Washington DC travel tips: Where to stay, when to go, how to get around, and sightseeing highlights. Includes Smithsonian museums, Ford’s Theatre, memorials, and more.
I spent most of last week immersed in Washington DC travel. I’d only been there one other time, and that was 25 years ago! So I was excited to get back to the nation’s capital and experience it as an adult.
Today I’m sharing some highlights of the trip, as well as tips from a DC newbie.
If I could only give one piece advice for Washington DC travel, it would be this:
I’m not talking fashion sneakers or slip-ons. I’m talking about full-on athletic shoes with support and cushion.
A day in D.C. involves lots of walking and concrete followed by more walking – around museums, exhibits, monuments & buildings with marble floors. When I was there last week, most days I walked 5 miles or more.
I didn’t pack any athletic shoes, and so day three of my trip involved a tour of the shoe store.
Where to stay
We stayed downtown, near Chinatown, and it was incredibly convenient. Not only were there loads of things to see and do within a few blocks, any of the major sites were a mile or two away within a circular radius. That made for a pretty easy walk, subway trip, or taxi cab ride.
(Although, be warned. During rush hour, a trip of a couple miles can cost upwards of $20 via taxi.)
Getting around Washington, DC
The streets are very user-friendly, as they are built in a grid – circling out from the Capitol. (The Capitol building is the city center.)
Numbered streets run north & south. Lettered or named streets run east and west. With the lettered streets, first they run through the alphabet, then two syllables, and then three. So you can tell how far a street is from the Capitol by the letter with which it begins and how many syllables it contains.
Finally, avenues run diagonally across the grid.
The city is laid out in four quadrants. Since it does radiate out from the center, it’s important to pay attention to which quadrant you’re heading to – northwest, southwest, etcetera.
When to visit
We visited at the end of November, just after the Thanksgiving traffic had died down.
We couldn’t have asked for better weather. It was in the 50’s and 60’s the whole time we were there, meaning that coats were largely unnecessary as long as I dressed in layers. (Of course, if you’re coming from a warm weather state, that might sound downright frigid to you.)
Also, the museums were a breeze to visit. There were no crowds and no waits.
I’ve heard that April, May, September, October, and November are the best months to visit. March & April are popular times to visit for cherry blossom season.
(When should you visit to see the cherry blossoms? According to the National Park Service, peak bloom has occurred as early as March 15 and as late as April 18. The entire blooming period can last up to 14 days, which includes the days leading up to peak bloom.)
We also visited during the week, but before we left on Saturday, I was amazed by how much space there was on the sidewalks. The next time I go, I’ll make sure the trip falls over a weekend for at least some part of it.
What to see
The National Mall
The 2 mile long National Mall is incredibly picturesque. With the Capitol at one end and the Lincoln Memorial at the other, this area is not to be missed.
Many of the Smithsonian museums are located in this area, as well as the Washington monument, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and the very sobering war memorials.
While I was there, I even played a small part in a proposal!
A woman came up to me and asked me to take a picture of her and her girlfriend. Then she mumbled low, something that sounded like, “I’m setting it to video, because I’m going to post it.”
I don’t use the video function much on my phone, and so I wasn’t totally sure if you press and hold the red button or just press to start and stop. (It’s the latter.) Luckily, I guessed right, because as the numbers were rolling, I realized she didn’t say “post it.” She said propose!
She had her girlfriend stand back to back with her for the photo. Then she pulled out a ring, got down on one knee, and told her to turn around. She said yes!
It was the most beautiful time of day with a pinkish hue falling across the Washington monument and casting a reflection on the water. It was so special to play a small part in it.
National Museum of American History
The one and only other time I’d visited Washington, D.C., I’d been very excited to see the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, Fonzie’s jacket from Happy Days, and Mister Rogers’ sweater. Then after we left D.C., my camera popped open, exposing the film. (Those were the days…)
This time around, Fonzie’s jacket was nowhere to be found. Unsurprisingly, it’s not really a headliner anymore. The ruby slippers were not on display and were instead getting some TLC in the Conservation Lab. (The process will take at least a year while they are treated.)
Luckily, Mister Rogers’ sweater was still making an appearance, along with Oscar the Grouch, Prairie Dawn, and the Swedish Chef. And you’ll be glad to hear, I did not have the slightest trouble exposing my film this time around.
Also in the American History museum, I saw Indiana Jones’ whip & hat, and Julia Child’s kitchen. I used to love watching Julia Child on PBS when I was a kid. In those days when I prepared meals of ramen, I liked to pretend to be her while I cooked.
On a somber note, the exhibit on the Japanese-American internment camps was very moving. It gave me chills.
National Postal Museum
There are loads of museums in D.C., and a lot of them are free. That makes it easy to just pop in for a couple of hours, and not feel like you have to allot the whole day to get your money’s worth.
I am a serious mail lover. So when I saw there was a National Postal Museum, I was excited to visit.
Plus, David was at a conference during the majority of our trip. So I didn’t feel like I was dragging anyone along for what admittedly must be a niche interest. The whole time I was at the museum, I only saw about 5 other visitors.
There was a letter mailed from the Titanic (presumably dropped off at a stop in France pre-iceberg), lots of interactive areas to design your own stamp, a prop plane, railway car, and full-sized mail truck.
I sat below the Presidential box, where Abe and Mary Todd were seated on that fateful night of April 14, 1865 when John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln. There is also a museum below the theatre with noteworthy artifacts from the President’s life.
Once David was finished with his conference, we stuck around for an extra day. We did a quick walk through of the public areas of the Supreme Court building (above).
We also toured the Capitol building, guided by a staff member of my local congressman.
For me, the official buildings are a lot more impressive from the outside than from the inside. So on our next trip to DC, I wouldn’t necessarily feel like I need to see the inner workings.
Final Washington DC travel tips
Contact your congressperson or senator about tours
If you’re interested in getting a free tour of the main government buildings, contact your congressperson or Senator before heading on the trip.
Some of the tours they can help with include:
- The United States Capitol
- The White House
- The Library of Congress
- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
- The Bureau of Engraving and Printing
- The State Department
- The National Cathedral
They have a form on their websites, and you just fill it out with your dates & number of people in your party. For White House tours, reservations are available no earlier than 90 days but no later than 21 days in advance of the desired dates.
I didn’t contact my congressperson until a few days before our trip, but they were still able to work us in for a Capitol tour.
Use Google maps
The Google maps app is really handy when maneuvering the city.
It includes a variety of directions options plus the amount of time each choice would take – whether by car, Uber, Lyft, bike, subway, walking, or some combination.
If you choose the subway route, click on that part of the trip, and it will list the trains you can take followed by the times they come in. It’s super handy if you’re unfamiliar with the area and aren’t sure in which direction you should be going.
(The trains are listed by color and then by destinations along the route – as opposed to north or south.)
Plane fare varies by airport
When booking flights, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is closer, but Baltimore-Washington is sometimes cheaper.
Keep in mind, though, that it’s quite a jaunt from downtown. (It takes about 30 minutes when it’s not rush hour.) You can maneuver transportation from there, or get ready for a $70 cab ride each way. Including cab fare, it might not be a better deal after all.
There was still so much more that I would have liked to see on our trip – especially the National Museum of African American History & Culture and the National Air & Space Museum. (I visited the Air & Space Museum on my previous trip, and I remember finding it really impressive.)
You may be wondering – where is the food? Get the lowdown on vegan Washington DC <– in this post. It includes everything from donuts to fine dining.