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The Newbie’s Guide to Living in Washington, DC

Living in Washington DC

As the nation comes to terms with its new president, many professionals are getting ready for a big move, starting work with the new administration. If you or your spouse are one of the new Washingtonians to be- this guide is for you. The experience of moving to Washington, DC can be quite confusing and intimidating, even shocking for some, so we put together a few of the key tips that will have you living it up in the Capitol like a pro.

Choose the Right Neck of Town

Washington, DC has eight wards and 131 neighborhoods- it’s not an easy pick. It also has the fourth most expensive rental market in the nation, so make sure you’re very clear on what you can afford. Contacting a local real estate agent is a good place to start, especially if you’ve never been to the city and wouldn’t know where to start. Agents know the best areas to live in Washington, DC and would help you narrow down your search to the ones that suit your specific needs, lifestyle, and priorities. You can also learn more about the best neighborhoods in Washington, DC by reading this blog post.

Get on two wheels

Moving to Washington, DC will make you question your dependence on a four-wheeled ride. As said, DC is a highly walkable city with great public transportation. Bicycle culture in the Capitol is also incredibly strong, with numerous biking trails all around the city. Many people use their two wheels to commute around the city too, and there are a fair number of commuter bike paths, though some areas require commuters to brave the regular traffic patterns.  If you’re going to use your bicycle as your main means of transportation you might find it helpful to contact one of the city’s bicycling associations for information and tips about DC biking, including safety practices, biking regulations, and the best commuter routes.

For a fun ride, give the Mount Vernon Trail a try and take a tour of George Washington’s estate. Or take a cruise down on the city’s waterfront trail along the Potomac. Just be sure to always wear your helmet and observe the laws of traffic as if you were in a car!

Use Public Transit

Not only is DC very walkable and its public transit system awesome- it’s also very unfriendly to cars and their drivers. Traffic is always bad and parking is scarce and steeply priced. Do yourself a favor and purchase a SmarTrip card, which gets you access to any of DC’s transit methods and saves you $1 on each trip. You can add value online or use the AutoReload feature for peace of mind. But don’t plan on having your lunch while you travel- eating and drinking are strictly prohibited on trains and buses, and you might be fined if you get caught.

Pass on the left, stand on the right

Washingtonians are probably one of the nation’s smartest, most driven people. What they’re not so well known for is patience. Especially for non-Washingtonians who get in their way when they are trying to hurry up or down the escalator draped in self-importance. To avoid the wrath of the locals, remember this simple rule: pass left, stand right.

Fly in and out of Reagan

One of those overlooked tips for living in Washington, DC: Dulles might seem to have the better deals, but flying to Reagan will get you much closer to the city and you can use public transit to get home. The ticket might cost a little bit more, but it’s totally worth avoiding the headache and expense of taxis and city traffic after a long flight.

Eat like a local

If your budget allows you to eat out, make sure you spend it well at one of the restaurants favored by the locals, where you are much more likely to find better food and friendlier service. Try out All Souls in the Shaw neighborhood for cheap drinks and a cozy atmosphere, or divey Trusty’s Full-Serve Bar, a bus-themed bar with great burgers. Little Red Fox is a cozy neighborhood market where you can also grab a bite and a beer, or if you can find the secret entry to Dram & Grain (which doesn’t have an official website), you can join the privileged few in this underground bar for creative cocktails and lots of whiskeys. If meat is your thing, check out this list of DC’s best steakhouses.

Don’t take it personally

Making new friends in the Capitol can be quite challenging. Locals are not known for their hospitality, to put it gently. In fact, they’re more likely to avoid eye contact, let alone say hi to a stranger. But don’t take it personally. Most people in this bustling city are either on a mission, a deadline or both. Try volunteering for a cause you support to meet like-minded people and be patient- they’ll warm up to you… eventually.

Get to know the geography

For the locals, you’re living in “D.C.” or “The District”, so start by getting the local lingo down. Then, the city is split into quadrants with the Capitol Building’s rotunda marking the center point. Get to know where the lines run (all quadrants are not equal, so look them up online or have a local explain them to you) so that when your new friends ask you to meet them somewhere in Northwest, you’ll be able to nod knowingly.

Know what to expect with sales tax

Sales tax in the District is an even 6%, except for a few things: liquor gets taxed at 9% while restaurant meals are 10%.  Groceries, medication, and utilities are all exempted from tax, and parking will get you with a 12% tax. All the more reason to cook at home often and ride public transit!

Take advantage of the free entertainment

In the Capitol, it is believed that art and history should be free. Take a walk around the National Mall (the green space in front of the Lincoln Monument) and you’ll find more than enough museums to occupy you for a long time free of charge. The National Zoo, performances at the Kennedy Center, tours of the White House — free activities in Washington, DC are abundant and easy to find.
Unless you have previously spent a lot of time in the nation’s capital, you will likely want to start exploring the are minute that your DC movers unload the last box. Unpacking can wait; there are a ton of hidden gems to discover here. Although you most certainly can get in your car and drive around, there are other ways to tour this amazing area that doesn’t involve you having to keep your nose in a map, hoping that you are not going the wrong way down a one-way street.

Tour Washington, DC

  • City Segway Tour –  Although a little pricey, this is one of the most exciting ways to tour DC. These tours are great because the guide typically takes no more than seven people at a time, so you can ask questions, and really get the most out of your tour.
  • Old Town Trolley Tours –  For more than 30 years, visitors and residents have enjoyed these tours. Jump on board one of these orange and green trolleys, and then sit back and relax as the conductor takes you to all the major sites of the city.
  • Bike and Roll –  One of the greatest things about DC is that it is extremely bike-friendly. You can rent a couple of bikes from Bike and Roll, or participate in one of their many guided tours. They even offer a nighttime tour that takes you to see all the great monuments of the city lit up.
  • Walk –  If you have a comfortable pair of walking shoes, the best way to really appreciate the city is by walking around it. This ensures that you do not miss the details that have gone into making the area so wonderful.

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Unpakt Team