You’re planning a trip to the nation’s capital – awesome! In this Washington, DC travel guide you’ll find all the information you need to prepare for a great trip – everything from getting in and navigating the city to accommodations, transportation, and where to eat. You’ll also learn about exciting things to do and see during your visit, as well as helpful tips on budgeting, packing, and weather conditions. By the time you’re done reading you’ll be well on your way to an amazing trip to Washington, DC.
By the way, my name is Rob. I wrote this guide because in my decade-long career as a tour guide, I’ve met amazing travelers from all over the world and I want to help everyone who visits love this city as much as me. You’ll see my face peppered through the guide as I’ve included videos that I’ve created on each topic to help you go even more in-depth.
I hope you find everything here helpful. Enjoy your trip!
Getting into Washington DC
Most Washington, DC visitors will arrive by air, train, or car, and a few will arrive by bus or other means. If you’re flying, the city is served by three airports:
- Reagan National (DCA)
- Dulles International (IAD)
- Baltimore-Washington International (BWI)
Reagan National Airport is the closest and most convenient option. It’s located just across the Potomac River from downtown. However, which airport you choose depends on various factors such as airfare, flight schedule, and where you’re staying.
Check out my video guide to our three airports for more details.
If you’re traveling to DC by train or bus, you’ll arrive at Union Station. It is closer to downtown than any of the airports. If you’re driving your own car, it’s important to decide in advance where to park. Hotel parking is available but expensive. There are several safe and affordable garages in town. Once you arrive, I recommend parking your car and using alternative modes of transportation. Driving in DC is stressful and unpleasant.
If hotel parking isn’t for you, check out my video guide on where else you can park.
Washington DC Map and Orientation
To fully explore Washington, DC, it’s helpful to understand the city’s orientation and where the main points of interest are located. The best-known landmarks are: the White House, where the President lives, and the Capitol, where Congress convenes. These are both located in the center of the city. The Washington Monument, the tallest structure in DC, is south of the White House and serves as a useful reference point. East of the Washington Monument is the Lincoln Memorial and other national monuments, which are part of the National Mall, the most famous park in the city.
Across the Potomac River in Virginia is Arlington National Cemetery, an important site worthy of a visit. To the northwest of the National Mall is Georgetown, a popular neighborhood that offers excellent shopping, a waterfront park, Georgetown University, and the famous Exorcist steps. The National Zoo, the only zoo in America that is both free and home to Giant Pandas, is also located in the northwest section of the city.
To the south of the National Mall, you can explore the Wharf, situated on the Washington Channel, and the Navy Yard neighborhood, which is home to Nationals Park. Make sure you learn how to navigate our unique street grid so you don’t get lost!
Washington DC Hotels and Accommodations
Choosing the right place to stay is one of the hardest parts of planning a trip. When it comes to hotels it can feel like Washington, DC has an overwhelming number of choices. For most visitors, a hotel close to the National Mall with nearby amenities like restaurants and drug stores is an ideal home base. The area around the White House, north of the National Mall, is a good option, as is the Wharf to the south. Crystal City in Virginia is also a decent choice, as it’s a short Metro ride into downtown. In total, I recommend 11 different areas to stay. Each area has its own pros and cons, but all are worth considering.
While it may be tempting to try to save money by staying in the suburbs and commuting in, I generally don’t recommend it. Staying far away from the city center can make it difficult to recharge mid-day, especially if you plan to do a mix of daytime and evening activities during your trip. For most visitors it’s better to choose a hotel that’s in the heart of the action that can serve as a home base.
Getting Around Washington DC
Getting around in Washington, DC is relatively easy because there are so many transportation options. The best way to experience the city, if you are physically able, is on two feet. Walking is free and allows you to see more than they would from a car or underground. Metro is a great way to reach a lot of major sites. If you’re visiting from a place that doesn’t have a lot of public transportation it may feel intimidating. But I have lots of videos about Metro that you can watch to get comfortable. My Dos and Don’ts for riding Metro is a great place to start.
For destinations not served by the Metro, the Circulator bus is an excellent low-cost option. Capital Bikeshare is my personal favorite mode of transportation, as it’s cheap and convenient for solo travelers or couples. However, families with children or larger groups may have more luck with taxis, Uber, or another means of getting around. I rounded up all the transportation options available in Washington, DC if you’re interested in learning what’s available.
Things to Do in Washington DC
Washington, DC offers an incredible variety of things to do for visitors of all ages and interests. The city is famous for its museums, with the Smithsonian Institution being the most renowned. The Air and Space Museum, Natural History Museum, and American History Museum are the “big three” most popular museums, but other lesser-known gems like the National Portrait Gallery and the National Postal Museum are equally fascinating. Art enthusiasts will love the National Gallery of Art, which houses an impressive collection of classical and modern works, as well as its outdoor Sculpture Garden. Private museums like the International Spy Museum and Planet Word offer unique and immersive experiences that are worth checking out as well.
In addition to museums, Washington, DC is home to some of the most iconic federal government buildings and landmarks in the world. The three branches of government, represented by the White House, Capitol, and Supreme Court are all located within a few miles of each other and offer tours if you want to go inside. Other government-run sites like the National Archives, Library of Congress and Ford’s Theater are also worth considering.
And then there’s the famous national monuments and memorials. I truly believe one of the best ways to experience the monuments and memorials is on a guided tour. While it’s possible to wander around and see them on your own, you’ll get much more out of the experience with a professional guide who can explain the symbolism and historical significance of each site.
For visitors who want to balance out the museums and historical sites with other forms of entertainment, DC offers plenty of options. Sports fans can catch a game of their favorite professional team, whether it’s the Washington Wizards in the NBA, the Nationals in MLB, or DC United in MLS. The Kennedy Center is a renowned performing arts venue that showcases theater productions, ballets, and musical performances. The Wharf, a vibrant waterfront development, offers three stages for live music, as well as shops, restaurants, and a lively atmosphere.
Where to Eat in Washington DC
Washington, DC is not the world’s most famous foodie destination, but it punches above its weight when it comes to high quality dining. While there are no shortage of great places to eat, identifying the best ones for your trip can be a challenge. If you want to sample DC’s signature foods, look for half-smoke sausages from Ben’s Chili Bowl, Ethiopian cuisine, and wings with Mumbo sauce from a Chinese carryout. Since the city is relatively close to the Chesapeake Bay there is also plenty of excellent seafood, with fresh steamed crabs being a popular dish at the Wharf.
Here’s my roundup of all of DC’s signature foods.
For visitors looking for the best of the best, the Michelin Guide is a great starting point. My favorite resource is Washingtonian Magazine’s annual 100 Very Best Restaurants list. Food tours are also a great way to sample a variety of cuisines and get insider recommendations from local guides.
If you’re on a budget, Washington, DC is known for its excellent fast casual dining scene. At these spots you can find delicious meals for around $10-$15. Fast casual restaurants typically offer counter service and a relaxed atmosphere, making them a popular choice among locals and visitors alike. They’re more expensive than fast food but less expensive than sit-down restaurants but still with excellent food!
If you want to start making a list, I have a video where I visited and showcased a few of my personal favorites.
Budgeting Your Washington DC Trip
Is Washington, DC an expensive destination? How much should visitors expect things to cost? Unfortunately, the answer to this question is: it depends!
Every visitor needs a place to stay and the price of hotels varies dramatically depending on your trip dates. Contrary to what many people believe, hotel prices are not highest when the most tourists are in town. Instead, hotel prices in DC are driven by business travelers and are highest when lots of people are here for business and conferences. Generally, if you come to DC on slower dates, you can expect hotel rates in the mid-range of $100-$200. However, rates in the $200-$300 range are not uncommon, especially when many business travelers are here.
Meals are another significant cost category, and prices heavily depend on where you eat. My favorite fast casual restaurants typically cost between $10-$15 per person. A sit-down restaurant might cost between $20-$30 at the low-end and $100 or more at the high end. If you choose to dine at Michelin-starred restaurants, you could spend as much as $300 per person! Alcoholic drinks at restaurants in DC are also pricey. A draft beer might cost between $8-$12, a basic house wine might be $10-$15, and a craft cocktail could be $15-$20.
You can save some money by going for happy hour specials, which is one of the tips I offer in my video on how to save money on food.
Transportation costs should also be factored into your budget. On average, budget $2.50 per person for a Metro ride and $1 per person per ride for a Circulator bus ride. A taxi will probably cost $10-$20 for a trip inside the city. Fortunately, most of the museums and federal sites in DC are completely free, which will help you save some money on entertainment.
If you want a full breakdown of all the possible costs you might incur in DC, check out my video on this topic.
What to Pack for Washington DC
When it’s time to pack for your trip to Washington, DC, the most crucial item to include in your suitcase, no matter the season, is a pair of comfortable walking shoes. I’ve never had someone tell me they regretted bringing comfortable shoes to Washington, DC.
In terms of clothing, it largely depends on the season. For summer visits, pack lightweight clothing, shorts, and items that will keep you cool under the sun. Bring accessories such as hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen. During winter months, make sure to pack a warm coat, a scarf, gloves, and a hat to keep you cozy. It’s worth saying that DC isn’t as cold as other east-coast cities. In the spring and fall, it’s best to pack layers, as the temperature can fluctuate throughout the day.
If you’re curious about what I wear as a tour guide who spends a lot of time outdoors, check out my video about it.
Preparing for Washington DC Weather
The most popular landscape photos of Washington, DC are taken during the relatively small number of nice weather days. When you look at photos of the famous cherry blossoms it’s tempting to think we have picturesque weather year-round. However, the reality is that Washington, DC is a city that experiences all four seasons and nice weather is more of a treat than it is the norm.
Summers in DC are hot and humid. Winters can be cold but not unbearable. While snow is not uncommon, it typically only accumulates about a foot per year. The best weather tends to be in the spring and fall.
Thunderstorms are frequent in the summer, particularly in the early evening. Hurricanes can also pass by the city during the summer and fall. If you’re lucky and get to experience a nice day in Washington, DC make sure to get outdoors and take advantage!
Best Time to Visit Washington DC
There is no single best day or week to visit Washington, DC. Every month has its own unique pros and cons.
The busiest periods in DC coincide with school break. You’ll find the most tourists around during spring break and summer break. One of the most popular events in the city, the National Cherry Blossom Festival, occurs from March 20th to mid-April. The overlap between cherry blossom season and spring break makes this time of year extremely busy.
January and February are the least busy months, but there are still many indoor activities that you can enjoy with smaller crowds. September and October are some of the best months to visit Washington DC if you can swing it. The crowds are smaller than in the summer months, and the weather is more comfortable.
Previously, school field trips were concentrated between mid-March and Independence Day and then from September to Thanksgiving. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, school groups are now visiting the city all year round.
If you want more tips on how to navigate the school field trip season, check out my dedicated video on that topic.
Next Steps for Planning Your DC Trip
Congrats, you’re now a equipped to be top-tier Washington, DC traveler. The next step is to start getting tickets and reservations for the sites that require them. Government sites like the Capitol require reservations. Many museums require free timed tickets as well. And don’t wait to long to book your tours and activities! Trip Hacks DC tours do book up, sometimes weeks in advance! If there’s an activity you have your eye on, don’t procrastinate! If you wait too long you may wind up disappointed.
Know someone who’s visiting Washington, DC soon? Spread the wealth and share this Washington, DC travel guide with them to help them out too!