Know Before You Go: Washington, D.C.

Traveling to an unfamiliar destination can be stressful and overwhelming — and while there are oodles of travel sites, books, and blogs to recommend the hottest new this or the cheapest that, there are few places to turn for practical information that will save you time, and keep you safe. That’s why we’re kicking off a new series on the blog called Know Before You Go.

We’re starting with Washington, D.C. because it’s simply the city we know best, but we need help from the locals in other cities around the world to keep it going.

Do you have Know Before You Go tips for your city? Share them in the comment section below or use the #B4UGO hashtag and shout out @NatGeoTraveler on Twitter.

Know Before You Go: Washington, D.C.

>> When to go:

Spring or fall. D.C. is a popular destination in the summer, but the low-lying city can become oppressively hot and humid, especially in August. Trust a local, come in October or April.

>> Getting there:

Fly in to Reagan National Airport (DCA) if you can. Reagan (many locals still call it “National”) is the closest airport to the city by far, and the only one that’s accessible by Metro (subway). Catch a blue or yellow line train in to D.C. — or jump in a cab for a $20 ride.

If it’s a much better deal to fly into Baltimore/Washington International (BWI) or Dulles International (IAD), opt for BWI. From there you can take a shuttle to catch a MARC or Amtrak train into centrally located Union Station.

>> Getting around once you’re there:

Know the grid. The city is organized in a grid pattern, with lettered streets running east-west and numbered streets running north-south. Diagonal streets — usually named after states — interrupt the grid and often intersect at circles (there are more than 30 in the city). The city is comprised of four quadrants (NE, NW, SE, and SW), which spread out from the U.S. Capitol. Look for the quadrant abbreviation on street signs to tell you where you are, and take care to specify the correct quadrant or you could end up in a place you don’t want to be.

Walk! Washington is a pedestrian’s dream, and walking is by far the best way to see the city. But watch out for bikers and drivers. D.C. drivers are not always on the look out, especially when wrangling rush-hour traffic, and cyclists can get huffy if you walk through their right of way. And (sad but true) don’t assume anyone will stop for you at cross walks. Make sure you have a clear path.

Join Capital Bikeshare. D.C. has really upped the ante when it comes to being a bike-friendly city, and having access to wheels (and more than 175 pick-up and drop-off stations) can add another dimension to your sightseeing abilities. Become a Bikeshare member for a day or three days, and use their bright red bikes to get around D.C. Check one out, ride to a destination, and check it back in. But remember to pack your bike helmet!

Take the Metro. D.C. subways are air conditioned, (mostly) clean, and highly convenient. Purchase a reusable SmarTrip card online before your trip to avoid lines and save money (trips taken using a SmarTrip card cost $1 less than those taken using a paper fare card). And since it’s registered, if you lose it, you can get a new one (without losing the money that was on it) for a $5 fee. Trains run until midnight from Sunday-Thursday, but extend service to 3:00 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The Metrobus system is slightly more complicated than the Metro, but busing is a great way to get to know the city. SmarTrip cards can be used on buses, too.

Other tips for navigating the Metro:

  • Use the city’s online Trip Planner service to help you get around: Plug in your hotel address and your desired destination, and it’ll tell you exactly how to get there (and how long you’ll have to wait for the next bus or train).
  • Once you have swiped through at the turnstile, keep your SmarTrip card in hand or in an easy-to-access spot, because you will have to swipe it again when you exit the station. (On buses, you only need to swipe once.)
  • Stand on the right, walk on the left on Metro escalators. You will not only look like a local, but you will avoid being run down (or grumbled at) by angry commuters.
  • You don’t have to wait for the turnstile to close behind someone to touch your SmarTrip card. This is helpful to know during peak periods, when people are pushing their way through to catch the next train.
  • Don’t eat or drink on the Metro or on buses. It’s against the law, and you could get a ticket from an undercover police officer, or a nasty look from a local.

>> Three essential tips:

Take advantage of free museums. Some of D.C.’s museums charge admission, but the Smithsonian Institution complex, which includes a whopping 19 museums and galleries (most of which are clustered near the National Mall) and the National Zoo, doesn’t. That means you can see the American History Museum, the Air and Space Museum, the Natural History Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, world-class art museums like the National Portrait Gallery and more without dropping a dime.

Visit your embassy. Your country of citizenship probably has an embassy in D.C., and it’s probably pretty neat. Find out how to visit yours while you’re in town (and who to contact if you should have a problem while traveling) by visiting the U.S. Department of State’s website. Most of them can be found on a stretch of Massachusetts Avenue known as “Embassy Row.”

Explore D.C.’s green side. The District came in fifth out of America’s 40 largest cities when it came to parks in a recent survey. So strap on your most comfortable shoes and wander the Mall from end to end (it’s about two miles from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial). Rock Creek Park, a huge green space more than twice the size of Central Park that stretches north into Maryland, is also a great place to explore, and offers a glimpse into the District’s idyllic past.

Do you have Know Before You Go tips for your city? Share them in the comments below or use the #B4UGO hashtag and shout us out @NatGeoTraveler on Twitter.

[Related: I Heart My City: Nat Geo’s Washington, D.C.]