Washington is one of the easiest U.S. cities to navigate, thanks to its comprehensive public transportation system of trains and buses. Ours is the second-busiest rail transit network and the sixth-largest bus network in the country. But because Washington is of manageable size and marvelous beauty, you may find yourself shunning transportation and choosing to walk. A truly excellent source for considering all of your transportation options is the website www.godcgo.com, an initiative of the D.C. government’s Department of Transportation, which continually updates the information.
Washington’s appearance today pays homage to the 1791 vision of French engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who created the capital’s grand design of sweeping avenues intersected by spacious circles, directed that the Capitol and the White House be placed on prominent hilltops at either end of a wide stretch of avenue, and superimposed this overall plan upon a traditional street grid. The city’s quadrants, grand avenues named after states, alphabetically ordered streets crossed by numerically ordered streets, and parks integrated with urban features are all ideas that started with L’Enfant. President George Washington, who had hired L’Enfant, was forced to dismiss the temperamental genius after L’Enfant apparently offended quite a number of people. But Washington recognized the brilliance of the city plan and hired surveyors Benjamin Banneker and Andrew Ellicott, who had worked with L’Enfant, to continue to implement L’Enfant’s design.
The U.S. Capitol marks the center of the city, which is divided into northwest (NW), northeast (NE), southwest (SW), and southeast (SE) quadrants. Most, but not all, areas of interest to tourists are in the northwest. The boundary demarcations are often seamless; for instance, you are in the northwest quadrant when you visit the National Museum of Natural History, but by crossing the National Mall to the other side to visit the Freer Gallery, you put yourself in the southwest quadrant. Pay attention to the quadrant’s geographic suffix; as you’ll notice when you look on a map, some addresses appear in multiple quadrants (for instance, the corner of G and 7th sts. appears in all four).
Main Arteries & Streets -- From the Capitol, North Capitol Street and South Capitol Street run north and south, respectively. East Capitol Street divides the city north and south. The area west of the Capitol is not a street at all, but the National Mall, which is bounded on the north by Constitution Avenue and on the south by Independence Avenue.
The primary artery of Washington is Pennsylvania Avenue, which is the scene of parades, inaugurations, and other splashy events. Pennsylvania runs northwest in a direct line between the Capitol and the White House—if it weren’t for the Treasury Building, the president would have a clear view of the Capitol—before continuing on a northwest angle to Georgetown, where it becomes M Street.
Constitution Avenue, paralleled to the south most of the way by Independence Avenue, runs east-west, flanking the Capitol and the Mall. Washington’s longest avenue, Massachusetts Avenue, runs parallel to Pennsylvania (a few avenues north). Along the way, you’ll find Union Station and then Dupont Circle, which is central to the area known as Embassy Row. Farther out are the Naval Observatory (the vice president’s residence is on the premises), Washington National Cathedral, American University, and, eventually, Maryland.
Connecticut Avenue, which runs more directly north (the other avenues run southeast to northwest), starts at Lafayette Square, intersects Dupont Circle, and eventually takes you to the National Zoo, on to the charming residential neighborhood known as Cleveland Park, and into Chevy Chase, Maryland, where you can pick up the Beltway to head out of town. Connecticut Avenue, with its chic-to-funky array of shops and clusters of top-dollar to good-value restaurants, is an interesting street to stroll.
Wisconsin Avenue originates in Georgetown; its intersection with M Street forms Georgetown’s hub. Wisconsin Avenue basically parallels Connecticut Avenue; one of the few irritating things about the city’s transportation system is that the Metro does not connect these two major arteries in the heart of the city. (Buses do, and, of course, you can always walk or take a taxi from one avenue to the other; read about the supplemental bus system, the D.C. Circulator) Metrorail’s first stop on Wisconsin Avenue is in Tenleytown, a residential area. Follow the avenue north and you land in the affluent Maryland cities of Chevy Chase and Bethesda.
Finding an Address -- If you understand the city’s layout, it’s easy to find your way around. As you read this, have a map handy.
Each of the four corners of the District of Columbia is exactly the same distance from the Capitol dome. The White House and most government buildings and important monuments are west of the Capitol (in the northwest and southwest quadrants), as are major hotels and tourist facilities.
Numbered streets run north-south, beginning on either side of the Capitol with 1st Street. Lettered streets run east-west and are named alphabetically, beginning with A Street. (Don’t look for J, X, Y, or Z streets, however—they don’t exist.) After W Street, street names of two syllables continue in alphabetical order, followed by street names of three syllables; the more syllables in a name, the farther the street is from the Capitol.
Avenues, named for U.S. states, run at angles across the grid pattern and often intersect at traffic circles. For example, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Massachusetts avenues intersect at Dupont Circle.
With this in mind, you can easily find an address. On lettered streets, the address tells you exactly where to go. For instance, 1776 K St. NW is between 17th and 18th streets (the first two digits of 1776 tell you that) in the northwest quadrant (NW). Note: I Street is often written as “Eye” Street to prevent confusion with 1st Street.
To find an address on numbered streets, you’ll probably have to use your fingers. For instance, 623 8th St. SE is between F and G streets (the sixth and seventh letters of the alphabet; the first digit of 623 tells you that) in the southeast quadrant (SE). One thing to remember: You count B as the second letter of the alphabet even though B Street North and B Street South are now Constitution and Independence avenues, respectively, but because there’s no J Street, K becomes the 10th letter, L the 11th, and so on.
By Public Transportation
The Metrorail system continues to be the best way to get around the city, in spite of the fact that it’s showing its age: 39 years old. In fact, a $5 billion rehabilitation project is underway now and will continue for many years on the Metro system.
You should expect delays on weekends especially, throughout the long period of repair and maintenance, as trains travel at reduced speeds and schedules are disrupted to allow for service. For more information, contact Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA; www.wmata.com; tel 202/637-7000). If you have concerns, you can always ride the buses, which will always be slower than the train system, but will get you wherever you want to go.
If you do ride Metrorail, try to avoid traveling during rush hour (Mon–Fri 5–9:30am and 3–7pm), since delays can be frequent, lines at farecard machines long, trains overcrowded, and Washingtonians at their rudest. You can expect to get a seat during off-peak hours (weekdays 10am–3pm, weeknights after 7pm, and weekends). All cars are air-conditioned and fitted with comfortable upholstered seats.
Metrorail’s base system of 86 stations and 106 miles of track includes locations at or near almost every sightseeing attraction; it also extends to suburban Maryland and northern Virginia. There are five lines in operation—Red, Blue, Orange, Yellow, and Green. The lines connect at several central points, making transfers relatively easy. All but Yellow and Green Line trains stop at Metro Center; all except Red Line trains stop at L’Enfant Plaza; all but Blue and Orange Line trains stop at Gallery Place–Chinatown.
Metro stations are indicated by discreet brown columns bearing the station’s name and topped by the letter M. Below the M is a colored stripe or stripes indicating the line or lines that stop there. To enter a Metro station, you need a computerized SmarTrip card or a paper farecard. SmarTrip card dispenser machines and farecard vending machines are located inside the vestibule areas of the Metro stations. SmarTrip card dispensers sell SmarTrip cards for $10 ($5 for the card and $5 in trip value) and accept debit and credit cards, as well as $1, $5, and $10 bills. The black Farecard vending machines sell paper farecards and accept cash only, up to $20, with change up to $10 returned in coins(!). The blue Passes/Farecards vending machines sell paper farecards as well as special value passes, and accept debit and credit cards, as well as cash up to $20, with change up to $10 returned in coins.
Metrorail fares are calculated on distance traveled, time of day, and whether you’re using a SmarTrip card or a paper farecard. Base fare using a SmarTrip card during non-peak hours (Mon–Fri 9:30am–3pm and 7pm–midnight; all day Saturday until midnight; and all day Sunday) ranges from a minimum of $1.70 to a maximum of $3.50. During peak hours (Mon–Fri 5–9:30am and 3–7pm; Fri and Sat midnight–3am), the fare would range from a minimum of $2.10 to a maximum of $5.75. If you are using a paper farecard, simply add $1 to each of those fares, for example, off-peak travel fares would range from $2.70 to $4.50.
For best value, consider buying a $14 1-Day or a $35 7-Day short trip pass for travel on Metrorail. You can buy these online, adding the value to the SmarTrip card you’re purchasing, or at Passes/Farecards machines in the stations.
Up to two children ages 4 and under can ride free with a paying passenger. Seniors (65 and older) and people with disabilities (with valid proof) ride Metrorail and Metrobus for a reduced fare.
Be Smart: Buy a SmarTrip Card
Whether you plan to use D.C.’s Metrorail and bus service once or many times while you’re here, I absolutely recommend that you purchase a SmarTrip card, which is a permanent, rechargeable farecard that’s way faster to use than a regular farecard—you just touch it to the target on a faregate inside a Metro station or farebox inside a Metrobus. Not only is it quicker, but it’s cheaper, because you pay $1 less per Metrorail trip (20[ce] less per Metrobus trip) every time you use it. SmarTrip cards are also usable on other area transit systems, including D.C. Circulator buses and DASH buses in Old Town Alexandria. You can purchase SmarTrip cards online at www.wmata.com; at vending machines in any Metro station; and at WMATA headquarters (weekdays only), 600 5th St. NW; its sales office at Metro Center (weekdays only), 12th and F streets NW; or at one of many retail stores, such as Giant or Safeway grocery stores. The cost of a SmarTrip card is $2. You can add value and special value passes as needed online and at the passes/farecard vending machines in every Metro station, or even on a Metrobus, using the farebox. For more information, contact Metro(www.wmata.com; tel 888/762-7874). One other tip: Do try to order the card in advance online so you’ll have it with you when you arrive in D.C. That will be one less hassle to deal with at the Metro stations, where first-time use of the vending machines can be confusing.
Metro Etiquette 101
To avoid risking the ire of commuters, be sure to follow these guidelines: Stand to the right on the escalator so that people in a hurry can get past you on the left. And when you reach the train level, don’t puddle at the bottom of the escalator, blocking the path of those coming behind you; move down the platform. Eating, drinking, and smoking are strictly prohibited on the Metro and in stations.
Getting to Georgetown
Metrorail doesn’t go to Georgetown, and although Metro buses do (nos. 31, 32, 36, 38B, D1, D2, D3, D5, D6, and G2), the public transportation I’d recommend is that provided by the D.C. Circulator bus, which travels two Georgetown routes: one that runs between the Rosslyn, Virginia and Dupont Circle Metro stations, stopping at designated points in Georgetown along the way, and a second one that runs between Georgetown and Union Station. The buses come by every 10 minutes from 7am to midnight Sunday through Thursday, 7am to 2am Friday and Saturday. One-way fares cost $1, or 50¢ with a SmarTrip card.
To get to the train platforms, you enter the station through the faregates, touching your SmarTrip card to the SmarTrip logo-marked target on top of the regular faregates or on the inside of the wide faregates. If you’re using a paper farecard, you insert your card in the entrance gate, which records the time and location, then spits out your card. Don’t forget to snatch it up and keep it handy; you have to reinsert your paper farecard in the exit gate at your destination, where the fare will automatically be deducted. The farecard will be returned if there’s any value left on it. If you’re using a SmarTrip card, you simply touch your card again to the SmarTrip logo-marked target on the faregate at your destination. If you arrive at a destination and your farecard doesn’t have enough value, add what’s necessary at the Exitfare machines (which only accept cash).
Most Metro stations have more than one exit. To save yourself time and confusion, try to figure out ahead of time which exit gets you closer to where you’re going. In this book, I include the specific exit you should use for every venue mentioned, including hotels, restaurants, and attractions.
Metrorail opens at 5am weekdays and 7am Saturday and Sunday, operating until midnight Sunday through Thursday, and until 3am Friday and Saturday. Note: Call tel 202/637-7000 or visit www.wmata.com for holiday hours and for information on Metro routes.
Getting to the Atlas District
Washington, D.C. is bringing back the streetcar. An eight-line system covering 37 miles eventually will be in place, transporting people to pockets of the city where the subway and buses don’t go. The first line was scheduled to start service in summer 2014, connecting Union Station with points along H Street in the Atlas District. This is good news for residents of the neighborhood and for locals and visitors interested in checking out H Street’s popular restaurants, bars, and live music venues. Instead of cabbing it, all you have to do is ride Metro to Union Station, and transfer to the streetcar from there. For more information, go to www.dcstreetcar.com.
The Transit Authority’s bus system is a comprehensive operation that encompasses 1,500 buses traveling 325 routes, making about 12,000 stops, operating within a 1,500-square-mile area that includes major arteries in D.C. and the Virginia and Maryland suburbs. The system is gradually phasing in the new, sleekly designed, red and silver buses that run on a combination of diesel and electric hybrid fuel.
The Transit Authority is also working to improve design elements and placement of bus stop signs. For now, look for red, white, and blue signs that tell you which buses stop at that location. Eventually, signage should tell you the routes and schedules for the buses that stop there. In the meantime, the Transit Authority has inaugurated a cool new alert system to find out when the next bus is due to arrive. You simply call Metro’s main number, tel 202/637-7000, and then type in the seven-digit bus stop identifier that's posted on the bus stop sign to find out when the next bus is expected to arrive.
Base fare in the District, using a SmarTrip card, is $1.60, or $3.65 for the faster express buses, which make fewer stops. If you pay with cash, the base fare is $1.80, or $4 for the express bus. There may be additional charges for travel into the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Bus drivers are not equipped to make change, so if you have not purchased a SmarTrip card or a pass, be sure to carry exact change.
If you’ll be in Washington for a while and plan to use the buses a lot, consider buying a 1-week pass ($16), which must be loaded onto a SmarTrip card.
Most buses operate daily around-the-clock. Service is quite frequent on weekdays, especially during peak hours, and less frequent on weekends and late at night.
Up to two children 4 and under ride free with a paying passenger on Metrobus, and there are reduced fares for seniors (tel 202/637-7000) and people with disabilities (tel 202/962-1245 or 962-1100). If you leave something on a bus, on a train, or in a station, call Lost and Found Tuesday through Friday 11am to 5pm at tel 202/962-1195.
Meet D.C.’s fantastic supplemental bus system. It’s efficient, inexpensive, and convenient, traveling five circumscribed routes in the city. These red-and-gray busses travel:
* The Southeast D.C. route between the Potomac Metro Station and points in Anacostia (weekdays 6am–7pm Oct–Mar, weekdays 6am–9pm and Sat 7am–9pm Apr–Sept)
* The East-West route between upper Georgetown and Union Station (7am–9pm daily, with a special service added between upper Georgetown and the intersection of 14th and K sts. NW, from 9pm–midnight Sun–Thurs, 9pm–2am Fri–Sat)
* A second Georgetown route that travels between the Rosslyn Metro station in Virginia and the Dupont Circle Metro station in the District, via Georgetown (Sun–Thurs 7am–midnight, Fri–Sat 7am–2am)
* The Union Station–to–Washington Navy Yard track (located near Nationals Park, the service operates 6am–7pm weekdays Oct–March, 6am–9pm weekdays and 7am–9pm Sat Apr–Sept, with extended hours on Nationals game days)
* The route between the Woodley Park–Zoo Metro station and the McPherson Square Metro station (7am–midnight Sun–Thurs; 7am–3:30am Fri–Sat), via Adams Morgan
Buses stop at designated points on their routes (look for the distinctive red-and-gold sign, often topping a regular Metro bus stop sign) every 10 minutes. The fare at all times is $1, and you can order passes online at www.commuterdirect.com, or pay upon boarding with the exact fare or the use of a SmarTrip Metro card, or with a D.C. Circulator pass purchased at a street meter near the bus stop. For easy and fast transportation in the busiest parts of town, you can’t beat it. Call tel 202/962-1423 or go to www.dccirculator.com.
If you must drive, be aware that traffic is always thick during the week, parking spaces are hard to find, and parking lots are ruinously expensive. You can expect to pay overnight rates of $25 to $50 at hotels, hourly rates starting at $8 at downtown parking lots and garages, and flat rates starting at $20 in the most popular parts of town, such as Georgetown and in the Penn Quarter when there is an event at the Verizon Center. If you’re hoping to snag a parking space on the street, you may or may not be happy to know that the D.C. government makes it as easy as possible for you to pay for that spot: Although the city still has many traditional parking meters that take coins, all 17,000 on-street metered spaces now allow you to use your cell phone to pay for parking. Sign up online at www.parkmobile.com to register your license plate number and credit card or debit card number. Once you arrive in D.C. and park on a street that requires payment for parking, you simply call the phone number marked on the meter or nearby kiosk and follow the prompts to enter the location ID marked on the meter and the amount of time you’re paying for. Some kiosks allow you to use cash or a credit card to pay for parking time, in which case you print a receipt and place it against the windshield inside your car, so that it’s visible to the officer checking on expired parking coverage.
D.C.’s traffic circles can be confusing to navigate. The law states that traffic already in the circle has the right of way, but you can’t always depend on drivers to obey that law. You also need to be aware of rush hour rules: Sections of certain streets in Washington become one-way during rush hour: Rock Creek Parkway, Canal Road, and 17th Street NW are three examples. Other streets change the direction of some of their traffic lanes during rush hour. Connecticut Avenue NW is the main one: In the morning, traffic in four of its six lanes travels south to downtown, and in late afternoon/early evening, downtown traffic in four of its six lanes heads north; between the hours of 9am and 3:30pm, traffic in both directions keeps to the normally correct side of the yellow line. Lit-up traffic signs alert you to what’s going on, but pay attention. Unless a sign is posted prohibiting it, a right-on-red law is in effect.
If you need to rent a car while you’re here, you have several options.
Residents and tourists alike seem to be turning to car sharing, rather than ownership, for flexible car-use arrangements, whether to cover the needs of an hour or for a month, with parking and other services included. Three such companies exist in D.C. Zipcar (www.zipcar.com; tel 866/494-7227) has a downtown D.C. office at 403 8th St. NW, entrance on 8th Street (tel 202/737-4900) and Daimler’s Car2Go has a downtown office at 1710 Rhode Island Ave. NW, Suite 100 (email WashingtonDC@car2go.com). Hertz 24/7 (www.hertzondemand.com; tel 877/654-4400) does not have a central office for handling its car sharing operation. All three are rental clubs that require membership signup and driver’s license validation before allowing you access to a car. Hertz 24/7 does not charge a membership fee and does allow for more spontaneity in that you can rent a car by going in person to one of Hertz’s participating 24/7 locations, of which there are scores in Washington. For further information, visit the individual car rental websites.
Or you can rent a car the usual way from one of the major car rental companies. Car rental rates can vary even more than airfares. Check out BreezeNet.com, which offers domestic car-rental discounts with some of the most competitive rates around.
The D.C. taxicab system charges passengers according to time- and distance-based meters. Fares may increase, but at press time, fares began at $3.25, plus $2.16 per each additional mile, $1 per additional passenger, and 50[ce] per piece of luggage that the driver places in the trunk. Other charges might apply (for instance, if you telephone for a cab, rather than hail one in the street). Note: The big news about D.C. taxis is that they now accept credit cards. You’ll pay an extra 50[ce] for the service.
Try Diamond Cab Company (tel 202/387-4011) or Yellow Cab (www.dcyellowcab.com; tel 202/546-7900).
For more information, call tel 202/645-6018 or check out the D.C. Taxicab Commission’s website, www.dctaxi.dc.gov. Also refer to www.godcgo.com for a full listing of D.C. cab companies.
A growing transportation option in D.C. is Uber (www.uber.com), which operates by downloaded app to your smartphone. You register with the service and set up an account, then use it to arrange your travel as you need it, sending a request by tapping your location and desired level of service, which comes down to type of vehicle. When you place your order you’re able to track the progress of the vehicle coming to pick you up. In Washington, the base fare for the least expensive service is $3.10, adding 29[ce] a minute plus $1.40 a mile. The cabbies hate Uber, but I know a lot of happy Uber customers.
Thanks to a robust bike-share program (Capital BikeShare, www.capitalbikeshare.com, tel 877/430-2453, is the nation’s largest, with more than 2,500 bikes and close to 300 bike stations), Washington, D.C. is increasingly a city where locals themselves get around by bike. The flat terrain of the National Mall and many neighborhoods make the city conducive to two wheels. Fifty-seven miles of bike lanes throughout D.C., and bike paths through Rock Creek Park, the C&O Canal in Georgetown, and around the National Mall encourage the practice, too. Interested? Visit the www.godcgo.com website and click on the “Bicycling” link under “Ways to Get Around” for more information and to download a map that shows bike lanes and Capital Bikeshare stations, which are all over, including at the National Mall and in Georgetown. The Capital BikeShare program might be a better option economically for members who use the bikes for short commutes, but be sure to consider that option, along with traditional bike rental companies, which are also plentiful.