Destinations

The Ultimate City Guide to Washington, DC

Explore the US capital with our handy city guide.

If our country’s founders were still alive, they’d be in awe at how our capital city has evolved. There are few places in the United States where you can swizzle a cocktail at the same bar table where historic conversations took place, or chat with young professionals who might be the country’s next politicians. Now no longer just a city for government workers and men in suits, this never-resting urban bubble has so much to offer locals and visitors alike.

And yet, in its ambitious, fast-paced ambiance, Washington has a certain peacefulness to offset its energy. Far away from the office areas, there are many green spaces, bike paths, and hidden gems to be discovered. Put on your walking shoes and spend a weekend in a city that’s constantly evolving, changing, and growing.

Table of Contents:

Things to Do in Washington, DC

Washington, DC Highlights

Washington DC
Photo Credit: BKL (Flickr)

One of the best things about Washington, DC is that there are a ton of things to do, and many of them are free. From its museums to its monuments, its parks to its street markets, you could easily go a full weekend without spending any money on activities.

Visit the Monuments and Memorials

Washington is also unique because of the sheer number of historic monuments scattered throughout its streets. The best time to visit the city’s striking monuments is in the early morning or in the evening. If you can get up early, catch a golden sunrise over the Washington Monument from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Other beautiful monuments you can’t miss are the Jefferson Memorial and the WWII Memorial.

Explore the Museums

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC
Photo Credit: Peter Szekely (Flickr)

Washington is home to many of the country’s finest museums. The Smithsonian Institution has 17 different free-entry museums featuring a variety of topics, including the Air and Space Museum, the Natural History Museum, the National Museum of American History, and others. In addition to the Smithsonians, there are a few other museums worth checking out, including the Newseum ($25 for two-day entry), the Holocaust Museum (free), and the Spy Museum ($22 for single entry). History buffs can check out the National Archives. For wild-hearted explorers, head to the National Geographic Museum and view its photography exhibits ($15). If you’re a museum lover, there are more than enough of them in DC to fill an entire weekend.

Hang Out at Historic Institutions

Do you want to have a date night at the same place where JFK proposed to Jackie? Or discuss politics over beer in the same seats as presidents past? Washington, DC is home to the most interesting historic places to hang out. Grab lunch or a drink at Martin’s Tavern or Old Ebbitt Grill for a meal deeply ingrained in American History.

Tour the White House or the Capitol

If you’re interested in seeing where our government operates every day, contact your local representative about getting tickets for a tour of the White House or the Capitol. These tours are free, behind-the-scenes looks at where some of our country’s most important decisions are made.

Washington, DC Hidden Gems

Sip at a Speakeasy

If you’re wanting to wind down your night in style, head to one of the city’s speakeasy bars. Some of the most sought-after ones are The Gibson, Harold Black, Dram and Grain, and The Sheppard. I could tell you where they are, but I’ll let you have the fun of trying to figure out how to get into each one.

Catch A Glimpse of Local Life

DC’s charming  neighborhoods are an attraction in and of themselves. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, you can find farmers markets in Columbia Heights, Eastern Market, and Dupont Circle. Shaw, Georgetown, 14th Street, Union Market, and Takoma Park are also vibrant areas to walk around, with many boutique shops, restaurants, and bars to explore. If you’re looking for something more eclectic, join a drum circle or a volleyball group at Meridian Hill Park, which boasts wooded areas and a large lawn with sunbathers and hula hoopers galore.

Get Outside

DC’s inhabitants love the outdoors. While you’re in the city, check out the National Zoo (free) and Rock Creek Park. In Georgetown, you can rent a stand-up paddleboard or a kayak and spend part of your day on the water. The National Arboretum and the Tidal Basin are both lovely places to get some fresh air and see some of DC’s most peaceful scenes. Or, if you’re feeling lucky, take a walk around the National Mall to see if there are any festivals or special events going on.

Check Out the Art Scene

Washington DC’s art scene is nothing to sneeze at. With several art museums and local exhibits, there are so many places to explore for the art aficionado. For a color burst and some offbeat exhibits and shows, head to Blind Whino, a formerly abandoned church in Southwest DC. If you’re more interested in street art, check out some of the murals around the city (there are quite a few in the 14th Street/Shaw areas). DC is so full of color and life, it’s no wonder artists come here to feel inspired.

When to Go

Bridge to Fall - HDR
Photo Credit: Nicolas Raymond (Flickr)

Washington DC is fairly temperate all year, but the best times to go are during the spring (March-June) or the fall (September-November). Springtime boasts the beautiful cherry blossoms all over the city, while fall brings warm colors to the trees. Take your pick!

Where to Stay

Save: Airbnb ($50-150 per night)

Airbnb is by far the cheapest option for Washington, with prices running from ~$50-150 per night (you can save $40 off your first booking here!). Some of the most accessible and lively neighborhoods to consider are Georgetown, Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, Foggy Bottom, and Adams Morgan.

Splurge: St. Regis ($250+ per night)

Of all of the hotels I’ve stayed in while visiting Washington, the St. Regis was definitely my favorite. With beautiful décor and a certain regal atmosphere, this hotel is a fantastic splurge for a special occasion. What’s even better is that the St. Regis is part of the SPG hotel family, so you can use points to pay for a night here.

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Where to Eat

One of the best things about Washington is its diverse selection of dining options. You can find virtually any kind of food you want in this city. While the options tend to be a bit on the upscale side, there are a lot of affordable spots with excellent dishes. Some of our favorites are Chaplin’s (Japanese fusion/ramen) in Shaw and Compass Rose (international tapas) on 14th St NW.

Getting Around

Washington DC Metro
Photo Credit: Patrick Rasenberg

Metro/Buses

The metro is one of the easiest and often quickest ways of getting around the city. Each ride ranges from $2-3.50, depending on the time of day and the number of different lines used. If you want to use the metro, you must purchase a SmarTrip card for $2, which you can reload as needed.

Ride Sharing

Ride sharing apps are on the rides in DC as affordable alternatives to public transportation. Uber, Lyft, and Via are some of the popular options in the city. Uber and Lyft offer both shared and private car options, while Via is only shared.

Safety

Washington, DC is a fairly safe city, especially in the downtown areas where many tourist attractions are located. However, it’s always wise to keep your valuables guarded at all times and stay alert in high-traffic areas. Additionally, one of the biggest dangers in Washington is the cars. Drivers in this city are sometimes a little crazy, so be sure to avoid jaywalking and always be extra vigilant when crossing the street.

Additional Resources

Featured image credit: Mike Boening Photography (Flickr)

Kay is a full-time media professional located in Washington DC who takes every spare day of time to travel the world. In the last year alone, she's visited over 10 different countries and taken a dozen short trips in between. You can typically find her wandering the streets of a city, taking ridiculous self portraits, or hiking a mountain somewhere. Connect with Kay: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

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