Washington D.C: our nation’s capital, the hub of our country, our political center. Sure, at the moment, that might sound like … literal, actual hell (HEY EVERYONE quick reminder to VOTE on November 6, thank you) BUT that’s not the city’s fault. There’s a lot more to Washington DC than what’s happening in today’s crazy world. Like cherry blossoms. And yummy food. And awesome art. And rad museums containing all the lessons we need to be reminded of lest we repeat them. So whether you’re looking for a romantic weekend getaway or just planning a little gal’s trip to coincide with your next protest (um, can I come?) there’s tons to see and do in Washington DC!
Jeremy and I have never actually visited, so we asked one of our favorite travel bloggers to write us a Washington DC travel guide from her perspective as a local. Kay Rodriguez is the explorer-in-chief behind Jetfarer and an expert in all things DC, and she’s the author of today’s guest post. So without further ado or political anguish, take it away, Kay! Oooh, that rhymes!
Table of Contents
Visiting Washington DC: The Basics
Two things usually come to mind when people think of Washington DC: 8th grade field trips and government buildings. Anyway, those are the two things that came to my mind when I decided to move to the United States capital for a new job. Having spent most of my childhood in nearby Virginia, my idea of Washington DC was that it was only museums, monuments, and old guys in neckties walking briskly into government offices.
Spending over a year here has turned that perception upside down. Living in Washington DC, I found that the city is buzzing with nightlife, street festivals, crazy psychedelic art exhibits, and more. And yes, it’s literally full of young professionals who are ambitious, passionate, and energetic.
Intrigued? You should be.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, here’s a fun fact for you: you’ll rarely hear DC locals call our city “Washington” (unless they’re speaking to non-locals, obviously). DC, always. The District, sure. But “Washington”? It sounds kind of like stiff suits and white wigs and we’re really not into that kind of stuff here. I promise.
Much like our mini “Washington” vs. “DC” lesson, this guide will show you how to navigate the city like the locals do. There are so many interesting things to do in Washington DC that are totally off the tourist radar. But don’t worry, all will be revealed. Just be sure to keep our secrets safe!
When to Visit Washington DC
You’ll find tourists strutting through Washington DC every day of the year. This may come as a shocker, but DC’s summers are almost as hot and humid as those in Houston (and yes, I’ve survived summers in both cities). In the winter, the city basically turns gray every day and snow doesn’t really stick, it just turns into a cold, slushy mess. Because the summer heat sucks and winter is gray and gross, it’s best to visit Washington DC either between March and early June, OR between September and November.
If you decide to visit DC in the spring, you can time your visit to experience the city’s famous Cherry Blossom Festival, which usually occurs in March or April. The city turns pastel pink and white during the few weeks of peak blooming season, and personally, I think it’s the prettiest time to visit.
Getting to Washington DC
The good news? Washington DC has three airports: Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA), Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI), and Dulles International Airport (IAD). This means you can basically find flights from any major part of the United States at any time of day.
The bad news? Two of the three airports are far AF from the city. So, if you’re visiting for a weekend or a short amount of time, it’s best to fly into DCA, which is an easy 20-minute metro from the city center or a 15-minute drive.
If you’re coming in from a nearby city, you can take a train or a bus into Union Station and ride the metro to the city center from there. Union Station is serviced by most major bus operators (Greyhound, Megabus, etc.) and Amtrak trains.
Getting Around Washington DC
Get ready to bust out your walking shoes, because you’ll be doing a lot of it in DC. No need to rent a car – the city’s major attractions are SUPER walkable, especially if you’re staying downtown (more on this later), and if you visit in the spring or fall, you’ll want to have a chance to enjoy the amazing weather.
Besides walking, the fastest, cheapest, and most reliable way to get around Washington DC is via public transportation. While the DC metro system leaves
a lot a little to be desired, it is a fairly dependable and popular form of transportation around the city. There are 6 major metro lines and you can find maps of the routes in every station. Personally, I’d just use Google Maps to find the best public transportation route to your destination.
Alternatively, Washington DC offers a variety of bike share services. Capital Bikeshare is the most popular one, and they have terminals all over the city where you can rent and return bikes. Bikes cost $8 per day or $17 for 3 days. Be warned, though: DC drivers can be complete psychopaths, so be sure to obey all traffic signs and stoplights and stay in the designated bike lanes.
How Much Does It Cost to Travel in Washington DC?
As with any large city in the United States, DC isn’t cheap. Hostels are few and far between (although there are a few in good locations, as mentioned later in the post!), and hotels under $100 a night are practically nonexistent.
If you’re traveling alone, staying in a hotel, and eating out for every meal, I’d recommend a budget of $200 to $300 per day. In a group of 2+ people, it will be a bit cheaper, around $125 to $200 per day. You can greatly alleviate your costs by finding friends to stay with in the city or cooking your own meals 1-2 times per day. Transportation and activities in Washington DC are fairly inexpensive.
Things to Do in Washington DC by a Local
1. Go to happy hour
The “DC Happy Hour” is an unspoken cultural institution. “Do you want to go to happy hour?” is likely the most common exchange between friends in the city. After work is done for the day, locals escape their cubicles and flock to nearby bars and restaurants to meet with friends and relax after a day in the office. By going to one, you’ll really get a feel for local life in Washington DC.
So what exactly is happy hour? It’s a beautiful phenomenon where restaurants – from dives to upscale eats – offer discounted drinks, snacks, and sometimes even full meals for a few hours each day. Most happy hours start on weekday afternoons and last until 6 or 7 PM. Afterward, prices go back to normal.
Unlike in many cities where happy hours are banned (cough, Boston, cough) or just not a thing, DC has happy hours EVERYWHERE. And, come 6 pm, you’ll be able to find what feels like half the city’s population crammed into beer gardens, dive bars, and swanky cocktail joints.
As a local, some of my favorite places to meet my friends for happy hour are Boqueria, Vinoteca, and Commissary. However, there’s no shortage of amazing happy hour finds scattered around the city, so in local fashion, I’d suggest just walking into somewhere and inquiring about their happy hour.
2. Spend the morning in a museum
You might be thinking that the museums are an obvious and totally not local-recommended choice for Washington DC. But, to be honest, Washington DC has some of the best museums in the world, and I’d be totally off base to tell you not to visit them. However, you probably also want to avoid museums that are crowded AF.
To steer clear of the many school groups and herds of people, I recommend choosing 1-3 museums you want to see and visiting when they open in the morning at 10:00 AM sharp. That way, you’ll get a head start in the security lines (yes, every museum has a TSA-like security protocol) and make it into the museum before the crowds. Weekdays and holidays are typically less crowded than weekends.
There are literally dozens of museums in DC, and which ones you’ll visit depend on your interests and timing. The famed Smithsonian Institution has 19 museums all over the city, and in addition to those, there are some other amazing ones like:
- The Newseum: The Newseum is my absolute favorite museum in DC, I’ve been a paying member forever. There are all kinds of exhibits about journalism, reporting, and current events in the United States across time. Some of my favorite long-standing exhibits in the museum include the Pulitzer Prize winning photographs hall and the FBI exhibit. There are also temporary/rotating exhibits throughout the museum that change every few months based on current events.
- The Holocaust Museum: This museum is a somber tribute to the victims of the Holocaust, including a detailed historical account of Naziism and the horrifying events that occurred during the Holocaust. I’ve never walked through this museum without crying – it’s a very heavy but important piece of history that I think the museum does a great job of portraying and educating.
- The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC): The city’s newest Smithsonian museum. It is a totally amazing and eye-opening history of African Americans in the United States, including a walk through the times of slavery, the civil rights movement, and modern-day movements and pop culture. Everything is free to visit in the museum, but requires booking tickets in advance. To really dive into the history of African Americans in the USA (and to understand why we’re STILL reeling from that history) check out this guided African American History Tour, which also includes entry to the NMAAHC.
2. Marvel at monuments… at night
If it’s your first time in Washington DC, you’ll definitely want to see some of these iconic landmarks:
- The Lincoln Memorial – Built in 1915, this is a beautiful, columned memorial dedicated to Abraham Lincoln. It’s situated at the end of a large reflecting pool that overlooks the WWII Memorial and the Washington Monument.
- The Jefferson Memorial – Situated on the edge of DC’s Tidal Basin, the Jefferson Memorial is located in an iconic sand-colored dome. In the springtime, cherry blossoms surround the monument and it’s super pretty.
- The Capitol – Visitors to Washington DC can see the building which houses the activities of the United States Congress. The Capitol Building offers free tours and special exhibits throughout the year.
- The Washington Monument – This is DC’s iconic pointy-tipped monument that stands at the edge of the grassy National Mall. While visitors could go up to the top of the Washington Monument in the past, the elevators are now closed for renovations until 2019.
- The WWII Memorial – The serene WWII Memorial is a tribute to all who served and died fighting in WWII. A beautiful testament to those who worked to protect our country, the memorial is located across the reflecting pool from the Lincoln Memorial.
- The National Mall – The National Mall is basically Washington DC’s backyard – it’s a grassy lawn where visitors and locals hang out on sunny days. Full of world-class museums (we’ll get to this later) and fun festivals, the National Mall is the center of many activities in the city.
However, if you’re like me, you probably don’t want to see these monuments while sandwiched between thousands of other sweaty tourists, selfie sticks, and school groups. So, instead of heading to these attractions during the daytime, when the crowds are at their peak, I suggest paying them a visit in the early evening and into the night. All of the monuments are lit up after hours, making for some spectacular photo opportunities and breathtaking views. You won’t have to maneuver through many hordes of people, either!
Some tour companies also offer tours of DC by night if you’d rather have a guide who can teach you interesting facts and history about said monuments and memorials. Check out this bus tour at dusk, this trolley tour at twilight, and this evening walking tour. Is it just me or do all of those sound low-key romantic?
4. Visit the Library of Congress
In addition to the monuments and museums, there’s one last touristy thing I’d still recommend as a local: a visit to the Library of Congress. It’s a really unique and spectacular attraction that, unfortunately, many tourists to DC skip. In fact, a lot of people don’t even know that it exists or that it’s open to the public!
Here, you can take a guided tour of the historic Thomas Jefferson Building (which is SUPER beautiful and picturesque), see some of the rotating exhibits (there’s a really fun one called Baseball Americana, for all of you baseball fans out there!), and even register for your own library card.
The library houses a musical instrument collection in the Whittall Pavilion that visitors can view on certain pre-set dates, and a variety of public events, which are events that happen each week that range from historical discussions to famous authors to current events and musical shows.
Perhaps one of the coolest aspects of the Library of Congress, in my opinion, is its Reading Rooms, where you can literally just sit and chill and read a book or people watch for a few hours in one of the coolest buildings in history. Additionally, it’s free to enter, so you can save that moolah for some of the other activities below!
5. Channel your inner hippie in Meridian Hill Park
If you happen to be in Washington DC on a Sunday, pass through Meridian Hill Park and observe for a bit. Unlike the suit-clad, high-profile people you’ll see walking stony-faced through the streets on Monday mornings, Meridian Hill Park offers a bit of a different experience. Here, on sunny Sunday afternoons, you might find people sitting outside with friends, having picnics, hula hooping, doing yoga, and singing. In the words of Forrest Gump, “you never know what you’re gonna get.”
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Meridian Hill Park is the drum circle, which happens during the warmer times of the year at 3 PM on Sundays. Strangers and friends from around the city gather ’round with drums and just beat away to a common pace. Is it totally weird? Absolutely. But it’s a DC local thing and it’s pretty freakin’ awesome to watch (or participate in).
6. Chill by the river (or on the river)
In recent years, DC has really upped its river walk game. For ages, the king of river walking areas in DC was in historic Georgetown, which is full of upscale restaurants, cute dessert shops, and people posing for Instagram selfies on parked sailboats in the sunset. Georgetown is a cute and colorful area to wander around and catch a glimpse of the Potomac River. Home to Georgetown University, this neighborhood combines the “university town” vibe with the history of being one of DC’s oldest standing neighborhoods. In fact, the oldest house in Washington DC is here, and you can even peek inside!
You can get to Georgetown on public transportation (the Circulator bus is only $1 and drops you off right in the middle of the neighborhood!). Once you arrive, you can grab a famed cupcake from Georgetown Cupcake or a latte from Baked & Wired and stroll by the waterfront on a sunny afternoon. You might run into some impromptu waterside activities too, like tango dancing or a street festival.
Recently, DC recently opened its newest river hangout area, the Wharf, which is giving Georgetown a run for its money. The Wharf is located next to the up-and-coming Navy Yard area and is full of new shops, restaurants, and The Anthem, a live music venue that hosts amazing artists many nights a week. Head to La Vie for a bite to eat (the crab cakes rock!) and great drinks in a relaxed atmosphere with waterfront views. If you’re up for a sunset stroll, a bite to eat, or a morning run with beautiful views of the river, both Georgetown and the Wharf are wonderful places to go.
You can also take a boat tour of Washington DC, many which are cruise-style boats that offer lunch or dinner while you view the city from the unique perspective of the Potomac. I’ve never actually done one of these, but I always used to see them passing by and people look like they’re having a ton of fun on them.
7. Sample lesser-known international foods
What’s a better way to get to know a city than by its food scene? Lucky for you, DC’s dining can take you to almost any region or country in the world! From Eritrean eateries to Georgian khachapuri joints, Lao food that will make you sweat and fresh Peruvian ceviche, DC has something for literally any food craving you might encounter. It’s just a guess, but I attribute this to the diversity of people that come in and out of DC, as well as the well-traveled diplomats that call the city home.
One of my favorite restaurants in the city that serves all kinds of international dishes is called Compass Rose, which is perfect for any world traveler (like you!). They serve shared plates from all over the world, including Bangladesh, Korea, Peru, and more. Founded by a woman who has lived in and traveled around many countries, she brought her favorite recipes home to the dinner table in DC. My favorite thing to order at Compass Rose is their Georgian khachapuri, which they have year-round. The rest of the dishes rotate throughout the year and their menu changes all the time, so be sure to check online for the latest offerings.
For other international food offerings, some of my favorite gems in (and around) the city include:
- Bob’s Shanghai 66: Actually located in Rockville, MD, you’ll need a taxi, ride share, or car to get here, but their soup dumplings (xiao long bao) are to die for.
- Purple Patch: Serving an amazing brunch, Purple Patch is one of my favorite weekend spots in the city. Purple Patch specializes in Filipino food and their ube chicken and waffles is an amazing Filipino-American fusion dish. Be sure to make a reservation if you want to come for brunch, as this one fills up quickly!
- Espita Mezcaleria: Arguably DC’s best Mexican food and drinks. They really make the effort to make their food and experience as true-to-Mexico as possible. Their al pastor tacos and cocktails are fantastic, and they have an amazing happy hour as well.
For something a little more casual, Union Market is an indoor food market that has stalls from various places, ranging from local seafood to Korean tacos to Burmese desserts. There are picnic tables all around the outside of the market where you can sit and eat after you’ve grabbed some food. If you’re looking for lots of food variety in a communal atmosphere, it’s the perfect place to grab dinner and spend the evening.
8. Try ALL the free samples at farmers markets
During the warmer times of the year, street markets pop up all around the city so local farmers can sell their produce and goods. In these markets, you can listen to live street musicians, pick up a morning coffee, or just wander around and explore the stalls and their various wares.
In the spring, summer, and fall, the largest and most beloved farmers markets in DC are in Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights, and there are many smaller weekend markets that pop up randomly all over the city’s various neighborhoods.
At the Dupont Circle farmer’s market, which happens every Sunday morning, you can sample some amazing kombucha from Hex Ferments, eat a popsicle from Maracas Ice Pops, try the empanadas at Chris’ Marketplace, or buy handmade pasta (some of my favorite in DC) from Cucina Al Volo.
And, at every market, there are free samples all over the place with delicious fruits, vegetables, baked goods, and more to taste. What’s better than free samples?! That’s a rhetorical question, but the answer is NOTHING.
9. Check out some eclectic art galleries
Most people don’t think of artwork and creative activities when they come to Washington DC, but this scene is alive and well here. However, outside of the main art museums in the National Mall, you might have to look in some unusual places to find work by local artists.
While many art galleries around the world are housed in regal buildings with big windows, DC has repurposed some strange edifices for artistic purposes.
- Blind Whino is an art gallery and workshop that lives in an abandoned, psychedelic-colored church.
- Dupont Underground is a subterranean art and performance space located in an old industrial space beneath the city.
- Although it’s not in a particularly strange place, Artechouse is an art space dedicated to the fusion of technology and art, often featuring colorful, interactive exhibits.
If you’re in the mood for wacky, colorful, or just plain strange artwork, grab a chai latte from Compass Coffee (my favorite in the city!) and head to any one of these galleries for an eye-opening experience.
10. Sip in pop up bars and speakeasies
All that walking around the city means you’re probably ready for a cool drink, right? Well, you’re in luck – DC’s bar scene is pretty freaking awesome. Aside from the sheer volume of bars in the city (there’s one on every block, sometimes several), there are also some really unique bars.
Do you like theme parties? Yeah, like the kind where you dress up like a ketchup bottle or a burrito wrapped in tin foil? Well, imagine a theme party in bar form and you’ve got DC’s pop up bars. The most popular one is located on 7th street and has rotating themes throughout the year, depending on when you go. Some recurring themes are Halloween, Christmas, and Cherry Blossom-themed bars, and the most popular one-off theme was Game of Thrones.
DC also has a lot of hidden, nondescript bars called speakeasies. Yeah, like the Prohibition kind. No, you won’t find flapper dresses and bootleg alcohol here, but you will find fascinating underground cocktail spaces designed for the inquiring mind. That is, if you can find them in the first place.
My favorite go-to speakeasy is The Gibson, which I recommend getting a reservation to, and I won’t say any more than that. You’ll just have to go and figure out where it is for yourself.
11. Get outdoors
You might not think about getting outside when you visit a city, but Washington DC has a surprising number of parks, trails, and outdoor recreation areas for visitors to enjoy. Within the city, Rock Creek Park, the National Arboretum, and the Tidal Basin are three of my favorite parks to run, go for a walk, or sit and read a book during the cooler hours of the day.
Additionally, if you’re hoping for even more natural beauty, you can take one of many day trips from Washington DC to explore the outskirts. My favorite DC day trip is an adventure to Great Falls, a large waterfall area located on the Potomac River just 30 minutes outside of the city. Here, there are hiking trails that range from very flat and easy to rock scrambles and challenging inclines.
If you have a car (or plan on renting one), you can also try some of the many nearby hikes in Northern Virginia or Maryland.
Lace up your shoes, pick your park, and enjoy the amazing nature that lies both inside and outside of the city.
Where to Stay in Washington DC
For the budget-conscious traveler, choosing where to stay in Washington DC can be somewhat challenging.If you haven’t noticed, DC is divided up into a bunch of different neighborhoods that each have their own distinct identities and vibes. When deciding on a hostel or hotel, you’ll want to consider ease of walking places or taking public transportation, as well as attractions in that specific area.
To make your life easier, here are 3 neighborhoods/areas I’d recommend staying:
Downtown is the heart of the action, and you won’t have to walk far to get to the museums, monuments, and memorials. However, it’s by far the most expensive area to stay in DC, as it’s where the business travelers typically hang out. If you want to stay downtown, I’d recommend the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown as a good value option.
Staying in downtown can be a money suck if you don’t book far in advance or if you’re traveling during the high season. If you’re interested in saving some money, stay in a residential neighborhood of Washington DC (which is muuuuch cheaper and has a more local feel). Read on for a few options!
Chinatown is located north of the National Mall and is home to the National Portrait Gallery and the International Spy Museum, as well as the Capital One Arena and the Convention Center. There’s a lot going on here and is another tourist hotspot, but it has a distinctly more local vibe than the areas closer to the city center.
If you’re hoping to save money, Hostelling International – Washington, DC is located in Chinatown and is the most well-known and established hostel in the city. Based on the reviews, it’s pretty standard for a Hostelling International but it is affordable and very well-located. Note from Lia & Jeremy: we LOVE Hostelling International – they’re a sustainable, ethical non-profit and they do a huge amount of community outreach, travel scholarships, and amazing work. Find out why we love them!
For travelers who want private rooms, Pod DC Hotel is a fabulous budget option that’s walkable from most places you’ll want to see in the Chinatown or Downtown areas.
Dupont Circle/Adams Morgan
Located northwest of the downtown area, Dupont Circle is a lively, vibrant residential area with colored row houses and lots of local businesses. It is also home to a Sunday farmers market and Dupont Underground art gallery. This area is accessible by metro and bus easily from the more touristy parts of Washington DC, making it the perfect place for travelers on the go.
For budget travelers, HighRoad Hostel is the perfect choice in the Dupont Circle area. It’s a well-rated hostel/budget guesthouse that won’t make your wallet cry.
For travelers who prefer more upscale digs, The Line Hotel is a beautiful and affordable boutique hotel in the Adams Morgan area, just around the corner from lots of restaurants, bars, bookstores, and cafes. They also have a gorgeous lobby with a lot of space to hang out and grab a cocktail, and I’ve been privy to grabbing a cup of tea and sitting there for hours, reading and working.
I hope this guide has made you as excited to visit DC as I am about living here! I’m SO jazzed when people come to the city and want to explore the more local aspects. With so many colorful, vibrant areas to explore, I’m surprised tourists to the area have stuck to the Downtown area for so long. Hopefully, one of the unique attractions on this list has caught your eye for your next visit to Washington DC.
Checked out early or taking advantage of a long layover and not sure where to store your bags? Check out LuggageHero, a service that helps you find a safe place to keep your luggage while you’re running around! Use the code PRACTICALW for 2 hours of free luggage storage on us.
Psst: Looking for more awesome places to visit? Check out a few of our other posts!
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