What you need to know about Washington DC is: It isn’t always and only about politics. Granted, politics and government put DC on the map. Chances are that if you’ve visited or plan to visit Washington, it’s because of the city’s singular status as the capital of the United States. Where else can you attend a Supreme Court argument; stroll through the White House, home to every president but George Washington; view the original Star Spangled Banner, exhibited at the National Museum of American History; and stand on the very spot at the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. Martin Luther King stood to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech?
Nowhere else. A trip to Washington DC, might offer, oddly enough, the perfect antidote to politics overload. Roam the Smithsonian museums’ displays of American inventions and craftsmanship, from the Apollo 11 Space Module to the telephone, and you’ll return home marveling at American ingenuity. A perusal of Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten Declaration of Independence on view at the National Archives might inspire you to–who knows–start a revolution, run for office, wave a flag, study history, join a protest, make a movie. It’s been known to happen.
But if Washington DC’s identity stopped at Pennsylvania Avenue, how very enlightened but hungry you would be; well versed in America’s story, perhaps, but not that of the people who live here.
Welcome to hometown DC, a cosmopolitan city of endless diversions and local color. This 68.3 square mile modern metropolis is home to 694,000 people, 2,233 restaurants, scores of performing arts venues, nearly 200 foreign embassies, two rivers (the Potomac and the Anacostia), and acres and acres of verdant parkland. As a larger version of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s original and elegant design of 1791, Washington DC, today, is quite beautiful.
Its personality shines best through its many neighborhoods: You’ll find Capitol Hill life beyond the Capitol a homey mix of historic structures and family dwellings. The Greater U, rooted in African American heritage, is better known these days as the place to go for youthful exuberance and the buzziest restaurant and bar scene. Embassy Row’s phalanx of handsome foreign embassy buildings imbues the town with international sophistication. The always snappy Penn Quarter pulses with work-a-day whirl and socializing in a downtown jumble of office buildings, historic sites, restaurants, entertainment venues, and off-the-Mall museums.
So take in the capital landmarks, then make like a local and go go go.
Tour a brewpub, bike-ride through Rock Creek Park, barter with merchants at Eastern Market, enjoy a cocktail on a rooftop lounge with a grand city view, rent a kayak and get out on the Potomac, dine on cuisine from Ethiopian to all American; and enjoy some of the best theater in the world, whether it’s a musical at the Kennedy Center or high drama at the Shakespeare Theatre.
Believe it or not, because DC is both compact and easily navigable, you can cover quite a lot of territory in a limited amount of time. Choose a focus, say trendy DC, or perhaps the insider’s perspective revealed in exploring a particular neighborhood.
Or go for the broad stroke, a little bit of everything.
— With much thanks to Elise Ford Hartman for her work.
A trip to Washington, DC, is always a good idea. Major attractions, like the U.S. Capitol and the White House, are open for tours year-round; the National Mall and its famous memorials, including the Lincoln Memorial, welcome visitors all day, every single day. DC’s Smithsonian museums, all 18 of them, are closed only one day out of 365 (Christmas Day). In other words, no matter the time of year, the capital pulses with activity and sightseeing opportunities.
Certain seasonal events hold special appeal, the biggest of which is spring’s National Cherry Blossom Festival, a citywide, weeks-long revelry celebrating the blooming of the magnificent cherry trees along the Tidal Basin. At least 1.5 million people attend; this is DC at its most crowded and, some would say, most fun. The Fourth of July, with its parade down Constitution Avenue and fireworks display on the National Mall, is another super draw. These are both only-in-Washington experiences, always something to take into account when planning when to go. But if you’re crowd-averse, you might choose different dates on the calendar.
Weather is another obvious consideration. If you have a tough time in heat and humidity, July and August are not your optimal months for visiting DC. If you don’t like tramping around in cold weather, best not to visit in January and February. What you should realize in any weather circumstance is that many of Washington’s memorials and other attractions are open structures that offer little protection from the elements. Pack accordingly!
A single day simply will not do. You could spend an entire day rambling around the National Museum of American History alone. But if that’s all the time you have, say, on a business trip, make the most of your passenger-seat sightseeing. Uber, cab, or board a tour bus and take in the capital’s sites by night.
A 48-hour itinerary will give you a good feel for the city and its two personalities, as an urban hometown and the nation’s capital. You’ll have time to explore a neighborhood, tour the Capitol, catch some live music, eat well at a beguiling hotspot or two, stroll the National Mall.
But if you can do it, try for five. Five days, with proper planning, should allow you to hit the big three: the White House, U.S. Capitol, and the Supreme Court; tour the Washington Monument and memorials; visit the National Gallery of Art, the US Holocaust Museum, and a smattering of Smithsonians on the Mall, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture, as well as an off-the-Mall museum or two, like the Phillips Collection in Dupont Circle and the Penn Quarter’s National Museum of Women in the Arts; shop in Georgetown and at CityCenter; attend a play at the Shakespeare Theatre or a ballet at the Kennedy Center; even bike along the Potomac River, all the way to Old Town Alexandria……or farther still to George Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon.
Washington’s peak seasons directly correlate with three events: the National Cherry Blossom Festival, school schedules, and Congress’s calendar. Of the three, Congress’s agenda has the most impact. “Why?,” you ask. When Congress is in session, senators and representatives are here and so are the many who do business with them. Hotels are full, restaurants always booked, the streets and subways jammed.
The capital is at its most frenzied in the spring, when Congress’s schedule coincides with the National Cherry Blossom Festival and school spring breaks/trips. Business and government folks tourists students = crazy town. Fun, though.
But for every peak season there is an off-peak season. Generally speaking, weekends (when Congress is out), holidays, summertime, and during the weeks between Thanksgiving and early January tend to be slower. The month of August is slowest of all. This is great news budget-wise, especially when it comes to hotel rates. You probably won’t find better deals than those available in August, and during the other off-peak times throughout the year.
Washington, DC’s inland location within the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States means that it has four distinct seasons, with the varying weather that goes with them. Its winters are never as long or severe as those in the northern United States, nor are its summers as unrelentingly long as in the southern part of the country. Here’s a broad breakdown:
Spring: Thanks to the capital’s landscape of parkland, gardens, and of course the legendarily beautiful blooming cherry trees, spring can be magnificent. If you’re planning a trip in Spring, it’s good to keep a couple of things in mind: Those cherry trees bloom for a mere ten to 14 days, and a cold snap or a heavy rain can end the show overnight. Check the National Park Service’s dedicated cherry blossom website for the latest forecast for peak bloom days, which tend to fall somewhere in the middle between March 20 and April 17. Also know that the months of March and April are often windy and brisk, and you’ll feel it when you’re traipsing the wide open expanse of the National Mall.
Summer: DC summers are often hot and humid, so arrive with sunscreen and weightless clothes and perhaps even those little handheld fans, as well as water bottles and sunglasses. So many of Washington’s attractions and events are out in the open, the heat is just part of the equation. But for those who lap up the sun and warm temperatures, summer is prime time for sitting at one of DC’s many sidewalk cafés and watching the world go by.
Fall: Fall weather arrives gradually in September, easing out the lazy days of summer. Temperatures fall and breezes blow, matching the picked-up tempo of the city back at work and politicking. For anyone who takes the time to observe it, the capital may be prettiest in Fall, when golden-leaved trees frame views of the Capitol, the White House, and other stately attractions all over town. Cooler weather and fewer crowds make Fall a superb season for sightseeing and for exploring outdoor attractions, like the C&O Canal and Rock Creek Park.
Winter: Cold weather and the holiday season usually signal it’s time for Congress to go home—-as long as snow and ice don’t prevent them. The nation’s capital remains notoriously unreliable, at times inept, when it comes to keeping the city prepared for and functioning on days of “wintry mixes” and freezing temperatures. Normally, DC is rather quiet in late December and January. But in this Presidential Election year, you can expect flurries of inaugural activities, if not flurries of snow, as celebrants converge on the capital as Inauguration Day nears (January 20, 2017).
The capital’s biggest annual events are the National Cherry Blossom Festival, the Independence Day Celebration, and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Every four years, and coming up in January 2017, the Presidential Inauguration swearing-in and festivities attract crowds, as well.
But truly, in the nation’s capital, there are many big events going on daily. Among the sources you can check for the latest schedules are the websites and social media pages of Destination DC and the Washington Post.
The capital follows the nation (or rather, it’s the nation that follows the capital), in its observance of national holidays:
January 1: New Year’s Day
January (third Monday): Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
February (third Monday): Presidents Day
May (last Monday): Memorial Day
July 4th: Independence Day
September (first Monday): Labor Day
October (second Monday): Columbus Day
November 11: Veterans Day
November (fourth Thursday): Thanksgiving Day
December 25: Christmas
Washington DC is located in the Eastern time zone.
To check the local time in Washington DC, click here.
Daylight Savings Time (DST) happens in the spring (early March, on a Sunday morning at 2AM). It’s when clocks are advanced one hour so there is more daylight later into the evening. In the fall (late October or early November on a Sunday morning at 2AM), clocks shift back one hour to standard time. The entire U.S. (except most of Arizona) participates in this ritual of ‘springing forward’ and ‘falling back.’
In Washington DC, it’s really easy to spend a lot of money, but it’s also quite possible to spend just a little.
First off, so many of the main attractions cost nothing to tour: the Smithsonian museums; the National Mall memorials and the Washington Monument; the White House, US Capitol, and Supreme Court; the neighborhoods and parks; the Library of Congress, and the National Archives, are all open to the public year-round for free.
Then there’s transportation within the city. You can spend no money at all by walking everywhere, honestly. But the Metro rail and bus systems, plus the DC Circulator bus, offer great value and get you pretty much where you want to go.
Restaurants? Well, here’s where keeping costs down starts to become a bit of a challenge. You can dine well and within your budget by choosing inexpensive restaurants or restaurants that offer special menus such as pre-theater, bar, lunch express, and happy hour deals. DC has plenty of such options. But most DC restaurants fall into the expensive and very expensive categories, where the average cost of a dinner quickly mounts to $75 per person when you tally at least $10 for a drink, $12 for an appetizer, $25 for a main course, $10 for dessert, plus 10% tax, plus tip.
Hotels are the wild card. Hotel rates fluctuate based on peak and off-peak seasons and days. Generally speaking, hotels offer best rates on weekends, in August, and in the period between Thanksgiving and early January.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double
$ => Up to $15 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$ => $16-22 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$$ => $23 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
Fly the Friendly Skies
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.
Have Car, Will Travel
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.
There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill. There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.
Zipcar is another choice for rentals. Available in many major cities and college towns in the U.S., Zipcar is a great alternative for super-short term rentals. Picture this scenario: you are in a big city with terrific public transportation, so you don’t need a car. But then you hear about an amazing restaurant 20 miles away in the suburbs. You can’t go home without trying it. A taxi would cost a fortune. You’d have to wait a long time to get a return taxi. Download the Zipcar app; search for a nearby Zipcar locale. Memberships cost about $7 a month; rentals are about $8-10 per hour; gas and insurance are included.
Ride-sharing companies, Uber and Lyft, are also ubiquitous in major cities. Through a smart phone app, you can line up rides all over town. It’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.
Money Saving Tip: Costco, because of its behemoth size and price negotiating power, offers great low prices for most major car rental companies. Yes, you need to purchase an annual Costco membership first, but it more than pays for itself with what you’ll save with a typical week’s car rental (i.e. searches turn up a mid-size car through Costco for $225 and a comparable car through another aggregator for $325.)
Did You Know: Budget Car Rental offers drivers residing at the same address (i.e. unmarried partners or BFFs) complimentary extra driver coverage. Other car rental companies charge upwards of $10/day. By the way, when renting in California, there are no additional driver fees by law.
Hopefully, your trip to (or within) the U.S. goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation — About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical — Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.
Trip Interruption — For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay — Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage — Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a hurricane-prone area during hurricane season, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case” … no matter what.
Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework — check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
If you have pre-existing health conditions — Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance — If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.
U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans have an understandably tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.
Coins in wide circulation include pennies (1 cent), nickels (5 cents), dimes (10 cents), quarters (25 cents). The 50 cent and dollar coins are seen occasionally.
Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so plan to have $20s or smaller bills in hand.
Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any U.S. travel experience, whether urban or rural. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but other costs should also be taken in to consideration. General guidelines include:
For excellent service, plan to tip 20% on the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10-15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In many states, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.
To complicate matters, many restaurants in the major metropolitan areas — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco — are moving to a no-tipping model in which service is included. The verdict isn’t yet in on whether this new model will stick, so be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.
Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included. But at least it will be itemized in plain sight on the bill.
Most bell staff receive $1-$2 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $5-$10.
Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2-$3 per day and about $5 per day in higher end properties.
At properties with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets, or simply orienting you with driving directions or public transportation info. Current etiquette calls for $10-$20 per person, per day for concierge help. Car valet staff expect $1-$2 for delivering you your car. Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) usually see 20% tips on their services, whether performed at the spa or in your room.
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and drug stores will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.
Washington DC may be the most accessible city in the world. Its location in the Mid-Atlantic region of the East Coast makes it easy to get to by sundry modes of transportation.
Most visitors arrive by car. But if you can, leave the car at home. Otherwise, you will spend much of your time here in traffic…..or looking for a place to park. Parking rates, by the way, are exorbitant. Hotels routinely charge $35-$50, plus 18% tax, for overnight parking. Garage and parking lot rates vary widely from $5 an hour to $60 for three hours, depending on location, if there’s a popular event going on in the neighborhood, and time of day. Street parking is a challenge, especially in the busy downtown and tourist areas. Expect to pay about $2 an hour at metered parking.
There’s better news if you’re aiming to fly, train it, or ride the bus.
DC’s a straight shot for flights from destinations all over the country and around the world. Three airports serve the capital and together they offer more than 500 nonstop flights between Washington and destinations in the U.S. and abroad.
DC’s Union Station is a major stop on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, with frequent daily service between Washington, New York City, and Boston, as well as between Washington and points south as far as New Orleans, and westward to Chicago.
Likewise, commercial bus transport is an option, and sometimes, but not always, the least expensive one.
Once you arrive in the city, you have a choice of every possible way of getting around. If you enjoy walking, this is your kind of town. The capital is compact, with many of the major tourist sites situated in one place, the National Mall.
And if walking is not an option? The city’s Metrorail and Metrobus service, DC Circulator bus, taxis, rental cars, on-demand car services such as Uber, boats, pedicabs, and bikes are all on hand.
By Air: Three airports serve Washington DC. Here’s what you need to know about each of them:
For travelers hoping to make a quick getaway (members of Congress, for instance), and visitors and returning locals who want easy-breezy access into the city, consider Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (its real handle, though everyone calls it National). National Airport is a mere 4 miles outside the city, just across the Potomac River and down the road apiece.
National Airport connects directly to the Metro system and has its own National Airport stop. A taxi to downtown, depending on the destination, may cost $17 or more. Either way, expect a 15 to 20 minute trip.
Nearly all of National’s nonstop flights are to cities located within 1,250 miles of DC. In other words, if you’re coming from or traveling to the West Coast, Pacific Northwest or international destinations, best look to choices at BWI or Dulles airports.
In all, about 10 airlines, including discount carriers JetBlue, Frontier, and Southwest fly nonstop between National and some 85 cities.
Washington-Dulles International Airport is the region’s usual go-to hub for international travel (47 of its 126 destinations are foreign cities). International carriers include Air France and British Airways; major domestic carriers include American and United.
Named after statesman John Foster Dulles, the airport has been open since 1962. An ongoing improvement project has brought several much anticipated improvements to the airport, including aerotrains to move people between terminals, finally starting the phase out of the much ridiculed “mobile loungers,” which move at a turtle’s pace across the tarmac.
Dulles is located 26 miles from DC. Transportation options into town include taxis, SuperShuttle shared vans , a Metrobus 5A that travels to L’Enfant Plaza near the National Mall, and a Washington Flyer Silver Line Express Bus that travels to the closest Metro station, Wiehle Ave./Reston East, on the Silver Line, where you can buy a Metro SmarTrip farecard and board a train into the city.
Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport is a little less convenient than DC’s 2 others, Reagan National and Washington Dulles, but it has its advantages.
Thanks to the large presence of discount airline Southwest, which flies to/from 50 or so of the airport’s 76 nonstop flight destinations, plus other bargain airlines Spirit and WOW, BWI is usually your best bet for cheapest rates. The earlier you book, the better the rate. British Airways, Air Canada, United and Continental are among the other airline options here.
Located 33 miles from DC, BWI offers several ways of getting into town. The airport operates a free shuttle between its terminal and a nearby train station, where you can board an Amtrak train or a commuter train, MARC, that travel into DC’s Union Station.
The DC Metrobus B30 also stops at BWI and continues on to the Greenbelt Metro station, where you can purchase a SmarTrip farecard to travel on Metrorail’s Green Line into DC.
Assorted other transportation options include taxis, rental cars, and SuperShuttle shared vans. Depending on which mode of transit you use, the expense of getting to DC from BWI can be more expensive than your airfare, anywhere from $6 for a MARC train ride to $90 for a taxi.
By Train: Washington, DC is a major hub on Amtrak’s routes, especially up and down the East Coast. Daily service operates between DC and Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and other points north and south, with nearly hourly frequency on most routes, most days. Amtrak also travels west to Chicago on a daily basis. Amtrak trains arrive and depart from Union Station.
If you’re traveling between DC and either New York, Philadelphia, or Boston, and you’re in a hurry, you should check out the high speed Acela Express, which can cut the time by at least an hour on each of those trips, which means you’ll arrive in less than 2 hours between Philly and DC, less than 3 hours on the NYC-DC trip, and less than 7 hours between Boston and DC. Usually.
By Bus: In addition to countrywide bus companies like Greyhound, a number of inexpensive bus operations, Megabus, BoltBus, and Vamoose among them, travel between Washington, DC, and other US cities, with at least one, Megabus, also traveling to and from a handful of cities in Canada.
By Car: Most visitors arrive by car. But if you can, leave the car at home. Otherwise, you will spend much of your time here in traffic…..or looking for a place to park. Parking rates, by the way, are exorbitant. Hotels routinely charge $35-$50, plus 18% tax, for overnight parking. Garage and parking lot rates vary widely from $5 an hour to $60 for three hours, depending on location, if there’s a popular event going on in the neighborhood, and time of day. Street parking is a challenge, especially in the busy downtown and tourist areas. Expect to pay about $2 or more an hour at metered parking.
Once you arrive in the city, you have a choice of every possible way of getting around. If you enjoy walking, this is your kind of town. The capital is compact, with many of the major tourist sites situated in one place, the National Mall.
And if walking is not an option? The city’s Metrorail and Metrobus service, DC Circulator buses, a streetcar, taxis, rental cars, on-demand car services such as Uber, and boats, pedicabs, and bikes are all on hand. An invaluable resource, www.godcgo, covers all of your options.
Here’s a brief summary:
The Washington Metropolitan Area Authority’s subway and bus system, Metrorail and Metrobus, travels most places you’re likely to want to go throughout DC and suburban Maryland and Virginia. It must be said, though, that the 40-year-old system is in sad need of repairs and funds. Expect delays and inconveniences. But Metro remains the best mode of public transit.
Six color-coded subway lines, Silver, Red, Blue, Orange, Green, and Yellow, criss-cross the locale, intersecting at 9 different junctions to allow transfers to other lines. Its 91 stations include stops at major destinations, including National Airport, the National Mall, Union Station, and Capitol Hill. A fleet of 1,500 Metrobuses travels 325 routes, making about 12,000 stops throughout the metropolitan Washington DC area.
And it’s easy to use. Purchase permanent, rechargeable plastic SmarTrip fare cards online or at vending machines placed inside each station. The farecards are usable on Metro trains and buses, and on DC Circulator buses. You swipe the card to pass through Metro’s gates or to board buses; you do the same again at the exit gate to leave the station.
A fleet of 67 DC Circulator buses supplements Metrobus service in downtown DC, Georgetown, Capitol Hill, and beyond. Especially helpful for visitors is the bus that circumnavigates the National Mall, its route originating and terminating at Union Station, with 14 stops along the way.
DC’s newest public transit choices is the DC Streetcar, which travels one 2.2-mile route between H Street NE, in the Atlas District, and Union Station.
Seasonal water taxis travel to and from Georgetown’s waterfront, the Gangplank Marina on The Wharf in Southwest DC, and Nationals Ballpark in the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood.
Finally, you should know that DC is committed to promoting bikeriding: Its Capital Bikeshare operation has 3,000 bikes and 350 stations; the District, in addition to its bike-friendly parklands, currently has 69 miles of marked bike lanes throughout the city.
Washington DC’s transportation hubs include its 3 airports, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Washington Dulles International Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport; See “Getting There,” in this section for information on transportation connections into the city from each of the airports.
In the city, itself, Union Station is the major transportation hub, where Amtrak, commuter, and Metro trains; Metro buses, DC Circulator buses, tour buses, and long-distance travel buses, like Megabus and Bolt Bus; car rental centers; the DC Streetcar; taxis; and bike rental operations all converge!
The wisest purchase you can make, transportation-wise around the city, is a SmarTrip card, which can be used on the subway, Metrobuses, DC Circulators, and even on DASH buses, which operate in nearby Old Town Alexandria. The SmarTrip card is a permanent, re-chargeable, plastic farecard that you can buy and add value to online and at vending machines in any Metro station. You can also purchase different kinds of special value passes that allow unlimited travel for a specified period of time, for example, the 7-day Fast Pass, which allows unlimited rail travel for 7 consecutive days. The SmarTrip card is simple to use: You tap the card on the circular target on top of or inside the station faregates; on the bus, you tap the card on the SmarTrip farebox.
Hundreds of years ago, the territory now occupied by the nation’s capital was the domain of the Nacotchtank and Piscataway Indians. When European adventurers in the 1500s and 1600s started to explore the New World, it was only a matter of time before one such explorer, a man named Captain John Smith, sailed up the Potomac River with his fellow Jamestown colonialists and stumbled upon the Indians’ settlement. The year was 1608; by 1697, most of the Indians had fled, as English, Irish and Scottish immigrants took over the land and made themselves at home.
And they prospered. By 1751, these settlers had founded George Town, its location on the Potomac River assuring its success as a port for shipping tobacco from nearby plantations. From here, the birth of the capital followed the birth of the nation as colonists rose up to fight the British in the American Revolution (1775-83), formed their own government, unanimously electing General George Washington as the first president of the United States and ratifying the U.S. Constitution. In 1790 Congress approved Washington’s proposal to found the seat of government on a 10-mile square site bordering the Potomac River, and voila, the new nation introduced the District of Columbia as its capital.
Two hundred sixteen years after its founding, Washington, District of Columbia is a capital capital, a cosmopolitan city of endless diversions and local color. As a place to visit, it’s one of a kind. If you plan to be one of the more than 20 million people visiting this year, welcome.
For every question you might have about the nation’s capital, a media source or website has your answer. Here are some of the best:
The Washington Post: the daily local and national newspaper.
Washingtonian: the monthly magazine that covers feature stories and cultural buzz.
Destination D.C.: The city’s tourism organization and website is a good source for information about the city, hotel and attraction discounts, and a visitors guide that includes a map (you can request the printed version be mailed to you or download it from the website).
Cultural Tourism DC: A nonprofit cultural tourism organization and website that provides heritage walking trails for neighborhoods throughout the city; some itineraries are available as audio guides.
National Park Service National Mall and Memorial Parks: National Mall and Memorial Parks, within the National Park Service, includes the National Mall and East and West Potomac Parks, the location for most of the capital’s major landmarks, as well as park sites off the Mall, like Ford’s Theatre. This website provides information about each of the landmarks, as well as helpful maps.
Smithsonian Institution: The institution’s website homepage links you to the individual websites for each individual museum.
Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority: This is the website covering travel, fares, alerts and all other information regarding the Metrorail and Metrobus public transit system.