Budget Travel Like a Local Through DC!

People often complain that a visit to Washington, DC involves a lot of walking, subway, car, or taxi use. In this blog, you will learn you don’t have to do much of any of the things mentioned above! Granted, considerable walking maybe within each DC museum; however, you need not walk a lot between each museum.

On a map, the DC blocks appear to be very manageable on foot; every destination seems to be four-tenths of a mile away from each other. However, instead of walking this distance, catch the “Metrobus” or what I will call–the “bus!”At the end of a long day, your feet will thank you!

The “Metrobus” is part of the rapid transit system of the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area in which its Transit Authority (WMATA), also known as the “Metro” operates both “Metrobus,” and “Metrorail” or “subway.”

So how to travel through DC like a local–conveniently and inexpensively and the most lively way possible. The key is to know where to use the subway, bus, and which exit or entrance to use at the colossal “Washington Union Station” and around the “Chinatown Friendship Arch.” In this blog, you will be told the exact details of key transfers, exits, and entrances.

To travel like a local in DC, you need to know two prominent landmarks:

  • “Chinatown Friendship Arch” or “Chinatown Gate”
  • “Washington Union Station” or “Union Station”

“Chinatown Gate”

“Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro Station,” home of the “Chinatown Gate,” is where most of the hotels, bars, and restaurants are located. Here, the subway’s Green and Yellow line transfers to the Red Line and buses number 70, 74, and X2 travel in all four directions. Use H St NW & 7th St NW and “Chinatown Gate”–the unofficial center of town for the locals–as a reference point as the Gate should stand out prominently. This part of town is a gritty place where people from all walks of life intermingle. Watch your belongings!

“Union Station”

If you are willing to accept or tolerate that the language may be coarse on a bus or train, to take an intercity bus or train is by far the most comfortable and most inexpensive way to travel to and from DC! Upon arrival at “Union Station,” the trick is to have a “SmarTrip” card ready for use on the subway and the bus.

To get the most of DC’s Union Station, be familiar with all the different zones it has or functions it can provide. I will start with the most obvious to the visitor: the restaurants and shops on the street level; the “Metrorail” station stop, food court, and shops in the lower level; the Amtrak ticketing, waiting and sprawling train platform area; the intercity bus ticketing and waiting area and the parking deck. The less known of the facilities include the various restrooms and their seasonal or special exhibition and conference area.

So to budget travel like a local through DC, you must meet four requirements!

Travel Like a Local Through DC


  • If you arrive in DC from another town and vice versa, you arrive and depart from “Washington Union Station.”
  • You have a “SmarTrip” card ready to use.
  • You travel with a small backpack and nothing larger.
  • You have accommodations located within a mile radius from the “Chinatown Gate.”

Now that you have arrived in “Union Station,” the following are ways to budget travel like a local through DC and mainly use “Union Station” and the “Chinatown Gate” as reference points.

One of the Secrets

Compared to the subway, the bus is a more scenic way to travel in DC. Also, on the bus, for two hours–from the time you swipe your “SmarTrip” card on your first bus trip to the time you swipe it on your next bus trip–the transfers are free. Also, on the bus, you can add value to your “SmarTrip” card–instead of going to the subway Metro stations.

The Routes Inside DC

From the North Side of “Union Station” to the “Chinatown Gate.”

If you are near to H St NE, exit “Union Station” from its north side, which is the shortest and least expensive way to get to the “Chinatown Gate.” When I walk this route, I see people that look like they know exactly where they are going. Therefore, on foot, from “Union Station,” turn left onto H St NE and head west. Cross North Capitol Street and on H St NE, catch the X2 bus. After about three stops, get off the bus at the “Chinatown Gate.” Nearby is a large convenience store and “Panera Bread” on 673 H St NW, which has a quiet and spacious second floor with views of the “Chinatown Gate.”

From the “Chinatown Gate” to North of the “Washington Convention Center”

Located in the Shaw neighborhood, a traditionally African-American community, this area North of the “Washington Convention Center” is a multi-ethnic area where you can hear Spanish and Korean spoken.

From the “Chinatown Gate,” go towards the southeast corner of H St NW & 7th St NW and take the number 70 bus to go north. At the third stop, get off at N or O St NW. Get off the bus on the north side of the Convention Center and walk by the Center. There is a corner family-run grocery store on 11th St NW that sells multi-ethnic products and produce. Also, a few blocks away are a few hostels. 

From the “Chinatown Gate” to “The White House”

Located directly north of “The White House” and under the management of “United States Park Service,” “Lafayette Square” is a popular and convenient landmark that attracts not only numerous tourists but also derelicts alike. From”Chinatown Gate,” take the X2 bus that heads west, to “Lafayette Square” and “The White House.”

Accessed from the South Side of “Union Station:” the Most Convenient and Free Restroom

There is a large bank of restrooms at the lower level of the southwest corner of “Union Station.” These restrooms are steps away from the “Union Station” Metro stop and likely the closest bathroom to any DC Metro stop. After using the toilet there, the easiest way to get to the street level, south side of “Union Station,” is to take the elevator versus the escalator and the steps from the lower level of “Union Station” to the street level.

From South Side of “Union Station” to the “Chinatown Gate”

The south side of “Union Station,” which can have a long cue of taxis. Instead of taking the cab, take the “DC Circulator” to get to the “Chinatown Gate.” The “DC Circulator” bus stop (Stop ID: 1001065), which faces the west side of the “National Postal Museum,” is at a five-street or five-point intersection at North Capitol Street NW and Massachusetts Avenue NW.

From the “Chinatown Gate” to the “Capitol Hill” Area

From the “Chinatown Gate,” take number 74 bus and then transfer to bus numbers 30, 30N, 32, 34, or 36, which stops in front of the “Longworth House Office Building.”

To catch these buses from the “Chinatown Gate,” take the number 74 and head south. Right after the bus turns onto Independence Avenue SW and approaches the “Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum,” get off of the number 74 bus. Then, transfer to the 30, 30N, 32, 34, or 36 buses.

Get off at the “Longworth House Office Building” stop to get to the following:

  • “Rayburn House Office Building,”
  • “Cannon House Office Building,”

Or stay on the bus for one more stop to go to the following:

  • “US Capitol Visitor Center”
  • “Library of Congress”
  • “Folger Shakespeare Library.”

Check-Out Day: From the “National Mall” to “Union Station”

It’s check-out day, and you want to visit a museum or head to the “Tidal Basin” to see the cherry blossoms along the “National Mall.” However, since you plan to leave DC in the afternoon through “Union Station,” you find to go back to pick up your bags at your hotel a little bit of a trek.

Instead, you put your belongings in a free and secure locker at the “Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.” Note, you go through its museum security check,” but the use of the locker is well worth the small inconvenience. After you visit a destination or landmark, you retrieve your belongings that were stored at the “Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.”

You walk to the “DC Circulator” bus stop on Jefferson Drive and 12th St SW, which is located on the north side of the “US Department of Agriculture Administration Building” or the “Jamie L. Whitten Building.” Then you take the “DC Circulator” and heads towards “Washington “Union Station.”


Emy Louie served as the “Director of Public Outreach” for the “US High Speed Rail Association” from 2009 – 2016. Trained as an architect (graduate of the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa with a degree in Architecture) who once hosted her radio show, Emy has taught continuing education classes on design and urban development to architects and engineers.

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