Washington, D.C., is one of America’s largest and most important cities. As the nation’s 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 many other politicians. But D.C. isn’t all checks and balances; it’s also a great place for singles and families, foodies, sports fans, digital nomads, and young professionals alike. If you’re considering moving to the District, you’ll certainly find plenty to explore. So, what's it like living in Washington, D.C.?
Whether you’re moving to D.C. 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 of Columbia.
1. What’s it like living in Washington, D.C.?
In exchange for being one of the most expensive cities in the nation, D.C. is considered one of the greatest 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 somewhat difficult to escape whatever’s going on in the White House or Congress.
Politics aside, D.C.’s also a highly diverse and young city, with more than 47% of adults under age 45. And despite its big-city density, living in Washington, D.C., 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 D.C. 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 it gives D.C. an unmistakable skyline that’s recognized across the world.|
Unfortunately, the flip side of the incredible skyline view is that it’s led to crazy real estate prices. Which leads us to the most common question about living in Washington, D.C. . . .
2. How much does it cost to live in D.C.?
You may be wondering, “Is it expensive to live in Washington, D.C.?” Short answer: Yes. 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, D.C., to be among the highest in the nation. In fact, Quicken Loans ranked D.C. as the fifth most expensive city in the country in 2023, with a cost of living 52% higher than the U.S. average and home prices several hundred thousand dollars higher than the national average.
Cost of living in Washington, D.C.
|Cost of living % above U.S. average||52.2%|
|Median household income||$93,547|
|Average home price||$1,156,418|
|Average monthly rent||$3,220|
(Source: quickenloans.com, 2023 numbers)
The income tax rate in D.C. tops out at 10.75%. That’s significantly higher than for residents in both Maryland and Virginia, where the rates top out at 5.75% and 5.30%, respectively. Sales taxes in all three areas all hover around 6%, but Washington, D.C., doesn’t charge sales tax on most groceries. And for commuters who drive, while D.C. and Maryland drivers pay around 34¢ and 43¢ per gallon in gas tax, Virginians roll down the highway at a more affordable 28¢ tax per gallon.
3. Where should I live?
When you move to the D.C. area, 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, and Virginia. While over 5.4 million people live in the D.C. Metro area, just slightly more than 670,000 reside in the District of Columbia proper.
A large number of D.C. 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 D.C. 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, D.C.? Get started with our guide to the best neighborhoods and suburbs in the D.C. area.|
4. How’s the D.C. weather?
The Washington, D.C., 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 14 inches, but there are a lot of cloudy days and plenty of rain.
5. What’s the best way to get around?
The fact that D.C. 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. D.C. actually ranks fifth worst city for traffic congestion in the nation. The streets are laid out in a grid pattern, blocks of lettered and numbered streets crossed by diagonal boulevards named after 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 reaching 97 stations. Lines crisscross D.C. 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 D.C.’s safest neighborhoods?
While there are safe neighborhoods to live in Washington D.C. 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 Metropolitan Police Department, which allows you to view detailed crime data.
7. What’s the best way to find apartments in D.C.?
This part of living in Washington D.C. should be familiar to city slickers. Apartment hunting is a bit unique in D.C., 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, although Craigslist continues to be very popular. Because of the nature of D.C.’s transiency, be prepared to move fast if there’s a listing you like — especially during presidential election cycles.
Rental agents exist in D.C., 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 D.C. 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 Real Estate will help you find a rental apartment or home for a flat fee. Their service focuses on identifying properties based on your preferences and budget and then arranging tours of your top three choices. They will also help with completing rental applications and lease negotiations. 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 application fee.
8. Where are the best schools?
Getting your kids in top schools is one of the most important things you can do for your children, and living in Washington D.C., you have decent options.
As in many cities, schools here vary in excellence depending on where you are. Overall, public schools within the District rank as average in quality and are improving. In fact, they may be better than you think. Private, parochial, and charter schools are also 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.
Montgomery County, MD, Schools
Montgomery County is nationally renowned for having one of the best public school systems in the country. According to GreatSchools, 79% 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 28 high schools, include:
- North Potomac
- Silver Spring
Fairfax County, VA, Schools
With an enrollment of more than 190,000 students across nearly 200 schools, Fairfax County Public Schools is the largest school district in the D.C. area and ranked the 6th best school district. Despite its huge size, FCPS also receives an “A” rating from Niche. With an 86% on-time graduation rate, some high school locations in the far-flung Fairfax County district include:
Washington, D.C., Schools
The District of Columbia Public Schools District has struggled for decades, with 36% still rated below average by GreatSchools. Despite that gloomy stat, 42% rate above average, with many getting ratings of 9 and 10 in several neighborhoods.
While D.C. Public Schools educates nearly 50,000 students in its 171 schools, it’s far from the only game in town. D.C. Public Charter Schools runs 136 public charter schools with an enrollment of more than 45,000. There are also many excellent private schools in D.C., but tuition could put a dent in your college savings plan.
9. What’s there to do in D.C.?
Being the capital of the nation means making a good impression with millions of visitors from across the country and across the world. What are the benefits of living in Washington, D.C., though? Well, for starters, all the wonderful things to do and see and eat and experience for tourists flocking to D.C. 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 D.C.’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 and Culture
- 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 Trolley Museum, Maryland
- National Bonsai and Penjing Museum
Parks and Greenspace in and Around D.C.
Everyone living in Washington D.C. is within just a ten-minute walk of a park. Greenspace and parkland make up about 20% of Washington’s total area, helping it rank as the best big city 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 D.C. 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.
And like any metropolitan city, D.C. has a food personality all its own, with regional dishes from Maryland crabs and jumbo slices to pupusas and mumbo sauce. With nearly 14% of the population foreign-born, D.C. 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
- 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
- Capitol City Brewing for the first brew pub to open in D.C. 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 D.C., 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
- DC9 Nightclub
- 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
Living in Washington D.C. means you've 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
- Commanders (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 athletics, College Park
10. Where’s the free stuff to do in Washington, D.C.?
While D.C. 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
- 20 Smithsonian institutions
- The White House and U.S. Capitol
- Smithsonian’s National Zoo
- Ford’s Theatre
- Frederick Douglass House
- Library of Congress
- Hanging out at pop-up Victura Park at the REACH Kennedy Center
- Picnicking at Malcolm X Park
- The cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin
- Fort Reno summer concerts
- Sunday drum circles at Meridian Hill Park
- The C&O Canal Trail
- The 150-year-old Eastern Market
Welcome to Living in Washington D.C.
There are always people moving to D.C., so you won’t stand out as a newcomer. Despite your newcomer status, though, these tips should help you quickly get acquainted with this special place in America. Soon enough, you’ll be the local helping the tourists find the White House.
For more tips on moving to and living in a new city, visit the PODS Blog.
Michael Hochman is currently working as a lifestyle and travel writer for Apartment Guide and rent.com.
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