Washington DC is one of our favorite places to visit in the US, for many reasons. And it’s worth a visit year-round, regardless of what you’re into: history, sports, culture, food — there’s something for everyone. Throughout the years we have visited DC in every season, but we’ve found (through trial and error) that there’s a particular sweet spot that’s the best to visit Washington DC: the off-season from September to February.
Now, that might not be ideal travel time in terms of temperature, but there are a number of reasons why we prefer visiting the city this time of year. Hear us out.
1. Smaller Crowds
DC is pretty much overrun by crowds during peak travel times: the Cherry Blossom Festival from mid-March to mid-April, and anytime throughout the summer vacation months. Avoiding the crowds is the main reason we don’t travel to DC during these times, and the summer can be very hot and humid as well. The Metro is also much more manageable during the off-season, particularly on weekends.
One important thing to consider when visiting DC is that the majority of the museums, galleries, and memorials are free to visit — another reason why the crowds get so large. Even the National Zoo with its Giant Pandas exhibition has free admission. If you are visiting between late November and New Year’s, the National Zoo hosts the annual ZooLights event where more than 500,000 environmentally-friendly LED lights transform the Zoo into a winter wonderland complete with a light show set to music.
During the off-season, you have plenty of time to enjoy several of the city’s most popular museums since you won’t have to stand in long lines to get in or mull through crowds once inside. We’ve enjoyed visiting the National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of Natural History, and National Museum of American History.
Some lesser frequented museums such as the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Postal Museum are also worth a visit and on several occasions it almost felt like we had the entire museum to ourselves.
Besides museums and the zoo, we also recommend checking out the following sights around the city. All of them offer free admission, but we would advise you to reserve a timed-entry ticket for a minimal processing fee online. That way, you can make sure you will get on the tour you want and make sure you can visit the attraction during your visit.
- U.S. Capitol Building (make sure to stop by the nearby U.S. Botanic Garden)
- National Archives Museum (view the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights)
- Washington Monument (incredible views of the entire city from the top. Currently, there are no tours being offered for the inside of the monument or to the top due to elevator renovations — it is expected to re-open for tours in the Spring of 2019)
- The White House (tour requests must be submitted through your Member of Congress, between 3 months to 21 days in advance. Otherwise you can view the White House from the outside, weather permitting)
- The Lincoln Memorial, Reflecting Pool and the WWII Memorial (all weather permitting as these are entirely outdoors)
2. Plenty to do, even when the weather is bad
The great thing about DC is that there’s plenty to do, even when the weather isn’t cooperating. In fact, it was pretty rainy on our last two visits to the city, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying ourselves.
In addition to visiting all the free Smithsonian museums and Federal monuments, you can also catch a play from the Shakespeare Theatre Company. The Company offers plays at the Sidney Harman Hall and Lansburgh Theatre, both located in downtown within a short walk from each other. For play schedules and to buy tickets, check out their website.
Sports fans can attend a NHL or NBA game at the Capital One Arena downtown, which hosts both the Washington Capitals and the Washington Wizards. If you are visiting shortly after the summer peak crowds in September, you might be able to attend a Washington Nationals baseball game at Nationals Park.
If you are visiting from late November until Christmas, DC holds an annual Holiday Market in downtown right around the corner from the Capital One Arena and Chinatown. You can check out the craft stalls, live performances, and of course food stalls including German food — because nothing says winter holidays more like German sausages, pretzels, hot mulled cider, authentic German gingerbread, stollen and more.
3. Better for your wallet
Perhaps most importantly, we have found that during the off-season and especially on weekends hotel prices are relatively one-third of the cost when compared to peak-times — and this even includes 4 and 5 star hotels. If you are arriving by airplane, ticket prices to fly during the off-season are much more reasonable as well. A quick tip on travel if you’re arriving at Washington National Reagan Airport (DCA) in Terminal B or C, make sure to pause for a minute to take a look at the ceiling. The cupola architecture is some of the most stunning we’ve ever seen at an airport.
When is your favorite time of year to visit Washington DC and why?
Looking for other short, US getaway trip ideas? Check out our series of posts on New England: