Updated July 9, 2020.
It is Motivation Monday, and this week I’ve got all you need to know before your trip to Washington, D.C.! D.C. is not a hard city to figure out, but if you know these insider tips and tricks, you’ll be buzzing around like a local!
- The Metro: The Metro System is our public transportation and subway system. There are also Metro buses, but if you hear someone refer to “the Metro,” they are talking about the under- and above-ground rail system.
- The District: This is what people call our Nation’s Capital within its borders. “D.C.” stands for “District of Columbia,” so we call it “the District” instead of “the City.”
- The D.C. Area: This phrase refers to all of D.C. proper, surrounding Maryland, and Northern Virginia. Lots of people live in “the D.C. area,” but fewer people live in Washington, D.C., proper.
- The Beltway: The Beltway is I-495 around the D.C. area. Any map will show you!
- Inside the Beltway/Outside the Beltway: The area within the Beltway is, of course, inside the Beltway. In some circles it’s considered more distinguished or desirable to live and work inside the Beltway. It’s certainly more convenient! If you’re visiting D.C., try to get accommodations inside the Beltway. Outside the Beltway is everything on the other side of I-495, and it will take you longer to get into the District.
- Inner Loop/Outer Loop: This refers to the lanes of the Beltway. It doesn’t make sense to refer to the lanes as going north or south, since it’s a big circle around the city, so we refer to the lanes as the “inner loop” and “outer loop.”
- The Mixing Bowl: This is not something you find in your kitchen, it’s the place where I-95, I-495, and I-395 meet and create a large interchange. You won’t have to worry about this one unless you’re driving to or around the D.C. area, but if you’re driving and asking for directions, “the Mixing Bowl” may come up.
- EZ-Pass Lanes: This is really kind of complicated, even for people who live here full time! The pricing changes, number of people you have to have in your car changes, and you have to have an EZ-Pass stuck to your windshield to use them anyway–there are no toll collectors, except on “the Toll Road.” Please avoid EZ-Pass lanes unless you have an EZ-Pass!
- The Toll Road: There are more and more toll options popping up all the time around the D.C. area, but the toll road is VA-267, which is a road leading from the Dulles International Airport to I-66. Good news! You can get in a designated airport lane without having to pay the toll to and from the airport–but do not use these lanes otherwise, unless you’re ready for a hefty ticket.
Getting Around D.C.
I will address Metro soon, but for now, here are some other ways to get around D.C. on foot and not get lost!
- D.C. is set up on a grid. When D.C. was planned in the 1790s, Frenchman Pierre L’Enfant set up our fair city on a grid with circles and squares throughout. Some of our more famous ones are Dupont Circle, Lafayette Square, and Farragut Square. Streets running north and south are NUMBERS, streets running east and west are LETTERS, and avenues running diagonally are STATES (these create the circles and squares we all love to hate).
- On this grid, there are four quadrants. These are northwest (NW), northeast (NE), southeast (SE), and southwest (SW). You don’t necessarily have to be a human compass, but this is important to know because there is a 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW (that’s the White House), but there is also a 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue SE (that’s a McDonald’s). Make sure that address is correct, and pay attention to those last two letters!
- Wear your walking shoes! No really, leave your heels at home. Reserve your flip flops for the beach. Wear good, sturdy, comfortable walking shoes because walking is the best way to see D.C.!
- Use the crosswalks, and look both ways. Sorry to say it, but D.C. drivers will sooner run you down than stop for you to cross the road in front of them. They will run red lights right in front of a cop, even if you have the “walking man” right-of-way. Use the crosswalks, look both ways, and assume that the drivers will not stop, even at a stop sign. But don’t be afraid to walk around D.C.; just be smart.
- Don’t bother driving. Driving in D.C. is stressful, congested, and confusing, especially if you’ve never been here before. Aside from the circles and squares messing up the nice grid system, you will also find one-way streets that change direction depending on time of day or day of the week. You will also pay to park just about everywhere, and it’ll cost you $20, $30, or even $50 per day. The garages sometimes close at night before you’re ready to move your car. Unless you’re planning to go to some far-reaching places, plan to walk, Metro, or Uber everywhere you need to go!
- Uber! Stay tuned for a post all about how to use Uber! It’s cheaper for a family to take UberPOOL than to take Metro. For real.
Security is taken very seriously, as you might imagine. You will have to go through metal detectors and be subject to search (rare, but possible) at many of the buildings, including the Capitol, Supreme Court, Library of Congress, and some museums. Just leave your metals at home and be willing to give up your snacks just in case.
- Best tip about security: There are tunnels that connect the Capitol, Library of Congress, and Supreme Court, meaning you can skip security at two of those three locations!
- Check prohibited items before you go: U.S. Capitol Prohibited Items. Not all screening checkpoints are as strict as this (you can certainly have water most anywhere), but this will give you an idea.
Most museums in D.C. are FREE! The Smithsonian Museums are famously FREE, but other FREE museums in D.C. include the U.S. Botanical Gardens, National Gallery of Art (both buildings), and National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. Other popular museums that are NOT FREE are Madame Tussauds and the International Spy Museum. Be sure to plan on enjoying a few museums while you’re in town!
Check out Your Ultimate Guide to D.C.’s Smithsonian Museums
and How to Tour the International Spy Museum!
Where to Stay
Hotels in downtown D.C. can be expensive, but sometimes the convenience of being right in the middle of everything is worth it. If the cost is still a bit much to stomach, try looking in Alexandria and Arlington, VA. Prices should be better, and it’s sometimes nice to get out of the hustle and bustle after a day of touring!
- If you’re into nightlife, Arlington is your best bet.
- If you’re more interested in history and a small town feel, go for Alexandria.
- Both are Metro accessible and biking distance to D.C.
- No matter where you stay, make sure it’s walking distance to a Metro station or that the accommodation has a shuttle to the Metro. Map the location on your own and look for a Metro station symbol.
When to Go
D.C. is a great place to be any time of year, but the winters are particularly cold and the summers are exceptionally hot and humid. Spring and fall are nice, and fall is a bit less crowded than spring. Personally, I love D.C. in the winter time. It’s the least crowded, it’s absolutely beautiful in the snow, and everything is still open. Be sure to check out my posts on what to do in D.C. in Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, and at Christmastime!
See also: The Best Christmas Trees in D.C.
Getting to DC
If you’re flying to D.C., you have three options: DCA (Alexandria, VA), IAD (Chantilly, VA), and BWI (Baltimore, MD).
DCA (Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport): This is the closest airport to D.C. proper and is currently the only airport that is Metro-accessible on the Blue and Yellow Lines. It’s usually a little more expensive to fly into this airport for this reason, but they are very efficient here (especially on your way out), and it’s nice to step off the plane and onto the Metro. This one also has the best views before landing!
IAD (Washington-Dulles International Airport): This is our international airport. From here, you can take a cab or an Uber, but those will be on the expensive side to go all the way to D.C., even on the airport access roads. The Metro’s Silver Line is coming in 2019 (fingers crossed!), but for now, there is a shuttle bus to take you to the Wiehle-Reston East Station at the end of the Silver Line. From there, you can take the Silver Line right into downtown DC! That costs $5 per person, you will purchase your ticket at the desk at Arrivals Door 4 in Baggage Claim, and you can find more here: Silver Line Express Bus.
BWI (Baltimore-Washington International Airport): I’ll be completely honest, I never recommend people fly into Baltimore if your destination is D.C. You can take the MARC train to Union Station in D.C. (where you can catch the Red Line), but it’s not fast! It will be much more expensive and take longer to take a cab or Uber to or from BWI than IAD.
If you’re driving to D.C., be prepared for I-95, I-495, I-66, and VA-267!
I-95 and I-495: If possible, set your GPS to avoid toll roads. Interstate 95 is the main Interstate running north and south on the east coast, I-495 is the infamous D.C. Beltway, and they are almost always congested. Our solution is “HOT lanes” (High Occupancy Transportation) and EZ-Pass lanes. These are toll lanes, but there is no place to pay a toll. The tolls can change (I’ve seen them as high as $33.80 on the big marquee signs above the toll lanes). If you have an EZ-Pass, you can drive right through and you’ll be charged the toll of the moment. If you don’t, you’ll get a bill in the mail. Don’t worry! There are free lanes for these Interstates, but you might be in bumper-to-bumber traffic, depending on season and time of day. Avoid rush hour if possible!
I-66: For a long stretch of this highway leading into D.C., I-66 is all HOV–every lane. If you are only one person, you will face a hefty fine for taking this stretch of Interstate. Avoid it if possible, unless you have two or more people in your car, including yourself. Eventually, this will be a hefty toll road as well. (When last I read, the talk was $18 one-way.)
VA-267: This is a traditional toll road running from Leesburg, VA, to I-66. The tolls for this one are not so bad, and a few lanes still have a cash toll both. It’s $1 for any stretch from the beginning of the road in Leesburg until you reach VA-7 (there are signs warning you about the last exit before the next toll).
***This is also the Airport Access Road. You can take the airport access lanes for FREE to and from the airport, but if you’re not really going to or from the airport and you get caught, you will face a hefty fine and a ticket for your driving record.
The D.C. Metro system is easy to use once you know what you’re doing. Here is a quick rundown of what you need to know:
1. Stand to the RIGHT, walk to the LEFT on every escalator. Locals get frustrated when people stand to the left because everyone in D.C. is in a hurry. Do not stand two-by-two, do stand on the right with your luggage on the left (put it in front of you). And please do not stand in the middle so others can’t pass you!
2. Know the direction you want to go. The name on the front of the train is the name of the last station stop in the direction the train is heading. When you look at the Metro map, look at where you are, then where you want to go. For example, if you’re at Smithsonian Station, and you want to go to Arlington Cemetery, look at the color that goes through Arlington Cemetery Station. It’s the Blue Line! The Blue Line also runs though Smithsonian Station, so you have two choices: Largo or Franconia-Springfield. You can see on the map that the end of the blue line that goes from Smithsonian Station to Arlington Cemetery Station is Franconia-Springfield, so that is the train you want to ride. The signs up all over the Metro stations will tell you which platform to be on to catch the right train. If you’re still not sure, ask a Metro employee!
3. You MUST have a SmarTrip card to ride the Metro. You will need it both to enter and exit the stations, and you can purchase one at a kiosk in any of the Metro stations.
4. Weekend and night Metro runs less frequently. During rush hour, you’ll pay a bit more, but you’ll also have trains available every 9 minutes or sooner. On weekends, at mid-day, and at night, you could wait 20-40 minutes, depending on whether or not there is track work. Sorry. Metro is trying to improve themselves. We’re waiting for them to get it together.
For more, check out my comprehensive blog post: DC’s Metro System: A Guide
I hope you’re starting to feel completely prepared for your trip to D.C.! Do you still have questions? Let me know in the comments section below!
Want more? Check out my dedicated Washington, D.C., Page for all your planning needs!
Love this post? Pin it for later!
4 thoughts on “What to Know Before You Visit Washington, D.C.”
Thanks! Hope it’s helpful!
It is indeed