Visiting Washington D.C. - Tips and Advice

Johnny meeting our Utah House Representative John Curtis
As part of my son Johnny's Senior Trip, we spent five days in Washington D.C.  I definitely am not an expert on how to get the most out of visiting our nation's capital, but I hope I can help make your trip more enjoyable by sharing what I learned.

Before You Go 

Hopefully, you know more than 4 weeks in advance that you'll be visiting Washington, D.C.  If so, there are some things you'll want to do first.

Contact your House Representative.  You'll want to try to get three different tours from their office.

1. Capitol Tour - click here to make a request.

2. White House Tour - click here to make a request.  Don't get your hopes up on this one.  If you don't get tickets, be sure to stop by the White House Visitor Center.  You'll spend just an hour there at the most.

3. FBI Building Tour - click here to make a request.

Reserve timed passes for the African American Smithsonian Museum - click here to get your pass.

Purchase a SmarTrip card to use the Circulator and Metro.  Click here to purchase a card online.  Each person in your group will need their own card.

Where to Stay 

You probably know better than me what will fit your needs best. But I'll just say that we stayed at a wonderful Airbnb that was close to Union Station.  There is a free street car that runs East from Union Station on H Street and we saved quite a bit not staying within walking distance of the Mall.  The Circulator will pick you up at the Union Station and take you to most of the sights for just one dollar.

When to Go 

Again, you know your schedule best and what works for you.  We went the first week in December and felt like we had the city to ourselves.  Many times we were the only ones in a theater watching the film or at the exhibit.  We never had to wait in line to  purchase a ticket and frequently walked past empty roped off lines to get somewhere.  The week started pretty warm, low 60's and ended in the low 40's.  I'll take carrying a coat with me over long lines any day.

How to Travel 

Maybe living in New York City has affected me, but everyone is so nice in D.C.  Like REALLY nice.  Their cab fares are much lower too.  We used Lyft the first couple of days to get around and got lots of great advice from our drivers.  Once we felt more comfortable, we used public transportation.

Your SmarTrip card will work on the buses, Metro, and Circulators.  We probably used the Red Circulator the most.  We used the Metro to get over to the Arlington Cemetery.
For maps click here.  

What to Eat

The Mall doesn't have any restaurants and I didn't see any food carts like I do in NYC.  But most museums have cafeterias.  We were able to get a delicious lunch each day in the basement of the building we were visiting.  The only exception on our trip was the Holocaust Museum did not serve food. For $12 you can get a pretty hearty meal most places. 

How to Plan 

This is tricky.  It seems like you could live in D.C. for a year and still not see all that you want to see.  I would break up your day into two parts to get the most in.

Day Shift - 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Night Shift - 5:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.

The Day Shift is when you'll want to be inside the buildings.  Most are open between 10 and 4, but some open earlier, and most stay open later.

The Night Shift is when you'll want to see the monuments.  Since we were there in December, it was dark by 5:30 so we saw all the monuments in the dark, which frankly is the coolest time to see them.  If you don't want to see them in the dark, I'd plan going early in the morning before museums and government buildings are open.

When choosing what to see, I recommend you make a list beforehand.  My son had a list of 15 things he wanted to see.  We got all 15 done in 4 days.  His list kept us focused and helped us plan each day.  I think most of what D.C. has to offer falls under one of four categories.  I've given a few examples of each one.  Obviously lots of places will have overlap.

Current American Culture 
American Indian Museum
African American Museum
Business & Technology Museum
Holocaust Museum

Historical American Culture 
Museum of American History
Spy Museum
Holocaust Museum
Library of Congress

Current American Government
White House
Capitol Building
FBI Building
Supreme Court

Historical American Government 
Ford's Theater
Museum of American History
Presidential Monuments
National Archives
Portrait Gallery

These are some of the best museums I have ever been to, and we've been living in New York City and have visited Philadelphia and Boston.  Many times I would look at my watch and was shocked that three hours had gone by!  At first this made me nervous, but somehow we managed to visit over 16 sites in 5 days, and we probably spent 3 to 4 hours at each place, and even 6 hours at the Capitol.  We decided not to stick to a tight schedule, but spent as much time at each exhibit as we wanted. Somehow we still got to see everything on Johnny's list. 

Need to Know

Here is some general advice that I wish I had known: 

-If you can, try to travel light throughout the day.  You'll be going through lots of security lines.  Each building does it a little differently.  The easier it is for you to remove items from your person, the faster you'll go through the line.  Sometimes a certain Englishman had to completely empty his jacket and that took forever. 

-If you visit the Capitol, see if you can keep most of your stuff in your Congressman's or Congresswoman's office (again the advantage of coming in the winter) since just about everything is banned if you want to sit in on either the House or Senate in session.  If you can't, you can just check it in with security and pick it up when you are done. 

-Food and drink is prohibited just about everywhere.  Don't bother with carrying around snacks, just plan on getting what you need at the cafeterias in each museum.  Even water bottles aren't allowed in most places. 

-Check the hours of each museum before you plan your day.  Don't assume the hours.  Some are open as early as 9:00 and others as late as 5:30, but each one seems to vary just a little from the others. 

-Not all museums are free and some require timed passes.  Again, don't assume.  The Spy Museum and the Newseum are worth their admission prices.  Don't let the cost keep you away. 

-The red and silver cabs are everywhere, but it's hard to know which ones are available and which aren't.  Sometimes they have the available sign on even though they have passengers; sometimes they turn it off even when they are empty.  We found it simpler to just order a car. 

-We had every intention of buying the night tour for around $40 to see the monuments at night.  After walking around the Mall the first night, we changed our minds.  We decided it wasn't worth $120 to see them from a bus when we could see them up close.  We also had planned to buy a Big Bus tour ticket, but changed our mind when we saw how few there were and that the Circulator was only $1 and made almost all the same stops.