A number of people, transit enthusiasts, friends, and coworkers alike, ask me what my weekend plans are and how I get so much done all while still enjoying myself. Meticulous planning and research, I usually tell them. I have always been somewhat of a transit geek, a road geek, and a sucker for doing travel research, all while actually applying what I have learned. I often tell people that going from New York to certain cities is a day trip or a weekend getaway trip, depending on the days of the week and their travel budget. Mainly depending on those two factors, a great trip revolves around a plan, whether specific or generalized.
Washington, DC is easily a two-day trip if you have the time, the money, or a plan or what you want to see or do. There are many things to see and do in DC, the nation’s capital, whether it’s for transit, culture, history, or for just getting away.
If you are planning for a traditional weekend getaway, i.e. Saturday-Sunday, I would recommend a drive down I-95 since bus and rail schedules are not as frequent to and from DC as well as transit options when you are down there. If you do take I-95 from New York, a straight shot would be wonderful…if your destination isn’t along the Capital Beltway (I-95/I-495 around DC). A better drive would be down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (Route 295, I-295 in some spots, or simply the B-W Parkway for those familiar with that highway) to US-50 (New York Avenue). If your destination involves Virginia, then I-395 would be the best way down there, since it is a straight shot down into Virginia and through the DC area. The Beltway is a much larger, smoother, and faster highway, but the BW and I-395 are more direct. I-395 also has a direct connection with I-66 if you are going towards Fairfax County, Loudoun County, or to Dulles Airport. My usual hotel spots are along Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington, VA. If I do use the Beltway, I would locate hotel spots in Silver Spring, MD or Springfield, VA.
If you are planning a two-day weekday getaway, your best bet is to choose either bus travel or rail travel, depending on your budget and how much you want to get done in DC. Amtrak is the fastest way to DC, with travel times ranging from 2 hours, 45 minutes on the Acela Express (the most expensive option, from around $145 for Business Class to $220 for First Class) to about 3.5 hours on the Northeast Regional services, making more stops along the Northeast Corridor. The cheaper route would be Greyhound and Peter Pan Lines from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which can run around $30-45 depending on the time of travel and when you book your tickets. All Amtrak trains and all Greyhound and Peter Pan buses use Union Station, which is still in the process of being beautifully restored and was recently expanded to include intercity and regional bus services. Other options include many curbside bus companies such as the Greyhound-operated Bolt Bus and the Stagecoach/Coach USA-operated Megabus, which offer express bus service from a number of curbside locations in Midtown and Lower Manhattan. Prices start at $1 and go up once demand goes up. Booking at least a month to two months in advance can net you $1 tickets, but once you approach your departure and arrival dates, tickets can go up to $5, $10, $15, even upwards of $25-35 as demand rises for tickets. You also have other curbside alternatives such as DC2NY, Vamoose Bus, Tripper Bus, and even the chinatown buses from various curbside bus stops in New York and the DC area.
Once you get down to DC, Metro is a great way to get around, with 100+ miles of subway service out to Montgomery, Prince George’s, Arlington, and Fairfax Counties, and Alexandria, VA as well as several hundred bus routes to practically everywhere in the region. Buy a rail day pass or save money with SmartTrip, a reloadable smart card which can be purchased at Metro stations and reloaded at stations or on buses via the farebox.
Metro Rail serves most major tourist attractions and hotspots including the Convention Center (Mt Vernon Square station), the Washington Monument (Smithsonian station), the White House (Federal Triangle station), the National Gallery (Union Station), and Chinatown (Gallery Place-Chinatown). For a vibrant night life, check out the scene in the Adams Morgan section (Woodley Park-Zoo-Adams Morgan), the Georgetown section (nearest Foggy Bottom-GWU station and the 38B bus to Rosslyn and Ballston stations) and in parts of downtown DC (like at Gallery Place, Farragut North, Farragut West, and Dupont Circle stations). Catch a Nationals game at the Navy Yard-Ballpark station or a Capitals game at the MCI Center (near Gallery Place-Chinatown station). If you are going somewhere far away, take the B30 bus to BWI Airport from Greenbelt Station or the 5A bus to Dulles Airport from Rosslyn Station. There is service to Reagan Airport on the Blue and Yellow lines; the Yellow is faster from downtown because the Yellow crosses the Potomac right after downtown while the Blue Line detours passes through southwest DC and Rosslyn.
If you want to see Metro buses in action as well as transit systems from other parts of the area, the two largest bus gathering places are Silver Spring station on the Red Line (on the Maryland side) and Pentagon station on the Blue and Yellow Lines (on the Virginia side). Each station has a transit center hosting a minimum of 20 bus routes between Metro and various operators. From Silver Spring, you can catch a bus to Rockville, New Carrollton, Olney, Burtonsville, and northern DC. From the Pentagon, you can catch a bus to Alexandria, Arlington, Reston, Huntington, Herndon, Woodbridge, and Daly City. Other major Maryland transit centers include Germantown Mall, Shady Grove station, Wheaton station, Prince George’s Plaza, University of Maryland, and Montgomery College. Other major Virginia transit centers include Crystal City, Tysons Corner, Huntintgon station, West Falls Church station, and Springfield Mall.
If transit is not your thing, then take to the highways and roadways,but at your own risk especially during rush hours. A few good drives include the BW Parkway from I-195 until about US-50 and the entire Rock Creek Parkway, which snakes through Rock Creek Park from southwest DC to northeast DC. You can also drive around Potomac Park to view the different memorials in the area including the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. You can also get a lot of shopping done if you drive anywhere along Columbia Pike, Glebe Road, and Leesburg Pike in Virginia; same goes for Georgia Avenue, University Blvd, or Rockville Pike in Maryland.
All of these things can be accomplished in a two-day span, if you take the train, bus, or drive down on a Saturday morning and return on a Sunday evening. Or, take a Friday night to get a head-start. If you do decide to take Amtrak or Megabus, be sure to check out hotel locations on local and regional maps and try to plan around transit; if you decide to drive down, check out hotels along the Beltway or along I-395 in Virginia. Once you fit all the pieces, you can then focus on having a good time, whether it’s checking out a club near Dupont Circle or finding some good buys at the Potomac Yards. All it takes is some planning like a travel agent and an eye for entertainment like the locals.