This will depend on what you want to see, and how long you plan to stay. There are good reasons to rent a car in Washington, but there are also plenty of things to see and do without one:
Do you need a car in Washington DC – things that are better done with one:
- Gettysburg – this famous battlefield that secure the result of the American Civil War can easily be visited in a day trip from Washington DC, but getting a rental car is going to give you a lot more flexibility than being confined to a tour bus. Additionally, Gettysburg bus tours only operate on certain days of the week, so they may not fit in with your itinerary. Driving to Gettysburg also gives the option of exploring various state parks on the way.
- Monticello – the home of the third US President Thomas Jefferson provides a fascinating insight into the life of this ingenious polymath. Jefferson didn’t just live in Monticello, he designed it himself, and the house was built so that it could adapt naturally to the challenging local climate.
Monticello sits just outside Charlottesville, Virginia, and the house can easily be reached in a day’s excursion from Washington DC, together with a visit to Ash Lawn-Highland, the estate of the 5th president James Monroe. This estate is just 2km from Monticello, but that short trip in a rental car is an agonising walk in any kind of heat, on roads which are not made for walking.
In a rental car, you also have the flexibility to visit the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which was also designed by Jefferson. On foot, you will need to walk in the other direction from Charlottesville Amtrak / bus station for around 1 kilometre to reach the campus.
Trying to visit Monticello and the other nearby houses together by public transport is so much hassle that it’s only going to be considered by people who don’t have a rental car as an option. There is only one coach each day plying this route, and these will get you as far as Charlottesville, from where you could walk to Monticello, which is on the outside of the town, although a taxi would be considerably easier.
If you want to do this by train, firstly, you need to get to Charlottesville from downtown Washington, but if you want to do this by Amtrak, then the first trains don’t arrive until mid-afternoon, whereas trains back to Washington leave in the morning, so you’d actually have to stay two nights in Charlottesville to make this possible.
- Shenandoah National Park – this extremely scenic and rugged area can be reached within a 2 to 3 hour drive from downtown Washington DC. There are a number of recommended driving routes through the park, and needless to say, it’s all but impossible to try and get here using transit.
Shenandoah National Park is also part of the much longer Appalachian trail walking route, short sections of which can be undertaken with relative ease on a day excursion from Washington.
- Skyline Drive – this is the most popular route through the Shenandoah National Park, and it covers some 109 miles in its entirety. Skyline Drive is also popular with cyclists, and it is particularly impressive in the fall.
- Skyline Caverns are an impressive cave system, which can be visited as part of an excursion to Shenandoah National Park (see above), or as a day trip in their own right. Shadow Caverns are situated at the top of Skyline Drive, just to the south of Front Royal, Virginia.
- Udvar – Hazy Center at the National Air and Space Museum (near Dulles International Airport) – this center, which features a number of historic aircraft including an Air France Concorde, is much easier to get to if you rent a car than it is if you try to use transit.
However, if you opt to combine a visit to the center with your in or outbound flight from Dulles, then you can at least save yourself the most arduous part of the trip. By bus, you will need to take the interconnector service from either the airport terminal or from the Wiehle / Reston metro station.
If you are arriving by car, bear in mind that although admission is free, the center charges $15 for parking, unless you arrive after 4pm, in which case parking is free.
- Mount Vernon – situated on the banks of the Potomac River and on the edge of the town of Alexandria, George Washington’s Plantation home of Mount Vernon is certainly well worth a visit, but it’s also a lot easier to get to by car. The site also provides ample free car parking. Mount Vernon can be reached by bus, but it is a lot more hassle – see Washington without a rental car below).
- Delmarva Peninsula – situated directly to the east of Washington DC is the highly scenic Delmarva Peninsula, which takes its name from the three states which it straddles (Delaware, Maryland and Virginia). The Delmarva Peninsula offers some great coastline views, delightful small towns and several scenic recreation areas, of which Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is the most impressive.
Scheduled bus services only operate from Washington DC or from Dover Delaware to the most important towns on the peninsula, so naturally, this is not much of an option for touring around.
- Hotels with free car parking – one key factor which might swing any choice whether or not to get a rental car is the availability of hotel car parking. Although downtown Washington DC certainly does not lack car parking spaces, you can expect to pay through the nose during weekday daytimes, and there’s just no point doing this if you are going to spend several days visiting downtown attractions which are within easy walking distance.
However, most hotels outside downtown Washington and away from airport areas will offer their guests free car parking for the duration of their stay. Look out for suburban hotels which offer a combination of both free car parking and are within easy walking distance of a Washington Metro station, so that you can easily get downtown on days you want to do this – ideally find one which is actually within walking distance, rather than which just provides a shuttle, as that is a lot of extra hassle. Places such as New Carrolton at the end of the Orange Line should be able to provide the best of both worlds.
A search for Washington hotels on a major travel broking website found 427 hotels, of which 116 offered free parking. Unsurprisingly, all of these hotels were in suburban Washington, although many were still in locations which offered a combination of free parking and metro access nearby.
- Cherry Blossom Trails – both Washington DC itself and much of the surrounding area in neighbouring Virginia and Maryland have some fantastic displays of cherry blossoms during the spring. Although The National Mall itself and several of DC’s downtown parks are great locations in their own right for enjoying the cherry blossoms, getting a rental car is naturally going to make it much easier to get out and be out out and about in rural locations beyond the city and the Beltway.
- Washington DC in the fall – Washington DC also has some spectacular fall (autumn) foliage, and as with the Cherry Blossom trails mentioned above, any of the sites around The National Mall can look perfectly impressive in their own right, but getting hold of a rental car and heading outside of the city is naturally going to give you more options
- Airport connections – because there are a total of three different airports which serve the Washington DC metropolitan area, scheduled air service is divided between them, and this in turn means that rail or bus services are much less viable than they might otherwise have been if Washington only had one airport.
For example, although you will have no problem getting from any of the airports to downtown Washington, or from BWI (Thurgood Marshall) airport to downtown Baltimore, trying to reach any other destination that is not on the direct transit route between these airports and their respective city centres is always going to be a lot more difficult.
On the plus side, Washington Reagan National airport has its own Washington Metro station right outside the terminal, whereas BWI airport has its own light rail terminus for access directly to downtown Baltimore, and it also has a shuttle bus connection to the nearby BWI airport Amtrak and MARC station.
- Terrible trains – Washington DC’s Union Station might sit at the centre of a seemingly substantial railway network, but in reality, many of the local lines only operate during the peak during the peak commuter period.
Train services to the south-west are operated by Virginia Railway Express (VRE), whereas trains to the north are operated by MARC (Maryland Area Regional commuter), although neither of these operators provide links to any of the most important tourist destinations outside the city of Washington DC itself. If you really want to see anywhere to the south or west of the city, you really do need to pick up a car in Washington DC. However, within the capital Beltway area, the Washington Metro is an extremely useful way of getting around – see below for tips.
Do you need a car in Washington DC – things you can do fine without:
- The National Mall – obviously enough, all of the major attractions on and around The National Mall can easily be reached by a combination of walking and/or transit, including local bus services and the Washington Metro.
- Museum land – Washington has an excellent range of museums, centred on the various different buildings and departments that make up the Smithsonian Institution. These are readily accessible directly off The National Mall, or by Metro via Farragut West station.
The haunting but highly informative Holocaust Museum is also situated just to the south of The National Mall, again easily accessible on foot or by Metro, this time via Smithsonian station. However, one museum that is not so easy to get to by public transport is the air and space extension of the Smithsonian Museum, which is in the grounds of Washington Dulles airport, and can only be reached by shuttle bus connection from the terminal.
- Monuments – numerous different monuments are situated both on The National Mall itself and slightly off the main axes. The George Washington monument sits right in the middle of The National Mall, so if you don’t want to reach this on foot, then the closest metro station is Smithsonian. At the western end of The National Mall is the Lincoln Monument, and shortly to the south of this you will find the Martin Luther King (MLK) Memorial. The nearest metro station for the monuments at the western end of The National Mall is actually Arlington Cemetery, just across the Potomac.
- Airport rail connections – although Dulles airport notably lacks a direct rail connection (this is due to open in 2017), both Reagan National Airport and BWI (Thurgood Marshall) airport offer rail connections to downtown Washington DC. Reagan National airport is on the blue and yellow lines of the Washington Metro, whereas BWI airport offers a short shuttle bus connection to the nearby BWI airport Amtrak and MARC station, from where frequent trains are available to downtown Washington.
- Potomac river cruises – a variety of excursions are available, including a 90 minute cruise to Mount Vernon. Apart from Mount Vernon itself, all departure points are a short walk from local metro or bus stops.
- Arlington National Cemetery – the Arlington National Cemetery contains thousands of military graves, together with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Marine Corps War Memorial, with its iconic statue based on the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima.
Although a limited amount of paid garage car parking is provided, the cemetery entrance can easily be reached by metro to Arlington Cemetry station or by regular scheduled bus service from downtown Washington.
- Alexandria – Alexandria has a delightful small town America feeling to it, despite being situated within the Washington Beltway area. Alexandra can easily be reached by taking the Washington Metro to King Street, which is slightly confusingly named, as the adjacent Amtrak station just uses “Alexandra” instead.
Downtown Alexandria is easily walkable from King Street station, and here you will find a number of museums and historic properties. Alexandria also has a number of streets which front onto the Potomac estuary. Slightly further afield and on the edge of Alexandria is George Washington’s house of Mount Vernon – this is ideally visited in a car, but to reach Mount Vernon from Alexandria, take one of the local Loudoun county bus services, or take the metro to Huntingdon Avenue for a transfer.
- Georgetown – another delightful neighbourhood within the Washington DC capital area is Georgetown, which is also home to George Washington University. Unfortunately, the centre of Georgetown has no metro service, but regular buses provide easy connections to downtown Washington, and you can also walk to the Georgetown Park shopping center in around 15-20 minutes from Foggy Bottom GWU station.
- Downtown Washington neighbourhoods – the city has some attractive areas to eat and stay within a relatively short distance of The National Mall. Washington was laid out by Pierre L’Enfant as a network of grids with diagonals, very much inspired by the French capital Paris, and also similar in layout to the Spanish city of Barcelona, although the architectural styles are very different! This has led to some very attractive neighbourhoods to the north, often centred around a local square or in many cases a circle, such as Dupont Circle (also Metro station of same name).
- Pentagon, Fords Theatre and Watergate – to see any of the historic locations which are not directly accessible from The National Mall, the the easiest way to get around is to use the Washington Metro.
The Pentagon has its own metro station which is also a junction between the yellow and the blue lines – but tours need to be booked well ahead (14-90 days), see Pentagon tours website.
For Fords Theatre, use Metro Center station – regular self guided tours and presentations are available, although this venue is best appreciated for what it is, a live venue with regular evening performances!
The Watergate complex is best reached via Foggy Bottom station, but the real reason to go here should be to appreciate (or loathe) the giant concrete 1970s modernist structures, especially since the is little to see in terms of the historic Watergate scandal itself. However, as a private estate, there is still only limited public access to areas within the complex.
- Washington bus tours – another popular way to see the most popular sites in the city is to take a Washington city bus tour, which will include the locations above and many more.
- Explore Baltimore – this often underrated city can be reached in as little as half an hour by direct train from Washington DC. The Baltimore harbour front has experienced a lot of redevelopment in recent years, and is well worth an excursion. Both the centre of Baltimore and the harbour front are within reasonable walking distance from the main Baltimore Penn station, with local light rail and bus services also being available.
- Northeast corridor – a visit to Washington DC can easily be combined with a visit to other major cities in the Northeast corridor, continuing by train beyond the Baltimore to Philadelphia (typically around three hours) or New York (typically 4 to 5 hours).
These cities can also be visited by air shuttle, but neither of them are particularly attractive places to drive to using the I95 corridor – public transport is certainly better if you are combining these into the same itinerary.
- Washington Metro – the Metro system in Washington provides an excellent way to get to and from most of the major attractions within the District of Columbia and surrounding suburbs in Virginia and Maryland. The system is fast and frequent, with a well-developed network now spanning six different routes (3 trunk tunnels through the city centre). The Washington Metro is also a notable attraction in its own right, and the only such system to have its stations cited by the AIA (American Institute of Architects) in its list of the top 150 American structures.The network is particularly notable for its highly impressive concrete barrel vaulted junction stations, such as L’Enfant Plaza, Metro Center or Gallery Place – Chinatown.
- Cherry Blossom by metro or bike – within the capital, there are many great places to see cherry blossoms, and there is also the annual DC cherry blossom festival. If you are simply happy walking around any of the excellent parks that the city has, then you will still see plenty. However, for getting anywhere further out, you rerally do still need to get a car in Washington.
- Bus tours to Monticello are available from Washington DC, and the itinerary may incorporate all three of the presidential houses which are around Charlottesville, but you will be restricted to a package which only operates on one day each week. You might also be able to take a wine tour incorporating Monticello – something that is always best done when somebody else is driving!
- To get to Mount Vernon by bus you have to take services operated by the local Loudon county, and at the time of writing, these connect with downtown Washington DC once every half hour, taking around an hour and a half. Alternatively, take the metro to Huntington Avenue, the final stop on the Yellow Line, and take a bus transfer from there (half hourly service taking half an hour).
- Cycling or walking trails – Washington has a surprising number of cycling and walking trails, many of them on traffic free greenways through a variety of linear parks which run along several different river courses within the beltway area.
- W & OD Trail – Of particular note is the Washington and Old Dominion (W &OD) trail, which follows a 45 mile route along a former railway line from Arlington right the way out to Purcellville, Virginia.
- Shenandoah by bike – although the parkways are primarily used by motorists, they can be cycled, but some organisation is needed to arrange bike hire and get to the start point. Bike the valley lists events, whereas the Shenandoah National Park lists “permitted businesses”, most from well outside the area.
You’ll probably still end up renting a car anyway.
- Bike hire – like many major cities, Washington DC now has its own automated cycle hire system. Companies such as Bike and Roll also provide cycle hire for longer periods from several locations in Washington DC and Alexandria.
- DC Ducks – see DC on and off water!
- Union station – this grand edifice in the Beaux Arts and other styles is undoubtedly one of the finest railway terminals in the world, made even more impressive by the fact that the design was taken directly from Milan’s Central Station, yet Washington’s Union Station has managed to dramatically upstage it.
Union Station is far more than just a shed for trains – the station’s vast halls contain a huge number of interesting shops and restaurants, and the complex even used to contain a multiplex cinema!
If you don’t get to pass through Union Station on your way in or out of Washington, then it is certainly well worth a visit at any other time. Simply take the red line on the metro, or one of any number of local buses. Even if you have decided to get a rental car, ample (paid) parking is available at Union Station.
Washington DC is one of the longest pages of car hire advice within Carornocar, and this is because there are very good reasons to get a rental car, and there are equally good reasons not to bother.
So do you need a car in Washington DC? In the strictest sense, absolutely not. No visit to the capital itself is ever going to be hampered by not having a rental car. In fact, having a rental car right in the heart of DC is only going to run up parking garage bills.
Ultimately, although D.C may be very familiar to American visitors, there are a lot of places to consider for European visitors, who might not be aware of either the strengths or the limitations of the Washington subway network.
The decision on whether or not to advise people to rent a car in Washington is indeed very close to call, but on balance, we think it’s worth doing to get the full experience out of both DC itself, and out of the places which are worth visiting as day trips.
Verdict – yes