When to go
In D.C., heat waves and cool spells descend year-round, with 90-degree temperatures and smothering humidity typical in July and August, and 30s to 40s in winter. Spring break crowds appear along with the city’s famous cherry blossoms in March and April, and it just grows busier until August, when the sweltering weather clears out the city. Some big protests can impede your movement downtown, as will a few annual rallies, such as the Rolling Thunder veterans-on-motorcycles gathering on Memorial Day weekend. Late spring and fall often bring ideal weather, although with high pollen counts in spring.
Ways to save: Visit in winter, when flights and hotels are cheapest and the city is festooned in lights and holiday trimmings (December). Restaurants offer affordable prix-fixe menus during January’s Metropolitan Washington Restaurant Week.
Where to stay
When looking for accommodations in the city, consider the neighborhood and access to a Metro subway station: Downtown, Dupont Circle, Penn Quarter and Foggy Bottom are all within easy reach of tourist attractions. There are plenty of choices in each, from high-end to affordable.
Pricier hotels rich with history include the renovated Watergate Hotel (site of the infamous political scandal), Mayflower Hotel (a favorite lunch spot of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover) and the Willard (where President Abraham Lincoln stayed before his inauguration).
But there are plenty of other options, including all the usual chain hotels. Rates at the Comfort Inn Downtown DC/Convention Center include continental breakfast and start around $150 during the off-season. The budget staple Hotel Harrington, just steps from Ford’s Theatre and the Mall museums, charges less than $120, sometimes even during the springtime high season. Rates plummet the farther outside the city you stay. You could seek out hotels near the Metro in Maryland (Silver Spring, Greenbelt) or Virginia (Alexandria and Arlington). In Arlington, rates at the Red Lion Arlington Iwo Jima start at about $100 and include a fitness center and free parking. Guests 55 and older get 10 percent off the best available rate. In Silver Spring, Travelodge by Wyndham Silver Spring can cost less than $75, double, including Metro access and free parking.
More ways to save: Most hotels are cheaper on weekends, when business travelers have departed, and during the off-season (August and winter). Check sites such as Booking.com for deals. Check out rentals from Vrbo and Airbnb, where a studio or one-bedroom apartment can cost less than $100 a night.
How to get there
Three airports, a historic train station (with a bus depot) and the East Coast connector Interstate 95 make Washington easy to reach. Virginia’s Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) is closest to downtown and about a $20, 10-minute cab ride away. That’s followed by Virginia’s Dulles International Airport (IAD), a 45-minute drive, and Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport (BWI), within an hour’s drive. Reagan is the only one directly accessible by Metro, though an extension to Dulles is due this summer. Union Station is the Amtrak hub, with multiple trains a day running between D.C. and Boston to the north, and Atlanta, Tampa and Miami to the south. Amtrak easily connects to the area’s subway (Metro) system. Union Station is also a hub for inexpensive buses to and from New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
Ways to save: Instead of taking a cab to your D.C. destination, you can take a less-expensive shared SuperShuttle van (wheelchair accessible). Or hail a ride with Uber or Lyft. But check fares before you click; sometimes a taxi is cheaper. And it’s very easy to catch the Metro into the city from DCA to save yourself some cash.
Activities to arrange before you go
The best thing about visiting D.C. is that so much is free. Museums on the National Mall — such as the National Museum of Natural History, with its dinosaur skeletons, and the National Museum of American History Museum, where you will find the Star-Spangled Banner — cost nothing, though in peak periods you may have to wait in line to enter. While most attractions are open to all on a same-day basis, you can skip the lines with planning.
And it takes a member of Congress to arrange a White House tour, so contact your representative three weeks to 90 days months in advance to reserve a space on one of the tours that take place. For tours of the U.S. Capitol, make reservations through your member of Congress or online. (See more details under Things to Do.)
As of May 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court was not accepting visitors. But when it reopens, visitors are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis, with no reservations available.
The red-hot National Museum of African American History and Culture encourages timed entry passes, which can be booked on its website. A limited number of same-day online tickets are released at 8:15 a.m. daily.
At Ford’s Theatre, the historic venue where President Lincoln was shot, $3 tours should be reserved in advance to guarantee entrance.
Ways to save: Buy a Washington, D.C. Sightseeing Pass for one to three days, starting at $66. It can save you as much as 50 percent on tickets, and entitles you to a hop-on, hop-off Big Bus tour of notable landmarks and admission to more than a dozen attractions that include George Washington’s Mount Vernon home in Virginia and a Potomac River cruise.
Tourist areas, such as the museum-packed National Mall, are generally quite safe, with city, park, Secret Service and Capitol Hill police present and visible. Still, pack your street smarts. Avoid carrying dangling purses or bags, and keep smartphones and wallets secure. The District often hosts protests and rallies, which can range from small to very large. Stay tuned to local media that can tell you what to expect, especially in the case of marches where large crowds are expected.
Renting a car is not a smart option, as D.C. parking is limited and costly unless you have handicapped tags. Metrorail has six color-coded train lines covering 188 miles and 91 stations and is the most convenient way to reach many of the attractions in and around the city. It’s safe, clean, relatively inexpensive and easy to navigate. Metro no longer offers single-ride paper fare cards — each rider must have a reloadable SmarTrip card, which can be purchased or loaded on the SmarTrip app online or in stations. During commuting hours, rides cost a minimum of $2 and a maximum of $6 in each direction, depending on your route. Those 65 and over can buy a Senior SmarTrip card at the Metro Center station. It offers 50 percent off peak Metro fares, $1 fare on Metrobuses and $3.75 on Airport Express Metrobuses. All buses are equipped with ramps and wheelchair areas. You can take abundant D.C. taxis, whose base fare is $3.50 plus a current $1 fuel surcharge. Call ahead for a cab that can carry a wheelchair. Or use a ride-hailing company like Lyft or Uber, but note that rates rise considerably during busy hours.
It’s not quite Amsterdam, but in recent years D.C. has become a much more bike-friendly city. SmartAsset ranks it the third bike-friendliest city in the U.S., thanks to protected lanes, signage and policies. Hopping onto a bike share is easier than ever. Capital Bikeshare has hundreds of docking stations across the District, Maryland and Virginia, and offers an $8 24-hour pass. More recently, companies such as Lime, Jump and Spin have established “dockless” bikes, mopeds or scooters, which eliminate the need to find a station to leave your rental when you’re done.
Many visitors do a lot of walking. The Mall is bigger than it looks — stretching more than 2 miles from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol — so comfortable shoes are a must.
D.C. prides itself on being one of the most accessible cities in the world. Except for a few historic neighborhoods where you’ll find brick sidewalks, they are mostly smooth and even, with curb cuts at intersections. Museums and monuments comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Scootaround offers scooter and wheelchair rentals at rates starting under $30 a day. Cars with disability tags park for free at metered spaces.