Updated: Aug 13
Washington, DC is an exciting travel destination that offers a mix of history, culture, and entertainment. There's also much to know before traveling to DC, including the best ways to navigate the city, where to stay, and what to do. Here are 6 things you need to know before planning a trip to Washington, DC.
Note: This post contains affiliate links. That means that we may earn a small commission if you make a purchase through one of these links. Those funds help to keep this site running.)
1. There are multiple airports of entry.
There are 3 main airports that you can arrive into when planning a trip to Washington, DC. Each airport offers very different amenities, and each airport is located somewhere different within the DC, Maryland, Virginia ("The DMV) metro area. The three airports are BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, DCA Reagan Airport, and IAD Dulles Airport. BWI and IAD offer both domestic and international flights, while DCA only offers domestic travel. I don't have much experience flying through IAD Dulles, so I will speak mostly to BWI and DCA.
BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport
If you're looking for the best flight deals at the lowest cost, BWI is your best bet. BWI is certainly preferable for budget travel to DC. As an example of the price difference between flying to BWI compared to DCA, a simple Google Flight search for flights from Dallas, TX to DCA May 16-20 runs $340 roundtrip. A flight to BWI is $265! BWI also tends to service more flights with Southwest, which happens to be my favorite airline. Don't let the airport's location in Baltimore deter you! From BWI, you can get to DC rather quickly by taking the Amtrak train from BWI into DC's Union Station. The train is a quick 30-minute ride, and train fares are very affordable. We paid $10.00 one-way for 2 people.
Pros: cheaper airfare, international flights
Cons: further from DC, fewer amenities
DCA Reagan Airport
What DCA lacks in flight prices, it certainly makes up for in proximity to DC's main attractions. DCA is the closest airport to the National Mall and is only a short Metro ride to many of DC's famous monuments and Smithsonian attractions. DCA only offers domestic flights, however, which means that if you're flying in from another country, you'll be entering the DMV either through IAD or BWI.
Pros: closest airport to National Mall, Metro accessible
Cons: no international flights, more expensive airfare
2. It matters where you stay in the city.
With the development of the DC Metro, Washington, DC is easily segmented in a number of unique neighborhoods with their own vibe and style. The District is also divided into 4 corners based on direction: Northwest, Northeast, Southwest, and Southeast. All of DC is pretty much walkable, but depending on the sites you desire to see, you may want to stay in a specific neighborhood. You can save BIG on a number of amazing DC hotel stays by registering for a free account with World Discovered Pacific, up to 60-70% off the public price.
If you're interested in African-American culture, stay in the Shaw community. The Shaw community is home to Howard University, one of the most well-known Historically Black Universities in the nation. Shaw is also home to the African American Civil War Memorial and U Street staples, such as Ben's Chili Bowl.
If you're interested in a younger, hipster crowd, Adam's Morgan is the place for you. Adam's Morgan has a number of small venues for live music and comedy. It's also known for its nightlife, with plenty of bars and restaurants.
If you're interested in international flavor, stay in Dupont Circle. Dupont Circle is home to Embassy Row, an infamous section in NW DC along Massachusetts Avenue that has a high concentration of embassies from other countries.
3. Parking is expensive.
Just like any other major city in the Northeast, parking can be severely limited. On our most recent trip to DC, valet parking at our hotel ran $45.00 per day. There is very limited free street parking, but metered parking can run anywhere from $2-5 per hour, depending on the time and day of the week.
If you think that you can get away with parking restrictions, think again! Parking rules are STRICTLY enforced, and breaking any parking rules can lead to heavy fines or having your car towed. All meters, Monday through Saturday, are strictly enforced, and many street parking options are limited to only 2 hours. When traveling to DC, be sure to check all street signs. Many neighborhoods may also require that your car have a special zone permit to park in certain areas. Abide by all parking and neighborhood parking restrictions.
4. DC Metro stops are everywhere.
A smart alternative to driving in Washington, DC is taking the DC Metro. The DC Metro is the best and most efficient way to travel around DC. The DC Metro has over 600,000 riders daily and is the 3rd largest rail system in the nation. It has over 91 metro stops throughout the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) area and is easily one of the best subway and train systems in the country. Fare prices during peak times can range from $2.25 to 6.00 based on distance traveled. On the weekends, there is a Metro flat fee of $2.00 per ride, making weekend travel even more affordable!
The DC metro now has 6 lines, with the recent addition of the silver line, that run throughout all parts of the DMV. The train is also very easy to navigate. You can usually tell which direction a train is going by identifying the destination station posted digitally on the front of the train. The tracks also undergo frequent maintenance, especially on the weekends, so you can be assured that railway safety is of upmost importance in Washington, DC.
5. Everything is free (almost).
DC is really the land of the free. Why? Because of the Smithsonian. The location of the Smithsonian offers access to a number of free museums in the heart of the city. Examples of Smithsonian museums include
The Museum of African American History and Culture
The National Zoo
National Air and Space Museum
National Museum of the American Indian
National Museum of Natural History
Other museums such as the National Archives, the US Holocaust Museum, and the US Botanic Gardens are also free.
There are also a number of other amazing, paid DC experiences, including Hop-on, Hop-off bus tours, immersive experiences, and museums such as the International Spy Museum, that make any visit to DC incredibly memorable.
6. Gentrification is widespread.
One final thing to know before planning a trip to DC is that gentrification is in full swing in the District. I lived in the Shaw-Howard community close to 10 years ago, and the community has almost completely changed. When you visit DC, do not be surprised if you see a dilapidated building juxtaposed against a brand new luxury apartment building. At this point, this is common. Although gentrification means that more money from outside of these communities are being shuttled in to revitalize neighborhoods, bring in more commerce, and clean up the block, this also means that community members who have lived in these spaces for decades are being priced out of their homes. All visitors to DC should be aware of this ongoing phenomenon and be respectful of the community members that have made DC the cultural capital that it is today.
Be sure to pin for later!