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Tips for Planning a Trip to Washington DC

Updated: September 1, 2023

It can be stressful to plan a trip anywhere! But Washington DC adds another layer of government security, red tape, and advance planning needed.

DC by Foot is here to help! We do this literally everyday.


Already overwhelmed and don't want to read any further? You can hire us to help you with your itinerary! We can review, revise and offer advice based on your budget, dates, and interests. Contact us for more information.


WHAT SITES NEED TICKETS?

Some places in DC require tickets and they are so popular they book out almost immediately! The below attractions require tickets.

If you aren't able to get tickets, or just don't want to bother trying, we've also listed some alternatives to each of the attractions.

Here is a quick list but we ALL the details below!

Advanced Tickets Required

  • US Capitol
  • White House
  • FBI Experience
  • Pentagon
  • US Holocaust Memorial Museum
  • Smithsonian Museums (NMAAHC, Air and Space Mall Location, National Zoo)
  • Washington Monument
  • Ford's Theatre

Tickets Required (but easier to get)


US Capitol

Tickets to enter the US Capitol are required.

You can get them either from the Capitol Visitor Center (we have advice on how to do that here), through your congressperson or join our sister company, VisitDC Tours, on their Capitol Hill & Library of Congress tour.

Tickets arranged through the Capitol Visitor Center are led by trained docents.

Going through your congressperson can be hit or miss - they are often led by interns who've just arranged into the city! If you're lucky, you can get special access to a part of the building but this is rare and may not be worth the risk of an intern-led tour.

Tickets are released at 8am about 90 days in advance. In peak times they can become fully booked in under 2 minutes.

TIP: Keep checking - especially as you get closer, they often release more tickets. You can also try for walk up tickets when you visit.\

ALTERNATIVE: If you're not able to get inside, you can join our exterior Capitol Hill tour that explore the area without going into the buildings. Our guides will tell you all about it and give you the best photo ops.


White House

White House access can only be granted through reservations arranged by your congressperson or embassy at least 3 weeks in advance.

However, we recommend applying as soon as your requested date becomes available- 90 days out.

Find out more about how to do this.

Planning a trip with a White House request can be frustrating because they do not tell you until 2 weeks prior if you were accepted and you cannot. choose the exact date or time for your tour.

TIP: If White House visit and something else that is ticketed are both equally important, schedule the second attraction at a time that the White House is not open to tourists.

ALTERNATIVE: The White House Visitor Center is run by the National Park Service and is open with required tickets. You can also see the exterior and learn more about it on our National Mall tour.


FBI Experience

The FBI Experience must be requested through your congressperson at least 4 weeks in advance.

You are getting access to a self guided tour of their museum and not a tour of the FBI itself.

Find out more about the FBI Experience.


Pentagon

Pentagon Tours can be request through the DoD's website at least 2 weeks in advance.

Find out more about visiting the Pentagon.

TIP: You can visit the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial on the Pentagon grounds without a reserved tour.


US Holocaust Museum

Tickets are required to visit the main permanent exhibit.

Find out more about getting tickets to the USHMM.

TIP: You can access the museum, gift shop, special exhibit and Daniel's Story without timed tickets starting March 01, 2023.


Smithsonian Museums

The National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) and Air and Space Museum National Mall location both require tickets to enter, as does the National Zoo.

The remaining Smithsonian Museums do not require tickets and you can enter at your leisure.

Find out how to get tickets to these museums: NMAAHC and Air and Space and National Zoo.

TIP: Both museums will allow you to enter without tickets if space allows. If you're in the area and have some time, it is worth checking at the entrance.

There are limited number of same day tickets available to the Zoo but because it is out of the way, we don't recommend heading there without reservations.


Washington Monument

While DC isn't known for its skyline, heading to the top of the Washington Monument is always a highlight.

Tickets are always required to enter and we have a guide to how to get tickets here.

ALTERNATIVE: The Old Post Office Pavilion is great alternative to the Washington Monument and doesn't require tickets.

TIP: If you aren't able to get tickets with they are released online at 10am, check back at 10:15am when they re-release any uncompleted orders.

There is also an option for same day tickets. You can wait in line (they begin handing out same day tickets at 845am but during peak season some people line up an hour before!).


Ford's Theatre

Ford's Theatre requires tickets to enter (unless you're attending a performance and then you can visit the museum before the production!)

When you purchase tickets in advance there are few options - museum only, theatre walkthrough, ranger talk. We detail the different options and which we recommend here.

ALTERNATIVE: Our Lincoln Assassination tour is a great alternative or complement to going inside Ford's Theatre


The following sites are ticketed sites but tickets are not difficult to get, though if you're looking for specific dates and times are not flexible it may be beneficial to purchase advance tickets.

During peak travel season (Cherry Blossom festival, Memorial Day & July 4 Weekends, and early June school group time) it is recommended to get advanced tickets.


WHERE TO STAY?

This is a very subjective question - what's your budget? do you mind walking? want room service?

We have a detailed guide on where to stay in Washington DC divided by neighborhoods and budget.

Read our advice on where to stay in DC...

 


ITINERARY PLANNING TIPS

1. Hire tour guides for the most important sites.

There are some places that are just better with a local guide.

We offer tours of pretty much anywhere in the DC Metro Area, but sites like the memorials on the National Mall, Arlington National Cemetery, Capitol Hill or neighborhoods like Georgetown really benefit from having a knowledgeable guide.


2. Don't schedule too many things in a day.

We've been doing this for a long time now and can tell you: you will not see everything DC has to offer in a single trip, so don't even try!

Instead, focus on the sites that are most important to both you and your group/family.

Build in downtime and some travel-time padding and don't feel bad about not seeing everything. Things take longer than you expect in DC.


3. Be prepared to be late.

There will be security lines and traffic can be a nightmare at certain times of the day.  

Here are some tips for being late to timed tickets in Washington DC:

  • US Capitol: Your tour actually starts 10 minutes after the time listed on your reservation. If you're really late, they may be able to accommodate you on a later ticket time (430pm is the last ticket time) or allow you to join the second half of the tour. The first half is a movie and you can join the group afterwards for the docent led tour.
  • Library of Congress: You can arrive up to 30 minutes before or 30 minutes after your ticketed time.
  • US Holocaust Museum: You have a 15 minute window to enter. Late arrival is subject to capacity
  • White House: Oops. Never hurts to ask but unlikely.
  • Ford's Theatre: They do not take kindly to late arrivals - whether you can be accommodated depends on what kind of visit you've reserved.
  • Washington Monument: NPS Rangers may allow late arrivals at their discretion. If you're only going to be a few minutes, there is a lot of lining up and waiting before you actually get in so you may be in luck.
  • NMAAHC: Visitors may enter the museum at any time after their scheduled ticket time.
  • Air and Space: Guests can enter at anytime within the hour after your scheduled time. Later than that is at the discretion of the museum.
  • National Zoo: passes are not timed and are for the day so you can enter at any time that day.
  • Our Tours: While the tour will start without you, you can contact the guide to find the group!

4. Try to come in the off-season.

Cherry Blossom peak bloom is one of the busiest times in the city - though it's hard to tell when that is going to be.

March through early June are the most popular times for school groups, especially the end of May and first week of June. October is becoming another popular option in the last few years, largely because late spring can be so crowded.

Though note that any 3 day weekends or school holidays are likely to be more crowded even in the off season.

If you can't avoid coming at the same time as everyone else, here a few things to keep in mind:

  • Arlington Cemetery opens at 8am and will be very crowded until 1030am - but we're pros at guiding groups through the crowds.
  • Lincoln Memorial is very crowded after dinner - but our guides know how to plan a memorials tour to deal with this!
  • The Tidal Basin is packed during peak Cherry Blossom bloom - read our guide on how to navigate Cherry Blossom Season in DC.

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