Washington, DC is an amazing city to visit, with many of its best attractions being free — but just knowing about them isn’t enough to get everything you can out of a trip here. It’s also important to understand how the city works, which is why I (as a guide in DC) have put together these handy tips to ensure you’ll have an amazing visit to the U.S. capital.
Familiarise yourself with the quadrants
Washington is a city organised by quadrants: Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest, with the Capitol Building being the centre of the city. This means you can have the same address on four different sides of the city, so don’t get lost! I can’t express enough how important it is for visitors to understand what quadrant they are in and which quadrant they are going to. The northwest quadrant is the largest quadrant, and tends to be the default. So any time you look at an address or a street sign, pay very close attention to the “NE,” “NW,” “SE,” or “SW” next to the street name.
Prioritise the National Mall
DC has so many things to do that once you arrive, you’ll realise that you will only see a fraction of everything you want to see. Knowing that, prioritising our national monuments and most-visited museums along the National Mall will help you feel a better sense of satisfaction at the end of your visit. We highly recommend you see all of the monuments on the mall in one fell swoop, saving you time that can be re-allocated to visit some of the Smithsonian Institution’s 20 free museums, most of which are located here in DC. Though the National Mall may look small on a map, it’s actually two miles end-to-end, meaning it can take a long time to walk between monuments and can be especially disorientating when venturing into the Tidal Basin. To help you out, we offer intimate two-hour tours of the National Mall on an electric-cart, both during the day and at night, so you can see Washington’s major monuments with some added history of the city, overview of the museums and travel tips.
Visit what you like, skip what you don’t
The museums on the mall are gigantic and if you’re as enthusiastic about nerdy things as I am, you shouldn’t feel bad if you can’t finish one in a day. If you find yourself at the Smithsonian Museum of American History struggling to focus on the history of steam turbines, move on to the next exhibit. All the museums are so much bigger than you realise and all will have something you like. Go directly to what interests you and if you get disinterested, move to the next. That’s the beauty of free museums.
Get food inside the city
Because Washington has historically been a commuter city, there aren’t a lot of choices to eat around the tourist hubs like the National Mall. Though the museums offer nice snacks, and outside you can find some hit-or-miss food carts, it’s better to go where the locals are: downtown. Unless you’re planning on eating at the American Indian Museum or African American Museum, which are known to have the best food on the mall, head to Chinatown, just up 7th St NW where you’ll find many options, including some great Chinese food as well as some tasty ramen noodle and pizza joints. Next to the White House are also many options, including Old Ebbitt Grill, Washington’s longest-running restaurant.
Ditch the car
If you’re road tripping to Washington, make sure you have a place to leave your car because with great public transportation, limited parking, awful traffic, confusing intersections, and easy access to taxis, driving your own car in the city isn’t worth the effort. DC ranks as having the worst traffic in the U.S. by some standards and finding parking along the National Mall can be close to impossible. If you are a small group, we highly recommend taking the metro or the city’s Circulator bus, especially the National Mall route to get between museums. Otherwise, for larger groups, it can be more economical to take a taxi or use a ride-sharing app like Lyft or Uber, all of which work great in DC.
See the government first-hand
I always tell visitors that in order to truly appreciate the U.S.’s system of government, you should see it first-hand. You can visit not only the three major branches, but many other government institutions. My favourite is the Capitol Building, the seat of our legislative branch. With the amazing visitor centre finished in 2009, you can learn about the history and principles behind our democracy, and why the Capitol Building was always meant to be the focal point of the city. Tours are free and if you’re a resident of the U.S., gallery passes to see the House of Representatives and the Senate in session can be collected from the office of either your representative, or one of your two senators. To visit the Capitol Building if you’re a citizen of a foreign country, you’ll need to contact your country’s embassy in Washington, DC for assistance in submitting a tour request. While there, don’t forget to walk across the street to see the Library of Congress, easily the nation’s most beautiful government building, finished in an Italian Renaissance style. To learn more about how the U.S. government works, join our Pints & Politics tour of Capitol Hill, where we guide you on foot through DC’s most historic neighbourhood.
Check the events
One of the best things about DC is all the events, so always check what’s going on before you come so you don’t miss out on any concerts, conventions, speakers, or parties. Often, some of the best events are free, though some require pre-registration, which is why reading up on the event ahead of time is crucial. One of my favourite events is the National Gallery of Art’s after-hours program. To see what’s happening, check the Washington Post, the Smithsonian events page, Events DC, DCist, or one of many other event blogs around the city.
Go out and about
A good way to really experience a city is to see the nightlife. Washington’s nightlife has changed over the past 10 years, as the city has focused much more on urban renewal and building up a pleasant restaurant and bar scene. Since DC is a smaller, more career-focused city, nightlife doesn’t extend into the wee hours of the morning like it does in New York City, with most bars ending service of alcohol at 2am (or 4am before a federal holiday). For an elegant cocktail, any one of the hotel bars around the White House is a good option. If the young professional crowd is your scene, head over to 14th St NW and you’ll find a stretch of bars between Rhode Island NW and U St NW. If you’re into a more casual crowd, along U St, you’ll find some appealing bars. The gay bars in DC are now in two clusters: the older ones along 17th St NW between P St NW and S St NW, as well the newer ones along Florida Ave NW between 9 ½ St NW and 6th St NW. If you’re in Northeast, H St has quickly developed an impressive bar scene over the past several years, with something for everyone.
Want to get to know DC like a local? We’ve got you covered!
From the Supreme Court to the Smithsonian, this DC tour leaves the oversized tour buses behind to deliver you straight into the heart of Washington.