10 Things NOT to Do in Washington, D.C.

Courtesy of Destination DC

Washington D.C. is one of the country’s most visitor-friendly cities. It’s easy to get around, the major sights are concentrated in a wonderfully walkable area, and the city has an enviable mix of history and new offerings. But to do the nation’s capital properly, there are a few no-nos that you should avoid. For example, don’t buy one of those 3-for-$10 FBI T-shirts. And don’t try to pick the cherry blossoms. Most important of all, don’t do any of these 10 things. —Jess Moss

Courtesy of Destination DC

Don’t spend all your time on the Mall

The two-mile expanse between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial is ground zero for tourists. You must spend time here — even locals love wandering around the stately museums and monuments. But you need to get off the Mall and into D.C.’s colorful neighborhoods to really experience the city’s energy and character. These are places where Washingtonians live and play, and are layered with the city’s history, from the restaurant booth where JFK reportedly proposed to Jackie in Georgetown to the latest pop-ups and food stalls at Union Market to the Chinatown house where the Lincoln assassination conspirators met (which is now a karaoke bar).

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Washington, D.C. Guide

Elizabeth Parker

Don’t dine at chain restaurants or tourist traps

Yes, there’s a Hard Rock Cafe here. No, you shouldn’t eat at it. Washington may not have a widely recognized “foodie” rep, but the culinary scene is thriving—just ask the throngs who wait for hours to dine at Rose's Luxury. The city’s strong international ties bring in a wealth of authentic ethnic eats—try Ethiopian, Cuban, Lao, and more. Celebrity chefs like Mike Isabella and José Andrés have mini empires around town. Even the museums have something to offer; the food court at the National Museum of the American Indian serves fare from native cultures around the Americas. Whatever you do, do not waste a meal on those hot dog vendors that line the Mall. If you’re craving a sausage, head to U Street for D.C.’s signature dish: the chili-topped half smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Washington, D.C. Guide

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Don’t drive or take taxis

You’ve heard about L.A. traffic, right? Well, according to a 2015 study, D.C. traffic is worse. Uber and taxis can be good options at night, but the best solution to Washington gridlock is to use Metro, D.C.’s clean and easy-to-use public transit rail system. A few tips for riding Metro: buy a plastic SmartTrip card if you plan on taking multiple rides (paper tickets cost more per use). Hold on to your card; you’ll need to scan it again when exiting. Watch schedules on weekends, as there’s often track work. And most important, never stand on the left side of those long Metro escalators. That side’s for walking, and blocking it is a surefire way to draw spiteful glares from otherwise amicable locals.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Washington, D.C. Guide

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Don’t be afraid to cross the river

Northern Virginia is practically an extension of D.C., and you’ll miss out on some excellent sights if you don’t visit the other side of the Potomac River. Arlington National Cemetery is here; come to see the changing of the guard and pay tribute to the nation’s veterans. Nearby is the iconic Iwo Jima memorial; walk around it to see an optical illusion of the flag going up. History buffs should check out Old Town Alexandria’s historic waterfront, George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon, and the Civil War battlefield at Manassas. Virginia’s also a great place to base your stay if you’re on a budget—you’ll be 10 minutes from the National Mall at a fraction of the hotel price.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Washington, D.C. Guide

Courtesy of Destination DC

Don’t skip the Mall at night

Night isn’t usually a prime time for sightseeing, but on the National Mall it’s a different story. The monuments are open to visitors 24 hours, and touring them in the dark is simultaneously eerie and enchanting. Some monuments, like the Korean War Veterans Memorial, are arguably more powerful when lit at night, while others, like the Jefferson Memorial, are far more peaceful without the crowds. You can join a guided tour or explore on your own; the area is safe, and park rangers are on duty to answer questions until 10 p.m. Try to time your visit for a full moon; the white marble buildings are beautiful when washed in moonlight.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Washington, D.C. Guide

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Don’t try to visit every museum in one trip

The beauty of D.C.’s museums is that many of them—including all the Smithsonian Institution locations—are free. There’s also a museum for almost every interest, from architecture to space travel to the news to presidential portraits. The problem is, this can lead to an exhausting whirlwind museum marathon where you try to hit all the “must-see” spots and wind up oversaturated with your eyes glazed over. Don’t. The right way to see D.C.’s museums is to pick the ones that interest you and focus on those. If history bores you, don’t spend two hours at the Museum of American History just because the Star Spangled Banner is there. Skip it, or pop in for 5 minutes to check out the giant flag then go do something else, like eat astronaut ice cream at the Air and Space Museum.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Washington, D.C. Guide

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Don’t visit in summer

Washington’s flat topography, wide avenues, and sprawling Mall are perfectly suited for exploring by foot or bike (or even Segway). What’s NOT fun is touring the city in 90-degree heat and face-melting humidity, which is what you could endure if you visit between June and August. On top of that, summer is busy tourist season, so you’ll be paying higher prices for bigger crowds and a sweatier visit. Instead, PLAN YOUR TRIP for the fall, when the humidity disappears and the temperatures float between the high 50s and 70s. With kids back in school, you’ll also find fewer people at many of the museums and monuments.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Washington, D.C. Guide

Courtesy of Destination DC

Don’t “wing it” when it comes to a White House tour

Big news: you can now take a selfie on a White House tour! (A 40-year photography ban was lifted in 2015.) But if you show up in D.C. and hope to check out the presidential digs on a whim, think again. White House tours are first-come first-served, but you need to request a spot through your member of Congress at least 21 days in advance (you can actually request one up to six months out). If you didn’t snag a tour, you can still visit the White House Visitor Center to see artifacts from the home.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Washington, D.C. Guide

Courtesy of Destination DC

Don’t assume you know D.C. just because you’ve visited before

A lot of people mistakenly have a “been there, done that” mentality when it comes to Washington. If you visited five to 10 years ago (or more), you haven’t seen D.C. The city has undergone drastic changes in recent years, both in terms of safety and culture. Now you can drink locally brewed beer at hipster bars in Northeast D.C. Take in a waterfront concert or baseball game in Southeast. Try new foodie concepts at a restaurant incubator, sip craft coffee made by former Marines, go Instagram nuts at the new Renwick Gallery. Even the Mall, whose sights are literally set in stone, is eagerly awaiting a new addition this fall: the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Washington, D.C. Guide

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Don’t ask where House of Cards scenes were filmed

If you’re looking for Frank Underwood’s house—or Olivia Pope’s office, for that matter—you’re out of luck. House of Cards and Scandal may put D.C. front and center on TV, but neither show is actually filmed in the District. (HoC isn’t filmed too far off; it’s in Maryland. Scandal is shot in Los Angeles.) However, you can see the locations from some classic TV shows and movies: the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool, where Forrest Gump reunited with Jenny; the treacherous staircase from The Exorcist; and various locations from The West Wing, to name a few.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Washington, D.C. Guide