. In so many movies that are set in DC, there is at least one scene when the characters are hanging out at the Lincoln Memorial.

Now, tour guides like me go to the Lincoln Memorial all the time, but from the movies you would think we go there to drink our morning coffee or hang out with friends after work.

And while it is a cool spot to spend a few minutes on a nice day, we just don’t really go there all the time.

Speaking of nice days, another misconception is that…

3. DC weather is always nice.

Of all the DC myths, this is the one I take most personally. I honestly have no idea where this misconception comes from. Maybe it’s the fact that the most famous photos of DC are taken during cherry blossom season. Or at night.

Then again, maybe photographers just don’t take pictures of people sweating through their third shirt of the day in DC summer humidity.

Now, that’s not to say that DC never has nice weather. It’s just that it’s not consistently nice in the way that a city like San Diego is.

Washington, DC—like most places in the Mid-Atlantic region—has four distinct seasons. This means that depending on when you visit, you’ll either need to pack a coat or a lot of sunscreen. We have some spectacularly nice days in the spring and the fall, but the summer is reliably hot and humid.

There’s a lot to say on this topic, but if you’re looking to learn more, the Trip Hacks DC podcast already sat down with one of DC’s best meteorologists. It will give you the fullest picture of weather in DC.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s July and I need to go take my fourth shower of the day…

4. Everyone works in politics or government (or is a lawyer / lobbyist).

You could make these kinds of generalizations about just about any place and usually they’re not true. For example, everyone in Los Angeles is a Hollywood actor. Or everyone who lives in Iowa is a corn farmer. Or everyone in Houston is an oil baron. Obviously, all of these places have a diverse array of people who work all kinds of jobs.

In fact, when you visit DC, you will probably not interact with people who work in politics, law, or lobbying. You’ll mostly come across people in the service sector: your hotel staff, restaurant servers, and tour guides. 

Really the only time you’ll probably interact with someone who works in politics is if you sign up for a Capitol tour and it’s led by one of your Congress member’s interns.

Speaking of DC myths and politics…

5. We see the President all the time.

The reality is that once a president is in office, we almost never see him again. This is partly for security reasons, partly just because his schedule is packed. I got to see him exactly once: on the White House lawn when the Nationals won the World Series—and from such a distance that it was hard to even see him.

Washingtonians may have seen presidents in their hometown, but usually it’s when they were just candidates and on the campaign trail. 

And as far as campaigning for reelection, DC isn’t considered a “swing state,” so the President never really campaigns here in the city. 

So, if you’re looking to see the President in real life, your chances are actually much better if you live in Florida or Michigan than in the nation’s capital. 

Another related DC myth is that… 

6. DC is crazy on election day. 

Again, because there’s not much campaigning here, it’s really not crazy at all. It’s actually a pretty chill day. 

We go out and vote—for president if it’s a presidential year, but also for city council, school board, and any local issues that are on the ballot. Election night parties are also typically held in the city that the election winner calls their home. Not here in DC.

But while election day itself is pretty low-key, Inauguration Day in January is another story for another article.

5 Overrated DC Attractions That You Can Skip

March 1, 2020 in Blog

We already told you about our favorite free things that you can do in DC. Since then, people ask why certain sites didn’t make the list and why. To be clear: we’re not knocking any of these places. However, if your time in DC is limited, these are five overrated DC attractions that you can consider skipping or saving for a future trip.

1. The White House

The White House is the President’s home and office. It’s one of the most important an famous buildings in the entire world! As such, it has intense security and it’s hard work to get tickets to go inside. If you don’t start planning months in advance, chances are that you’re not going to get tickets. In fact, we have an entire post explaining the White House ticket process and another on what to expect on your White House tour.

So why doesn’t this make the top ten list? The public tour of the White House is pretty limited. You do not get to see the Oval Office, the Situation Room, the Lincoln bedroom, or any of the stuff you know from Hollywood movies and shows. 

Even from the outside, it’s hard to get a good view these days. The National Park Service is replacing the six-and-a-half-foot fence with a 13-foot fence. In the meantime, you can’t even go up to the fence. The closest you can get from the south is the opposite side of E Street. So, while it’s cool to get to say you’ve been inside the White House, it takes a lot of effort for questionable payoff. 

However, the White House Visitor Center (which is across the street) is a cool little museum and doesn’t require reservations. Bonus: it’s open earlier than most attractions and has one of the cleanest public bathrooms around the National Mall.  

2. The Washington Monument

It would be almost impossible to visit Washington, DC and not get at least a view of the Washington Monument. But going to the top of the monument might be an overrated DC experience.

Now look, I’m not hating on good views. One World Trade Center, the Sears Tower, or just about any skyscraper with an observation deck, are all probably worth visiting to take in the view. But that’s the problem: the Washington Monument opened in the 1880s—well before observation decks were a tourist attraction. 

As a result, there is no floor-to-ceiling glass, no balcony with a glass floor, no bar—nothing like that. It’s just eight small windows, two facing in each direction.

And since it’s a small space, you do need a reservation. If you’re a planner, you can get them in advance on recreation.gov for a small processing fee. Otherwise, you have to visit the Washington Monument first thing in the morning for a timed entry pass. It’s a lot of effort.

An easier (and arguably cooler) alternative is the view from the Old Post Office Tower. It’s not as tall, but you can see the Capitol dome down Pennsylvania Ave and the Washington Monument. Best of all, you don’t need tickets; you can just walk up and go. We have a whole post on visiting the Old Post Office Tower that will give you pointers.

3. The Pentagon

When you see the Pentagon in the movies it’s always accompanied by aerial imagery and something really important is happening inside. In reality it’s an office building. In fact, it’s literally the world’s largest office building and not really a site or attraction like other things in DC.

Most people don’t even know that you can tour the Pentagon. Usually they discover it when they are on their Congress member’s website requesting tours of the Capitol or White House and it’s one of the other options listed. 

The tour takes about one hour, so for a building with three times as much floor space as the Empire State Building, you really don’t get to see a lot. I would say that if you’re a big military history buff or a veteran, then it could be worth your while. But if that’s not your thing, this might also be another overrated DC site.

4. The Bureau of Printing and Engraving

This is one of two “money factories” in the country. The other is in Fort Worth Texas. You can see money rolling off the printing presses. And, in theory, that is pretty cool. But as someone once told me, if you’ve seen money, and you’ve seen a printer, then you’ve pretty much seen the Bureau of Printing and Engraving

If you come during busy season, from March through September, you do need an advanced reservation or you need to make a special trip for a daily timed ticket. 

I will say that this is really popular with kids, so if you’re traveling to DC with kids, it might be worth it. But I personally find this to be an overrated DC attraction.

5. Supreme Court

Now, there are a few different ways you can visit the Supreme Court. If you’re in town when the court is in session, you can sit and watch oral arguments. And that is a really unique thing you’re never going to get to do anywhere else. 

But you do need to pay attention to the case schedule and will probably need to line up a few hours beforehand if you really want to do it. If you’re visiting on another day, you can do a self-guided walk around the building or listen to a courthouse lecture.

If you’re a lawyer, a law student, or just someone who is fascinated with the law, then this is very much worth it. However, most people are not lawyers, including myself, which is why I consider this an overrated DC attraction. 

Why You Should Stay in Downtown DC

February 16, 2020 in Blog

As you’re planning your trip to DC, there are plenty of great neighborhoods for you to stay. However, only one puts you front and center for the city’s most famous attractions: Downtown DC. Here’s everything you need to know about planning a stay in Downtown DC.

Where Is Downtown DC?

Most people consider “downtown” to be the neighborhood directly surrounding the White House. This includes several blocks north, west, and then the few blocks east leading down to the National Mall. To give you an idea, check out the area highlighted in yellow on the map:

Downtown DC is home to the White House and is an ideal location for quick access to some of the city’s most interesting sights.

Getting Around

One of the best things about staying in Downtown DC is that it’s one of the easiest parts of the city to get around. There are four easily-accessible metro stations: Farragut West, McPherson Square, Metro Center and Federal Triangle.

The Circulator bus also has several routes that conveniently run through the area. The Georgetown to Union Station route runs straight through downtown on K Street. The Woodley Park to McPherson Square route takes you from McPherson Square almost all the way up to the Smithsonian National Zoo

And if it’s a nice day and you’re up for it, you can walk. Downtown DC is centrally located so sites like the Smithsonians, the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and many others are 1-2 miles or less.

Who Lives in Downtown DC?

People who live downtown typically live here because they really value the convenience. Almost all of the housing is in multi-family buildings and there are almost no individual houses. So this isn’t an area where you expect to see a lot of large families. There’s a good reason for that: $$$$$. Downtown DC is an incredibly expensive area to live.

To give you a sense of what it costs, a 1-bedroom condo in this building sold last year for $500,000, plus an additional $500 per month condo fee.

If you prefer to rent, the asking price for a 1-bedroom apartment in this building is $2,700. 

Needless to say, Downtown DC is not a cheap area.

Hotel Options

For visitors, the good news is that there are a ton of hotel options downtown—probably more than anywhere else in the city. So you have plenty of choices.

(Note: All of the hotels we recommend are places where we would send our own mothers—or stay if our own apartments flooded. That said, if you do book through the affiliate links below, Trip Hacks DC will earn a small commission.)

First on the list (if you can swing it) is the Willard Hotel. This hotel has come up in several Trip Hacks DC podcast episodes because there is a ton of history associated with it. Of course, the Willard today is not the same brick and mortar that Abe Lincoln stayed in the night before his inauguration—but it’s still a pretty cool claim to fame. Plus, the Round Robin Bar is one of the coolest spots in the city to grab a drink.

Apart from its great history, the location is pretty unbeatable. You’re a two minute walk to the White House, an eight minute walk to the Natural History Museum and a five minute walk to Metro Center, which gives you access to four different Metro lines.

If you’re looking for a more affordable option, I also recommend the Homewood Suites Downtown. It’s farther from the metro, but walkable to a ton of things—like an abundance of restaurants and bars on 14th Street.

One of the best things about Homewood Suites is that it comes with continental breakfast and coffee, making life easy and saving you money. It also has an evening social hour with free snacks, beer and wine.

What to Eat in Downtown DC

The most famous restaurant downtown—and perhaps in the entire city— is the Old Ebbitt Grill. It’s on 15th Street right across the from the White House and a block up from the Willard Hotel. It has a reputation as an institutional restaurant with a lot of history, but the food is actually really tasty, too.

One of Old Ebbit’s most famous offerings are their oysters. They even offer half price oysters during oyster happy hour throughout the week. If you’re in DC the Friday and Saturday before Thanskgiving, you can join them for their “Oyster Riot,” where “nearly 1000 people devour tens of thousands of oysters while enjoying the gold medal winners of the International Wines for Oysters Competition and grooving to some awesome tunes.”

If you’re looking for cheap eats, District Taco, one of our favorites, has a restaurant in this area. So does Takorean, another one of our personal favorites. 

Since this is an area with a lot of office workers, it has generally very good lunch options, including the GCDC Grilled Cheese Bar, which we really like. And if you do want breakfast, there’s Wicked Waffle, which is one of the places featured in the $20 per day challenge

For more information about eating well on your trip, make sure to check out the Trip Hacks DC podcast episode on this topic. 

Things to Do in Downtown DC

The best thing about staying downtown is that it’s close to seemingly everything. Of course, the most famous attraction is the White House—but aside from stopping by to see it from the outside, and maybe taking the tour, you’re not going to spend much time there.

If you’re physically up for it, you can walk down to the monuments and the museums. You can walk up 14th Street for amazing restaurants—or to the west for a game or concert at Capital One Arena.

If you’re into theater, the Warner Theater and National Theater are both in this area. And if you like to do shopping on your vacation there are a bunch of stores over by the Metro Center station. 

In all, if you’re looking for a convenient place to stay in DC that puts the whole city at your fingertips, it’s hard to beat Downtown DC.

Taxes in Washington DC: What Visitors Need to Know

February 2, 2020 in Blog

Taxes may not seem like the most riveting subject in the world, but when you travel it’s important to understand how taxes in Washington, DC will affect you. In this post we’ll cover the taxes that tourists will pay in the course of their visit. So, here’s everything you need to know about taxes in Washington, DC.

Quick disclaimer: these numbers are accurate as of 2020 but be aware that tax rates could change in the future.

Hotel Taxes in Washington, DC

The first tax that almost all Washington, DC visitors will experience is the Hotel/Transient Accommodations tax. It is currently 14.95%. Hotels in the U.S. do not include the tax in the advertised room rate. So if you find a hotel in DC listed for $150 per night, you will actually pay $172.43 per night. 

And I know what you’re thinking… but no, you can’t avoid this tax by staying in an Airbnb instead. A few years ago Airbnb was not subject to this tax, but those good old days are gone.

Relax—This Tax is Everywhere

It’s easy to get upset about hotel taxes, but remember that every city has high hotel taxes. Why? Well, it’s an easy political sell for the city council; the city gets to raise money but doesn’t have to tax its own residents.

There are actually a lot of cities with higher hotel taxes that we have. According to the HVS Lodging Tax Report, Washington, DC isn’t even in the top 50 U.S. cities for hotel taxes. For example:

  • In Philadelphia, the tax is 15.5%.
  • In Columbus, OH it’s 17.5%.
  • And in Omaha, NE it’s 20.5%. 

So comparatively, a trip to DC isn’t bad at all. 

Sales Tax in Washington, DC

Washington, DC has sales tax, just like you probably do back home. Sales tax in DC is a little complicated, because there are different tax rates depending on the category of items that you buy.

The general sales tax is 6%. This covers most merchandise that you’d buy at a regular store. In other words, if you walk into a gift shop and buy a souvenir t-shirt for $20, you’ll pay $21.20.

But there are exceptions. Groceries are not taxed, nor are medications. That means that if you go into a grocery store and buy bananas and bottle of ibuprofen, you won’t pay any tax on that. 

Food and Alcohol Have Their Own Taxes in Washington, DC

However, some sales taxes are higher than the general 6%. Alcohol is taxed at 10.25%. So if you go to a liquor store and buy a bottle of wine that’s marked $10, the total price will be $11.03. 

When you go to a restaurant, the tax on your meal is 10%. So if you spend $100 at a nice restaurant, the subtotal will be $110. I say subtotal because that doesn’t account for the tip; you can check out this article if you’d like to learn more about tipping etiquette in Washington, DC

Alcohol is also taxed at 10% when purchased at a bar or restaurant. That means it’s technically cheaper, tax-wise, to drink out. Then again, it’s really not because the drinks are marked up so much.

Taxes on Sporting Events and Merchandise

If you’re attending a game or event at Nationals Park or Capital One Arena, you will pay a 10.25% tax on tickets and anything you buy inside. Now this is one of the rare cases when the tax is usually folded into the listed price. So when you buy a baseball ticket for $20, the actual price is $18.14 plus tax.

The same goes for food and drinks. That $12 beer inside the ballpark is actually $10.88 plus tax. However, if you go to the team store to buy merchandise, the tax is usually not included in the price. So be prepared that a $100 jersey for your favorite player will ring up at $110.25.

Pro tip: You can save on taxes and overall price if you don’t buy merchandise inside the team stores. Instead you can use an authorized seller like Fanatics and have it shipped to your home. If you sign up for their email alerts you can find some good deals, too. 

Bar Taxes in Washington, DC

One more place where you sometimes see tax included in the price is at bars. This is becoming less and less common. It made more sense back when people paid with cash, because making change with bills is much easier for bartenders than with coins. These days so many people pay with credit cards that this isn’t as much of a concern.

And before you get too stressed out, here’s a little hack to make things a little easier: Whenever you go to buy something, calculate 10% of the value in your head and add that to the price. In many cases the tax will be less than 10% (or maybe a fraction more), but this will give you a good sense of roughly the maximum that you will pay for something. 

What’s the Best Time to Visit Washington, DC?

January 5, 2020 in Blog

Okay, so I’ll end the suspense right now. There is no single best month of the year to visit. That’s because each month of the year is great (but for different reasons). That’s why we’ve done a whole blog series on the pros and cons of each month. So now that we’ve covered all 12 months of the year, we thought we’d go back, reflect, and let you decide for yourself which you think is the best time to visit Washington, DC.

January: Time for Snow (Maybe)

January is the best time to visit Washington, DC if you want the best chance to see snow. Washington, DC has four diverse seasons, and if you’re interested in the weather, our podcast episode with Jason from the Capital Weather Gang is a great in-depth weather discussion.

But a word of warning: it’s not actually that snowy in Washington, DC. In a typical winter we get about a foot and a half of snow. Still, the month with the most snow, on average, is January. So if you want the best chance to have a snowball fight near the Lincoln Memorial, January is the time of year.

February: Nice and Quiet

February is the best month of the year if you hate crowds. Simply put, people generally do not come to Washington, DC in February. Some people think it will be too cold to have fun—which couldn’t be further from the truth. But mostly people don’t come because the kids are in school and spring break isn’t for another month. 

But if you want to come and have the museums, monuments, and big sites mostly to yourself, February is the best time to visit Washington, DC. 

March: Spring in Bloom

March is the best month for celebrating the beginning of spring. Spring officially starts around March 20th, which is also the day that the National Cherry Blossom Festival usually begins. 

Even if you’re too early for the blossoms, we have magnolias and other flowing trees that look really nice. And if you come after the 20th you can check out the Cherry Blossom Festival events and festivities

April: Cherry Blossoms

April is the best month if you want to see the actual cherry blossoms in bloom. Now I have to warn that there is no guarantee they will be in bloom in April. If we have a warm winter, they might come out in March. But on average, peak bloom typically happens around the first week in April. 

If you want information about the blossoms or the National Cherry Blossom Festival, I recommend this Trip Hacks DC podcast episode with one of the festival staff. 

May: Great Weather

May is the best month to come if you want reliable spring weather. March and April can be kind of a gamble. Even though it’s spring, you might still run into a chilly day or a windy day. May typically has the most reliable spring weather.

So if you’re looking for sun and warmth but not heat, then May is the best time to visit Washington, DC.

June: Lots of Daylight

June is the best month if you like long days. The summer solstice is on June 20th and sunset on that date isn’t until 8:37pm. So if you like to be outdoors or go to a ballgame and enjoy the sun, this is the month for you.

July: Summer Fun

July is the best month for summer fun. Of course Independence Day is on July 4th. But this is the best chance to do all the summer-specific stuff, like Jazz in the Garden, outdoor movie nights, and evening military concerts at the Capitol

August: Cheap Hotels

August is the best month if you like good hotel deals. August is one of the cheapest months of the year because there is very little business or conference travel happening in DC. The last week of the month is usually one of the cheapest weeks of the year, so if your kids go back to school after Labor Day, this is a great time to come visit. 

It’s also a little less busy. Many folks who live in DC take their own family vacations in August. What’s more, Congress is on recess, and there generally isn’t a lot happening business-wise.

September: Low Humidity

September is the best month if you like heat but not humidity. I will be the first to admit that summer here can be pretty miserable because of the high humidity in June, July, and August.

But once September starts to roll around, the humidity starts to drop off. Since the temperature is still pretty summerlike, it’s a nice balance. 

October: Fall Colors

October is the best time to visit Washington, DC if you want to see changing leaves. I will caveat this, though, by saying that the leaves only really start to change in the second half of the month. Also, even that has a lot to do with environmental factors, like the temperature in September and the amount of precipitation.

But if you’re really looking to see the fall colors, consider the end of October a good time to visit DC. 

November: Weather and Hotel Deals

November is the best month if you like crisp fall air.

Most DC tour guides are huge fans of November. After sweating and fighting through the peak tour season of the summer, it’s a thrill to put on a jacket and go and give tours.

The week of Thanksgiving is also a great week to visit because hotels are very cheap. Lots of people travel for Thanksgiving, but nobody is traveling for work, which pushes hotel prices way down.

December: Holiday Cheer

December is the best month if you’re in the holiday spirit. If you love Christmas trees, lights, and everything else related to the holidays, it’s nice and festive around here. 

We have a ton of resources about the holidays in DC, like five things to do during the holidays, less touristy holiday attractions, and even what to do on Christmas Day. So be sure to check those out if you’re considering visiting DC for the holiday cheer.

Food Courts in Washington DC: What You Need to Know

December 22, 2019 in Blog

Our nation’s capital has an overwhelming number of great restaurants. But sometimes just need something quick, convenient and easy. And it doesn’t get quicker, easier, or more convenient than the food courts in Washington, DC.

Now bear in mind that, if you visit during 8th grade field trip season, all of these food courts are going to be mobbed with 13-year-olds. Especially during the lunch rush. So if hordes of adolescents aren’t your preferred lunch guests, try to come during off-peak hours.

The Food Court at Union Station

Union Station actually has a good number of food options. There are a few on the upper-level, near where you catch trains. These are more upscale options, like Shake Shack, Magnolia Bakery, and Chopt. But if you’re looking for the actual food court, that’s one level down. 

If you’ve been to your local mall food court recently, you generally know what to expect. My personal favorite place to eat here is &Pizza. It’s a popular recommendation here at Trip Hacks DC and we’ve mentioned in several of our previous blog posts, including our best cheap eats guide. Every pie is made-to-order and delicious.

Eat at National Place

Much to our regret, this food court has closed since we made this video. But don’t worry—there are plenty of other great places to grab a bite. Keep reading 😉.

The Food Court at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center

This is a federal government building, so in order to eat here you have to pass through metal detectors and security. It shouldn’t take long, but if you’re on a tight schedule, be sure to factor in a few extra minutes.

There are about 20 eateries here—generally all very standard food court options. There’s a particularly great place called Nook. It’s got an eclectic mix of food and is a little more adventurous than your typical food court spot. 

Café at USDA Headquarters

This one gets an honorable mention. It’s technically more of a cafeteria than a food court, but it’s a great weekday lunch option. If you’re looking for an up-close-and-personal look, you can watch our video on it.

The Food Court at L’Enfant Plaza

This is the only one of the food courts in Washington, DC that’s located south of the National Mall. So it’s convenient if you’re exploring the Air and Space Museum, Hirshhorn Museum, or if you’re staying on that side of the city. 

L’Enfant Plaza is actually split into two food courts. The first is closer to the Metro station—then down a long hallway, there’s another that’s close to the International Spy Museum

Of all the food courts, I think this is my favorite because it has two of my favorite eateries: Roti and Maizal. Roti is located in the part closer to the Metro station and it serves Mediterranean bowls. You can learn more in one of our $20 challenge video series.  

At the other end of the food court you can find Maizal, a restaurant that advertises itself as South American Street Food. As far as I know, there aren’t many South American street food places around, so Maizal is a rare gem. If you’re on a budget or not that hungry, they have arepas for about five dollars. I usually get a rice bowl, which may cost a little more but is very filling and worth it.

Bonus Trip Hack for Food Courts in Washington, DC

Here’s a pro tip: Many of the fast-casual eateries at food courts in Washington, DC use the Level Up app, which can offer significant discounts as you’re eating out in DC. Here’s a little primer on how to get started and some examples of restaurants that use Level Up.

Things to Do in DC on Christmas Day

December 15, 2019 in Blog

The holidays are a wonderful time to visit Washington, DC. We have several blog posts with ideas for holiday things to do, less touristy Christmas activities, and an entire podcast on the holiday season in DC, so be sure to check those out.

However, this article is specific to one single day: Christmas Day in DC. Christmas Day deserves its own post because it’s one of the only days of the year when a significant number of things in DC are closed, so you need to be strategic with your plans.

How to Get Around DC on Christmas Day

Let’s start with transportation. Metro runs 365 days per year, so it will be open and operating on Christmas day. However, Metro will reduce the service down to holiday levels, which means there can be long waits for trains. But, on the plus side, there probably won’t be any track maintenance, so it will likely be more reliable than on a typical weekend day. 

You can still hail a cab, Uber, or Lyft; there will always be some drivers who elect to work on Christmas day. As another option, Capital Bikeshare also operates every day of the year. And of course, if you’re staying downtown, you can still walk to your destination if you’re up for it. 

Where to Eat in DC on Christmas Day

Next, let’s talk about where you’re going to eat. Start by assuming that most restaurants will not open at all on Christmas Day. That said, there will be some Starbucks locations that will open, so you can check the Starbucks app or website to find one. But for sit-down restaurants—or even fast casual restaurants—most of them will take the day off. 

With that in mind, I recommend going on OpenTable and Resy a few weeks before Christmas to see who is open, then make reservations as soon as you can. Also, so you’re aware, some restaurants will switch to fixed menus on Christmas to make things easier for their kitchen staff. That means you may not see every dish on the menu, but there could be some fun holiday specials.

What to Do in DC on Christmas Day

Smithsonian Museums are open 364 days per year (barring a government shutdown, pandemic or weather emergency). In other words, every day except this one. The same goes for the National Gallery of Art and most other museums. Likewise, the Capitol and Library of Congress will be closed, as will many other federal sites.

One big exception is the U.S. Botanic Garden, which hosts the awesome Seasons Greetings exhibit. However, be warned: this attraction does get pretty crowded. Since everyone in town is looking for something to do on Christmas Day, most of them wind up here.  

If you have transportation to Northern Virginia, Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Home, is open on Christmas Day and a very festive place to be. Keep in mind that Mount Vernon is a private historic site, so it charges an entrance fee, but it’s well worth the price of admission.

The Benefits of Being in DC on Christmas

Back in the city, monuments and memorials on the National Mall are always open. If you’re a photographer, this is a chance to get photos with almost no bystanders in the way—or just enjoy the sites with much less traffic.

Unfortunately, most tour companies usually don’t operate on Christmas. Trip Hacks DC tours take the day off for the holiday. But there are a handful of companies that still operate, so if you really want to do one, you can check their operating calendars or contact them in advance. 

Lastly, Christmas is a great day to just stroll around some of DC’s neighborhoods and enjoy the city in peace while no one else is out and about.

4 Underrated Smithsonian Museums You Must See

December 8, 2019 in Blog

It’s no mystery why Smithsonian museums are such popular destinations for DC visitors. They contain priceless pieces of art, science, and history and admission is completely free! There are 17 Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC. However, they are not all equally well-visited—leaving many underrated Smithsonian museums to explore on your trip.

As you may suspect, the most popular Smithsonians are the National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of Natural History, and the National Museum of American History. Unfortunately the lesser-known museums can get overlooked. So if you’re looking to beat the crowds and see some fascinating stuff, here are four underrated Smithsonian museums that you should put on your itinerary.

1. National Portrait Gallery

As you’d suspect, the National Portrait Gallery is a museum full of portraits. It’s excellent because it’s the perfect mix of art and history.

The most popular exhibit is “America’s Presidents,” because it gives visitors a glimpse into the lives of all past presidents in our country’s history. There are also other permanent exhibits portraying early Americans, 20th century Americans, and many other people who shaped our country.

Another thing to love about the portrait gallery is its number of rotating exhibits. So even if you’re been here in the past, you can always visit again and you’re sure to see something new. 

Honorable Mention: Smithsonian American Art Museum

In addition, an honorable mention for an underrated museum is the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The good news is the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum share the same building. In other words, you can hit two underrated Smithsonian museums with one stone (that’s the expression, right?).

The two museums are connected by the Kogod Courtyard, which is an event space and fun architectural marvel to visit in itself. With indoor seating, it’s a cool space to take a seat and relax if your feet could use a break. It’s an especially nice spot if you’re visiting DC with kids or you’re looking for a late evening hangout in the summer once all the other museums are closed.

2. National Postal Museum

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. There is nothing less interesting in life than going to the post office. While that may be true, going to the National Postal Museum is nothing like your run-of-the-mill trip to the USPS. In fact, if you want to buy stamps, you can even spare yourself a trip to the post office by picking them up at the Postal Museum.

The Postal Museum tracks America’s history through the lens of the postal service. So in a way, it’s a history museum with a unique twist. Moreover, if you’re a stamp collector, prepare yourself. The museum has one of the largest and most impressive collections of stamps in the world—not just from the U.S. Postal Service, but from around the world.

Lastly, another reason I love this underrated Smithsonian museum is that even if you visit during the busiest days of spring of summer, this museum never feels especially crowded. 

Best of all, this museum is directly across from Union Station. So even though it’s not right next to the other museums, it’s easy to get to. Plus, chances are you’ll already be in that neighborhood at some point during your trip. 

3. Renwick Gallery

The Renwick Gallery is an offshoot of the American Art Museum, but since it has its own building I consider it its own museum. The building is located a stone’s throw from the White House, over on 17th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

The Renwick is a collection of contemporary craft and decorative art and I’m always impressed with what’s in there. They are also known for putting together excellent rotating exhibits. For example, one past favorite was on The Art of Burning Man. If you’ve heard of the Burning Man festival held in the Nevada desert, you can let your imagination run a little wild about what kind of art that exhibition had. So as you can guess, The Renwick is excellent for this kind of thing.

4. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

The Freer and Sackler Galleries are located right in the middle of the National Mall. So, in many ways these great museums are hidden in plain sight. For example, the entrance is just steps from the big Smithsonian Castle

Note: In 2019 this museum was renamed: Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art.

These are The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. You’ll find pieces from China, Japan, Korea, and other places from that part of the world. What’s more, this museum has one of the best kept secrets in DC – the Peacock Room. This is probably the best room in the entire city. Photos don’t do it justice, you have to see it with your own eyes to really appreciate it. 

The Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery of Art.

DC in December: How to Plan for Your Visit

November 17, 2019 in Blog

December is an excellent month to visit Washington, DC. The city is filled with holiday cheer and you might be able to find a great deal on a hotel. So if you’re the kind of person who likes to wear a Santa hat and sing Christmas Carols, DC in December is a great place to be. 

DC in December is More Affordable

Hotel rates in DC are driven heavily by business and conference travel. As a result, some months are more expensive than others. However, the last two weeks of December are relatively inexpensive when it comes to hotel accommodations. That’s because no conference organizer is going to schedule a big business event the week between Christmas and New Year’s. 

So similar to the week of Thanksgiving (that we mentioned in our video on November in DC), you can stay at a really nice hotel for relatively little. 

DC Weather in December

December marks the transition from fall to winter, so packing for December can be a little tricky. You probably need to bring your winter coat. Check the weather forecast before you leave to see if hats, gloves, and a scarf might be a good idea.

That said, December is generally much milder than January and Feburary.

  • Average daily highs are around 48°F.
  • Average daily lows are around 32°F. 

If you’re looking for more details about DC weather in December, this Trip Hacks DC podcast covers everything you could ever want to know about weather in DC.

This is also the month when it gets dark really early. Sunset during December is between 4:45 and 5:00pm, depending on the exact date. What does that mean for you? To offer an example, during our winter monuments tour, it’s completely dark the entire time—even though we start pretty early at 5:00pm. 

Holidays in December

There are a handful of religious holidays in December, including Chanukah. The National Menorah has been set up every year since 1979 near the White House and is now over 30 feet tall. However, there is only federal government holiday in December: Christmas.

I’m not going to go in depth on Christmas in this article, because we already have several Christmas-specific videos, as well as a holiday podcast.

One important thing to note is that most holiday festivities begin in late November. The one exception is the Capitol Christmas Tree, which has its lighting ceremony about one week into December. If you have your heart set on seeing that tree, plan to come a little later in the month. 

Some Sites and Restaurants May Be Closed

If you’re going to visit DC on Christmas Day, make sure you have your day planned in advance. This is the only day of the year that Smithsonian museums are closed. Many restaurants will be closed as well. To see which restaurants are open and to make a reservation, Open Table is a handy tool.

Christmas Eve is not technically a holiday, so most sites will remain open. The same goes for New Year’s Eve. Bear in mind, if you are coming to DC for New Year’s Eve hoping for fireworks or a big ball drop, spoiler alert: we don’t really do that here.

Things to Do in DC in December

There is an abundance of things to do in DC in December. This is a helpful Trip Hacks article on five things to do during the holidays in DC. We even have another on less “touristy” holiday activities.

Outdoor Activities

If you want to do some holiday shopping during your trip, you can head over to Georgetown, which has many great shops. Or if you want to support local businesses, I recommend going downtown to checkout the Downtown Holiday Market. Keep in mind that the market ends around Christmas Eve, so you won’t see it once Christmas has passed. 

December is also an excellent month for ice skating and we have several rinks around town. The rink at the National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden is the most popular, but the Washington Harbour rink in Georgetown is the biggest. There are also rinks at the Wharf and in the Navy Yard neighborhood, which feel more like neighborhood rinks. 

Indoor Activities

Unsurprisingly, December is also an excellent month for indoor activities. Season’s Greetings at the U.S. Botanic Gardens is extremely popular. You can also check out the museums and experience them with smaller crowds than you’d find in the summer. 

December is also an excellent month to explore the theater scene at places like the National Theatre and the Warner Theatre.

And if you’re into sports, the NBA and NHL seasons are in full swing. You can buy  Capitals and Wizards tickets directly on Ticketmaster or check around on StubHub and Seat Geek for good deals or hard-to-find tickets.

HomeShare or Hotel? 4 Pros and Cons of Airbnb

October 20, 2019 in Blog

One of the most important decisions you will make when you visit Washington, DC is where to stay. DC has a lot of great hotel options, and we at Trip Hacks DC have a ton of resources about picking a good hotel and getting a great deal on your DC hotel. But people still ask about Airbnb all the time. If you’re considering this option, here are some pros and cons of Airbnb that you should consider.

There are a lot of appealing things about picking an Airbnb for your trip, but it’s also really important to do your homework and pick the right one. For the purposes of this article, when I say Airbnb I’m referring to “entire apartment” rentals. You can also rent a single room in someone’s house through Airbnb, but there are a whole host of other tips for that. For an in-depth discussion on this topic, check out the podcast episode we recorded with Wolters World.

There are a host of pros and cons to Airbnb. Let’s start with the pros:

1. Airbnb might be cheaper than a hotel.

Hotel rates in Washington, DC vary dramatically. The rate you get depends heavily on the dates that you’re visiting. If you’re coming during a time when there are big conferences and conventions in town (like October), hotel rates will be high. If you come at a time of year when not very many business travelers are here, they will be much more affordable.

Business travelers tend not to stay at an Airbnb. So especially if it’s a business-heavy time of year, you might be able to find an Airbnb for less than the price of a hotel.

2. Airbnb lets you stay in unique places.

At the end of the day, most hotel rooms look generally the same, but apartments can really be unique places. For example, with Airbnb you could have an entire row house to yourself.

In one of our previous Airbnb recommendation articles, we also included a houseboat that you can rent on the platform. I mean seriously, how often do you get to stay on a boat during your vacation?! 

3. Airbnb gives you a chance to stay in a less-touristy neighborhood.

One of the most common reasons I hear people say they like Airbnb is that they get to “live like a local.” In my opinion, it’s not entirely possible to live like a local when you’re on vacation. But it is true that hotels tend to be in central downtown locations. Airbnb can really be in any neighborhood, so you can stay in more off-the-beaten-path locations. 

4. Airbnbs may have a host that can help you during your stay.

Some of the better hosts do helpful things—like write a guide that they leave for their guests. It might have how-to tips on how to get around or recommendations for nearby restaurants and bars. If you pick an Airbnb that’s in the basement apartment of someone’s house, the host might actually live right upstairs. 

If they’re willing, they can be a helpful resource. Or—if mayhem strikes—a valuable contact if you get lost, sick, or have some other emergency on your trip.

But there are both pros and cons of Airbnb. Here are some of the down sides:

1. Beware the hidden fees of Airbnb.

Unfortunately, the first price you see on Airbnb is usually much lower than what you eventually pay. As of 2020, Airbnb travelers will pay a service fee, tax, a cleaning fee (which most hosts add), and sometimes even additional fees.

For example, you might see a listing advertised at $92 per night. But after taking into account all the taxes and fees, you’ll actually spend $147 per night for a two-night stay. That’s a 60% premium over the advertised price! 

So depending on these hidden fees and which dates you travel, Airbnb may wind up being no cheaper than a hotel. 

2. Variety isn’t always a good thing.

When you stay at a Hilton Garden Inn—whether it’s in Washington, DC; Orlando, FL; or Lincoln, NE—you pretty much know what to expect.

When you stay at an Airbnb, you really have no idea what you’re getting into until you’re there. You don’t know what the room is going to look like. You don’t know how the mattress is going to feel. 

Yes, sure, there are pictures, but don’t be fooled. A skilled photographer can make any space look really nice. Showing up to an Airbnb that’s shabbier than it looked in the pictures can put a damper on your whole trip.

3. Just because you can stay in a neighborhood doesn’t mean you should

Hotels are generally in areas that are safe, comfortable, and close to the sites (or public transportation to the sites). Your Airbnb, on the other hand, could be miles from the stuff you want to see—and a long walk to transportation to get there. 

When people ask Trip Hacks DC about safety, we tell them that if you pick a downtown hotel and stick to the beaten bath, you probably won’t have to worry much about it. 

But with Airbnb you have to do extra research to make sure you’ll feel comfortable in the area you pick. Or that you don’t have to spend a small fortune on Ubers and cabs to get around.

4. An illegal Airbnb could ruin your trip to DC.

Now, when I say “illegal” I don’t mean you’re at risk of going to jail over it. An “illegal” Airbnb means the host is violating their apartment lease or their condo association’s bylaws. Most renters in the DC metro can tell you that any lease we’ve ever signed prohibits sublets or short-term leases. Anyone staying in the apartment (other than the person on the lease) requires the landlord’s permission.

Many apartment buildings will take it even further—not just banning subleases, but specifically banning Airbnb and a number of similar websites by name. And guess what? People still will put their apartments on Airbnb. Maybe they don’t realize it’s against their lease, maybe they’re trying to sneak one past their landlords. Either way, when management finds out, they shut them down.

This is why it’s risky to rent an Airbnb. Imagine you booked a place months in advance, paid for your flight, mapped out all your activities. Then a week before the trip, your host gets busted by their landlord and has to cancel all their upcoming stays. That’s going to put you in a sticky situation. 

And it happens. Not all the time, but it happens. 

If you are considering an Airbnb, I would recommend this podcast on the good, the bad, and the ugly of Airbnb to help you choose the most reputable option.

Which is better—hotel or Airbnb?

So, the big question is: Which is better—hotel or Airbnb?

Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer. For most travelers, a hotel will be better simply because it’s easier. It’s easier to book, you know what you’re getting, and it’s easier to check in and navigate once you’re here.

For more experienced travelers or those willing to research the pros and cons of Airbnb, it could be a great option. But make sure to do your research. Is the neighborhood safe? Is it close to where you want to go (or to public transportation)? Does their post raise any red flags?

If everything checks out, you might find a unique accommodation and possibly save a little money.