From the historical monuments to where to eat, from museums and government tours, here are 10 things you should and shouldn't do and see while you are visiting our nation's capital.
Washington, D.C., is an easy, friendly place to visit. There are lots of amazing sites, a far-reaching Metro, walkable neighborhoods, and, really, something for everyone, whether you’re into art, U.S. history, science, food, outdoor recreation, cute pandas, or simply admiring the country’s greatest icons to democracy. But there are some things that you just don’t do. Try to cross the street when the President’s motorcade is coming, for one; you will learn what an angry, shouting Secret Service agent looks like—not the best fodder for great memories, to say the least. Here are 10 more things you definitely should not do, and when you are through with that, switch over to the things you have to see and do in D.C.. Need a place to stay while you’re in town? Check out our hotel recommendations.
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Don’t Spend All Your Time on the Mall
The National Mall hosts 11 Smithsonian museums, the two wings of the National Gallery of Art, plus all of the memorials and monuments. The danger is that you’ll spend all of your time here because you certainly could and never get bored. But to experience the true D.C.—the D.C. that locals love—you need to get out into the neighborhoods. Go to the theater, catch a concert, eat at a newly Michelin-starred restaurant, go shopping at local boutiques, go kayaking on the Potomac. And remember that there are other museums as well, including the Newseum, Spy Museum, Phillips Collection, National Building Museum, President Lincoln’s Cottage, Woodrow Wilson House … whew! Clearly, no matter how many days you have to spend here, it’s not enough.
INSIDER TIPTarget your interests and strategically plan your days.
Don’t Dine at Tourist Traps
At long last, D.C. has become a dining destination. It has 16 Michelin-starred restaurants to prove it, with a retinue of name-making chefs, including José Andrés, Fabio Trabocchi, Robert Wiedmaier, and Aaron Silverman. Fourteenth Street and H Street are lined with fun, innovative eateries, or dare to venture into the lesser known neighborhoods where some interesting things are going on—Bad Saint in Columbia Heights and Thip Khao on 14th Street NW are cases in point. There’s also Union Market in NoMa, with its fun-to-browse food stalls and the full-service Bidwell Restaurant. Even the museums have some skin in the game, notably Sweet Home Café at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Mitsitam Native Foods Café at the National Museum of American Indian.
Don’t Drive or Take Taxis
D.C. traffic is notoriously bad, and parking is expensive (and parking tickets are even more expensive). Really, with the Metro system reaching most corners of the city, there’s no need to drive. If you do plan to take the Metro multiple times, be sure to buy a plastic SmartTrip card; the paper cards are more expensive. You’ll need to use the card to both enter and exit the stations. And when riding the escalators, remember to stand on the right and walk on the left; if you don’t abide by this unspoken rule, you will hear Washingtonians muttering unpleasant things under their breath. All that said, D.C. is an eminently walkable city—with Capitol Hill, the Mall, and Dupont Circle being favorite places to stroll among famous and not-so-famous sites.
Don’t Be Afraid to Cross the Rivers
It’s a running joke that Washingtonians are afraid to cross the rivers. Don’t be like them. Across the Potomac you can venture into Arlington and watch the changing of the guards at Arlington National Cemetery; admire the Iwo Jima Memorial; and take in a bird’s-eye view of Washington and Northern Virginia from the new Observation Deck. Colonial Alexandria awaits just downstream, with riverside dining, tons of one-of-a-kind shops, and historic houses to check out. Alexandria was a hotbed of revolutionary action, remember, and Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Adams all left their imprints here. Washington’s Mount Vernon sits another 10 miles downstream. Across the Anacostia River, you can visit Frederick Douglass’ Cedar Hill and learn about the famous abolitionist. And south of that is National Harbor, D.C.’s foray into Vegas-style fun with its casino, outlet stores, and glitzy Gaylord Resort.
INSIDER TIPIt’s cheaper to stay in Northern Virginia than D.C.—and yet you’re still 10 minutes from the National Mall via Metro.
Don’t Skip the Mall at Night
As dusk sets on the nation’s capital, its famous white-marble monuments glow in the fading light. It will be one of your most memorable moments, guaranteed, to take in the majesty and beauty of the National Mall at night. You can join a guided tour or head out on your own. Don’t worry, the area is perfectly safe, and park rangers are on duty until 10 p.m. Begin at the National World War II Memorial, with its fountains aglimmer, and go clockwise, taking in Washington, Martin Luther King, Jefferson, FDR, Korean War Veterans, Lincoln, and Vietnam.
Don’t Try to Visit Every Museum in One Trip
As we have said, D.C. has a bounty of museums both on and off the Mall, and you could drive yourself bonkers trying to take in everything. You need to have a plan. Even in the larger museums, such as the National Air and Space Museum and National Museum of American History, you need to target specific exhibits, or your time will be zapped in one place. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—your time will be well spent. You just won’t see anything else. Assess the interests of your group—U.S. history, art, Native American legacies, natural history, architecture, etc., etc. etc. And remember that whatever you don’t see this time, you’ll just have to catch on your next trip.
Don’t Visit in Summer
Unless seeing the nation’s fireworks on the Fourth of July is on your bucket list, stay away from D.C. in summer. It’s stifling hot and humid, with thunderstorms on many afternoons. Crowds are out in full force, making sightseeing an anxious-ridden experience of long lines and crowded exhibits. Who needs that? The best time to visit, if you can swing it, is in the fall through early November, when the weather is generally moderate and the crowds have dispersed. Springtime is beautiful, of course, with the fabled cherry blossoms and other flowers blooming like crazy, but it’s not as warm as one might expect, and hordes of school groups have arrived. Pick fall!
Don’t Wing It When It Comes to the White House
If you want to visit the White House, don’t think you can just show up and they’ll let you in. You need to plan ahead. At least 21 days in advance, you must contact your Congressperson to schedule a tour (and you can request one up to six months out). And if you fail to secure a tour, the next best thing to do is stop by the White House Visitor Center, which has extremely well-curated displays and videos about everything you ever wanted to know about the White House, including past presidents’ favorite snacks; what it takes to move one president out and the next president in, in a matter of hours; and what kind of place settings have been used to serve visiting royalty. In fact, even if you do get a White House tour, be sure to stop by the Visitor Center. It’s that good.
Don’t Assume You Know D.C. Just Because You’ve Visited Before
D.C. has changed immensely over the past five-plus years—and it’s not slowing down. If you haven’t visited in a while, you won’t recognize the Southwest Waterfront neighborhood, with its multi-million-dollar development that includes primo restaurants, music halls, and waterside fun. Neighborhoods where once you would not dare venture—NoMa, Shaw, Columbia Heights, 14th Street, U Street—are hopping with innovative restaurants, local boutiques, theater, music, cafés. Now you can try craft distilled whiskey, go SUPing on the Potomac, listen to music in a historic Black Broadway theater, taste the latest foodie craze at a pop-up restaurant, and come to understand that D.C. is no longer a one-trick pony (well, two tricks, if you count politics and its Smithsonian museums) but truly a leading global city.
Don’t Forget to Check Out All the Freebies
D.C. may very well be the best city in the world for cultured cheapskates, because not only are the Smithsonian museums free, but so are a whole slew of concerts, plays, and exhibits. The Library of Congress and Smithsonian American Art Museum routinely showcase world-famous musicians, while free summer concert series are offered at Yards Park and the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, among others. The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage has free shows every evening at 6. Even the National Zoo (part of the Smithsonian family) is free. Check out Washington.org for upcoming free events.