Washington DC Lincoln Memorial
Abraham Lincoln Memorial (Photo credit: dcandau)

Washington D.C. Travel Guide

QUICK FACTS

  • The capital of the United States of America, Washington D.C. (District of Columbia) has a metro population of 5.7 million (~630,000 live in the Federal district).
  • D.C. is the center for all three branches of the US Federal Government – Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court. Home to over 175 foreign embassies.
  • Since 1973, a locally elected mayor and 13-member council have governed the District. Congress maintains authority over the city and may overturn local laws as it sees fit (Washington DC is not a part of any state).
  • The city contains the headquarters of many international organizations, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
  • Nicknames: D.C., The District, The Federal City, The American Rome, Hollywood for Ugly People, District of Crime, District of Corruption (many nicknames are in jest).

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

  • Currency: US Dollar (USD)
  • Spoken languages: English.
  • Best time to visit: from March to June, and from September to November (summer time is hot and humid, and winters can be snowy).
  • Arriving via airport: the Metro operates a bus between Dulles International Airport (IAD) and downtown – a single journey is $6. Taxi fare between Dulles and downtown is $70. The airport shuttle costs $10. If you’re arriving via Ronald Reagan Airport, a bus downtown costs $2, while a taxi ride will be $15.

WHERE TO STAY

Good (safe) areas to stay at include: Dupont CircleGeorgetown, Foggy Bottom, McPherson Square, and Penn Quarter. The city centre, close to the Mall and public buildings, is home to the more upscale accommodations in the city. For cheaper accommodations, look to the nearby suburbs of Bethesda, Arlington, Alexandria, and Silver Spring. When staying outside of the city, try to find something close to the metro system.

GETTING AROUND

  • The Washington Metro operates buses and rail in the D.C. area. You must have exact change, and fares change based on what time of day it is. Fares increase during rush hour, and from midnight to close on Friday and Saturday. Peak fares are a minimum of $2.10. Off-peak fares are $1.70 minimum. Buying a pre-paid card is the easiest way to travel.
  • Circulator buses are visitor friendly and run to all of the key tourist destinations in the city. For $1 you can hop on a bus that runs every 10 minutes.
  • Note: keep an eye on your belongings when riding on public transportation. If you’re carrying a purse, don’t take it off your shoulder. Don’t set your smartphone down on the seat, and keep an eye on your surroundings. Thefts are common in D.C.
  • DC is a busy government hub – it is a good idea to avoid the metro system during peak morning and evening hours. Don’t waste two hours a day battling metro traffic!
  • Taxis are available all over Washington DC and run $0.25 for every 1/6 mile.
  • Rental cars are readily available, though driving in Washington DC is not easy or recommended. Frequent street direction changes and limited parking can make even a GPS user go crazy driving in the city. Locals avoid driving downtown, and typically take the metro in.

WASHINGTON DC NIGHTLIFE

  • Drinking age is 21, and last call is at 2:00 AM (3 AM on Fridays and Saturdays).
  • Note: Washington D.C. is a very classist city – people tend to hang out with their socioeconomic counterparts. You may be asked (rather quickly) about your education, upbringing, and occupation.
  • The hottest clubs in DC are in the Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle, and Logan Circle areas.
  • For a more low key (and cheaper) experience consider heading to U and 14th Street in Shaw or the area around Georgetown.

UNIQUE LANDMARKS TO VISIT

  • The Washington Monument is a quintessential symbol of Washington DC. Take a trip up to the top for a breathtaking view of the city.
  • Making a trip through the Smithsonian is a must do when travelling to DC. The amazing array of exhibits and historical relics at this renowned institute is worth the visit.
  • The Holocaust Museum is one of the most extensive and educational collections related to this dark chapter of human history. Not for the faint of heart.
  • The Library of Congress is the research library for the United States Congress, and the de facto official library of the United States. The library is home to over 32 million books and printed works in 470 languages, and is the largest collection of rare books in North America. The Library of Congress contains one of the three perfect vellum copies of the Gutenberg Bible, and a draft of the Declaration of Independence. Tour the library and take in any number of historically significant exhibits.
  • Owned by the Smithsonian, the Arts and Industries Building is one of the oldest museums in the country. Designed in 1876 to hold exhibits from the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, the building is considered to be one of the most endangered landmarks in America and is currently undergoing extensive renovations.
  • Located at 13th and K, the Franklin School is where Alexander Graham Bell conducted his first successful wireless communication (in 1880).
  • Note: security at a lot of the different sites and museums is very heavy. Make sure that you are polite with security officials and respectful of their instructions. Not doing so can quickly ruin your trip. You give implied consent for your property and person to be searched when entering a government building or public event (sports, music).

INTERESTING WALKS

  • Taking time to explore The Mall in central DC can make for a very interesting day. Many of the nation’s most prominent monuments are located somewhere along the mall, including: the Vietnam War Memorial, the Lincoln Monument, The Washington Monument, and the World War II Memorial. North of the Mall you will find the White House, Embassy Row, and a variety of museums.
  • The Smithsonian Sculpture Garden is on the grounds of the National Mall, and is open from 7:30 AM until sunset. Stroll through and see sculptures by Matisse, Rodin, and Moore.
  • Take a walk through the peaceful Arlington Cemetery, one of the most important burial grounds in America. You can see President J.F.K.’s grave, the home of Robert E. Lee, the Memorial Amphitheater, and the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
  • Walk along the Georgetown Waterfront and you will be rewarded by gorgeous views of Roosevelt Island, the D.C. skyline, and the Potomac River. Between the labyrinth and the shops/restaurants, there is more than enough to keep you occupied.
  • The Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park is one of the most beautiful and relaxing places in the District. Just a 10 minute walk from the Smithsonian Metro Station, the Tidal Basin is home to the Jefferson Memorial. Dozens of cherry trees have been planted surrounding the basin, and thousands of visitors come for the National Cherry Blossom Festival every year.

LOCAL WISDOM

  • Day trip idea: take a trip out to Mount Vernon, the estate of George Washington. The grounds are extensive and offer good views of the Potomac river.
  • The cost of living is very high in the District. Make sure to plan to spend a little more than you usually do on food and accommodation.
  • The District is a national center for the arts with some of the best ballet, opera, and symphonies in the nation. Before you start booking your trip, look to see if there are any festivals or performances going on. Note: hotel room prices spike considerably during festivals.
  • Where to find good cheap eats: ethnic foods can be found all over DC. Consider checking out Little Ethiopia and Chinatown for some good eats.
  • Dangerous areas: avoid Southeast DC, Northeast DC, and East of Anacostia. If in Adams Morgan, Chinatown, or Georgetown, try not to wander into the dimly lit areas. Exercise caution when walking alone at night. Keep in mind that DC has some of the highest crime rates in America.

RECOMMENDED D.C. GUIDE BOOKS

Recommended trip duration: 4-5 days


SEE ALSO:
Washington D.C. Travel Guide was last modified: September 28th, 2016 by Nick
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