Having grown up in New England, visiting Washington D.C. is something I’ve done since I was a kid. I love the capital. There are over 175 embassies, ambassador’s residences, and international cultural centers here. That means there’s a diversity and culture here you won’t find in most other cities in the US (except maybe NYC). Washington is a city where you can find every type of food and language in the world.
While the members of Congress and those who attend to them drive up costs here, the city’s student population helps keep D.C. semi-affordable (though in recent years it has gotten pretty costly). You’ll find an incredible food scene, lots of new and renovated live/work spaces, and a growing cocktail bar scene.
Add in the history, tons of free museums, and monuments, and you get an eclectic and fun city to visit with lots to see and do.
This travel guide to D.C. will give you a list of all my favorite tips on what to see, how to get around, and how to save money!
Table of Contents
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Top 5 Things to See and Do in Washington D.C.
1. Visit the Holocaust Museum
2. Explore the Smithsonian Museums
3. Take a walk through Georgetown
4. Visit Arlington National Cemetery
5. Check out the monuments
Other Things to See and Do in Washington D.C.
1. Tour the White House
Take a tour of where the most powerful person in the country lives. Built in 1800, here you can learn the history of the building and all those who have inhabited it. You have to apply in advance to get tickets through your member of Congress. If you are a citizen of a foreign country, you need to arrange tours through your embassy in D.C. You will be asked to provide security information several weeks before your tour to be approved so be sure to book early!
2. Visit the Supreme Court
This Neoclassical building, known as the Marble Palace, was built in 1935 and is home to the highest court in the land. Court sessions are open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis and there are free 30-minute lectures in the main hall that explain how the court functions. Definitely try to attend one of the lectures as they offer a lot of information about how the court works.
3. Tour the Capitol Building
The Capitol Building is where Congress has met since 1800 to write the laws for the United States. Located on Capitol Hill at the eastern edge of the National Mall, free tours are offered throughout the day. Tickets become available at 8:30am on a first-come, first-served basis. You’ll start with a short intro film before moving on to the Capitol Rotunda, and end with a stop by the Crypt (where George Washington was originally planned to be buried) and the National Statuary Hall (a chamber devoted to sculptures of prominent Americans).
4. Take a free walking tour
One of the best ways to take in the city is on a free walking tour (I always start my visits to a new city with one). You get to see the city’s main sights, learn about its history, and have an expert on hand to ask any questions you have. DC Walkabout, Free Tours by Foot, and Strawberry Tours all have a good selection to get you started. Just be sure to tip your guide at the end!
5. Visit the National Zoo
The zoo opened in 1889 and is home to over 1,800 animals spread over 160 acres. Here you’ll find lemurs, great apes, elephants, reptiles, pandas, and more. It was one of the first zoos in the world to create a scientific research program too. While I normally don’t like zoos, the scientific and conservation work they do here is done ethically. As part of the Smithsonian, the zoo is free to visit. You will still need to make a reservation online.
6. Visit the Spy Museum
Opened in 2002, the International Spy Museum has exhibits on both historical and contemporary spy craft. See shoes with false bottoms, photos of infamous spies, and interviews with former intelligence officers. There are over 7,000 items in the collection, with information going back to ancient Egypt and Greece and how their spies operated. It’s super interesting! Tickets start at $24.95 USD.
7. See the cherry blossoms
If you’re in Washington D.C. between March and April, don’t miss the Cherry Blossom Festival, which brings in 1.5 million visitors each year. The trees were a gift from Japan to the United States in 1912 and their blossoming is marked by a celebration that includes concerts and fireworks. Tidal Basin, East Potomac Park, and the Washington Monument are the best places to see them up close.
8. Visit Alexandria’s Old Town
Head across the river to Alexandria, VA, a small town with cobblestone streets dotted with colonial buildings and historical landmarks. One of the most fun things to do here is the pub crawl/haunted ghost tour, where you explore historic places and haunted buildings while also visiting different pubs. Nightly Spirits runs tours for $25 USD per person. While you’re here, don’t miss the old colonial manors, the former torpedo factory, and the skinniest historic house in the USA (it’s just 7 feet wide!).
9. Explore the National Gallery of Art
This museum has two wings: the east wing, which houses the gallery’s more modern works (Henri Matisse, Mark Rothko); and the west wing, which contains the collection’s older works (Sandro Botticelli to Claude Monet). You’ll see a lot of artists painting here and it’s fascinating watching them work to recreate these historic masterpieces. During the summer, the Sculpture Garden often hosts live music too. Admission is free but reservations need to be made online.
10. Visit Embassies during Passport DC
During this annual springtime celebration, more than 70 embassies open their doors to visitors, staging cultural demonstrations, food tastings, and music and dance performances. It’s a remarkable way to spend a few days learning about various cultures and eating tons of delicious food! It takes place every year throughout the month of May. You can learn more at culturaltourismdc.org/portal/passport-dc1.
11. Visit the Library of Congress
The is the largest library in the world. There are over 16 million books here and over 120 million other items. Established in 1800, over 3,000 staff help keep this place running. It’s the main research center of the U.S. Congress and is home to the U.S. Copyright Office. Check the website for any special tours happening during your visit (sometimes they open the Music Division’s Whittall Pavilion for public viewing). Don’t miss Thomas Jefferson’s library, Bob Hope’s personal documents (including his famous joke file), and the Gershwin Room dedicated to famous musicians.
12. Hang out on the Tidal Basin
Built in the 19th century, the Tidal Basin is a manmade pond stretching two miles long the National Mall. It serves as a popular hangout spot for locals and visitors and is the best place to see the cherry blossom trees each spring. In the spring and summer months, you can rent a paddleboat ($18 USD/hr) and spend the afternoon relaxing on the pond.
13. See the National Arboretum
The 446-acre National Arboretum provides a quiet oasis in the middle of a busy city and is home to the National Capitol Columns, giant historic columns that once supported the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol from 1828-1958. Surrounding the columns are gardens as well as exhibits devoted to botanical research and conservation. It’s a peaceful spot to hang out with a book and enjoy some nature away from the busy city.
14. Explore the National Archives Museum
The National Archives Museum houses the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution, plus one of the few remaining copies of the Magna Carta left in the world. It’s a great place for history buffs as it’s filled with really informative panels. If you’re traveling with children, there are plenty of interactive exhibits inside too. They also host history lectures and panels, so check the website to see what’s happening during your visit. Admission is free, but space is limited, so online reservations are required.
15. Go distillery hopping
If you’re a fan of fine spirits, Washington has several distilleries around the city — many of which are within walking distance of one another. You can visit Green Hat, the Other Half, Republic Restoratives, and One Eight without having to walk far. Most have a tasting room and some even offer self-guided tours.
16. See live music at Wolf Trap
Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts is a scenic nature park that doubles as a music venue. It hosts tons of live music year-round at the Filene Center. Big performers like Lenny Kravitz, Sting, and The Beach Boys have played here in the past so check the website to see what’s on during your visit.
17. Take a food tour
Mangia DC has a number of food tours around the city, including an Italian food tour and a Georgetown tour. As you eat your way around the city, you’ll visit hidden gems and historic sites while sampling 4-5 different dishes (and a cocktail). You can also arrange for a private food tour, including a cooking class. Tours start at $68 USD per person.
For more information on other cities in the United States, check out these guides:
Washington D.C. Travel Costs
Hostel prices – During peak season, bed in a 4-6-bed dorm costs about $50 USD. For a room with eight beds or more, expect to pay around $35 USD. During the off-season, a room with 8 beds or more costs around $30 USD. Private rooms with a shared bathroom cost $110 USD per night (prices for private rooms don’t fluctuate much between off-season and peak season). Free Wi-Fi is standard but most hostels do not have self-catering facilities.
For those traveling with a tent, camping is available outside the city starting at $20 USD per night for a basic two-person plot without electricity.
Budget hotel prices – Budget two-star hotels start at $140 USD in peak season. In the off-season, budget rooms cost closer to $100 USD per night.
There are lots of Airbnb options in Washington, D.C. Private rooms start at $55 USD per night while an entire home/apartment costs at least $125 USD (though they average double that).
Food – Despite being home to some of the country’s wealthiest dignitaries, there is a lot of cheap food options here. You can get bowls of chili from the world-famous Ben’s Chili Bowl for around $5 USD. Be sure to also try half-smokes, a sausage that is smoked before it’s cooked (it’s the city’s signature dish). You can find them for $6 USD.
Chinese food costs around $11-15 USD while a large pizza is $10-12 USD. Indian food costs between $15-20 USD for a main dish while fast food (think McDonald’s) is $8 USD for a combo meal.
For a casual meal at a restaurant with table service, expect to pay around $20 USD. For a three-course meal with a drink, prices start at $45 USD and go up from there.
Beer costs around $7 USD while a latte/cappuccino is $4.75 USD. Bottled water is $2 USD.
If you cook your food, expect to pay about $55-60 USD per week for basic staples like rice, pasta, vegetables, and some meat.
Backpacking Washington D.C. Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking Washington D.C, expect to spend about $80 per day. On this budget, you can stay in a hostel dorm, use public transportation to get around, eat cheap food like half-smokes and chili, and do free activities like visit the Smithsonian and take free walking tours. If you plan on drinking, add another $10-20 USD per day to your budget.
A mid-range budget of about $240 covers staying in a private hostel room or Airbnb, having a few drinks at the bar, taking the occasional taxi to get around, eating fast food and Chinese and Indian cuisine, and doing some paid activities like food tours and museum visits.
On a “luxury” budget of about $400 or more per day, you can stay in a hotel, drink as much as you’d like, eat out anywhere you want, rent a car to get around, and do more guided tours and activities. This is just the ground floor for luxury though. The sky is the limit!
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages – some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day). We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in USD.
Washington D.C. Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
Washington can be an expensive city if you’re eating and drinking out a lot. However, budget travelers have endless options for free attractions and cheap food to help keep costs down. Here are some ways to save money in D.C:
- Visit the museums and monuments for free – Most of the museums in D.C. are free. The D.C. museums are some of the most incredible in the U.S. Along with all the museums, the monuments are also free to see.
- Take a free walking tour – DC Walkabout, Free Tours by Foot, and Strawberry Tours all offer free walking tours of the city. I suggest doing one of these when you arrive so you can ask the tour guide all your questions and get recommendations on what to do in the city.
- Check out the public performances – The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage offers free performances on a nightly basis. Some theaters offer student and senior pricing, and you can also save money by purchasing last-minute tickets.
- Free outdoor theater – During the summer, free outdoor movies are offered at many places around the city. Ask your hotel/hostel staff for details or check with the local tourism office.
- Walk everywhere – Since most of the monuments and museums are in the central area, you can walk everywhere to save money.
- Check out free embassy events – Even when it’s not Passport DC month, DC’s embassies host year-round events. Some are paid concerts or lectures, but often embassies will host free events like screenings and book signings. Eventbrite.com has a regularly updated list.
- Save money on rideshares – Uber, Via, and Lyft are way cheaper than taxis and are the best way to get around the city if you don’t want to take a bus or pay for a taxi. You can save money off your first rides with the following codes: Lyft (MATTHEW999 to save $10) and Uber (jlx6v to save $15).
- Couchsurf – Couchsurfing has plenty of hosts throughout the city who can show you around and let you stay with them for free. I’ve used it plenty of times and have really enjoyed it as a way to meet people.
- Bring a water bottle – The tap water here is safe to drink so bring a reusable water bottle to save money and reduce your plastic use. LifeStraw is my go-to brand as their bottles have built in filters to ensure your water is always clean and safe.
Where to Stay in Washington D.C.
Washington D.C. has several affordable hostels around the city. Here are my favorites:
How to Get Around Washington D.C.
Public Transportation – D.C’s subway system can get you to most places around the city. There are six color-coded lines, accessible via a rechargeable SmarTrip card. It costs $10 USD to buy and $8 USD of that is fare money. Fares cost between $2.25-6 USD, depending on distance traveled and time of day (fares increase a little during rush hour).
There’s also an extensive bus system and monorail in the city. You need to pay with exact change or use your SmarTrip card. Fare for the bus is $2 USD and fares for Monorail vary by time. There are passes for the monorail and bus available as well ($13 USD for a day pass, $28 USD for a three-day pass, and $58 USD for a seven-day pass).
The DC Circulator bus runs between the main tourist areas, including Union State, the National Mall, and the White House area. Fares are $1 USD (you can also pay with your SmarTrip card).
There’s a limited streetcar route that also departs from Union State. It’s free to ride.
Bicycle – Capital Bikeshare is Washington D.C’s main bike-sharing program, with over 4,000 bicycles around the city. A single 30-minute trip is $2 USD and a 24-hour pass is $8 USD (which covers unlimited 30-minute trips).
If you don’t want to explore on your own, Fat Tire Tours offers in-depth bike tours around the city. They’re super fun and you’ll get to see all the main sights too!
There are also lots of scooters here, including Bird, Lime, and Lyft. Most cost $1 USD to unlock and then $0.15-0.40 USD per minute. You need to download their apps to use them.
Water Taxi – Potomac Riverboat Co. runs the water taxis up and down the river, between Georgetown, the Wharf, and Old Town Alexandria. Fares range from $15-18 USD per trip.
Taxis – Taxis are super expensive here! Fares start at $3.60 USD and then it’s $3.30 USD per mile after that. Skip them if you can.
Ridesharing – Uber, Lyft, and Via are way cheaper than taxis and are the best way to get around a city if you don’t want to take a bus or pay for a cab. The shared/pool option (where you share a ride with other people) offers even better savings. You can save money off your first rides with the following codes: Lyft (MATTHEW999 to save $10) and Uber (jlx6v to save $15).
Car rental – Car rentals can be found for as little as $35 USD per day for a multi-day rental. Drivers need to be 21. Unless you’re doing some trips outside the side though you won’t need to rent a car.
When to Go to Washington D.C.
Spring (March-May) and autumn (September-November) are the best times to visit Washington. Autumn is particularly beautiful as the leaves change, but the National Cherry Blossom Festival at the end of March/early April is well worth the trip. May is also a good time to visit for Passport DC month. Average autumn temperatures are 68°F (20°C), while spring is only slightly warmer.
Summer is peak season in D.C., which means more crowds and inflated hotel prices. In July, temperatures can climb to 89°F (31°C) or higher. On the other hand, the atmosphere in the city is lively during this time and if you can tolerate the heat, it’s a great time to get outdoors and enjoy the free attractions.
Winter is the off-season. Temperatures can drop to below freezing, but you’ll get the cheapest hotel rates. Plus, all the museums and historic sites are crowd-free so if you can stick to indoor activities this is an ideal time to come.
How to Stay Safe in Washington D.C.
D.C. is a safe place to backpack and travel. Violent attacks are very rare. As with any big city, pickpocketing and petty theft is your main concern, especially around nightlife areas like Shaw, Adams Morgan, and the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station. always keep an eye on your drink while at the bar and never walk home alone at night intoxicated.
Be vigilant when taking public transportation and around tourist attractions. Thieves are known to take advantage of distracted visitors.
Around the main tourist areas and monuments, watch out for scams. You can learn more about some major travel scams to avoid in this article.
If you experience an emergency, dial 911 for assistance.
Always trust your gut instinct. If a taxi driver seems shady, stop the cab and get out. If your hotel is seedier than you thought, move. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID.
If you don’t do it at home, don’t do it when you’re in Washington D.C. Follow that rule, and you’ll be fine.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
Washington D.C. Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
Below are my favorite companies to use when I travel around Washington D.C. They are included here because they consistently turn up the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and, overall, are better than their competitors.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Momondo – This is my other favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here too.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments. The big cities have tons of listings!
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, great interface, and the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around the United States, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- EatWith – This website allows you to eat home cooked meal with locals. Locals post listings for dinner parties and specialty meals that you can sign up for. There is a fee (everyone sets their own price) but this is a great way to do something different, pick a local’s brain, and make a new friend.
- Fat Tire Tours – Fat Tire Tours offers fun and insightful bike tours around the city. You’ll get to see all the main sights with the help of a local guide and you’ll get to see the city in a whole new light. They’re a great alternative to your standard walking tour.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
Washington Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Washington D.C. Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
Written in 1957, Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation classic is a must-read travel novel. Kerouac’s character’s (who he modeled after himself) frustration, desire to see the world, and adventures resonate with all of us who need a little relief from modern life. The story follows Sal as he leaves New York City and heads west, riding the rails, making friends, and partying the night away. He finds thrills, adventure, love, sex, drugs, poverty, and excitement while moving from a weak character into someone whose life experience brings confidence. It’s a true American classic.
Tip of the Iceberg, by Mark Adams
In 1899, Edward H. Harriman (a rich railroad magnate) converted a steamship into a luxury cruise for some of America’s best scientists and writers and embarked on a summer voyage around Alaska. Now, author Mark Adams retraces that expedition, traveling over 3,000 miles along the coast of the state. Mark is one of my favorite writers, and this book is very reminiscent of Turn Right at Machu Picchu. Mark brings insight into the people, history, and culture of the state in a way he did with his other book.
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
Forgetting the hype of the book (and the subsequent movie), I really did like this book. Cheryl Strayed’s book is about her journey along the Pacific Crest Trail when she was 26. She sets off in hopes of finding herself and coming to grips with the death of her mother, break-up of her marriage, and drug use. She’s looking for a fresh start. Along the way, she encounters kindness, happy fellow hikers, and a deep sense of belonging. Filled with wonderful prose, I found this book deeply moving. It’s easy to see why the book became such a hit.
Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, by Richard Grant
As a big fan of the state of Mississippi, I was keen to read this book. The state is an often-overlooked tourist destination with eccentric but wonderful people; beautiful parks, rivers, and swamps; stunning architecture; and a complex and rich history for history buffs like myself. In this book, English writer Richard Grant and his girlfriend move to rural Pluto, Mississippi, to live a better life, escape the big city, lower their cost of living, and try something new. They learn to hunt, garden, fend off wild animals, handle snakes, and befriend interesting characters along the way.
The Not-Quite States of America, by Doug Mack
The United States of America is more than just 50 states. There’s also the non-states of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. In this funny, detailed, fact-rich book, Doug Mack explores these territories largely forgotten by the rest of the country, which play a more important role in our country than we realize. I had the pleasure of listening to Doug talk about his book in NYC, and he’s a wealth of knowledge — just like his book! This one of those travel books that expands your mind about the place you don’t really know.
Blue Highways: A Journey into America, by William Least Heat-Moon
This is a deep dive into America’s unknown tiny towns scattered across the country map, like New Hope (Tennessee), Remote (Oregon), Why (Arizona), and Whynot (Mississippi). Yes, those are real town names! Heat-Moon’s book is considered a masterpiece in American travel writing and you’ll love his adventures and the incredible people he encounters as he reveals the “real” American experience.
Washington D.C. Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on United States travel and continue planning your trip: