23 Tips for Visiting Washington, DC

Washington, DC has a wealth to offer visitors beyond the world’s largest collection of free museums, The Smithsonian. An impressive and diverse culinary scene features most of the world’s nationalities. Opportunities to tour the White House, US Capitol Building, Supreme Court and other key federal buildings offer additional world-class experiences. And there’s great rooftop bars and hidden gems scattered throughout the area. Here’s tips for visiting Washington, DC!

National Cherry Blossom Festival

Alex & Bell with the cherry blossoms and the tidal basin in the background

The peak of the cherry blossom trees is one of the most popular times to visit Washington, DC. Peak cherry blossoms range from year to year and only last for about a week. Historically, this occurs as early as March 15th and as late as April 18th. For 2019, the National Cherry Blossom Festival is taking place March 20th – April 14th. You can’t know for sure if you’re visiting from outside the area and want to plan in advance, but the average peak date is April 4th.

Visit DC on Weekends and You Can Save Big on Hotels

DC draws a lot of tourists, but hotels are generally busiest on weekdays. Hotel prices can sometimes be as much as 300% less on weekends compared to weekdays! This makes Washington a great weekend destination for travelers of various budgets.

Sofitel Lafayette Square is a great luxury stay near the White House, often with much cheaper weekend rates.

Washington Court Hotel, near the US Capitol Building and Union Station, also frequently has much lower rates on weekends. Some of their rooms have views of the US Capitol, so it’s worth requesting a view with a view.

The Washington Hilton has the largest event space in the city. That’s near DuPont Circle and Adams Morgan, neighborhoods that are home to great restaurants and cool bars.

Especially during weekdays in DC, travelers will save a lot on Airbnb. If you’ve never used the service, sign up here to receive $40 off your first stay over $75! Make sure the apartment or home listing has consistently good reviews.

US Capitol Building Tour

Capitol Hill with bright blue skies

A US Capitol Building tour is one of many great free things to do in Washington, DC. Visitors can arrange tours through their senator or congressman’s website or pick up gallery passes by swinging by their offices. The gallery passes are required to visit the House and Senate chambers. If you don’t prearrange a tour, you can also visit the Hart or Russell office buildings and ask a senator’s receptionist for the gallery passes.

US Capitol Visitors Center hours are from 8:30am – 4:30pm Monday – Saturday. Tours are offered from 8:40am – 3:40pm. You can also book free tours of the US Capitol on their website. Also read the list of prohibited items before touring, which include food and drinks.

White House Tours

You can try and organize a free tour of the White House on your Congressman’s website. Make the request a minimum of 3 weeks in advance (required). To be on the safe side, you can request a White House tour as early as 3 months in advance. White House tours are subject to availability and there are no guarantees, but even if you don’t get a spot, you can at least get photos outside! Visitors from outside the US can contact their embassies to arrange a tour (or passes for Congress); and need to bring their passport for the tours.

You can get closer to the White House for photos at the back entrance on Pennsylvania Avenue. The photo of us below is in front, during the Obama administration, when you could even poke a camera between the bars. There is currently a barricade preventing passing visitors from getting that close to the front fence.

Alex & Bell out the front of the white house

Rent Bikes or Scooters and Cycle the National Mall and Tidal Basin to See the Monuments

Capital Bikeshare has the most bikes along the National Mall, with several docking stations. Lime used to have dock-less bikes but they’ve encountered some legal issues and only have scooters available. To find their scooters, just download the Lime app on your phone and search the area. All payments for Lime are made through their app. Capital Bikeshare payments are made at the station. To save money drop Capital bikes off at another station within 30 minutes, then grab another bike. These are great ways to self-tour the Washington Monument, War Memorials, Lincoln Memorial and the memorials along the Tidal Basin as well.

Alex and Bell biking on the National Mall

Smithsonian: World’s Largest Collection of Free Museums

The Smithsonian includes 20 different museums and galleries, along with the National Zoological Park. The National Zoo is home to many endangered animals including orangutans, gorillas and pandas. Visit the National Portrait Gallery to experience US history in paintings and pictures. There’s a lot to experience in Washington, DC for free.

Entrance into the Natural History museum in DC

Significant Artifacts Important to US History

Many of the most important US artifacts are clustered in free museums and galleries along the National Mall, between the US Capitol Building and the Washington Monument. You can see an original copy of the US Constitution at the National Archives. The National Museum of American History showcases the original star spangled banner. The National Air and Space Museum features an impressive collection of aircraft and space memorabilia, including the lunar module. These spots can be especially crowded on weekends, so go early or during the week if you want to avoid potential lines.

Take Advantage of DC Happy Hour Specials

Happy Hour is a favorite pastime in Washington, DC. Many establishments only have weekday specials, but a few of our favorites have great weekend happy hours too.

Joe’s Seafood has one of the best happy hours in DC featuring half off draft beers, wines, cocktails and specials on seafood appetizers.

Succotash also has an excellent happy hour with a good selection of wines, beers, cocktails and appetizers discounted from 4-8pm. It’s hard to beat $1 wings smoked Alabama style, served with celery slaw.

Dyllans Raw Bar Grill is a solid stop in Georgetown for “happiness hour,” featuring specials on tasty cocktails, wine, beer and food from 4-6pm Monday – Friday.  Their 8 oz Dyllan’s Burger, with a smoked slab of bacon and one year aged cheddar on brioche is one of the best burgers in Washington, DC!

Another favorite happy hour of ours is Zorba’s in Dupont Circle. During the warmer months, their terrace has a Mediterranean feel with Greek music playing. Their happy hour runs Monday-Friday from 4-7pm.

Check out DC happy hours to see many more options.

Cocktail at Joe's seafood restaurant

Picnic on the Tidal Basin or National Mall

One of our favorite things to do in summer is to visit the nation’s oldest fish market, The Municipal Fish Market, along the Potomac River. We’ll often buy some boiled shrimp, crab cakes and maybe a piece of delicious deep fried salmon, hush puppies and coleslaw. It’s less than 10 minutes walk to sit across from the Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin. We’re surprised that so few other people do this!

picnic of shrimp & corn along the tidal basin DC

Restaurant Recommendations in DC

Washington, DC has a world-class culinary scene, with almost every nationality represented. Here’s several of many great DC restaurants.

Bistro Cacao is wonderful for a romantic dinner. This lovely French restaurant close to the US Capitol features intimate booths adorned with elegant red drapes.

Le Diplomate is a bustling French brasserie popular with DC residents, so make reservations in advance.

Del Campo does fantastic South American meat, and is one of the best places in town for a carnivores delight.

We love taking guests to Old Ebbit Grill, DC’s longest-running restaurant, featuring beautiful paintings depicting the country’s founding.

Just down the road is The Hamilton DC, run by the same owners, offering a similar experience and an extensive menu.

Rooftop Bars

It’s a great idea to visit a picturesque rooftop bar in any city and DC has manyPOV Rooftop Bar, atop the W Hotel has an excellent view overlooking the White House and Washington Monument. Tables are reserved for customers eating, but you don’t need a reservation to head up for a drink. Go just before sunset if you can. View of the White House from a roof top bar with a glass of wine

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is home to the world’s largest library. The library also houses Thomas Jefferson’s book collection. Despite being a slave owner, Jefferson encountered financial difficulties and had to sell his book collection to the US government following his presidency. Visitors can take a free one-hour walking tour of the Jefferson building, and learn about the history and work of the Library of Congress.

Orniate stairs at the library of congress

Arlington National Cemetary

Arlington Nation cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery was established in 1864 during the American Civil War. It’s currently the property of the US Army. President John F. Kennedy is buried there, along with 400,000 other American servicemen and women. Don’t miss the Changing of the Guard, with a great view of Washington, DC in the background. From October through March, the Changing of the Guard takes place on the hour. From April through September, the changing of the guard takes place every half hour. Closing time is 5pm October-March and 7pm April-September. Plan your visit here.

Arlington Observation Deck

View of Washington DC  at dusk

Just across the Potomac River from DC, Arlington, Virginia has a new Observation Deck with a great view of the entire DC cityscape. Interactive touch screen displays offer information on the city’s buildings and monuments. Stepping Into Perspectives is a multisided holographic display allowing visitors to watch historical figures tell their stories. Use our promo link to save 20% off your visit and $15 off their Drink in the View package. If you’re staying in Arlington, there’s several other great attractions there too.

Tour the Supreme Court Building

Supreme Court building

The Supreme Court Building is the nation’s highest court. It’s open to the public Monday to Friday from 9:00 am – 4:30 pm and closed on weekends and all federal holidays. Walk up tours are not available if the court is in session. Check their homepage for the court’s daily calendar to plan a visit. Portions of the first and ground floors of the Supreme Court Building are also open to the public.

Mount Vernon: George Washington’s Estate

George Washington's house mount Vernon

George Washington was not only the first US president, he was also the general who led American revolutionaries into battle, ultimately defeating England for independence. His former estate at Mount Vernon is 18 miles (30km) across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. Get a glimpse into American life from centuries ago and also learn about the history of the slaves who worked there. The tombs of both George and Martha Washington are on the estate. There’s also a distillery and gristmill. They offer a 10% discount if you book tickets on their site. If you don’t have a car, a 4.5 hour half day tour to Mount Vernon starts at $56 per person.

DC Sightseeing Tours By Land and Sea

Hop on hop off bus tours are a good idea to quickly see many of the highlights. The Washington, DC Hop On Hop Off Tour starts at $49.

A 3 hour Washington, DC Odyssey dinner cruise starts at $79.67. Sail along the Potomac River and enjoy panoramic views of the national monuments over a freshly prepared 3-course dinner.

Or consider a guided bicycle tour of Washington, DC landmarks. This 3-hour bicycle tour starts at $44.

Duck Boat Tours are another popular option. See Washington DC by land and water traveling in an original World War II amphibious vehicle. The 90-minute tour takes you to the famous monuments of Washington DC before splashing down into the Potomac River. Duck Tours start at $45.

Arts Club of Washington

Check out the calendar of events at the beautiful Arts Club Of Washington. The art gallery hosts great shows in a historic venue that is the former home of President James Monroe. We recently enjoyed a great performance by Washington Magic that featured fantastic magic and historical anecdotes by former CIA Director John McLaughlin! It included a delicious buffet spread with wine and beer for $65 – well priced for pricey DC. Swing by the Arts Club Friday afternoon at noon from October to June to see a free concert!

Alex & Bell at Washington Magic show
Washington Magic at the Arts Club of Washington, featuring former CIA Director John McLaughlin, David Morey and Savino Recine.

Nearby Wineries in Shenandoah Valley, Virginia

Alex & Bell at a Virginia winery

If you’ve visited Washington, DC multiple times and are looking for something new to experience, Virginia has some good wineries in the Shenandoah Valley. Depending on traffic, it’s about an hour to 1.5 hours drive to wine country. Sourced Adventures runs a fun winery tour from DC. If you rent a car and drive there (obviously be careful drinking and driving), Blue Valley Vineyards is especially picturesque.

National Arboretum

Alex & Bell at the botanical gardens in Washington DC

The US National Arboretum features 22 Corinthian columns that were formerly part of the US Capitol Building’s East Portico from 1828-1958. Abraham Lincoln, among other US presidents before him, was inaugurated president in front of them. A great time to visit the US National Arboretum is in spring for the Azalea Blossom. It’s a great place to pack a picnic during warm weather too. Many who have visited Washington, DC multiple times aren’t even aware of the National Arboretum.

How to Travel to Washington DC

Washington, DC Airports

Three major airports serve Washington, DC. Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) is the best airport to fly into as it’s the closest to DC and visitors can easily get into town on the yellow or blue metro lines. Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport(BWI) also serve the area. Dulles is 26 miles (42 km) from Washington DC and a taxi or Uber will run between $45-70. There is also an airport shuttle service. Travel from BWI to downtown Washington DC’s Union Station costs between $8 (MARC trains) to upwards of $30 on Amtrak.

Train travel

Amtrak offers hourly service between New York City’s Penn Station and Union Station in Washington DC. The journey takes between 3-4 hours, depending on the service. The Acela Express is faster and costs more. You’ll save money by purchasing train tickets in advance.

Driving

Washington, DC has some of the worst traffic in the United States. It’s highly advisable to avoid rush hour times when you can. Parking can also be an issue and is expensive, like any major city. It’s worth checking out spaces on ParkEasier as you can possibly save on parking that way.

Bus Options

Budget travelers can find very low bus fares by purchasing tickets in advance. There’s frequent service connecting various neighborhoods around Washington, DC and New York City. Check options on Wanderu, as well as individual bus services like Peter Pan.

Best Times to Visit Washington DC?

Landscape shot of the Tidal Basin with Jefferson monument and Washington monument

Visiting DC for the cherry blossom festival in late March or early spring is popular, but expect weekend hotel rates to be higher. Summers are extremely hot, but as Congress and the Supreme Court take a recess in July and August, weekend deals are still possible. Winter weather can be very cold, but you can get great deals on weekends and the museums are not crowded.

DC as Part of a US East Coast Road Trip?

I grew up in Florida and we also lived in Boston for a couple of years. Read our article on Great Road Trip Stops from Florida to Washington, DC. We give tips on destinations from Saint Augustine, the oldest European town in the US dating to 1565, to Annapolis, Maryland.

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Want to Travel to Washington, DC for just the taxes?

US based travelers can play the credit card points game to save big on travel. Take advantage of credit card bonus sign-ups for practically free flights. The keys are finding the rewards card that’s right for you and paying off your monthly balance to avoid interest payments.

If you have questions on planning a trip to Washington, DC or on travel hacking, email alex@wanderlustmarriage.com or leave a comment below. There’s so many great things to do in Washington, DC!

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2 thoughts on “23 Tips for Visiting Washington, DC

  1. Hello,
    Great post! Wonderfully written and so informative. I love Washington DC. There is so much to do and explore. What was your favorite thing?

    1. Thanks for the compliment, Anna! Great question on a favorite thing but tough to say. We’d say the US Capitol Building tour is a must since it’s filled with great art, history and insight into how the country is ran. It’s also easy to do the tour and free.

      If you haven’t visited Mount Vernon or the National Arboretum, consider those on a future trip to DC! And there are lots of little hidden gems in DC like the Arts Club of Washington.

      For first time visitors with limited time we recommend they stick to the museums and monuments along and near the National Mall as there’s so much to experience!

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