Washington, D.C. is the capital city of the United States of America, yet is not always thought of as one of its great cities. That’s a shame, because D.C. has just about everything that other major American cities do—and some things they don’t.
There is certainly no shortage of things to do in Washington. There are world-class museums covering many different subjects from the ever-popular Air and Space Museum to the relatively new Museum of African American History and Culture to the massive National Gallery of Art. The best part about all of these museums is that they are free.
Sixteen Washington, D.C. museums (plus the National Zoo) are part of the Smithsonian Institution—and every one of them is free to get into. In addition, the National Gallery of Art’s two buildings are free along with several other museums around the city.
It’s not just museums, however, as some of the most impressive monuments in the U.S. are located on and around Washington’s National Mall. The moving Lincoln Memorial, iconic Washington Monument, and beautiful Jefferson Memorial are all within an easy walk. And guess what? All of the monuments and memorials are free as well. It is entirely possible to visit D.C. without spending a dollar on admission.
If you are bringing children there is plenty for them as well. The National Zoo is one of the few places in America where you can see Giant Pandas and the International Spy Museum is a perennial favorite. Each of the Smithsonian museums also go out of their way to create interactive and interesting exhibits to engage kids.
When you’re done with sightseeing, each of the charming and historic neighborhoods rewards you with classic architecture and wonderful stories. These neighborhoods are also where you will find some amazing restaurants and bars.
Like any tourist destination, there are three things that need to be considered when deciding what time of the year to visit: crowds, weather, and special events. There are events year-round in D.C., but few of them bring large crowds with them.
The event that does bring the crowds is the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, which is held in late-March or early-April. It ideally coincides with the brief bloom of the namesake trees, but they are fickle plants. Whether the blossoms are blossoming or not, the festival fills the Mall with tourists. If you are not interested in seeing the trees, it’s best to avoid that time of year.
To gauge DC’s crowd patterns, we collected monthly visitor statistics from more than 20 monuments, museums, and attractions from 2012 through 2015, covering more than 110 million visitors. We also counted daily visitors at DC’s most popular museums during research trips, to compare different days of the week.
Washington D.C.’s tourist attractions are busiest around the aforementioned National Cherry Blossom Festival, roughly mid-March through mid-April, and from late June through early August, when most U.S. public schools have their summer vacations. The period from late April through late June is also busy. The best times to visit are October (which also has great weather), January, and February (when the weather is worse). If you decide on January, beware of Inauguration Day if there was a new American President elected the previous November.
Due to Washington’s swampy underbelly (and we mean literally in this case), the weather can get very hot and humid in the summer months. The winter can also be tricky because it doesn’t usually get cold enough to snow—although there have been some massive snowstorms. What the winter often brings is either a very cold rain or a snow/sleet mix that makes for miserable touring.
The best months weather-wise are spring and late fall: roughly March, April, May, October, and November. There are no guarantees, but those months generally offer temperatures from the upper 50s to low 70s Fahrenheit (15-22 Celsius).
Washington is very easy to get to. It is an easy drive for much of the American east coast—8 hours or less to anyone from Boston to Cincinnati to Charleston, S.C. If you need to, or prefer to, fly to your vacation, the D.C. area features three major airports: Reagan National (DCA), Baltimore-Washington (BWI), and Dulles (IAD). Access to your destination is easy from any of those airports, especially Reagan, which is on the Metro line.
Speaking of the Metro, that is the name of the subway system that runs through many areas of Washington. It also gives its name to the bus system, but when people say Metro, they mean the subway. It is a relatively clean, relatively reliable system that can really help you get around a city that is not particularly car friendly.
Driving in and out of D.C. is not too difficult once you get used to it, but it is easy to get lost and hard (and expensive) to find a parking spot. We strongly recommend using the Metro, or a combination of Metro rail, bus, and something like Uber, depending on your destination.