I just got back from Washington DC. It’s one of my favorite places to visit because history just seeps into you no matter where you go. Planning a trip to DC can be overwhelming and stressful if you’ve never visited the city before, if you don’t know how the metro works, and if you’re not familiar with the plethora of museums and historic sites in the city. I live in a tiny town with one blinking four-way stop, so visiting a city with congested highways and an intricate public transit system was a bit overwhelming the first time I visited. Here are some tips to plan a fun trip and make the most out of your time in the city.
1. First, decide whether you’ll fly or drive
This decision is easy for some people depending on where you live. If you live within a day’s drive, you can choose either option. Obviously if you live in Seattle or more than a 10-hour drive from DC, flying will be most effective, although more expensive. I live in south-central Tennessee and have traveled to DC both by car and plane. I just got back from a quick trip and I drove. The drive took an entire day. Although flying only takes 2 hours, I have to get to the airport two hours before my flight (yes, still), I’m always worried I’ll get bumped, and I can’t take as much luggage or food. Of course, there’s also the plane ticket price, but sometimes that is about equal to the cost of gas. There are pros and cons to each option. These days, since flying is no longer fun but rather a giant hassle, I tend to just drive. Pick the option that works best for you.
2. Pick your dates
The best time to visit DC is during the week. The crowds are obviously larger on weekends, it will take longer to get in and out of museums, and you may have to wait in long lines. If you can visit during the week, you’ll avoid some of the largest crowds. It’s also a good idea to avoid spring breaks and summer vacation if at all possible. Of course, if you’re visiting with young children, you won’t have that flexibility, but do some research to make sure there are no huge festivals or protests scheduled when you want to visit if you plan to go in the summer. If you do have the flexibility, I like to visit in the fall and the spring. The weather is more pleasant temperature-wise and there are fewer people. However, be careful in the spring to be sure you know when the cherry blossoms are blooming because that’s one of the most popular periods to visit the area.
3. Find a place to stay
This is the most important decision to ensure you have a stress-free trip, and try to find a place to stay as far in advance as possible. I usually just stay in a hotel when I visit DC (and the hotel needs to have a microwave and refrigerator!), but AirBnB has some good options now. However, one of the most important things you need to consider when choosing a place to stay is its location. Find a place to stay extremely close to a metro station. I can’t overemphasize how critical this is! The metro is the best way to get around in DC and metro stations are everywhere, but you really don’t want to want travel too far each day to get to and from the metro from your room. You can find metro stations on Google Maps, so when you’re looking at hotels, also check Google before you book to make sure there really is a metro station nearby. Metro stations are marked with a large blue box with an M. Many hotels will say they are “close to a metro,” but when you look, it might be a mile or more away. Pay close attention to that! You can find a metro map here.
If you are flying into DC, you can catch a metro from inside the airport, so try to find a hotel or AirBnB not too far away that is within a block or two of a metro station. This will ensure you don’t have an awful time toting your bags to your room. Good communities to look for a room if you fly in are Crystal City, MD and Arlington, VA. Also check inside Washington DC itself near the National Mall. You never know when you’ll find great deals on hotel rooms! Once I found a great deal on a room one block from the Mall!
If you are driving to DC, look at your route into the city and find a community on the way. For example, if you’re coming in from the west, Arlington, VA will be right off the interstate, so look for a place to stay there. If you’re arriving from the west, don’t get a room on the northeast side of DC because then you have to drive all the way around the city and likely through really horrific traffic. Last weekend I stayed at the Arlington Hilton. It was right off of interstate 66 and was easy to find. The main reason I chose that particular hotel (besides the great price, plus a microwave and fridge) was that a metro station is literally right in front of the hotel. I didn’t even have to go outside to access the metro station. That was really nice because the weather was awful!
4. Pre-order your metro cards
Do NOT plan to drive once you get to where you’re staying. It’s just not worth it! Plan to leave your car at your hotel or wherever you’re staying and just take the metro. It’s so easy to hop on the metro, zip to the National Mall or wherever you want to visit, hop off the metro, and enjoy your day. Metro stations I’ve visited are clean, safe, and efficient. You can buy a SmarTrip metro card before your trip pre-loaded with the fare you think you might need. This just cuts out a step when you arrive in DC. Instead of trying to figure out the machines for buying a metro card and loading it up with your fares, just order it in advance. You can also download an app for the iPhone and Android for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) with maps and schedules for all of the metro trains. It’s really handy, especially for people new to using the metro. If you don’t pre-order a metro card, you can buy one inside any metro station. Each station also has employees stationed at the entrance to the metro who can help confused tourists. To use your metro card, look for a green illuminated arrow on the top or side of the chutes into the metro. Just wave your card over the arrow to open the gate.
5. Try to understand the metro before you arrive
Don’t feel bad if you have a hard time figuring out the metro at first. I know I did! The key is to study the metro map, as well as a map of the city, and know what stations you want to access. First, know what metro station is closest to where you’re staying and note the color of the route leaving that station. The different colored routes on the metro maps are called “lines.” For example, there is a orange line and silver line in Arlington. So let’s say you’re staying in Arlington, the Rosslyn Station is close to your hotel, and want to start your first day by visiting Congress. You might want to go to the Capitol South station on the silver line. Look at a metro map below, find the Rosslyn metro station, and look and see if the color of the Capitol South metro line matches the color of the Rosslyn station. It does! So just get on the metro, pay attention to the stations you’re passing, and get off at the Capitol South station. Easy! When you’re ready to return to your hotel, just get back on a silver line metro and get off at the Rosslyn Station. And don’t worry, once you get to a metro station, maps are everywhere!
The confusing part comes in when you want to access a metro station on a different “color” line. If you’re staying in Bethesda, MD, which is on the red line, but you want to take a train to the Smithsonian, which is on the silver line, then you’ll have to change trains. On themap, some of the stations have double circles marking stations where you can switch lines. Get off the train at the Metro Center, switch to a silver line, and get off at the Smithsonian station.
You also need to pay close attention to the direction each train track travels. When you’re standing on the platform, one train will be going one way and the other train the other. Signs above each track will tell you the metro stations on the route. Pay attention to the signs when you’re on the train. If you travel the wrong direction, just get off the train, go across the platform, and get on the next train going in the other direction.
You also need to pay attention to the “color” of the trains. Some metro stations, like the Crystal City station on the map, handle trains traveling two different routes. If you need to take a yellow train to your destination, make sure you get on a train marked “yellow” and not one marked as another color, like blue.
6. Create a list of places you want to visit
When you start looking at the museums, monuments, and historic sites in DC, you can easily get overwhelmed. Here is a list of all of the museums just on the National Mall. That doesn’t include any of the monuments or memorials, the Library of Congress, Congress, or the White House. The first step to overcoming this feeling is to accept that there is no way you will ever get a chance to visit everything you want to see unless you are planning to be there for a month. Narrow down the options based on your personal interests and do a bit more research on those options. Prioritize the places you want to make sure you visit. For example, when I visit, the Library of Congress is always at the top of my list, and the Natural History Museum is also pretty high up there. I can take or leave most of the art museums (sorry, but it’s true). If you are traveling with your family or a group, decide whether or not you can split up for some of the activities. For example, if your top priority is the Air and Space Museum, but your son doesn’t care about that and really wants to visit the Museum of American History, can you split up for a few hours during the day to both visit what you want to see the most? Be aware that for new museums, like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, you may need to reserve advance tickets. The same is true for visits to the White House. Be sure to check out the website of each museum you want to visit to see if you need to do anything special. Oh, and visiting any of the museums on the Mall is free! Also keep in mind that there are some privately owned museums very close to the Mall that are well worth visiting. One of my favorite museums is the Holocaust Memorial Museum. I think everyone should visit this museum at least once. You need to pay an admission fee since it is not federally owned. Another fun privately owned museum not far from the mall is the International Spy Museum.
7. Prioritize your list and make a tentative itinerary based on museum locations
Get a map of the National Mall and surrounding area and find the museums you want to visit. Highlight each location you really want to visit. Everything you want to see will likely will be really spread out. Start to think about what you want to see on each day of your trip and the most efficient way to get to everything. For example, if you want to visit several museums near the Congress, but you also want to visit Arlington National Cemetery, the Jefferson Memorial, and all of the memorials near the Washington Monument, and you have three days, you can plan to visit museums near Congress on your first day, museums and monuments closer to the Washington Monument the second day, and the Jefferson Memorial, the cemetery, and any remaining museums on your last day. What you want to avoid is traveling long distances up and down the Mall when you can just visit several museums and memorials close to each other. Of course, also plan to be flexible. You might see a small museum or memorial you didn’t consider visiting, but looks intriguing as you walk by. Give yourself some flexibility in your schedule. Also consider taking a walk after dark around the museums and the monuments. Although the museums all close at 5:30, all of the museums and monuments are nicely illuminated at night and a nighttime walk in nice weather is an incredible experience.
8. Think about food for your trip
If you want to eat at a restaurant for every meal, look at restaurant options near your hotel and also near the museums you plan to visit. There are no private restaurants on the Mall itself, but usually small cafes are inside the major museums on the Mall. However, they can be expensive and don’t have a huge selection of food (most of them do have good coffee though!). I am one of those people who like to take much of my own food, and that’s why I like having a microwave and fridge in my room. Usually I’ll bring my own breakfast unless the hotel offers a free continental breakfast. I will make a bowl of cereal or oatmeal, and sometimes bring hard boiled eggs. I try to keep breakfast simple, yet filling. No matter what you do in DC, you’ll walk a LOT, so be sure not to skimp on breakfast! You’ll need the energy! I also usually take a snack with me in my purse, and sometimes actual lunch. I sometimes pack a sandwich, energy bar, piece of fruit, and a bottle of water. I take a large purse, and you can also carry a very small backpack or fanny pack with you (do not bring a large backpack because you might damage museum exhibits). Museum security will always check your bags, so don’t put too much in them. You can’t eat or drink inside the museums unless you find a cafe, but you can eat eat outside anywhere you want. Just a note about restaurants: I don’t like most of the options in Mall museums. They’re just kind of blah, but they’re also really expensive. The only exception is the National Museum of the American Indian. It has the BEST restaurant! There are so many delicious and unique options that I make a point to eat at the restaurant on every visit. It’s only open from 11-3, so you can’t eat dinner there. Often, after the museums close at 5:30, I return to my hotel, make something for dinner, then maybe go out again after I eat. This is obviously only a good option if your hotel is not too far from the Mall.
9. Think about clothes and shoes
You will walk. And walk some more. Then walk some more. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes! A trip to DC is not the time to wear cute shoes–focus on comfort. If you wear ill-fitting shoes, you will likely get blisters and will be in too much pain to enjoy the trip. The same is true for clothes. Wear what is comfortable. If you are visiting in cool weather, dress in layers so you can pull on a light jacket if you get chilly, but can take the jacket off indoors. Also check the weather forecast and if you think it might rain, pack a rain jacket or umbrella. If rain catches you unprepared, you can buy ponchos and umbrellas at most of the museum stores. If you bring extra clothes, also plan to bring a backpack instead of a purse so you can stuff extra clothes and your umbrella in the backpack.
Washington DC is a beautiful, historic city that will make you happy and giddy if you like museums as much as I do. If you have a good idea of what you want to see, have a plan for the most efficient ways to get to all of the museums you want to visit, and you have a plan to get in and out of the city each day, you will have a stress-free trip. Enjoy the museums and monuments, take lots of pictures, and soak in the history!