Explore Washington D.C.

Ride the D.C. Metro Rails Like a Local

From mapping your route and buying farecards to following the No. 1 unwritten rule

Lucky for travelers to D.C., sightseeing in the nation’s capital comes with a big bonus: the Metrorail. It delivers riders within strolling distance of many of the city’s world-renowned attractions, including the Smithsonian’s American History Museum, the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument, just to name a few. Opened in 1976 with only five stations on a single line, the D.C. Metro now boasts 91 stations (and counting) on six lines that weave through the city and into the ‘burbs.

Metro’s opening day
On Metro’s opening day, thrills even for pint-sized riders (Courtesy WMATA)

Hundreds of thousands step aboard daily, making Metro the nation’s second busiest subway system (after New York’s). And it’s not just functional. Credit architect Harry Weese for the retro-futuristic station design of dramatic coffered vaults that The New York Times ranked “among the greatest public works of this century.”

As experienced travelers can attest, no two subway systems seem to function the same way. But, if you’re a Metro newbie, we have you covered. To avoid those awkward moments that scream “tourist,” here’s what you need to know.

Before You Go

Unlike other city subways that have one set price, Metro fares vary according to distance traveled and time of day. (The maximum peak fare is $5.90; off-peak is $3.60.) Trains also run at different frequencies throughout the day. All this can seem daunting, even for locals. Not to worry, though, Metro offers a useful online tool.

On Metro’s website, find the Trip Planner feature in the upper left corner of the page. Type in your starting point and destination, and it will provide the route, expected duration and fare. The most expensive and crowded times, i.e. those to avoid if at all possible? Weekdays from 5 to 9 am and from 3 to 7 pm.

Wiehle-Reston East station
Wiehle-Reston East station, currently the last stop on the new (and growing) Silver Line (©Brooke Sabin)

How to Pay

If you’re a repeat visitor who remembers the paper farecards, say “sayonara” to them. Metro now sells only rechargeable SmarTrip cards, but they’re easier to use and can make nifty souvenirs with their graphic mashup of D.C. attractions.

Buy them here or at a station vending machine (with cash or credit card) for $2 plus fare value. Each station has a list of the fares from that point to anywhere else in the system. Traveling with kids? Two under age 5 can ride free with a paying adult. If you have questions, just ask the on-site station manager.

Dupont Circle station
The north entrance to the Dupont Circle station, adorned with a quote from one-time D.C. resident Walt Whitman (©Larry Levine/WMATA)

On the Move

Now you’re ready to ride. Simply touch the SmarTrip card to the raised disk on top of the fare gate. (And keep the card handy, because you’ll repeat this process on the way out.) On the platforms, an electronic sign indicates the arrival time and destination for the next several trains.

To stay oriented once on board, look for the signs at each passing station and listen for the conductor’s announcements. If you’re lucky enough to catch one of the sleek new trains, you’ll have a helpful electronic display that shows the next stop. There’s a Metro map inside each car near a set of doors.

Interior of Metro train car
Families, commuters, locals and visitors—all Metro riders (©Larry Levine/WMATA)

Do’s and Don’t’s

To help the busy system run smoothly, riders tend to follow a certain etiquette. Here are some of the top tips to keep in mind:

  • When boarding a train, walk toward the center so passengers behind you can get on. Nobody wants to get caught in a chaotic gridlock at the doors.
  • Postpone that cell phone chat until after you disembark. Washingtonians prefer quiet rides during which they think great thoughts (or catch the latest cat video—using earbuds, of course).
  • When you step off the train or the escalator—no matter how great the view (the Washington Monument!)—keep moving to avoid causing a traffic jam.
  • And, finally, the thing for which your fellow riders will be most grateful: If you stand on the escalator, make sure you’re on the right side, so walkers can pass you on the left.

Congratulations, you’re now riding D.C.’s rails like a local!