25 Tips for your First Trip to Washington DC.

Once known best for monuments and museums, the White House and the Capitol; Washington DC has shed it’s formerly buttoned up reputation to become one of the most dynamic cities in the country.  A visit to the American capital today finds eclectic neighborhoods, an ever-changing roster of cultural events and one of the most exciting food scenes in the world. Here are a few tips to help plan your first trip to Washington DC.

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  1. Spring and fall offer the most pleasant temperatures, but along with great weather comes more crowds and higher hotel room prices. Summers are hot

2. At nearly two miles from the Capitol steps to the Lincoln Memorial the National Mall is a lot longer than many people think. Lace up your shoes and enjoy strolling among the monuments (the WW2 Memorial is especially moving) or if limited mobility is a concern try one of the National Mall bus tours. 25 Tips for Your First Trip to Washington DC www.casualtravelist.com

3.Interested in touring the White House during your visit to Washington DC? Be sure to plan ahead as far in advance as possible, lead times can vary from 3 weeks to 6 months. White House tours can be arranged by contacting your congressional office, further details can be found at White House website.

4. A labyrinth of traffic circles and one way streets, driving in Washington DC can be maddening to say the least. Leave your car at home (or in your hotel’s parking garage) and explore the capital’s wide tree-lined boulevards on foot or make use of DC’s extensive (and affordable) metro and bus system.

5.The Air & Space Museum, the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of the American Indian and the Museum of African American History; not only are these some of the best museums in the world but as part of the Smithsonian all of these museums offer free admission. (Be prepared for airport style security checks that include metal detectors and bag checks at many of the city’s museums and federal buildings.)

25 Tips for Your First Trip to Washington DC www.casualtravelist.com

6. Don’t miss a visit to the Library of Congress, home to the world’s largest collection of books. The Thomas Jefferson Room is a visually stunning Beaux Arts confection of frescoes and sculptures celebrating Western Civilization’s most influential thinkers.

7.While  a trip toWashington DC is great any time of year, it is particularly magical in the springtime when the cherry blossoms bloom in a burst of pinks and whites highlighting the beauty of the American capital. The timing of peak bloom varies wildly each yea making it difficult to plan a trip if you’re traveling from afar. While the average date for the peak bloom is April 4 it has happened as early as March 15 and as late as April 18. The National Park Service (NPS) is able to predict the peak bloom about 10 days before hand and provides up-to-date information on it’s website. The NPS also provides an annual Cherry Blossom Festival map to help you plan your trip as well as a calendar of cultural events including the National Cherry Blossom Festival Opening Ceremony and the Blossom Kite Festival. Check out more tips for enjoying the cherry blossoms in Washington DC.
25 Tips for Your First Trip to Washington DC www.casualtravelist.com

8. Some of DC’s best hotels are located near the White House and National Mall. With over 200 years of history the Willard Intercontinental elegantly marries modern luxury and historic charm. Located only 5 blocks from the White House, the Loews Madison offers boutique luxury within easy reach of many of Washington DC’s most popular attractions.

9.Spend a morning at the National Zoo with the famed pandas while they snack on bamboo or watch the sleek cheetahs sprint through their savannah inspired exhibit. As part of the Smithsonian admission to the National Zoo is free.25 Tips for Your First Trip to Washington DC www.casualtravelist.com

10. Featuring interactive spy experiences and the largest collection of espionage artifacts in the world the International Spy Museum is a must stop for any 007 fan.

11.One of DC’s most unique dining experiences can be found at the National Museum of the American Indian. A museum cafe you say? Here me out. The Mitsitam Cafe features cuisine indigenous to the Americas with menu items ranging from wild salmon and forage mushrooms to bison chili and fry bread.25 Tips for Your First Trip to Washington DC www.casualtravelist.com

12. The Metro is one of the easiest ways to get around DC  and if you plan on using it for more than a ride or two be sure to purchase a SmarTrip card. Available at any Metro station for $10, you pay $2 for the card leaving $8 for travel.

13. Context Travel offers in-depth tours led by local historians and scholars. Learn about the history behind the monuments at the National Mall or explore the National Portrait Gallery with a PhD level art historian.

25 Tips for Your First Trip to Washington DC www.casualtravelist.com

14. The final resting place of John F. Kennedy Jr., countless servicemen and women and home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; a visit to Arlington National Cemetery is a solemn and profoundly moving experience.

15.Union Market, a revitalized mid-century food hall has turned the NoMa neighborhood into a culinary haven. Slurp fresh-from-the-Chesapeake oysters at Rappahannock, a chorizo burger from Red Apron Butcher or savor Michelin-starred Italian at Masseria.

16. Getting the perfect vacation photo can be nearly impossible-enter Flytographer. Each photographer is carefully selected by the Flytographer team ensuring you not only get beautiful photos but have a fun experience with a local who really knows DC. When you return home these photos of your family among the monuments or strolling through Georgetown will instantly become your favorite souvenir. Read more about my Flytographer experience here.

25 Tips for Your First Trip to Washington DC www.casualtravelist.com

17. Georgetown Cupcakes may get all the buzz but cupcake-loving locals line up at Baked &Wired to satisfy their sweet tooth.

18. Cross the Potomac to visit George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon then explore the independent boutiques and restaurants that line the cobblestone streets of Alexandria. Check out my recommendations for other things to do in Alexandria.

25 Tips for Your First Trip to Washington DC www.casualtravelist.com

19. Looking to stay in Washington DC but away from the tourist fray? Check out the Omni Shoreham or the Washington Marriott Wardman Park. Located in the tree-filled residential neighborhood of Woodley Park, these hotels are within walking distance of the National Zoo and the National Cathedral and the metro puts the rest of Washington at your fingertips.

20. The routes of the Circulator bus system connects many of Washington’s most popular tourist destinations and neighborhoods and at just $1 per ride( or $3 for a day pass) its one of the most affordable ways to get around the city.

21. One of DC’s most exciting dining scenes can be found along Barrack’s Row in Capitol Hill. Head to Ted’s Bulletin, a retro diner famous for homemade pop-tarts. Foodies in the know line up at Rose’s Luxury(reservations only for parties of 8 or more), for some of the most inventive bites in the city.

25 Tips for Your First Trip to Washington DC www.casualtravelist.com

22. The newest addition to the National Mall the National Museum of African American History and Culture has quickly become one of the most popular sites in DC. While there are a limited amount of walk up tickets available on weekdays check out the museum’s website to obtain your free timed entry pass in advance.

23. Friday nights from May through August head to the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden for free jazz concerts featuring some of Washington’s top jazz performers.

24. Looking to save a bit of money on your hotel? With easy metro access to all of Washington DC consider staying in Arlington; the Residence Inn and Doubletree are good options and even the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City is nearly half the price of the one in DC.

25. One of the liveliest neighborhoods in DC, Dupont Circle is home to boutique hotels, embassies, independent shops and some of the most creative restaurants in the city.

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Do you have any tips for visiting Washington DC? Please share in the comments!

38 Comments on “25 Tips for your First Trip to Washington DC.

  1. It’s a really good article. May I share and translate your post to the Vietnamese Wedding website https://vow.vn so that all of their audience can read it? it’s alway good to have a preparation for a honeymoon trip to US, especially Washington D.C. Thank you so much.

  2. Having lived in the area for three years (a long time ago) I can say these are great tips – some new ones for me too. I’m intrigued by #11 and will have to check that out on my next trip. I love the Spy Museum!

  3. In terms of neighborhoods, what’s really hot right now is Shaw/U Street area and the Navy Yard. There are some great restaurants and bars popping up everywhere! Looking forward for the Wharf to be completed to see the new exciting additions to the city.

    • I haven’t had the chance to explore Shaw yet, I’ll have to get some recs from you on my next trip!

  4. I used to live in Northern Virginia and trips into DC were always so much fun! I love that all the Smithsonian museums are free to get into (including the zoo). Spending time down on the national mall hanging out is a lot of fun too…I always loved on a windy da seeing the people out flying kites.

  5. I just revisiting D.C. for the first time in a while so the tips are timely. I was bummed to miss the cherry blossoms due to poor weather but loved union market and barracks row. Agree that Shaw is another happening spot right now too!

    • Capitol steps performed at a conference for us last week. They were great!
      First trip to D.C. since I eas 9. It was the best!

  6. Excellent round-up of things to do in and near DC. You’re right about the mall being longer than people expect. A stroll around the Tidal Basin is a nice alternate—shorter and includes several great memorials. Love your Washington Monument pictures too!

  7. I love the idea of the photographer but think I would feel really self conscious. My favourite place to visit in Washington is definitely the Lincoln memorial though. It’s awesome
    Anne recently posted…How To Visit Seoul For LessMy Profile

  8. Solid list of tips for DC. I have been going to DC three times a year for the past five years and try to tourist at least once a year. I didn’t know the Mitsitam Cafe was so interesting. There is a serious lack of eateries on the Mall and I have actually gone to the Mc Donalds at Air and Space out of desperation. That’s not a worth while way to spend per diem but buffalo chili sounds pretty good.
    Jenn and Ed Coleman recently posted…The Game-TBEX and the Art of NetworkingMy Profile

  9. Excellent list. The cafe at Museum of the American Indian is one of my favorites. Good call. A cheaper eat is at the Senate cafeteria near the Capitol Building. I had a few lunches there and even ran into Bernie Sanders one day.

  10. A bit of updating: Paper passes are no longer issued for Metro. Each passenger must have a SmarTrip card. Also be aware that Metro is undergoing a great deal of maintenance and repair workfor the foreseeable future. This work means that operating hours are reduced, especially late at night, some stations may be closed for varying amounts of time, and trains are often crowded and delayed.

    When you use a Metro escalator, please stand to the right and leave the left “lane” for people who are walking up or down. Stand clear of train doors and never lean on them or try to keep the from closing. The doors are finicky and one malfunctioning door puts the whole train out of service.

  11. Love this list- especially the tips for where to stay depending on your travel style. Keep up the great writing!

  12. Thanks for sharing this Brianna! Will come in handy when we visit! We’re planning a side trip to DC this coming January – its our only time to go – i know its suppose to be cold. but shame not to go considering I’m going to be on that side of the world then. We live in Manila.
    Any tips for a January trip?

    • Kathleen, it will be cold as most of the US East Coast will be and there is a likelihood for snowstorms but I would not let that stop you from visiting. DC has some of the best museums in the world, many of which are free and the monuments lit up at night are amazing.

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  14. We are planning a family trip to Washington/Baltimore area this summer! Your blog is very informative and easy to follow. Do you know of any free tour guides that visitors can use during their time out there? Would you recommend a bus tour?

    • Thank you so much for your kind words! The bus tours are a great way to get an overview of the city if you have a short amount of time. DC by Foot and Walk of the Town both offer “Pay what you wish” tours so you pay what you feel the tour was worth (basically tipping the guide based on your experience with them.

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