Heading to our nation’s capital for a great family vacation or a quick getaway with friends? Check out this useful guide for getting around D.C. before you go and save yourself time and stress. D.C. is a very pedestrian friendly city and has one of the best public transit systems in the country, so it couldn’t be easier to navigate your way around this popular tourist destination. Planning on seeing a lot of Washington, D.C. attractions while you’re in town? Then be sure to pick up a Washington DC Explorer Pass and save up to 40% on combined admission on top tours, museums, and cruises.
Washington, D.C. Public Transportation
WMATA (Washington Metro Area Transit Authority) runs the trains and buses in Washington, and their systems are the easiest way to get around the city, hands down. Also known as Metro, the train system has even recently been expanded to better accommodate travelers and commuters coming from Maryland or Virginia. You’ll recognize Metro stations by the black pole with colored stripes and distinctive “M” marking. The bus system runs throughout more of the city, but with the exception of the Circulator buses is a little less user-friendly for out-of-towners. The Circulator runs throughout Georgetown, downtown, the National Mall, and more, so if you’re looking into buses, that’s your best bet. You can purchase individual paper tickets or SmarTrip plastic cards at any station, including unlimited daily or weekly passes. Because Metro calculates fare based on how far you travel on the system, there’s no set rate. Fare can be added at any machine, and they provide detailed fare guides to help you calculate how much you need to add. If you're coming from well outside the city and are headed downtown, for example, you can pay a pretty penny. You should also be aware that the WMATA charges “peak” and “off peak” fares, so it will be more expensive to travel during rush hour.
- Visit www.wmata.com to calculate your fare
- View a map of the Metro system
- View Circulator bus routes and schedules
Walking & Biking in DC
Due to a successful urban planning campaign at its founding, D.C. is one of the most logically organized and pedestrian-friendly cities on the East Coast. You’ll find that many attractions are clustered together in nearby neighborhoods, and you can easily walk the length of the National Mall, or from downtown to Chinatown. Streets in all of Northwest (where most tourist attractions are) are clean, well-lit, and relatively safe for pedestrians even later at night. If you prefer to be a little more active, consider renting a bike to enjoy the sights and sounds of D.C. without the hassle of traffic. D.C. has long been at the forefront of biking culture, and you’ll find that most roads in Northwest have bike lanes or are easily navigable by bike.
Taxis & Ride Share
Taxis are widely available and are fairly easy to flag down in popular areas. Fares are even cheaper than many other East Coast cities, so it’s definitely a good option depending on your transit needs. It’s also a good idea to look up a cab company and put their number in your phone if you plan on being out late at night, as you will have a hard time finding an empty cab later in the evening. Ride share is also a popular option in D.C., with companies like Lyft and Uber offering rides throughout the District and beyond. Keep in mind that you'd need to download the app for your chosen company in advance, so plan ahead.
Parking in D.C. is tricky but not impossible. While most locals use the Metro to commute, you can find parking garages throughout most of the city. They can range dramatically in cost depending upon location, so it's smart to look up the garages and check their rates before you select one. Sometimes restaurants, hotels, or attractions might offer validated parking (which can be free or deeply discounted), too. Be aware that parking near the National Mall is extremely limited and is likely to be quite pricey. Consider parking at a Metro station outside of the city and hopping on the train to come into downtown.
Other Options to Get Around
Another popular option for getting around D.C. is a Hop On Hop Off Big Bus Tour, which circulates to and from a bunch of popular tourist destinations across the DC area. Get on and off at your leisure! This bus picks up at multiple locations throughout the city, including, conveniently, at Union Station. So if you're coming in on a bus line or Amtrak, you can pick this bus up right out front.
Getting To Washington, D.C.
There are three primary airports used to get into the D.C. Metro area – Ronald Reagan (DCA), Dulles (IAD), and Baltimore-Washington (BWI). DCA is probably the easiest for out-of-towners, as you can use Metro to get into the city from the airport at a minimal price. BWI is larger with more available fares, but is a decent distance from D.C. proper. They offer a shuttle to the nearest Amtrak station, which you can then ride for a short jaunt down to D.C. Dulles is a substantial drive from the city and is best for travelers staying farther out in Virginia.
Amtrak is a very convenient way to get into D.C. if you’re traveling from the East Coast corridor. Trains come into Union Station, a centrally located and easy to navigate transit hub. Metro trains (Red) depart from Union Station regularly and taxis are readily available to get you to your next destination.
Buses are a low-cost travel option that many younger travelers enjoy. Most buses arrive and depart from Union Station. One last thought: moving to DC? We found this really extensive guide for those who are moving to DC - check out the DC guide here. They researched and put together a great list of everything you need to know to help you for your big move.