Four Tips for Going Car-Less in Washington, DC

If you’re planning a trip to Washington, D.C., forget the hassle of renting a car — you won’t need one to see the sites. Public transportation in the United States capital makes it easy to get around to see the highlights.

My family loves Washington, D.C., so much, we’ve visited five or six times in the last few years. Yes, we’re drawn to all the rich American history, but also to the museums, memorials, government buildings, galleries and other attractions that tell evocative and important stories.

While we’re there, we never feel the need to rent a car — which is great, because not only are car rentals expensive, but parking in a big city is often a hassle and garages are pricey. Instead, we explore on foot and by taking advantage of these easy ways to see the capital’s bright spots:

1. Go on a Hop-On, Hop-Off Tour.

One of the best things we’ve ever done is take a Monuments at Night Tour, which departs nightly from Union Station. In just two and half hours, we covered a lot of ground and saw many of the most popular monuments, including the Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. memorials.

In the evenings, the monuments are beautifully lit up and a lot less crowded. Plus, the commentary from the tour guides added informative context to each historic site. By taking a night tour, we could use our precious daytime hours to visit museums that weren’t open in the evenings.

Quick Tip:

Purchase Monuments at Night tickets in advance to save 10%.

2. Take the Metro.

Many of the major tourist sites in D.C. are within walking distance of one another. But if you want to give your feet a break — or yearn to visit an attraction on the outskirts of the district, like the Smithsonian’s National Zoo — I suggest using the Metro. Clean, simple to navigate and quicker (and cheaper) than a cab, it’s well worth getting to know. Families, take note: up to two children under the age of 5 can travel for free with each fare-paying adult.

Quick Tip:

If you’re going sans-rental car, pick a hotel that’s close to a metro stop.

3. Try Bike-Sharing.

Bike-sharing is booming right now in D.C. After a long day of walking around the city, my family welcomed the opportunity to cycle around town. Capital Bikeshare has more than 3,700 bikes parked at stations throughout the city, with nearly a dozen of them right on the National Mall. We rented our bikes from a kiosk near the Washington Monument, cycled around the Mall and returned them to a station near the National Air and Space Museum. The best part? The first 30 minutes cost just two dollars, making it a cost-effective option for quick one-way trips.

4. Plan Ahead.

Organization and logistics are all part of any successful vacation, especially when you have to allow extra time for walking or must work around tour and public transportation schedules. To make the most of a trip to Washington, D.C., remember that visiting a few marquee sites requires advance planning.

  • As soon as you decide to visit D.C., write your senator or congressperson for assistance booking a tour of the White House. All public tours must be requested this way; you can submit your request up to three months in advance.
  • The Supreme Court does not offer tours, but visitors can attend oral arguments. Courtroom seating is offered on a first-come, first-seated basis.
  • You can spend $1.50 to reserve a time to visit the National Archives. Without a reservation, the National Archives are free, but you may encounter lengthy lines.

  • Build in flexibility where you can by purchasing tickets to museums that span a couple of days. Although it’s not free like the Smithsonian museums, the Newseum is a can’t-miss attraction. Tickets are good for two days, and all the exhibits are enlightening. We spent time with our children at the 9/11 Gallery, which documents the tragic events from journalists’ points of view and was incredibly moving. (The centerpiece of the exhibit is the twisted wreckage of what was once an antenna on top of one of the towers.)

With so much to see in the nation’s capital, taking advantage of excellent public transportation and multiple tour options will help streamline your trip — without needing to rent a car or even flag a cab.


Where to Stay:

Marriott Vacation Club Pulse℠ at The Mayflower, Washington, D.C.

Dana F. is a travel journalist living in Vermont.