How to Ride the Washington DC Metro

Greetings travelers. What can I tell you about traffic in the Nation’s Capital? It’s challenging, even during COVID! So, take my advice and try public transportation. The Washington, D.C., Metrorail system is a convenient, eco-friendly, and cost-effective way to explore. 

Sure walking is a great option, but if you’re traveling any major distance, the subway allows you to cross town without the hassle. Vehicle traffic is a persistent problem, and parking garages and street parking are expensive.

The Metrorail system runs underground and on dedicated tracks, allowing you to travel to destinations throughout most of the city in a timely manner. 

Even when you arrive by car, the park-and-ride method allows you to park your car and ride to key locations in the city. The Metrorail system — known as “The Metro” — connects the outer suburbs to the city with 117 miles of track and 91 stations throughout the Washington area. 

What do you need to know about the Metro?

New safety measures are in place for COVID. Metro has implemented safety measures in accordance with federal law to protect passengers and employees. When entering the Metrorail station or riding the Metrorail, everyone must wear a face covering over their nose and mouth, except for passengers younger than two years old. Metro has enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols, and all frontline employees are required to wear face masks. Because commutes have changed, and many people have not returned to the workplace, it’s pretty quiet onboard with lots of room for social distancing. Try to space out your seats whenever possible, and keep those masks on tight.

What are the trains like? The Metro is a relatively clean, safe, and comfortable system. The trains are fairly quiet, with seats and aisles for standing, electronic signage posting the next stop, heating and air-conditioning. Stations are clean, with signature arching concrete panel ceilings – the wide-open design explains why Metro is less susceptible to crime. Metro also has its own police and security force.

How do I know how long it will take and when the train is arriving? The Metro system is part of the Washington Metro Transit Authority or WMATA.com. WMATA.com has a trip planning guide on the website to find out when the trains are expected at each station and helps you estimate how long it will take after you board. It also covers bus routes and parking information.

What are Metro’s hours? Trains operate on Monday–Friday from 5 a.m.–12 a.m. On Saturdays from 7 a.m.–12 a.m.; and on Sundays, from 8 a.m.–12 a.m. Holiday schedules and special events vary, so check for information at wmata.com.

During peak hours (weekdays 5–9:30 a.m. and 3–7 p.m.), trains run every 6-10 minutes; off-peak hours, the wait averages 15 minutes and can be as long as 30 minutes at night and on weekends. Once you’re on, it’s fast.

How do I know which train to take? The stations have signs indicating when the next train is expected. Check the brown poles for a list of stops on that train/line before you board to ensure you’re on the right train going the correct direction. The system occasionally undergoes track work and repairs, so check for rail closures at wmata.com.

How do I find a station? Look for street signs that indicate the direction and number of blocks to the nearest Metro station. When you find the brown poles marked with a big “M”, colored stripes around the column show which lines serve that station. Many downtown stations (like Eastern Market, Waterfront, Dupont Circle, etc.) have concrete awnings over the escalators. 

How do you enter the station? Most stations are underground, so passengers have to descend to the mezzanine to ride, buy passes, or add money. Stations have stairs, escalators, and elevators. But breakdowns do happen. If an elevator is out at a particular station, people using a wheelchair can use the shuttle service.

Does the Metro Cover DC and the surrounding suburbs like Arlington and Bethesda? Metro allows you to move from the District of Columbia, to Northern Virginia and two counties in Maryland. Before the pandemic it was the second-busiest system in the country, transporting 600,000 passengers every day, and it’s fully accessible for people with disabilities. At the moment, ridership is down about 80%.

Each of the six color-coded lines—Red, Blue, Green, Yellow, Silver, and Orange—run from the outlying counties through downtown D.C. The Silver line, Metrorail’s most recent addition, runs west from the District to Tysons Corner and Reston, with a station under construction at Dulles Airport. 

How do you buy a ticket to ride? The easiest is to buy a SMARTRIP card at a station for $5, which includes $3 worth of travel. Another option is to purchase a Metro SmarTrip cards in advance at smartrip.wmata.com/storefront; they are available in denominations of $10 and $30. Other online options include a 1-day pass for $15, a 3-day unlimited pass for $30, and a couple of 7-day plans for $28 (during off-peak times only). 

Do I need a map? All the trains have maps, and you can also pick up a Metro map at the station or before you travel. I recommend downloading an official Metro Visitor’s Kit, which includes a Metro map, sites of interest near Metro stations, and hours and fare information. The Metro Pocket Guide and map is available in English and six additional languages; several others can be read in translation on the website. There are service kiosks inside every station entrance, and attendants will be happy to help you sort out your directions. Or ask a local; many will volunteer assistance if you need help.

What are the rules to ride Metrorail?

  1. No eating allowed is in stations or onboard buses and trains. Also, no smoking.
  2. Wear earbuds to listen to music. It’s polite to talk quietly.
  3. Give designated seats to pregnant riders, disabled riders or the elderly.
  4. Do not try to get on the train until the riders have gotten off.
  5. Do not shove your arm between subway car doors as they are closing. These do not respond like elevator doors and will not reopen because of the obstruction.
  6. Make sure you don’t let a purse strap or backpack get caught.
  7. It is not polite to rest backpacks or suitcases on the seat or block the aisles. Leave space available next to you unless there are an ample number of seats available.

Any advice for new riders? Although it is not an actual rule, when standing on the Metro escalators, position yourself on the right side. The left side is reserved for those who are walking or climbing. If you block the left side of the moving stairs, expect to hear “Stand to the Right!” For everyone’s comfort, please adhere to the custom. 

Although the Metro is very safe and not crowded these days, it is a people-mover. There are isolated incidents of violence, but they are very rare. If you feel concerned for your safety, move closer to other passengers, or get out of the train and take the next one.

So, hop on the Metrorail system—it’s an iconic Washington, D.C., experience!

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Travel and Dish View All →

Freelance writer and photographer specializing in vivid, deeply reported stories about food, travel and family.

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