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A student’s guide to living in Washington

Washington DC, is known for being where it’s happening. ‘It’ can be almost anything: history, culture, art, food, and politics - you name it.

Whatever your interest is, you’ll probably find a museum dedicated to it in the capital. As a bonus, dozens of local attractions, from gardens to live theatre, are completely free and fit nicely into a student budget.

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How to spend your first week in the city

Getting acquainted with a new city can be both exciting and daunting, and Washington is no exception.

There’s so much to do in Washington that it’s hard to know where to start. Consider this your how-to guide for your first week and making your new home feel like, well, home.

Get a glimpse of the National Mall

It’s touristy, sure, but the National Mall might be the best part of living in DC. You’ll find dozens of museums, monuments and landmarks right in your backyard, most of which are completely free.

Don't try to see it all at once though, in your first week, just get a feel for what's there.

A few highlights are:

  • the pedestrian-friendly strip which is about two miles long. Take note of the Tidal Basin on the western end. This is where you'll want to return when the cherry blossom trees put on their big show in spring.
  • The Smithsonian Castle, which is about halfway through and makes a good stop to pick up brochures and maps at the visitors center.
  • On the eastern end, snap a selfie in front of the US Capitol Building to send to friends and family back home while it sinks in that you're finally here.

Learn the transit system

Washington has notoriously bad traffic. Fortunately, public transportation makes getting around easier. The Washington Metro covers not just DC but also some of the outlying suburbs.

Trains run on six lines, and signs at the stations and on board indicate the final destination, so you know which direction you’re going. If you have trouble, just ask a station attendant or log onto their Trip Planner for a customised route that includes buses, too.

Fares start at USD2 and go up depending on if you’re using an express route with limited stops (buses) or riding during peak times (trains). Load your fares onto a rechargeable SmarTrip card. If you’re a frequent rider, take advantage of weekly or month long passes to save a little cash.

Find your favorite grocery store

If you eat out at a restaurant in DC, you’ll get hit with a 10% sales tax on your meal, but grocery purchases are tax-free. Win! So where should you shop?

The grocery store debate is fierce in the District, with locals just as loyal to their favourite market as any political party.

Giant Food and Safeway have been in DC the longest and have the most outlets, offering up the standard wide variety at fair prices. If you want to save some dollars, European discount brands Aldi and Lidl have a few locations in the metro area. Trader Joe’s is thrifty too, with a tiki hut aesthetic and a knack for covering things in dark chocolate.

For more upscale options, Whole Foods specialises in organics, while Harris Teeter charms shoppers with free cookie samples.

Although you’ll probably get most of your groceries at one of these chains, make sure you check out the Eastern Market a few blocks from the Capitol Building. This indoor and outdoor farmer’s market is open Tuesday through Sunday and has some of the freshest produce, meat, dairy and baked goods, direct from local farms.

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Which suburbs are student-friendly

Washington has one of the largest metro areas in the country, but that just means you have more options to choose from when it comes to where to live.

While lodgings in the metro area don’t come cheap, the suburbs range from medium-sized cities to small towns with a range of amenities and styles.

Here are Washington’s most student-friendly suburbs.

Vienna, VA

For a welcoming place to call home with a laidback suburban vibe, look no further than Vienna, Virginia. It’s convenient to DC via transit but keeps its small-town feel thanks to the parks, historic buildings and walkable downtown.

There’s a surprising number of things to do here, especially for nature lovers. Take your books to Meadowlark Botanical Gardens and study in the sunshine surrounded by nearly 100 acres of natural beauty. Feed the exotic animals at Roer's Zoofari. Grab your bike and hop on the 45-mile Washington & Old Dominion trail. Or soak up some nostalgia and fill up your Instagram feed at the old-timey general store and the quaint historic train station with its bright red caboose.

Don’t expect a huge nightlife scene in this town of under 20,000 - but the friendly, Southern neighbourhoods are a nice contrast to the rush of DC.

Takoma Park, MD

A progressive city, where 16-year-olds and non-citizens can vote in local elections and activism runs deep, Takoma Park in Maryland is hip and inclusive. Nearly a third of residents were born outside the US and you can sample food from around the world along International Corridor.

Housing prices vary widely. There are high-dollar Victorian homes but also more affordable apartments scattered around town. Don’t get it confused with the nearby city of Takoma in Washington.

Residents of this countercultural suburb enjoy a walkable, green city with two farmers markets and several festivals celebrating everything from music to folk art.

Hyattsville, MD

Less than 30 minutes northeast of the city center by train, Hyattsville, Maryland, is your best bet if you’re looking for affordable housing but still want great local restaurants, a good community and boutique shopping.

The city has a bit of an artistic flair, which they let loose every September for the Downtown Hyattsville Arts Festival. Year-round, you can enjoy plenty of free public art, which varies from mosaics and murals to interactive sculptures.

It’s also one of four municipalities in the Gateway Arts District, a live-work-play concept home to artists, studios, and community events.

Greenbelt, MD

Greenbelt in Maryland actually began as a planned community, created by the government in 1937. Early town planners wanted residents to have easy access to public green spaces for recreation. Today, nearly 100 years and lots of urban sprawl later, Greenbelt is still very much a green city.

It’s hard to miss the 1,100-acre Greenbelt Park, a camping, birdwatching and biking destination run by the National Park Service. Nearby, another popular park surrounds Buddy Attick Lake, where you can picnic, kayak and canoe.

While there are plenty of places to walk in Greenbelt (and much of what you need is within walking distance), its prime location at the centre of two major roads and off the Green Line Metro is a huge perk of living here since you can get where you need to go quickly.

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How to become an expert in American history in DC

Home to more than 70 national landmarks, Washington is one of the country’s best places to learn American history if you know where to go.

Visit the museums, walk the streets of America’s founders, and talk to locals - no textbooks required for this lesson.

Visit the Library of Congress

If you had the time you could read all the books in the Library of Congress — it has more than 24 million — and you'd be an expert on U.S history and many, many other subjects too. Fortunately, there's an easier way.

After you’ve admire the gilded architecture in the Great Hall, tour the many free exhibitions. They cover not only how America became a nation but also the unexpected things, from cartoons to entertainment, that helped shaped political history. With the Baseball in America tour, for example, you'll discover why this classic sport was dubbed the ‘national pastime’.

If you can, take a guided tour. This way you can get additional insights from an expert.

Tour the National Museum of American History

For a world-class overview of U.S. history, it doesn't get much better than the National Museum of American History. It covers politics and major historic moments plus a hefty dose of pop culture, including music, fashion, and superheroes.

It's also where you store up on essential (and true) American lore, like how teddy bears got their name from the 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, or about the rise of Hollywood with the invention of ‘talkies’. Don’t expect to see it all, but allow at least a few hours to take in the highlights.

Go behind the scenes at the International Spy Museum

The revamped International Spy Museum just opened this year. Global in scope, this highly interactive museum takes a hard look at spy culture in the US.

It’s all here, from what really happened with the Argo mission to the origin of the Glomar response, ‘neither confirm nor deny.’ You’ll learn how spycraft helped the 13 colonies gain independence and how spies gather intel, whether it’s by using disguises, attaching cameras to pigeons in World War II, or mining social media.

You can even see the original 1777 letter from George Washington, setting up the nation’s first espionage agency.

Meet America's finest at the National Portrait Gallery

To say the National Portrait Gallery is just a museum of famous Americans' pictures doesn’t really sum it up. It’s more like being invited to a mixer with some of history’s most interesting characters.

We’re talking Martin Luther King Jr., Marilyn Monroe, Alexander Hamilton, Muhammad Ali, and Sojourner Truth. It's also the only place outside the White House where you can see the full suite of presidential portraits. This means you don’t need to contact your Embassy to request a tour.

Go grave hunting at Arlington National Cemetery

A cemetery may not sound like a destination, but Arlington’s is. More than 400,000 Americans are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, including presidents, freed slaves, and veterans from the Revolutionary War on. Tour guides on the tram will amuse you with stories of General Pershing's valor or astronaut John Glenn’s achievements.

Time your visit to catch the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This historic ritual dates back to 1948 and involves formal salutes, steps, and quarter turns executed with absolute precision. Bring your camera.

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Where to escape the Washington tourists

With more than 700,000 residents and some 20 million visitors per year, let’s just say Washington can get a little crowded. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find some space to call your own.

Dodge the tourists and hang out where the locals go — because you’re a local now.

Dumbarton Oaks

When you hear the word ‘free’ in DC, you can usually count on hordes of people, but that’s not the case at Dumbarton Oaks. In the peaceful Georgetown neighborhood, far from the National Mall, this lavish brick mansion stores a vast collection of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art in airy galleries. Head down to the west wing to see the magnificent Music Room, decorated with antique tapestries, paintings, and sculptures.

The estate’s gardens, accessible for a small fee, feature separate rooms and terraces, like the orangery or Lover’s Lane Pool, making it easy to find a secluded spot to call your own for a while.

Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens

While this National Park can get busier during summer when the lotuses and water lilies are in bloom, it’s fairly empty at other times of year. Located just across the river from U.S National Arboretum, Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens preserves a slice of the wetlands habitat that existed here before the city was built.

Keep a lookout as you stroll the boardwalk and you can spot ducks, turtles, song birds, and raptors. Visit in the fall to see the changing leaves reflected in the water. It’s all free, even parking.

The islands

You might not expect island escapes in the middle of DC, but there are quite a few. The largest is East Potomac Park, featuring a golf course, swimming pool, tennis courts, and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. Walking distance from the National Mall, it’s nice if you’re tired of elbow-to-elbow crowds but don’t want to go too far.

Across the river, Columbia Island is a quieter space with spectacular views of the city skyline. Farther north, you can really get away from it all at Theodore Roosevelt Island, a densely wooded 88.5-acre national park.

Kingman Island, located in DC’s other major river, the Anacostia, might be the most remote of all, just not during the annual Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival.

Politics and Prose Bookstore

Removed from the main tourist scene in the upscale, tree-lined Chevy Chase neighborhood sits Politics and Prose Bookstore.

Go mid-week, and there are plenty of quiet corners where you can curl up with a good book. Or join the locals and sit in on a free talk where award-winning authors discuss everything from democracy to comedy to cooking.

Afterward, let your brain recharge downstairs in The Den, a cosy space that serves locally sourced food and encourages lingering. 

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