DCA Airport: The Ultimate 3-6 Hour Layover Guide (by a Pilot)

Best things to do on a connection in DCA? Lucky for you, you’re in the nation’s capital!

As an airline pilot, DCA is by far my favorite airport in the Washington DC region, and a huge part of that is because it’s the most accessible. So if you’re lucky enough to have a layover in DCA – whether it’s because of a delayed connecting flight or booking two separate airlines – you won’t run out of things to do.

Prefer exploring the secret museum at the airport or would you rather enjoy a cupcake in Georgetown? Are you a cycling enthusiast or would you rather go for a stand up paddle board at the Wharf? You can’t get bored here!

Check out these other Ultimate Airport Layover Guides: ATL | JFK | SEA | SFO | LAS | ATH | CDG | AMS | and more!

What is there to do inside Washington Reagan National Airport (DCA)?

DCA: What to do at the airport?
DCA is one of the most picturesque airports in all of the US, with plenty to see and do on a layover.

Though Reagan National isn’t the newest or biggest airport, it does have enough to keep you occupied on a longer layover. If anything, the fabulous main terminal is a treat to walk and there are tons of spots with great views on the runways.

Wondering which DC area airport you should choose for your next flight? Make sure to read: Ask a Pilot - Which DC Airport is Better? DCA, IAD, or BWI?

What are the restaurants in DCA?

There aren’t many restaurants in DCA, but the ones that are there are pretty good. My favorite place in Terminal C is &Pizza, where you can build your own pizza. Delicious. Some of my other favorites include:

American Tap Room (Terminal C)Ben’s Chili Bowl (Outside security)
Dunkin’ (All terminals and outside security)Chik-Fil-A (Outside security)
Cava Mezze (Terminal B)Legal Sea Foods (Outside security)
Mezeh (Outside security)Five Guys (Outside security)
Tagliare (Outside security)Wow Bao (Terminal C)

What lounges are there at DCA?

Unfortunately, DCA doesn’t have many lounges. There are only 4, and they’re all associated with airlines;

By far, the Delta Sky Club is the best lounge in DCA. You will have to be flying same-day with Delta (including having flown into DCA as an option), and be a SkyClub member (which can be met using some AMEX and Delta credit cards).

Other lounges have similar membership requirements, except for the AA Admirals club. You can buy a one-day pass at $59 (soon increasing) without being a member – if you’re flying AA.

Priority Pass members get discounts at some DCA restaurants, such as the American Tap Room.

Right now, PriorityPass is offering up to 25% off yearly memberships. In just two lounge visits, you are already ahead vs. paying for one-time access. Just one if you bring a guest!

DCA Airport Exhibition Hall

My go-to on bad weather days with long sits in DCA is always the Exhibition Hall.

DCA has a surprisingly rich history dating back to President Roosevelt in the late 1930’s.  The Exhibit Hall is located in the corridor connecting Terminal B to Terminal A and, according to the Airport Authority “offers several unique museum-like exhibits including video presentations, a model of the original terminal, memorabilia from the airport’s original dining room and artifacts found during the preservation of the Abingdon Plantation.”

It’s a good place to spend about an hour.

Walking around

There’s plenty of walking to do at the airport, but you’ll have to exit security. There are also a lot of walking paths outside of the airport for those wishing to get some fresh air.

Looking to go from Terminal C to B? AA provides a shuttle from next to gate 36 (C) and 25 (B).

Related: For those laying over in Atlanta (ATL) another time, make sure to read The Ultimate 4-6 Hour ATL Layover Guide (by a Pilot)

The Top 5 Washington-Reagan National Airport (DCA) Layover Activities from the Airport

Gravelly Point is my favorite place to visit in DC - whether on a layover or not.
Bringing my girlfriend from Austria to Gravelly Point on a DCA layover was at the absolute top of my list, especially as an airline pilot.

This is where DCA thrives and absolutely demolishes the competition. There is SO much to do around and super close to the airport. But for now, here are the 5 top accessible and easy layover activities from DCA:

1. Walk to Gravelly Point for a sensational view on airplanes
2. Rent a bike and explore DC or Alexandria
3. Discover the National Mall
4. Go to a (free) world-famous museum
5. Savor a world-famous Georgetown Cupcake
6. Try out Stand Up Paddleboards (SUPs) at The Wharf
7. Delight your taste buds with a fine-dining experience – or enjoy the best food truck food of your life

1. Walk to Gravelly Point for a sensational view on airplanes

About a 15-20 minute walk (on sidewalks/walking paths) is Gravelly Point Park, naturally one of my favorite places in all of DC as a pilot.

This is what I call the “American Maho Beach“, a waterfront park with airplanes passing mere feet overhead on their final turn to land on runway 19 in DCA. Feeling the vibrations of thunderous jets passing overhead is just sensational, truly. It’s the best way to appreciate the wonderful technology that is airliners.

2. Rent a bike and explore DC or Alexandria

There’s literally a BikeShare rack right on property of DCA airport. This is amazing!

The Capital Bikeshare station at DCA just opened and it couldn't be better for a DCA layover.
From flyreagan.com, you can see the Bikeshare station next to the Hourly&Daily C/B garage with direct access to the Mount Vernon Trail

It’s accessible through the Terminal B/C Garage, Level CG (Ground Level). 

You can bike on paved paths via the Mount Vernon Trail starting from the airport and going up to Georgetown, downtown DC, or southbound to Alexandria – and you can’t go wrong with any of them.

3. Discover the National Mall

The National Mall is a great way to get fresh air on a layover in DC.
The National Mall is super accessible, even on a relatively short layover in DCA.

Though you can bike or uber to the National Mall, there is convenient Metro access right at the airport! Just follow signs for the Metro on your way out of the terminal.

Just take the Yellow Line to L’Enfant Plaza, or the Blue Line straight to Smithsonian.

Walk or rest on grassy fields next to iconic monuments like the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. At the eastern end, you can visit the domed U.S. Capitol (even inside with a reservation!). Or, you can join some protest at the White House, just to the north.

The Mall is also flanked by Smithsonian museums, and its lawns and pathways are often filled with school excursions, joggers, and frisbee and soccer games. Nearby, the Tidal Basin reservoir is a great place to see blossoming cherry trees or rent a pedal boat.

4. Go to a (free) world-famous museum

My favorite museum in DC: The Air & Space, with more than enough to see on a layover.
The Air & Space Museum in DC isn’t just my favorite to visit on a DCA layover. It’s the most visited Smithsonian Museum of all! [Photo CC BY-SA3.0: Pedro Szekely]

As mentioned earlier, the Mall is absolutely flanked by free, incredible Smithsonian museums. You’ll likely only have time to visit one – so choose wisely.

My favorite? The Air & Space Museum. Was that even a question?

Other great museums include The Museum of Natural History, National Gallery of Art, and African American History. For those who want to keep warm on a cold day, the Botanical Garden has a wonderful warm and humid tropical section.

5. Savor a world-famous Georgetown Cupcake

Visiting Georgetown Cupcakes is a great DCA layover activity.
There’s a reason the lines get this long. Georgetown Cupcakes are GOOD! Best food on a DCA Layover. [Photo CC BY-2.0: Alison Fayre]

Featured on national TV many, many time, any Georgetown Cupcake is bound to delight your taste buds with incomprehensible joy and flavor.

Georgetown also features a fabulous shopping district and TONS of amazing restaurants. My personal favorite for its price:quality is Clyde’s. You may want to reserve a table.

Use google maps to find a way into Georgetown, as you will have to transfer somewhere on the Metro from the airport.

6. Try out Stand Up Paddleboards (SUPs) at The Wharf

The Wharf's location is super-close and accessible from DCA for the best layover.
The Wharf at sunset. [Photo CC BY-SA4.0: AgnosticPreachersKid]

Although the Anacostia River is no St. Maarten, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by its tree-line shorelines and very hip array of restaurants and bars.

The Wharf is a fun place to spend a couple hours, and whether you rent a SUP, kayak, or just walk around, you’ll have a good time here.

Whether you eat at Mi Vida or Del Mar, you’ll find wonderful Latin flavors and delicious views on the river.

7. Delight your taste buds with a fine-dining experience – or enjoy the best food truck food of your life

Eating at a Washington DC food truck may be the best activity for a DCA layover.
What do to on a DCA layover? There’s something for everyone on a food truck in DC. Photo: Elvert Barnes (CC BY2.0)

I worked one summer as an intern in DC, and much to my delight, the food trucks there are the best you can find. Any food you want – Pakistani, Argentinian, Sudanese – you can find somewhere in DC.

Most of the food trucks I went to were located at L’Enfant Plaza during lunchtime on weekends, but you can find more online.

Alternately, DC is known for its top-notch dining options. Where are politicians supposed to eat otherwise?! Just make sure to reserve ahead!

How quick is security in DCA?

Security lines aren’t the worst, but they could be better. And getting between the terminals either means going through security again or taking a slow, inconvenient bus. 

Luckily, the entire airport is being redesigned in order to enable seamless access between terminals and a more efficient experience.

DCA does offer the new CLEAR system to get you through security, and I’ve never seen a line there – at any airport. CLEAR has a 6 month free trial and is totally included with some credit cards; check with your bank.

What can I do during a layover at DCA?

  • Visit the DCA Exhibition Lounge
  • Walk to Gravelly Point for airplane viewing
  • Rent a bike and explore DC or Alexandria
  • Visit the National Mall and DC Landmarks
  • Go to a world-class Smithsonian museum
  • Savor a Georgetown Cupcake
  • Stand-Up Paddleboards (SUPs) at The Wharf
  • Eat from the best food trucks in the world

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