The Best Times to Visit Washington, D.C. to See the Iconic Sights
12 Sep, 2023
As an avid traveler and D.C. enthusiast, I’m often asked, “When is the best time to visit Washington?”
While there's really no “bad” time with so much to experience, the time of year you visit can significantly impact crowds, prices, and what you'll be able to see. Here’s my in-depth local insight on planning a trip to make the most of this dynamic capital city.
Dodging the Crowds
If you prefer skipping the long lines and packed metro cars, January through March (excluding MLK and President's Day weekends) is ideal with smaller crowds and lower hotel rates. August is another good option when Congress goes on recess and residents take their own summer vacations.
January and February specifically see the fewest tourists before spring break and cherry blossom season picks up. Exceptions are Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in January, which draws large crowds, and Presidents' Day weekend in February. But otherwise, you'll find museums, monuments, and restaurants blissfully uncrowded.
March still remains relatively quiet until Cherry Blossom Festival fever ramps up by mid-month. Avoid Spring break times if you don't want to be rubbing elbows with school groups at every turn.
Enjoying the Weather
One great thing about D.C. is that outdoor monuments and exploration can happen year-round thanks to the mild winters. Average highs even in January and February reach the mid-40s Fahrenheit, so throw on a coat and you're good to go.
But for the absolute best weather, you can't beat spring and fall. Expect pleasant 60s-70s in April/May and September/October. Late March through May and September through early November are really the ideal times for strolling the monuments and memorials comfortably.
Late spring does get hot and humid. Some find early September a bit stifling too. But this can be mitigated by sticking to air-conditioned museums during the hottest hours and enjoying waterfront breezes along the Potomac Riverwalk. Don't let a little sweat deter you from an otherwise perfect time to visit!
Saving Some Money
Hotel prices, like the city’s famous cherry blossoms, peak in spring when demand soars. January through early March is the budget traveler’s sweet spot, with nightly rates and airfare at annual lows. We're talking minimum savings of 20-30% compared to peak season.
Booking a hotel along the Metro lines outside of downtown can also help you score great deals at quieter hotels while still enjoying easy transit access to all the attractions.
Wherever you stay, aim to visit mid-week Tuesday through Thursday when flying and hotel rates are a bit cheaper than on weekends. If your schedule allows, flying on these less popular days can save you around $50 per ticket over weekend fares.
Consider flying into one of the three airports that service D.C. - Dulles, Reagan National, or BWI Airport - whichever offers you the best fare. Last-minute hotel deals also pop up late in the week when hotels have empty rooms to fill.
Seeing the Cherry Blossoms
If the cherry blossom trees around the Tidal Basin are on your D.C. bucket list, flexibility is key. Peak bloom shifts yearly based on weather, generally spanning late March to mid-April. Check the National Park Service's Bloom Watch tool starting in late February to monitor forecasts and aim for optimal viewing.
The National Cherry Blossom Festival commemorates Japan's gift of over 3,000 cherry trees to the U.S. back in 1912. It spans three weekends from late March to early April with concerts, cultural performances, food vendors, and other programming that draws huge crowds.
If you want to enjoy the blooms without the congestion, consider visiting East Potomac Park, the U.S. National Arboretum, or the Kenwood neighborhood's cherry blossoms where crowds thin out. Or, plan your visit before or after the actual festival dates when the blossoms are still stunning without the crowds.
Touring the National Mall
The two-mile stretch known as the National Mall is home to the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, multiple Smithsonian museums, war memorials, and more iconic sites. With so much ground to cover, timing is key for an enjoyable Mall visit.
Spring and fall offer prime weather for walking the Mall's length and exploring its many monuments and memorials. Crowds also thin in late summer before school starts up again.
The Washington Monument's elevator runs daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. on a first come, first served basis. Arrive as early as possible, because lines get long fast! But be aware the monument is currently closed for repairs until at least August 2022, so check the NPS website for the latest reopening updates before planning your visit there.
For a comfortable Mall stroll, target weekdays and mornings/evenings when tourist numbers dwindle. Mornings tend to be less crowded than midday when school groups converge. Late afternoons also calm down again after the lunch rush.
Hitting the Museums
Washington D.C. shines with its wealth of museums, notably the free Smithsonian Institution museums. Visiting these world-class museums is a top priority for many D.C. travelers.
For shorter lines and fewer crowds, target your museum visits for weekday mornings, especially in off-peak months. Tuesday and Wednesday tend to be the lightest days. Some major museums like the National Museum of African American History and Culture require timed entry passes even during low season, so reserve tickets online well in advance any time of year.
The Smithsonian Institution encompasses 19 incredible museums including the Air and Space Museum, Natural History Museum, American History Museum, and more. While admission is completely free, certain experiences like the IMAX movies charge fees. There are also additional costs for temporary and special exhibits.
But the vast majority of the permanent collections and exhibits at Smithsonian museums and galleries offer free admission year-round. During the off-season months of January and February specifically, you'll find thinner crowds allowing you to thoroughly explore these world-class institutions at your own pace.
Avoiding Peak Times
As a popular tourist and convention destination, D.C. sees its share of crowds at certain times of year. August brings hot, humid weather averaging in the 80s. Many locals escape the city in August, but hotel rates stay high and crowds flock to indoor attractions like museums.
Several huge city-wide conventions like the AEPA, National Education Association, and NGA Show take over D.C. and can draw over 40,000 attendees each. These events clog streets, fill hotel rooms, and pack restaurants. If possible, look up convention schedules and avoid visiting during these peak traffic and crowd periods.
In general, it's best to avoid Cherry Blossom Festival dates in late March/early April, national holidays like July 4th, Memorial Day weekend, and June through August when school is out. Locals recommend relying on the Metro as much as possible when visiting during busy seasons. Also, consider flexibility in booking accommodations outside the most congested downtown areas.
Insider Tips for Visiting D.C.
Whatever time you visit D.C., a little preparation goes a long way. Consider purchasing a CityPASS or Washington Pass that bundles tickets to key paid attractions like the Zoo and supplements your free Smithsonian visits. These can save you money if you plan to visit multiple attractions.
Also, be aware that many attractions require going through a security screening, so leave extra time in your itinerary for this. Downloading the WMATA app for mobile Metro planning can help navigate D.C.'s subway system efficiently. And lastly, don't be afraid to walk - venues on the National Mall are farther apart than they appear. Comfortable shoes are a must!
The Possibilities are Endless
Washington D.C. offers countless incredible sights, history, culture, food, and entertainment no matter when you visit. But timing your trip strategically helps avoid crowds, save money, and maximize what you'll be able to experience.
Use the tips and guidelines here to choose your ideal time to visit. Whether you come in snowy February or sultry August, make the most of this world-class destination by planning your trip with these insider insights!