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The Newbie’s Guide to Living in Washington DC

We all assume that culture shock is limited to travels to far-off lands where we don’t understand the language, but moving to Washington, DC, can induce just as much confusion. The Capital City can feel pretty intimidating to a newbie when they first arrive.  So we’ve gathered some of the key tips for living in Washington, DC, like a pro.


Get on two wheels
Bicycle culture in DC is incredibly strong, and there are a lot of bike and hiking 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 be commuting in the city, there are a few different bicycling associations that can help you learn the lay of the land — including safety practices, biking regulations, and the best commuter routes.

For a pleasure 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
Getting around Washington, DC, by car isn’t easy — but parking is even harder since it is both extremely limited and extremely expensive. 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.  Just remember — DC’s Metro system is one of the cleanest around because you aren’t allowed to eat or drink while you ride, and you can get fined if you’re caught.

Pass on the left, stand on the right
It might seem trite, but you’ll avoid having grumpy commuters standing anxiously behind you as you read your morning paper on the escalators or moving walkways if you remember this rule: pass left, stand right, and the locals will embrace you much more quickly.

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
You’re likely to find better food and a friendlier vibe at restaurants that are frequented more by locals — and you’ll quickly elevate yourself out of tourist status. We’ve collected a list of D.C.’s best steakhouses, or you can try out All Souls for cheap drinks and cozy feel in the Shaw neighborhood, or Trusty’s Full-Serve Bar for a bus-themed bar with a divey feel. Little Red Fox is a cozy neighborhood market where you can also grab a bite (or a whole pie) and a beer, or if you can get the secret entry to Dram & Grain (which doesn’t have an official website), you can join the privileged few in this underground whiskey bar for creative cocktails and lots of whiskey.

Don’t take it personally
Meeting people in Washington, DC, can feel challenging — especially since locals don’t exactly have a reputation for being open or welcoming.  They’ll likely avoid eye contact, rarely say hi to strangers, and certainly don’t say “hello” when they pass you on an empty sidewalk. But don’t take it personally.  It’s the local norm, especially since most people are on a mission in this bustling city. 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 up 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
For DC resident, the mantra is that art and history should always 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.

Interested in more reading about Washington DC? Check out our great articles:

Free Activities to do in Washington DC

How to Make Professional Connections in Washington DC Before You Move

Which Washington DC Neighborhood is Right for You?

How to Find a Job Before Moving to Washington, D.C.

Moving Off-Campus in Washington DC

Best Washington DC Neighborhood

Best Washington DC Neighborhoods for Families