Sometimes our wanderlust draws us to daydream of places hundreds of miles away or on the other side of the world. However, who says exploration starts and ends with exotic places? One can devise an epic itinerary of things to do right in his or her own town. Sort of the “being a tourist in your own city” idea. For many years now, I’ve had the pleasure of living in the heart of the nation’s capital…Washington DC! You may remember reading about it in history textbooks, and beyond capturing the essence of the American spirit and politics, DC is a vibrant capital brimming with culture, adventures, and endless activities. I’ve really enjoyed brainstorming ideas, grabbing my camera, and writing up this post to showcase my city. Check out my Washington DC travel guide on everything to see, do, eat, and explore!
Your Complete Washington DC Travel Guide:
- Country: United States of America
- Population: ~680,000
- Language: English
- Currency: United States Dollar (USD)
Washington DC experiences mild/temperate spring and fall seasons, relatively chilly winters with light snow and in contrast, hot and humid summers. Spring is the best time of year to visit but the fall is pleasant as well.
Besides driving, there are two options:
- Train. Amtrak is the easiest, and generally reliable in my experiences, if you are coming from around the Northeast Region. To get to DC, book your trip to Union Station. From there, you can hop directly on the regional Metro into the city.
- Airplane. If you are coming from further away, flying is the other option. Ronald Reagan Airport’s (“DCA”) location is directly in DC with a Metro stop connected with it. Sometimes flights to Dulles (“IAD”) or Baltimore (“BWI”) are cheaper, and listed as DC airports but are about 1-2 hours away. To get from BWI or IAD one must take a shuttle or secondary train.
Washington DC Transportation:
Compared to the other big East Coast cities, Washington DC is relatively small. This makes the city quite walk-able and visiting the different sites easier. Besides walking, the Metro is the main form of transportation- a subway system of interconnected color coded train lines. (See map above). In any station you can purchase a metro card which costs $2 and comes pre-loaded with $8. The cost of your ride varies depending on your route. There is also a bus system with stops all around. And when in doubt, DC is well connected with Uber and Lyft. I’ve never had to wait more than a few minutes for one to arrive. Additionally, if you are into biking, “Capital Bikeshare” rental stations are scattered throughout the city.
Figuring out how to get around is not as complex as it first looks. It’s easy as ABC, 123 because Washington is one big grid! The streets running East to West are lettered, and the streets running North to South are numbered. Streets named after US states cut diagonally through the grid. Fun fact: there is no “J” street because in old-fashioned handwriting/cursive the “I” and “J” looked too similar.
Personally, the city feels quite safe. Walking around the main attractions or my neighborhood with friends or on my own I feel fine and am never too worried. However as with any city or place, it is important to be a smart and alert. Pay attention to your surroundings, don’t flash large amounts of money, keep an eye on your bag, etc.
Things to Do:
FTC Disclosure: This post is not sponsored but contains affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission based on any purchases made through these links. All opinions, experiences, and photos are 100% my own as a DC native for many years.
Marvel at The Monuments
A must-do for any visitor (or native alike) includes stopping to see the famous monuments. Of course these are all free to visit, walk around, take pictures of etc. Down on the National Mall you can marvel at The Lincoln Memorial, walk along The Reflecting Pool, stop at the WII Memorial, and gaze up at The Washington Monument. This is also a great running route! These sights are all especially beautiful at dawn, evening, or night time.
Note: Due to elevator issues, you can’t go up to the top until at least next year of the Washington Monument.
Catch the Cherry Blossoms
Ahh chances are, if you are reading my Washington DC travel guide when I’m publishing it, you are interested in the cherry blossoms. Every year, around March or April, people from all over the country and world flock here to see the beautiful cherry blossoms surrounding the Tidal Basin and Jefferson Memorial. When they bloom depends on the weather, so keep an eye out because sometimes the peak dates fluctuate. Although it is a tourist-y event, speaking as a resident it really is a fun time. The Cherry Blossom Festival includes live performances, music, and good eats. The festival commemorates the Japanese gift of the Cherry Blossom trees to Washington in 1912.
Stop by The White House
I admit that right now, who lives there now miiight seem like a reason to stay away. However, The White House has been called home by many Presidents over the years. It really is a true symbol of the American identity. It’s not far from The National Mall, and worth the walk over!
Explore the Plethora of Museums
Anyone who visits DC must take advantage of the Smithsonian Museums, 11 are located in the city and are all free. Yup…that’s right, free entry and open year round except for Christmas. (The National Zoo also falls under this umbrella). With such a vast array of museums, there is one for everyone.
My favorites: The Natural History, The American History, The Air and Space, and The American Indian Museum
Unfortunately, I have yet to visit the new African American museum due to crowds, but I’ve heard wonderful things so far. Additionally, The Holocaust Museum is worth visiting – very sobering but valuable experience. I admit I am not the world’s biggest art buff, but I enjoy the Freer Gallery (primarily Asian art), and the Hirshhorn Museum and Renwick Gallery for modern contemporary art.
Although not a Smithsonian, the Newseum is one of my favorites as well. It focuses on the evolution/timeline of print and digital media, journalism, and modern news. It cost $25 per person, but there are student and senior discounts. If any of those topics pique your interest, it’s worth the price!
Stroll the streets of Georgetown
Take a breather from academic and historical activities and visit Georgetown if you are in the mood for shopping. Most shops are found along M street. Nowadays, they are mostly brand names but some independent stores still exist off the side streets. Enjoy walking in the charming neighborhoods, along the waterfront, or along the C&O canal in the beautiful weather.
Visit the Capitol
Another true American icon…the Capitol! Situated on First Street/near the Capitol South metro stop, it is always a fun time to see where the magic of American politics happens. So of course, it makes it into my Washington DC travel guide. In terms of architecture alone, it is quite impressive. To book a guided Capitol tour, visit here. You can book through your state representative or senator, or directly through the site. I’ve taken this tour a few times over the years and enjoy it each time. You genuinely get a strong sense of the American identity, history, and politics through this. Is there anything more Washington than that?
Tour Embassy Row
Arguably, DC is also one of the most international cities. Walk along Embassy Row on Massachusetts and New Hampshire Avenue to see the embassies from around the world. Many of the buildings are very ornate and beautiful from the outside. Furthermore check out a tour here. Many also regularly host (ticketed) cultural events so if you are looking for a specific embassy, look up their Facebook Page and events.
See a performance at The Kennedy Center
At the heart of DC’s art and performance scene lies the The John F. Kennedy Center. Here one can catch musical performances (jazz, orchestral etc), ballet, opera, and more. Check out their schedule here. Trying to do DC on a budget? Every night The Kennedy Center runs their Millennium Stage performances which are free to the public, no tickets required. To get to The Kennedy Center, take the Metro to The Foggy Bottom metro stop and you can either walk or catch the free shuttle from there. Also, don’t miss getting a beautiful view of the city from the rooftop. Just take the elevator up and enjoy!
If you are more interested in pop or alternative music, check out the 9:30 club or U-street Music Hall. Both are concert venues that often host more contemporary artists.
Enjoy shopping (and eating!) at Eastern Market
If you are getting a bit tired of politics and want a taste of something a little off the beaten path check out Eastern Market, located near the metro stop with the same name. I love coming here to browse the marketplace and enjoy the delicious food. Insider tip: The indoor marketplace has the best empanadas I’ve tasted in my whole life for less than $5. The cannolis and hot pretzels are worth raving about. While eating, one can shop from many vendors and for a variety of goods including art, jewelry, handmade crafts, and more!
Read and relax at cute independent bookstores
One of the many things I appreciate about DC is the presence of actual bookstores. If you are a big reader like me, there’s plenty of options here! If you are in Eastern Market, get lost at Capitol Hill Books a floor-to-ceiling used bookstore. In Dupont Circle, check out one of my favorite places, Kramer’s Bookstore. Grab a good read and head to the back for a slice of cake at this indie bookstore for some down time.
Scope out the DC night life
Although many often joke DC is the type of city where people live to work (we really do, but I like to think of it as a good thing!), the city has a relatively vibrant bar and club scene. After all, one cannot live in the nation’s capital of America without some need to let loose sometimes. Hit up the Adams Morgan or Ustreet neighborhoods for areas with the most concentrated night life on Fridays and Saturdays.
Tip: The Metro closes early, at midnight, on weekends so Uber or Lyft = your best option.
Where (and What!) to Eat:
New York has bagels, Chicago has deep-dish pizza, Philly has cheese steaks….and DC has brunch! I can’t think of one dish we are known for but every native can unanimously confirm DC knows how to do brunch. In fact, it’s totally acceptable to use it in verb form and say “we are brunching” on the weekend. From omelets, to decadent french toast, to waffles and beyond, enjoying brunch is a total must. Furthermore, if you are 21+, no brunch is complete without (bottomless) mimosas. As the wise Blair Waldorf once said “Have a little faith, and if that doesn’t work, have a lot of mimosas.”
If the name Georgetown above rang a bell, it might just be because of the famous Georgetown Cupcake store. Featured on a reality TV show, Georgetown Cupcake sorta started the cupcake craze. To this day, lines of people wrap around the block eager to get their hands on one. However, I’ll tell you Baked and Wired is the better place to go. It is also located in Georgetown and trust me- skip the tourist attraction and go for the real deal. Nothing beats Baked and Wired’s cupcakes. Throughout my many years of living here, I have done lots of research…aka cupcake “testing” 😉
Besides cupcakes and brunch, DC offers a host of restaurants and an up-and-coming food scene which naturally has an international flair. Of course I haven’t been to every restaurant but of the many, below are some of my favorites:
- Ben’s Chili Bowl: In 2009, the DC mayor took Barack Obama here as a welcome to DC place to eat. Ben’s Chili Bowl is an iconic restaurant in the historic U-Street neighborhood worth the visit. You can get a chili bowl or hot dog for an affordable price and feel like you are dining in a local area. (Location: 1213 U St NW).
- Brasserie Beck: Modern, Belgian style food (Location: 1101 K St NW).
- Farmers Fishers Bakers: Sustainbly-sourced, made-from-scratch American food right along the Georgetown Waterfront. Great for brunch, lunch, or dinner. (Location: 3000 K St Washington Harbour).
- Jaleo: Renowned Chef Jose Andres’ take on festive Spanish cuisine in the Penn Quarter neighborhood. Get the paella. (Location: 480 7th St NW).
- Le Diplomate: Delicious French cuisine in a fun bistro setting (Location: 1601 14th St NW)
- Mission: A fun relaxed, reasonably priced Mexican-American restaurant. Bonus: Margaritas on tap and delicious sangria. (Location: 1606 20th St NW).
- Momofuku Ramen: While not exclusive to DC, one of the best ramen places I’ve tried here and in NYC. (Location: 1090 I St NW)
- The Source: Chef Wolfgang Puck’s modern take on Asian and dim sum cuisine. Very fun to sample many delicious dishes and the presentation is artwork. (Location: 575 Pennsylvania Ave NW)
Beyond the City:
If you have time or are staying an extended period, there are also many fun day trips outside the city to enjoy. Suggestions for day-trips include: Old Town Alexandria, visiting Baltimore (different vibe, cool city), exploring the natural beauty of nearby Virginia, and stopping by the National Harbor. Also check out fellow travel blogger MariaAbroad’s post on other Non-Touristy Things to Do in DC! She provides some great recommendations as well and hotel reviews in the area!
…Aaand this concludes my Washington DC travel guide! I’ve been pondering and drafting up this post for ages and am happy to be finally posting it. Travel writing for my own city has been such a fun experience and I hope this is informative for those looking to come here. Like, save for later, and share with a friend who may be visiting 🙂
If you have any questions about DC, I’m happy to answer in the comments below or shoot me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have you visited Washington DC? What did you think of it and enjoy while you were here? Or is it one of your bucket list destinations? Additionally, have you ever been a “hometown” tourist in your own city? I’d love to hear from my readers below!