Washington, D.C.

George Washington dubbed it “the Federal City,” Thomas Jefferson envisioned it as “America’s Paris,” and JFK described it, jokingly, as “a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.” However you regard Washington, D.C. (or as local residents call it, the “DMV”—for D.C., Maryland, and Virginia), it fulfills its reputation as an imperial city with a vibrant energy. Visitors love the U.S. Capitol, White House, National Mall, Smithsonian museums, and the memorials. But the city’s exciting food and theater scenes also beckon, along with dozens of privately owned museums showcasing everything from art to espionage and such dynamic neighborhoods as U Street, 14th Street, Shaw, Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, and Columbia Heights. Should you seek temporary escape, the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley lie to the west, and to the east is the Eastern Shore, Chesapeake Bay, and Atlantic Ocean.

The Washington Monument seen from the Lincoln Memorial with the Reflecting Pool in front and many visitors.

The National Mall viewed from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Photo by Michael Rosebrock/Shutterstock

Overview

When’s the best time to go to Washington, D.C.?

D.C.’s high travel seasons coincide with the nicest weather—mid-March to mid-June and mid-September to early November. The ideal time to come is mid-September to mid-October: The weather is wonderful, the crowds have dwindled, and museums and landmarks keep summer hours. If you want to see the famed cherry blossoms, peak bloom usually occurs in late March or early April.

How to get around Washington, D.C.

Travelers flying into D.C. have a choice of three airports: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI). You can then make your way into the city via taxi, shared van service, or rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft. SuperShuttle serves all three airports. From Reagan National and Dulles, travelers also have the option of taking the Metrorail into town. From BWI, arrive in the city via a MARC train or Amtrak train to Union Station, from which you can easily hop on the Metro subway.

D.C. is an extremely walkable city, but many options exist for getting around town. The Metro is often the fastest and most efficient way to move between neighborhoods. And the DC Circulator, at $1 a ride, offers an economical fare on six bus routes through town, including one that encircles the National Mall. Cabs are readily available, as well as vehicles through Uber and Lyft. If you’re driving, you can use your smartphone to pay for parking by signing up with Parkmobile. The system will send you an SMS when your park time is about to expire, and you can add time using your smartphone. You can also rent a bicycle to ride around the city, through Capital Bikeshare, or hop on electric scooters offered by Lime, Lyft, and Spin.

Can’t miss things to do in Washington, D.C.

The two-mile long National Mall is the focal point of D.C. Anchored by the Capitol on one end and the Lincoln Memorial on the other, the extraordinary promenade is lined with world-class museums, historic sites, and monuments. You can explore the 10 Smithsonian museums along the mall; tour the Capitol and the Supreme Court; visit the Library of Congress, the world’s largest library; and view original copies of the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and U.S. Constitution in the National Archives. Many of the monuments, including the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and Washington Monument are beautifully lit up at night, and “monuments by moonlight” tours are popular.

Beyond the mall are plenty of attractions. You can enjoy the artfully designed waterfronts in Georgetown, the Wharf, and the Yards; roam the National Arboretum; tour grand estates like Dumbarton Oaks and Hillwood; shop for locally produced goods at Eastern Market or Union Market; visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery; or see a performance at the Kennedy Center. Active pursuits include walking or biking along the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, the C&O Canal in Georgetown, or the trails in Rock Creek Park. To experience the city’s nightlife and live music, head to U Street, H Street, or Adams Morgan.

Food and drink to try in Washington, D.C.

One of the most international cities in the United States, D.C. has cuisine to match its diversity. Georgetown, Shaw, Capitol Hill, 14th Street, the Wharf, and Penn Quarter especially have a wide variety of dining options. Celebrity chef José Andrés is based in D.C.; his award-winning restaurants, mostly clustered in Penn Quarter, include Jaleo, Oyamel, and Zaytinya. For a taste of the entire city’s food scene, visit Union Market in the NoMa neighborhood. Its gourmet food hall has stalls for local favorites like DC Dosa, TaKorean, Immigrant Food, Som Tam, and District Doughnut.

A must-try in D.C. is Ethiopian food. The largest Ethiopian community outside Africa lives in the D.C. area, and excellent restaurants are available throughout the city. Top-rated mainstays include Zenebech, Chercher, Dukem, and Ethiopic. D.C.’s signature dish is a half-smoke: a coarsely ground spicy sausage, half beef and half pork, that’s smoked before it’s grilled and commonly topped with chili and onions. Some of the best places to try it are Ben’s Chili Bowl and DCity Smokehouse. Maryland blue crab from the Chesapeake Bay is also a must; many restaurants serve crab cakes, and you can find freshly caught crabs and other seafood at D.C.’s Municipal Fish Market, located at the edge of the Wharf district. Founded in 1805, it’s the oldest continuously operating open-air fish market in the United States.

Bars around the city pour small-batch locally produced beer and cider; brands include DC Brau, Anxo, and Right Proper Brewing Co. Neighboring Virginia is a major producer of wine, and visiting Virginia wineries is a popular day trip outside the city.

Culture in Washington, D.C.

D.C. is a great museum city. Some of the world’s most-visited museums are here, and many national galleries and museums are publicly funded, so they’re free to visit. A few others, like the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Phillips Collection, and the International Spy Museum are worth paying to see. During the entire month of May, D.C. celebrates its global community with embassy tours and events throughout the city.

Popular festivals include the National Cherry Blossom Festival in March and April; the Capital Pride Parade in June; the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in June and July; and the DC Jazz Festival over Labor Day weekend Every Fourth of July, thousands of people gather on the mall for the annual fireworks celebration.

Theater and other performing arts take center stage at extraordinary venues like the Kennedy Center, the Atlas Performing Arts Center, and Wolf Trap. The Shakespeare Theatre Company puts on classic and updated versions of Shakespeare’s plays, while the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company offers cutting-edge experimental productions. Ford’s Theatre, the site where President Abraham Lincoln was killed, remains a working theater that puts on multiple productions a year and serves as a museum to Lincoln’s legacy.

Music is an intrinsic part of the city’s cultural fabric. Visitors can enjoy all types of genres at D.C.’s many live music venues, such as the legendary 9:30 Club. Walking tours delve into fascinating music history: The city was a major center for jazz from the 1920s. to the ’60s, punk reigned from the 1970s to ’90s, and go-go (D.C.’s official music) was created here in the 1970s. For modern-day performances, you can go to the Blues Alley jazz supper club in Georgetown, see punk bands at Fort Reno Park’s summertime concert series, and catch go-go on weekends at Air Lounge in Adams Morgan.

Local travel tips for Washington, D.C.

Wednesdays through Saturdays, the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, located in the Grand Foyer, presents free performances at 6 p.m. No tickets or reservations are required—you just show up and take a seat. The Reach, the expansion of the Kennedy Center, also hosts numerous free performances, art exhibitions, and film screenings, and you can even watch acts in rehearsal.

Hordes of tourists throng the Tidal Basin during cherry blossom season in spring. To get the best flower photos—and avoid the crowds—arrive at dawn. The blooms glow in the soft morning light, and the water is often perfectly still, allowing for incredible reflections of the monuments shrouded in blossoms.

Guide Editors

Karen Carmichael is a Washington, D.C.–based travel journalist. Production editor for AFAR, she has also been published in National Geographic, Budget Travel, and the Los Angeles Times. Susan Mason is a producer, writer, and digital strategist who is passionate about telling stories that inspire people to connect with one another and their surroundings. Julee Khoo had a long and successful career as an IT project manager at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and is now spending her days pursuing interests including cooking, gardening, beekeeping, and, of course, traveling to destinations near and far. Christian Mirasol is a Licensed Washington, D.C. Tour Guide and also works with business owners as a marketing arm for a number of Fortune 1000 and other online companies.

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