College Tourist Student Guide to Washington, DC
Make the Most of Your Trip to the US Capital.
If you’re visiting the United States, you must visit Washington, DC. There are plenty of great places to see and visit across the country, but you can’t miss the nation’s capital. You may be surprised to learn that the capital hasn’t always been in DC. The first capital was in Philadelphia, PA; history buffs will know this makes sense since the Declaration of Independence was written there. After that, the capital was located in Baltimore, New York City, and even Princeton, New Jersey among other locations along the East Coast. In 1790, Washington, DC officially became the home of the nation’s capital.
Located on the Potomac river between Maryland and Virginia, Washington, DC is a hubbub of political and cultural affairs. You’ll, of course, find several government buildings and museums, but also theaters, universities, bars, restaurants, and more. Because it is located in the mid-Atlantic, any time is a great time to visit DC. In winter, you’ll likely experience the beautiful sight of snow on the National Mall. In spring, you can see the Cherry Blossoms in their prime. In Summer, you’ll find an endless line up of fun activities for tourists. In fall, you’ll catch the leaves falling as you stroll through the parks and squares. With so much to see and do, you’ll need a few days to get the most out of your trip!
This guide will highlight the top 5 must see attractions, the backstreets with lesser known places to visit, the fun free activities you can enjoy without breaking the bank, and places to dine or dance. It will even help you navigate the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) system to avoid looking like a tourist.
What to See:
The White House: As the home to our commander in chief, this is definitely a DC must see. While you can’t actually go inside the White House without special permission, you can view the grounds and get pretty close. The area is closed off to motor vehicle traffic, so there’s plenty of space to take pictures and view along the fence. Be sure to see both sides.
Lincoln Memorial: He won’t come to life like he does in Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian, but he is still very impressive. It’s worth the trek to the far end of the National Mall. You can stop at a few other monuments along the way and enjoy the reflecting pool.
Capitol Building: This iconic building is the home of congress, both the house and the senate. Free tours are offered daily. You’ll get to see old rooms that housed a much smaller congress and supreme court as well as the beautiful rotunda. If you’re a US Citizen you can possibly arrange a private tour through your congressional delegate.
Smithsonian Museums: There are plenty of museums along the National Mall that offer something for everyone. Whether you’re a history buff, science nerd, or art collector, chances are you will find something that interests you. A more comprehensive guide of all of them can be found here.
The Washington Monument: This large monument rounds out the iconic geography of the National Mall. You do have to pay to go to the top, but it’s worth the trip to see the stunning view of the city.
M Street (Georgetown): A quaint street located in the Georgetown area. Here you’ll find fine dining and luxury shopping, as well as the delicious Georgetown Cupcake home of the TLC show DC Cupcake. The street still retains its colonial charm with cobblestone alleys and antique architecture.
U Street: Home to great restaurants and small live music venues. If you want a relaxing night out, this is the place to be. There’s the U-Street Music Hall that features some cool lesser known bands, Bohemian Caverns, a restaurant and underground jazz club, and the Velvet Lounge–all are within a few blocks of each other on this famous street.
International Spy Museum: Ever dream of being James Bond? Do you live for re-runs of Get Smart? Have you ever wondered what it’s like to work for the CIA or FBI? If so, you’ll definitely want to check out the International Spy Museum. Unlike most of the museums on the mall, this one isn’t free, but it’s worth a splurge. You’ll get to see real spy gear and hear the tales of former agents.
Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum: Madame Tussaud’s is a chain of Wax museums with locations all over the world, but the one in DC is unique. In addition to the typical movie and music stars, this museum features political and presidential figures including the first wives.
Adam’s Morgan: A fun cultural melting pot neighborhood located in the northern part of DC. This spot is great for a night out. There are plenty of bars and taverns. If you’re up for a challenge, make a bar crawl out of it. Visit in early September, and you can attend Adam’s Morgan Day.
Fun for Free:
The National Zoo: The best things in life a free, which makes this one of the best zoos in the country. You can see plenty of animals from almost every continent. If you love all things adorable, you’ve come to the right place. Many recent additions have been born in the zoo lately, including lion, tiger, and cheetah cubs, a seal pup, and Bao Bao the baby panda. Be sure to wear your walking shoes; this zoo will give you a workout.
American History Museum: All of the museums on the mall are free, but if you only visit one, you should make it the American History Museum. You will probably recognize some iconic memorabilia like Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers, Kermit the Frog, Lincoln’s Top Hat, and the First Ladies’ Gowns.
National Archives: See the documents that started it all. At the National Archives, you can see the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Don’t worry, Nicolas Cage didn’t really succeed in stealing them in National Treasure. The documents are certainly the main draw for the museum, but there a few other rotating exhibits on display.
US Botanic Garden: Stop and smell the roses. Literally. This lovely garden features plants from all different areas of the United States in themed rooms of the conservatory. It gets a little warm in here, which makes it a great stop in the winter, and it’s still enjoyable in the summer.
Movies in the Park: If you’re visiting in the summer, check out the DC Outdoor Film Guide. Many spots in the district offer free outdoor movies throughout the week. Pack a snack, some drinks, and a blanket to cozy up and enjoy classic film.
What to Eat:
Ella’s Wood Fired Pizza: Located in the Gallery Place/Chinatown area, this restaurant isn’t too far of a walk from the National Mall and museums and makes for a great lunch or dinner. The restaurant offers 10” individual pizzas or large 16” pizzas. However, these aren’t your average slices. The pizzas are served fresh out of the oven. Flavors are as diverse as di mare (pesto, shrimp, roasted peppers andpine nuts), melanzane (tomato sauce, mild goat cheese, red onions, olives, roasted yellow peppers and eggplant), lombardi (caramelized onions, gorgonzola, and rosemary), and more. If you can’t find something you like, you have the option to create your own from a wide variety of toppings.
The Board Room: A bar that’s all fun and games…literally. This unique bar located in DuPont Circle allows patrons to rent board games for a small fee. The menu is exclusively drinks, but you’re allowed to bring in outside food from anywhere. A few local restaurants will even deliver for free.
Mandu: DC is a melting pot of flavors, and this authentic Korean restaurant is full of flavor. Mandu has two locations in DC located at either 18th St or K St. The restaurant features a diverse menu with everything from bulgogi Korean BBQ to soups and dessert. It’s a little pricey, but portions are large enough to split.
Lime Fresh Mexican Grill: If you’re looking for cheap eats, hit up Lime on a Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. Their “WTF” deal is $2 tacos, $2 Mexican beers, and $3 Margaritas or Sangria. While their food is a little more chipotle style than authentic mexican cuisine, you can’t beat that deal compared to some other DC prices. Other offerings like quesadillas and burritos are reasonably priced, and each meals comes with a side of chips.
Food Trucks: DC businessmen and politicians alike love their food trucks. You’ll find these trucks throughout the city during the lunch time hour. Popular options include cupcake trucks, gyro trucks, noodle trucks, really anything you can think of. One of the best spots is in Farragut Square located less than half a mile north of the White House. You’ll find over a dozen trucks there and plenty of space to have an afternoon picnic.
DC is a melting pot of food, so you’ll find “local delicacies”of foreign countries from all around the globe. There’s plenty of foreign ambassadors and embassy employees, so they need a taste of home right?
If you want some “traditional” American fare grab a hot dog from any of the carts surrounding the mall.
DC Happy Hours: Looking for a night on the town? This website provides the most comprehensive list of happy hours throughout the district. You can sort it by day, location, or metro line, which makes it easy to plan your evening. Whether you want daiquiris in DuPont Circle or mimosas near Metro Center, you should have no problem finding what you want.
WMATA: Washington’s transit system is a colorful collection of lines that will take you all around the city. Purchase a SmartTrip card to save money over a paper fare card. With the reloadable card, you’ll save yourself the headache of trying to convert the proper fare each time and provide yourself with the convenience of easily exiting the station by swiping. The metro stations are definitely the easiest way to get where you want to be, but SmartTrip cards can also be used on WMATA buses. Pro-tip: Use Google Maps with the public transportation setting to find out what station is closest to your destination. Use WMATA Trip Planner to find out exactly what time your trains arrive. Follow @MetrorailInfo for delay information.
Capital BikeShare: Looking to get a little exercise while you see the city? Rent a bike from Capital BikeShare. This program makes it easy to rent a bike without the hassle of bringing it back to the same location. Rental docks are located throughout the city. You can purchase a 1 or 3 day pass and return it to any dock. Pricing starts at $7 for one day and $15 for three days. With over 300 stations throughout the city, you’ll easily get from point a to point b.
Uber: Don’t tire your arms trying hail a cab; make one come to you. If you download the Uber app, you can find out the number of cabs in your area and request one. The app even quotes you a price for the trip, so there are no surprises when you reach your destination.
What local customs are important to know or of interest to visitors.
“Escalefting”: DC is full of tourists, but it’s also full of people who work there every day. It’s common courtesy to stand on the right side of the escalator and allow people in a hurry to walk and proceed through on the left side. If you stand on the left side of the escalator, you are “escalefting” aka blocking them from making their train or getting to where they need to be.
So there you have it! Enjoy your time in the nation’s capital!