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10 Essential Washington DC Travel Tips for First-Timers

10 Essential Washington DC Travel Tips for First-Timers

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Are you visiting Washington DC for the first time? Check out these amazing Washington DC travel tips for first-timers that will save you stress!
This list of Washington DC travel tips was written by family travel expert Marcie Cheung and contains affiliate links which means if you purchase something from one of my affiliate links, I may earn a small commission that goes back into maintaining this blog.

Visiting the US capital and looking for Washington DC travel tips for first-timers?

Every American should plan a trip to DC at least once in their life. But it’s also a super interesting historical and vibrant city to visit no matter where you’re from.

Witnessing places like the White House and Washington Monument in real life after seeing them on screen is so surreal and exciting. Plus, there are tons of other things to do, many of them free!

But with over 17 Smithsonian institutions and over 100 national monuments, planning a trip to Washington DC can feel overwhelming, to say the least.

This guide will break down all the key information you need to know before visiting Washington DC for the first time.

These Washington DC tips will allow you to avoid common travel mistakes and have an awesome time exploring the capital!

Don’t have time to read a bunch of Washington DC blog posts and reviews? Here are some of our top picks for visiting Washington DC with kids.

Popular Washington DC Tours/Activities

Kid-Friendly Washington DC Hotels

Wonderful Washington DC Travel Tips for First-Timers

Planning a Trip to Washington DC

Figuring out what to see in Washington DC might seem overwhelming, at first. But as a first-time visitor, you will primarily be interested in two types of attractions: monuments and museums. Most of them are located around the National Mall.

Let’s start with monuments, memorials, and other iconic buildings. There are the White House and Washington Monument, of course!

Image of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, USA.
You’ll definitely want to see the Lincoln Memorial.

But also the Capitol and memorials like the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and war memorials. 

One of the best Washington DC tips to learn now is that the National Mall takes so much longer to get around than you think. Some memorials you will only pass by, while there are others you might want to stop and explore in-depth.

Switching focus to museums, there are 17 Smithsonian museums like the National Air and Space Museum, the National Zoo, and the National Museum of American History

Other popular museums include the International Spy Museum, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives. This is where you’ll find the Declaration of Independence!

One of the best Washington DC travel tips for first-timers is to make a list of your must-visit museums and tick those off first. You can always hit up more museums and memorials on return trips.

How Long Do You Need in Washington DC?

While there are enough attractions in DC to fill a one-week itinerary or longer, the best way to visit Washington DC is in shorter bursts to avoid getting museum fatigue. 

Image of the Washington Monument at National Mall in Washington, DC
There are SO many things to see in Washington DC.

On your first visit, spend at least three days in Washington DC. You’ll be able to visit most if not all of the wonderful memorials and monuments on the National Mall as well as some museums at a leisurely pace.

If you have a longer trip to Washington DC, consider taking a day trip to one of the neighboring states to inject some variety into your city break.

Getting Around Washington DC Without a Car

Unless you want to drive to Washington DC, the best way to get around Washington DC is without a car.

Parking is expensive and the public transport options make getting around Washington DC without a car much easier than other big cities in the US!

Image of Train cars arrive in a Washington DC Metro Station
We love using the DC Metro!

Washington DC has an underground Metro (or Subway) system that covers most of the city. You can get SmarTrip cards (travel cards) from the machines in the stations and refill those throughout your trip. These cards cost $2 to buy and you can either pay by trip or choose an unlimited daily pass.

Fares can be confusing as they differ by distance and time of day.

Metrobuses are the best way to get around DC when your destination is not accessible by metro. You can also pay for buses with SmarTrip cards or cash. Super easy!

Taxis and Ride Shares in Washington DC

Ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft are available in Washington DC. These services are ideal if you’re carrying a lot of luggage or you’re traveling in a group.

Uber and Lyft tend to be cheaper than taxis in Washington DC and they’re generally easier to get. However, you can hail taxis in DC, ask your accommodation to call one for you, or go to a taxi rank like the one at Union Station.

One of the best driving in DC tips is to actually make good use of the electric scooter and bike shares popping up in cities all over the world.

They are the perfect vehicles for navigating the flat paths in the National Mall so you can see twice as much in half the time! 

Download the apps for Lime, Spin, Bike, or any of the other six electric scooter companies in DC to ride one.

Book Popular DC Attractions in Advance

When planning a trip to Washington, DC, it’s important to note which popular attractions you can and can’t book and which ones you need to book in advance. Yes, even if they’re free.

Image of National Archives building in Washington DC viewed from the front
You’ll need to stand in line to check out the National Archives.

For example, you cannot buy tickets to visit the National Archives despite it being very popular. Just show up and wait in line!

But for some popular Smithsonian museums, like the National Air and Space Museum, you need to book a ticket with a timeslot. 

Tickets with timeslots (which cost $1) to climb up the Washington Monument always sell out, so check out recreation.gov weeks before you travel.

If you’ve left it to the last minute, a handful of tickets are released online the day before or at Washington Lodge the same morning.

Image of US National Capitol in Washington, DC. American landmark.
You can book a free tour of the Capitol Building.

Now let’s cover how to visit Washington DC attractions like the Capitol Building. Reserve free Congress tours as far in advance as you can, but there are often one or two tickets left the day before.

To visit the White House, US citizens can submit a request between three months and 21 days before their trip to join free public tours. Foreign tourists can contact their country’s embassy or consulate in DC to do the same. 

Explore the National Mall at Night

One of the best Washington DC travel tips is that if you don’t have enough time to explore the memorials during the day then return at night!

Image of Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC. The Jefferson Memorial is a public building managed by the National Park Service of the United States Department of the Interior
Nighttime is great for checking out the buildings.

Park rangers are on duty until 10 pm and all of the memorials have lights. The Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, in particular, look beautiful in the evening.

Book a Family Photo Shoot

Whenever we travel, we almost always book a family photo shoot with Flytographer. They are super easy, affordable, AND guarantee that I’ll be in some photos. You can get $25 off if you book through this link or use the code HAWAIITRAVEL.

Prepare for Airport-Style Security Everywhere

It’s not surprising that Washington DC takes security seriously. Expect airport-style security checks before entering sites like the Smithsonian Museums and Washington Monument.

Only take small day packs and leave aerosols, weapons of any kind (even nail scissors!), and glass items in your accommodation. Water bottles and closed food containers are generally okay.

Take a Historical Guided Tour 

If you’re traveling to DC with your kids, taking a historical guided tour during their first trip to Washington DC is a great way to get them engaged in US history. And you’ve probably forgotten a lot of what you learned at school too!

Washington DC aerial view with capitol hill building and street
Washington DC is massive and it’s hard to cover all the ground on a tour.

While a walking tour is great, the best way to tour Washington DC’s top sites is on a cycling tour. Even your youngest kids might be able to tackle DC’s flat cycle paths (opt for family bikes if not) and you’ll cover much more ground.

Money in Washington DC

International tourists should note that the currency in Washington DC is the US dollar (USD). 

As a busy metropolitan city, almost every vendor (even food trucks) will accept card payments. It’s a good idea to keep some cash on you in case you need to tip tour guides or you want to leave donations in the boxes at free attractions. 

man paying woman with dollars for the job
You’ll want cash for tipping.

Like the rest of the US, tipping in restaurants, taxis, and cafes is non-negotiable. Tip around 10% in casual, takeout spots but leave more for sit-down meals.

Dining in Washington DC Tips

For most visitors, your first trip to DC is going to be pretty touristy! There are just so many iconic landmarks that you have to check out when you travel to DC.

But some of the best non-touristy things to do in DC are the dining options. 

Union Market, near the train station, houses a variety of vendors serving international cuisine. You can dine with your family or travel group while all tucking into different meals!

The Wharf has a selection of restaurants ranging from breakfast cafés like Toastique, lunch spots like Falafel Inc, and slightly fancier options like Officina.

Safety and Awareness in Washington DC

Washington DC is a relatively safe city for tourists. Most of the crime is concentrated in certain neighborhoods, like Brentwood, where it’s unlikely that visitors will accidentally travel to or stay.

Image of WASHINGTON - JUNE 13: US Secret Service vehicle on June 13, 2013 in Washington. USSS was created in 1865 by Abraham Lincoln and employs 6,700 people (2013).
You should feel fairly safe in Washington DC.

While travel scams are uncommon in DC, tourists should still stay on alert for pickpockets operating in high-traffic areas. Avoid walking through dense crowds and keep a tight hold of your belongings. 

If you’re visiting a lot of museums with airport-style security, you’ll be constantly taking off your belongings and putting them through a conveyor belt scanner.

Stay alert so that other travelers don’t take something of yours (they may do it accidentally!) off the belt. 

First-Timer’s Tips for Visiting Washington DC FAQs

Is Washington DC worth visiting?

Yes, it is absolutely worth visiting DC! It’s home to some of the most famous historical monuments, memorials, and museums not just in the US, but in the world. Traveling to Washington DC is the best educational trip you and your family could have.

It’s also a diverse city with beautiful colonial-style architecture, fantastic restaurants, and alternative cultural institutions.

When is the best time of year to visit Washington DC?

Some might say the best time to travel to DC is at the end of March to early April when the cherry blossoms bloom across the city. Others might say national holidays like July 4th are great times of year to visit.

But the best way to see Washington DC for the first time is when the weather is warm and the crowds are low. Plan a trip to DC during the spring from March to May out of cherry blossom season or in the fall from September to November. 

You’ll miss the high season of summer which often brings oppressive humidity and fully-booked attractions.

Where are the best places to stay in Washington DC?

There are so many great neighborhoods in DC, but the best places to stay in Washington DC for first-time visitors are close to the National Mall. It’s probably where you’re going to be spending most of your trip to Washington DC anyway! 

Georgetown and The Wharf are great for families as they’re quieter with lots of amenities. Dupont Circle is a little livelier with plenty of bars and restaurants.

How can I get around Washington DC?

The Washington DC Metro system is efficient and reaches most tourist sites. Additionally, the city is pedestrian-friendly, and bike rentals are widely available. Taxis and rideshares are also options.

What are the must-see attractions in Washington DC?

Some must-visit sites include the National Mall, the U.S. Capitol, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian Museums, and Arlington National Cemetery.

Are the museums in Washington DC free?

Yes, most of the Smithsonian Institution museums and the National Zoo in Washington DC are free to enter. There may be fees for special exhibitions or events.

Is it possible to visit the White House or the Capitol?

Yes, but both require advanced planning. For the White House, you need to submit a tour request through your Member of Congress at least 21 days in advance. For the U.S. Capitol, you can book a tour online or through your representative.

Where are the best places to eat in Washington DC?

Washington DC has a diverse food scene. Check out the restaurants in neighborhoods like Georgetown, Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle, and U Street. The city is also known for its food trucks.

What are some good day trips from Washington DC?

Some popular day trips include historic Alexandria in Virginia, Gettysburg National Battlefield in Pennsylvania, and Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. Baltimore, Maryland, is also within easy reach.

Washington DC Travel Tips for First-Timers Wrap Up

If you don’t want to miss the most iconic and historic landmarks, the best way to travel to Washington DC is to prepare and plan in advance so you don’t miss out.

From what to visit in DC to the best time to visit DC, these are all the Washington DC vacation tips you need to have a fun and stress-free first trip.

Looking for more Washington DC travel resources? Check out the top kid-friendly Washington DC tours for families, best day trips from Washington DC, and the best Washington DC hotels for families!

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