Mistakes Tourists Make While Visiting Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., isn’t just a destination for school field trips. Our nation’s capital is a full-fledged tourism hot spot, thanks to its plethora of restaurants, museums, historic sites, charming neighborhoods, sporting events and more.
But visitors tend to get some things wrong when they travel to “the District,” and the people who live there have certainly taken note. We asked D.C. locals to share the various faux pas they’ve observed over the years.
From poor timing to navigation snafus, here are 17 mistakes tourists often make while visiting Washington, D.C. ― and some advice for avoiding these errors during your travels.
Visiting the monuments at peak hours
“Don’t go to the monuments during the day. The monuments, and landmarks such as the Jefferson Memorial, are always better at night. Less crowded, more picturesque, and very romantic!” ― Vy Luu, content creator and real estate expert
“If you want to see the monuments and get the best pics, always go super early in the morning ― like 6-8 a.m. Grab a bagel and coffee and enjoy sunrise at the Lincoln Memorial solo-dolo! I did this a few months ago, and it was the best.” ― Imani Keal, blogger at Imani At Home
Booking accommodations based on the metro
“Don’t prioritize the location of your hotel or Airbnb near a metro line. While the metro is helpful for certain travel needs (i.e. getting from Columbia Heights to Navy Yard), the metro really isn’t the most helpful with inner-city transportation. You’ll likely end up taking the metro not as often as you’d expect, or not at all, so don’t factor that in regarding your stay preferences.” ― Meghan Hoffman, photographer and founder of District by Meg
Sticking to the front of the Lincoln Memorial
“When checking out the Lincoln Memorial, don’t just stop at the front like most people. Head around to the backside of the Memorial for one of my favorite views in the city. You’ll be able to see Memorial Bridge spanning over the Potomac River into Arlington National Cemetery. There’s also another set of stairs on the backside of the Memorial that are perfect for taking in the moment or enjoying some food you brought along.” ― Katie Urban, blogger at A Touch of Teal
Being too ambitious with museum timing
“Schedule accordingly. One huge faux pas that people often make when touring the District is not accounting for the time it takes to tour the museums and other sites. For instance, people think that they can see the entirety of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in a couple of hours. I’m yet to see it be done! The extent of the exhibits is so vast, and the information so compelling, that you would be hard pressed to take in every floor in just a few hours. People are often astonished when they realize the museum realistically takes about an entire day of touring!” ― Rashida Banks, home decor and lifestyle content creator
Eating at chain restaurants
“D.C. has one of the most incredible food scenes in the country, but tourists like to (unknowingly) stick to their comfort zones. Pass on the big chains during your trip to experience new cuisines. Head to Albi for amazing Levantine food, to Mandu for delicious Korean staples, to Allegory for unforgettable cocktails. The list goes on and on.” ― Kimberly Kong, blogger and digital marketer
“I think tourists tend to miss out on D.C.’s local culture when they get too museum- and monument-focused. We’re right next to Chesapeake, so the seafood you can find at places like Rappahannock Oyster Bar and Hank’s Oyster Bar at the Wharf and Capitol Hill is fantastic. The vibrant D.C. food, music, and art scene in areas near Union Market and on 14th Street tends to get missed too.” ― Elisabeth Pendergrass, blogger at District of Chic
Assuming the airports are equidistant
“This one is a little silly, but when people visit D.C. they sometimes make the mistake of flying into Dulles Airport. Airline and travel sites always list it as an option, but Dulles is an hour from D.C. proper, so this is a big no-no for us Washingtonians! When booking your stay, make sure to use BWI or Reagan National as your destination ― Reagan preferably, as it’s just minutes outside the city in Arlington, Virginia.” ― Banks
Not factoring in the sun
“Especially in the summer, the National Mall is hot, and baking in the summer sun is not the most fun thing to do. Take in the museums during the day and walk along the Mall at night. All of the monuments lit up are much more impressive.” ― Mark Alan Andre, architect and photographer
Buying mass-produced souvenirs
“Don’t buy souvenirs at the souvenir shops. Go to local branded shops such as Shop Made in DC to get handcrafted items created by a local.” ― Luu
Planning your trip without checking on events
“An often encountered blunder when visiting the District is not checking an event calendar. There is always some type of march, festivity, political engagement or other event that could pose street closures and other dilemmas that may in fact hinder you from seeing that site you want to visit. So make sure to plan wisely and check the calendar!” ― Banks
Limiting your visit to the Mall
“The biggest mistake tourists make when visiting D.C. is not leaving the Hill or areas around the Mall. There is rich creative culture in so many other areas of our city. For example, the Michelin Star restaurants and art galleries you can find in Northwest [D.C.], and don’t forget, my favorite part, our live music you can find all over the city. D.C. was one of the prominent centers in the development of jazz beginning in the early 1900s. Basically, don’t get sucked into the chaos of downtown and don’t forget that D.C. has so much more to offer for a quick Uber or Metro ride.” ― Lacey Faeh, digital brand consultant and founder of A Lacey Perspective
“When planning a trip to D.C., don’t forget to explore beyond the monuments and museums ― whether it’s taking a picnic to Logan Circle, sitting in ‘The Proposal Booth’ in Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown, supporting local vendors at Eastern Market, getting late-night [food] at Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street, or stopping by the Barbie Pond on Q Street in Dupont, there are so many vibrant neighborhoods with something to offer for everyone.” ― Urban
Missing the art scene
“It seems like on average, tourists don’t go deep enough into their research to find the best spots for food and experiences. D.C. has a deep and vibrant creative community full of different artistic mediums and creative events, so rather than spending the majority of time on the National Mall, I find that experiences such as Artechouse or No Kings Collective are much more rewarding and inspiring.” ― Julian Thomas, photographer
Getting off at the wrong stop for the zoo
“The National Zoo is marked as Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Metro Station, but if you get off at Cleveland Park instead, you don’t have to walk uphill, especially hard when you’re pushing strollers. The zoo entrance lies halfway between both stations, but [it’s] a lot easier walk from Cleveland Park.” ― Laurie Collins, photographer and creator of DC City Girl
Not making restaurant reservations
“Make reservations! Plan ahead your meals if possible, especially if you’re visiting on a weekend, to save yourself the wait times. Restaurants fill up quickly on Friday and Saturday nights.” ― Hoffman
Skipping the natural sights
“In addition to the rich historical and cultural sites, the amazing variety of food, and classic architecture, D.C. provides awesome attractions for nature lovers as well. Be sure to visit places like Rock Creek Park, Great Falls, the Tidal Basin Cherry Blossoms, and if you have a car be sure to take a scenic drive on George Washington Parkway.” ― Banks
“You always know tourists in D.C. when they don’t know to stand to the right, pass left, on the Metro escalators. A big pet peeve to locals for sure. And don’t block the sidewalk! So many tourists stop to chat, figure out directions, etc., and locals go nuts that we have to maneuver around them. That also goes for driving ― don’t block the box.” ― Collins
Picking the wrong cupcake bakery
“Beyond the stars, stripes, Congress and memorials lies the food scene. Washington, D.C., has tremendous variety when it comes to food options. One common comical mistake I see tourists make, for example, is visiting Georgetown Cupcake rather than Baked & Wired when visiting. Both locations will likely have a line outside their doors, but the tasting experiences are not to be compared in my opinion.” ― Thomas
Overlooking the fashion scene
“People have a misperception that Washingtonians are staid and lack style. Yes, D.C. can err on the conservative side, but the city has a plethora of fashionistas and style lovers. Just look at the lines at City Center to get into Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton. It’s a city that takes both politics and Prada very seriously.” ― Sara Azani, blogger and realtor
Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.