How to Navigate the Washington, DC Metro

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a long-time resident, understanding how to ride the Metro can make your journey smoother and more efficient. This guide covers everything from the different metro lines, operational hours, fare information, how to get a SmarTrip card, and essential tips for riding the Metro.

The DC Metro Lines

The Washington Metro, operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), comprises six color-coded Metrorail lines:

  1. Red Line: Shady Grove (northwest) to Glenmont (northeast). Key stops include Silver Spring, Ft. Totten, Union Station (Amtrak), Gallery Place-Chinatown, Metro Center, Dupont Circle, and Woodley Park (Zoo).
  2. Orange Line: Vienna (west) to New Carrollton (east). Key stops include Metro Center, Smithsonian, Eastern Market, Capitol South, Rosslyn, and Clarendon.
  3. Blue Line: Franconia-Springfield (southwest) to Downtown Largo (east). Key stops include Reagan National Airport, Arlington Cemetery, Pentagon, Smithsonian, L’Enfant Plaza, Eastern Market, Capitol South, and King Street.
  4. Silver Line: Ashburn (west) to Downtown Largo (east). Key stops include shared stops with the Orange and Blue Lines in downtown DC plus Dulles Airport, Ashburn, Reston, and Tysons.
  5. Yellow Line: Huntington (south) to Mt. Vernon Square-Convention Center (north). Key stops include King Street, L’Enfant Plaza, Gallery Place, and Reagan National Airport.
  6. Green Line: Branch Avenue (southeast) to Greenbelt (north). Key stops include Navy Yard, L’Enfant Plaza, Gallery Place-Chinatown, and U Street.

When referring to Metro, most people are referring to the Metrorail subway system. However, the Washington Metro also includes Metrobus, one of the many regional bus networks in the area. While mostly used by locals and commuters to get around the city, you too can navigate the city by bus like a local by following our Guide to the Washington, DC Bus Routes, Schedules, and Fares.

How to Read the DC Metro Map

The most important thing you need to remember when riding Metro is which direction you are going. All Metro trains will be labeled based on which direction they are going so as long as you know the color and direction you want, you are good to go.

So, for example, let’s say you are staying in Rossyln and you want to get to the Smithsonian stop. Find Rossyln on the map below – you’ll see it on the Orange and Silver lines. Next, find Smithsonian – it is on the Orange, Blue, and Silver lines. Keep tracing those lines and you will see they end at New Carrolton(Orange) and Downtown Largo (Blue, Silver). This means you can take either Orange or Silver in the direction of New Carrolton or Downtown Largo, depending on the color. Just remember, for your return trip, not to get on a Blue line. The Blue line will not take you back to Rossyln.

In some cases, you will have to change trains to get where you want to go. Let’s say you are in Rossyln and you want to get to a restaurant on U Street. In this case, you’ll see U Street is on the green. Take the Orange or Silver line from Rossyln in the direction of New Carrolton or Downtown Largo and et off at L’Enfant Plaza. Now, look at that map again. Note that U Street is north of L’Enfant Plaza in the direction of Greenbelt. You’ll need to get off the Orange or Silver line train and get on a Green line train headed to Greenbelt.

A note about transfers: When transferring to a different color line at Metro Center, L’Enfant Plaza, Fort Totten, and Gallery Place, you will need to go to a different platform. There will be signs at the station but it is likely that you will need to go up or down a level. If you are transferring trains traveling in the same direction at stops like King Street, Pentagon, Mount Vernon, East Falls Church, and Stadium-Armory, the trains are all traveling on the same tracks before they split off. To be sure you are on the right platform, look at the pillars with the train maps or time-table overhead.

WMATA Metro Map
Metro Map

Hours of Operation

The Metro operates seven days a week with varying hours:

  • Monday to Thursday: 5:00 AM – 11:30 PM
  • Friday: 5:00 AM – 1:00 AM
  • Saturday: 7:00 AM – 1:00 AM
  • Sunday: 7:00 AM – 11:00 PM

These hours may vary during holidays and special events, so it’s wise to check the WMATA website or use their app for real-time updates.

Fare Information

Unlike many other cities, DC Metro fares are best on time of day and distance. It is not a flat fee per ride. Fares can range from $2.25 and $6.75. The best way to predict fares is to use the Trip Planner feature. This comes in handy when choosing a hotel. Remember if you choose to stay outside the city, you may end up spending a lot of any money saved on transportation costs to get downtown.

How to Buy and Use a SmarTrip Card

To ride Metro (and the busses), everyone over 5 years old must purchase a SmarTrip card. All cards, on your phone and physical cards, cost $2 plus money to pay for your ride. The $2 is a one-time fee. In general, I’d recommend using your phone for Metro and only purchasing a physical card for anyone without a phone (like children) or if you’d like to keep it as a suvenaiur. Here’s how to get started:

Buying a Physical SmarTrip Card

  1. Purchase Locations: SmarTrip cards can be bought at any Metro station, select retail locations, online at WMATA’s website, and at Metro sales offices. For most visitors, purchasing at a Metro station will be the easiest option.
  2. Cost: The card itself costs $2.00, and you’ll need to add an initial fare value at the time of purchase.
  3. Reloading: You can add value to your SmarTrip card at any Metro station kiosk, online, or via the WMATA app.

Paying with Your Phone

  1. Download the App: Install the SmarTrip app, available for both iOS and Android devices.
  2. Cost: The card itself costs $2.00, and you’ll need to add an initial fare value at the time of purchase.
  3. Add to Wallet: For iPhone users, add your SmarTrip card to Apple Wallet. Android users can add their card to Google Wallet.
  4. Load Funds: You can load funds directly through the app using a credit or debit card.
  5. Tap and Go: Use your phone at the fare gates by holding it near the card reader, just like a physical SmarTrip card.

A note about Metro passes: Metro offers one-, three-, and seven-day unlimited passes. As a local, it almost always makes more sense to pay for rides as you go. You can price this out for your group using the trip planner, but in most cases, both tourists and locals find that they don’t take Metro enough to justify the cost of an unlimited pass.

Using SmarTrip to Pay Your Fare

To use your SmarTrip card, simply tap it on the fare gate when entering and exiting the Metro. The fare will be automatically deducted based on your trip distance and time of travel. Each person must tap their SmarTrip card to enter the Metro station and tap out again to exit.

Tips for Riding the Metro

Riding the Metro in Washington, DC is generally safe and easy to use. Even if you don’t have public transportation like this at home, this is one of the most straightforward subway systems I’ve used in a large city.

  1. Plan Your Trip: Use the WMATA website or app to plan your journey. Real-time updates on train schedules and service alerts can help avoid delays.
  2. Stand Right, Walk Left: DC is very serious about escalator etiquette. Make sure to stand with your group on the right and use the left to walk. People will tell you to move if you block the escalator.
  3. Avoid Rush Hour: If possible, avoid traveling during peak hours (7:30 AM – 9:30 AM and 4:30 PM – 6:30 PM) to experience less crowded trains and stations.
  4. Stay Clear of Doors: Stand clear of the doors after getting on or off the train and don’t hold them open for any reason. The doors can be damaged easily and a broken door will take the entire train out of service.
  5. Be mindful at night: Even though Metro is open late, trains can run less frequently. If you plan to use Metro after 10 pm, check the timetables to be sure you are not waiting too long – particularly if you are alone.
Train pulling into the station at U Street
A train pulling into the station at U Street