An Insider’s Guide to Visiting Washington, D.C.

Adirondack chairs overlooking the Atlantic

Full of impressive history, architecture and dining, Washington, D.C., is one of America’s most compelling destinations and home to the U.S. president, many government officials and diplomats. Each year, more than 20 million people visit, which means the city’s iconic attractions are almost always busy, and reservations are sometimes necessary.

To avoid disappointment, whether Congress is in session or not, have a Plan A and a Plan B for each step of your Washington, D.C., itinerary. For insider’s insights, check out this multifaceted guide to D.C.

How to Get There

Parking downtown can be a challenge, but about a mile’s walk along the National Mall from most major museums, you’ll find all-day free spots on Ohio Drive or in the lots by the Jefferson Memorial.

Plan A: National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)

Since opening in September 2016, this groundbreaking attraction has drawn about 10,000 visitors per day, prompting the Smithsonian to create a system of free, timed-entry passes. If you can plan at least four months ahead, call 844-750-3012 to reserve passes; otherwise, a handful of passes are available daily on a first-come, first-served basis at the museum’s Constitution Avenue entrance at 9:15 a.m. On average, 60 people wait in line each morning for these passes, so arrive by 8 a.m. to increase your chances.

Once inside, head to the bottom level’s slave ship and work your way up through exhibits from emancipation and segregation to modern-day artifacts like the couch from “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

National Museum of African American History and Culture Plan ahead to beat the crowds and see one of the newest Smithsonian additions: the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo courtesy of Rex Hammock, Flickr.

Plan B: Neighboring Smithsonian Museums

Can’t snag a pass to the NMAAHC? No worries. It’s adjacent to other Smithsonian museums, which don’t require tickets. Discover deep-ocean creatures like the flap-eared Dumbo octopus at the National Museum of Natural History, or find a 15-foot-tall blue rooster on the roof terrace of the National Gallery of Art.

National Museum of Natural History While strolling along the National Mall, head inside one of the many museums. At the National Museum of Natural History, you’ll be greeted by this iconic elephant statue in the entry hall. Photo courtesy of Dave Dugdale, Flickr.

Plan A: U.S. National Arboretum

Dedicated to the development of ornamental plants and landscaping, the U.S. National Arboretum features a grove of every state tree, as well as a meadow studded with the Capitol Building’s original Corinthian columns. A visit to this sprawling, 446-acre garden lover’s paradise, located in Northeast D.C., requires a car. Parking and entrance are free.

The arboretum is open year-round, but the showiest months are April and May (when hillsides of azaleas are in bloom), as well as October and November (when deciduous trees are at their autumn peak). Private, free Anacostia River boat tours that depart from the arboretum’s dock can be reserved in advance for Saturdays in May through October. For more information on these one- or two-hour tours that explore the history, wetlands and wildlife of the river and arboretum area, email

National Arboretum See the National Capitol Columns and more at the U.S. National Arboretum. Photo by Bob Nichols, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Flickr.

Plan B: Union Market

In case of inclement weather, head to Union Market, a collective of local eateries and food, drink and craft purveyors that offers free parking. Sample D.C. specialties like TaKorean tacos, Peregrine Espresso coffee drinks and Co Co. Sala chocolates; or shop for homewares and gifts at Salt & Sundry.

Union Market Grab a bite from a variety of eateries Tuesday through Sunday at Union Market. Photo courtesy of Elvert Barnes, Flickr.

Plan A: Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Bei Bei the giant panda and more than 1,500 other animals live at the lushly landscaped, 163-acre National Zoo, which is especially popular in summer and on weekends. The zoo’s indoor exhibits open daily by 10 a.m., but the grounds open at 8 a.m. Arrive early to avoid crowds and experience many of the animals during their most active hours.

The zoo itself is free to enter, but its parking costs $22, so first look for a spot on Connecticut Avenue or a few blocks away on Porter or Macomb streets. The zoo’s dining concessions can be expensive and crowded, so you might want to pick up picnic provisions at nearby Vace Italian Deli or Little Red Fox (2 miles north; closed Mondays) and enjoy a picnic meal on the grounds.

Bei Bei the giant panda Say hi to Bei Bei and the other giant pandas while visiting the National Zoo.

Plan B: Washington National Cathedral

If the weather takes a turn for the worse, escape to nearby, gorgeous interiors that don’t require advance tickets. The 301-foot-tall neo-Gothic National Cathedral offers daily guided tours, 215 stained-glass windows (including one designed by a 16-year-old boy and another dedicated to the Lewis and Clark expedition), a gargoyle with the head of Darth Vader and covered parking.

Washington National Cathedral Located in Cathedral Heights off Wisconsin Avenue, the National Cathedral stands more than 300 feet tall and is just waiting to be explored.

Plan A: Capitol Building

If you want a free, congressional staffer-led tour of this world-famous domed landmark, you’ll need to make reservations as much as three months in advance through the office of your representative or senator. Or arrive as early as 7:30 a.m. to try to snag one of the few same-day passes available each day at 8:30 a.m. at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.

If you strike out, join a free tour of the visitor center’s two halls (10 a.m. to noon Monday through Saturday), which includes stories about the building’s construction, as well as the history of Congress and the early days of D.C. No reservations are required. Crowds at the Capitol are at their lowest on weekday mornings and during autumn and winter.

Capitol at Night Beautiful by day and night, D.C. visitors can’t miss taking a moment’s pause inside, or in front of, the U.S. Capitol.

Plan B: Newseum

Devoted to the First Amendment and free expression, this seven-floor museum just down the road from Capitol Hill includes a piece of the Berlin Wall, a poignant film about 9/11 and almost 400 historically significant newspaper front pages. Don’t despair if you can’t see everything in a single visit. Your ticket grants you free next-day entry, as well; book online to save 15 percent off the $13.95 to $22.95 ticket prices. The Newseum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but beat crowds by arriving as early as possible on a non-summer weekday — and don’t miss the sixth-floor balcony for great views of the Capitol.

Newseum As you enter the Newseum, spot a different daily newspaper edition from a city in each of the 50 states inside the display cases in front of the building. Photo courtesy of Shawna Pierson, Flickr.
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About the Author

A native Washingtonian, writer and editor Melanie Wynne lives on Capitol Hill and loves exploring her hometown. She’s written for Conde Nast Traveler, USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle and more, and can (often) be found on Instagram and Twitter.