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Explore the Jefferson Memorial and the National Mall, there's an app for that | © Ron Cogswell / Flickr
Explore the Jefferson Memorial and the National Mall, there's an app for that | © Ron Cogswell / Flickr

The Best Travel Apps for Washington, D.C.

Picture of Summer Whitford
Summer Whitford
Updated: 29 March 2017

The historian Arthur Schlesinger once said, “Science and technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition, and myth frame our response.” Today’s travelers have the best of both; they can use technology to manage travel planning and logistics while creating memories they will cherish forever. People use apps to stream their favorite movies and programs, do research, shop, and get the latest news. Instead of lugging around a cumbersome laptop, cell phones offer untethered mobility and a world of information that’s literally at your fingertips.

The ultimate culture and travel app

One app that’s a must for savvy travelers and avowed culture vultures is from Culture Trip (free for iOS and Android). Tipped by Forbes as one to watch in 2017, this comprehensive app includes travel recommendations for every country in the world and lets you browse by your interests. Savvy travelers rely on the Culture Trip app to “stay in the loop” about “official” landmarks, museums, and monuments, but Culture Trip’s raison d’être is showcasing the “real” city. It reveals hidden gems and unique charms through the lens of connected, hyper-local writers.

Take D.C., for example. Culture Trip has all the information on the official stuff but can also help you find inspiring scenic routes for your morning jog, shop for vintage clothing, or take your family on a picnic, and the app makes it easy to share all the fun with your friends on social media.

But wait, there’s more! To get the most from your visit to Washington, Culture Trip has put together a list of other useful apps that can help make your trip less stressful and more fun. Here are the three criteria used to make the selections:

Price: All of the apps are $4 and under.

Ease of Use: Every app is easy to find, install, and use.

Compatibility: This is a bi-partisan list, with apps compatible with either Apple or Android operating systems or both. Bon voyage!

Know before you go

Washington, D.C. is a beautiful place to visit, that’s a given, but you’ll have a much better time if you do a bit of homework, learn how the city operates, and acquaint yourself with a few of the city’s particular quirks and traditions.

Don’t drive, really

If you think it would be fun to drive in D.C., think again—even residents of the District find it hard to navigate one-way streets, roundabouts, and frequent snarls that turn short trips into long ones with lots of sitting in traffic. If that doesn’t discourage you, confusing signs, a shortage of street parking, and the outrageous cost of garage parking will. Save yourself the cost and hassle of parking, leave your car behind, and rely on public transportation, cabs, rideshare alternatives, bicycles, and your feet.

If you want to drive, then use the Park Mobile app (free for iOS and Android) to pay for city parking meters and avoid tickets that can cost up to $100; otherwise, you could blow a wad of cash just paying for tickets. Another alternative is to use Parking Panda (free for iOS and Android) to find and reserve available spaces in parking garages by price, location, or both.

By reserving in advance, the app guarantees your spot no matter how crowded the garage gets and guarantees the price too, which you’ll appreciate once you find out hourly garage rates range from $11 and $25 an hour. You will also enjoy Parking Panda’s reward program that lets you earn free parking quickly. It’s available in cities across the country, so sign up now and start earning rewards you can use to get free parking in D.C.

Make the most of Metro

The single most comprehensive transportation service is the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which includes Metro (the subway trains), Metro buses (which also serve the Maryland and Virginia suburbs), Circulator buses, and DC streetcars. If you plan on using public transportation, it’s wise to buy a fare trip card in advance. You can board buses and trains with ease, familiarize yourself with the rules and manners of ridership to prevent problems with crowds, and use the handy Trip Planner tool to find the best combination of trains and buses to get you to and from your hotel and the city’s important sites. To find the nearest station, keep tabs on train departures and arrivals, receive updates from Metro, and plan your routes, download the DC Rider app (free for iOS and Android).

Two wheels can be better than four

Plan to do a lot of walking in D.C. unless you rent a bike from Capital Bikeshare. In 2015, the city was ranked number seven as a bike-friendly American city due to its extensive bike routes, integration into the Metro system’s trains and buses, and places for bike storage at Metro stations and in lockers like Bikestation. Sign up for a Capital Bikeshare membership before you leave home, use your membership, and by the time you get to D.C., you will have earned some points to receive discounts on local restaurants and other services. And download the handy Spotcycle app (free for iOS and Android) to find bike rental stations, bike availability, track your time for rentals, and more.

Staying connected

All of these apps and social sharing can add to your trip’s bottom line, so it’s important to find free wi-fi, and the Wi-Fi Finder app (free for iOS and Android) does that in D.C. and 144 countries around the globe. Find a map-based hotspot or let the app tell you when you’re near a free hotspot.

Sightseeing

You could spend weeks just racing from one cultural event to the other or visiting museums, historic landmarks, parks, and monuments in Washington. The tricky part, however, isn’t finding the time but narrowing down the list. And there are apps for many of the museums plus those that can help you find out what do in your area if your plans change on the fly. Here are the best:

National Mall and National Park Service App (free for iOS and Android): Use the app to find directions and walking times to cultural and historical sites, get up-to-date information on what’s happening at each location, and use the National Park Service’s self-guided tours to learn more about each location.

National Gallery of Art App (free iOS and Android): NGA’s app can make the museum more approachable and fun for everyone, including children. The app includes the back story for masterpieces, highlights exhibits, has special self-guided tours for kids, can tell you what’s exhibited, how to find the exhibits, hours, maps, and more.

Smithsonian Visitor’s Guide App ($0.99 for iOS and Android): This app keeps you up to date with what’s current at all of the Smithsonian museums so that you avoid being shut out due to closed exhibits and closing hours and don’t miss things while wandering around.

Dining out

The food scene in Washington, D.C. is hot, hot, hot, and diners have lots of options from international cuisines to mom-and-pop eateries, fancy restaurants with prices to match, and fantastic food trucks and pop-ups that are the vanguard of cool places to eat and drink. There is a lot of information on where to eat and drink in D.C. right here on Culture Trip, but here are four other apps that can help you nail down where you want to eat by location, cuisine, or price point.

The first app is Runin Out (free), and it was voted Best Restaurant App by the readers of Washington City Paper in 2013 (not on smartphones, though). This database contains 5,000 venues, displays more than 10,000 dishes, lets you search for food by cuisine, location, price, and style of dining (think food trucks, grocery stores, eateries), helps you shop for retail, and includes local parks, museums, theme parks, and more.

Spotluck (free on iOS and Android) is a local app that’s part game of luck with a twirling wheel and part restaurant deal finder. Figure out where you want to eat by location, give the wheel a spin, and each time you spin, you get discounts for local bars and restaurants.

If you’re not sure where you’ll be, the Food Truck Fiesta app ($0.99) can save the day. All around the National Mall and other key neighborhoods, you can find a truck featuring the cuisine you like by location, in real time, and this app comes in iPhone, Android, and Windows versions.

Open Table (free) started out as local restaurant reservation system and is now an app that can help you find restaurants by cuisine, make reservations, send notes to the restaurant, discover holiday deals and menus, and more, and it’s compatible with iOS, Android, and Windows.

Preventing accidents

You don’t have to be traveling with kids to know how important it is to find a bathroom on the go, and having access to a safe, clean, public bathroom (including changing stations) can be a godsend. With the SitOrSquat app (free for iOSAndroid, and BlackBerry), you have access to city maps that show you the location of 99,000 bathrooms. Hopefully, this will help avoid any “accidents.”