The best ways to travel around Washington, DC

Washington, DC combines the best of all worlds – a highly walkable grid system expertly designed by the French and a manageable Metro that connects travelers across the District and beyond.

Sprinkle in some dedicated bike lanes and trails, and you’ll find you’ve got some pretty good options when finding your way around in Washington, DC. Your biggest dilemma will likely be figuring out which transit option to choose, so here’s our guide on navigating the capital of the US like a local. The best part is that you don’t really need a car.

A bright red and yellow DC Circulator bus drives past a tan and orange brick building in Washington, DC
For just $1, the DC Circulator will take you all around Washington, DC © Barry Winiker / Getty Images

Stretch your budget by taking the bus 

One of DC’s most affordable and eco-friendly options for exploration is by bus. Washington Metro Authority (WMATA) has its sights set on a zero-emissions fleet by 2042, with two 60ft electric buses as part of its fleet. 

The Metrobus links neighborhoods with finer precision than the Metrorail, and fares on regular routes will cost you $2. You’ll benefit from unlimited bus-to-bus transfers for two hours and the ease of paying your fare with SmarTrip on your phone’s wallet. The WMATA has a solid transit app, but I prefer Google Maps’s bus integration for directions and wait times.

Tourists visiting DC can have the closest thing to a free ride by hopping on the DC Circulator. For just $1, you can jump on the iconic red bus while journeying through some of DC’s most desired tourist sites, museums and neighborhoods.

Don’t miss Washington, DC’s best experiences. Here are the top things to do in the capital

A cyclist pedals along in front of a distinctive white building
Washington, DC, has bike lanes and a bikeshare scheme © uschools / Getty Images

Make use of the miles of bike lanes and trails

Capital DC Bikeshare makes wheeling around the city a breeze through regular bike and e-bike rentals. You can get a day pass for $8 that offers unlimited 45-minute rides for 24 hours on a classic bike. Or, opt for an e-bike day pass at $0.10 per mile. There are over 700 stations across the DC metro area, so you won’t have to go far to dock, and you can easily manage your rental through Capitol DC Bikeshare’s mobile app. Popular areas to cycle are the National Mall and the Tidal Basin, and for a longer route, try the Mt Vernon loop or the C&O Canal trails.

Want to cycle the C&O Canal trails? Here’s what to expect

See the city through a new lens on a Water Taxi

DC’s waterfront sprawls are absolute gems, so hop aboard the Potomac Water Taxi to catch a view or visit them all. Trips start at $22 one-way, which feels steep if you see it just as a taxi, not mainly as a sightseeing opportunity. Kids under two can ride for free. Hop on and off at District Wharf, Old Town Alexandria, National Harbor and the Georgetown Waterfront from March to December. 

If you’re looking for a free opportunity to sail, check out the District Wharf Jitney. This little boat crosses the channel from the Wharf to East Potomac Park, a popular spot to view cherry blossoms. It’s a short five-minute ride, but hey, it’s unique.

A metro train pulls into a station where people wait on the platform
Washington, DC’s Metro has six different lines that are easy to navigate © Filippo Manaresi / Getty Images

Explore all of what DC has to offer with Metrorail

I’ve traveled to many cities, and I have to say DC has one of the most straightforward Metrorail systems (casually known just as the Metro). Our train lines come in six colors – red, green, yellow, blue, silver and orange – and will transport you to 98 stations in DC, Maryland and Virginia. 

The colors cause way less confusion when transferring lines: just double-check you’re on the correct platform going in the right direction. There are plenty of signs to guide you. You’ll also find the iconic multi-colored metro map plastered across nearly every train wall and station.

Your metro fare depends entirely on distance, time of day and journey. Riding during off-peak hours can save you some change. If you stay out late, be mindful of the train cutoff times. The metro runs Sunday through Thursday until 12am and Fridays and Saturdays until 1am. 

Local tip: Metro is an ever-improving system, meaning you’ll occasionally experience closures or long wait times. Before you head out, always double-check the SmarTrip App or WMATA’s status page.

A SmarTrip card will connect you throughout the city

Your golden ticket to accessing DC’s transit system is the iconic, rechargeable fare card known as a SmarTrip card. Put simply, SmarTrip is the way to pay for transit across the greater DC metro area (including Maryland and Virginia.) Acquiring a card is pretty effortless. You can purchase a card from any Metrorail station, Metro retail store or a mobile phone wallet (like Apple or Google Pay). SmarTrip can pay for rides on any of WMATA’s transit, including Metrorail and Metrobus, and with regional transit partners like the DC Circulator and Arlington’s ART bus.

You may save some change by purchasing a 1-, 3-, or 7-day Unlimited Pass. These passes start at $13 and are available through the SmarTrip App or at any rail Metrorail station or retail store. Unfortunately, unlimited passes don’t cover rides on transit partners like the DC Circulator (which will require purchasing a 7-day regional bus pass for $12) and only partially cover rides on express bus routes.

Cars parked at the side of the road near a large museum building
It’s not easy to find a parking spot in Washington, DC, so opt for a rideshare instead © Nigel Jarvis / Shutterstock

Avoid the parking dilemma by ridesharing 

Parking in DC is not impossible; you’ll just need to build some extra time into your itinerary to find that perfect spot (when you get it, double-triple-check the parking sign) and prepare to dish out some cash. Street parking is a hot commodity in popular neighborhoods such as the Wharf and Adams Morgan, and you’ll rarely find a spot outside of an overpriced garage downtown. 

Avoid the headache of possibly arriving late to your dinner reservation by opting for rideshare. Uber and Lyft are the most popular options. Taxi services are diminishing in popularity but still exist. Try DC Yellow Cab.

Washington DC Transportation FAQs and things to consider

Is DC a walkable city? 

DC is a walkable city. Some neighborhoods are far more straightforward than others. In certain areas, like the National Mall or the Wharf, walking a few blocks to your destination is often more advantageous and efficient than taking a transit system. Google Maps is great for up-to-date walking directions.

Should I rent a car for my DC visit?

Driving a car around the city can be a headache. Parking can be hectic and expensive, and DC has notoriously tricky traffic around rush hour. With so many accessible transit options, renting a car is not much benefit unless you plan on heading out on a day trip outside the city. 

Is Washington, DC an accessible city?

DC strives to make the city accessible for all visitors. Metrorail and Metrobus make it their mission to provide accommodations for all travelers, including free and reduced fares for seniors and those with disabilities, wheelchair-accessible elevators in every rail station, and MetroAccess, a transit service for those who can’t use the accessible bus or rail system due to a disability. Visit WMATA’s accessibility page or read its comprehensive Accessible Transportation Options guide to get an excellent overview of your options. 

Keep planning your trip to Washington, DC:

These experiences should be on your DC itinerary 
Get to know DC like a local in these top neighborhoods 
Find the best times to visit
Get up close with nature and more history on these day trips

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