Power suits and politics are a drag but free things aren’t, and the capital is filled with them. Lines dominate in DC, but the wait will be worth your while: by day, take in awe-inspiring landmarks and museums; at night, queue up for diverse dining.
Big wig politicos still run this town, but bureaucrats and lobbyists aren’t the only ones shaping the landscape of modern-day Washington DC. Protestors descend upon the Mall to have their voices heard, while creative types seek refuge in neighborhoods like Adams Morgan, an area that is reshaping the contemporary art world. An astounding collection of museums and monuments entertain and educate, while a prismatic array of restaurants draw hungry crowds. Whether you’re a White House aide or a first-time visitor, the new DC will surprise you.
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The DC-metro area has four distinct seasons, so bear that in mind when planning your trip. While it's a high season for tourism, the summer months can be grueling, with sweltering heat and humid conditions, making walking around the city difficult. Winter temperatures typically hover above freezing, but snow and ice storms aren't unheard of. If you can brave the wet and cold of January and February, the rewards may be worth it: a low season means empty museums and hotels. Fortunately, all public transportation, major museums, and hotels come equipped with cooling and heating. On the other hand, outdoor monuments do not, so dress and prepare accordingly.
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Spring is a popular time to visit, particularly in late March-mid April when crowds flock here to witness the National Cherry Blossom Festival. The blooming window is short (between four and 14 days, depending on weather conditions), creating a rush to see the stunning sight. Autumn is arguably your best bet: hotels are easier to book, temperatures are mild, and the fall foliage is a spectacle in itself. Daytimes are warm enough to enjoy the monuments and local parks, while nights are pleasantly crisp (pack a light coat).
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Many of DC's major attractions are located within walking distance of each other, especially along the National Mall, the landscaped park that's home to museums, monuments, and the Capitol Building. Bikes are also available to rent through Capital Bikeshare, the local bike-sharing system. Accessible 24/7, it costs $2 for a single ride, $8 for a day pass, or $17 for a 3-day pass.
The public transportation system is another dependable way of getting around: DC offers six Metrorail lines and over 300 Metrobus routes that stretch into the surrounding Virginia-Maryland areas. Metro fares depend on distance traveled and peak/off-peak hours. Most peak hour fares range from $2.25 to $6 per trip, whereas off-peak hours range from $1.85 to $3.85. Regular bus routes cost $2.00 per ride, or $4.25 for express routes, either through a SmarTrip card or with exact change. It's best to check the DC Trip Planner to calculate fares when you're ready to head to your next destination.
First time SmarTrip card purchases can be done so at the blue and orange fare machines at any Metro station (black and gray machines are only for topping up your card once you have one). You can purchase a pass (better suited for locals); if you're visiting, opt for an "add value" card instead. The default value for this card is $8, and you can add or decrease the value as necessary. Machines accept major credit cards and cash; when using cash, try to use exact change, as machines only dispense coins. To use your SmarTrip card, tap it at the fare gate and wait for it to open. You will have to repeat this step to exit the station.
The DC Metro trains operate from Monday to Thursday, 5am to 11:30pm; Friday, 5am to 1am; Saturday, 7am to 1am; and Sunday, 8am to 11pm.
Driving is another option but generally worth avoiding, as the DC-metro area is notorious for its rush hour traffic, one-way streets, confusing traffic circles, and limited street parking options. Therefore, renting a car isn't typically advised. Major ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft are popular here. As always, Uber/Lyft provide a fixed price depending on distance and demand. Regular taxis are also available, easy to flag down, and start with a base charge of $3.
US dollars is the official currency. Major credit cards are accepted almost everywhere but it's not a bad idea to keep some bills on hand for small transactions or picking up the tab at the rare cash-only establishment. Speaking of money, you can get a tour of the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing to see how the dollar is made, if you're so inclined.
DC has plenty of charm and history, but one of its biggest attractions are the countless museums offered to the public — many of which are free! With over 60 museums, you can see the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives one minute, the Lunar Module at the National Air and Space Museum the next, and wrap up your day amidst the lush greenery of the US Botanic Garden.
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Rather than fighting selfie sticks, sweaty tourists, and school groups in the daytime, opt to tour the monuments in the late afternoon or at night. All monuments are lit up in the evening, making for breathtaking — and less crowded — photo ops. While rare, government shutdowns can occur. This means most National Parks, including monuments, memorials, historic sites, and museums are either closed, operating on a limited schedule, or can change opening hours without notice. If in doubt, check the National Park Services for opening hours before heading out.
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DC loves a good celebration — especially when it comes to honoring the country and its many achievements. Festivals are held year-round; if you're visiting during a national holiday, expect road closures, parades, and in some cases, a fireworks show. While most of these holidays are celebrated nationwide, DC takes them to a whole new level. Here are some dates to remember:
Fourth of July: The United States severed ties with from England in 1776 after signing the Declaration of Independence. During the daytime, the National Independence Day Parade runs along Constitution Avenue; arrive early to stake out a primo viewing spot of this patriotic procession of floats, fife and drum corps, military servicemen and women, and big-name politicians. Reenactments occur throughout the city, including at Mount Vernon, George Washington's home. A concert is hosted on the West Lawn of the Capitol Building, with a fireworks finale at the National Mall, wrapping up the day's festivities.
Memorial Day: Observed on the last Monday of May, Memorial Day remembers and honors all military personnel who lost their lives while serving the United States. There's plenty of activities on Memorial Day weekend, including a concert on the West Lawn of the Capitol Building and the National Memorial Day Parade that runs along Constitution Avenue.
Labor Day & Veteran's Day: Labor Day is a public holiday to honor the working people of the US held on the first Monday of September. Commemorating the end of World War I, Veteran's Day is held on November 11th and honors the men and women who served in the United States Armed Forces, as well of victims of all wars. While parades and firework displays are not held during either holiday, various monuments, as well as Arlington National Cemetery, hold services and wreath-laying ceremonies. These events tend to attract big names in politics, so expect larger crowds and tighter security on these days.
Inauguration Day: Following the presidential election cycle, Inauguration occurs every four years on January 20th (or, if the 20th is a Sunday, on the 21st). During this time, hordes of supporters gather along the National Mall to catch a glimpse of the new president and vice president taking the oath of office on the steps of the Capitol Building. This is followed by an Inauguration parade starting at the Capitol building and ending at the White House. Members of the military and public of all 50 states and District of Columbia participate.
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While even 20 years ago most viewed DC’s dining scene as a wasteland of stuffy steakhouses and staid spots catering to an expense account crowd, things have changed, and dramatically so. Nowadays, visitors can look forward to sampling cuisines as wide-ranging as there are nations represented on Embassy Row: from Afro-Caribbean and Middle Eastern, to Eritrean and Filipino. Helmed by a tight-knit community of chefs, the District's restaurants have racked up accolades, cementing its place as a bonafide culinary destination.
Happy hour in DC is basically a cultural institution in itself; it's not unheard of to find pricing specials extending late into the night. DC residents are passionate about their sports, as evidenced by an abundance of places to catch the game. Washingtonians also love their wine; look for local offerings alongside Old World standards. While less well known than West Coast viticultural regions, Maryland and Virginia wineries are making waves on bottle and by-the-glass lists throughout the city.
Diverse and dynamic, Washington DC boasts a wide range of fare both in style and origin. Long an epicenter of Spanish food, thanks to José Andrés' influence, it's also home to an abundance of African diaspora restaurants — Ethiopian, Eritrean, Ghanian, and Senegalese cuisines are well represented here, while hip spots like Little Serow and Bad Saint bring a twist to classic Southeast Asian dishes. For a taste of local history, pay your respects to Ben's Chili Bowl, which has survived the test of time since 1958 and attracted many celebrities, including President Barack Obama. Or cater to your sweet tooth at Georgetown Cupcakes of TLC's DC Cupcake fame. The city is also known for being a breeding ground for fast-casual chains (think Sweetgreen), so there is no shortage of places to eat if you're in a hurry.
If you're planning a longer stay in the capital, consider picking up provisions at one of the District's many farmers markets. Two popular ones include the Dupont Circle Farmers Market, which takes place every Sunday, and the Columbia Heights market, held every Saturday and Wednesday.
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Many of the top art museums in the world are located in and around the Downtown and Capitol Hill neighborhoods, especially along the National Mall. The grassy park is dotted with heavy hitters like the National Gallery of Art, the Art Museum of the Americas, the National Museum of African Art, the National Museum of African American History, and the Hirshhorn Museum. Catch over 3,000 works by female artists, including Frida Kahlo and Mary Cassatt, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Downtown, or walk to Penn Quarter to gaze at some of America's most notable figures at the National Portrait Gallery.
Beyond the hallways of the Smithsonian network exists a thriving art community showcasing contemporary pieces by artists from around the world. In the Southwest Waterfront district, you can't miss Blind Whino, a once-abandoned church now doused in psychedelic colors and converted into an art, performance, and events space. Take in a show at Dupont Circle’s Dupont Underground, an abandoned trolley tunnel turned arts destination. Or, visit Artechouse, which, as it's name suggests, focuses on jaw-dropping digital exhibitions. If you are museum-ed out, venture to Adams Morgan where historic 19th- and early 20th-century rowhouses and apartment buildings are as colorful as the decorative murals around the neighborhood.
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The quaint, cobblestoned streets of Georgetown have attracted many a famous resident, including Julia Child and President John F. Kennedy. Today, some of the most influential government officials call Georgetown home, as do university students who reside on campus. Leafy streets and Federal-style homes make up the neighborhood alongside upmarket restaurants like Cafe Milano, 1789, and even the gastropub where JFK proposed to Jackie. Take a riverside stroll or shop at the luxury boutiques that line the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.
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A visit to the National Mall and the surrounding Downtown area is like a walk through the halls of democracy. Many monuments are sprinkled around the grassy park, making it easy to bounce from one historic site to the other. Get intimate with one of the Founding Fathers by taking a 35-minute car ride south to Mount Vernon, home of America's first president, George Washington. The riverfront neighborhood of Foggy Bottom (also known as West End) also happens to be one of the oldest in the city. Foggy Bottom's community was once made up of German, Irish, and African American workers who were employed in the nearby glass plants, breweries, and municipal gas works factories. Remnants of the old neighborhood can be found in historic homes and places of worship like the Concordia German Evangelical Church. Two of the biggest points of interests in this area are the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts and the infamous Watergate Hotel.
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Washington DC isn't exactly known as a shopping mecca, but it's not without its charms. Centered along M Street and Wisconsin Avenue, Georgetown's shopping district is one of the city's busiest. Amidst mainstream retailers you'll find tony boutiques, a high-end consignment shop, and antiques stores. In Dupont Circle, you're more likely to bump into young professionals poring over stacks of books, or journaling aficionados in search of fresh pages at Jenni Bick.
Consider visiting one of the many weekly open air flea markets that pop up across the the city. The Eastern Market in Capitol Hill is one of the most popular, and attracts over 50 vendors each Sunday selling vintage and antiques, collectibles, and handmade crafts from around the world. Georgetown's eponymous flea market is a little slicker and has been in operation since 1972. Despite its size, you can rack up anything from china dating to the 1800s and vintage Pyrex to a 1920s cash register.
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Live the jazzy life in the U Street Corridor, a buoyant community borne from the tumultuous Civil Rights era. Dubbed the "Black Broadway," U Street stays true to its legacy with a concentration of great music venues (including the iconic 9:30 Club), eclectic restaurants and bars, and a thriving nightlife. Be sure to check out the Lincoln Theater, where you can catch bands, talks, and stand-up shows while marveling at the space where greats like Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, and Cab Calloway once performed.
Drink in the melting pot of color, sound, and culture of Adams Morgan, a bohemian and eclectic neighborhood that offers no shortage of international restaurants, groovy music spots, and a high density of nightclubs and bars.
The "H" in Northeast Washington's H Street Corridor might as well stand for "happening" because this part of town is teeming with life. Despite teetering on the edge of full-blown yuppiness, H Street NE still maintains its charm and character, and is one of the District's best neighborhoods for bar hopping. You also can't go wrong in the Logan Circle area — especially along 14th Street NW — if good beer or sustainable wines are what you're looking for.
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Wander along waterfront parks and promenades in Foggy Bottom or neighboring Georgetown. While in Georgetown, consider exploring the ruins at Foundry Branch Valley Park or biking along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal trail. Head to the East Potomac Park in Southwest Waterfront to visit the Jefferson Memorial; it’s also one of the best places to see the cherry blossoms bloom in the spring. Crestwood’s 1,754-acre Rock Creek Park offers over 32 miles of trails, a golf course, planetarium, picnic grounds, and other outdoor diversions. One of the nation’s oldest national parks, it’s also home to some of the oldest structures in DC, including remnants from the Civil War.
To truly get your nature fix, you'll need a car. Drive an hour north to join thru-hikers along a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. Or consider Virginia's Great Falls, 30 minutes outside the city, where you'll find ample hiking trails and views of majestic waterfalls and the Potomac river.
(Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History)
You can't beat a stay around Downtown or Capitol Hill, seeing as a majority of the major museums and monuments are within walking distance. As always, the National Mall can act as your base when it comes to sightseeing. Georgetown promises a charming and quiet space for you and the family to explore. Historical homes, waterfront views, and plenty of food options (including sweets) abound that the whole gang will enjoy. The Southwest Waterfront is another great option for families to take advantage of; during warmer months, families can take advantage of waterfront activities like kayaking and riding the ferry to East Potomac Park. Or take young sleuths to The International Spy Museum.
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Where locals cling to coffee cups and navigate the cobblestone streets in flip-flops with socks (yeah, it’s a thing).