The DC Suburbs, Ranked
OK, we all know that a large percentage of people who claim to be "from DC" aren’t really from DC. Most actually live in Virginia or Maryland, and head into DC for at least eight hours a day in order to afford our little lives back in the suburbs -- myself included. But if you’re a DC resident who’s finally realized that you can’t really afford to live in the city limits -- or you just want some more room to stretch out and eat nuggets in your underpants, sans roommates -- then your next step is going to be figuring out where you want to live. After all, not all of the DC suburbs are created equal -- so use this guide before you end up renting an apartment in a neighborhood where the Seamless options are limited to a single cow mooing in a nearby field.
15. Rappahannock County
Culture: This really feels like V-I-R-G-I-N-I-A. Horses, tight jeans, cow stalls, long and winding roads. If you grew up in New England and want to retire somewhere relatively warmer, but think Orlando is just too much, Rappahannock is probably your best bet. This is where horse farms and Virginia Wine Country come together.
Transportation: An old, gray horse named Traveller.
Dining: You’ve got more options than you might expect. There are some real gems, but a lot of places seem to be converted grocery stores, or old Bob and Edith's. If you really want to impress, the Inn at Little Washington is the place. This isn’t for the budget-conscious, but for really splurging. They do a three-course meal with an option for wine pairings. If you stay the night, you can see that the restaurant is the first half of an exceptional experience. If you're like me and prefer something simpler with a way more casual vibe, try Mike’s Smokin’ BBQ. If you’re looking for a great piece of brisket and a glass of cold tea, this is the place to be. I usually stop by on my way back from a hike in Luray, but if you’re looking for a quiet spot with friendly people, this is perfect.
14. Loudoun County
Culture: This is where you live if you're a VP at a lower-end Fortune 1000 company based in DC.
Transportation: Four wheels. A Jaguar if you’re on the top, an Audi if you’re climbing, and an American vehicle (Tesla’s excluded) if you’re somewhere in the middle.
Dining: These days, Loudon is about as authentically "rustic" as a Pottery Barn, but on the upside, it has the amenities of Arlington County... and the place is much cleaner, to boot. There’s some seriously good food out here -- try Jules BBQ (yep) or The Pit Stop. There are a lot of farms in the area, so restaurants can easily get their meat locally (and some even do). Just shy away from places that fling around terms like "gourmet" with abandon. While it might mean that the burgers are really good, they’re probably just pricey (hey, Melt!).
13. Charles County
Culture: Historically known as the place where John Wilkes Booth was captured, this is a quieter, cheaper, and cleaner bedroom community of DC. People have townhomes, huge lawns, barbecues, and cookouts (this is the South; learn the difference). Charles County is beautiful, but remote.
Transportation: A friend once got stuck out here after a party and everyone left the next morning while he slept in the bathroom. Being resourceful, the guy walked to Walmart, bought a 10-speed, and pedaled back to DC. Only took two hours.
Dining: Definitely skip the chain restaurants (they’re everywhere) and consider hitting up one of the many old-school diners… or go for the real treat out here, which is seafood. Captain Billy's Crab House is worth the trip. You know you’re in the Mid-Atlantic when blue crabs are on the menu, and this place doesn’t disappoint.
12. Stafford County
Culture: Sometimes, during the daytime, when I'm driving along I-95, I feel like a dramatic chemical accident will happen at Quantico and a horde of zombies will come sprinting down the hills that lead onto the interstate.
Transportation: Toyota Prius. Have you ever had to drive from Falmouth to Tysons Corner?
Dining: If you're down for traditional Italian, try Zibbibo 73 -- it has a great selection of seafood dishes (try the Linguini Pescattore). Also, I like El Gran Charro, with its multiple types of delicious margaritas and Taco Tuesday.
Culture: Most people driving south from DC think this place is made up exclusively of cheap gas stations. But that's not really Fredericksburg, that's just a revenue generator. Go a little further, and you’ll find a sleepy small town, situated on rolling hills, capped by a definition-of-charming small Downtown area. The University of Mary Washington's pretty campus is located here, and there are plenty of older homes, with stories of Virginia’s past still standing -- and some of them are really affordable. The people are nice, and this place is just small enough that strangers will wave at you.
Transportation: Amtrak VRE and a grocery-getter are basically musts.
Dining:Poco Loco has an excellent spicy burger, aside from the Tex-Mex food, and is located in an old tavern house that’s been updated. For a not-so-updated building, try The Tavern (seriously, it's good). It's got a solid bar selection and some great blackened wings.
10. Harpers Ferry
Culture: Yes, this is a suburb of DC... a far-flung one, but still a suburb. Plenty of people commute to and from here every day. Once you reach the town, it's like stepping into a time machine: you can have cheese sticks where John Brown planned his failed raid, and walk up and down winding streets that have been fixed, but not updated, since the 1800s, and feel like you’re anachronistically dressed. When you realize that it’s cool, and everyone else around you is in jeans and polos, go on down to the local pub.
Transportation: Amtrak, river tubes, and a vehicle with four-wheel drive
Dining:The Anvil is pricey but delicious (it makes an amazing great crab dip), or try Potomac Grille. This place has sandwiches bigger than your head, and a great choice of cold beers after a day enjoying the beautiful surroundings.
9. Prince William County
Culture: America, stop naming things after oppressive figures from your past. I don't name my cat The Insecurities of My Father Projected Onto Me. Most notably, the First Battle of Bull Run happened here, so there’s a built-in piece of history right next to a condo development (not literally, but close). Nowadays, this is a legitimate suburb, with shopping centers and quiet cul-de-sac neighborhoods.
Transportation: Amtrak, VRE, one of every SUV in the land
Dining: While there’s definitely no lack of chain restaurants in this area -- you’ll find plenty of Red Lobsters and Olive Gardens -- there are some great local spots, too. For stand-out Thai, try Mum Mum: the place feels very sleek and cool, and the shrimp are perfect. I also like The Philadelphia Tavern for its rustic feel, and you need to try the wings and waffle bites. I dare you to eat fewer than 10 of them.
8. Fauquier County
Culture: This place is peaceful: it’s surrounded by rolling hills and horse farms. Literally everyone I know from here knows how to ride a horse... not well, but better than I can. This is definitely not NOVA, but rather, true Virginia: think historical reenactments, prized pigs, and a colonial feel to the Downtown area. Everything is spread out, but everyone knows everyone around here.
Transportation: Stutz Bearcat to the weekend auto show.
Dining: For breakfast, I can attest that Hidden Julles Cafe has powerful coffee and several ways to make an eggs Benedict. I’m a fan of the Julles Bene (smoked salmon, hollandaise, capers), but you should probably be bold, ignore your arteries’ cries for help, and go for the Monte Cristo. For dinner, visit Claire's at the Depot. The menu isn’t full of endless options, but it does have 15 things it does excellently. I’m not usually an appetizer person, so I go straight to the rib-eye. If you’re an apps person, the coconut shrimp is the truth.
7. Falls Church
Culture: I'm unsure how this place exists as its own city. Do they have naked pictures of Fairfax getting it on with Prince William County on a houseboat in the Potomac? This place is nestled between Fairfax County and Arlington County, and somehow maintains its own feel. It’s pretty small, too -- you could probably jog around the border in 90 minutes. There are small bungalows, one-story ramblers, older Tudors, and everyone seems to have a basement woodshop/rec room.
Transportation: Four-door Volvo wagon if you're smart. Metro, too (but did you know neither of the stations with "Falls Church" in their name are *in* Falls Church?).
Dining: As we’ve explored in depth, Eden Center is both wonderful and overwhelming. It would likely help to know what to get if you knew Vietnamese, but if you’re an English-only speaker, everyone here is professional and wants to help you. Try the banh mi at Cafe Trung Nguyen, which is both excellent and cash-only, so come prepared. When you’re done and need a cold beer, check out the Spacebar. This is the fancy little brother of Arlington’s Galaxy Hut. It's got a fantastic collection of drafts and a vegetarian-focused menu. You can get meat stuff, but the menu is friendly to all eaters (and drinkers).
6. Frederick County
Culture: This further-flung commuter community serves Baltimore as well as DC. In feel, it’s close to Old Town Alexandria, with an older and historic Downtown, and a surrounding area that has newer developments. I think the people who do this place right have a townhouse and a little yard, and live near one of the many parks or golf courses. This is a great place to live as long as you don’t have to use 270 outside of commuting.
Transportation: MARC, I-270. Good luck!
Dining: One of the Voltaggio brothers opened a restaurant here a while back: the menu is fantastic, and loaded with different fresh ingredients that are prepared in semi-unusual ways... think grilled romaine with cashews and rockfish. So you should probably go, get a good bite to eat, and sneak a peek at a Top Chef contestant. Frederick Wine House, as you might expect, has a great selection of wine, but it also has a really good array of beers, including a tasting room. The staff is also really friendly and will help you find something that appeals to you.
5. Montgomery County
Culture: Started from the top, now we stayin' at the top! Between Bethesda, Glen Echo, Gaithersburg, and Takoma Park, there's a diverse sampling of upwardly mobile people: this is a modern-feeling area in a region surrounded by history. While it’s a great place to live, I wish they would preserve the more unique parts of the area rather than renovating everywhere. If you leave the main Downtown area, there are beautiful colonial and Tudor-style homes, but if you want to live Downtown, a lot of the places have been made depressingly modern.
Transportation: MARC, Metro (though on the Red Line, you need alternatives like the J2, J3, etc. from the transit center). Cute bicycles for the kids.
Dining: If you went and explored a restaurant every day for a year, you'd still have plenty of spots left over. I like Rincon Peruano, but if you wander away from the ceviche, you’re doing yourself a disservice. This is one of those meals that’ll leave you feeling lighter than when you came into the restaurant, but still satisfied. For something completely different, the most powerful margaritas of my life were had at Gringos & Mariachis. The brunch is fantastic, with a poblano Benedict that’ll cure everything inside of you.
4. Fairfax County
Culture: A million people live here, and it feels like it. If you’re young, the cops will chase you for skateboarding. If you're old, you're worried about schools and property taxes. This is one of the largest, most diverse, and most economically powerful regions in Virginia. Dignitaries from Eritrea will live a few blocks from a self-made entrepreneur from El Salvador. All the while, it seems like everyone here has a security clearance and is also working on their second Master’s degree. There’s also a side of Fairfax where large families live in smaller, older neighborhoods… but for the most part, it feels like everyone here is hustling.
Transportation: Amtrak, VRE, Metro
Dining: Fairfax has more than its fair share of chain restaurants… which is fine, because sometimes a Bloomin’ Onion and an Outback rib-eye is all you really need. But there’s some seriously good food worth visiting this county for: Sisters Thai is killer. Order the Garlic Lover, but don’t expect anyone to want to hang out around you after. Or check out Bebop, a Korean-Mexican grill -- the chicken taco with spicy kim chi is excellent. Really, the best part of dining in Fairfax is that due to the area’s diversity, you can almost certainly find both the food you grew up with (no matter where you were raised), and dishes you’ve never even heard of before (ditto).
3. Arlington County
Culture: The county has three distinct regions that fulfill different purposes: North Arlington is now the business center; the Ballston-to-Rosslyn corridor has high-rises, universities, tons of bars & restaurants, and a mix of housing (most of which isn’t too affordable); and South Arlington is the highway community that Arlington used to be. The people who live here enjoy that their neighborhoods are relatively quiet (except during rush hour), and that the community is diverse. Really, South Arlington (Pentagon City/Aurora Heights) is the kangaroo pouch of the Pentagon and DC proper -- a lot of people who live in the Aurora Heights neighborhood have been here or decades, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a valley within the Beltway that’s quiet, but near everything. A little higher on the hill are homes of some VIP types, but I’m not about to compliment them on getting the best views of the city.
Transportation: Metro/bus, Ca-Bi, Car2Go. North Arlington is the neighborhood that the Orange Line built, while Columbia Pike is re-inventing itself on 1950s infrastructure. There was almost a streetcar, but now they’re moving toward Bus Rapid Transit.
Dining: Go to Texas Jack’s for the brisket, and some of the best nachos in the area. For a laid-back atmosphere and solid eats, check out the veggie dogs and beers at Galaxy Hut. They’ve also got several arcade games that function as tabletops. In South Arlington, hit up Lost Dog Cafe for some of the best sandwiches available. The pizza’s great, but ask them to make the crust a little crispy, because it seems like it’s homemade, so it might not be as uniform as you’re used to. If you want entertainment, then Arlington Drafthouse is a solid go-to. Headlining comedians show up regularly, it also has dollar movie nights, and it will regularly air large sporting events for free (so earmark this for the Olympics). In really-South Arlington, Freddie’s Beach Bar is one of the best. It’s small, but for the ambiance, the heavy-pouring staff, karaoke, and Drag Bingo, it can’t be beat.
2. Prince George's County
Culture: This is actually a more representative portion of the diversity in Maryland. There are hidden gems, like Bowie and Mitchellville; older neighborhoods like Hyattsville; and great access to the beaches on Maryland’s shore. If you live here, you have a serious head start on anyone who’s going to Dewey Beach. There’s a lot more green space once you get away from 495, so you don’t feel like you live in a concrete jungle. Also, it doesn’t hurt that it’s cheaper to live here than in Montgomery County. The only real downside is that hurricane season leaves you a little more vulnerable.
Transportation: Amtrak, VRE, I-95, I-495. Everything going through DC basically leads through this county, so if you're heading anywhere further northeast, you have multiple transportation options.
Dining: PG County is the place to visit for a Caribbean fix. The Caribbean Palace is my default -- while plantains are more and more available everywhere, I just need oxtail every few months. They’ll also make pikliz for some of the dishes, because who doesn’t love a spicy cabbage? And if you’re going to Baltimore to see the O's play, but need a bit to eat, and you’re not in the mood for stadium dogs, try Ya Mon Island Grill. They’ve got the traditional curry and jerk-spice foods that are hot, but don’t linger. A ginger beer to wash it down, and you’ll be perfect.
Culture: This place feels like someone opened an Apple Store inside an apothecary: it’s packed with a mix of 30-somethings and octogenarians, which is kinda charming. There are a lot of new families riding tandem bikes, senior citizens trying (not?) to hit them, and what seems like a farmers market on every corner. There’s a ton of history here, but it doesn’t feel old. It feels properly preserved. This is a great place to just walk around. Whether you’re with friends or family, this is a place to sink your claws into, and never let go if you can.
Transportation: Amtrak, VRE, Metro, Ca-Bi ( and great bike infrastructure). Be careful if you’re biking, though, because an old lady is about to hit you with her Jaguar. Wear a helmet.
Dining: Old Town offers a really remarkable mix of higher-end and more accessible fare... it’s genuinely some of the best food on the Eastern Seaboard. While you’re here, check out Virtue Feed & Grain, which does a lot of farm-to-table stuff, including offal, if that’s your jam. And if you haven’t been, stop by Bilbo Baggins, a tavern with a great beer selection and fantastic food. There’s a slight Lord of the Rings theme going here, but don’t worry, no one dressed as an Ent is going to serve you wings. Also, you’re going to want to stop by Del Ray and visit Evening Star, which focuses on American classics. It has one of the best apple pies I’ve ever had from a restaurant. RT’s Restaurant is also worth making a special trip for: it has a great creole menu, including crab etouffée, jambalaya pasta, and trout Orleans (ask for a whole fish if you can, eyes and all).
Sign up here for our daily DC email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.