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America’s capital city is like nothing else in the country. Overflowing with monuments, world-class museums and busy-body politicians, Washington DC is rarely dull. Wander beyond the White House core and you’ll discover a vibrant patchwork of distinct neighbourhoods, each with its own demographic, attitude and ambiance. There is an overload of attractions and amenities in DC for every budget. With a car, you can also cross the mighty Potomac River and explore historic Northern Virginia, Maryland and quirky East Coast beach towns.
Who to Book With
Every car hire company on the planet, from global chains to regional outfits, has a strong presence in Washington DC. Both of the city’s airports are home to the big names in the business, but rental offices are also conveniently located around the major tourism and business zones of the city. Life never slows down in the nation’s capital, so be sure and book your vehicle well in advance to avoid high rates and a bad vehicle selection.
Best Time to Go
In most residents’ minds, spring and autumn are the best seasons in Washington DC. Summers are hot and humid, while winters are cold and damp. However, on the edges of summer, visitors will enjoy very comfortable temperatures and only moderate amounts of rain. Spring sees the cherry blossoms burst into life, but autumn, when the thousands of old hardwoods turn in October and November, is a solid contender for colour champion.
Need to Know Essentials
You need the following documents to pick up your vehicle:
- A valid driving license in English or International Driving Permit
- A second form of photo ID like a passport
- The credit card used in the online reservation
- A print-out of your rental confirmation
The original city planners laid out Washington’s streets in a very logical manner, using letters and numbers. It’s really quite easy to navigate the downtown district, although the many roundabouts and one-way streets, and traffic can be heavy. Rush hour runs from 06:00 to 10:00 and again from 16:00 to 20:00.
During the weekday, traffic is consistently dense and parking is very hard to find. There are metered street parking spots, but they require constant feeding and have two-hour limits. Parking garages and lots are found all over the city but are expensive at around US$8 per hour or US$20 for a day. Even your downtown hotel will likely charge you overnight parking fees. Fortunately, however, Washington is an ideal city for walking and public transport, so park the car, pay the fee and enjoy the capital on foot.
Washington DC’s public transportation system is excellent. It is the transport mode of choice among locals and visitors alike due to the terrible traffic conditions that clog the downtown streets. The DC Metro subway is the best bet, backed up by a slew of bus routes and even more taxis. Driving in the capital is not recommended, but a car is ideal for heading out of town to explore Virginia and Maryland.
The most convenient ticket option is the SmarTrip card, which can be bought and then topped up with cash at automated machines in every Metro station. You simply flash the card to ride any subway or bus to enjoy reduced fares save the time and energy of buying individual tickets. A one-day Rail Pass is a good deal at US$9, but single-fare tickets can always be bought as well, costing between US$1.70 and US$5.75, depending on the time of day and the distance travelled. Metro buses cost around US$1.70 per ride, or US$1.50 with the SmarTrip card.
Washington DC’s subway system is the pride and joy of the capital. It should definitely be your first choice for moving around the city core and even well into the outskirts of the capital. With popularity comes crowds, however, so subways are often delayed during rush hours and on big-event days. There are 86 subway stops that hit almost every sightseeing attraction and interesting neighbourhood in the capital. The Metro operates between 05:00 and midnight (Monday to Thursday), 05:00 and 03:00 (Fridays), 07:00 and 03:00 (Saturdays) and 07:00 and midnight (Sundays). Keep in mind that no food and drinks are allowed on trains or even in the stations, and this is strictly enforced.
Where the Metro subway can’t take you, the Metro buses surely can. They cover hundreds of routes, but are not particularly user-friendly for tourists. A better option for visitors is the DC Circulator bus line that runs along five coloured routes between major tourist spots in the city. A single ride costs just US$1, and buses arrive every 10 minutes at each stop.
There are loads of taxis cruising around Washington DC at all hours. They can be hailed on the street fairly easily, except during peak travel periods, or can be found parked in front of major attractions and transport hubs. Most taxis only accept cash and charge by both the distance travelled and time spent in the cab. Taxis cost around US$3 to get in and 25 cents for each one-sixth of a mile travelled. Yellow Cab is the most common company seen in the capital.
There’s absolutely no reason to drive a car within Washington DC, but there are some amazing daytrips just outside the capital that add some nice balance to the urban grind. Washington is bordered by Virginia and Maryland, which begin right across the borer of the Potomac River. Choose from historic landmarks, large parks and seaside harbours, and use car rental to get you there.
The Inner Harbor - This is the star attraction of Baltimore, one of Maryland’s largest cities. This waterfront district is home to sightseeing highlights such as the USS Constellation, the National Aquarium, Camden Park baseball field and dozens of excellent bars, restaurants and shops.
Manassas National Battlefield - This is where two major Civil War battles took place, and offers a solid day out in northern Virginia. The park offers both walking and driving tours of the two battlefields, which are vast park-like expanses dotted by monuments and information centres.
Great Falls Park - Lies just across the Potomac River, offering more than 800 acres of beautiful forest for walking, biking or just enjoying a solid dose of nature. You can drive there in less than 30 minutes from DC and check out the region’s largest waterfalls and miles of casual riverside walking paths.