What Not to Do When Visiting Washington, D.C.

June 18, 2019

White House, Washington, D.C.

Last Updated on April 21, 2020 by Candy Wafford

This was supposed to be a What to Do With Half a Day in Washington DC article.  Instead, it’s a What Not to Do when visiting Washington, D.C. story. A cautionary tale.  A classic do-as-I-say-not as-I-do story.

My husband and I went to Maryland to spend the weekend with family.  The time between our direct flight to Washington, D.C. and the time we needed to be in Maryland left us with a nice chunk of the day to explore our nation’s capital.  Neither of us had been to DC before so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to visit. And there are a ton of things to do in Washington, DC as well as many awesome day trips.

I generally avoid renting a car as often as possible for both work and personal travel.  And typically wouldn’t have in a city with as much traffic as D.C. But we needed a car to get to Maryland and I couldn’t figure out what to do with our luggage.

The Plan

Draft Agenda for 1/2 Day in Washington, D.C.

I did some high-level research and planning, but my dear friends, I didn’t do nearly enough.  And this is where I encourage you to learn from my mistakes. 

The day started off early, but things were sailing along nicely.  We didn’t have to wait in any lines at the airport, our flight landed early, our checked bag was waiting for us as soon as we got off the flight, and we picked up our rental car without any issue.  Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is a nice airport and my first choice when in the area. It’s also right next to downtown Washington, D.C. which I thought was a good thing.

When the Plan Changed

Friday morning traffic was manageable.  I wanted to start at the FDR Memorial and plugged the address into my phone and was there about ten minutes later.  Here’s where our troubles began.  I knew parking may potentially be an issue but didn’t research parking options nearly enough.  Not only did we not see any parking options, we also didn’t see the FDR monument. 

Washington Monument, Washington, D.C.
Washington Monument

I could see the Washington Monument so decided to change course and that’s where we would start our sightseeing.  Traffic was a bit more challenging at this point but we were still getting around OK.  But the parking situation.  Where in the heck could we park?  Traffic makes my husband crazy so I agreed to drive but the downside is that I am horrible at parallel parking.  Not that we really saw much on-street parking.

So we hooked a turn and followed the first parking sign we saw.  This led us to the basement of a parking lot that was a bit of a roller coaster ride without any of the fun.  I followed an arrow that took me to a dead end.  Getting our little car out of this space took both my husband and I and a parking lot attendant to make it happen.  Oh, and our rental had warnings sounds for the backup camera, not using a seatbelt, and anytime the car was close to another object.  It sounded like my personal version of hell.

View of the United States Capital Building in Washington, D.C.
View of the United States Capital Building

Parked, we walked out of our parking dungeon and headed towards the Washington Monument.  A little calmer, we snapped a few pics.  The Monument was closed for repairs, but desperate for a restroom we walked to it and an attendant put up the maintenance sign just as I walked up.  He directed me to another building that was nearby.  My full bladder and I hustled there only to find it was locked.  GRRRRR.

I’m getting crankier by the minute so we started walking back towards the car because there were restaurants that I assumed would have a restroom.  But the hubs had a better idea and asked a security guard where the nearest restroom was and he pointed to the White House Visitor Center across the street.

After using the facilities, I realized this was a pretty cool little place.  And one that I hadn’t heard of.  We spent some time looking at the exhibits, reading history about the White House and watching a video where former inhabitants of the White House shared their memories of living there.  I really enjoyed the video and left feeling slightly optimistic and hopeful for our country after watching it.  If a visit to the White House is not an option, this is a great substitute.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Back to the Plan

Feeling like our morning was on an upward swing, we drove to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.  Getting there by car was easy enough, but parking once again presented an issue.  I saw very few parking garages near the major attractions. 

There is quite a bit of on-street parking, but it’s was nearly full just 15 minutes after the museums opened. Remember when I said I’m terrible at parallel parking? I really am so we did a quick switcharoo at a light and my husband found us a parking space on the street. We ignored the temporary no parking sign, fed the meter, and went to the museum.

Airplane exhibit at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Airplane exhibit at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

The National Air and Space Museum is lovely and we enjoyed the hour or so we spent there.  It’s a wonderful space full of exhibits and activities for visitors of all ages.  And entry into the Smithsonian museums is free which is wonderful.

Next up, a visit to the Lincoln Memorial.  Driving there was easy enough, but again, NO PARKING.  And trying to drive around and find parking is extremely challenging as there are many one way streets and it’s almost impossible to turn around on two-way streets in the National Mall.  We opted to drive past and try again later in the weekend.

Plan B

Fast forward to Sunday afternoon and traffic getting into DC was pretty nasty.  So much so, that our nerves were frazzled by the time we arrived at the Lincoln Memorial.  There is a roundabout around the Memorial and I chose a turn because it looked like parking might be available.  Wrong!  And the GPS indicated it would be 12 minutes to get back to the Memorial.  Frustrated, we just headed to the airport.

Things I Could Have / Should Have Done Differently

  1. Not rented a car and attempted to drive and park in a city that is notorious for traffic and a lack of parking.
  2. Found a place to store our luggage and taken the Metro or an Uber from the airport to the National Mall and walked.
  3. Parked somewhere outside the city and taken the Metro in.
  4. Completed more research and mapped out a parking strategy.  Maybe even found the addresses for some parking garage and used GPS to get to them.
  5. Several people suggested using one of the hop-on-hop-off buses.  I looked into this, but I would have needed to find a place to park to catch the bus and the prices seemed high for a ½ day visit.
  6. Read this article that provides details about parking in Washington DC.  https://washington.org/dc-faqs-for-visitors/where-can-i-park-in-washington-dc

When I wasn’t in the car, I enjoyed DC more than I expected.  As an American, some national pride kicked in and I found myself feeling a little emotion here and there. 

Again, I’m sharing my story not to discourage readers from visiting DC.  I know for many people, this is a must-do trip.  I’m just frustrated with myself for not being better prepared so that we could have seen more and had a better time. So go to Washington, D.C. Just take my advice on what not to do when visiting Washington, D.C. Don’t drive!

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More about Candy Wafford

Candy Wafford is a US-based travel blogger and while she travels frequently for her job, she is happiest when traveling for pleasure. Preferably strolling along a cobblestoned street with an ice cream cone in her hand.

    1. I feel for you. I’ve only worked in DC once and it took a coworker and I four times around a travel circle to find the right exit. It was at night and was raining. We ate at the hotel that night neither of us were willing to drive again! Lol. I would have left the car at the first parking spot and ubered from there as another option. We’ve done that a few times when visiting big cities.

      1. That’s a good idea! The parking garage was all day parking, but the metered spots typically only allowed 2 hours maximum.

    1. Great post! You could have parked in one of the lots in Pentagon City ($20/day) and then rode the Metro into the city. We’re living in Arlington for a year and the one thing we learned early on was to NEVER drive into DC. The one time we did it was a nightmare. I have a lot of posts on DC on my blog.

      1. Thank you! I’ll check out your posts next time I’m brave enough to go to DC!

    1. Great advice! The parking situation would have me so frustrated it would have ruined my entire visit. When I visit Washington I’ll for sure skip the car.

    1. Looking forward to my USA vacation next year and Washington DC is one of my target states to visit. These notes will greatly influence my itinerary. I would also prefer taking the public transportation just to observe DC!

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