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As cliche as it sounds, Washington DC is one of my favorite cities on the East Coast. Visiting is something that I recommend to everyone, as if the city isn’t famous enough on its own. My love DC is a combination of the history there and the immense amount of things that are free or almost free. (Free in terms of admission cost, obviously the city itself is very expensive in terms of cost of living.) I can imagine plenty of DC day-trip itineraries where the only costs are metro fare and food. If you want to stay overnight, you could potentially cut out transportation costs by walking and only pay for lodging and food. (For this post and the secondary one on lesser known sites in DC, all are free unless otherwise noted!)
Because I spent a year living right on the edge of the Maryland suburbs and the DC city line, I quickly learned to love the metro – and still do! While there are plenty of other ways to get around the city, I am convinced that a strategic combination of walking and metro rides can get you just about anywhere.
If you’ve never ridden a system like this before, the WMATA (Washington Metro Area Transit Authority) map may look a little confusing. But never fear! The different metro lines in DC are color coded and called by those names. So if you see a sign for Red Line Shady Grove, you’re going to be on the red colored line heading towards the final destination of Shady Grove. Your trips will always fall into two categories, either you’re staying on the same line or switching lines. If you’re trying to get to a station that is on the same colored line, then you’re only concern is which way the train is running. If you’re trying to get to a station on another color, then you need to figure out where the two will cross. Follow your line until it intersects with the color you are looking for. There’s your transfer station.
My biggest tip for riding the metro is to take your time. Yes, everyone will be rushing around. Yes, people are impatient. (I have certainly been guilty of this.) But moving slower than the locals around you is totally fine as long as you step to the side. For the love of the traveling gods, please do not stand in the middle of anything and ponder your next move. This applies to the entrances of the stations. The platforms. And the escalators. As long as you are aware of your surroundings and move to the side, the perpetually bustling locals will have plenty of room.
You can also feel empowered to ask someone for help. While someone obviously in a rush or with their headphones on may not be your best choice, I’ve seen plenty of locals coach tourists on metro routes either in the station or on the actual train.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch just like there’s no such thing as a free metro ride. (Unless you do it illegally, but I don’t want to turn your vacation into a run in with the DC Police.) Inside all of the metro stations, there are huge ticket machines. (They used to be orange, I’m not sure what color they are now.) Depending on your plans, you’ll need to pick what type of ticket you want. Usually I recommend an unlimited day pass or week pass, only because it keeps things simple. If you choose to put a set amount on it, you may run out of money and come back to these same machines. (They also have them right before you exit the platform, in case you don’t have enough money on the card to cover the route you just took. They work the same way.) Here is the WMATA link outlining the different pass options.
Maybe you’re reading all my metro directions and wondering what the heck you’re going to do with your car. Once again, never fear! Whenever we go to DC, I park my car at the Rockville Metro Station and ride the red line into the city. There’s a few reasons that Rockville is always my go-to. One is that I used to live there, so the nostalgia value is real. Another reason is that, as a suburban metro stop, Rockville usually isn’t that busy on the weekends. (In fact, I’ve never had to pay to park my car there on the weekends.) Also, if you’re coming down 95 South,(as I do) Rockville is far enough away from the city, that it will be busy, but you usually can avoid some of the city-induced chaos. The only downside of parking at Rockville, is that it’ll take you a good thirty minutes on the metro to get into the city center. In my opinion, it is much more relaxing to ride for thirty minutes than to drive in (potentially) heavy traffic and then scramble to find place to park.
Now that you’ve parked your car and gotten yourself successfully on the metro, let’s do some sightseeing! Since the National Mall is the most popular spot in DC, we’re going to start here. The biggest mistake I’ve seen people make in terms of visiting this area is not realizing how much is here and how spread out some of it is. This is not to say that it isn’t walkable, but walking from the Capital to the furthest end of the Lincoln Memorial is about two and a half miles. Depending on how much you want to see in this area, I’d set aside at least two days.There’s a lot here.
Starting Station: Union Station (Red Line) or Capital South (Blue, Orange and Silver Line)
These two stops would be my suggestion if you want to start up at the Capital and work your way down. (Because I park in Rockville, which is on the Red Line, I always start at Union Station.) You can also start at the Lincoln Memorial and work your way back. The only reason I don’t suggest starting at Lincoln is that there isn’t a super close metro stop, so you’re going to have to do some walking to get down there anyway. Regardless, there’s no wrong way to experience this area. Pick which spots you most want to see, figure out where you want to start, and then just go!
Because this area is large and full of things to see, I tend to think of it in chunks. One is roughly between Union Station and The Capital Building. The next on the other side of the Capital all the way down to the Washington Monument – this tends to be where a lot of the Smithsonian museums are. Finally my third chunk spans from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial and includes the Tidal Basin and Arlington Cemetery (if you’re up for the walk across the bridge).
The Supreme Court
Depending on when your vacation falls, you may or may not be able to visit the Supreme Court. If you can, do it. I had never really considered the Court an interesting place to visit until a friend finally came to visit and insisted. You’ll get to see the actual courtroom plus a museum that outlines the Court’s long history. I’ve heard that, if the Court is in session, the public is allowed to sit and watch. I’ve never done it, but it might be something worth looking into for your trip!
The Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is a cross between a library (shocking, right?!) and a museum. As someone who loves to look at books, this is one of my favorite places in DC. I’ve never gotten over standing on the other side of the glass from Thomas Jefferson’s books, which became the basis of the library’s current collection. (While I have no love for TJ, having a library so expansive that it could form the basis of a national library is #goals in my mind.) The Library also rotates out exhibits, so if you aren’t a book sniffer like me, you may still be interested in their current offering.
There are many different ways you can visit The Capital and even, according to the website, see Congress in action. The website lists the tours and how to book either advanced tickets or get them the same day. I have never visited the Capital, but, if it’s important to you, I would suggest booking early.
Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality Monument
Near the Supreme Court is a little known National Park Site dedicated to the fight for women’s suffrage. Housed in what was once the home of the National Women’s Party, this small museum packs a big punch. See artifacts, learn about the women of the movement, and ensure that the guides mention the role of women of color and racism in the suffrage movement.
On My Bucket List:
Folger Shakespeare Library
Tucked a block back between the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress is the Folger Shakespeare Library. Not only an extensive collection of Shakespeare’s works, but this museum is also billed as a gorgeous building with other exhibits and gardens worth exploring. I haven’t been here yet, but it is on my list!
There are so many Smithsonian Museums and Smithsonian affiliates that I would bore you by listing them all. Instead, I’m going to list out a few that I think need some additional explanation or context and also simply provide you with this link, that lists all of Smithsonian museums in DC – in case you need it for reference.
National Postal Museum
This is my favorite Smithsonian Museum and it is totally underrated. Maybe you think that there is nothing exciting about stamps (or mail in general). Wrong. Walk amongst stagecoaches, learn about the mail system, and take some free stamps home for your own collection. Just trust me on this one. (Note: This museum is one of the only Smithsonian buildings not on the mall. Located just outside Union Station, you should visit before heading past the Capital building otherwise you’ll have to do some serious backtracking.)
The American Indian History Museum
This site is tricky for me. Indigenous History in America is an under discussed and often ignored sector of this country’s history and it is so hard for me to say anything but that this is an essential stop. However, I feel like this museum could have more information and do more to dispel the narrative that Indigenous People somehow appeared once white settlers arrived and then have disappeared after the early 1900s. Indigenous folks still very much exist and live in this country. In my personal opinion, you should view this museum as a starting point and do some outside research once you get home.
The Smithsonian Castle
For some reason, I always use the bathroom here. Maybe because it tends to have less people, so the line is shorter? Also a good place to have a seat if you need to figure out your next move.
Museum of American History
The American History Museum is huge, but I have two favorite exhibits that I want to make sure you don’t miss. When you walk in, there’s a hallway that leads behind the huge back wall. Hidden behind it is the flag from the battle when Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner. (It is worth noting the conversation over the problematic history and third verse of the National Anthem that is left out of the exhibit.) My other favorite is the exhibit on the first ladies. See their gowns, china, and learn some interesting facts about the women who played an important (but underappreciated) role in our nation’s history.
Air and Space Museum
The true secret to the Air and Space Museum is that while the main museum in downtown DC is nice, there is a secondary building in VA with even more aircrafts that overlooks the airport. Named the Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center, it is a little tricky to get to. According to the Smithsonian website, you take the Silver Line to Wiehle-Reston stop and then get on the Fairxfax Connector bus. The reason I like the Udvar-Hazy Center is that, when I visited, it was decidedly less crowded and a much more relaxed experience than the main museum.
While the Holocaust Museum and the African American Museum discuss difficult topics, I would highly encourage you to try to visit them during your time in the city. Both are very popular and usually require tickets reserved in advance, so I recommend making these purchases early. (I say ‘purchase’, but I think it is only a few dollars to reserve them online.)
The National Portrait Gallery gets a special mention simply because I love to walk through the Presidential Gallery (with portraits of all former presidents, including the newly added Barack Obama) and the huge painting of all four female Supreme Court justices on the second floor landing. And the National Zoo also gets a nod because a free zoo is basically unheard of, especially one that has giant pandas.
(Note – neither of these museums are on the main strip between the Capital and the Tidal Basin. The Portrait Gallery is in walking distance, but is much closer to the Chinatown stop on the Green Line and The National Zoo is best reached either by Woodley Park or Cleveland Park on the Red Line.)
Walking around the Tidal Basin is one of my favorite ways to enjoy a sunny day in DC. If you’re working your way down from the Capital, then you’ll start with the Washington Monument, which is pretty hard to miss. A huge white(ish) obelisk surrounded by fifty flags, it is, as the name suggests, in honor of our slave-holding first president. You can also get special tickets from the Parks Service website that allow you to take the elevator to the top. While, I love a good aerial view, the top is totally enclosed, so it’s more like a view out of a somewhat dirty window.
Across the street from Washington is the World War II Memorial, which is marked by its huge fountains. While all the memorials are public areas, just be aware that, at any of the war memorials, you may encounter veterans or family members who are there for more somber reasons. From World War II, you should be able to see the Lincoln Memorial in the distance, on the other side of the Reflecting Pool. Between WWII and Lincoln is the Korean War Memorial and the Vietnam War Memorial, on opposite sides.
The Lincoln Memorial is probably your last stop before you actually head over to the Tidal Basin – at least that’s the order I always visit them. (The Lincoln Memorial is also where I suggest stopping to use the bathroom. Either Lincoln or whenever you get to Jefferson’s Memorial over on the rim of the Basin.) Even if you don’t need to use the restroom, there is a small museum under the memorial that offers some context on the construction and, also, gets you out of the heat for a moment.
You’ve probably seen the Memorial in movies, but there is nothing like seeing it in person. The statue of Lincoln is overwhelmingly large, and the view of the Reflecting Pool and other memorials in the distance was obviously designed to be photographed. Either on your way up the steps or back down, keep an eye out for the marker on the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech during the March on Washington.
Set farther back, but located almost right between the Washington and Lincoln memorials, there really isn’t a wrong order to fit the Tidal Basin into your walk. If you’re headed back towards the Washington Memorial after you’re done at the basin, then I would do Washington, Lincoln, and then the Basin. If you’re going to walk across to Arlington Cemetery, I would do Washington, Basin, and then Lincoln. Google Maps has the entire walk (if you walk all the way around the Basin) at about three miles. Memorials along the Tidal Basin include former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and former President Thomas Jefferson (who has the best restroom facilities – just in case you need them).
Depending on how you are feeling (and the weather), you could definitely walk from The Lincoln Memorial to Arlington Cemetery as it’s only about a mile. You can also take the Blue Line to the Arlington National Cemetery stop. Either way, this site is accessible. It is also huge, so you won’t see it all in one visit. The folks at the desk are an amazing resource in helping you decide where you should go and what order you should do it in. Some options include seeing the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. The gravesite of President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Brother Bobby Kennedy is also buried nearby with a plain and unassuming cross. Blink and you might miss it. (If you’re interested in presidential graves, former President and Supreme Court Justice William H. Taft is also buried in Arlington.)
Of everything there, the one historical thing that I is the Custis-Lee Mansion. A house with both a connection to George Washington and General Robert E. Lee, the twists and turns of this place are too interesting to miss. While the house is located inside the cemetery, it is run by the National Parks Service, so visit their website for touring information. The house has been closed for restoration lately, so double check before visiting.
Love DC, but feel like you’ve already seen all of these sites before? Keep an eye out because my next post is for you! It is going to outline my favorite lesser-known spots along with all of the metro directions you need to get there! Stay tuned!
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Copyright 2021 Dylaninthedetails
Hi, I'm Dylan, a photographer in the Philadelphia Metro Area. I love iced coffee, red wine, and am always up for binging Gilmore Girls or Parks and Rec..