13 Things You MUST Know Before Visiting Washington DC

13 Things You MUST Know Before Visiting Washington DC

My husband and I went on a dream trip to DC a couple of years ago and although it was still an awesome trip, there were quite a few things we wish we had known ahead of time and some we learned the hard way. I take much pride in my vacation planning abilities. I plan all of our trips completely on my own and love knowing that not only did I plan an amazing trip, but I saved us some money too.

National Archives

I’d like to share with you tips I learned through planning and also through mistakes we learned along the way!

#1 You Have To Plan Ahead!

I cannot stress this one enough. Do you want to visit the White House or the Capital Building? Your going to have to plan way ahead of time. These are government facilities and are on government calendars. Here are a few things to consider ahead of time:

  1. National Holidays
  2. Planned Events
  3. Will things be closed?
  4. Will there be construction in certain areas?
  5. This is the most important one: You can’t just walk up and get into the Capital Building or the White House!

Capital Building

I’ll elaborate on #5, you must have a prearranged appointment time to visit these sights. You must go through your representative. You can find out who your representative is by going to House.gov. Type in your zip code in the search box in the top right hand corner. Follow the steps outlined below:


Text of email:

“I am visiting Washington DC on (enter your dates here) and I would like to be able to visit the Capital Building and White House. Please let me know the next steps I need to take to arrange an appointment to visit these sights. Thank you, (Your Name)”

You should receive an email response from one of your representative’s aids. It will come from an @mail.house.gov email address, so you’ll know it’s not spam. They will help you get appointments set up. You will have to go to your representative’s office in DC to obtain your passes. It’s a lot of work, but well worth it and it feels all part of the adventure of DC.

Tracy in front of Capital Building

You can also book a tour of the Capital Building through the Capital Building’s website. I will say that to get a spot, you will want to check here at least 2 months in advance of when you plan on visiting. If it is the busier time of year, you will want to check even earlier. It may be more steps, but you have a higher chance of getting a visit through your representative. They also sometimes provide private tours. It’s worth checking with them.

Tracy next to Helen Keller Statue at the Capitol Building

ALL visits to the White House MUST go through your representative. Don’t forget that you MUST have a photo ID to enter any government buildings.

#2 When should you go?

The best and busiest time of year is spring when the Cherry Blossoms are in full bloom. We went in February, President’s Day Week. It was much less crowded, but there were trade-offs too. It was cold and they were doing repairs on some important sights. There was scaffolding on the Jefferson Memorial and the Reflecting Pool was empty. So, some of our pictures weren’t ideal.

View of Empty Reflecting Pool from top of Washington Monument

Also, if you want to see “laws being made”, you’ll want to make sure you visit when the House and Senate are in session. Check out the Days In Session page for more information.

Capital Building

Note: To access the House and/or Senate when in session, you MUST have the special passes only obtained from your Representative or Senator as mentioned in #1.

Just make sure you check in advance to see if there are any special events planned, what the temperature will be and if there is any construction work going on before deciding when to visit.

#3 The Washington Memorial

Washington Monument

Typically, to visit the Washington Memorial, you must arrive early, as soon as they open to obtain a return time ticket. But, due to those improvements I previously mentioned, the Washington Memorial is closed until Spring 2019! This is so that they can modernize the elevator. If you visit Spring 2019 or later, be prepared, as going up and inside the Washington Memorial is not for the claustrophobic or acrophobic. It is very high and cramped at the top.

Washington Monument

#4 It’s NOT really “FREE”

National Museum of Natural History

Yes, the museums are free at the Smithsonian. But, if your thinking, “Oh, we’ll spend a fun day at the Air and Space Museum and then pop out for a nice picnic on the lawn of the Mall!”, then sadly you’re mistaken. When going through security, they will not allow you to bring food through. Forget about it, don’t even try, or it’ll be in the security guard’s trash can. So, unless you plan on trekking back to your hotel in the middle of the day, then you’ll most likely be eating at the museum’s very expensive food court.

National Museum of Natural History

Unfortunately, there aren’t many cheap options close by. The Mall is huge and to get to a Mickey D’s or a Subway might be too much of a hassle. They have vendors on the mall that are most likely cheaper, but when we went in February they weren’t open. If you go in the Spring through Fall, they most likely would be though.

#5 Get a Library of Congress Card

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

Even if it is only for a souvenir, I highly recommend it. Any US citizen is eligible to receive one. If you want to see the grand “Reading Room” as depicted in the National Treasure movie, then you’ll need a Library Card for that purpose. Aside from being breathtakingly beautiful and the largest library in the world, the library of congress houses the Gutenberg Bible, which is a must see for any literary enthusiast! You can also see Thomas Jefferson’s original library of books which was donated by him when the original library’s books were destroyed.

Inside the Library of Congress

Inside the Library of Congress

#6 The Underground Tunnels!

Supreme Court

Speaking of the Library of Congress leads me into my next tip, which is to take the underground tunnel between the LOC and the government buildings which house the offices for the representatives and senators. We basically went to the LOC first and then traveled through the tunnel to locate our representative’s office to obtain our passes. Walking past all of the government officials and employees made me feel like were somewhere we weren’t allowed to be, but you are allowed and it’s something I’m sure not every visitor to DC does. I will say the tunnel entrance was a bit difficult to find, so definitely ask an employee for help.

#7 Wear Walking Shoes!

The Mall

DC and the mall itself is huge! Please, please wear well broken in and comfortable walking shoes! Your feet and calves will thank you at the end of the day!

The Mall

#8 Memorials Walk

Walk to Jefferson Memorial

Speaking of a lot of walking, walk the route from the Jefferson Memorial around to the Lincoln Memorial and back again. It will take a good bit of time, so pace yourself. This would be an excellent day for a picnic.

Jefferson Memorial

Follow These Directions:

1. Go to 15th street at Washington Memorial

2. Head up the hill – crossing Indiana Avenue

3. Follow signs for Jefferson Memorial – Pass Tidal Basin – around bend – almost one mile

4. Jefferson Memorial will be on your right

5. Follow the memorials’ front path back out to East Basin Drive

6. Turn right and go around the bend to the George Mason Memorial

7. Recross East Basin to find the opening that leads to the Tidal Basin Pathway

8. Follow path about 5 minutes – until you see the sign for the FDR Memorial

9. You’ll be entering the memorial the back way

10. FDR Memorial will be on your right

Braille on FDR Memorial

11. Return to the Tidal Basin path and turn left toward the Lincoln Memorial

12. You’ll pass by the MLK Memorial here

13. Walk to the traffic light and cross Indiana Avenue

14. Turn right and walk a short distance to the clearing that leads back to the DC War Memorial

15. Continue to the walkway behind the memorial and turn left to follow the main lane toward the Lincoln Memorial

16. You’ll pass the Korean Memorial

Korean War Memorial

17. Now visit the Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

Tracy on steps of Lincoln Memorial

18. Walk back from the Lincoln Memorial toward the reflecting pool, but turn left and proceed toward the info kiosk

19. Turn right to follow the path that leads to the Vietnam Memorial

20. You’ll pass the life-size sculpture of 3 Vietnam soldiers

Vietnam War Memorial Three Soldiers

21. Check out the Vietnam Veterans names and look up a family member or friend

Vietnam War Memorial Wall of Names

Vietnam War Memorial

Vietnam War Memorial

Vietnam War Memorial

22. Turn back toward the reflecting pool and follow the shaded lane about half a mile east to 17th street to see the World War II Memorial


WWII Memorial

WWII Memorial

#9 These are government facilities

Be prepared for anything as these are government facilities. You’ll need to demonstrate some patience at times. I know we showed up for our White House visit and were made to wait for ages before being allowed to enter. I remember it was our last morning in DC and it was raining very hard, so we were already a bit peeved before we even got there. I remember standing outside in the rain and looking up at this window that had butterfly stickers stuck to it and wondering if President Obama’s daughters had put them there.

Once we were finally let in, it felt like the tour was rushed and we didn’t see near as much as I thought we would. Honestly, it was a bit of a let down. But, it probably isn’t like this every time. Just in case though, be prepared.

#10 Skip Georgetown

When we went, Georgetown Cupcakes were still a big thing and I wanted to go there. The line was around the block and I was not about to stand in it! I didn’t think it was worth it. We walked around a bit and went into a Starbucks for some coffee. Honestly, it was a bit dull and I felt like we wasted precious time we could have been elsewhere.

#11 You will NOT see everything in one trip!

National Museum of American History

There are so, so many sights in DC to see. The museums on the Mall are also quite extensive. You will want an entire day for many of them, like the National Air and Space Museum or The Museum of American History. And, some you would need several days to see it all, such as the Holocaust Museum or National Gallery of Art.

National Gallery of Art

#12 Make a Priorities List

There were a few things that I wanted to do that we didn’t get to. I really wanted to visit the Folger Shakespeare Library as they have an original copy of one of Shakespeare’s folios, but we didn’t make it. I’m still disappointed about that one. We also never made it to Arlington Cemetery.

Make a list of your must dos and try to fit them into your schedule.

#13 Don’t Stay in a Hotel or Drive

The hotels are super expensive and driving in DC is not ideal. It was just my husband and I, so we booked a studio apartment through Home Away that ended up being less than $500 for the entire week! Just make sure you are near a metro stop. We were a few blocks away from our stop and at the end of a long day it added steps we’d prefer not to make on our already aching feet and legs.

And, yes fly, don’t drive if you can help it.  Fly in and use their easy and extensive metro system. DC is extremely easy to navigate as it was designed that way. The East/West streets are numbered South to North and the North/South streets are alphabetical East to West. Click on the Metro Map below for the DC Metrorail Pocket Guide.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts, that although there are excellent apps, I like using my Moleskine City Notebooks. You have the metro map, extensive street maps and street index, plenty of space to organize your itinerary and journal too.

I like to list the place to visit, with the street map # and the Metro stop for each.

You can find the Washington DC Moleskine City Notebook at Amazon right now very inexpensively.

And, don’t forget your souvenirs!

Those are my 13 things you must know before visiting Washington DC. Have you visited DC, what are your insider tips?

Want more historical travel? Check out my posts on Bath, England and the Charles Dickens Walking Tour of London? Want more US history? Check out my post on the oldest city in America, St. Augustine, Florida.


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