Washington is one of the easiest U.S. cities to navigate, thanks to its manageable size and easy-to-understand layout. I wish I could boast as well about the city’s comprehensive public transportation system. Ours is the second-busiest rail transit network and the sixth-largest bus network in the country. It used to be swell, but 40+ years of increased usage and inadequate maintenance put the system into crisis mode in 2016, which the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) has been working hard to correct ever since. And the system is safer and more reliable. But the effort continues. Here’s what I recommend as you plan your trip: Choose lodging close to where you want to be, whether the center of the city, near the offices where you’re doing business, or in a favorite neighborhood, and then consider all the transportation options in this chapter. In addition, I recommend the website www.godcgo.com, which has info about traversing the city, from every angle, with links to Washington Post articles reporting on the latest traffic and transit news. You might just find yourself shunning transportation anyway, for the pleasure of walking or bike-riding your way around the compact capital.
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 is in the midst of long-overdue repairs and reconstruction. Which means you may encounter delays and possible cancellation of service on segments of different lines during your visit. Check Metro’s website for the latest updates or do as locals do: Sign up for Metro alerts (www.metroalerts.info) to receive timely announcements of Metrorail and Metrobus service delays, disruptions, schedule changes, advisories, and enhancements.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.
Metrorail’s base system of 91 stations and 118 miles of track includes locations at or near almost every sightseeing attraction; it also extends to suburban Maryland and northern Virginia. There are six lines in operation—Red, Blue, Orange, Yellow, Green, and the new Silver line. For now, the Silver Line has five stops that snake off the Orange line in Northern Virginia; future stops will lead to Washington Dulles Airport, by 2020 if all goes as planned. The lines connect at several central points, making transfers relatively easy. All but Yellow, Green, and Silver Line trains stop at Metro Center; all except Red and Silver Line trains stop at L’Enfant Plaza; all but Blue, Orange, and Silver 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 reach the train platform of a Metro station, you need a computerized SmarTrip card (see box above). SmarTrip card “Fare Vending” and “Add Value” machines are located inside the vestibule areas of the Metro stations. The blue SmarTrip Card Fare Vending machines sell SmarTrip cards for $10 ($2 for the card and $8 in trip value), add value up to $300, and add special value passes to your SmarTrip Card; the machines accept debit and credit cards and bills up to $20, with change up to $10 returned in coins. The black Fare Vending machines are strictly for adding value to your current SmarTrip Card; the machines accept cash only, up to $20, with change up to $10 returned in coins.
Metrorail fares are calculated on distance traveled and time of day. Base fare during non-peak hours (Mon–Fri 9:30am–3pm; Mon–Thurs 7pm–11:30pm; Fri 7pm to 1am; Sat–Sun all day) ranges from a minimum of $2 to a maximum of $3.85. During peak hours (Mon–Fri 5–9:30am and 3–7pm; Fri and Sat midnight–1am), the fare ranges from a minimum of $2.25 to a maximum of $6.
For best value, consider buying a $14.75 1-Day Rail/Bus pass or a $38.50 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 the machines in the stations. See Metro’s website for details.
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.
To get to the train platforms, 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. When you exit a station, you touch your card again to the SmarTrip logo–marked target on the faregate at your destination. If you arrive at a destination and the exit faregate tells you that you need to add value to your SmarTrip Card to exit, use the brown Exitfare machines near the faregate to add the necessary amount—cash only.
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 appropriate exit for every venue.
Metrorail opens at 5am weekdays, 7am Saturday, and 8am Sunday, operating until 11:30pm Monday through Thursday, 1am Friday and Saturday, and 11pm Sunday. Visit www.wmata.com for the up-to-date info on routes and schedules.
Be Smart: Buy a SmarTrip Card
If you are planning on using D.C.’s Metro system while you’re here, do yourself a favor and order a SmarTrip card (www.wmata.com; tel. 888/762-7874) online a couple of weeks in advance of your trip, so you’ll have it with you when you arrive. SmarTrip is a permanent, rechargeable card that pays your way in the subway, on Metro and DC Circulator buses, and on other area transit systems, like the DASH buses in Old Town Alexandria, VA. Easy to use, you just touch the card to the target on a faregate inside a Metro station, or farebox in a Metrobus. You can also purchase SmarTrip cards at vending machines in any Metro station; and at WMATA headquarters (Mon–Fri only), 600 5th St. NW; its sales office at Metro Center (Mon–Fri only), 12th and F streets NW; or at one of many retail stores, such as CVS drugstores and Giant grocery stores. By purchasing the card in advance (but not too far ahead—the card expires if not used within 30 days of its purchase!), you’ll avoid a hassle at the Metro station, where first-time use of the vending machines can be confusing. The cost of a SmarTrip card is $10: $2 for the card, plus $8 stored value to get you started. You can add value and special value passes as needed online and at the SmarTrip Card Fare Vending/Passes machines in every Metro station, or even on a Metrobus, using the farebox. For more info, contact Metro.
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. 30, 31, 32, 33, 36, 38B, D1, D2, D5, D6, and G2), the public transportation I’d recommend is the DC Circulator bus, which travels two Georgetown routes: one that runs between the Rosslyn, VA, 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 every 10 minutes from 6am to midnight Monday to Thursday; 6am to 3am Friday; 7am to 3am Saturday; and 7am to midnight Sunday. One-way fares cost $1.
Getting to the Atlas District
The long-awaited DC Streetcar is up and running, transporting people between Union Station and points along H Street NE in the hopping, nightlife-rich neighborhood known as the Atlas District. The distance between Union Station and the heart of the Atlas District is about 1 mile; the entire Union Station-to-Benning Road streetcar segment is 2.4 miles. All you have to do is ride Metro to Union Station, and transfer to the streetcar from there. Here’s the deal, though: When you arrive at the Union Station Metro stop, you must make your way up through the station to the bus deck level of the parking garage, then walk and walk and walk the marked pathway that leads to H St., where you cross at the crosswalk to reach the streetcar stop. Dimly lit during the day, Union Station’s garage is downright creepy at night. That’s one drawback. Second, from Union Station, you’re actually not that far, only a couple of blocks, from the start of the Atlas District; personally, I think it makes more sense most of the time to just walk the distance. 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 11,500 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 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. In the meantime, the Transit Authority has inaugurated electronic NEXT BUS signs at some bus stops that post real-time arrival information and alerts. You can also find out when the next bus is due to arrive at www.wmata.com (click on the NEXT BUS popup box on your screen and enter intersection, bus route no., or bus stop code).
Base fare in the District, using a SmarTrip card, is $2, or $4.25 for the faster express buses, which make fewer stops. 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, buy a 1-week pass ($17.50), which loads 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 and travelers with disabilities. If you leave something on a bus, on a train, or in a station, call Lost and Found Monday through Friday 9am to 5pm at tel. 202/962-1195.
Meet D.C.’s fantastic supplemental bus system. It’s efficient, inexpensive, and convenient, traveling six routes in the city. These red-and-gray buses travel:
- The Eastern Market to L’Enfant Plaza (EMLP) route connecting the Eastern Market Metro Station, Barracks Row, the Navy Yard Metro station in Capitol Riverfront, the Southwest Waterfront and its Wharf, and L’Enfant Plaza near the National Mall, (Mon–Fri 6am–9pm, Sat–Sun 7am–9pm, with extended service on nights the Nationals have a game).
- The Congress Heights-Union Station (CHUS) route from Union Station to Barracks Row to Anacostia and back. (Mon–Fri 6am–9pm; Sat–Sun 7am–9pm).
- The Union Station to upper Georgetown (GTUS) track via the downtown (Mon–Thurs 6am–midnight; Fri 6am–3am; Sat 7am–3am; Sun 7am–midnight).
- The Rosslyn to Dupont Circle route (RSDP) that travels between the Rosslyn Metro station in Virginia and the Dupont Circle Metro station in the District, via Georgetown (Mon–Thurs 6am–midnight; Fri 6am–3am; Sat 7am–3am; Sun 7am–midnight).
- The Woodley Park–Zoo to McPherson Square (WPAM) route connecting those two Metro stations via Adams Morgan and the U&14th Street Corridors (6am–midnight Mon–Thurs; 6am–3:30am Fri; 7am–3:30am Sat; 7am–midnight Sun).
- The National Mall (NM) route, which loops the National Mall from Union Station and stops at 14 other sites en route (Winter: Mon–Fri 7am–7pm, Sat–Sun 9am–7pm; summer: Mon–Fri 7am–8pm, Sat–Sun 9am–8pm).
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 is $1, and you can order passes online at www.commuterdirect.com, or pay upon boarding with the exact fare or use a SmarTrip Metro card. For easy and fast transportation in the busiest parts of town, you can’t beat it. Go to www.dccirculator.com or call tel. 202/671-2020.
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 $60 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. If you’re hoping to snag one of the 17,000 metered parking spaces on the street, you can expect to pay a minimum of $2.30 per hour by coin, credit or debit card, or smartphone. To use your smartphone, you must first sign up online at www.parkmobile.com, or download the app, 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 (or use the app), and follow the prompts to enter the location ID marked on the meter and the amount of time you’re paying for. If your parking space has neither meter nor Parkmobile number to call, pay for parking at the nearby kiosk, print a receipt, and place it against the windshield.
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.
FYI: If you don’t drive to D.C. but need a car while you’re here, you can rent one at the airport or at Union Station, as noted earlier in this chapter, or you can turn to a car-sharing service. Zipcar (www.zipcar.com), Car2Go (www.car2go.com), or Enterprise CarShare (www.enterprisecarshare.com).
By Taxi, Uber, or Lyft
The D.C. taxicab system charges passengers according to time- and distance-based meters. Fares may increase, but at press time, fares began at $3.50, plus $2.16 per each additional mile, $1 per additional passenger, and 50 cents 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, it’ll cost you $2). Download the free DC Taxi app from the website www.dctaxionline.com, and order your transportation using your smartphone, a la Uber. Note: The big news about D.C. taxis is that they accept credit cards.
Try V.I.P. Cab Company (tel. 202/269-9000) or Yellow Cab (www.dcyellowcab.com; tel. 202/544-1212).
The Southwest Waterfront Wharf’s many allures include assorted transportation options for getting you there. In addition to public transportation, taxi, and bike-share programs already in place, the Potomac Riverboat Company (www.potomacriverboatco.com; tel. 877/511-2628) operates year-round water taxi service between the Wharf and Georgetown, Old Town Alexandria, and National Harbor; between Old Town Alexandria and the National Mall; and, in baseball season, between Old Town Alexandria and Nationals Park. A water jitney ferries passengers between the Wharf and East Potomac Park, April through November. Check the website for details, www.wharfdc.com.
Thanks to the city's robust bike-share program (Capital BikeShare, www.capitalbikeshare.com, tel. 877/430-2453, is the nation’s largest, with more than 4,300 bikes and 500 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. Over 100 marked bike lanes throughout D.C., and bike paths through Rock Creek Park, the C&O Canal in Georgetown, along the waterfront via the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, and around the National Mall encourage cyclists. Interested? Visit www.godcgo.com and click on the “Transportation Options” link under “Commuter” to download a map that shows bike lanes and Capital BikeShare stations, which are all over. 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.
In addition to Capital Bikeshares, several dockless bike and scooter companies operate in D.C., including Jump Bikes (www.jumpbikes.com) and Mobike (www.mobike.com), so consider those if the thought of ditching your bike where you may appeals (rather than having to return it to a rack.)
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.