Top 10 Tips for First Time Visitors to Washington, D.C.
Updated: Sep 7
Every American should visit Washington, D.C., at least once in their lifetime. There is so much history crucial to the founding and running of our country in this one city that is just too important to miss. However, first time visitors to Washington can easily feel overwhelmed by the city and all of its offerings.
My wife and I have each been to D.C. on multiple occasions throughout our life but we had not taken our teenage children yet. So, we decided to make that one of our vacations this summer. As we traveled, I made notes that would be helpful for a first-time visitor. Here are mine.
Top 10 Tips For First-Time Visitors to Washington, D.C.:
Have a game plan. There is so much to see and do in Washington that it can be very intimidating. Most of the museums are free, which means that you can see a lot without paying very much at all. However, you do not want to spend the day wandering around all over town without knowing where to go next. You will waste a lot of time and walking energy. First, make a list of the things you want to see or do while in D.C. and determine the number of days you will be there. Plot these items out on a map or use a planning app such as Visit a City. Then, determine what will be feasible in the given number of days you will be there.
Use Public Transportation. Getting around in D.C. with a car can be very difficult and time consuming. Additionally, parking is hard to come by and expensive. The Metro subway and bus system is a great public transportation system that is fairly easy to navigate. In addition, most sites have a designated drop-off point, which means easy access to taxis, Lyft and Uber. If you are going to use the Metro a good bit, then I recommend purchasing a pass for the number of days you’ll be touring around in D.C. and downloading the DC Metro and Bus app (it’s free!).
Search for unique dining options. So many eateries–both chains and local offerings– abound in the D.C. metro area that you will not be short on finding something to suit your taste buds. However, dining can be very expensive. I recommend budgeting your dining dollars by saving the pricier spots for the evening when you have time to sit back, relax and enjoy a nice meal. Use food courts or local food trucks/carts for lunch. They are going to be quicker and will save you money over a sit-down restaurant. The food courts in the basement of the Ronald Reagan Building (couple blocks from the White House and just off the Mall) and in the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City have a lot of options and are easy to get to. Use the Federal Triangle Metro stop for close access to the Ronald Reagan Building and the Pentagon City Metro stop for the Fashion Centre.
Book early for the White House, Capitol, and Pentagon. American citizens may request tour tickets for the White House and U.S. Capitol through their U.S. Congressperson’s office. These requests must be made months in advance and require thorough background checks. While most people will get access to the Capitol, tickets to the White House are very limited and not guaranteed. Tickets for the Pentagon may be requested via https://pentagontours.osd.mil/. Requests for tour tickets to any of these locations cannot be done close to your trip. They must be done within the timeframe provided by your Congressperson’s office or the Pentagon site mentioned above. In some cases, you can ask your Congressperson’s office about access to the Senate and House chambers, which are not on the regular tour. Also, check to see if any of your congresspersons will be in the office on the day of your tour so you can meet them.
Check out the paid museums. In addition to all the free museums, there are some really great museums that require paid admission. Most of these places are worth the cost, particularly if you have a special interest in their exhibits. For example, there are the Museum of the Bible, The Newseum, The International Spy Museum and more.
Consider staying in the suburbs. Staying in the suburbs, such as Arlington or Alexandria, VA, can save you some money versus staying at a hotel within D.C. proper. Just check to see if your hotel will be near a Metro stop for easy access back and forth to D.C.
See the memorials at night. The memorials all lit up at night are very beautiful. They offer a different perspective than compared in the daytime. During the peak travel season, they are just as busy at night as they are during the day. Unpaid Recommendation: Looking for a private guide for day or evening tours in D.C.? Contact Brian McCauley, owner of Liberty Tours. We did an evening illumination tour with Brian and got some really awesome perspective of the memorials, the meaning behind them and even a Christian perspective. For more information, visit Liberty Tours at www.tourliberty.com.
Be mindful of what you carry around. In most of the buildings and museums you visit, you will have to pass through some type of security. So your bags will be inspected and you will have to pass through metal detectors. Minimize the time it takes to pass through security by only carrying what you absolutely need for the day. Some buildings such as the White House, Pentagon, and the U.S. Capitol have tighter restrictions that prevent you from entering with most types of bags. These sites also prohibit bringing in food or beverages.
Dress comfortably. You will do a lot of walking around D.C. We averaged six to eight miles a day on our recent visit. So make sure you wear weather appropriate clothing and comfortable walking shoes. Unless you have some kind of meeting that requires a specific dress code, then casual is certainly the norm while touring in D.C.
Easily tour Arlington National Cemetery. You have two options when visiting Arlington. You can either walk throughout the cemetery or you can pay for a guided hop off/on tour that will stop at several locations such as the JFK Eternal Flame and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Looking to visit the gravesite of a family member? You can request complimentary shuttle service to the gravesite at the Arlington National Cemetery Welcome Center. They will drop you off in the section of your family member’s grave and give you a phone number to call when you are ready to be picked up. Check out the free ANC Explorer app for navigating the cemetery and searching for specific graves.
Please remember that our nation’s capital has so much to visit and experience that you likely can’t fit everything into one trip, but you can certainly try! Looking for a travel advisor to help you make the most of your Washington, D.C., vacation? I would love to help you. Contact me and let’s begin the planning process.
If you have a tip to share about visiting Washington, D.C., I would love to hear it. Please post in the comments below.