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The Capital and the Center of the Universe

The Capital and the Center of the Universe

New York City was one of my first travel loves. I made my maiden voyage there in the summer of 2004, when I was just 19. Though I had neither the knowledge nor the funds to explore the city in anything approaching a comprehensive way, my trip planted a seed.

Washington, DC took much longer. In fact, I didn’t visit our nation’s capital until I was 30! Which ended up being appropriate: It immediately came across as much more of a “grown-up” city than its wild big sister I-95.

My comparison of NYC vs DC isn’t meant to pit these cities against one another, per se. But it is meant to draw some contrasts—and, more importantly, to help you decide which one is more your speed.

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I Loved NYC First—But Do I Love DC More?

As I approach the topic of NYC or DC, I have two decades of travel experience to consider. After all, neither of the trips I outlined in the intro to this piece were my last to either city. In fact, I was last in NYC less than two years ago! Because of this proximity, it’s tempting to think—it’s tempting for me to think, even—that I would prefer New York, almost by default. But it’s not that simple. 

To be sure, although I have enough money now not to need a New York bus charter to get there, the reality is that I’ve consciously passed up dozens of opportunities to return to NYC over the years. Conversely, although the Trump years and the pandemic made it unlikely that I would fulfill my erstwhile dream of spending my 30s in DC, I do sometimes fantasize about what a life on Dupont Circle would look like.

New York City

Ways to Compare NYC with DC

Things to do

Obviously both New York and DC are packed with attractions, albeit of a very different sort. In NYC everything is larger than life, whether you’re looking down Manhattan’s avenues from The Top of the Rock, folding a slice of pizza to fit it in your mouth or marveling at the scope of the five boroughs from the Statue of Liberty. DC’s historical scale is impressive—you can almost feel the ghosts of dead presidents tapping on your shoulder as you look across the Reflecting Pool from the Lincoln Memorial—but let’s face it: This is apples and oranges.


It would be tempting to say that there’s no contest between New York or DC when it comes to the dining scene. New York famously bills itself the “center of the universe,” so whether in Little Italy, Chinatown or any of the countless ethnic neighborhoods from the Bronx to Flushing, Queens, you can eat anything you can eat anywhere else on the planet in NY. On the other hand,DC compensates for quantity with quality. Whether you’re eating easy Ethiopian or fine French, these restaurants literally have to please world leaders!


As someone who up until a few years ago was a de-facto budget traveler, neither of these cities wins any points for me on the accommodation front. While both have a wide array of some of the best luxury hotels in the world for tourists without budgetary concerns, the reality is that normal people have extremely limited options. My favorite phrase is that you should expect to pay more than you can afford for a property that’s worse than you would accept in any other city.

Ease of getting around

As is the case on the macro level, the micro level of transport, comparing Washington DC or NYC, is a question of scale. The NYC Subway certainly has more stations and lines, to the extent that you can theoretically get from one point anywhere in the city center to anywhere else in the city center without having to walk or take a taxi. This is true, but the DC Metro is nothing to sneeze at—it’s among the best in the US. It stations are also arguably works of art, while many of NYC’s feel like actual trash dumps.


As I foreshadowed in the section about hotels, both NYC and DC are extremely expensive, and are poor value to boot. Most travelers will pay a bare minimum of 100 USD per person, per day—many will pay much more than that—simply to have a roof over their heads and to eat during their time in the city. If price is a major issue for you (and no judgment on that front; as I said, I was a backpacker until a few years ago), you should probably choose a different city, or country. Thailand is nice, I hear.

Washington, DC

How Many Days Do You Need in NYC? What About Washington DC?

New York City is one of the largest and most populous cities in the world, but you don’t need to spend a lifetime there to get a feel for it. Additional to this truth is the fact that you will probably go back many times. As a result, spending 3-5 days in NYC if it’s your first time (you can spend fewer days each time you go back) should be more than enough to tick the basics off your bucket list.

DC is much smaller, and in spite of having the largest concentration of political power in the world, feels much less overwhelming. In fact, a weekend is plenty of time to take a White House tour, or enjoy a panorama from the Washington Monument, or even to visit many of the District’s top museums. So when it comes to the question of time required for Washington DC or New York City, I’d recommend choosing DC if you don’t have a ton of time to spare.

Other FAQ About Visiting DC or NYC

Which is better, DC or New York?

DC vs New York is the picture of apples vs. oranges, and of different strokes for different folks. I recommend NYC if you’ve got a long time and are craving an eclectic, fast-paced trip. DC is a better choice, meanwhile, if you maybe only have a couple of days and want to focus on the quality of your experiences, rather than the quantity of them you can enjoy.

Is NYC or DC more expensive?

Both DC and New York are among the most expensive cities in the world. While it’s technically possible to survive in each city on as little as 100 USD per person, per day, I’d say you should plan on spending double or even maybe triple that, assuming you want to remain comfortable. 

Is NY bigger than DC?

New York City is much bigger than Washington, DC, both in terms of population and land area, even—especially—when you consider the wider metro area. Nearly 19 million people spread out over 13,300 square miles call the NYC area home; DC occupies less than half the real estate of NYC and houses just 5.5 million people, as of 2024.

The Bottom Line

The NYC vs DC debate is an age-old one, and not an easy one to resolve. The optimal outcome, of course, is that you will be able to visit both of these cities. Over the long term, this is possible and even likely, depending on where in the world you live and how much time you have to travel each year. However, in the short term, I’d suggest approaching your decisions like this. While New York City is a perfect destination for a fast-paced, eclectic trip that’s heavy on sightseeing and maybe low on sleep, DC is better for a lighter schedule and a more relaxed pace. Need more personalized, detailed advice? Consider hiring me as your Travel Coach!


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