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A First-Timer’s Guide To Washington, DC

Updated: Jan 4, 2023



My opinion — always — is that if you’re traveling to a new place or trying to get to know a city, you should do and see the things that make it unique. Washington, DC, is literally special for being itself: the political heart of the United States of America. As such, whether you’re an average American or a political history buff, the majority of the touristy places should be top on your list to visit during your first trip there. (Plus, they're free.)


But if you want to get your itinerary down to the most patriotic sights and activities (aka everything American history and government-related), this guide is for you.



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Tips For Getting Around The City

Wear comfortable walking shoes.


I don’t care if you’re dressed up or in sweats, some shoes that don’t hurt your feet after walking for miles and standing a lot are necessary in DC. The first day that I was there, I walked about 7 miles, and that was just from seeing the sights on the main loop of the National Mall. The second day I walked about 6 miles. Every monument and building can look closer than it actually is, so don’t underestimate the distances from place to place.



Pay careful attention to cyclists and scooterists.


If driving, keep in mind that there are A LOT of bikers and electric scooters, so always be aware when turning or changing lanes. Also, watch out for them while you're walking. Cyclists and scooterists are supposed to be on the roads, but many ride on the sidewalks (and some aren't very considerate of walkers).



Take the Metro.


From what I can tell and from talking with my friend who lives in DC, parking near the National Mall and the museums can be impossible. There aren’t really any parking spots in general; and if there are some, they are for workers or food trucks, not tourists. Additionally, with the number of roads blocked off around the National Mall for construction or security purposes with events and protests, it would be a nightmare getting in and out. For this reason, and the fact that it’s much cheaper than renting a car and paying for gas, the metro is the way to go.


As far as using the Metro, you first need to get a SmarTrip card, a physical or digital one. These cards can be ordered online or purchased at a Metro station. You have to pay $10 for it, but the card itself only costs $2 and the remaining $8 of that goes onto the card as credit. This card can also be used for the Metrobus. There are a few other options for SmarTrip cards, such as weekend passes, so do some research on the Metro website.


From here, use the questions below to learn more about this form of transportation.


  • Does everyone have to pay for/get a SmarTrip card? The only time a passenger doesn’t have to pay a fare (own a card) is if they’re under the age of five and are traveling with a paying passenger. However, there must only be two children under the age of five per paying passenger.


  • How much do Metro fares cost? Fares for the Metro in DC depend on the ride length, day and time. For example, the weekend is more expensive than weekdays. When I was in DC, going for about 6 stops was usually $2 or more on the weekend and less than $2 during the week. If you’d like to calculate what the Metro could cost you in advance, head to Trip Planner.


  • How do I add money to my SmarTrip card? To add more money to your SmarTrip card, locate the kiosks at the Metro station before you have to tap your card for your trip. You can pay with cash or card.


  • How do I use the card to get on the Metro? Walk up to the turnstile (you can use either side; as in, people are going in and out from the same turnstile) and tap your card. The screen on the turnstile will show you how much money you have on your card and let you through. Note: It shouldn’t charge you the first time. Next, you’ll do the same thing on your way out of the metro on your final stop. This time, you should notice that your credit has gone down.


  • What happens if I don’t have enough money on my card? You should always have enough money on your card when getting on the Metro. The kiosks are right there for your convenience. If you don’t have enough money on your card when tapping to enter or leave, the turnstile won’t let you through. So, keep up with your credit on your SmarTrip card. That said, if you think you have plenty on your card but have made a mistake and find that you don’t have enough when you tap to leave, it’s not the end of the world to have to step over the turnstile barrier. No, it’s not ideal, but no, the police likely won’t come after you. Just be sure to fill up your card as soon as you get through so that it doesn’t happen again.


Getting Around on the Metro


Now that you know how to use the SmarTrip card, it’s time to learn about the Metro itself. Washington, DC, has six lines, which are each known by a specific color. (For example, there is a "Red Line" and "Green Line.") Many of them go by the National Mall where you'll likely be hanging out during your trip, so what route you'll be taking to get there all just depends on where you'll be coming from.


The good news is that the Metro stations have pretty clear signs that tell you where each train is headed/what line it's on. Additionally, during your ride, the Metro tells you the name of each stop as you get to it.


Helpful Metro Maps and Apps


My friend who lives in DC recommended two different apps: Washington DC Metro Route Map (orange with a white metro on it) and Citymapper: All Your Transport (green with a white arrow on it). They allow you to type in your current location and the location you're trying to get to, show you which Metro station to use and which stops you need to get off and on at to reach your destination.


If you prefer the old school method or want a physical map just in case, you can find one online or at the Metro stations.



Where You Should Eat

As you’ll likely be spending most of your time near the National Mall, my biggest piece of advice is this: Don’t eat from the food trucks! Trust me on this. I know they look cheaper than other places and that they’re convenient while exploring, but that food is not food.


Instead, consider going just outside the National Mall (past the initial row of museums) to eat. One great option is to dine at District Wharf, or the waterfront. You’ll see signs for it when walking the the left side of the National Mall from the capitol building. It’s on the south side of the National Mall and close to The International Spy Museum. The waterfront is likely more popular in the evenings, but it would be a good lunch spot, too. You’ll find a lot of nice restaurants there, but there are also fast food-type chains nearby.


On the opposite side of the National Mall, the north side, past the row of museums, you’ll find more restaurants of all types. My friend and I, for example, ate at Immigrant Food, which is close to the White House. It had delicious, unique and flavorful sandwiches, appetizers, etc. I also stopped for some hazelnut gelato at Pitango Gelato on my way to the National Portrait Gallery from the National Mall.


And, of course, after you’ve explored during the day, if you have time in the evening, you can take the Metro and go to another district entirely for dinner. A few neighborhoods my friend took me to include: Mount Pleasant has a small town feel and its main street has a variety of food options; Logan Circle is a trendy area with bars, restaurants, clubs, etc.; Union Market DC is a creative area with boutiques, experiences, a food hall and other restaurants. But there are many more neighborhoods than these; this list is simply to show you that you have options.



Things To Do and See

The possibilities for your DC itinerary are nearly endless because there are so many famous sights and different types of museums. Here, I've narrowed them down to what most new visitors are excited to see or the things that they should do. (Note: Almost every building you will enter in this list will require you to go through security, and some establishments also ask for your ID.)


Buildings


This list includes the most famous government buildings, the ones everyone needs to get a photo of just to show they were there in person. And if you're into architecture, this section might be especially intriguing. There's a lot of Neoclassical structures, among other styles.



United States Capitol


This should be top on anyone's list when visiting DC. I mean, it's THE capitol of the United States of America. Be sure to get your photo in front of it, and if you're interested, sign up for a free tour (in advance). Open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., the US Capitol Visitor Center has guides that will show you the Crypt, Rotunda and National Statuary Hall. It also houses a café, gift shop, theaters and exhibitions.



White House


This is another one of those American government landmarks that is a must. So, go stand outside of the gates and get some photos through the bars. Or, if you're really interested in touring the inside, schedule one! Just know that it's not as easy as going online and signing up for a timed slot. There's a 21 to 90 days before window to get your reservation, and you have to go through a Member of Congress or and Congressional Tour Coordinator. You can learn more about scheduling a White House tour here.



Library of Congress


The Library of Congress might look like many of the other buildings from the outside, but the inside is what counts. This is one of those places that I would say taking a photo just of the structure is not enough. You have to see the pillars, paintings, arches and coloring, all done up with an Italian Renaissance flair. And if you want a cool photo for that social media platform, this is one of the best places in DC.


To get inside, visitors are required to sign up for a timed-entry pass with slots beginning at 10 a.m. You can reserve this up to 30 days in advance. Same-day timed entry passes are released at 9 a.m., but depending on the time of year, the openings could be limited. To learn more about signing up, visit loc.gov.


Once inside, visitors can view almost all of the rooms in the Library of Congress. The only unfortunate limitation is with the Main Reading Room, which would be a book lover's dream spot. Tourists can only view the room and take photos of it from a balcony above, and there's glass that acts as a boundary, so you can't see much or get a great photo. (To get into the Main Reading Room, you have to have a valid Reader Identification Card. This would be easy to obtain by locals who have the time but likely not for visitors.)


Other than the Great Hall, most of the other rooms showcase an exhibit of some sort. You can learn more about them in the museum section below.


The Supreme Court Building


Home to the country's highest Court, The Supreme Court Building is another well-known structure in DC. It might not be everyone's dream to go inside this building, but it is open to the public Monday-Friday 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. if you want to do more than just snap a picture.



Washington Union Station


Washington Union Station, also called "the grand gateway to the capital," is not a must but definitely something to consider visiting. Built in a Beaux-Arts style, the main entrance is worthy of some photos with its Greek and Roman elements. If you're planning on going anywhere else on the East Coasts via train during your trip, you'll likely be visiting this structure already, so just don't forget to allow for some time to look around.


Smithsonian Castle


The Smithsonian Castle is the home of the Smithsonian Visitor Center. I'll explain more about its exhibits in the museum section, but even if you don't have time or want to learn more about the Smithsonian, the building is worth viewing — inside and out. Built in the Normal Revival style, the castle was constructed with Seneca red sandstone. It's majestic, so take a peak!



Memorials/Monuments


When it comes to the memorials and monuments in DC, what you need to know is which ones are top on your list to see (because there are so many of them) and where they're located. For the most part, you'll be sticking around the main DC hub, as this is where all of the most famous ones can be found.


I'm going to take you on a sort of tour by section, starting at the Capitol and heading to the left (the south side of the National Mall) so that you can "visualize" the locations. But if you literally want to visualize it as you read, check out this map.


(Note: Some of these memorials/monuments are lit up at night, which I've made note of, and you can actually go on a guided tour to see them in the evening. Or you could go yourself, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend that.)


In Front of the Capitol

  • Peace Monument

  • Ulysses S. Grant

  • James Garfield



South side of the National Mall

  • Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial: Located in front of the Department of Education, this memorial is made up of a few different scenes from the life of Dwight D. Eisenhower. It begins on the side closer to the Washington Monument where you'll find a statue of a young man sitting and a sign with a QR code that you can scan to go on a free audio tour. Throughout the day you might also find a volunteer hanging out at this memorial, ready to talk about Eisenhower as well as share the fact that if you stand at a certain angle when looking at the scene of the Second Inaugural Address, Eisenhower looks like he's holding the Statue of Freedom on top of the Capitol building.


  • Joseph Henry Statue: You can find this in front of the the Smithsonian Castle. Behind the building is also Andrew Jackson's Downing Urn.


  • Commodore John Paul Jones Memorial: Be careful if you're looking to see this statue up close and use the crosswalk, as it's located at a busier "intersection" after the Washington Monument and just before the World War II Memorial.



Washington Monument


You can't miss this sky-high tower — it's a little over 555 feet tall and is even lit up at night. The Washington Monument takes center stage in the National Mall, and you basically have to walk around it no matter where you go in this district. Don't forget to get a photo in front of it as well as that cliché one where you're holding it or pointing at it from a distance.


Yes, you can also go inside it where you'll find an observation deck and museum. But be aware that the number of visitors for each day is limited. You can get tickets in advance or the day of, so check out your options beforehand here. One plus is that the Washington Monument is free to visit, but there is a $1 service charge per ticket.



Around the Reflecting Pool

  • World War II Memorial: Find your state as you walk through this beautiful memorial. You can even check it out at night when it's lit up.

  • District of Columbia World War Memorial

  • Korean Veterans Memorial: This is another memorial that can be viewed if you decide to go on a night tour.

  • Lincoln Memorial: Yes, walk up the steps and look inside where Abe is sitting. It's worth it! This memorial also shines brightly at night.

  • Vietnam Veterans Memorial: The wall has a spotlight on it at night.

  • Vietnam Women's Memorial



Around the Tidal Basin


  • Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial: Breaking off to the left of the Reflecting Pool, you'll find the Tidal Basin, which is surrounded by some of the most famous memorials. The towering Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial starts off this series and is lit up at night.



  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial: This is a depiction of Roosevelt's life with various scenes from it compelling visitors along. It's a beautiful memorial with many different small waterfalls in addition to the statues. It also is lit up at night.


  • Japanese Pagoda


  • George Mason Memorial



  • Thomas Jefferson Memorial: Don't forget to take a photo of this memorial from across the Tidal Basin. It's a cool view! To go inside the memorial and see the statue of Thomas Jefferson, walk up the path on the left side. The entrance is closest to the Tidal Basin. This memorial is lit up at night as well.


Other Locations with Multiple Memorials/Monuments

  • The Ellipse

  • President's Park

  • Lafayette Square

  • Stanton Park

  • Lincoln Park

  • Theodore Roosevelt Island

  • Arlington National Cemetery



Museums


This list could go on and on, so I've narrowed it down to just the main museums focused on American government and history. But be sure to search all of the museums in DC before you go because there could be a few you're really interested in that aren't on this list that you could tack on to your itinerary.



National Archives Museum

Daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. | Free admission


This is the museum that will really make you feel like you're in the movie National Treasure. The National Archives Museum houses the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and Constitution. All three are located in the "Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom." Pictures are NOT allowed.


There are many other exhibits, too. These include "Public Vaults," which displays original records, "Records of Rights," which features the 1297 Magna Carta, "Boeing Learning Center," a theater, which shows films and lectures, and other changing exhibits. So much can be learned about America's history from this museum alone, and the famous documents it displays make it a must on your trip.



Library of Congress

Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. | Free admission, but timed-entry passes required


In addition to taking a look at its beautiful architecture, you'll want to check out the exhibits in the Library of Congress. One showcases some of the most famous photos and images from America's library — 428 to be exact. "Mapping a Growing Nation: From Independence to Statehood" includes maps of the northeastern and southeastern regions of the United States. This exhibit will eventually include maps of all 50 states. Another display shows how comic books have influenced US culture. (Note: These exhibits are subject to change.)



Smithsonian Castle

Daily 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. | Free admission


The Smithsonian Visitor Center, or Institution Building, is a great start to your museum journey in DC. Smithsonian is the world's largest museum complex and a major factor in why DC is the way it is today. It includes around 20 museums, plus the zoo. This visitor center will tell you about how the Smithsonian got started and grew, its benefactor James Smithson and the architecture of the castle.



National Museum of American History

Daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. | Free admission


You could spend an entire day or more in this museum. It's huge! And the four floors truly cover almost every aspect of every day American history, from the food we eat and technologies we use to the wars this country has been in and the Presidents its had as leaders. I really enjoyed "The First Ladies" exhibit, learning about the Philadelphia boat and seeing Abraham Lincoln's real top hat. I'm also excited for the exhibit that's opening in December 2022 called "Entertainment Nation," which will bring together music, sports, television, theater and film.



National Portrait Gallery

Tuesday-Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. | Free admission


This gallery is so unique because not only will it take you hours to get through it, but it almost solely focuses on portraits. From paintings of historical figures to images of celebrities, what you'll find is art showcasing people.


And if you're wondering why this museum made the list for your first trip, especially since we're focusing on American government and the country's history, it would be because of the following displays: "America's Presidents" includes a portrait of every President of the United States; "Bravo!" and "Champions" showcase performing art individuals and sports figures; "The Struggle for Justice" exhibits civil rights activists; and "Out of Many: Portraits from 1600 to 1900" is made up of portraits of all types of people who helped shape the country.


These are just some of the permanent displays. There are many more rooms that are rotating throughout the year. If you're traveling with an artist, be aware that they might spend a great deal of time here.



National Postal Museum

Daily 10a.m. to 5:30 p.m. | Free admission


Where else in the country can you find a museum all about the United States Postal Service? This was actually one of the most interactive museums I went to in DC, making it perfect for kiddos! You'll learn about the history of this agency, the mail system, stamp collecting, postal security and other niche topics. You might be surprised by how much fun you have at this museum and how much you learn about the letters and packages that still arrive in your mailbox every day.



A 4-Day Itinerary For DC

How you plan your itinerary is entirely up to you, but in my opinion, you basically have two choices: look at the memorials and monuments on your way to the buildings and museums you'll be visiting, or don your walking shoes and take one day to simply see almost all of the statues in the area.


My personal preference is to view most of the memorials on the same day (no matter what, you'll be walking a lot) with some other sights scattered throughout and then take the other days to go to the museums and other buildings. If you do this, here's a potential 4-day itinerary.


Day 1

  • Capitol

  • Smithsonian Castle

  • Lunch at Smithsonian Castle or South of the National Mall

  • Memorials and Monuments from Capitol to Tidal Basin

  • Dinner at the waterfront (District Wharf)


Day 2

  • The Supreme Court Building

  • Library of Congress

  • Lunch north of the Library of Congress and National Mall

  • National Archives

  • Dinner at Mount Pleasant


Day 3

  • White House/President's Park

  • Lunch at a café at the National Museum of American History

  • National Museum of American History

  • Dinner at Logan Circle


Day 4

  • National Portrait Gallery

  • Lunch at the National Portrait Gallery Courtyard Café

  • Union Station

  • National Postal Museum

  • Dinner at the Union Market District


*If you're a go-getter when traveling, you can consider packing the activities on Day 4 into the other days to make it a 3-day itinerary. Or, you could stick to the 4-day itinerary and simply go to any of the other museums and free attractions, like the sculpture garden and botanical garden, that aren't on this list if you have time.

 

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