Our Local Guide Shares the Best Places to Visit in Washington D.C.!
If you are looking for the best places to visit in Washington D.C – you’ve got some work ahead! The city is full of museums, attractions, galleries, and much, much more. We’ve actually been – but at different times! Lisa visited back in 2011 when she was studying in the United States. Eric visited all the way back in 2007 on a high school trip. Let’s just say our knowledge would be a little outdated!
The best Washington places to visit are all over the place – some are a day trip outside the city! So, to help us understand all the best sights and Washington attractions, we’ve asked a local guide, Emily, to help us out! Emily is a resident of D.C. and a friend of a friend – but she was super eager to help us with our Washington D.C. travel guide!
So, whether you are looking for amazing tours, entertainment, free things to do in Washington D.C., or even trying to understanding public transportation – Emily has you covered! Let’s explore Washington D.C.!
Things to Consider When Visiting Washington D.C
Before visiting Washington D.C, take a moment to consider a few of the details for travelling to the United States. From visas to car rentals, we got you covered!
Currency + Visas
The currency used in Washington D.C., being the capital of the United States, is the United States Dollar. If would be super odd if they didn’t accept USD in the capital! As we usually mention, you can grab USD before you leave but we usually just take out money when we are there. Saves us from travelling with lots of cash. That said, cards are widely used in D.C.
Another consideration for travelling to the USA is whether you need to apply for an ESTA or Electronic System for Travel Authorization. Like the eTA for Canada, certain passports need to apply online for a “pre-clearance” that is linked to their passport. You can find a list of nationalities and how to apply at the official ESTA website with US Customs and Border Protection.
You might also be looking for travel insurance for your trip to Washington D.C. If you are considering buying some, you can check here to get an idea about how much travel insurance for your trip could be. Eric has used World Nomads in the past for shorter trips and he was more than covered by their policies.
Weather and Climate
As for the best time to visit Washington D.C., generally, the best weather is from September to November. Fall actually has crisp (but still warmer) temperatures, leaves changing colours, and far fewer crowds than in the summer.
That said, you could also visit D.C. in March through to May. This is when Eric visited and the weather was just warming up but not too hot. The crowds were also greatly reduced. If you go in these shoulder seasons when it’s cooler, it’s usually a good idea to bring along a good lightweight rain jacket/windbreaker (like Eric’s black North Face). That way, you can keep exploring without having to miss a beat due to weather!
Car Rentals in Washington D.C
As for getting around, D.C. is very walkable but there are certainly areas mentioned below that would make sense to drive to. The various day trips and areas, like Mount Vernon, might be worth the effort to have a car. This is especially true if you are hitting D.C. as part of a larger road trip. Use this handy tool to compare rental car prices in Washington D.C.
Accommodation in Washington D.C
If you’re looking for accommodation in Washington D.C, you’re bound to find a hotel that is right for your budget. North of the National Mall in downtown is a very popular area. That said, there are lots of other great areas with accommodations available in pockets along the river and further south of the main tourist areas. You can check for the best hotel deals in Washington D.C here.
Getting Around Washington D.C
D.C. is routinely lauded for its walkability, so bring a comfortable pair of shoes! For those who want to get from point A to B a bit faster, the Metro is your best bet. It’s super easy to get a pass and to navigate – here is the website for the WMATA.
Things to Keep in Mind About the D.C. Metro
Get a map, preferably the electronic kind. There are several apps that have Metro maps and schedules so you don’t have to look like a lost tourist. Keep your eyes open for service disruptions. Maintenance is a fact of life for the D.C. Metro and that means service gets delayed, single-tracked, and sometimes, stops closed. This includes elevator outages for those travellers who rely on wheelchairs or those with strollers. Check before you go to prevent a headache later.
Generally, Metro trains run less frequently on weekends than weekdays, so build some extra time into your schedule to wait longer for a train on the platform. Single-tracking of trains, which leads to delays, is also more likely on the weekends so as not to disrupt weekday use as much.
Nats, Wizards, Caps, and United – in D.C., we love our sports teams! This means we love going to watch them play. It might be worth taking a glance at the local sports schedule to know when the Metro will be jam-packed with a stadium’s worth of fans, just in case you aren’t one of them. Know your Metro etiquette. We D.C. locals are fast walkers and adhere to a golden rule on Metro escalators: stand on the right, walk on the left. It can make the difference between making our train and being late to work, so please help us out.
Tours Around Washington D.C.
Since there is just so much to do and see, admittedly, there are plenty of tours that will take you around D.C.! Some tours stick to land while others will take you onto the river for a different perspective. Some tours do a bit of both for the ultimate experience and the best of both worlds.
So, while D.C. is super walkable, a hop-on-hop-off bus ticket, an ultimate tour that includes a boat cruise, or a private luxury tour might be a good idea if you are pressed for time, it’s super hot out, or you just don’t feel like walking the whole thing!
Places to Visit in Washington D.C.
Okay, so here is Emily’s list of the top places to visit in Washington D.C. They are in no particular order, so give them a read to see which ones you want to check out. We’ve also provided a few pretty photos for you to look at, as well!
The National Mall
Apart from the squabbling of politics, Washington D.C. is most famous for its beautiful monuments and museums, most of which encircle the National Mall. From end to end, the Mall stretches almost two miles long, making it an excellent place to walk, run, and bike. At its eastern end is the Capitol Building. In that two miles, there is a bunch of green space where you can flight kites, play sports, just run around, or have a picnic.
Some notable monuments right on the Mall include the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, WWII Memorial, Vietnam War Memorial, and Korean Memorial, among others. There is The Newseum which is a very popular interactive museum. Remember, the Smithsonian Museums of every kind are everywhere and free of charge, which means there is something for everyone!
If you visit in the Spring, you can catch the world famous Cherry Blossom Festival. On July 4th, there is nothing quite like watching the fireworks. Getting there is super easy as there are several metro stations within short walking distance, with the Smithsonian metro station right on the Mall. You can learn more about Mall attractions here.
Pro Tip: There is a very popular “Monuments By Moonlight” Trolley Tour that gives you a unique experience since the monuments are all lit up with tons of information about each one!
Things to Keep in Mind when Visiting
The Washington Monument is closed for repairs for the foreseeable future. Some of the museums, like the new African-American Museum, are extremely popular, so be sure to plan ahead. Check to see if your museum needs a free reservation for entry.
Visiting in the summer? Make sure to drink plenty of water because it gets very hot. If you need a restroom and can’t find an obvious one nearby, go to a museum or the Lincoln Memorial (runners know these things). Don’t want to walk the whole Mall? There are plenty of places close by to rent a bike for a nice ride on the wide walking paths.
The White House
You can’t visit Washington D.C. without stopping by The White House, a mainstay of the city. On the south side of the complex, you can get an iconic photo of the south lawn and the buildings rounded balconies.
On the north side in Lafayette Square, you can get even closer as you see the front entrance. Want to go inside? Find out how to get tours from your local congressional representative. It is well worth the effort! Occasionally, The White House also does free, ticketed garden tours so keep an eye out on whitehouse.gov. Taking a stroll along the south lawn is quite the experience!
Things to Keep in Mind when Visiting The White House
Since The White House is the presidential residence, security is tight. Even visits to see the outside of the building can be at the mercy of the president’s and vice-president’s schedule. As they come and go by vehicle, Lafayette Square can be blocked off by Secret Service for a short while. It is also possible that tours can get cancelled at short notice for that same reason, so be prepared.
The Capitol Building
Another landmark building not to be missed! The Capitol Building is quite unique as it is by law the tallest building in DC proper, courtesy of The 1899 Height of Buildings Act. Walk along the National Mall for that picture perfect photo and then stroll up Capitol Hill. The building home to the U.S. legislative branch of government and is split in the middle between the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.
The Capitol’s cornerstone was laid by President George Washington himself in 1793. It survived the burning of Washington D.C. by the British in the War of 1812 and the iconic dome was finished during President Abraham Lincoln’s administration. Interestingly, you can visit the dome’s original columns at the National Arboretum, as they had to be replaced to correct a visual illusion.
On the east side of the Capitol, there is a visitors centre where you go on a tour of the building. Tours of the Capitol are free of charge but it’s advised to look into a tour time in advance! You can do that here at the official website of the Capitol. Contact your congressional representatives to find out how to get passes and watch Congress in session from the galleries.
The Library of Congress – Jefferson Building
Just to the east of the Capitol Building is the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building, an ornate structure that is both an exhibition space and a gorgeous library. Free to visit, the main lobby boasts of beautiful artwork and several exhibit halls that show some truly amazing objects. If you choose a guided tour, you may see the famous circular Reading Room.
If you have more time, I would HIGHLY recommend getting yourself a Reader’s Identification Card, essentially a library card for the largest library in the world. Perks include access to the main Reading Room and other public reading rooms, as well as all the books your heart could desire. Registration is done in person at the Jefferson or Madison Buildings. See the Library’s website for more details.
National Air and Space Museum
The Air and Space Museum is one of the most popular Smithsonian museums in D.C. Part museum and part movie theatre, the exhibit floors boast a wide range of artefacts of humankind’s scientific achievements!
There are actually two locations for this museum. The original museum is on the National Mall and it displays such artefacts as the Spirit of St. Louis, the Mercury space capsule “Friendship 7,” replicas of robotic explorers Pioneer series, and even moon rocks! The museum also has rotating exhibitions from other Smithsonian collections, so keep your eyes open. While the admission is free, you can pay for a guided tour with a knowledgeable guide. Book ahead to get the most out of your visit!
The second location is the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport in Virginia. While its a bit of a trek, there is no other place in the world you can see a space shuttle, an SR-71 Blackbird, and the Enola Gay aircraft all within 1000 yards of one another. In addition, Udvar-Hazy has a ridiculous amount of artefacts and aircraft to see in its two huge hangers, as well as an observation tower where you can see aircraft take off and land at Dulles. Both museum locations are free, however, Udvar-Hazy does require payment for parking. Here is the official website for more information.
Looking for a more colonial vibe? Georgetown is older than D.C. itself and has preserved many of its historic buildings and streets. Main Street is the main drag, home to all kinds of shops and restaurants. To the north up the hill, you’ll find historic neighbourhoods with beautiful houses and streets, perfect for a stroll.
Down the hill to the south, you’ll come across the beautiful waterfront of the Potomac. Keep an eye out for food festivals and other events in Georgetown. On the northwestern side of Georgetown sits the world-famous Georgetown University, home of the Hoyas. This part of D.C. is great if you want to escape the feel of the city for a while.
Things to Keep in Mind when Visiting
The narrow walkways and roadways M Street can be pretty busy with both foot and vehicle traffic, particularly in the summer when tour groups are more prevalent. I’d recommend avoiding trying to drive and park along M Street if you can avoid it. The two closest metro stops are Foggy Bottom and Rosslyn, and both are a bit of a walk from Georgetown (but it’s worth it).
A hidden gem of D.C., this one is a bit out of the way. In the hustle and bustle of a busy city like D.C., the Arboretum is a peaceful slice of nature in the northeast of the city dedicated to the conservation of plants. Full of beautiful gardens and collections, the Arboretum is the perfect place to unwind. In addition to the original Capitol columns on display, the grounds also boast the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, which has lots of Japanese and Chinese specimens on display. You can learn more about the National Arboretum here.
Things to Keep in Mind When Visiting the National Arboretum
You can take the Metro (Stadium Armory) or drive and park at the Arboretum grounds. There is free parking just outside the R-street Gate.
Fans of baseball and soccer will find both in Navy Yard. Located along the river in southeast DC, Navy yard is home to Nationals Stadium (go Nats!) and D.C. United’s brand new Audi Field, which replaced the aging RFK Stadium earlier this year. The area also has a lot of great restaurants and bars to choose from before or after a game. Start planning a visit to the Navy Yard here.
Things to Keep in Mind when Visiting
D.C. residents LOVE their sports teams and always come out to support them. Understandably, the Metro can get very crowded before and after games. If you go to a game, try to get there nice and early to avoid the crush.
International Spy Museum
Those with kids will undoubtedly feel the pull of the International Spy Museum, one of D.C.’s most popular private museums. Currently located at just across the National Portrait Gallery. Its exhibits are interactive so kids can feel like James Bond for the day! They also have numerous author events and temporary exhibitions about all things spy related.
Things to Keep in Mind About Visiting the Spy Museum
This museum is extremely popular, like “a line down the block every day” popular. Buying tickets ahead of time is a must and arriving early is highly encouraged. You can learn more here. Also, the museum is getting ready to move from its current home in Gallery Place to a much larger, brand new building near L’Enfant Plaza. While this will almost certainly help with the lines and expand their exhibition capacity, it’s probably a good idea to keep an eye on when they might temporarily close in order to move. (For the record, this was one of Eric’s favourite things visited when he was there in 2007!)
Arlington National Cemetery Historic District
Arlington National Cemetery has been a resting place for America’s heroes since the Civil War. The Cemetery is full of many historic sights to see, including Arlington House. The mansion was built by relatives of George Washington and later home to Robert E. Lee before being taken over by the U.S. Government during the American Civil War.
Since the Civil War, it has been used as a military cemetery, with burials continuing to this day. With that in mind, please be mindful and respectful of any funerals being conducted when walking the cemetery grounds. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is not to be missed, especially during the changing of the guard (every half hour during the summer and every hour during the winter). This is a solemn military ceremony, so please show your respect by remaining silent for the duration.
Among the many rows of uniform white headstones, there are the burial places of presidents and statesmen, generals, admirals, and astronauts. Just a short walk outside of the cemetery, you’ll find the famous U.S. Marine Corps Iwo Jima Memorial. Before Memorial Day, U.S. Army 3rd Infantry soldiers place small American flags at each grave, which is pretty amazing to see.
During the holiday season in December, thousands of volunteers lay small wreaths at each grave. All in all, Arlington is an amazing place to visit, filled to the brim with history and so much to see.
Pro Tip: Arlington National Cemetery has its own metro station on the Blue Line, which beats trying to drive and park at this perpetually busy place. If you don’t care for crowds, I’d recommend going during the off season when it’s more peaceful and schools are in session. You could also visit as part of a tour to see Arlington and more sights on an old trolley!
Think of Alexandria as Georgetown, but larger and without so many people. Founded in 1749, Alexandria has plenty of history from which to choose, from the days of the British colonial rule to the American Revolution, to the Civil War and beyond. The city is packed to the brim with historic neighbourhoods and streets to explore and take in.
There are also plenty of walking tours during the day and night where you can learn more about its history. Alexandria also boasts a thriving restaurant and nightlife scene, including a few speakeasies like Bar PX. Word of warning, if you want to visit a speakeasy, get a reservation first. Otherwise, you will almost certainly not be allowed in.
The city has a beautiful waterfront lined with restaurants and walkways. You can get to Alexandria by car, by Metro (Braddock Road and King’s Street Stations), by guided day tour, or even by water taxi, which departs from the Wharf in southeast D.C.
A bit south of Alexandria is Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate. This meticulously preserved plantation complex is worth the visit as it includes the house, the grounds, wonderful views of the Potomac, and George Washington’s original and final resting place. At the estate’s restaurant, you can try some of their famous Virginia peanut soup! The estate also has a working gristmill and distillery for making spirits according to Washington’s original recipes. Here is the official website for Mount Vernon.
Things to Keep in Mind when Visiting Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon is not accessible my Metro, but it is by bus or by car. It is recommended if taking a car to arrive early to get good parking. This estate is not owned by the Smithsonian, but The Mount Vernon Ladies Association so there is a fee for entry which is put towards the upkeep of the complex. You could also hop on a guided tour that takes you to Vernon as well as Alexandria!
And there you have it – some of the best places to visit in Washington D.C.! It had been so long since either one of us had been there – and so we are so thankful for Emily to bust out her knowledge as a refresher! What do you love about D.C.? Get in touch and let us know!
As always, Happy Washington D.C Waddlin’,