Washington, D.C. is the capital of the United States of America and the seat of its three branches of government, as well as the federal district of the U.S. The city has an unparalleled collection of free, public museums and many of the nation's most treasured monuments and memorials. The vistas on the National Mall between the Capitol, Washington Monument, White House, and Lincoln Memorial are famous throughout the world as icons of the world's wealthiest and most powerful nation.
D.C. shed its former reputation as a boring and dangerous city and it now has shopping, dining, and nightlife befitting a world-class metropolis. Travellers will find the city to be exciting, cosmopolitan, and international.
Virtually all of D.C.'s tourists flock to the National Mall—a two-mile long, beautiful stretch of parkland that holds many of the city's monuments and Smithsonian museums—but the city itself is a vibrant metropolis that often has little to do with monuments, politics, or white, neoclassical buildings. The Smithsonian is a "can't miss," but don't trick yourself—you haven't really been to D.C. until you've been out and about the city.
The center of it all:
The National Mall — the national park at the center of the city, surrounded by the white monumental buildings of the U.S. government, and containing an extraordinary collection of monuments, memorials, free museums, cherry blossoms, squirrels, and pigeons.
East End — D.C.'s downtown cultural center, with the main theater district, more great museums, many tourist traps, the Capital One Arena, the Convention Center, Chinatown, and fine dining a la successful restaurateur José Andrés.
West End — D.C.'s central business district, the White House, George Washington University, and the Kennedy Center.
Capitol Hill — starting at the Capitol Building and Library of Congress, and fanning out past grandiose Union Station into a quiet, historic neighborhood home to most of the Hill's congressional staffers and some nice restaurants on Barracks Row, and then extending out to RFK Stadium.
Waterfront — a booming neighborhood just south of the Mall, with an open-air waterfront seafood market within easy walking distance from the Mall, and the home of the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park.
The prestigious, wealthy side of town:
Georgetown — D.C.'s most historic neighborhood, and one of its most trendy, is home to the fabled "Washington Elite," the city's première upmarket dining scene, colonial architecture and cobblestone streets, sports bars, upscale and boutique shopping, bucolic Dumbarton Oaks, and Georgetown University.
Upper Northwest — the wealthy side of town, with a couple of very big attractions including the excellent National Zoo, the gargantuan National Cathedral, and a luxury shopping strip in Chevy Chase.
D.C.'s trendiest and most diverse neighborhoods, where the locals go for nightlife:
Dupont Circle — Dupont Circle has dozens of trendy restaurants, nightclubs, popular watering holes, shopping, and most of Embassy Row along Massachusetts Ave.
Shaw — the more laid back of the three North Central neighborhoods, which historically has been the center of African-American cultural life in the city, has nightlife along U St catering to a slightly older and more sophisticated crowd, incredible food in Little Ethiopia, off-beat shopping, the city's main live music venues, and its most exciting art gallery scene at Logan Circle.
Adams Morgan — Adams Morgan has many bars with live music concentrated on 18th street, several good restaurants and is just a nice neighborhood for a walk.
Columbia Heights — Columbia Heights includes the city's largest shopping mall as well as plenty of budget dining and drinking options. Along with the adjacent neighborhood of Mount Pleasant, it is home to most of the city's Salvadoran population and its signature comfort food, the pupusa.
Petworth — Petworth includes Abraham Lincoln's summer cottage and Carter Barron Amphitheatre as well as an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants.
Even the least visited side of the city still has a lot to see:
Near Northeast — offbeat nightlife in the Atlas District, Gallaudet University, and the huge National Arboretum.
Brookland — D.C.'s "Little Vatican" around the National Shrine and Catholic University.
Anacostia — the many neighborhoods East of the River falls off even the radar of the locals, but can make a great "day trip" to visit the Frederick Douglass and Smithsonian Anacostia museums and the beautiful Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, or simply to better understand how such a poor and neglected neighborhood with such rich history could exist in the capital of the world's richest nation.
D.C. is actually at the center of one of the country's largest metropolitan areas, and a lot of the big area attractions, such as the Arlington Cemetery, the Iwo Jima Memorial, the airports, the Pentagon, the National Mormon Temple, the area's best ethnic dining, and hotels with a slightly lower sales tax rate are actually just beyond the rather arbitrary city borders—don't miss the Best of the 'Burbs.
Washington, D.C., is a city borne of politics, by politics, and for politics. It wasn't the first national capital: Baltimore, Lancaster, York, Annapolis, Trenton, Philadelphia, and even New York City all hosted the national government. However, it was clear that the nation's capital would need to be independent from the then-powerful state governments and that the southern states would refuse to accept a capital in the north. On July 16, 1790, Congress passed The Residence Act, which established that the capital of the U.S. will be located along the Potomac River. On January 24, 1791, President Washington announced the specific location of the new federal city just north of his 70,000-acre estate. A diamond-shaped federal district was carved out of land from the states of Maryland and Virginia and the federal government purchased large swaths of mostly-undeveloped land from its owners. The existing municipalities of Georgetown and Alexandria remained independent cities within the newly created District of Columbia.
The French-born architect Pierre L'Enfant was hired to plan the city layout. L'Enfant's plan, modeled after some of the leading cities in Europe, envisioned large parks and wide streets, including a grand boulevard connecting the "President's House" to the Capitol Building, with a huge waterfall cascading down Capitol Hill. However, L'Enfant was eccentric and fought bitterly with President Washington and the commissioners appointed to supervise the capital's construction. At the urging of Thomas Jefferson, L'Enfant resigned from his post and never received payment for his work.
Issues with financing and a lack of skilled craftsmen slowed the construction of the city. The commissioners ultimately relied on African slaves lent from nearby plantations to complete construction. The federal government finally moved to the new capital in 1800, which by then had been named Washington, in honor of its founder (though Washington still preferred to call it the "Federal City").
During the War of 1812, British forces burned the Capitol Building, Treasury, and White House, although they were all rebuilt shortly thereafter. The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal was built in 1831 to bypass the treacherous rapids of the Potomac River and move goods from the western territories along the Ohio River all the way to Georgetown, where they could then be loaded onto ships. However, the canal was unable to compete with the more efficient Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which was completed around the same time as the canal.
Alexandria suffered from economic stagnation, since the government's plans favored the port at Georgetown and all government buildings were, by law, built on the formerly-Maryland side of the Potomac River. The economic stagnation, combined with rumors that Congress would ban slavery in the capital city, led the citizens of Alexandria to petition Congress to return the land south of the Potomac River to Virginia. Congress voted to do so and, after a referdum of the citizens of Alexandria, approval by President James K. Polk, and a vote by the Virginia General Assembly, the "retrocession", which spoiled the city's fine diamond shape, was effected, leaving only the land originally donated by Maryland under federal control.
Washington D.C.'s compromise location on the border of North and South proved precarious during the Civil War. Surrounded by Confederate Virginia and southern sympathizers in Maryland, President Lincoln established a network of forts surrounding the capital. As the center of war operations for the Union, government workers, soldiers, and runaway slaves flooded into the city. Despite the city's growth, Washington still had dirt roads and lacked basic sanitation.
The District of Columbia Act of 1871 created a new territorial government. Georgetown and Washington were formally combined. In 1873, President Grant appointed Alexander Robey Shepherd as governor, charged with modernizing the capital. Sewers and gas lines were installed, streets were paved, and the town was transformed into a modern metropolis. However, the modernization initiative wound up costing 3 times the original estimate, possibly in part due to cronyism, and in 1874, the city filed for bankruptcy protection. Congress replaced the territorial government with a 3-member board of commissioners that it appointed.
By the early 1900s, the grand national capital had become marred by slums and randomly placed buildings, including a railroad station on the National Mall that created so much noise, it disrupted sessions of Congress. In 1901, Congress created the McMillan Commission, a team of architects and planners charged with developing the city generally in accordance with L'Enfant's grand plan. The commission re-landscaped the Capitol Building grounds, straightened the National Mall by reclaiming land from the Potomac River, eliminated the slums and alleys surrounding the Capitol Building and the National Mall, established a city-wide park system, and paved the framework for the monuments. The northern border of the city was pushed beyond Boundary Street (now Florida Ave) and the streetcar lines were extended, spurring the development of the neighborhoods of Bloomingdale, Eckington, Mount Pleasant, and Columbia Heights. The New Deal spending of the 1930s under president Franklin Delano Roosevelt created many more federal agencies and led to the construction of even more federal buildings, including the Pentagon. With the start of World War II, government spending in Washington increased, a trend that has continued over the decades.
In 1957, Washington became the first city to have a majority African-American population and the population of the city exceeded 800,000. The March on Washington and the I Have A Dream speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 were major events in the civil rights movement. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968, riots broke out at the intersection of 14th St and U St and 1,200 buildings were badly damaged or destroyed. Many businesses were forced to permanently close and thousands of jobs were permanently lost.
The influx of crack cocaine marred the District in the 1970s and 1980s. Government services and the public school system went into disrepair. The expanding suburbs, with excellent schools and lower crime and tax rates, became more desirable places to live by many. The population of the District fell below 600,000, shrinking the tax base. The arrest of Mayor Marion Barry on drug charges in 1990 also hurt the city's reputation. In 1991, D.C. led the country in homicides and many of the buildings destroyed in the 1968 riots still remained in rubble. Several government agencies, including the Patent and Trade Office, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), moved their offices to the suburbs.
A wave of change began in the late 1990s. The construction of the Capital One Arena and the nearby Metrorail station in 1997 led people to return to the East End for the first time in years. Further revitalization efforts in the late 1990s, supported by President Clinton and Mayor Anthony Williams, led to D.C. becoming one of the fastest improving cities in the U.S. and the population once again began to climb.
According to census data, the population of D.C. is approximately 660,000 and is 51% black, 39% white, and 9% Hispanic.
Due in part to its nature as a political hub, whereby regimes change every 4 or 8 years, D.C. is one of the most transient cities in the U.S. According to data published by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2011, only 37.3% of D.C. residents were born in D.C. The transient population is overwhelmingly professional, young, white, affluent, and highly educated. This is in stark contrast to the local African-American population, which has deep roots in the community. The sometimes uncomfortable blend of the transient professional population and permanent residents is often the source of controversy, especially as D.C. has been experiencing a wave of neighborhood rebuilding and "gentrification." Young professionals have been moving into poorer neighborhoods in search of lower rents, short commutes, and easy access to city amenities. While there is inevitably some conflict around neighborhood change, these changes have also created D.C.'s most diverse, culturally vibrant, and exciting neighborhoods—just walk up U St in Shaw or 18th St in Adams Morgan and you'll see that it's not a vain hope that the city's various cultures can come together to create something greater.
The District was long an attractive destination for African-Americans leaving the South, as it was both nearby and a bastion of tolerance and progressivism in race relations. It was the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the first of the formerly-segregated U.S. cities to integrate its public schools in 1954. D.C. is also home to Howard University in Shaw, one of the nation's most important historically black colleges. At one point, D.C. had the highest number of black residents of any U.S. city after New York City and had the highest percentage of black residents of any U.S. city, earning it the nickname "Chocolate City". U Street in Shaw was known as Black Broadway due to its theatres and black performers. The persisting influence of African-American culture upon D.C.'s identity is obvious in the popular consciousness, the city government, local sports, popular culture, and, above all, the local intellectual and philosophical movements.
D.C. is impressively international. There are more embassies in D.C. than in any other city in the world, drawing international professionals from almost every country in the world.
In D.C., 13.5% of the population is foreign-born, although that figure is much higher if the suburbs are included. The biggest immigrant group is from El Salvador - it is estimated that there are 300,000 people from El Salvador in the D.C. area. Columbia Heights has a large El Salvadoran population. D.C. also has a big African immigrant population, with an exceptionally large community from Ethiopia. Many of these immigrants live in Shaw, where you will find great Ethiopian food.
The District of Columbia is under the ultimate control of the U.S. Congress. Since 1973, residents of D.C. have been able to elect a Mayor as well as representatives to the D.C. Council. However, Congress retains the right to overturn laws passed by the D.C. government. People residing in the city do not have voting representation in Congress because the District is not a "state." As a reminder to visitors that D.C. residents are taxed but are unable to vote for Congress, District license plates bear the slogan "Taxation Without Representation"—the same slogan used to denounce British rule before the Revolutionary War.
D.C.'s climate has a bad reputation; there is a popular myth that the city was built on a swamp with the purpose of discouraging a large bureaucracy—after all, if no one wanted to live in D.C., then there wouldn't be too many bureaucrats. This is all untrue. Although what is now the National Mall was originally mudflats, there was no swamp. Even in the early 1800's, most of the city was comprised of tobacco and corn fields and apple orchards.
The weather is actually quite pleasant during the spring and fall. It's hard to beat spring in D.C. The northerly subtropical climate results in cool breezes, moderate temperatures, lush growth, flowers, budding trees, and, of course, the cherry blossoms. The most beautiful time of spring usually falls from April to mid-May. Domestic tourists know this, though, and you can expect the cherry blossom walk around the Tidal Basin to see (pedestrian) traffic jams that put the Beltway to sham, although truly savvy tourists can escape the crowds but still enjoy the cherry blossoms at the National Arboretum in Near Northeast. Fall rivals spring for perfect temperatures. It's also a lovely time for a walk in Rock Creek Park, where the dense forest bursts with multicolored confetti. Winter is a great time to visit due to the practically empty museums and the absence of the summer theatre vacations. Winter temperatures are relatively mild, with very sporadic snow. However, it's very hot and very humid during the summer, due to the miserable, impenetrable humidity. On a hot day in D.C. in July, you will sweat like a dog, the kids will complain incessantly, and you'll want to spend as much time indoors as possible. It is not the best time to visit.
It's worth considering the political climate as well. Before heading to D.C., research which events will coincide with your visit. Major international conferences, political events (elections/inaugurations), or protests can lead to road closures and additional security checks and also send lodging prices through the roof. There are also several weeks during the year, as well as most of August, when Congress is on recess. During these weeks, there are fewer official visitors, elected officials, and staff members; the Metro becomes less crowded and there are overall fewer people in the city.
Washingtonians are avid readers, and not just of the news — each Metro car at rush hour is a veritable library. Nonetheless, there is little "D.C. literature" to speak of. The city's culture has always been overshadowed by national politics, and those looking for local flavor will find political works: political chronicles, political histories, political hot air, political historical fiction, and of course political thrillers.
In addition to the above, a trip to D.C. is a good time to pick up a presidential biography or two. Favorites include:
The nation's capital provides the essential backdrop to just about every political thriller or alien invasion movie set in the U.S. Some of these films are featured at the free outdoor movies shown in the summer. The following films, in order of release date, stand out either for their creation of national myths or for having actually captured something of the real culture of the city.
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (IATA: DCA), is the closest and most convenient airport to D.C., located 3 miles south of the city in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River. However, there are no customs clearance facilities and therefore it can only serve destinations in the United States or airports in Canada and the Caribbean that allow U.S. customs pre-clearance. Moreover, due to the noise created by planes flying directly over a heavily populated area, the number of non-stop long-haul flights is limited. At Gravelly Point Park, directly north of the runway, you can watch planes takeoff and land, providing some great photo opportunities.
To get to D.C. from the airport:
Washington Dulles International Airport (IATA: IAD), is located 26 miles west of D.C. in Sterling, Virginia and serves as D.C.'s primary international airport. The main terminal is an architectural masterpiece, with a curved roof that arcs gracefully into air, suspended over a huge open ticketing and check-in area. Unfortunately some functionality was scrapped in pursuit of aesthetics—the layout includes lengthy corridors and long escalators and you will have to take a train between the main building and the concourses - expect that you will need some extra time to get to the gate. Many international carriers serve the airport, which serves as an East Coast hub for United Airlines. Transatlantic flights are operated by British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.
If you have extra time to kill at Dulles, consider taking Fairfax Connector Bus #983 to the free Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center, which includes an unrivaled collection of spacecraft and aircraft. The bus departs from the airport every 20 minutes daily, costing $2.00 and taking 12 minutes to reach the museum.
To get to D.C. from the airport:
If driving yourself from the airport in a rental car (or otherwise), be aware that the speed limit along the Dulles Access Road (which connects the airport to the I-495 Washington Beltway) is strictly enforced, and traffic police patrol the entire stretch with notorious enthusiasm - don't become become their next victim, despite the behavior of local drivers. Note also that the Access Road is divided into a tolled (outer lanes) and slower and often more congested toll free (inner lanes) section. At the approaches from the airport exit, it is very easy to drive onto the tolled section by accident so pay attention to the signs. If you do, make sure you have a pile of coins handy to pay the toll.
Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (IATA: BWI), is 30 miles northeast of D.C. and 10 miles south of downtown Baltimore, near Glen Burnie, Maryland. Compared to IAD and DCA, BWI is the farthest from D.C., but also offers the nicest in-airport experience.
To get to D.C. from the airport:
Amtrak trains arrive from all over the country, particularly the Northeast Corridor (Boston-to-Richmond). All stop at Union Station in Capitol Hill (Red Line Metro), a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol Building. The Capitol Limited comes from Chicago, passing through Pittsburgh and Cleveland while the Cardinal runs to Chicago passing thru Cincinnati and Indianapolis. A few lines also stop in adjacent Alexandria, Virginia, very close to the King Street stop on the Blue/Yellow Metro lines.
Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) runs between D.C.'s Union Station to/from Baltimore's Camden Station or Penn Station. However, only the Penn Line stops at BWI Airport and provides weekend service. MARC also provides service on the Brunswick line towards western Maryland through the suburbs of Silver Spring, Kensington, Rockville, Gaithersburg, and Germantown, on the way out to Frederick and on to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
Baggage storage (left luggage) is available at Union Station and is provided through a private third-party vendor, Tiburon Lockers.
D.C. is primarily served by the coastal superhighway, I-95 from Baltimore or Richmond. It does not go into the city itself, dodging the District by running along the eastern portion of the Beltway (I-495). Coming from the south, I-395 serves as a sort of extension of I-95 going past the Beltway into the city. The original plan was to run I-95 straight through the city towards Baltimore, but locals scuttled the plan, leaving this section's terminus in the East End.
I-495 is the Capital Beltway. The Beltway is reviled across the nation for its dangerous traffic patterns and miserable rush hour congestion. Still, the Beltway is often the only practical way to travel between suburbs. Because the Beltway is a circle, the direction of travel is often referred to by which "loop" is being used. The Inner Loop runs clockwise around the city, and the Outer Loop runs counter-clockwise around Washington, D.C.
Other particularly notable routes include: I-270, which connects I-70 in Frederick to I-495 in Bethesda; I-66 starts at the western part of downtown and goes 75 miles west, ending near Front Royal, Virginia; US-50 traverses D.C. primarily along city roads east–west, heading east toward Annapolis and Ocean City (the latter by way of the Bay Bridge), and west across the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge into Northern Virginia and then all the way cross-country to Sacramento, California; the Baltimore-Washington Pkwy (also "B-W Pkwy") starts at I-295 in Anacostia, crossing Central Maryland, passing near BWI Airport and terminating in Baltimore.
Inside the Beltway, I-66 is HOV-2 only (all cars must have at least two passengers) eastbound 6AM-9:30AM and westbound 4PM-6:30PM. The HOV-2 restriction applies to the entire highway, not just specific lanes. US-50, US-29, and the George Washington Pkwy are the alternatives.
Parking regulations are complicated in D.C. on weekdays. Metered parking is available throughout commercial areas, but meters limited to 2 hours during the daytime. Zoned parking is free, but you are limited to parking for two hours in each designated zone per day, although there is no parking time limit between 10PM and 7AM. Check the signs! Presumably, you could move your car to a different zone every 2 hours during the day and then find a metered spot to ditch your car overnight, but that would not be practical. Weekends and federal holidays are more accommodating to guests as there are less parking restrictions.
So if you are coming by car during the week, what do you do? There are plenty of public parking garages and many hotels have garages but the cost will be $15-30 per day. The 2,194-space, $24/day, Union Station parking lot in Capitol Hill is convenient to many attractions. If you have a friend in the city, they can go to their local district police station to get you a temporary visitor parking permit, good for 15 days.
There are garages offering parking for as low as $4.60 per day near several metro stations. Three stations have a very limited number of multi-day parking spots, up to ten days: Greenbelt, Huntington, and Franconia-Springfield. And if you just don't want to pay for parking at all, head over to a residential area in the suburbs outside of D.C. near a Metro station to ditch your car, then walk or catch a bus to the station and head into D.C.! However, if you are staying for a while, be aware that enforcement is strict on "abandoned" cars in the outlying counties.
Many bus companies operate service to/from New York City, although Greyhound is the only company that provides service to smaller cities around the United States. Most bus companies pickup/dropoff at Union Station in Capitol Hill; however, you have a lot of bus choices if coming from New York City - there are bus companies that dropoff at Dupont Circle, Bethesda, Maryland and Arlington, Virginia and these may be much more convenient to your accommodation - check where you are staying before you book a bus. You do not need to book in advance, although it can be much cheaper to do so. Buses tend to be fully booked on Friday and Sunday evenings since weekend trips are popular among the locals. Most buses have power outlets and WiFi access on board, although the WiFi is not always reliable.
Be prepared to walk until your feet hurt! It's no surprise that D.C. has been cited as the fittest city in the country; residents and visitors get a lot of exercise simply getting around the city! Even if you plan on taking public transport or driving, you will often find yourself walking or biking for a large portion of the day. Most of the city's attractions, such as the museums and monuments along the National Mall, are located near each other, which makes driving or taking Metrorail between the sights either impractical or impossible.
Therefore, when touring around Washington make sure to wear good walking shoes and, especially during the spring and summer, wear comfortable and light clothing, a wide-brimmed hat, apply sunscreen, and drink lots of water. During the summer, visit air-conditioned museums during the day, and save the monuments, neighborhood tours, and other outdoor attractions for the cooler early morning and evening hours.
The city is split into four quadrants of unequal size, which radiate out from the Capitol Building: Northwest (NW), Northeast (NE), Southeast (SE), and Southwest (SW). The NW quadrant is by far the largest and SW the smallest. Addresses in the city always include the quadrant abbreviation, e.g., 1000 H Street NE. Take note of the quadrant, otherwise you may find yourself on the exact opposite side of town from your destination!
City streets are generally laid out in a grid, with east-west streets primarily named with letters (A–W) and north-south streets named with numbers. The street numbers and letters increase as the distance from the Capitol building increases. The numerous diagonal avenues, many named after states, that serve as the city's principal arteries. The street numbers and letters increase with distance from the Capitol. The grid has a few peculiarities that are a legacy from the city's foundation. The City of Washington originally occupied only a portion of the total area of the District. As a result, outside of what is now often called the "L'Enfant City", streets do not strictly adhere to the grid system. However, you will find that many street names were simply extended where practical and, past the letter "W", for east-west streets, two-syllable street names (e.g., Irving Street, Lamont Street) follow the single-letter streets in alphabetical order, followed by three-syllable street names.
Curious to note, visitors to Washington will quickly discover that there is no "J" St. This is because, until the mid-nineteenth century, the letters "I" and "J" were indistinguishable when written. Following that same idea, "I" Street is often written as "Eye" Street, to distinguish it from the letter "L" and the numeral "1", and "Q" Street, is often written "Que," "Cue," or "Queue."
By public transportation
It is usually easier to use public transportation as opposed to driving in traffic and paying expensive parking rates. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) operates the city's public transportation system. Information about all modes of local public transportation is available on the tourist-friendly website goDCgo.
SmarTrip debit card
A SmarTrip debit card ($10 cost with $8 transportation credit), which can be purchased and refilled at any Metrorail station, is necessary to ride the Metrorail and can also be used on Metrobus, the D.C. Circulator, and many other suburban bus systems. Buses also accept cash, but the SmarTrip card will save you the hassle of carrying exact change. SmarTrip cards are also required for parking on the weekdays in almost all Metro lots. Parking at Metro lots is free on weekends and federal holidays.
The Metrorail is D.C.'s intra-city train system. It is composed of six color-coded rail lines that run primarily underground within the District and above ground in the nearby suburbs. It's clean, safe, user-friendly, and sports a surprisingly elegant and pleasing brutalist aesthetic. However, Metrorail attracts very large crowds during rush hours and major public events; expect jam-packed stations and trains during any major event in D.C. such as the July 4th parade.
On nights and weekends, track maintenance can cause wait times of up to 30 minutes. There are also delays and line segment shutdowns as a result of scheduled track maintenance - check the upcoming track work website for specific information.
The departure times for the first and last train at each station is available online. Hours of operation are generally M-Th: 5AM-11:30PM, F: 5AM-1AM, Sa: 7AM-1AM, and Su: 7AM-11PM.
In some areas, up to three different lines may share the same track. Trains may terminate before reaching the end of the line, especially during rush hour. Therefore, be careful to note both the color and final destination indicated on the electronic displays and train cars before boarding.
Absolutely no food or drink is allowed on trains or in stations. Metro employees, police officers, and even fellow riders will ask you to dispose of any food before entering. Violators are subject to fines or even arrest, including a rather outrageous incident from 2000 when a twelve-year-old girl was handcuffed for eating french fries. If you are carrying food/beverages, keep them closed and in a bag.
Rider etiquette is key to smooth travel in the heavily-used system. Try not to obstruct train doors when passengers are leaving the train. Keep belongings off of the seats. When using escalators in stations, stand on the right, and leave the left side free for those who want to pass. Strollers must be folded at all times on the trains and in elevators.
Metrorail fares depend on the distance traveled and whether the trip starts during a peak or off-peak time period.
Peak fares are in effect Monday thru Friday from 5-9:30AM and from 3-7PM. Off-peak fares are in effect at all other times.
Peak period fares range from $2.25 to $6.00, while off-peak period fares range from $2.25 to $3.75, depending on distance traveled. Up to two children ages four and younger may ride free per paying adult. Seniors can purchase a Senior SmarTrip Card from a Metrorail office for $2, which charges the user half the normal peak travel cost on Metrorail and half price on the bus, but the hassle of purchasing the card may not be practical or worthwhile unless staying in the city for quite some time.
Posted guides will help you calculate the appropriate fare for your ride, but since the SmarTrip cards are reusable and refillable, it's often easier to not worry about the fare; just refill when you are running low on funds.
Flat-rate Metrorail passes, good for an unlimited number of trips for 1 day, 7 days, or a full month, are available for purchase at Metrorail stations. However, the passes are rarely a good deal for most tourists due to their high cost; a 1-day pass costs $14.75, which is usually more than you would spend by paying as you go.
D.C.'s bus system is visitor-friendly and reaches destinations that are hard to reach by Metrorail.
By Circulator Bus
The tourist-friendly D.C. Circulator buses operate between main attractions and the city's most popular neighborhoods for visitors. All D.C. Circulator routes run every ten minutes and cost $1 per ride, payable either in cash or by using a SmarTrip debit card. It is useful to print the handy route map. The next arrival time for a bus at any stop can be checked online. There are six routes:
Metrobus operates hundreds of routes throughout the D.C. metro area. Metrobus will take you places hard to reach via Metrorail or the Circulator, and can be a really convenient, comfortable way to travel. In addition, some Metrobus lines operate later into the night than Metrorail. WMATA's website publishes maps and timetables for all routes, as well as system maps for its entire network. Most routes cost a flat fare of $2.00 if paying with cash or SmarTrip card, with a free transfer if paying by SmarTrip card. Seniors pay only $1.00 by showing an identification card to the driver and up to two children ages four and younger ride free per paying adult.
Every bus stop has a number written on it, which you can enter on the WMATA Next Bus Arrivals website or by phone (+1 202 637-7000) to get a highly accurate estimate of when the next bus will arrive to that stop, including active tracking on Google Maps. Free iPhone and Android apps that provide live Metrobus data are also available.
The following important routes provide reliable and direct service along the city's most well-traveled corridors, running about every ten to twenty minutes:
Rideshare companies such as Uber, Lyft and Via are extremely popular in D.C. A trip to most areas within the city will cost around $10, which can be cheaper than public transport if there are more than 2 people in your party.
There are approximately 6,500 licensed taxicabs in D.C. Unlike rideshare services, taxis are able to be hailed from the street.
Roof lights on all D.C. cabs have LED text that explicitly state whether or not the cab is available for hire.
The largest taxi operators are Yellow Cab (☎ +1 202 544-1212 or +1 202 TAXICAB) in D.C., Barwood (☎ +1 301 984-1900) in Montgomery County, and Silver Cab (☎ +1 301 277-6000) in Prince George's County. In Virginia, Red Top (☎ +1 703 522-3333) is the largest operator in both Arlington County and Alexandria.
Taxicab drivers are required to take passengers anywhere within the D.C.-area. With the exception of rides to and from the airport, it is illegal for cabs to pick up passengers outside the jurisdiction in which they are based.
All cabs are required to accept credit cards and provide receipts on request.
Taxi rates for all D.C.-area taxicabs are fixed by the jurisdiction in which they are based and the rate does not change when state lines are crossed. Rates for DC-based taxicabs are $3.50 for the first eighth of a mile and 27¢ for each additional eighth of a mile. There is a $1.00 surcharge for additional passengers, regardless of the number of people. There is no rush hour fee, although meters do charge a "wait rate" of 42¢ for each minute the car is stopped in traffic or traveling under 10 mph.
Rates for cabs based in Montgomery County, Maryland include a $4.00 initial charge plus a $2.00 per mile distance fee. Rates for cabs based in Virginia include a $3.00 initial charge plus a $2.16 per mile distance fee.
District of Columbia speed limits are photo enforced. Speeding will result in a ticket issued to you by mail.
Driving in downtown D.C. is difficult, particularly during rush hour, where traffic can make it take 10 minutes to drive a couple city blocks. In addition, limited and expensive parking, ruthless enforcement of complicated parking rules, sadistic traffic circles, fines from automated red light cameras and absurd speed traps, potholes, frequent street direction changes, and street closures without warning make driving in D.C. a headache. A 2012 report showed that D.C. drivers were the most prone to accidents of any city in the U.S.
If for whatever reason you ignore all the above advice and do choose to drive in Washington, here are a few tips: Street parking downtown is limited to two hours only (even at meters), so be prepared to park in a private lot or garage, which cost anywhere from $10-25 per day. Avoid driving and parking during rush hour (weekdays, 6-10AM and 4-8PM), since this is when the majority of the city's traffic congestion, street direction changes, and parking restrictions are in effect. If you do park on the street, pay close attention to traffic signs. Most streets downtown restrict parking during rush hour and visitors often return to the spot where they parked only to find that their vehicle has been ticketed and towed!
Local opposition prevented the construction of interstate highways through Washington, steering resources towards building the Washington Metro system instead. The two freeways that feed into the city from Virginia, I-66 and I-395, both terminate quickly. Washington and its innermost suburbs are encircled by the Capital Beltway, I-495, which gave rise to the expression "Inside the Beltway." Note that some lanes on the Beltway in Virginia require the payment of a toll, with the fee varying based on time and congestion. The Dulles Tollway from I-495 to the airport (VA-267) is also a toll road. Drivers need an E-Z Pass transponder to pay tolls.
Washington boasts several scenic drives:
D.C. is ranked as one of the top cities in the U.S. for bicycling. Many streets, including the iconic Pennsylvania Ave, have dedicated bike lanes and there is plenty of bike parking available. Most of the downtown area is flat, although areas north of downtown are more hilly. The vehicle traffic is slow enough, that helmets may not be necessary. Biking in the street is legal and biking on the sidewalk is legal everywhere except downtown. Bicycle maps of the city center are available online.
You may also take advantage of some of the fantastic biking trails in the greater D.C. area:
Pedicabs (bicycle rickshaws) are regulated, insured, and licensed by federal authorities, and have been a fixture on the National Mall for over a decade. Each pedicab generally holds 2-3 adults and up to 2 children under the age of 10 can sit on laps. There are several pedicab tour companies in DC. Advanced bookings are strongly suggested since these tour purveyors are in high demand and cannot provide "on demand" service like an automobile taxi fleet.
By hop-on-hop-off tour bus
Most of the attractions in D.C. are on the National Mall, the West End, and Capitol Hill. While there are many maps on display throughout the city, you should print out and carry with you the official National Mall map (pdf), which also includes most of the West End and Capitol Hill. For a map that encompasses a larger portion of the city, print out the DC Circulator Route Map (pdf).
The National Mall is a unique National Park, filled with an intense concentration of monuments, memorials, museums, and monumental government buildings instantly recognizable to people all over the world. The Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the National Gallery of Art, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Natural History, and the Holocaust Museum, are just a few of the top attractions on the National Mall. To walk down the National Mall is to thread the halls of world power in the modern era. Here the world's most powerful politicians and their staffs fill the grand neo-classical buildings of the three branches of US Government, making decisions that reverberate in the remotest corners of the world. The National Mall is larger than it looks, and a walk from one end of the National Mall to the other will take a while and may wear you down a bit. Plan ahead what you want to see and concentrate your activities in one section of the National Mall each day.
The East End, just north of the National Mall, includes many more museums and attractions, including the Newseum, the International Spy Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the American Art Museum, and the home of an original copy of the Constitution at the National Archives.
The White House, as well as Textile Museum and the Kennedy Center, are located in the West End. The Capitol Building and the Supreme Court are on Capitol Hill. Another attraction here that shouldn't be missed is the Library of Congress, which has some of the most beautiful architecture that can be seen in the city.
The free National Zoo in Upper Northwest is one of the nation's most prestigious zoos, and the National Cathedral is an awe-inspiring mammoth. Dupont Circle is home to much of Embassy Row, an impressive stretch of some 50 foreign-owned historic and modernist mansions along Massachusetts Ave, as well as several brilliant small museums, such as the Phillips Collection and the Woodrow Wilson House.
The historic neighborhood of Georgetown is the oldest part of the city, full of beautiful old colonial buildings, the 200+ year-old Jesuit campus of Georgetown University that resembles a Harry Potter film set, restaurants along the waterfront, the C&O canal, and the infamous Exorcist steps.
By car or bus, you can get to some of the capital's more far-flung and less-frequented attractions, like the National Arboretum in Near Northeast, or the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in eastern Anacostia. By taking the Metro red line to Brookland-CUA, you can easily visit the magnificent Catholic Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. This is the largest Catholic church in North America.
While many attractions and museums are free, there are several that aren't. The Washington DC Explorer Pass includes admission to your choice of 3 ($54) or 5 ($84) popular attractions at a discounted price.
Views and panoramas
D.C.'s famous building height restrictions—no taller than the width of the street the building is on plus 20 feet—have resulted in a skyscraper-less downtown, giving D.C. a distinctly muted feel for what is actually the heart of a huge metropolis. The obvious downside to this law is that it limits the supply of housing and office space and tax revenues and results in very high rents. Since many buildings downtown are of the same height level, many rooftop terraces offer great views.
There are several classic spots to get a look out over the city:
Outdoor activities and parks
D.C. is 21.9% covered in parkland, one of the highest ratios among U.S. cities. Many of these parks are crowded with soccer, football, rugby, kickball, baseball, and ultimate frisbee players. The National Mall may be the most famous park, but there are several other large beautiful parks in the city.
The 2,000 acre Rock Creek Park, a national park, bisects the city north of the Anacostia River. The park is full of deer (who overpopulate, due to lack of predators), squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, birds, and even a few coyotes. The park includes paved biking/running trails that extend from Maryland to the Lincoln Memorial and connecting with the Mount Vernon trail in Northern Virginia. There are also plenty of hiking trails, picnic spots, a golf course, a variety of Ranger-led/educational programs, and boats can be rented for kayaking and sailing at the Thompson Boat Center on the Potomac River. There are plenty of nice outdoor spaces just beyond the park. South of Massachusetts Ave, you can take a path west out to the beautiful Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, and then on to enormous Archibald-Glover Park, where the trails can lead you as far south and west as the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park and Palisades Park. Following the main trail along the creek all the way south will take you under the Whitehurst Freeway and down to the National Mall, where joggers avail themselves of the incredible path right along the Potomac beneath the monuments.
Roosevelt Island is one of those gems just far enough out of the way that it is missed by most tourists. The Teddy Roosevelt Memorial is at the center of the island, which includes a couple fountains and several stone obelisks inscribed with his quotes. The rest of the island is a nice natural park of woods and swamp with a boardwalk in the center of the Potomac, with great views of Georgetown University on the northwest side and of the Kennedy Center on the east. What could be better befitting the "conservationist president" than an island park memorial? To reach the island, walk down the stairs at the Rosslyn side of the Key Bridge—which connects Rosslyn with Georgetown—then head east on the trail (the Mount Vernon Trail) to the footbridge to the island. Rosslyn is the nearest Metro stop. By car, you can access the parking lot just north of the Roosevelt Bridge from the northbound lanes of the George Washington Pkwy only.
There are several other parks worth visiting, including the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Anacostia, the National Arboretum in Near Northeast, Meridian Hill Park in Columbia Heights, and the C&O Canal Towpath in Georgetown.
Free in DC, DCist, Washington City Paper, Washingtonian, and the Going Out Guide by the Washington Post are websites that will keep you up-to-date on current events in the city. Look for unique events that can only be experienced in the nation's capital - many embassies offer regular events open to the public that showcase their country's music, theatre, and culture, sometimes for a fee. These events are listed on the websites noted above as well as on this site.
D.C. has a bustling live music scene, most of which takes place at small and medium sized bars and clubs. More information on these venues is available in the Drink section of this article.
In the summer, the weekly Jazz in the Garden on Friday evenings on the National Mall and the Sunday Drum Circle in Meridian Hill Park in Columbia Heights are both free events that are extremely popular with the locals and tourists alike.
The Kennedy Center, which is in the West End and is administered by the Smithsonian, offers a free 1-hour show every day at 6PM on its Millennium Stage. Shows range from poetry to plays to music to dance and are always top-notch. The Washington National Opera and National Symphony Orchestra also both perform here, although these events are rarely free.
Major concerts and gatherings are held at the 18,200 seat Capital One Arena in the East End. There are more intimate classical music concerts in various locations. Try the Dumbarton Concerts by Candlelight in Georgetown!
Well-known Broadway shows are generally performed either at the Kennedy Center or at one of 3 theatres in the East End: Ford's Theatre, the National Theatre, and the Warner Theatre.
There are also multiple options for seeing top-notch performances of Shakespeare's works; the Shakespeare Theatre Company performs at both the Lansburgh Theatre and Harman Hall in the East End, while smaller performances are held at Folger Shakespeare Theatre on Capitol Hill.
Avant-garde, intensely physical, dance-heavy renditions of well-known plays are performed at the metro-accessible Synetic Theater in Arlington. The performance troupe was named one of the most innovative physical theatre companies in the world and was founded by Georgian immigrants Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili, who were named the Washingtonians of the Year in 2014.
Other great theatre options that generally show lesser-known plays include Woolly Mammoth Theatre in the East End, the Atlas Theatre in Near Northeast, the GALA Hispanic Theatre @ The Tivoli Theater in Columbia Heights, or the Studio Theatre in Shaw.
Free Outdoor Movies
During the summer, there is generally a free outdoor movie shown every weekday evening on a large outdoor screen at one of several locations in D.C. There are also similar movie showings in nearby suburbs such as National Harbor, Columbia, Bethesda, Frederick, Hagerstown, and Ellicott City. It's good to show up as early as possible to stake out a good spot, lay down the picnic blanket, and socialize. People start arriving at 7:00PM and films generally start at sunset, approximately 8:30PM. The movies being shown as well as the days of the week and locations change yearly but are aggregated on this site.
D.C. is awash in free public events all throughout the year, but especially in the summer. A few highlights include:
D.C. has a professional team in each of the six major U.S. professional sports.
The Washington Redskins are one of professional football's most established and storied clubs, boasting five NFL championships. The team plays at FedEx Field in Largo (Maryland). To get there using public transport, take the Blue Line Metrorail to the Morgan Blvd stop, then walk one mile straight up Morgan Blvd to the stadium.
The team name has so far survived movements and lawsuits to change the name that some consider an offensive term for Native Americans. However, pressure to change the name is still strong and some journalists will not use the name, referring to the team solely as 'Washington'.
The Washington Wizards also play at the Capital One Arena.
The Washington Mystics are the WNBA women's basketball team, and are (in)famously the league's regular "attendance champions." That is, they don't actually have winning seasons, but they do have plenty of fans. The team also plays at the Capital One Arena.
The Georgetown Hoyas men's basketball team are far and away the most popular college sports team in the city, and they often sport a more exciting season than even the Wizards. The team also plays at the Capital One Arena since the crowds for the Hoyas' games are too big for the University to hold.
Three other NCAA Division I teams play in the District, and a fourth plays in the immediate metropolitan area. The District also has the George Washington Colonials in Foggy Bottom, the American Eagles in Tenleytown, and the Howard Bison in Shaw. The George Mason Patriots are in Fairfax County, Virginia.
The Washington Nationals, a.k.a. the Nats have been playing in DC since 2005 and at Nationals Park in Waterfront since 2008. In 2012, the Nats won their first division title since moving to the city. Previous D.C. baseball teams include two versions of the Washington Senators. The first played in the District from 1901 to 1960 before moving to Minneapolis as the Minnesota Twins, and the second played from 1961 to 1971 until leaving for Arlington, Texas as the Texas Rangers. Both versions of the Senators suffered from a singular inability to win, though. The first incarnation was quite successful for its first twenty years, but by WWII they earned the city the slogan "first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League." Before the Nats' division title in 2012, the city had not seen postseason baseball since the first Senators played in (and lost) the 1933 World Series. The last World Series win for the city came in 1924.
D.C. United is one of the MLS' most successful teams, with 4 MLS cups under its belt, as well as successful international competition in CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, where the club has both a CONCACAF championship and a Copa Interamericana. D.C. is a big soccer town, owing to the metropolitan area's very international population and its big Latino communities, as well as to a home-grown affection for soccer in this section of the Mid-Atlantic, and the games are high-energy and well attended. United plays at the worn down RFK Stadium in Capitol Hill, although a new $300 million stadium is being constructed at Buzzard Point.
The Washington Kastles have won 5 consecutive Mylan World TeamTennis titles. Since the franchise's launch in 2008, the Kastles have featured many stars including Serena & Venus Williams, Leander Paes, Rennae Stubbs, and Victoria Azarenka. With an exciting team format, music between points, no-ad scoring and dramatic overtimes, attending a Kastles game can be a fun experience.
D.C. has a long list of highly accredited universities. It's a political town, and the best known institutions are undoubtedly those with the political connections.
D.C. is the best place to be for certain career paths. While everyone knows that this is where politicians go, you can also find a fair share of diplomats, lawyers, lobbyists, journalists, defense contractors, and civil servants. Good fields for international visitors to pursue include the various NGOs, national lobbying groups, and for the select few, embassies and consulates. Many ambitious young people come to Washington for internships, and the huge student-aged population peaks in the summer.
With so many high-powered people out to change the world, the need for child care is obvious. Nannies and au pairs, mostly placed through agencies, provide child care to many of Washington's elite; the city has the highest proportion of in-home childcare in the country. U.S. citizen nannies are especially sought after as government types carefully follow employment law to avoid problems with security clearances or negative publicity. Wages for legal U.S. residents with nanny experience can top $800 per week, room and board included.
Souvenirs are easy to find at stands and stores near the National Mall and East End. However, these offerings tend to be tacky (shot glasses, Obama t-shirts, etc...). The gift shops of the Smithsonian museums have unique offerings and are great places to buy gifts.
Art galleries are plentiful throughout the city and make for great browsing, although the prices are on the high side.
Specialty book stores are also common in D.C. due to the educated populace. Although it is out of the way of the tourist attractions, Politics & Prose in Upper Northwest has a rightful claim to be the city's favorite. Other popular book stores include Kramerbooks and Second Story Books in Dupont Circle. There are also some great options in Capitol Hill and the East End.
For cheap groceries and household items, try the Walmart on 1st & H Street NW, near Union Station, and the Target at the Columbia Heights Metrorail Station.
Clothing and household goods
Washington has a little bit of everything, from really good ethnic takeout to high-dollar lobbyist-fueled places that will cause your credit card to burst into flames.
Most of the high end cuisine is available in the West End, the East End, Georgetown, and Dupont Circle—offering dining experiences ranging from steakhouses packed with powerful suits to Minibar by Jose Andres, a 12-seat restaurant offering a 30-course meal for $275.
D.C.'s international might draws representatives from all corners of the globe, and they all need ex-pat cafes and restaurants to haunt. Notable "ethnic" enclaves include wonderful Ethiopian food in Shaw and decent Chinese food in what remains of D.C.'s disappearing Chinatown.
Salvadoran cuisine such as the pupusa is common in Columbia Heights. Pupusas are thick corn tortillas stuffed with cheese, optionally fried pork, refried beans, or all sorts of other things, then topped with a tart cabbage salad and an Italianesque red sauce.
Ethiopian food is a D.C. staple due to the city's large Ethiopian community. Ethiopian food is a wild ride of spicy stewed and sautéed meats and vegetables served atop a plate covered with a spongy bread called injera. You eat the dishes with your hands, using an extra plate of injera (similar to bread) as your sole "utensil"—rip off a piece of the injera and use it to pick up your food. It's proper in Ethiopia to use only the tips of your fingers in this exercise, and with good reason: you'll have a messy meal otherwise. It's also perfectly proper to feed your date, making this a fun cuisine if you know your date well. The best places to try Ethiopian food are in Shaw, which includes Little Ethiopia
The closest thing that D.C. has to a unique local cuisine is the half-smoke: smoked half-beef, half-pork sausages. They have a firm "snap" when you bite into one, are served on a hot dog bun, and are often topped with chili. They are commonly sold at food trucks on the National Mall. If you want a true, quality half-smoke, you should visit Ben's Chili Bowl in Shaw.
Cupcake fever in D.C. is fueled by tourists lured by TV shows such as Cupcake Wars (2009-present) and DC Cupcakes featuring Georgetown Cupcakes (2010-2013). The cupcake bakeries sometimes have lines running around the block. In addition to Georgetown Cupcakes ($3.25 each), popular cupcake establishments include Baked & Wired ($3.75 each), and Sprinkles in Georgetown and Red Velvet Cupcakery ($3.25 each) in the East End.
The legal drinking/purchasing age is 21 and it is strictly enforced in D.C. Be prepared to have your identification checked, even if you appear to be well over 21.
Bars and dance clubs
Bars and dance clubs, many of which have live music, are plentiful along 18th St in Adams Morgan, along 14th St and along U St in nearby Shaw, and in Near Northeast, which are the 3 main areas of the city for going on a pub crawl. Several hotels in Georgetown include very classy popular bars.
D.C.'s classiest dance clubs are along Connecticut Avenue in Dupont Circle. Music genres played at clubs here include pop, hip hop, and Latin. Many of these bars and clubs have a dress code. Dupont Circle and Shaw also have many bars/clubs that cater to a gay crowd.
Pop and rock
There are several 500-1,500 person music venues in Shaw including 9:30 Club, Black Cat, DC9, U Street Music Hall, and Velvet Lounge. Other medium-sized music clubs are located in Capitol Hill. The Fillmore Silver Spring, which also features international acts, is located just outside of the city limits in Silver Spring, and is Metro accessible.
Jazz and blues
Live jazz is very popular in D.C. Jazz legend Duke Ellington frequently played at clubs in Shaw, centered around U St. Blues Alley in Georgetown is the city's most prestigious jazz club - the interior looks like it is from a Spike Lee movie - straight from the 1920s! There is a weekly $5 blues performance called Blue Monday Blues at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Waterfront and there is a weekly Saturday night jazz/swing band performance at Glen Echo Park in Potomac.
Go-go is a musical genre related to funk and early hip-hop that originated in D.C. in the 1960's. Go-go clubs were once probably D.C.'s most distinctive nightlife scene and were concentrated in Anacostia. Chuck Brown, “the Godfather of Go-Go,” lived in D.C. However, many clubs now refuse to host go-go bands due to the staggering number of stabbings and homicides that occurred at these events. If you're looking for live go-go, look for big outdoor events or head out to Takoma Station Tavern near Takoma Park, the only venue in D.C that still has regular go-go acts.
Hotels of all classes and price ranges can be found in many neighborhoods of D.C., as well as in the nearby suburbs. If you are coming by car, be sure to factor the cost of parking, which can be free in hotels outside the city limits but can cost over $35 per day in hotels in the downtown area. Also note that the hotel tax in D.C. is 14.50%, while the tax is 13.00% in the nearby suburbs of Arlington and Bethesda, and 12.00% in Tysons Corner, Reston, and most of Herndon. Hotels in the D.C.-area are generally most expensive on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, when business travel reaches its peak, and cheapest on the weekend.
The hotels of the East End, the business-centric West End, and the charming boutique hotels of Georgetown are the most popular accommodation options due to their proximity to the tourist attractions and top dining spots. If booking in these areas, be aware that the West End is mostly comprised of office buildings and is generally dead after dark and Georgetown is not accessible by Metrorail, although it is easy to travel to/from Georgetown by bus or rideshare.
Better bargains may be had in the nightlife-centered districts of Dupont Circle, Shaw, Near Northeast, and Capitol Hill, all of which are a short metro or bus ride to, or, when the weather is nice, a nice walk to, the National Mall. These areas may actually be preferable because their nightlife options make a late night out more convenient. Moreover, it is easier to find street parking on the weekend.
There are also many hotels of all classes located close to metro stations just outside the city limits in Arlington and Alexandria, Bethesda, and Silver Spring. If you are flying into or out of Dulles Airport, you may want to look into hotels in the nearby areas of Tysons Corner, Reston, or Herndon, although the ride to D.C. via public transport can take up to an hour. These hotels are generally much cheaper than hotels in D.C., especially on the weekends.
There are approximately 10 hostels in D.C., several of which are in the northern part of the East End. Dorm bed rates are generally just under $40 per night, including taxes.
The number of reported incidents of certain types of crime, but not all types of crime, within a certain proximity to any street address can be tracked on the DC Crime Map.
The number of annual homicides has declined from 479 in 1991, when Washington was known as the "murder capital", to 105 in 2014. As a visitor, you are extremely unlikely to be victim of a homicide; the vast majority of homicide victims in the U.S. are acquainted with their murderer long before the crime. The majority of homicides occur in the less-traveled parts of the city, especially near public housing projects.
Muggings and robberies
Muggings are a problem in the nightlife-centered neighborhoods of Shaw, Adams Morgan, and Near Northeast and the area around the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station. However, visitors should not avoid these areas—on the contrary, it would be a shame to miss out on them—but visitors should be vigilant. In particular, avoid walking at night on side streets—stick to the well-lit main commercial strips, travel in groups, and maintain a basic level of sobriety.
Be extra vigilant with your mobile phones; they are a very popular snatch-and-grab item around the Metro stations and on the trains.
For health emergencies, George Washington University Hospital is on Washington Circle in Foggy Bottom, adjacent to the Foggy Bottom Metro station. This is where former Vice President Dick Cheney went in 2004 for his irregular heartbeat, and where the President would go in event of a medical emergency. Other hospitals in the city include Howard University Hospital, Georgetown University Hospital, Washington Hospital Center, and the Children's National Medical Center. If you are looking for a quick walk-in clinic, try Farragut Medical & Travel Care, 815 Connecticut Ave NW, ☎ +1 202 775-8500, . M-F 10AM-5PM.
Cellular reception is available all over the city. If you don't want to use data or don't have a phone the D.C. government operates a network of free, public WiFi hotspots across the city. Free WiFi is also available at D.C. public libraries and many local coffee shops, which are also nice places to relax. If you need to use a computer, the libraries have public computer terminals. As in most of the U.S., Internet cafes are a rare phenomenon.
Smoking is banned within almost all enclosed public spaces, including shops, restaurants, bars, and clubs. Most, but not all, restaurants allow smoking in patio seating. If there are no ashtrays, ask for one to double check. Businesses relying principally on tobacco sales are exempt, so smoking is allowed in tobacco shops, cigar bars, and hookah bars.
The possession of up to 2 oz. of marijuana is legal, however the sale of marijuana by anyone except licensed dispensaries is illegal. Anyone must be 21 or older to consume or possess marijuana - it doesn't matter if its for recreational or medicinal reasons and the laws are strictly enforced. Consumption of marijuana in public is illegal and enforced; therefore, you should consume it only in private. It is illegal to smoke/consume marijuana on someone else's private property without their consent. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, so you could still be under scrutiny. DO NOT bring marijuana out of D.C., or you will be charged under federal law.
Cell phone use while driving is illegal and carries a $100 fine, a rule that is strictly enforced within D.C. Hands-free devices are permitted to be used while driving, but if you get pulled over for another violation while using one, expect a hard line from the police, who are sick of dealing with accidents caused by distracted drivers.
When visiting federal buildings and museums, you will pass through metal detectors and have your bags inspected. Some buildings (such as courts, etc.) even ban mobile telephones and recording devices. Security personnel have no sense of humor. If you so much as utter the word "bomb," you will be in for a bad time. You give implied consent for your property and person to be searched when entering a government building or public event such as a concert or sports match.
D.C. is home to more embassies than any other city in the world, and any country without one will have consular representation one way or another. Most are housed in beautiful old buildings (or impressive modern ones), especially those most prominently located along Embassy Row on Massachusetts Ave through Dupont Circle and Woodley Park. If you just want to visit one for the heck of it, try ringing the buzzer of one from a small, lesser-known country—they may well let you in and give a little tour! Each May, dozens of embassies open their doors to the public for the Passport D.C. festival, which showcases the buildings themselves, as well as exhibits, talks, and performances. Also keep in mind that if you need a foreign visa, new passport (or renewal), notarization, and/or other consular services, the consular functions can be in a separate location with a different phone number from the main embassy chancery. So check their websites or call them before going there.
D.C. is, perhaps surprisingly, a fairly fashion-conscious city; downtown and in the more fashionable districts (especially Dupont Circle, Georgetown, and U St at night) you will see fewer T-shirts and fewer still shorts. While the stereotypical drab formality trickles down from the politicians and those who must work with them, something approaching actual stylishness has been making rumblings in the past ten years, much to the surprise of longtime residents. Now, if you just want to enjoy being a tourist, don't worry—you'll be in good company! But if you prefer to blend in, a safe bet anytime of day for men are nice dark jeans and an un-tucked button-up shirt, and perhaps dark sneakers or something a little nicer and more stylish. Women will often blend in better in a nice pair of sandals, boots, or other nice shoes, and maybe skipping the T-shirt and sneaks in the evening.
For fine dining, expect to dress nicely. A good button-up shirt and slacks are a must for any nice restaurant. Ties are never a necessity, but the most formal restaurants (mostly steakhouses and French) will require men to wear jackets (but will usually have courtesy jackets on loan in case you forget). Women will be fine in a dress, skirt, or nice pants.
One inevitable problem with sightseeing in D.C. is that few major attractions will let you bring in bags, (or cameras, in the case of the White House) and baggage storage options are limited for security reasons. Free lockers are available at many Smithsonian museums; however, they are only big enough to store small bags and are only supposed to be used while visiting the museums. Tiburon Lockers (6AM-10PM, daily) offers baggage storage near Gate A in Union Station for $3-6 per bag per hour or $13-48 per bag per day, depending on the size of the bag. Otherwise, head over to a hotel and give a tip of at least $20 to a bellman and ask nicely if he might store your bags.
All forms of LGBT activities are legal. Washington D.C. has strict anti-discrimination and harassment codes.
Northern Virginia destinations
Baltimore is easily accessible using the MARC train ($7, 1 hour). The Penn Line is the only MARC train line that operates on the weekends. If you are only going for the day, note that the last train back to D.C. is around 9PM; however, Greyhound Bus and rideshare services are viable alternatives if you can't make the last train. The Inner Harbor is home to the National Aquarium, the U.S.S. Constellation, and great restaurants. During the spring and summer, Camden Yards is a good place to see a baseball game, and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum is near the ballpark. The Midtown and Fells Point neighborhoods also have many popular bars and restaurants, especially in Little Italy. From spring to fall, you can take a water taxi from the Inner Harbor to historic Fort McHenry.
Richmond, which includes a historic downtown, confederate civil war museums, and Carytown - a walk-able strip of trendy restaurants and shops - is a logical stop if you are heading south. Eastern Shuttle, Greyhound, and Megabus operate bus service to Richmond for around $15.