Washington, DC is one of America’s biggest and most important cities. As the national capital, it’s a city filled with power players turning the wheels of government. It’s home to thousands of federal government employees, military personnel, Congressional staffers, K Street lobbyists, foreign diplomats, and of course politicians.
But DC is also a great place to live for everyday singles and families, foodies and sports fans, young professionals, digital nomads, and those in all types of professions. If you’re considering moving to the District, there’s much to learn about your future adopted city.
Whether you’re moving to DC from across the country or from somewhere else along the Northeast Corridor, these tips are designed to help you get acquainted with the basics and acclimate quickly, so you can start enjoying all that comes with living in the District.
1. What’s it like living in Washington, DC?
In exchange for being one of the most expensive cities in the U.S., DC is considered one of the great places to live in America. Who wouldn’t want to be close to the seat of world power? Besides all the government-related employees, there’s a population of highly educated, high-income workers in healthcare, higher education, technology, tourism and hospitality, and other industries. Still, you need to be prepared to have many discussions dominated by politics, making it feel harder to escape whatever’s going on in the White House or Congress.
Politics aside, DC’s also a highly diverse and young city, with 47% of adults under age 45. And despite its big-city density, Washington, DC feels more, well, livable than many other cities, like NYC. One factor is you can see a lot more of the sky.
Insider tip: Most people believe the height rule dictates that no building can be taller than the 289-foot-high U.S. Capitol dome, a rule passed in 1899. But that’s only part of the story. The 1910 Height of Buildings Act dictates height limits which in practice are much stricter than the 28 stories allowed in 1899. The result is that DC is more human-scale, without the wind tunnels and closed-in feeling that other cities have. This also means many rooftops have spectacular views of the Capitol and Washington monument, and gives DC a unmistakable skyline that’s recognized across the world.
Unfortunately, the flip side of the height limit is that it’s led to crazy real estate prices. Which leads us to the most common question about living in Washington, DC …
2. How much does it cost to live in DC?
Along with the height restrictions, a high-income population, a convenient central location on the east coast, and all its prestige and power drive the cost of living in Washington, DC to be among the highest in the nation. A 2020 Zillow study ranked DC as the fourth most expensive city in the country, with a cost of living 60% higher than the U.S. average, and home prices more than triple the national average.
Cost of living in Washington, DC
|Cost of living % above U.S. average||63.4%|
|Median household income||$77,649|
|Median Home Value||$1,069,329|
|Median monthly rent||$3,002|
On average, the income tax rate in DC is 8.5%. That’s significantly higher than for residents in both Maryland and Virginia, where the rates are 4.75% and 5.75%, respectively. Sales taxes in all three areas all hover around 6%, but Virginia has a lower rate for groceries. To no surprise, property taxes in the suburbs are about twice as high as they are in the District. For commuters who drive, while DC and Maryland drivers pay nearly 42¢ and 34¢ per gallon in gas tax, Virginians roll down the highway at a mere 7½¢ tax per gallon.
3. Where should I live?
When you move here, there’s a good chance you’ll be living in Northern Virginia or the Maryland suburbs instead of the District. There’s a dynamic relationship between the city and suburbs across state borders which you don’t often see in other regions. In fact, many locals refer to the expanded area as the DMV – the District, Maryland, Virginia. The numbers bear this out. While over 6 million people live in the DC Metro area, just slightly more than 700,000 reside in the District of Columbia home.
A large number of DC workers commute from Maryland and Northern Virginia, seeking more room and more affordable housing prices — though home values in the nearest suburbs will still take your breath away. Young professionals are drawn to DC city living, while families tend to head out to the suburbs. In fact, the DMV stretches from as far north as Frederick, Maryland and south to Spotsylvania, Virginia (yes, that’s a real town).
|Moving to Washington, DC? Get started with our guide to the best neighborhoods and suburbs in the DC area.|
4. How’s the DC weather?
The Washington, DC climate is subtropical, with chilly winters and often brutally hot and humid summers, with highs averaging in the 80s. Winters are milder than in the other northeastern cities, with average daily temps seldom dipping below the 20s and highs mostly in the 40s. Average snowfall is only about 17 inches, but there’s a lot of cloudy days and plenty of rain.
5. What’s the best way to get around?
The fact that DC has the second highest percentage of public transit commuters in the nation suggests plenty of residents choose to let someone else do the driving. After all, commuting by car can be tough around the District, from crowded downtown streets seemingly always going one way in the wrong direction to daily backups on the Beltway. The average Washingtonian driver spends 102 hours a year in traffic, ranking the city third worst in the nation. DC streets are laid out in a grid pattern, blocks of lettered and numbered streets crossed by diagonal boulevards named for states — with traffic circles thrown in to add challenge and confusion. The 64-mile Capital Beltway formed by Interstate 495 surrounds the city and runs through the Maryland and Virginia suburbs – hence the term “inside the Beltway.”
No wonder why so many opt for the Washington Metro, which can shuttle you to nearly any part of the city on six color-coded rail lines (with a seventh under construction) reaching 100 stations. Lines crisscross DC and stretch into Virginia and Maryland, including easy access to both Dulles and Reagan National Airports. But while the system is convenient, it’s often overcrowded at peak times.
The WMATA also operates over 1,500 buses along 270 routes. Maryland’s MARC regional rail offers commuter service on three lines originating at Washington Union Station and fanning out to Maryland locations like Baltimore and BWI Airport. Union Station is Amtrak’s second busiest in the nation and the southern terminus of the Northeast Corridor line.
6. What are the safest neighborhoods?
If you listen to many politicians and armchair experts on the internet, you might think crime is rampant on the capital streets. That’s simply untrue. DC is a relatively safe city, ranked by SafeCities as the world’s seventh safest large city and safest in the U.S. NeighborhoodScout shows DC as the second-safest large city in America for violent crime, behind only Philadelphia.
Where are DC’s safest neighborhoods? While there are safe neighborhoods spread across the District, many are in the Northwest, in areas adjacent to Bethesda, Chevy Chase, and Silver Spring. Want to know about a specific neighborhood? Use this heat map from the DC Geographic Information System, which allows you to view crime data down to street level.
7. What’s the best way to find apartments in DC?
Apartment hunting is a bit unique in DC, as new or relocated permanent residents often need to compete with transient government staffers and lobbyists for rental spaces, driving up both demand and price. National sites like ApartmentGuide, Rent.com, and Zillow have ample detailed listings (with 3-D and no-contact tours during the coronavirus crisis), although Craigslist continues to be very popular. Because of the nature of DC’s transiency, be prepared to move fast if there’s a listing you like, especially during presidential election cycles.
Rental agents exist in DC, but they’re not as integral a part of the apartment hunting process as in places like New York. Still, if you’re relocating to DC from a long distance, a no-fee rental agency like Padfinders can be especially helpful by providing personalized apartment finding services based on your specific needs and budget. Padfinder agents, whose fees are paid by the landlords, can also streamline the process and save you time sorting through dozens of listings and trying to connect with leasing agents.
If you don’t mind paying a fee, an agency like City Chic Realty will help you find a rental apartment or home for a flat fee of $350. Their service focuses on identifying properties based on your preferences and budget, and then arranging tours of your “top five.” They also will help with completing rental applications and lease negotiation. Based on their reviews, their strengths are providing personalized service and finding rentals on a tight timetable.
A third option is to contact a property management firm that manages rentals for landlords. For example, Nomadic Real Estate lists a healthy inventory of available rentals online. Through their online application process, you can apply for multiple properties for a one-time $40 application fee.
8. Where are the best schools?
As in many cities, schools here vary in excellence depending on where you are. Overall, schools within the District rank as average in quality and are improving — in fact, they may be better than you think. Public, private, parochial, and charter schools are all available options. But once you get out to the suburbs, you’ll find some of the highest-rated and most respected public school districts in the nation. That’s one of the reasons that Forbes named the DC area the number one place in America “To Educate Your Child.”
MONTGOMERY COUNTY, MD Schools
Montgomery County is nationally renowned for having one of the best public school systems in the country. According to GreatSchools, 78% of the district’s schools performed at or above the Maryland state average. Some of the larger cities within the Montgomery County Public Schools district, which offers 25 high schools, include:
- Silver Spring
FAIRFAX COUNTY, VA Schools
With an enrollment of nearly 190,000 students across 222 schools, Fairfax County Public Schools is the largest school district in the DC area and 12th largest in the nation. Despite its huge size, FCPS also received an “A” rating from Niche. The district enjoys an over 90% on-time graduation rate, one of the top in the region. Some high school locations in the far-flung Fairfax County district include:
- Falls Church
WASHINGTON, DC Schools
The District of Columbia Public Schools district has struggled for decades, with 44% still rated below average by GreatSchools. Despite that gloomy stat, 39% rate above average, with many getting ratings of 9 and 10 in several neighborhoods.
While DC Public Schools educates nearly 48,000 students in its 111 schools, they are far from the only game in town. DC Public Charter Schools runs 123 public charter schools with an enrollment of nearly 43,000. There are also many excellent private schools in DC, but tuition could put a dent in your college savings plan.
9. What’s there to do in DC?
Being the capital of the nation means making a good impression with millions of visitors from across the country and across the world. All the wonderful things to do and see and eat and experience for tourists flocking to DC every summer are available any day of the year for residents.
Looking for culture, cuisine, arts, museums, nightlife, outdoor activities, and political activism? You’ve come to the right city.
Museums and Galleries
From the White House to the Washington Monument to the Smithsonian museums, there’s a sense of history and discovery around nearly every corner in the District. Every American knows DC’s most famous attractions, but there’s a lot more to see than tourist hotbeds like the Jefferson Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery, including:
- National Gallery of Art
- National Museum of African American History
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- National Air and Space Museum
- International Spy Museum
- George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Virginia
- National Geographic Museum
- Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- Glenstone Museum, Maryland
- Folger Shakespeare Library
- Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, Virginia
- National Postal Museum
- National Building Museum
- The Mansion on O Street
- National Capital Trolly Museum, Maryland
- National Bonsai Museum
Parks and Greenspace in and around DC
Every Washington resident lives within just a ten-minute walk of a park. Greenspace and parkland makes up about 20% of Washington’s total area, the second-highest percentage in the nation, and has been rated as the best park system in America.
The city is dominated by National Park Service parks like the National Zoological Park, National Arboretum, National Mall, and 9-mile Rock Creek Park. But there are many other beautiful spaces around the DMV including:
- Dumbarton Oaks Park, Georgetown
- Meridian Hill Park, Columbia Heights
- S Street Dog Park, Dupont Circle
- Lincoln Park, Capitol Hill
- Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens
- Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, SE Washington
- Constitution Gardens, National Mall
- Fountainhead Regional Park, Virginia
- Mason Neck State Park, Virginia
- Wheaton Regional Park, Maryland
- Watkins Regional Park, Maryland
Restaurants and Eateries
As a world-class city, you’d expect the dining scene in DC to be top -shelf, and you would be correct. A city of diplomats and dignitaries, senators and socialites, Washington has a slew of five-star restaurants.
Like any metropolitan city, DC has a food personality all its own, with regional dishes from Maryland crabs and jumbo slices to pupusas and mumbo sauce. With nearly 15% of the population foreign-born, DC is also home to cuisines from around the world. Here are some of the top dining destinations:
- Ben’s Chili Bowl for half-smokes
- Henry’s Soul Café for mumbo sauce
- Pizza Mart for jumbo slices
- Zenebech Restaurant for Ethiopian cuisine
- Takoma Beverage Company for coffee
- Joe’s Seafood
- Prime Steak & Stone Crab
- Florida Avenue Grill for soul food
- The Dabney for unpretentious farm-to-table
- Bammy’s for Caribbean by the water
- Call Your Mother Deli for bagels and deli sandwiches
- The Pig for a celebration of U.S. BBQ styles
- Capitol City Brewing for the first brew pub to open in DC since prohibition
- Thip Khao for spicy Laotian Dishes
- Fiola Mare for sophisticated Italian seafood on the riverfront
Live Music and Theater
There’s a wealth of nightlife options in DC, from high-class entertainment at the Kennedy Center or the National Symphony Orchestra, to music venues along U Street, to amphitheaters in the suburbs. National touring bands always hit up the District, and local stages are full of talent. Some include:
- The Anthem
- 9:30 Club
- Black Cat
- Fillmore Silver Spring, Maryland
- Lincoln Theatre
- Jammin’ Java, Virginia
- U Street Music Hall
- Wolf Trap, Virginia
- The Crazy Horse
- Warner Theatre
Professional and College Sports
DC’s got sports covered, too, with teams in all six major pro sports and seven Division I NCAA basketball and one college football program. The teams are responsible for three Super Bowl titles, four Major League Soccer cups, and one championship each in hockey, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball, and college football.
- Nationals (MLB), Nationals Park
- Capitals (NHL), Capital One Arena
- Wizards (NBA), Capital One Arena
- Football Team (NFL), FedEx Field (Landover, Maryland)
- DC United (MLS), Audi Field
- Mystics (WNBA), Entertainment and Sports Arena
- Georgetown University basketball, Capital One Arena
- University of Maryland football, Maryland Stadium, College Park
10. Where’s the free stuff to do?
While DC may be an expensive town with a skyrocketing cost of living, the good news is there are also a slew of great things to do and places to see around the District for free, by yourself, with your partner, or as an entire family. These are a few of the hundreds to enjoy.
- Over a dozen museums on the National Mall
- More than 20 Smithsonian institutions
- The White House and U.S. Capitol
- The National Zoo
- Ford’s Theater
- Frederick Douglass House
- Library of Congress
- Hanging out at pop-up Victura Park at the REACH
- Picnicking at Malcolm X Park
- The cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin
- Fort Reno summer concerts
- Sunday drum circles at Meridian Hill Park
- “Screen on the Green” on the Mall
- The C&O Canal Trail
- The 130-year-old Eastern Market
Welcome to The Nation’s Capital
There are always people moving in and moving out of DC, so you won’t stand out being a newcomer. If you find that DC natives seem skeptical, that’s just because a lot of folks only stick around for a few years. With that in mind, these tips should help you make the most of whatever time you have in this special place in America. Soon enough you’ll be the local helping the tourists find the White House.
Michael Hochman is currently working as a lifestyle and travel writer for Apartment Guide and rent.com.