Parking in DC is a tricky thing—there are no sure bets. In fact, many times I have told Sterling that I would be so happy if there was a spot always reserved for me in DC. But since that is never likely to happen, let me tell you what we do to find a spot to put our car into.
My first choice is always to park right on the Mall where there is free three-hour parking on Madison or Jefferson Drive. Your best bet for parking in these spots, though, is to get there early. The parking here is open from 10:00 am to 1:00 am. What I usually do is plan to get there at about 9:00ish, in order to get one of these free spots—believe me they fill up FAST. I know, I know, you’re thinking, “but that’s way before 10:00”, and you’re right. So I bring books to read to my kids, or have them bring books, and we have a little bit of reading time in the car. Or we get out and run around right near the car until the magical hour of 10:00 strikes. Once the clock strikes 10:00, we’re off for three hours.
If you miss one of these spots, my next choice is either the metered parking on the Mall (this metered parking is on the roads that run perpendicular to Madison and Jefferson Dr. and some other side streets—and allows you to park for two hours once you feed the meter with coins or pay by credit card. Signing up for the parking app is really easy, and makes parking at the meters super easy.). If you don’t find a spot there, there is also two-hour metered parking on Constitution Ave starting at 15th street heading toward the mall. Constitution Ave also has free three-hour parking before you get to 15th Street (so the streets higher than 15th), and I often park here. It is a little further walk, depending on where we are going, but we enjoy the exercise (or at least I do ☺). The parking on Constitution Ave opens up at 9:30 am. Before 9:30, that lane is for traffic—so sometimes it is a little scary to park there right at 9:30—I speak from experience. In the afternoon, at 4:00 pm, this lane again becomes open to traffic.
If you arrive later in the day, it’s always worth taking a chance to see if there are any openings in any of these above-mentioned spots. We’ll circle around, and sometimes someone will be pulling out. If you’re there in the springtime, or on a beautiful day, you may have no luck though.
If we’re prepared for a bit of walking, and plan to spend the whole day in DC, I’ll just find a parking garage. It’s about $20+, but most of the free parking is limited to only two or three hours. Sometimes they will ticket you if you are there for longer. A note about the parking garages, most are not right near the museums so be prepared for a walk.
If we bring our bikes, or are up for a walk, we’ll park out at East Potomac Park/Hains Point on Ohio Drive. There you can get free parking with no time restrictions.
So, there are definitely multiple options, but sometimes you have to drive around for a while. I remember one afternoon of a beautiful fall day, we were going to the National Book Festival, and after Sterling dropped us off, he drove around for an hour looking for a spot. He finally found a spot on one of the side streets near the Red Cross building—off of Constitution. He just finally got lucky. So there is no great solution—but generally the earlier you are there, the better. Also, we have never really had problems finding a spot in the evenings, once the museums have closed, when we’re there to see the memorials.
Here’s a link for some parking info for parking at or near the Smithsonian Museums. There are actually many more parking garages than noted on the map, most of them north of the Mall.