Ultimate Guide to Washington, DC
The great thing about living in great places like DC is that people often come to visit! Having lived in Austin, I’m not a stranger to out-of-towners invading the streets on Segways – but DC tourists are their own breed. Thousands of kids, tour groups and conference goers come in by the bus load daily. And though Washington has a big city feel, it’s not that big of a place geographically, so you can imagine how dense it can be with people with maps and matching shirts asking you for directions.
Since people I know come here so often, I regularly find myself being asked for tips or recommendations. I love nothing more than showing off my hometown to others, but it can be exhausting. So I figured I might as well share these tips with the world while at the same time create a place that I can reference favorites easily. So here’s a handy little cheat sheet (check back often as I’ll do my best to keep it updated).
A GUIDE TO THE NATION’S CAPITOL
DC is nicely nestled along the Mason Dixion Line. It’s not quite the South or the North. Just like the town, it’s pretty partisan. It’s not only home to all the government agencies and non-profits, there are also a number of many major corporations doing business here: LivingSocial, Google, Discovery Channel, NatGeo/Travel Channel, NPR, PBS, Marriott – just to name a few. It’s a cultural melting pot, a hot bed of transplants and hardly anyone you meet is from DC. As a result, there is a plethora of cuisine, languages, and overall appreciation for other regions and nationalities in DC.
In a city full of politics and policy, they sure know how to enforce the laws of the land. While there is no official attire, there is an unspoken dress code for locals: workout clothes or work slacks/suit. To blend in, keep it conservative and neutral or else you might stick out like a sore thumb. Alternatively, you’ll want to be comfy and functional for sightseeing. Need to go shopping once you get here? There are lots of shops here – from designer boutiques to big boxes like H&M. They are scattered throughout the city but the best place to shop local is in historic areas like Alexandria or Georgetown.
And if you have time, there are so many places are just a hop, skip and a jump away. The wineries in Virginia, the Delaware coast, even Philly and NYC. Being centrally located along the east coast makes for many fun, affordable weekend getaways.
GETTING TO DC
Flying into DC? You have three options within 30 miles of the city center:
- DCA (aka “Reagan” or “National”) – best bet, the closest and most accessible. Bonus: birds eye views of the monuments on takeoff/descent.
- BWI – the next best option, usually the most affordable flights. Take the MARC Train to Union Station but keep in mind service is pretty limited you must also take a bus to transfer to/from the train to the airport terminal.
- Dulles – the largest but furthest away from the city center. Not only is getting through security a pain, getting there is too.
GETTING AROUND DC
Once you make it to DC, there are tons of public transportation options – it’s just a matter of where you’re going, how much time you have, how much you want to pay and the weather. So if there is a parade, traffic or a monsoon, there’s always an alternative.
- Bike – my personal favorite way to get around town. You can rent a bike from Capitol Bike Share and get charged by the amount of time you use it. Perfect for zipping around to see all the monuments in a breeze.
- Metro – The fastest and easiest way to get around- it runs most frequent but most crowded during rush hour. Get a Metrocard and re-load if you’ll be here for a bit which also works on the bus (an under-rated, affordable alternative). Download iTransDC or Next Bus to your phone to see real time schedules.
- Taxis – All cabbies are required to take credit cards now. And also we have Uber, myTaxi and Hailo if you download the app those are a convenient and slightly cheaper options as well.
- Drive – If you rent a car, get it from the airport. If you need a car once you get in to town, you can use a car share service (either Car2Go or Zip Car) but they require a membership you must purchase ahead of time. And note if you do drive, you can pay for meters with your cell phone. Also. pay close attention to the signs!
- Boat – There are a number of water taxi services and sight seeing tour boats that can shuttle you around between Georgetown, Alexandria and Mt. Vernon. A fun way to see the city from another perspective.
- Walk – when in doubt, you can always walk! Although things look pretty close on a map, they are further away than you think. But you might want to save your legs for all the sightseeing!
WHERE TO STAY
As far as accommodations, there are plenty of chains, boutiques and even some historic hotels around town. Most hotels are downtown, near Metro Center or Chinatown but there are a handful elsewhere like Georgetown, Capitol Hill and NoMa. And all are pretty easy accessible to activities. It’s all just a matter of preference. I’ve mapped out some of my favorites (see below).
WHAT TO DO IN DC
There is no shortage of things to do when comes to getting your culture on. While it can be ambitious to try to do them all, they take more time than you think so pick your top spots in case you run short on time. While most of the national museums and monuments are open 7 days a week, be sure to check for hours beforehand and brace yourself for crowds in the peak season (April – September). And they may seem close together when looking at a map, they are pretty spread out so prepared to walk and/or take transportation (see above).
- National Portrait Gallery – see all the Presidential portraits and a variety of modern and traditional art. Cool atrium in the middle with cafe.
- Sculpture Gardens – outside and near the mall. A great place to catch your breath and take a break in the pavilion cafe.
- National Postal Museum – history of the mail system, just outside of Union Station.
- Smithsonians – from the Natural History to Air & Space Museums. Something for everyone!
- Archives – see the Declaration and the Constitution. It’s free but plan to wait in line or get tix ahead of time to skip ahead.
- Newseum – very cool retrospective on the world of media with rotating new exhibits. Worth the price of admission and then some!
- Spy Museum – supposedly great for kids, and if you’re into spies and such.
- National Building Museum – a history of the nation’s buildings and the building of our nation.
- Holocaust – free but during peak season, you’ll need to get tickets.
- Bureau of Printing and Engraving – visit the Money Factory to see where they print the currency notes. Free but must get tix during peak season.
- Washington Monument – It just re-opened to visitors in May 2014. Get tix to go to the top at recreation.gov
- White House – it’s magnificent to see from the outside or you can schedule an East Wing tour via your state representative or if you know some federal employees.
- The Capitol – visible from almost any part of town. To get a tour, make reservations ahead of time – free but you need to reserve a time slot.
- Library of Congress – right next door to the Capitol, free and open to the public, no reservations needed and worth a pop in if you’re in the hood. Be sure to go up to the viewing area and look into the research room.
- Supreme Court – also right next to the Capitol/Library of Congress.
- Monuments – Jefferson (across the Tidal basin), Lincoln, MLK, etc…
- Memorials – Vietnam Memorial & WWII
IF THERE IS TIME:
- Arlington National Cemetery – take the metro or drive to get there. Then walk around the grounds and be sure to catch the changing of the guard ceremony at the top of every hour.
- Mount Vernon – Estate of our First President. Must drive to or you can take a ferry from Georgetown or Alexandria. Be sure to stop by the Gristmill and Distillery (2 miles down the road, admission included with your ticket).
- Alexandria – Lots of charming shops and restaurants along the water. Check out the Torpedo Art Gallery.
- Marine Barracks – if you’re there on Fridays in the Summer they do a special night time parade and color show. Free and very cool.
- National Cathedral – north of town and worth a drive by if you are on the way to the Zoo
- Smithsonian Zoo – great for kiddos!
EATING + DRINKING IN THE DISTRICT
You really can’t go wrong when it comes to food in DC. From chains like Shake Shack to four star restaurants by big names and Top Chefs like Mike Isabella, Spike, Tiffany, Carla and Bryan Voltaggio. There are so many good options, almost too many to name.
But dining out in DC is pricey – about double what you would expect to pay in many other cities. Unless it’s a casual spot, be sure you make reservations or expect a wait. And don’t worry, if you have dietary restrictions, most places in DC are pretty accommodating for gluten free/vegan.
- Founding Farmers – amazing farm to table food and always packed. Make a reservation and so worth it for lunch or dinner!
- MBK -Three levels: Market, Bistrobar, Kitchen. All delish. Near Chinatown.
- Baby Wale – a nice dinner place in Shaw area.
- Table – French bistro but a little on the high end and off the beaten path, but really good.
- Right Proper – a cool little hipster microbrewery (one of my fave spots, usually a wait).
- A&D – fun little dive bar with snacky stuff.
- Red Hen – supposedly the best meal in town!
- Martin’s Tavern – 4th generation owned classic in the heart of Georgetown. JFK proposed there and many presidents/famous people favorited this spot.
- Clyde’s – another classic oyster place in Georgetown – watch them shuck!
- Old Ebbitt Grille – an establishment in DC.
- The Good Stuff Eatery/We the Pizza – one pizza, one burgers. Both Spike (Top Chef)’s restaurants and casual (order and sit down). The original locations are on Capitol hill but he’s expanding to other spots like Georgetown.
- Ben’s Chili Bowl – Stand in line and get a taste of one of DC’s most iconic spots!
- Union Station – there is something for everyone. Thankfully (for Matt), they have Bojangles.
- Union Market – something for everyone, a hipster/foodie paradise!
- Graffiato – Chef Mike Isabella’s flagship restaurant – Italian menu and not super pricey – but be warned it’s mostly woodfired pizzas & pastas (not gluten free but lots of yummy veggie apps and salads).
- Jaleo – Chef José Andrés does spanish style tapas. Amazing. Get the mini potatoes with dipping sauce (gluten free and veggie!) They will melt in your mouth.
- Le Diplomat – French food, on pricier side but really good brunch!
- Barcelona – Spanish tapas — delish! Michelle Obama’s favorite.
- Kapnos – Greek Tapas by Top Chef Mike Isabella.
- El Rey – Tex Mex in shipping containers w a big outdoor patio, right near the U street Metro. Some of the best tacos in town and it’s easy to get to.
- Thai X-ing – Reservations required for this hole in the wall (literally). Fixed menu served in a family’s home near Shaw.
- Doi Moi& Daikaya – Asian food, haven’t been but it’s supposed to be phenomenal!
- Tony Cheng’s (upstairs) if you want authentic Chinese food served Dim Sum style. Really great atmosphere.
- POV – Rooftop of the W hotel, photo opps of the monuments and see the snipers on top of the White House.
- Cantina Marina – Tex Mex and margaritas on the water!
- 1789 – Dine where the presidents did, a true treat in Georgetown!
- Odyssey – dinner and lunch cruises along the Potomac. Prices range from $50-75 but it’s a great way to celebrate and sight see while at sea.
BREWERIES/WINE BARS/BEER GARDENS:
- Dacha – outdoor beer Garden, lots of locals hang out here for happy hour. No restrooms, but they’ve got brats and pretzels!
- If you have a car and extra time, you can do a brewery tour on the weekends – start at Three Stars and make your way back to DC Brau and then Green Hat Gin & Atlas.
- Coco Sala – there is a storefront which sells chocolates or you can visit the sit-down restaurant which serves your favorite sweets with a twist.
- Georgetown Cupcakes – as seen on TLC. Great dessert spot but there is ALWAYS a line wrapped around the corner, have never actually been for that reason!
In terms of Brunch, this place takes my favorite meal of the week seriously. In fact there’s an entire blo dedicated to it, so start there. Still hungry for more? Eater DC also has the latest and greatest in depth reviews of restaurants in the area.
THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO DC
Since I’m a visual person I went ahead and mapped out all the locations/places listed above on a Google Map for your viewing pleasure…
Still need more reasons to love DC or come visit, check out the best of Washingtonian Magazine. And check back often, I’ll do my best to keep this as up to date as possible with new additions.