Having grown up in New England, visiting Washington D.C. is something I’ve done since I was a kid. I love the capital. All the embassies bring in a level of diversity and interesting people not seen in many other places in the world. This is city where you can find every type of food and language.
While the members of Congress and those who attend to them spend lots of money, students help keep the city semi-cheap. D.C. has really changed in the last five years and as more young millennial have moved to the city. Now, 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, museums, and monuments, and you will find D.C. is an eclectic and fun city to city.
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. 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 Washington D.C. You will be asked to provide security information several weeks before your tour to be approved.
2. Visit the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court of the land. Court sessions are open to the public on a first-come, first-serve basis, and there are free 30-minute lectures in the main hall that explain how the court functions. There are no guided tours though. (Definitely try to attend one of the lectures as they offer a lot of information about how the court works.)
3. Tour the Capital Building
The Capital Building is where Congress has met since 1800 to write the laws for the United States. Free tours are offered throughout the day, and tickets are available at 8:30am on a first come, first-serve basis. You’ll start with a short intro film before moving on to the Capitol Rotunda, and end with a stop by the Crypt and the National Statuary Hall.
4. Visit the National Zoo
The zoo opened in 1889 and is home to over 1,800 animals spread over 160 acres of land. Lemurs, great apes, elephants, reptiles, and pandas all call this place home. The zoo was one of the first 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 vital and done with the utmost ethics. As part of the Smithsonian, the zoo is also free to visit.
5. Visit the Spy Museum
One of D.C.’s most popular attractions happens to be a pretty fun one: the International Spy Museum. Learn a thing or two about espionage through the museum’s many interactive exhibits, artifacts, and film clips. See shoes with false bottoms, photos of infamous spies, and interviews with former intelligence officers. Tickets start at $22.
6. See the cherry blossoms
If you’re in Washington D.C. between March and April, don’t miss the Cherry Blossom Festival. The trees were a gift from Japan to the United States back in 1912. Their blossoming is marked by a celebration that includes concerts and fireworks.
7. Visit Alexandria’s Old Town
Head across the river to Alexandria’s Old Town, 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’ll explore historic places and haunted buildings while also visiting four different pubs as you go. Tours are $25 per person.
8. Explore the National Gallery of Art
This museum has two wings: the east wing, which houses the gallery’s more modern works (think: Henri Matisse and Mark Rothko), and the west wing, which contains the collection’s older works (from Sandro Botticelli to Claude Monet). You’ll see a lot of artists painting here, and it’s fascinating watching them work to recreate these ancient works. During the summertime on Friday evenings, the Sculpture Garden has live jazz. Admission is free.
10. Visit Embassies during Passport DC
During this annual springtime celebration, more than 40 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 while 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. Take a free walking tour
One of the best ways to take in the city is on a free walking tour. You’ll get to see the city’s main sights, learn about the city’s history, and have an expert on hand to pepper with any questions you have. Both Free Tours by Foot and Strawberry Tours have a good selection. You can’t go wrong with either.
12. 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 historical and media 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 the Library will open the Music Division’s Whittall Pavilion for public viewing). While here you’ll get to see Thomas Jefferson’s library, Bob Hope’s personal documents (including his famous joke file), and the Gershwin Room dedicated to famous musicians.
13. Hang out on the Tidal Basin
The Tidal Basin is a manmade pond stretching two miles long the mall. It also 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 (around $18 per hour) and spend the afternoon relaxing on the pond.
14. 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 is 446 acres of gardens as well as exhibits devoted to botanical research and conservation. It’s a peaceful spot to just hang out and enjoy some nature away from the busy city.
15. 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, and it’s filled with really informative panels. If you’re traveling with children, there are plenty of interactive exhibits inside too. Admission is free!
17. Go distillery hopping
Ivy City is Washington’s distillery district, with four distilleries within easy walking distance from one another. You can visit Green Hat, Jos A. Magnus, Republic Restoratives, and One Eight all in one evening! Atlas Brew Works is also in the area if you want to pop in for some craft beer as you go.
18. 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 been known to play here in the past, so check the website to see what’s on during your visit.
19. Take a food tour
Mangia DC has a number of food tours around the city, including an Italian food tour and a Georgetown tour ($68 each). As you go, you’ll learn about tucked away locales and historic sites while sampling 4-5 different dishes (and a cocktail on top of that). You can also arrange for a private food tour, including a cooking class if you’d like one.
Washington D.C. Travel Costs
Hostel prices – During peak season, a bed in a four-six bed room will cost from about $50. For a room with eight beds or more, expect to pay around $40. During the off-season, a bed in a room with eight beds or more will cost from about $20 each night, while smaller rooms will cost about $25.
A basic twin private room with a shared bathroom for two costs from $130 per night during peak season. Prices start from about $105 in the off-season.
Budget hotel prices – Nightly rates for a budget two-star hotel room start at about $130 in peak season. In the off-season, budget rooms start from $120.
There are lots of Airbnb options in Washington D.C. A shared room (like a bed in a dorm) averages about $38 per night, while a private room is about $58 per night. A full apartment averages about $136 per night.
Food – Despite being home to some of the country’s wealthiest dignitaries, there is a lot of cheap food options in Washington D.C. You can get bowls of chili for $5, or tacos for $2 each. You can get a slice of pizza for $3, and a McDonald’s menu meal is about $8.
A mid-range restaurant main course will cost $15-20. Fast casual places are great value for lunch and most cost around $10.
If you want to splurge, be prepared to spend. A tasting menu can be as expensive as $248 per person, not including wine-pairing! Otherwise, appetizers will cost from $18, while things like pasta dishes will cost from $25. If you want a good steak, that will be about $38 — a glass of red averages about $10.
If you cook your food, expect to pay about $60 per week for groceries that will include pasta, vegetables, chicken, and other essential foods.
Backpacking Washington D.C. Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking Washington D.C, expect to spend about $60 per day. This budget will cover a hostel dorm, public transportation, cheap local eats, some home cooked meals, and all the free attractions.
A mid-range budget of about $193 will cover staying in a budget two-star hotel, eating out for all of your meals, more paid attractions, and unlimited public transportation. If you stay in an Airbnb, you can reduce this budget by about $60 per night.
On a luxury budget of about $350 or more per day, you can do what you want! You can get a four-star hotel downtown, any meal you want, drinks, and a few Uber rides.
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 D.C. can be an expensive city if you’re eating and drinking out a lot. However, budget travelers have endless options for free attractions like monuments and museums and tons of cheap eat options 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, due to a public funding initiative. The D.C. museums are some of the most incredible in the U.S. Along with all the museums the monuments are also free for viewing.
- Take a free walking tour – Free Tours By Foot offer free walking tours of the city. I suggest doing one of these when you arrive, so you can ask the tour guide all of 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 months free outdoor movies have become popular and are offered at many places around the city.
- Find the cheap eats – Head over to Georgetown or DuPont Circle and eat where the locals eat. You’ll find lots of affordable eats here, including fast food joints and small cafes. DuPont Circle also hosts a farmer’s market every Sunday from April through December so that you can stock up on items for your stay.
- Walk everywhere – Since most of the monuments and museums are in the central area, you can hit up many of them within walking distance.
- 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 and Lyft (my preferred company) 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 taxi. 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).
- Couchsurf – Couchsurfing has plenty of hosts throughout the city who will show you around their town 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.
Where To Stay in Washington D.C.
Washington D.C. has lots of hostel options. Here are my recommended places to stay in D.C:
How to Get Around Washington D.C.
Public Transportation -D.C’s subway system, the Metro, will get you to most places. There are six color-coded lines, and you’ll need a rechargeable SmarTrip card to ride them. It costs $10 to buy, but $8 of that is fare money. Fares cost between $2.25-6 per direction, depending on distance traveled and time of day. Fares increase a little during rush hour.
There’s also an extensive bus system in the city. You’ll have to pay in exact change or use your SmarTrip card. Fare for the Metrobus is $2.
The DC Circulator runs along many tourist areas, including between Union State and the Mall (including all the big museums and memorials), and the White House area. Fares are $1 (you can also pay with your SmarTrip card).
There’s a limited streetcar route that also runs from Union State to 15th Street, and then along Benning Road. It’s free to ride.
Bicycle – Capital Bikeshare is Washington D.C’s main bike-sharing program, with 4,300 bicycles around the city. A single 30-minute trip is $2, but a day pass is $8 (which covers unlimited 30-minute trips, but you’ll have to pay $2 per 30 minutes if you go over).
If you don’t want to explore on your own, Fat Tire Tours offers 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 around, including Bird, Lime, and Lyft. Most cost about $1 to unlock and then 15-30 cents 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 start at $10 per trip.
Taxis – Taxis are super expensive here! Fares start at $3.50 and then it’s $2.16 per mile after that.
Ride-Sharing – 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).
When to Go to Washington D.C.
Spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November) are the best times to visit Washington, D.C. 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 about 68°F (20°C), while spring is only slightly warmer.
Summer is peak season in Washington D.C., which means more tourist crowds and inflated hotel prices. In July, temperatures can climb to 88°F (31°C) or higher. On the other hand, the atmosphere in the city is really 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 on the other hand, you’ll get the cheapest hotel rates. Plus all the museums and historic sites are crowd-free, so if you want to 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.
Be vigilant when taking public transportation and around tourist attractions. Thieves are known to take advantage of distracted visitors in such places.
Around the main tourist areas and monuments, watch out for scams. You can learn more about some major travel scams to avoid with this article.
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.
- Momondo – This is my favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here first.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is another great flight search engline which searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. While I always start with Momondo, I use this site too as a way to compare prices.
- 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.
- Priceline – I like this website because it allows you to bid on hotels and save a lot more money than by booking directly. When used in conjunction with the bidding site Better Bidding, you can substantially lower the cost of your hotels — by as much as 60%. 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 exclusive discounts 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
- 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 classic 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 his character, 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
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 belong. 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 really 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: