Washington DC Travel Guide

Washington, a city JFK once panned for its "Southern efficiency and Northern charm," hasn't ceased to rebuild itself, eventually evolving into the ultimate hub for culture, politics, history, and arts that we know of today. Apart from its reputation as the country's seat of government, Washington DC is also revered for its vast array of museums (mostly free) and historical troves. It offers a peek into the country's democratic origin, which makes it an ideal destination of school children and travelers who want to get a taste of American culture and history. Be that as it may, you never get to enjoy the real nature of Washington DC until you see it for yourself. Then you'll know that it is just as vibrant as any other metropolis in the world, and that all of its monuments, neoclassical buildings, and museums are just an icing on the cake.

The Best Time to Visit DC

If you are planning to go to DC, bear in mind that the period with the most crowds is September (second week) and mid-January to June, when the congress is in session. Expect the hotels to be filled to the brim during these dates because of business travels and conferences. Mid-March to June is another peak time for the capital as well, since these months cover the springtime season. The city’s beautiful spring and its lovely cherry blossoms are just some of the things that attract students and families to Washington DC. Springtime is also tied with protests, so the hotel rates and airfare are usually off the chart during this season.

So if you want to get away from the crowds, the best time to visit Washington DC is from late August to Early September, since students head back to school during this period. There’s no congress to worry about as well.

If you are thinking of visiting DC during summer (July to August,) be prepared! Expect the capital to be very humid and hot. If you do not mind the sweltering heat, then you will enjoy DC’s Independence Day celebration and other summer festivities.

Visiting the city from Thanksgiving to mid-January is another great way to escape from the DC crowds. During these months there are no congressmen to fill the city, and the residents are just too busy with their holiday celebrations to get out of their homes. Apart from enjoying a crowd-free DC, these months usually bring cheap hotel rates.

Climate

Season by season, here is an overview of the capital’s ever-changing seasonal climate:

Fall

A favorite among many travelers, fall brings comfortable, warm days and crisp, cool nights. The city’s lush green trees turn into shades of red and orange, and the throngs of eager tourists start to pan out and return to their respective homelands.

Winter

Winters in Washington DC are mild, according to most tourists. Of course, this holds true if you came from Alaska or Canada, where temperatures hit zero and below constantly. While the Washington winter is said to be "more tolerable," the weather can be very fickle. You might find yourself battling the bitter cold today, and surviving an ice storm the following day. Days after that, you might be treated to pleasant sunshine. To be safe, pack all the gear necessary for DC’s indecisive winter.

Spring

Washington DC brings ‘colder’ springs, far from most tourists’ expectations. Late March to early April, also known as the Cherry Blossom season, is often characterized by windy and rainy days. As April transcends to May, the weather gradually becomes better. During late spring you can enjoy comfy temperatures, allowing you to enjoy the blossoming of flora in the city. Since spring follows Washington’s unpredictable winter season, you can expect the city to be crowded during this time of the year. Residents are all too happy to be back outside again, and you can usually spot them picnicking and strolling around the National Mall. Tourists escalate in number during this period as well as they try to make the most out of their spring breaks.

Summer

Any who has gone to DC between July and August can attest to how steamy the weather can be. Many of DC's attractions, like the monuments and memorials are unshaded. So when you're there at such time of the year, make sure you stop frequently to grab some drinks or bring some with you at least; and wear a hat and sunscreen. Since locals go elsewhere for vacation, the road and attractions may be somewhat less crowded. Hotels at this time of the year tend to offer great rates.

Getting around Washington DC

The good thing about Washington DC is that you will not end up spending a lot on fares and fees since it is primarily an easy-walk town. The museums and historic sites are located close to each other, so you can easily navigate through the city’s top attractions. Bicycling is also a good way to go, especially since the city commenced the Bike Sharing initiative in 2010.

If you are not in the mood for walking, then you can ride on any of the Metro rapid transit line’s 5 lines which can take you Downtown and other major suburbs. Fares range from $2.10 to $5.75.

Circulator buses that roam through Washington DC are also available. They run every minute, and costs just $1 per person. Stops are located at the Georgetown-Union station, Union Station-Navy Yard, Woodley Park-Adams Morgan-McPherson Square, Dupont-Georgetown-Rosslyn and Potomac Ave.-Skyland.  You can also travel through Metrobus, however, it is geared towards commuters and not tourists.

Taxi cabs are also widely available, starting at $3 for the first sixth of a mile, and $0.25 for the succeeding sixth of a mile. Unlike other cities, Washington DC cabs do not impose rush hour fees. The city's peak seasons generally coincide with two activities: the sessions of Congress and springtime -- starting with the appearance of the cherry blossoms along the Potomac.

Prime Attractions

 Washington is a true beacon of hope to both the hip and urban, and staid and traditional. Such is evident in its attractions, which cater to all types of travelers--the young and the old; the adventurous and the thinker.

I) White House

A visit to Washington DC is deemed fruitless if you are not able to roam the White House. For several decades, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. has been the home of great (and not-so-great) American presidents.

Self-guided tours are available from Tuesdays to Thursdays, 7:30 am to 1:30 pm, Fridays from 7:30 am to 11:30 am, and Saturdays from 7:30 am to 11:30 am (excluding federal holidays or unless otherwise noted). The tour starts at the complex, located along 15th street. By joining the tour you will be able to see the main building rooms open to the public, such as the--

  • Red Room
  • East Room
  • Blue Room
  • State Dining Room
  • Green Room
  • China Room
  • Vermeil Room
  • Diplomatic Reception Room

Like most DC attractions, a tour to the White House will cost you nothing. If you are an American citizen, make sure to send your request to your respective state’s member of Congress up to three months in advance and no less than 21 days in advance to get a sure slot. If you are a foreigner, you need to contact your country’s embassy or consulate office in advance (updated March 2020).

II) Washington DC’s Top Landmarks

As the seat of America’s government, Washington DC is filled with monuments and landmarks dedicated to its former presidents and leaders. When in Washington DC, make it a point to drop by these top-rated monuments and landmarks, all of which require no admission fees.

1) Lincoln Memorial

While Washington DC is home to a bevy of national monuments and parks, nothing beats seeing Abraham Lincoln sitting larger than life. Open 24/7, this monument, which is located at 23rd St., is a great photo and educational stop.

2) Jefferson Memorial

Another monument dedicated to a former American president is this memorial, located south of the Washington Monument. Here, you can see beloved president Thomas Jefferson standing tall at 19 feet. To learn more about his life, you can visit the “Life and Liberty” exhibit at the lower level of the memorial.

3) Washington Memorial

Touted as Washington DC’s foremost symbol, the memorial stands tall and proud at 555.5 inches. If you are not afraid of heights, go ahead and take the elevator ride to the apex of the obelisk. While getting in the memorial is free of charge, booking online requires you to pay a small fee.

4) National Mall

Located between Constitution and Independence avenues, the National Mall is considered the culmination point for many tourists. Lined with lush greeneries and expansive museums, it is a must that you wear comfy shoes if you want to tread down this five-mile avenue.

5) Washington National Cathedral

If you are a fan of outstanding architecture, then a visit to Washington National Cathedral will suit you well. The construction of this Gothic-style church started in 1907, but it was just finished in 1990. Located at the corner of Massachusetts and Wisconsin avenues, the lot also boasts of beautiful garden landscapes.

6) The Smithsonian

Home to more than 137 million artifacts, the Smithsonian is the best museum for history buffs and techies. Its 19 museums and galleries play home to ancient relics – such as a 3.5-billion-year-old dinosaur fossil – to modern gizmos, such as the Apollo lunar landing module.

7) National Gallery of Art

Treat your eyes to a splish-splash of color and art at this museum, located at Constitution Avenue Northwest. For historic artwork, head to the West building. But if newer designs are your preferences, then visit the East building.

8) National Air and Space Museum

Do you have children in tow? Then the best way to entertain them during your trip is by bringing them to the National Air and Space Museum. With an average of 9 million visitors every year, this museum boasts of famous ‘planes,’ such as that of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Villa, and Wilbur Wright’s Wright 1903 Flyer.

III) Other Attractions

If you're not a history buff, and museums and monuments don't strike your fancy, Washington has another way to gravitate you to it. Take your feet to these attractions and satisfy your wanderlust.

1) C & O

DC is blessed to have this wonderful historic park that offers a perfect respite from the hubbub of city life. Whether you're by yourself, the entire family, or with your loved one, take a walk through the historic canal, explore its bike trails, or go kayaking and enjoy its breathtaking scenery.

2) Great Falls Park

Take a picnic and catch a good glimpse of the spectacular views of the Potomac River at this 800-acre park, located just 14 miles from Washington DC. Great Falls offers a variety of activities including hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, bicycling, and horseback riding.

3) Kennedy Center

Live theatrical productions at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts are entertainment at its finest. Purchase tickets in advance for performances ranging from musicals to concerts by the National Symphony or see a free show at the Millennium Stage.

Where to Eat

Washington is dotted with fine restaurants and casual eateries, serving the most scrumptious fares-- from contemporary American, to French, to Mediterranean, take your pick!

1) 1789 Restaurant

Located along 36th Street, 1789 Restaurant is a treat for anyone who wishes to enjoy the finest American cuisine. Apart from its delicious offers, 1789 Restaurant provides history buffs with a feel of traditional dining since it is housed in a renovated Federal structure. Food ranges from $18 to $38.

Address: 226 36th St NW

2) J&G Steakhouse

Dine as if you were one of the presidents at J&G Steakhouse, located at 15th street, next to the famous White House. Its sumptuous steaks and entrees range in prices - $10-$45 for lunch and $22 to $49 for dinner.

Address: 515 15th St NW

Closed since June 2014

3) Komi

Who says you cannot enjoy exotic cuisine in the heart of America? At Komi along 17th street, you can feast on Mediterranean foods as prepared by DC’s top chefs. Multi-course dinners average at $135, while optional wine tasting costs $70.

Address: 1509 17th St NW

4) Jaleo

In the mood for Spanish Tapas? Then head out straight to Jaleo. It has an extensive menu of more than 60 tapa recipes, with prices starting at an affordable $4.95. Paella, one of its house specials, costs $39.95 to $44.95 per serving.

Address: 80 7th St. NW,Chinatown

5) Cashion's Eat Place

New York Times writer, Jan Benzel, described its ambiance as "funky-elegant." Head out to Cashion's Eat Place, and see that you can't agree more. Its combination of laid-back neighborhood conviviality and impeccably delicious food has defined Cashion's since its opening in May of 1995. Prices start at $4o.

Address: 1819 Columbia Rd NW  Washington, DC 20009

Closed since May 2016

6) Matchbox - Capitol Hill

If your taste buds are craving for something nibbly, then Matchbox is waiting for you to come and taste their to-die-for over-fired pizza. It's a great neighborhood joint to take your family and friends to for some seriously tasty Italian food. Prices range from $29 to $31.

Address: 521 8th Street SE

Where to Stay

​Unless you have a relative in Washington DC, your first concern for your trip should be your accommodation. Here are some of the capital’s top hotels according to guest reviews:

1) The Hay-Adams, for its views

When it comes to views, nothing beats the Hay Adams. The hotel treats its guests to the vistas of the White House, Lafayette Park and St. John’s Church. Rooms start at $370 per night.

Address: 800 16th St NW

2) Carlyle Suites, for its affordability

Carlyle Suites is renowned for its classy affordability and comprehensiveness. Its 170 rooms feature Tempur-Pedic beds and fully-furnished kitchens. It is also accessible to numerous tourist spots, such as Adams Morgan and the Rock Creek Park. Room rate starts at $109.

Address: 1731 New Hampshire Ave NW

3) Four Seasons, for its elegance

If you don't mind spending at least $1,019 for a room per night, then you can never go wrong with Four Seasons. Considered as one of the most extravagant hotels in the area, it is actually White House' next-door neighbor. Its main highlights include its outdoor terrace and the signature Four Seasons body treatment.

Address: 2800 Pennsylvania Ave NW

4) Kimpton Hotel Palomar, for its pet-friendliness

If you plan on bringing your mutt along with you, then your first choice should be the pet-friendly Kimpton Hotel Palomar. This hotel, which occupies the stretch of P. Street, promises a lavish stay for both the pet and its owner. Transportation is also accessible since Kimpton Hotel Palomar is just 1.5 blocks away from the Dupont Circle Metro Station. Rates are affordable too, starting at just $133.

Address: 2121 P St NW

With its historic landmarks and great gastronomic hubs, Washington DC remains to be one of the best places to visit in the United States. Revel in Washington's political and historic charms by including it in your next travel itinerary.

Truly a city of vistas, Washington is a perfect harmony of geometry and art. What makes it entirely different from all the large cities in the world is that it isn't embellished with skyscrapers. After all, what's there to look forward to in a vacation when all you see are buildings? Although Washington is not entirely about superlatives, it is enough to say that it is not only the world's first-planned capital-- ultimately, it is one of its most beautiful.

Marv Perez