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Washington, DC Travel Guide: Where To Stay, What To Eat, and More

The nation’s capital is home to grand monuments, a burgeoning cultural scene, and one vast green space lined with some of the best museums in the country. Washington’s iconic landmarks loom large over the nation’s political landscape. For visitors, they make fine backdrops to a memorable stroll or spin (via Capital Bikeshare) around town.

Beyond the marble-filled corridors of power, there’s much to discover, from glittering rooftop bars to bustling seafood markets. And when you need an escape from the gridlike streets, the city’s picturesque riverfront and leafy parks are integral parts of the urban landscape.

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Where to Stay

Apart from a few classics, the capital once had fairly lackluster options when it came to accommodation. All that’s changed in recent years with the arrival of a new crop of creative boutique hotels, plus stylish makeovers of some well-known addresses.

Best Heritage Hotel: The Hay-Adams

A view of The Hay-Adams in the morning.

Launched in 1928, the historic Hay-Adams Hotel claims “nothing is overlooked but the White House.” The five-star lodging has a classical design that’s elegant without pretension: Oil paintings, fireplaces, chandeliers, and wood paneling set the scene for a comfortable stay no matter the season. The handsomely set rooms have black-and-white artwork on the walls, brass light fixtures and there are excellent dining and drinking options (including the classy Off the Record bar and The Lafayette, a high-end dining room perfect for sealing the deal).

  • Nearest Airport: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
  • Time: 11 minutes by car
  • Distance: 5.4 miles

Read more: How to Stay Safe in Hotels

Best Boutique Hotel: Rosewood Washington, D.C.

The entrance to the Rosewood DC.

Perched along the C&O Canal in Georgetown, Rosewood has a more intimate feel than most DC hotels with 55 accommodations total.  The plush rooms are set in neutral tones and have hardwood floors, tall windows, and modern artwork on the walls, and thoughtful touches include fresh flowers, espresso machines, and tea kettles. On hot days you can cool off in the rooftop pool, and the ground-floor Cut Bar and Lounge means you won’t have to leave the hotel grounds for a well-made cocktail — there’s also a seasonal rooftop bar that’s the envy of the town. Plus, if you’re looking for luxury, make sure to check out their Presidential Suite, which includes an expansive bathtub you could swim in. If you’re looking for a bit more privacy, book one of their six townhouses next to the main lobby, replete with creature comforts like a back patio, a kitchenette, a pull-out couch, and a washer-dryer in unit. Plus, Rosewood’s location puts you just steps from great shopping and dining options in one of DC’s most appealing neighborhoods.

  • Nearest Airport: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
  • Time: 11 minutes by car
  • Distance: 5.4 miles

Best Hotel for Foodies: Thompson Washington DC

The entrance to the Thompson Washington DC.

In DC’s rapidly transforming Navy Yards district, the Thompson brings a much-needed dose of style to the American capital. The 208 rooms and 17 suites are all class with hardwood floors, oversized windows, well-designed contemporary furnishings, and heavenly mattresses. For a bit more space (plus a balcony and a king bed), upgrade to a suite. Famed NYC restaurateur Danny Meyer oversees Maialino Mare, an upscale, Roman-style trattoria as well as Anchovy Social, a rooftop bar with creative cocktails and shareable snacks. There’s also in-room dining available 24 hours a day.

  • Nearest Airport: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
  • Time: 13 minutes by car
  • Distance: 4.9 miles

Best Newcomer: Conrad DC

A view of Conrad DC in the evening.

Opened in 2019, Conrad is the Hilton’s first luxury offering in Washington and is quick to impress with its all-glass design by Pritzker Prize-winning architects Herzog & de Meuron. The spacious rooms feature modular furnishings and ample natural light, while suites add low-slung couches and fireplaces. For the best views, try to score a premium corner king room, which has a wraparound wall with floor-to-ceiling windows. The Estuary serves up farm- and sea-to-table cuisine, while the rooftop bar offers 360-degree views over the city — an unbeatable spot at sunset.

  • Nearest Airport: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
  • Time: 11 minutes by car
  • Distance: 4.6 miles

Best All-Suites Hotel: One Washington Circle Hotel

A room in One Washington Circle Hotel.

Just up from Foggy Bottom, One Washington Circle is an all-suites hotel that’s excellent value for the money. The spacious rooms are well-equipped for a long or short stay, with walk-out balconies, skyline views, and fully equipped kitchens. Dogs and cats can stay for free, and you needn’t give up your workout routine: There’s a small fitness room, plus complimentary yoga for in-studio classes at Georgetown Yoga. It’s a 15-minute walk to Georgetown and 20 minutes down to the National Mall.

  • Nearest Airport: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
  • Time: 11 minutes by car
  • Distance: 4.9 miles

Where to Eat

Washington, DC, has an impressive dining scene that encompasses a dizzying array of ethnic eateries, plus top-notch farm- and boat-to-table eateries that make good use of DC’s bountiful backyard (namely, the Chesapeake Bay and the Virginia Piedmont).

  • “$” = budget-friendly or cheap
  • “$$”= average
  • “$$$”= expensive

Busboys & Poets

Guests dining at the Busboys & Poets.

Near the lively U Street corridor, Busboys & Poets has a wide-ranging menu of creative globally inspired small plates and southern-inspired fare: Shrimp and grits, flatbread pizzas, falafel plates, and fried catfish sandwiches. Brunch is always a hit (served until 3 p.m. daily) and you can also stop in for creative cocktails. Socially minded Busboys & Poets hosts a wide range of events, from film screenings and open-mic nights to book launches and poetry slams. The attached bookstore is a great place to browse for a thought-provoking new title.

  • $$

Equinox

The quaint dining area of Equinox.

Headed by five-time James Beard Award nominee Chef Todd Gray, Equinox serves imaginative modern American dishes in a classy but unpretentious space near the White House. The seasonally inspired menu changes frequently and has ample options for vegetarians and a few vegan dishes. Recent favorites include sweet potato and cauliflower curry with saffron basmati and toasted pistachios, and pan-roasted Mediterranean octopus with gingered carrot coulis and rhubarb sauce.

  • $$$

Municipal Fish Market

The Municipal Fish Market bustling with people at night.

Despite the name change (the place was formerly known as the Maine Avenue Fish Market), this lively seafood emporium has lost none of its appeal since the District Wharf opened up nearby. Going strong since 1805, the MFM is in fact the oldest continuously operating open-air fish market in the US. Stop in for fresh oysters, hot cooked crabs, lobster, and myriad other temptations from the sea. Get it to go, and have a ready-made picnic by the waterside.

  • $$

Ben’s Chili Bowl

Ben's Chili Bowl situated beside Next Door Restaurant.

Opened in 1958, Ben’s Chili Bowl is a Washington institution. The n0-fuss diner and take-out stand serves up heavenly decadence courtesy of its half smokes, a meatier, smokier cousin to the hot dog, that goes down just right (smothered in mustard and onions of course) after a night on the town.

have a ready-made picnic by the waterside.

  • $

Read more: Best Restaurants in America

What to Do

You could spend weeks visiting the city’s museums, memorials, and historic sites and still not run out of things to see. The National Mall is Washington’s obvious focal point, with its trove of world-class (and free!) museums under the umbrella of the Smithsonian Institution, plus its impressive memorials and monuments that showcase the highs and lows of American history.

If you’re a runner, rise early and take a lap around the Mall to see it without the crowds. Running (or cycling) is also preferable to walking as the distances are quite vast: Nearly two miles long and 1,600 feet wide, the entire mall is tough to see in one go.

National Museum of African American History & Culture

The magnificent architecture of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

If you have time for just one Smithsonian Museum, make it the National Museum of African American History & Culture. The glittering crown-like building, designed by Architect Philip Freelon and designer David Adjaye, was inspired by Yoruban art from West Africa. Inside, you’ll find a powerful array of exhibitions that delve into slavery, segregation, and Civil Rights, and how the African-American experience has shaped who we are as a nation.

Rock Creek Park

A bridge and rock formations on Rock Creek Park.

Twice the size of NYC’s Central Park, Rock Creek Park is less of a manicured green space than a rugged wilderness plunked along the edge of the nation’s capital. Beavers, white-tailed deer, and even coyotes still roam this 1,750-acre expanse, and there’s impressive birdwatching (150 species) particularly during the spring and fall migration. Nature aside, the park is also home to a handful of Civil War sites. There’s no better place in town for hiking, mountain biking, or horseback riding. Rock Creek has many admirers, not least of The Manual.

Read more: Best National Parks in America

How to Save Money on Your Trip to Washington, D.C.

Experiences

As of this writing, Washington has reopened its doors to visitors. So, use this time to visit many of the capital’s free (and bucket list-worthy) museums such as the out-of-this-world National Air and Space Museum and art galleries like the world-class National Gallery of Art.

If you’re a history buff, consider dropping by the National Archives Building as it boasts over three billion historical documents that shed light on America’s rich history. Make sure to include the White House in your itinerary for a quintessential Washington trip. Touring the White House is free, though you need to book a tour in advance through your member of Congress. It requires meticulous planning, but the experience of visiting the home and workplace of the President makes it a worthy destination.

Don’t miss out on stellar shows and theater performances, from plays to live music, held in the Kennedy Center and other well-known venues. Not only will these can’t-miss travel experiences help you save money, but they will also help reignite your love for the United States, culture and all.

Hotels

As Washington is home to a myriad of activities, it’s understandable that the capital is also home to a number of great lodging options across every price point. From luxurious to budget hotels, you’re bound to find the ideal accommodation for your tastes and budget. If you’re saving money and don’t mind using public transportation, staying in a hotel somewhere away from the capital is your best bet. Take advantage of the hottest hotel deals and discounts on Kayak.com.

Vehicle Rentals

With its Metrorail, bus system, and bike rental services, it’s no surprise that Washington’s diverse transportation system is a stress-free way of exploring the capital on the cheap. Vehicle rentals are an option, too. Since this mode of transport can be expensive, we recommend checking out Kayak.com for the cheapest vehicle rental deals.

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