Planning a trip to a new destination can be overwhelming…
You have a long list of sights to see, restaurants to try, and experiences you don’t want to miss out on. But planning your itinerary, figuring out which places to tour with a guide and which to DIY, and then finding the right guide can be a major headache.
That’s why I’m here with your complete guide to sightseeing tours in Washington, D.C.
Why book guided sightseeing tours in Washington DC
There are travelers who prefer DIY-ing their entire trip and there are those who book a full tour package and let a tour operator take care of everything.
In between are those travelers who like to pre-book guided day trips and tours, whether to learn more about certain landmarks or to reap the benefits of visiting sights and attractions with a knowledgeable, local tour guide.
Whichever one you are, some of the advantages of booking a tour to see the highlights of DC are:
- On a guided tour, you’ll learn more about the history and facts of an attraction, so you don’t have to spend your time with your head down looking at Google.
- In case you want to see more than one attraction in a day, a tour will have a well-thought-out itinerary, so you don’t have to spend time meticulously planning your day.
- Tour operators may be able to offer skip-the-line tickets to some sights and attractions, so you don’t have to spend your precious time waiting around.
Plus, of course, the right tour company will take care of the transport, guide, and tickets. You only have to book the tour.
When to book a guided DC sightseeing tour
Booking your sightseeing tour can be done months in advance. This is great for many travelers, as they can arrive in the city knowing everything is taken care of. Others don’t plan that far ahead and maybe less lucky—especially if they’re eyeing the more popular tours.
In general, I recommend booking six weeks to three months ahead of time. It’s the same for many attractions that are visited during tours.
As for when to go on the tour: I personally prefer taking a highlights tour on my first day at a new destination. That way I can get a real feel for the city and plan the rest of my time around what I want to see more of, plus I can ask a bunch of questions about the local culture, traditions, and habits.
Some of our guided tours that will give you a good first impression of the capital are:
Which sights to see with a guide—and which to DIY
In all honesty, if I were you, I’d want a guide to chaperone me all day long. That way I’m certain not to miss out on any interesting and quirky facts, impressive sights, and I have someone to answer all my burning questions.
But unfortunately, for many of us, that’s just not a possibility.
If you want to make sure you see the top highlights in the city, I’d recommend one of the guided Washington DC sightseeing tours I listed just above.
Depending on your interests, you may want to check out the more interest-focused tours. Take a historical winery tour and tasting in Northern Virginia, head into the Luray Caverns in the Shenandoah Mountains, or discover Old Town Alexandria and Mt Vernon, two of the most popular attractions in the DC area. Check out all our tours here.
Many of the museums and attractions in Washington, DC are free to visit (without a guide). This includes monuments, memorials, the National Zoo, and Smithsonian Museums (that’s 19 museums, just for the Smithsonian Museums!). Be careful though, because while most are open every day, there are a couple of places that require tickets and advance planning, including the White House, U.S. Supreme Court, and the Washington Monument.
You can DIY these sights, or book with a guide if you’d like some extra info and for someone else to do the planning.
What to look for in your guide
If you’re paying for a guided sightseeing tour in Washington DC, you want to be sure your guide is knowledgeable, live, and an expert.
When contacting a tour operator, you’ll want to ask about where they’re from or how long they’ve lived in Washington, D.C., and their level (and area) of expertise.
For example, at USA Guided Tours we work with certified local guides with years of experience. Every one of our guides is an expert on the city and constantly strives to ensure that everyone on their tours is completely satisfied.
Traveling with your family?
We love showing off our city to your family! But traveling with kids is a bit different. They aren’t about politics, fine dining, and late-night parties.
Some of our top tips for traveling with kids are:
- Read up before you leave home. Kids of all ages will find it easier to engage with something when they know a little about it.
- Book a sightseeing trip to get your bearings. A new place, especially a big city like Washington DC, can be intimidating at first. A sightseeing trip with an experienced driver and guide can help you get the lay of the land before exploring on your own. I highly recommend the highlights tours that I mentioned before.
- Take your time and do less. This isn’t the time to try and fit in absolutely everything. Plan one big activity each day, and spend the rest of the time hanging out together and enjoying the vacation.
Find more tips for visiting DC with kids in this article.
The city is bigger than you’d expect
The monuments and memorials are not as close to each other as they appear on the map. The National Mall is a lot bigger than you’d expect and while it’s quite a walk, it’s one place you can’t miss.
If you’re not up for walking, a sightseeing bus tour is a good way to get around the different monuments and memorials. Our Discover DC tour goes by the U.S. Capitol Building, White House, FDR Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, and Vietnam Memorial, and many others.
Walking tour, bus tour, private tour, or group tour?
There are many types of tours, so before booking it’s important to decide on the kind of tour you’re looking for.
In general, there are three types of transport:
Here are USA Guided Tours, most of our guided sightseeing tours in Washington DC are by bus. We use luxury buses that are comfortable and climate-controlled, have sprinter vans for our private groups, and even have convertible buses with a retractable glass-top so you’re sure to see everything around you.
You also need to decide if you want to tour with just your travel mates and a guide, or if you’d enjoy meeting other travelers. Most tours will be group tours, especially if you’re looking for a more wallet-friendly tour.
Alternatively, a private tour of Washington, D.C. is a bit more expensive but can usually be customized to your group’s needs and wishes.
It can get hot in Washington, D.C. in the summer, so it’s important to hydrate all day long. Especially if you’re going to be visiting the sights outside!
Bring a refillable water bottle so you can refill it at the water fountain, instead of getting plastic bottles from the street vendors.
By the way, sightseeing tours with USA Guided Tours include complimentary water to make sure you don’t get dehydrated.
Frequent (Instagrammable) photo stops
You’re not here to just ride past an attraction and listen to info. You really want to take it in, hear more info, and take pictures, of course.
So when booking a tour, ensure your tour operator includes frequent photo stops at the right places. These are usually stops where you get off the bus, the guide tells a little more background info, and there’s time to take some pictures.
One note though; it’s not enough time for a complete photoshoot. You don’t want to hold up the rest of the group! Of course, if you’re on a private tour, longer photo stops are no problem.
What to wear on your tour of Washington, D.C.
Of course, you want to look fashionable for those photo stops 😉
But we have some advice that might come in handy.
Bring appropriate weather gear. So a rain jacket if rain is forecast, sunscreen, and sunglasses on a sunny day, comfortable clothes that you can layer if the temperatures are on the low side, etc.
Wear comfortable shoes. Even on bus tours, you’ll do some walking for the photo stops. We don’t want you to get blisters!
Take a daypack with you. I prefer backpacks so I have my hands free, but any bag that can hold your wallet, a bottle of water, and your phone will do.
Your health and safety is our #1 priority
For every tour operator, your health, safety, and enjoyment should be their #1 priority.
That’s why at USA Guided Tours we use safe buses that are regularly checked and thoroughly cleaned. We also use a social distancing protocol. Take a look at our policies here.
All you need to do is book your tour…
When you book a tour with USA Guided Tours, all you need to do is show up at the designated meet-up location.
We’ll take care of the tickets, the transport, the planning, and anything else that may be needed on a tour or trip with us.
Ready for your guided sightseeing tour in Washington DC? Get in touch now and let’s start planning.