What It’s Like Living In Washington, DC

A detailed guide on living in Washington, DC - what to expect if you are moving here, where to live, and what it takes to make Washington DC your home.

The Washington, DC area, also known as the DMV, The District, DC or The Capitol, might be one of the most unique places in the world to visit, let alone live. 

Whether you’re moving there to study, be a lobbyist, or get into foreign policy, professionally, it’s an eat or be eaten city. It’s definitely not “chill” or relaxing.  

In this guide, we’ll talk about what it’s like living in Washington DC, its pros and cons, the cost of living, the best areas and other things you need to know before you move there. 

So you want to move to Washington, DC?

When I wanted to move from Los Angeles to the east coast, my initial options were New York or DC. For me, New York was too much, but DC provided a great balance. It’s technically a “northern” city, but coming from Los Angeles, there was a hint of southern charm to it as well. 

Living in Washington DC
Logan Circle in Washington, DC is one of the city’s trendiest full of hip restaurants, gay bars, craft beer pubs and charming Victorian houses.

Generally speaking, Washington is a city of alpha males and females.

Whether you’re in politics or technology, if you’re not a go-getter, this city will chew you up, both professionally and socially. It’s not a city where people will approach you and randomly say hello. 

It’s a brilliant city for couples as well, but only if either one or both partners have the go-getter attitude to succeed in their field. 

In Los Angeles, it was about wealth, so the main question someone asked was, “what car do you drive?” Washington DC isn’t just about wealth, it’s about prestige and power, so the question naturally becomes “what do you do?”

Finally, if you’re a student, you’ll love DC, minus how expensive it is. Because whatever your major is, the real-world experience you need is a stone’s throw.

Art major? You’ll love the Kennedy Center and the eccentricities of U Street or H Street.

If you’re economics, political science or foreign policy major, well, you’re living in the center of global power.

You name it, and DC offers it. But, you are the one that has to want to go get it! 

In short, if you want to live by the beach, chill or retire, Washington DC is not the city for you. If you’re a go-getter, single or married, or a student then you’ll get the most out of living there. 

Is Washington, DC a good place to live? 

It really depends on so many factors.

It has something for everyone. If you’re looking for nightlife or restaurants, it has plenty of that.

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Living in Washington DC

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, or C&O Canal, aka the Grand Old Ditch. It goes through Washington DC and is one of the longest biking and hiking trails in the United States.

If you’re looking for a location where you can be in the woods or New York City within a few hours, you have both of those.

With three major airports within an hour, you can catch a flight to just about anywhere in the world as well.

But you have to realize it’s a transient city with very few “locals.”

It’s also not “easy” living as it’s getting denser, traffic is notoriously bad and the cost of living is higher than most places in the US.

If you don’t need a car, don’t bring it. It’ll add complications you don’t need, ie. parking, gas prices, traffic.

Public transportation and or taxi or uber will most definitely get you from point A to B. The subway does break down at least a few times a year but compared to most major cities, it’s relatively efficient and the network is vast! 

If you’re a parent and worried about security and education, that could realistically be a concern depending on what part of the DMV you want to live in. My recommendation is to look across the river from Washington, DC in Northern Virginia suburbs of Alexandria, Fairfax and the likes. 

Is Washington, DC a safe place to live?

Washington, DC has a reputation of being relatively dangerous. At one point it was the murder capital of America. And it was so bad the professional basketball team changed its name from the Bullets to the Wizards.

However, the safety situation has changed in the last decade, and you probably won’t see any kind of violence in your day-to-day life. 

Like any other major city in the world, it has its fair share of safety concerns, so obviously be vigilant. 

Do you pay state taxes if you live in Washington, DC?

The tax situation if you live in the actual city is not ideal.

The slogan of the city is “taxation without representation,” and that’s because although as a resident you pay some of the highest taxes in the country, you don’t have representation in Congress.

For some people, this is a major enough issue that they pick Northern Virginia over living in the actual city of Washington, DC.

Across the river, you have to pay less in taxes, and generally speaking, enjoy more affordable living – especially as a family – and better schools. But, you don’t have immediate access to a thriving city, as you’ll have to commute into it.

For a family, Northern Virginia would be better, with maybe a date night into the city every once in a while. But if you’re single or a student, you should most definitely stay in the city!

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What are the pros and cons of living in Washington, DC?

The pros of Living in Washington, DC

Living in Washington DC
Washington DC in spring is spectacular.

1. Great for career advancement

If you’re looking for advancement, or a student wanting to learn not just through a book, but the real world, then DC is the place for you. But, as mentioned above, it’s a city that will give you what you give it. You’re not going to be working as a senior aide to a senator or work at a Think-Tank unless you’re ready to go for it. 

2. Multicultural

Being in such a multicultural city as DC makes it easier to adapt.

Whatever type of cuisine you’re looking for, you’ll find it. You will be sitting for happy hour in a restaurant and overhear multiple languages. There are so many museums and exhibitions that it might be the only city in the US with more cultural centers than Starbucks! 

3. Easy and convenient travel links

Whether by car, train or airport, you have incredibly easy access to anywhere in America and even the world. If you want to go to New York City for the weekend, just hop on a train or bus. Want to fly to Europe, Central America or anywhere else, then the three international airports are easily accessible.

  • Ronald Reagan International Airport is right across the river in Northern Virginia – roughly 15-30 minutes from almost anywhere in the city.
  • Dulles International Airport is a major hub about 45-60 minutes from anywhere in the city, accessible by metro or car.
  • Baltimore Marshall International (BMI) is generally my backup international airport, but very accessible via train or car.
Living in Washington DC
Another lovely neighborhood, Georgetown, with charming residential properties, cobbled streets, upmarket restaurants and waterfront seafood spots.

4. Whatever your lifestyle or whatever you’re looking for, is at your disposal 

Do you like nature and hiking? You’re minutes away from river walks and hikes. Or even a short(ish) car drive to the Shenandoah Valley with amazing trails and views.

Do you enjoy concerts and live events? They’re year-round and in absolutely no short supply.

Do you enjoy fine dining or trying just about any cuisine possible? Got that. Do you enjoy the water or boating? Perfect, you have the Potomac River at your disposal as well as the Maryland coast within an hour or so away.

The cons of living in Washington, DC

1. The cost of living is high

My biggest gripe with living in DC these days is the astronomical rise in the cost of living. Everything from rental properties to buying a house or apartment has risen far faster than most people expected.

That also translates to dining, groceries, and gas prices.

I remember when I first moved there I paid $10 for 24 hours of parking. By 2019, it was $25 for 24 hours. The cost of a vodka drink at an above-average restaurant was roughly $8-10, and now close to $18-$22.

2. It is congested

If you live in the city of DC, then be prepared to pick what time you’re meeting someone based on the time of day. If you don’t, you will definitely be late, regardless of whether you use the metro or drive a car.

It’s not even close to as bad as New York City, or Los Angeles, but it’s difficult to find a spot to yourself where you can check out for a few minutes without the hustle and bustle of a city. Having said that, escaping – even for a few hours – isn’t too difficult! 

3. A very changeable weather

I moved to DC from Southern California where for about 10 months a year, the temperature is between 70-80 degrees (F) and if it’s going to rain the weatherman screams bloody murder about four days in advance. And once it rains, the entire city crumbles.

So having moved to Washington, DC I was shocked that you can have spring, summer and fall all in one day sometimes. And in the summer months, you can be looking at your weather app with a 10% chance of rain, then at 2 pm trying to find shelter from a monsoon that lasts about 15 minutes. 

4. An expensive healthcare

Like almost anywhere in the US, healthcare is expensive. There’s really nowhere you can go without that additional cost. Having said that, with several major world-class hospitals like George Washington within a stone’s throw, you’re more than fine. But, it will cost you!

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Is it expensive to live in Washington, DC?

Yes and no. It’s all relative. It’s cheaper than London, Paris, Los Angeles, and New York. But it’s still more expensive than surrounding areas in Virginia and Maryland.

Living in Washington DC

Foggy Bottom is one of the best places to live in DC. It attracts a young ambitious crowd and boasts multiple bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and parks.

Renting a studio apartment in NW DC will generally start around $1500 a month and that number will fluctuate up to $3,000-$4,000 depending on size, and location. 

Purchasing also has limitations depending on what you’re looking for. If you’re purchasing for a family, I highly doubt you will find anything suitable for less than $800,000 – $1 million. If you’re single and or a young family, you’ll have more options. 

Food costs are very comparable to other major cities. A loaf of bread is anywhere between $2.50 – $3.00, while milk is roughly $3.50 – $4.00. A bottle of medium-grade wine is about $12-$18 a bottle and depending on the type of beer, around $10-$15 for a 12-pack.

A meal at a local middle-tier restaurant without any alcohol will cost you about $15-$20.00 including tax. And don’t forget tipping is very important, anywhere in the US. If you’ve liked your service, generally it’s appreciated if you tip about 20%. If it was mediocre then 15%. If it was great, 25%. 

Depending on the type of gym you want to go to, it’ll set you back anywhere from $30-$75 / month. But if you’re on a budget, look for a local YMCA and that’ll cut that expense by a large chunk!

Also if you like jogging or biking, you may as well cut the gym out and just enjoy some of the outskirts of the city for that! 

How much money do you need to live comfortably in Washington, DC?

A single person can probably live in the city for roughly $3500-$4000 a month on a relatively comfortable budget by themselves. Having roommates will definitely help with the cost of living, as housing is the most expensive part of your budget. 

A family living in DC, depending on the number of children will cost upward of $10-$12,000 a month. I would even go higher depending on how comfortably you’d want to live, ie. having a car, daycare. 

I would not recommend DC for a retired couple. There are much better places to retire in the USA. If however, you have to for family reasons, depending on your circumstances, a retired couple can live comfortably – including rent – for roughly $6-8,000 per month. 

The best areas to live in Washington, DC

Anywhere in Northern Virginia or Maryland, such as Bethesda would be great for families. Most of my friends that are married, with or without kids live in those areas. DC itself can accommodate a family, just be prepared to pay a bit more and have less space. 

Living in Washington DC
Pennsylvania Avenue in winter, Washington DC.

If you’re single, just about anywhere in the city or even Arlington, across the river will provide you with plenty of nightlife and restaurants. And you’re no more than a few minutes to almost any part of the city – depending on the time of day of course. 

Areas to avoid

Traditionally, this would have been very easy to answer. Stick to Northern Virginia or the NW (Northwest) corridor and you’ll be fine. Anywhere else – and I literally mean anywhere else – and you’d regret it.

However, the city has gentrified a lot so you’re really safe all over.

Of course, just like any city, you need to be vigilant, even in posh neighborhoods. I remember one day I was at the dog park in the U Street area and as I looked down at the rocks, lo and behold I found the remnants of a bullet case. Again, be vigilant and you’re good to go. 

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The best schools in Washington, DC

If you are moving to the area with children, a good education should not be a problem. Here are some of the best schools you might want to consider:

  • The Langley School located in Tysons Corner, Virginia (Northern Virginia) is a private from Preschool through Grade 8. 
  • Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology is located in Fairfax, Virginia (Northern Virginia) and is one of the country’s best public high school. 
  • Episcopal High School located in Alexandria, Virginia (Northern Virginia) is a private high school
  • Gonzaga College High School is a private Catholic, all boys high school located in Washington, DC.
  • Georgetown Preparatory School is a private, all boys school in North Bethesda, Maryland.

Final thoughts on living in Washington, DC

Washington, DC is an absolutely amazing city. It will give you exactly what you give it, but a few things it is definitely not. It’s not cheap, it’s not chill, and it’s definitely not for retiring in unless you’re one of those retirees that enjoy the hustle and bustle of a large city. 

You have a little bit of New York (New Yorkers will strongly disagree), but just a hint of southern charm (southerners will disagree).

It’s a unique cosmopolitan capital city like I haven’t really seen anywhere else. It’s such an amazing city that I actually moved to it twice, and left it twice – don’t judge, I have commitment issues.

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Rouzy Vafaie

Rouzy is a freelance writer and photographer who is now partially based in Iran, but moved from beautiful Charleston, South Carolina in the United States. When he’s not working his “real” job, he loves writing about various topics, including traveling, politics and economics. He usually has his camera and drone ready to go for any kind of photography you can think of.

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