(Redirected from Washington, D.C)
Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States of America and the seat of its three branches of government, has an unparalleled collection of free, public museums, and the lion's share of the nation's most treasured monuments and memorials. The vistas on the National Mall between the Capitol, Washington Monument, White House, and Lincoln Memorial are iconic throughout the world.
Beyond the Mall, D.C. has in the past two decades shed its old reputation as a city both boring and dangerous, with shopping, dining, and nightlife befitting a world-class metropolis. Travelers will find the city new, exciting, and decidedly cosmopolitan and international.
Virtually all of D.C.'s tourists flock to the Mall—a two-mile long, beautiful stretch of parkland that holds many of the city's monuments and Smithsonian museums—but the city itself is a vibrant metropolis that often has little to do with monuments, politics, or white, neoclassical buildings. The Smithsonian is a "can't miss," but don't trick yourself—you haven't really been to D.C. until you've been out and about the city.
| Downtown (The National Mall, East End, West End, Waterfront)|
The center of it all: The National Mall, D.C.'s main theater district, Smithsonian and non-Smithsonian museums galore, fine dining, Chinatown, the Verizon Center, the Convention Center, the central business district, the White House, West Potomac Park, the Kennedy Center, George Washington University, the beautiful Tidal Basin, and the new Nationals Park.
| North Central (Dupont Circle, Shaw, Adams Morgan-Columbia Heights)|
D.C.'s trendiest and most diverse neighborhoods and destination number one for live music and clubbing, as well as loads of restaurants, Howard University, boutique shopping, beautiful embassies, Little Ethiopia, jazz on U Street, and lots of nice hotels.
| West (Georgetown, Upper Northwest)|
The prestigious, wealthy side of town, home to the historic village of Georgetown with its energetic nightlife, colonial architecture, Georgetown University, and fine dining; the National Zoo; the massive National Cathedral; bucolic Dumbarton Oaks; the bulk of D.C.'s high-end shopping; more Embassy Row; American University; and several nice dining strips.
| East (Capitol Hill, Northeast, Anacostia)|
Starting at the Capitol Building and Library of Congress, and fanning out past grandiose Union Station and the historic Capitol Hill neighborhood, to the less often visited neighborhoods by Gallaudet and Catholic University, historic African-American Anacostia, D.C.'s "Little Vatican" around the National Shrine, the huge National Arboretum, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, offbeat nightlife in the Atlas District, and a handful of other eccentric neighborhoods to explore.
Washington, D.C., is a city borne of politics, by politics, and for politics. It wasn't the first national capital: Baltimore, Lancaster, York, Annapolis, Trenton, and even New York City all tried their hand at hosting the national government. For a time, it seemed like Philadelphia would stake a claim as home to the federal government; however, Congress soured on the "Cradle of Liberty" after disaffected American soldiers, with the tacit sanction of the Pennsylvania government, chased its members out of the city to Princeton. That incident made clear that the nation's capital would need to be independent from the then-powerful state governments and that the southern states would refuse to accept a northern capital.
Three of the nation's founding fathers, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, agreed in 1790 to a compromise location for a new national capital on largely uninhabited land along the Potomac River in the Mid-Atlantic. The exact location was left up to George Washington, who carved a diamond-shaped federal district out of land donated by the states of Maryland and Virginia, which just so happened to be near his plantation at Mount Vernon. The new territory also included two existing settlements: Georgetown, on the Maryland side of the Potomac, and Alexandria, Virginia, at the district's southern tip.
That which we call a District by any other...
Washington, D.C., is known to locals as simply D.C. or the District, and it is rare to hear it called anything else. Locals usually use the name Washington to refer to the national government and the political world, rather than the city itself. The full title Washington, D.C., and the official name, District of Columbia, are rarely used by non-bureaucrats unless the speaker is trying to clearly distinguish the city from the state.
The French-born architect Pierre L'Enfant was charged with planning a new federal city located on the north side of the Potomac, next to Georgetown. L'Enfant's plan, modeled after some of the leading cities in Europe, envisioned large parks and wide streets, including a grand boulevard connecting the "President's House" to the Capitol building. However, L'Enfant was a bit of an eccentric and he fought bitterly with the commissioners appointed to supervise the capital's construction. President Washington ultimately dismissed L'Enfant, but the problems didn't end there. Issues with financing and a lack of skilled craftsmen slowed the construction of the city. The commissioners ultimately relied on African slaves lent from nearby plantations to complete construction. The federal government finally moved to the federal city in 1800, which by then had been named Washington, in honor of its founder (though he still preferred to call it the "Federal City").
British forces invaded the city during the War of 1812, burning and gutting the Capitol, Treasury, and White House. And things didn't get much better for the new national capital. When he founded the city, President Washington originally thought that a flourishing trade would help support the capital, but the idea was short-lived. The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal was built in 1831 to move goods from the western territories all the way to Georgetown, where they could then be loaded onto ships. However, the canal was unable to compete with the new and more efficient Baltimore & Ohio railroad. Alexandria suffered disproportionately, since the government's plans favored the port at Georgetown and all government buildings were, by law, built in the City of Washington. The economic stagnation, combined with fears that the federal government would ban Alexandria's thriving slave trade (and it eventually did), caused Congress to return all the District's land originally donated by Virginia. The 1846 "retrocession", as it is now known, spoiled the city's fine diamond shape, leaving only the land originally donated by Maryland under federal control.
Washington's compromise location on the border of North and South proved precarious during the Civil War. Caught between Confederate Virginia on one side of the Potomac, and southern sympathizers in surrounding Maryland, President Lincoln established a network of forts surrounding the capital. As the center of war operations for the Union, government workers, soldiers, and runaway slaves flooded into the city. Despite the city's growth, Washington still had dirt roads and lacked basic sanitation. After the war, some members of Congress suggested moving the capital further west, but President Ulysses S. Grant refused to consider such a proposal.
In 1871, Congress created a new territorial government for the whole District of Columbia charged with modernizing the capital. Sewers and gas lines were installed, streets were paved, and the town was transformed into a modern metropolis. However, the high cost of the initiative (and alleged cronyism) ultimately bankrupted the District government and later public works projects could not keep up with the city's growing population. By the early 1900s, L'Enfant's vision of a grand national capital had become marred by slums and randomly placed buildings, including a railroad station on the National Mall. A plan enacted by Congress in 1901 beautified Washington's ceremonial core, re-landscaping the Capitol grounds and the National Mall, clearing slums, and establishing a new city-wide park system, finally developing the city into L'Enfant's intended grand design. The New Deal spending of the 1930s led to the construction of even more federal buildings, memorials, and museums. Government activity only increased with the coming of World War II and the city hasn't looked back since.
D.C.'s culture is in no small part defined by a divide between black and white, native and transient, as well as cultural diversity from around the world. Compared to other cities, relatively few residents are native Washingtonians. Most recent census figures report that about 50% of the population has relocated in the past five years. The transient population is overwhelmingly professional, young, white, affluent, and highly educated—drawn to the city for its government-related work and booming economy. This is in stark contrast to the local African-American population, which has deep roots in the community, and much more socioeconomic diversity—some areas of the city rank among the nation's poorest, most alienated, and underprivileged, plagued with serious problems in the public schools and violent housing projects.
D.C., a.k.a the Chocolate City, was for the last half-century a solidly majority-black city, and has long been a national center of African-American culture. It was the first black-majority city in the country, and until the 1920s (when it was surpassed by New York) D.C. was home to the largest black population of any city. The famous U Street Corridor was known as Black Broadway, with native Washingtonian Duke Ellington performing in the clubs up and down the street. The District was long an attractive destination for African Americans leaving the South, as it was both nearby and a bastion of tolerance and progressivism in race relations, being the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the first city in the country to integrate its public schools. D.C. is also home to Howard University, one of the nation's most important historically black colleges. While Washington is no longer a strictly majority-black city, the persisting influence of African American culture upon D.C.'s identity cannot be overstated in the popular consciousness, the city government, local sports, popular and high culture, and, above all, the local intellectual and philosophical movements.
P Funk on D.C.
We didn't get our forty acres and a mule,
The sometimes uncomfortable blend of the semi-transient professional population and permanent residents is often the source of controversy, especially as D.C. has been experiencing a wave of neighborhood rebuilding and "gentrification." Young professionals with tight budgets and distaste for long daily commutes have, in recent years, been driven to move into poorer neighborhoods in search of low rent and easy access to city amenities. But while there is inevitably some conflict around neighborhood change, these changes have also created D.C.'s most diverse, culturally vibrant, and exciting neighborhoods—just walk up U St or 18th St in Shaw or Adams Morgan, and you'll see that it's not a vain hope that the city's various cultures can come together to create something greater.
D.C., and particularly the metro area beyond the city limits, is impressively international. In the immediate metro area a whopping one third of the population is foreign born. The biggest immigrant group is no doubt from Central America, mostly from El Salvador. Latino culture finds its home in the city in Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights—both neighborhoods where you'll find all the various cultures of the city intermingling. D.C. also has a big African immigrant population, with an exceptionally large Ethiopian community (the second largest in the world after Addis Ababa), which has bestowed the city with a love for Ethiopian food, and which finds its urban center in D.C.'s own Little Ethiopia. The international culture extends well beyond the immigrant communities, though, to the big foreign professional population, as well as the brain drain of Americans from all around the country looking for work in the international relations field—D.C. is, simply put, the nation's most international town.
Local politics, and local anger at the relations between the city and the national government, are perhaps the glue that binds all Washingtonians together. The District of Columbia is under the ultimate control of the U.S. Congress. Since 1973, District residents have been able to elect a Mayor as well as representatives to the D.C. Council. However, Congress retains the right to overturn laws passed by the city. The over 630,000 citizens residing in the city do not have voting representation in Congress because the District is not a "state." As a reminder to visitors that D.C. residents are taxed but are unable to vote for Congress, District license plates bear the slogan "Taxation Without Representation"—the same slogan used to denounce British rule before the Revolutionary War.
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D.C.'s climate has a bad reputation, the city having supposedly been built on a swamp with the purpose of discouraging a large bureaucracy—after all, if no one wanted to live in D.C., then there wouldn't be too many bureaucrats.
This is all a huge crock. There was no swamp here, and the weather is actually quite lovely throughout the year. The myth of bad weather in the capital comes from the fact that most visit at the height of the summer, when the pleasure of relatively moderate temperatures is completely drowned out by the miserable, impenetrable humidity. On a hot day on the Mall in July, you'll sweat like a dog, the kids will complain incessantly, and you'll want to spend as much time indoors as possible. It's not the best time to visit.
But the rest of the year is lovely. It's hard to beat spring in D.C. The northerly subtropical climate results in cool breezes, moderate temperatures, lush growth, flowers, budding trees, and, of course, the cherry blossoms. The most beautiful time of spring usually falls from April to mid-May. Domestic tourists know this, though, and you can expect the cherry blossom walk around the Tidal Basin to see (pedestrian) traffic jams that put the Beltway to shame. (A truly savvy tourist can escape the crowds but still enjoy the cherry blossoms at the National Arboretum.)
Fall rivals spring for perfect temperatures. It's also a lovely time for a walk in Rock Creek Park, where the dense forest bursts with multicolored confetti. Winter sees few tourists, but it's actually a great time to visit. While it's less attractive in December, the Gulf Stream ensures that the temperatures remain mild, with very sporadic snow. But the best thing about the season is that the museums are practically empty, and theater season is in full force.
It's worth considering the political climate as well. Before heading to D.C., research which events will coincide with your visit. Major international conferences, political events, or protests can hinder your sightseeing tour in dramatic fashion and also send lodging prices through the roof. The holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year's is a much calmer time to visit, when the U.S. Congress takes its extended vacation. This means fewer official visitors, elected officials, and staff members; the Metro becomes less crowded and there are overall fewer people in the city.
Washingtonians are avid readers, and not just of the news—each Metro car at rush hour is a veritable library. Nonetheless, there is little "D.C. literature" to speak of. The city's culture has always been overshadowed by national politics, and those looking for local flavor will find political works: political chronicles, political histories, political hot air, political historical fiction, and of course political thrillers.
- Henry Adams' Democracy is President John Quincy Adams' grandson's satirical send-up of the moral morass that is politics. (Things haven't changed in the 120 years since he wrote it.) Almost certainly President Rutherford B Hayes' least favorite book, this remains a great read two centuries later.
- Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol sold one million copies on the first day it was published, so it's fair to assume that this 2009 book by the author of the Da Vinci Code could become the most famous D.C. work of fiction of all time. It's a mad chase of arcane conspiracies around D.C.'s Masonic Temple, National Cathedral, Smithsonian, Washington Monument, and every darkest nook and narrowest cranny of the Capitol Building.
- John Grisham's The Pelican Brief. Intrigue, corruption, and homicide on the Supreme Court, and some good chases around the capital city in one of Grisham's most famous thrillers. Republicans may get an unfair portrayal, but this is a good page turner.
- George Pelecanos' Sweet Forever. Pelecanos is one of D.C.'s most rare authors—one who knows the city beyond the politics, in and out, and uses it extensively and effectively as the backdrop for some amazing mysteries. In this one, detective Nick Stefanos investigates a drug-related murder on 1980s U St, leading him into a maze of basketball, dirty cops, the beginnings of the local crack empire, underground music, a thoroughly corrupt mayor's office, and all-around grit in a dangerous city.
- Ron Suskin's Hope in the Unseen and The One Percent Doctrine are both political, but about very different sides of Washington. The former chronicles the experiences of Cedric Jennings from his nightmarish Ballou High School in Anacostia to the Ivy League. The One Percent Doctrine, on the other hand, is an inside look at the run up to the Iraq War, predicated on the infamous one-percent doctrine coined in the wake of 9/11 by then-Vice President Dick Cheney.
- Gore Vidal's Lincoln. America's legendary master of political historical fiction turns his pen on the Lincoln Oval Office, bringing the administration's central figures to life in a way that no biography could. Vidal is famous for his lack of charity to beloved national figures, but even his sharp pen can't quite tarnish the nation's greatest.
- Bob Woodward's All the President's Men is perhaps the nation's single most famous political chronicle: the story of the investigative journalism that unearthed the Watergate Scandal and led to the impeachment and political demise of President Nixon. Woodward remains a huge influence in Washington, particularly due to his eminently readable insider accounts of the workings of the Bush Administration. Bush at War and Plan of Attack stand out. The first is a chronicle of the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent decision to invade Afghanistan, and the second addresses the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
In addition to the above, a trip to D.C. is a good time to pick up a presidential biography or two. Favorites include:
- Arthur Schlesinger's A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House is the most famous account of the JFK presidency. Biased, certainly, but it's hard to beat an account by a Harvard historian turned special advisor who was there in the Oval Office to see every decision being made.
- Stephen Oates' Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin Luther King isn't closely associated with the city, but this is a great inspirational read to keep in mind on the Mall, thinking of his I Have a Dream speech.
- Lou Cannon's Ronald Reagan: the Role of a Lifetime is one of the few mature Reagan biographies that is neither a tribute nor an attack, written about his years in office by the inner-circle chronicler who knew him best.
- Frank Friedel's Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny. FDR's presidency was so influential, and just plain long, that it's difficult to find good one-volume biographies—look no further than this definitive work.
- Joseph Ellis' His Excellency: George Washington. A Washington biography is an obvious reading choice on a trip to his namesake city, as his story is the story of the founding of both the nation and the capital (and his estate is an easy day trip outside the city). Ellis' account is very travel-friendly—accessible, humanist, and mercifully short.
There is no end to the list of films set in D.C., as the nation's capital provides the essential backdrop to just about every political thriller and practically every alien invasion or other disaster movie set in the U.S. There are a proud few, though, that stand out either for their creation of national myths or for having actually captured something of the real culture of the city.
- The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) is a rare film in that it is both unmistakably Washingtonian and entirely unrelated to politics. It's best remembered for terrifying audiences with a story uncomfortably plausible to those raised in the Catholic Church. Formidable evil forces and equally formidable Jesuits collide in the struggle for the soul of a young girl living in Georgetown, in a tale where the modern humanist world quivers in the face of the ancient and the mystical.
- In the Line of Fire (Wolfgang Petersen, 1993): How do you make a D.C. political thriller stand out among all the rest? Simple: Clint Eastwood is the Secret Service agent, and John Malkovich is the psychopathic assassin. If you intend to watch, you should also plan to add the legendary Old Ebbit Grille to your dining itinerary.
- The More the Merrier (George Stevens, 1943): A goofy romantic comedy, widely hailed as one of the best of its kind, set in WWII-era D.C., amidst the acute housing shortage faced by war workers, soldiers and other travelers during WWII.
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939) is the defining American myth of the ability of political idealism to stand up for the people against entrenched political interests and corruption, and, just maybe, to win. Nary a cynic remains tearless through Jimmy Stewart's defining performance. The movie is shown outdoors on the National Mall nearly every summer for Screen on the Green.
- A Few Good Men (Tom Cruise, 1992): A dynamic Navy JAG attorney blends two D.C. professions often overlooked beneath the glow of the Capitol Dome. As LT Daniel Kaffee, Tom Cruise realizes that his Naval service is more than just a resume bullet as he defends two Marines charged with murder. From the Navy Yard to a seedy New York Avenue motel to the leafy streets of gentrified Adams Morgan, this film gives Washington, D.C. an honest portrayal. More importantly, the story is a window into the idealism of many young D.C. transplants who move to town in search of a chance to change lives for the better.
- All the President's Men (Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards; 1976): An unflattering and historically accurate portrayal of the events surrounding the Watergate scandal and the subsequent investigation by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward (Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Hoffman)
- The Nine Lives of Marion Barry (2009) is an HBO documentary that takes a look at Washington during its boom-and-bust period under the city's most infamous local politician, four-term mayor Marion Barry. The film provides a balanced and unique insight that is necessary to truly understand America's capital, including the areas dismissed by most visitors to the city.
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (IATA: DCA) is the closest and most convenient airport to D.C., located three miles to the south in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River. However, it can only serve destinations in the United States. International service is limited to airports in Canada and the Caribbean that allow U.S. customs preclearance. In addition, airspace and runway restrictions restrict the number of long-haul flights available at Reagan, especially to the nation's west coast.
To get to D.C. from the airport:
- Metro's Blue and Yellow Lines stop at the airport. The trip to downtown takes approximately fifteen minutes and costs approximately $2.
- Taxi service costs about $15 to downtown.
Washington Dulles International Airport (IATA: IAD, ICAO: KIAD) is located 26 miles west of D.C. in Sterling, Virginia and serves as D.C.'s primary international and intercontinental airport. The main terminal is an architectural masterpiece, with a curved roof that arcs gracefully into air, suspended over a huge open ticketing and check-in area. Unfortunately some functionality was scrapped in pursuit of aesthetics—the layout is confusing, with lots of lengthy corridors and long escalators, and you will have to take a train between the main building and the concourses. It's worth giving yourself a little extra time just to find your way around. Many carriers serve the airport, which serves as an East Coast hub for United Airlines.
If you have extra time to kill at Dulles, consider taking the VRTA Air and Space Museum Shuttle to see the Smithsonian Museum's collection of spacecraft and aircraft fifteen minutes away in Chantilly. The shuttle departs every 45–60 minutes 10AM-5:30PM daily, costing 50¢. (A taxi to the museum runs about $15).
Ground transportation options (buses, shuttles, and taxis) are available from the curb outside the baggage claim level of the Main Terminal. To get to D.C. from the airport:
- Metrobus 5A, operates between the airport and L'Enfant Plaza (Green, Yellow, Blue, and Orange Metro Lines), located a few blocks south of the National Mall. The bus makes stops in Herndon, Tysons Corner, and Rosslyn (Blue and Orange Metro Lines). It generally departs from the airport every 40 minutes on weekdays and hourly (though not on the hour) on weekends, taking 40–50 minutes to the Rosslyn Metro Station and 50–60 minutes to the L'Enfant Plaza Metro Station. The fare is $6 one-way (no change given). The bus stops near Curb 2E outside of the terminal.
- Washington Flyer Coach, operates coach service every half hour (on :15 and :45) to and from the West Falls Church Metro Station (Orange Line). It takes 25 minutes and costs $10 one-way, $18 round trip. From there, the Metro to downtown takes another 20–25 minutes.
- Washington Flyer Taxi is the exclusive provider of taxis from the airport. A taxi trip downtown costs around $60–80 and takes about 40–60 minutes.
- SuperShuttle operates a popular door-to-door shared ride service to anywhere in the D.C. area. The fare to downtown D.C. is $29 for the first passenger in your party, $10 for each additional passenger. At location 1E-1D, tickets at 1G entrance. Credit cards accepted. Shuttles leave when full or 20 minutes after the first passenger bought a ticket.
- The Silver Line of the Washington Metro is under construction; when completed, it will provide a direct link form Dulles airport to downtown D.C.
Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (IATA: BWI) is 30 miles northeast of D.C. and 10 miles south of downtown Baltimore, near Glen Burnie, Maryland. It is clearly the farthest-flung, but also offers the nicest in-airport experience.
To get to D.C. from the airport:
- Metrobus B30 operates between the airport and the Greenbelt Metro Station (Green Line). The fare is $6 one-way (no change given) and takes about 40 minutes. From there, the Metro to downtown takes another 25 minutes. The bus stops on the lower level outside terminals A (Southwest Airlines) and E (the international terminal).
- ICC Bus 201 operates hourly service between the airport and Gaithersburg, with a stop at the Shady Grove Metro Station (Red Line). The fare is $5 one-way (no change given) and takes about 70 minutes. From there, the Metro to downtown takes another 35 minutes. The bus stops on the lower level outside terminals A (Southwest Airlines) and E (the international terminal).
- MARC commuter-rail train and Amtrak operate between BWI Rail Station and Union Station, also stopping at the New Carrolton Metro Station (Orange Line). A free "Amtrak/MARC" shuttle bus runs from the airport terminal to the BWI Rail Station every 12 minutes. The journey takes 10 minutes. If you are in a rush, you can can take a taxi for $8–9. MARC service to BWI is available on the "Penn" line and costs $6 one-way, but only operates on weekdays. Amtrak service starts at $13, but runs closer to $22 on weekends (when it does not have to compete with MARC).
- SuperShuttle operates a popular door-to-door shared ride service to anywhere in the D.C. area. The fare to downtown is $37 for the first passenger in your party, $12 for each additional passenger. Shuttles leave when full.
- Taxi service to downtown takes 60–90 minutes and costs roughly $100.
Amtrak trains arrive from all over the country, particularly the Northeast Corridor (Boston-to-Richmond). All stop at Union Station (Red Line Metro), a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol Building. The Capitol Limited comes from Chicago, passing through Pittsburgh. A few lines also stop in adjacent Alexandria, Virginia, very close to the King Street stop on the Blue/Yellow Metro lines. If coming from the south, it might be easier to stop there, depending on your destination.
Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) provides weekday service to Baltimore's Camden Station and Penn Station, via the Camden or the Penn Line, both of which operate from D.C.'s Union Station. Only the Penn Line stops at BWI Airport. MARC also provides service on the Brunswick line towards western Maryland through the suburbs of Silver Spring, Kensington, Rockville, Gaithersburg, and Germantown, on the way out to Frederick and on to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
D.C. is primarily served by the coastal superhighway, I-95 from Baltimore or Richmond. It does not go into the city itself, dodging the District by running along the eastern portion of the Beltway (I-495). Coming from the south, I-395 serves as a sort of extension of I-95 going past the Beltway into the city. The intent was to run I-95 straight through the city towards Baltimore, but locals scuttled the plan, leaving this section's terminus in the East End.
I-495 is the Capital Beltway. The Beltway is reviled across the nation for its dangerous traffic patterns and impressive congestion (particularly during rush hour, when it rivals the Cross-Bronx Expressway in New York City as the most miserable highway in the United States). Still, the Beltway is often the only practical way to travel between suburbs. Because the Beltway is a circle, the direction of travel is often referred to by which "loop" is being used. The Inner Loop runs clockwise around the city, and the Outer Loop runs counter-clockwise around Washington, DC.
Other particularly notable routes include: I-270, which connects I-70 in Frederick to I-495 in Bethesda; I-66 starts at the western part of downtown and goes 75 miles west, ending near Front Royal, Virginia; US-50 traverses D.C. primarily along city roads east–west, heading east toward Annapolis and Ocean City (the latter by way of the Bay Bridge), and west across the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge into Northern Virginia and then all the way cross-country to Sacramento, California; the Baltimore-Washington Pkwy (also "B-W Pkwy") starts at I-295 in Anacostia, crossing Central Maryland, passing near BWI Airport and terminating in Baltimore.
Inside the Beltway, I-66 is HOV-2 only (all cars must have at least two passengers) eastbound 6AM-9:30AM and westbound 4PM-6:30PM. The HOV-2 restriction applies to the entire highway, not just specific lanes. US-50, US-29, and the George Washington Pkwy are the alternatives.
Parking deserves special treatment. On weekdays, visitors to the city will have to pay for a garage spot. On-street parking is limited city-wide by meter or by residential zone. Metered parking is present throughout commercial areas, and meters will be limited to two hours during, roughly, daylight hours. Zone parking is free, but limited to two hours (starting from when you first park) in each zone per day, until 8PM. In entertainment areas, many hours are extended until 10PM on Saturdays to prevent parking of late night revelers on the street. Check the signs!
Presumably, you could move your car around the eight zones throughout the day and then find a metered spot to ditch your car overnight, but that clearly would not be practical.
Parking restrictions are eased a bit on Saturdays outside of the more crowded neighborhoods, and are mostly gone on Sundays. There is no zone parking enforcement on Federal Holidays. Be forewarned, though, that the city has potential near-term plans to extend zone and meter restrictions into the weekends.
So if you are coming by car, what to do? Your hotel will likely offer you a spot in their garage for as much as $30/day, although you could probably get that rate down to $15 if you look around—the giant $20/day lot at Union Station is a good bet. If you have a friend in the city, they can go to their local district police station to get you a temporary visitor parking permit, good for fifteen days.
You can usually find better parking rates just outside the city near outer Metro stops (three of which have a very limited number of multi-day (up to ten days) parking spots: Greenbelt, Huntington, and Franconia-Springfield). And if you just don't want to pay for parking period, head over to a residential area in the suburbs outside of D.C. near a Metro station to ditch your car, then walk or catch a bus to the station and head into D.C.! However be aware that enforcement is increasing on "abandoned" cars in the outlying counties, if you are staying for a while.
The fabled Chinatown Bus, which served the thrifty immigrant populations of the various East Coast "chinatowns," revolutionized intercity bus transit throughout the region when the greater public caught on to the fact that there was a bus going to New York City for $10. The bus of legend has been replaced by a host of competing services offering a similar deal—a cheap, direct ride with a scheduled street corner pick up and drop off point. This has forced the bus giant, Greyhound, to adjust its rates downwards to stay competitive, although it remains the only real choice for anyone going to smaller cities off the well-traveled D.C.–Philadelphia–New York City–Boston corridor. Most Chinatown buses have power outlets, and some have Wi-Fi access on board.
- BoltBus, ☎ +1 877 265-8287. Operates service to/from New York City and Newark; Pickup/dropoff at Union Station. Fares range from $1–33 depending on advance purchase and departure time.
- DC2NY, ☎ +1 202-332-2691. Operates service to/from Penn Station in New York City ($30) and, in the summer, weekend service to Dewey Beach and Rehoboth Beach in Delaware ($39); Pickup/dropoff at Union Station and Dupont Circle. The buses to/from New York also pickup and dropoff at the Vienna Franconia-Springfield metro stations.
- Eastern Shuttle, ☎ +1 212 244-6132. Operates service to/from New York City ($20 weekday, $22 weekend). Pickup/dropoff at 715 H St NW, near the Chinatown metro station, with limited pickups from Rockville. This is the only Chinatown bus operator that was not shut down during a May 2012 crackdown by the Department of Transportation.
- Greyhound, ☎ +1 800 231-2222. Operates service to/from almost every major city in the United States. Pickup/dropoff at the Greyhound bus terminal, 1005 1st St NE, a few blocks from the Union Station and New York Avenue metro stations. Fares to New York City range from $20 in advance on the internet to $40 on the departure date. There are other Greyhound stations located in Silver Spring and Arlington.
- HolaBus, ☎ +1 202 509-9600. Operates service to/from New York City and Richmond. Pickup/dropoff at 715 H St NW, near the Chinatown metro station, with limited pickups from Rockville. $20 one way, $35 round trip.
- Megabus, ☎ +1 877 462-6342. Operates service to/from 17 major cities in the northeast including New York City, Baltimore, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Buffalo. Fares start at $1 when reserved far in advance. Pickup/dropoff at Union Station. Power outlets. Wheelchair accessible.
- Peter Pan, ☎ +1 800-343-9999. Operates service to/from New York City ($17–18), with onward connections to several cities in New England. Pickup/dropoff at the Greyhound bus terminal, 1005 1st St NE, a few blocks from the Union Station and New York Avenue metro stations.
- Tripper Bus, ☎ +1 877 826-3874. Operates service to/from Penn Station in New York City. Pickup/dropoff near the Metro stations in Bethesda and Rosslyn. $27 one way with discounts possible for advance purchase. Power outlets.
- Vamoose Bus, ☎ +1 301 718-0036. Operates service to/from Penn Station in New York City. Pickup/dropoff near the Metro stations in Bethesda and Rosslyn. $30–40. Free ticket with every four purchased. Operates a "Gold Bus" once per day which features large leather seats with plenty of legroom ($60 each way). Power outlets.
- Washington Deluxe, ☎ +1 866 287-6932. Operates service to/from New York City. $21 on weekdays with advance purchase, $25 weekends or walkup. Free ticket with every eight purchased. Pickup/dropoff at Dupont Circle and Union Station in DC and 34th street, Chinatown, and Prospect Park in New York City. Power outlets. No advance purchase required.
D.C. is a walking town. It's no surprise that it has been cited as the fittest city in the country for several years running; residents and visitors get a lot of exercise simply getting around the city! Even if you plan on taking the Metro, bus, or driving (not recommended) to get downtown, you will often find yourself walking for the remainder of the day. Most of the city's attractions are located near each other, such as the museums and monuments along the National Mall, which makes driving or taking Metro between locations either impractical or in some cases impossible. Therefore, when touring around Washington make sure to wear good walking shoes and, especially during the spring and summer, wear comfortable and light clothing, apply sunscreen, and drink lots of water. During the summer, visitors would be wise to visit air-conditioned museums during the day, saving monuments, neighborhood tours, and other outdoor attractions for the cooler early morning and evening hours.
Washington, D.C. has a variety of public transportation options that make the city extremely easy to get around without the use of a car. Trains, buses and bikes are affordable and widely used. The District Department of Transportation provides information about all modes of public transportation available in the city on their tourist-friendly goDCgo website.
The city is split into four quadrants of unequal size, which radiate out from the Capitol Building: Northwest (NW), Northeast (NE), Southeast (SE), and Southwest (SW). The NW quadrant is by far the largest and SW the smallest. Addresses in the city always include the quadrant abbreviation, e.g., 1000 H Street NE. Take note of the quadrant, otherwise you may find yourself on the exact opposite side of town from your destination!
City streets are generally laid out in a grid, with east-west streets primarily named with letters (A–W) and north-south streets named with numbers. The street numbers and letters increase with distance from the Capitol building. The numerous diagonal avenues, many named after states, serve as the city's principal arteries; when walking or riding a bicycle they are the often quickest way to get around town. The avenues also enter many complicated traffic circles and have left-turn restrictions that vary by time of day, so take care while navigating these until you understand them.
The street grid has a few peculiarities that are a legacy from the city's foundation. The City of Washington originally occupied only a portion of the total area of the District. As a result, outside of what is now often called the "L'Enfant City" streets do not strictly adhere to the grid system. Given the lack of characters in the English alphabet, two-syllable names (e.g., Irving Street, Lamont Street) follow the single-letter streets, followed by three-syllable names further out. However, you will find that many streets were simply extended where practical.
Curious to note, visitors to Washington will quickly discover that there is no "J" Street. This is because, until the mid-nineteenth century, the letters "I" and "J" were indistinguishable when written. Following that same idea, "I" Street is often written as "Eye" Street, to distinguish it from the letter "L" and the numeral "1", and "Q" Street is often written "Que," "Cue," or "Queue."
Metrorail Hours of Operation
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) operates the city's excellent rapid transit system and buses. A car is often a hindrance in the crowded city, particularly for tourists; public transportation is often the fastest way to get around.
The Metro is D.C.'s rapid transit system and the central feature of the area's public transportation network. It is composed of five color-coded rail lines that run underground primarily within the District and above ground in much of the nearby suburbs. There are Metrorail stations in most major neighborhoods and at numerous locations downtown. Washingtonians are proud of their Metro system. It's clean, safe, user-friendly, and sports a surprisingly elegant and pleasing brutalist aesthetic.
One flaw, though, is irregularity of service caused primarily by near-constant weekend track maintenance and periodic breakdowns following a major collision in June 2009. Delays can reach up to 30 minutes without a clear indication of the next train arrival. The Metro also attracts very large crowds during major public events; expect jam-packed stations and trains on July 4 and during any major gathering on the Mall.
The Metro fare system is complicated and varies based on day, time, and distance of trip. Up to two children (ages four and younger) may ride free per one paying adult. Seniors can get a discount, but it requires purchasing a special SmarTrip card (see below) from a booth at the Metro Center station; this is rarely practical or worthwhile unless staying in the city for quite some time.
|Fare Schedule: Weekdays (Monday through Friday)*|
|Fare Schedule: Weekends*|
*Riders using a paper farecard (see below) must add an additional $1.00 fee to all fares.
Fares are paid by purchasing a farecard at automated machines within stations. Posted guides will help you calculate the appropriate fare for your ride, but since the farecards are reusable and refillable, it's often easier to not worry about the fare; just put $5–10 on your ticket and refill as needed. Given the $1.00 fee on all trips using a paper farecard, travelers should consider buying a SmarTrip debit card ($10 cost with $5 transportation credit), which works on the Metro as well as on Metrobus, the D.C. Circulator, and many other suburban bus systems (saving you the headache of correct change and providing a discount on transfers). The cards use radio-frequency technology and are used by simply touching the SmarTrip to a target on the fare gate. SmarTrip cards are also required for parking in almost all Metro lots. SmarTrip cards can be bought online, at Metro stations, and at all D.C.-area CVS stores. Parking is free on weekends and federal holidays.
Flat-rate Metro passes are also available that give riders an unlimited number of trips within the system for a set number of days. These passes are available in each station at many of the automated machines that sell standard farecards. However, the passes are rarely a good deal for most tourists and some passes even come with restrictions on when they can be used, which can cause more of a headache than a regular farecard! The 7-day unlimited passes for bus ($16) or rail ($57.50, or $35 covering fares up to $3.50) can be loaded onto a SmarTrip card (see below for details)—all others are issued as paper farecards.
The farecards and Metro passes are needed to both enter and exit the system. Therefore, keep them on you but away from other credit cards and electronic devices, especially cell phones, which can cause the farecards to demagnetize! If that happens, see a Metro station manager for assistance.
Metrorail lines are color-coded and, in some areas, two different lines may share the same track. Additionally, trains may terminate before reaching the end of the line, especially during rush hour. Therefore, be careful to note both the color and final destination indicated on the electronic displays and train cars before boarding.
When riding Metro late at night, be aware of when the last train leaves each particular station. This information is available both online and within Metro stations. The last trains of the evening continue to the end of their respective lines, even after the system has technically closed; there is no need to worry that a train will stop before you reach your destination.
Remember that absolutely no food or drink is allowed on trains or in stations. Metro employees, police officers, and even fellow riders will ask you to dispose of any food before entering. Violators are subject to fines or even arrest (including a rather outrageous incident from 2000 when a twelve-year-old girl was handcuffed for eating french fries). If you are carrying food/beverages, keep them closed and in a bag.
Rider etiquette is key to smooth travel in the heavily-used system. Try not to obstruct train doors when passengers are leaving the train. Keep belongings off of the seats. When using escalators in stations, stand on the right, and leave the left side free for those who want to pass. Strollers must be folded at all times on the trains and in elevators. These rules are especially important during the summer months when commuters are sharing the Metro with large numbers of out-of-town visitors.
Metro train doors do not auto-retract, and are somewhat notorious for pinning passengers and their belongings. Use caution; it's normally a better idea to wait for the next train than to attempt boarding at the last second. If you or your belongings are caught in the door, wait for the train operator to re-open them. Do not try to block the doors or force them open; this often breaks the doors and forces the operator to take the entire car out of service.
By Circulator bus
The tourist-friendly D.C. Circulator buses are akin to shuttles since they operate on a predictable fixed route and schedule, and run principally between main attractions and the city's most popular neighborhoods for visitors. All D.C. Circulator routes run every ten minutes and cost $1. There are currently five routes:
- Georgetown-Union Station "Yellow" Line — runs between Georgetown and Union Station Su-Th 7AM-midnight, F-Sa 7AM-midnight (and midnight-2AM between Georgetown & Farragut Sq).
- Union Station-Navy Yard "Navy" Line — runs past Eastern Market between Union Station and Navy Yard near the Nationals Stadium M-F 6AM-6PM. Extended and weekend service is provided on Nationals game days.
- Woodley Park-Adams Morgan-McPherson Square "Green" Line — runs a limited-stop route through the "Liquorridor" between the Zoo, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, U Street, Logan Circle, and McPherson Square Su-Th 7AM-midnight, F-Sa 7AM-3:30AM. These neighborhoods are home to some of the best restaurants, shopping, art galleries, local theaters, and nightlife in Washington.
- Dupont-Georgetown-Rossyln "Blue" Line — runs service between the Rosslyn Metro station in Virginia across the river to Georgetown and Dupont Circle Su-Th 7AM-midnight, F-Sa 7AM-2AM.
- Potomac Ave-Skyland "Orange" Line — runs between Capitol Hill and the Skyland Shopping Center via Barracks Row and historic Anacostia M-F 6AM-7PM between Oct. 1 and March 31, M-F 6AM-9PM & Sa 7AM-9PM April 1 - Sept. 30.
D.C.'s bus system is visitor-friendly and reaches destinations that are hard to reach by Metro.
Metrobus, operates hundreds of routes throughout the greater capital region, Metrobus will take you places hard to reach via Metro or the Circulator, and can be a really convenient, comfortable way to travel if you know which bus to take. WMATA's website publishes maps and timetables for all individual routes, as well as system maps for its routes in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Most routes cost a flat fare of $1.80 ($1.60 with SmarTrip card). (Seniors pay half fare, up to two children ages four and younger ride free per one paying adult.)
Metrobus has a very handy feature called NextBus. Every bus stop has a number written on it, which you can enter on NextBus' website or by phone (+1 202 637-7000) to get a highly accurate estimate of when the next bus will arrive, including active tracking on Google Maps.
The following important routes provide reliable and direct service along the city's most well-traveled corridors, running about every ten to twenty minutes:
- 16th St Line (S2, S4, S9) — north-south service on 16th St between the Silver Spring Metro Station on the Red Line and East End. It's the route of choice to reach the Fitzgerald Tennis Center and Carter Barron Amphitheater at Rock Creek Park.
- Massachusetts Ave Line (N2, N4, N6) — runs along Massachusetts Ave between the Friendship Heights and Farragut West Metro stops. The bus provides an excellent view of the 50+ embassies located along Embassy Row. It's also a good way to go from Dupont Circle to the hard-to-reach National Cathedral, as well as to American University.
- U St-Garfield Line (90, 92, 93) — runs a great cross-town route from the Zoo at Woodley Park through Adams Morgan/18th St, U St, Gallaudet University, and then on to Eastern Market.
- Pennsylvania Avenue Line (31, 32, 36) - another good cross-town route along Pennsylvania Avenue through Capitol Hill, downtown, Georgetown, and neighborhoods along Wisconsin Avenue. These buses run around the clock and will take you to areas not serviced by Metrorail such as Georgetown, Glover Park, and the National Cathedral.
D.C. seems to be one of the last bastions of a free taxi market; there are tons of small cab companies to choose from. The largest operators in the city are D.C. Yellow Cab, ☎ +1 202 544-1212 (+1 202 TAXICAB), and American Cab Association, ☎ +1 202 398-0529. The D.C. government also provides an alphabetical list of all licensed taxi companies. Taxis cost $3.00 for the first sixth of a mile and 25¢ for each additional sixth of a mile. There is no rush hour fee, although meters do charge 25¢ for each minute stopped in traffic or traveling under 10 mph. Each additional passenger over the age of five is an extra $1.50, and bags range from an extra 50¢ to $2.00 depending on the size. Cabs almost always refuse credit cards, so bring cash. All D.C. taxis have the ability to print receipts on request.
The largest suburban companies in Maryland are Barwood, ☎ +1 301 984-1900, for Montgomery County and Silver Cab, ☎ +1 301 277-6000, for Prince George's County in Maryland; in Virginia, Red Top, ☎ +1 703 522-3333, services both Arlington County and Alexandria City.
Taxicab drivers are required to take passengers anywhere within the Washington Metropolitan Area, although they grumble about going out to Maryland and Virginia. D.C. cab fares for interstate trips are the same as the standard rates, except that there is no maximum fare. Please note that Maryland and Virginia cab companies cannot pick up passengers within the District if going to another destination in D.C.-they can only pick up if the destination is in their home state (which includes the airports). The reverse applies for less popular D.C. cabs. The Maryland and Virginia cabs are a bit more expensive, but also more reliable in terms of reservations and special requests (for minivan taxis in particular).
Über, a taxi-like service that provides a higher-cost, higher-service alternative to taxis in D.C., will dispatch limo services (sedans, SUVs, etc. upon request) through their mobile app only. This allows you to pay by credit card through your phone, so that you don't need cash, do not tip in the car, and have a reliable timed pick up.
Driving in D.C. is difficult. Even most Washingtonians avoid driving downtown, and do their utmost to never drive during the long rush hours. Limited and expensive parking, ruthless parking enforcement, sadistic traffic circles, fines from automated red light cameras and absurd speed traps, a pothole epidemic, frequent street direction changes, some of the worst congestion in the country, street closures without warning—take the Metro. Forbes Magazine, in line with several university studies, declared the D.C. metro area to have the worst traffic in the nation, and the number two wasn't even close. Allstate Insurance reports that you are statistically more likely to get into an accident in D.C. than any other American city, with an accident rate 95.5% worse than the national average. And the grid is deceptively tortuous. Washingtonians will proudly tell you that the plan was intended to confuse invading armies (though it's actually a myth). For a fun challenge, try to drive on Massachusetts Ave from Wisconsin Ave to RFK Stadium—it's like riding a bucking bronco!
If for whatever reason you ignore all the above advice and do choose to drive in Washington, here are a few tips: Street parking downtown is limited to two hours only (even at meters), so be prepared to park in a private lot or garage, which cost anywhere from $10–25 per day. Avoid driving and parking during rush hour (weekdays, 7AM-10AM and 4PM-7PM), since this is when the majority of the city's traffic congestion, street direction changes, and parking restrictions are in effect. If you do park on the street, pay close attention to traffic signs. Most streets downtown restrict parking during rush hour and visitors often return to the spot where they parked only to find that their vehicle has been ticketed or towed!
Local opposition prevented the construction of interstate highways through Washington, steering resources towards building the Washington Metro system instead. The two freeways that feed into the city from Virginia, I-66 and I-395, both terminate quickly. Washington and its innermost suburbs are encircled by the Capital Beltway, I-495, which gave rise to the expression "Inside the Beltway."
Washington has several classic drives:
- Pennsylvania Ave from Fourteenth St NW toward the Capitol.
- Eastbound Independence Ave from the Lincoln Memorial, from the right lane of which you can continue in a loop around the Tidal Basin.
- Rock Creek Pkwy, one of the world's earliest highways, and which was planned as part of an inner beltway, follows Rock Creek through D.C.'s own central park, then traces the Potomac River to the Lincoln Memorial. This roadway becomes one-way (and terribly confusing) during weekday rush hour (6:45AM–9:30AM southbound only, 3:45PM–6:30PM northbound).
- Canal Road heading west from Georgetown's M St, which turns into the leafy Clara Barton Pkwy alongside the C&O Canal, continuing to the Capital Beltway.
- Embassy Row, Massachusetts Ave between Scott Circle and Wisconsin Ave.
- George Washington Memorial Pkwy, which follows the Potomac on the Virginia side of the river to Mount Vernon.
Cycling is an excellent and popular form of transportation among D.C. residents. A study by bikeleague.org showed that bicycle commuting in Washington DC was up 315% between 1990 and 2011 and that D.C. was one of the top cities for bike commuting in the country. Many streets, including the iconic Pennsylvania Avenue, have dedicated bike lanes and there is plenty of bike parking available.
Bicycling is also a great way for tourists to explore D.C.'s neighborhoods, as bikes allow tourists to cover more ground, can be less exhausting than walking, and are more pleasant and cheaper than metro or taxi rides.
- Capital Bikeshare , runs a bike sharing network that has over 1,800 bicycles available at over 200 bike stations throughout the city. This is the second-largest bike sharing network in the country, after that of New York City. Users can take a bike from and station and return it to a different station. Membership fees are $7/day or $15 for 3 days, payable by using a credit card at the automated kiosks attached to every Capital Bikeshare station. On top of membership fees, usage fees vary, but the first 30 minutes are free. This is intentional to encourage people to use the system for short place-to-place trips; however, you can dock your bike into a station, wait 2 minutes, and then take the bike out again to restart the timer.
- BikeStation  allows visitors to rent bikes, have their bikes repaired, or arrange for temporary storage in a controlled environment at Union Station. Cycling information can be obtained here as well.
- Bike Shops are plentiful and may be a better option if you plan on using a bike for an extended period.
Tips for Bicycling in Washington, D.C.
- To the uninitiated cyclist, traveling by bike on some of D.C.'s streets may be downright harrowing. Locals all have horror stories of cycling through quiet, residential streets only to come across extremely-busy traffic on some of D.C.'s main commuter thoroughfares. Ride The City: DC can help you plan your routes to avoid the most dangerous areas for bicyclists.
- Bicycling on the sidewalk is legal in D.C. except in the downtown Central Business District, which generally consists of the area between Massachusetts Avenue and the National Mall. However, biking in the street is perfectly legal everywhere in the city and bike lanes are available on many downtown streets.
- Helmets are advised, of course, but traffic in DC is actually slow enough -- and the drivers considerate enough of cyclists -- that lacking a helmet is a poor reason not to avail yourself of this excellent way to see the city.
- The downtown core, including the Mall, is largely level terrain, with more hills and steeper streets generally as one rides west and north (although many neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River are also quite hilly).
Tourists may also take advantage of some of the Washington area's fantastic biking trails:
- The immensely-popular Capital Crescent Trail is a major bike commuter trail and recreational path that connects Georgetown to Bethesda and Silver Spring, Maryland.
- The Metropolitan Branch Trail, connects Union Station to Silver Spring, Maryland and is a great, safe way to view some of the beautiful historic neighborhoods in Northeast D.C.
- The Chesapeake and Ohio towpath offers a fantastic ride along a shaded trail from Georgetown all the way to Cumberland, Maryland. Local bike shops offer bicycle rentals to visitors wishing to spend a day riding along the canal. It's also a great way to get to see the Great Falls of the Potomac River, 15 miles up-stream from Georgetown.
- The 18-mile Mount Vernon Trail offers a direct bike connection between the National Mall, downtown Washington, and Alexandria, VA.
If you'd rather relax than pedal, there are several neighborhood-based pedicab companies that have a prominent presence at most tourist facilities. Rates are generally affordable and negotiable (although sometimes more expensive than taxis).
If you are sightseeing, chances are you are on the Mall. The National Mall is a unique National Park, filled with an intense concentration of monuments, memorials, museums, and monumental government buildings instantly recognizable to people all over the world. The White House, the US Capitol Building, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the National Gallery of Art, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Natural History Museum, and the Holocaust Museum, are just a few of the top national attractions here, all within walking distance of each other. The tourist-designated sights are just half of the attraction, though—to walk down the National Mall is to thread the halls of world power in the modern era. Here powerful politicians and their staffs fill the grand neo-classical buildings of the three branches of US Government, making decisions that reverberate in the remotest corners of the world.
There are multiple maps along the Mall, especially by Metro stops, but the place is so jam-packed with things you'll want to see that you should probably take a map with you to avoid missing highlights obscured by other highlights. For a more detailed and larger map than the Wikivoyage version, print out the official National Mall map (pdf). The Mall is larger than it looks, and a walk from the Capitol Building to the Lincoln Memorial or the Tidal Basin will take a while and may wear you down a bit. Plan ahead what you want to see and concentrate your activities in one section of the Mall each day.
The eastern section, home to the majority of the museums, is covered in the National Mall article, as are the western portion of the Mall and the Tidal Basin. Many more museums await just north of the Mall in the East End, ranging from the new, flashy Newseum and International Spy Museum to the time tested National Portrait Gallery, American Art Museum, and the home of the Constitution at the National Archives. The White House is located in the West End along with several excellent smaller museums, and the Capitol Building is on Capitol Hill.
While the Mall has more than enough sights to keep a traveler busy for a while, the city itself has plenty of big attractions for a visitor who wants to leave behind the sandy paths and flocks of tourists and pigeons of the Smithsonian. The National Zoo in Woodley Park is one of the nation's most prestigious, and the nearby National Cathedral is an awe-inspiring mammoth. Dupont Circle is home to much of Embassy Row, an impressive stretch of some 50 foreign-owned historic and modernist mansions along Massachusetts Ave, as well as several brilliant small museums, such as the Phillips Collection, the Textile Museum, and the Woodrow Wilson House. Another attraction that shouldn't be missed is the Library of Congress, which has some of the most beautiful architecture that can be seen in the city.
The historic neighborhood of Georgetown is another great sightseeing destination, full of beautiful old colonial buildings, the 200+ year-old Jesuit campus of Georgetown University, a pleasant waterfront, and the infamous Exorcist steps. By car (i.e., taxi), you can get to some of the capital's more far-flung and less-frequented attractions, like the National Arboretum in the Northeast, or the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in eastern Anacostia. By taking the Metro red line to Brookland-CUA, you can easily visit the magnificent Catholic Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. This is the largest Catholic church in North America.
Views and Panoramas
D.C.'s famous height restrictions—no taller than the width of the street the building is on plus 20 feet—have resulted in a skyscraper-less downtown, giving D.C. a distinctly muted feel for what is actually the heart of a huge metropolis. The obvious downside to this law is that it limits the supply of housing and office space, which sends the cost of living and running a business downtown soaring, sparking runaway suburban sprawl, which has helped cause terrible traffic congestion, erode the city's tax base (since suburbs are in Maryland and Virginia), and undermine the vitality of the city's downtown. On the upside, though, this means that you'll have a great view over the city if you make your way to just about any old rooftop or even a nice hill.
There are several classic spots to get a look out over the city. Starting with the cheapest and easiest, the Old Post Office Tower is free and centrally located, just off the National Mall in the East End, with a good view of the nearby federal buildings and a helpful map explaining what you're looking at. Also free, the Kennedy Center rooftop terrace (in the West End) provides a nice skyline somewhat removed from the city, with the Lincoln Memorial prominent in the foreground. The Washington Monument (currently closed due to damage caused during the August 23, 2011 earthquake) is another free option on the Mall, though as a vista point its small, bunker-like ports covered with scratched plastic make it less inspiring than might be expected. If you have some money, the Newseum (East End) is a good place to see a remarkable museum and get a close up view of downtown. Finally, the W Hotel (West End), just a block from the White House, has a rooftop terrace, bar, and lounge. While the bar and lounge are expensive, a single cocktail gets a table for several people long enough to take in the view, and suave cheapskates can simply wander around long enough to get a load of the White House from above (close enough to make out the Secret Service overwatch) before heading back to the elevator.
The District is home to many large parks that offer hiking and biking. Many of the downtown parks are crowded with soccer, football, rugby, kickball, baseball, and ultimate frisbee players. The Mall may be the most famous park, but there are several other beautiful places worth noting, like the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, the National Arboretum, Meridian Hill Park, and the C&O Canal Towpath.
Rock Creek Park
If you look on a map, Rock Creek Park is evidently the District's central respiratory system, bisecting the city north of the Anacostia River, and covering nearly 2,000 acres of thickly forested hills. It's a national park, full of deer (who overpopulate, due to lack of predators), squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, birds, and even a few coyotes. The paved biking/running trail is one of the nation's best, and it extends all the way from the Lincoln Memorial way out into Maryland (it also connects with the Mount Vernon trail in Northern Virginia). But there are tons more paths, from the hiking trail network to bridle paths, as well as a boatload of picnic spots, a golf course, a variety of Ranger-led/educational programs, and even a boat rental center on the Potomac.
There are plenty of nice outdoor spaces just beyond the park itself. South of Massachusetts Ave, you can take a path west out to the beautiful Dumbarton Oaks estate and gardens, and then on to enormous Archibald-Glover Park, where the trails can lead you as far south and west as the C&O Canal and Palisades Park. Following the main Rock Creek trail along the creek itself all the way south will take you under the Whitehurst Fwy and down to the Mall, where joggers avail themselves of the incredible path right along the Potomac beneath the monuments.
- Peirce Mill, Tilden St & Beach Dr NW, ☎ . A historic water-powered mill in the park and a national historic site, Peirce Mill and restrooms are currently closed to the public for repairs. The restrooms located at Picnic Grove 1 are still open.
- Rock Creek Golf Course, 16th St & Rittenhouse St NW, ☎ . dawn-dusk daily. The eighteen holes of golf in Rock Creek Park are a bit rough—some would say the fairways are starting to look like pasture. That's not to say you can't have a good experience here, as it is quite a novelty to play golf deep in the woods, despite being in the city. Golfers might want to consider the other two major courses in the city, though, at Hains Point (just across the water from the Mall) and at Langston. $16/nine holes, $23/eighteen.
- Rock Creek Horse Center—see district article.
- Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium, 5200 Glover Rd NW, ☎ . W-Su 9AM-5PM. Deep inside the park, the Nature Center offers hands-on exhibits, guided nature walks, an "observation beehive," and a full planetarium. Especially good for kids. All free.
Roosevelt Island, ☎ +1 703 289-2500. This is another one of those gems just far enough out of the way where most tourists miss out. The Teddy Roosevelt Memorial is at the center of the island, housing a memorial to the president as well as a couple fountains and several stone obelisks inscribed with his quotes. The rest of the island is a nice natural park of woods and swamp (the swamp has a boardwalk) in the center of the Potomac, with great views of Georgetown University on the northwest side and of the Kennedy Center on the east. What could be better befitting the great outdoorsman than an island park memorial!
To reach the island, walk down the stairs at the Rosslyn side of the Key Bridge—which connects Rosslyn with Georgetown—then head east on the trail (the Mount Vernon Trail) to the footbridge to the island. Rosslyn has the nearest Metro stop. By car, you can access the parking lot just north of the Roosevelt Bridge from the northbound lanes of the George Washington Pkwy only.
With all the government money around, D.C. is awash in free public events all throughout the year, but especially in the summer, many of them right on the Mall. A few highlights include:
- A Capitol Fourth. 4 July. There is nowhere better to celebrate Independence Day than in the nation's capital. Fireworks over the Potomac River, the National Independence Day Parade, and a huge orchestral concert on Capitol Hill all make for a big time celebration. Expect enormous crowds.
- Monday Night at the National, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave NW, ☎ . M 6PM,7:30PM, fall. You can see just about any type of big musical, dramatic, or dance performance right at the National Theatre in the East End for free in the fall! Tickets are required, and they start handing them out 30 minutes before the performance, so you'll have to stand in line.
- National Book Festival, National Mall. One Saturday and Sunday in Mid to Late September. Sponsored by the Library of Congress, this festival celebrates books, authors, and reading. Highlights include listening to your favorite author speak, queuing up to have a book signed, taking the kids to visit their beloved PBS Kids characters, and collecting stamps from all the US states and territories in the Pavilion of the States.
- National Cherry Blossom Festival. Late March–early April. Note that Washington's cherry blossoms do not necessarily bloom during the festival—the bloom varies every year, depending on the winter weather. When the blossoms are out (and they don't stay out for long—a good rain will wash them away), Washington is at its prettiest. The traditional cherry blossom promenade is around the Tidal Basin, although it is absurdly crowded down there. You will pay top dollar to stay at hotels during cherry blossom season.
- National Kite Festival (at the Washington Monument). March 2010. The main attraction is of course all the people showing up to fly their kites by the Washington Monument, but there are also a bunch of tent exhibits on topics from things like West Indian kitemaking to U.S. wind power projects. There are several kite flying competitions throughout the day, the most popular being the Rokkaku Kite Battle.
- Screen on the Green (On the green between 4th & 7th St NW). M 7PM, July–August. Classic films, often with a political angle, are shown for free on the Mall. Watching 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' with the capital dome in the background is classic D.C. It's good to show up a little early to stake out a good spot, lay down the picnic blanket, and socialize.
- Shakespeare Free for All, 610 F St NW (Harman Hall), ☎ . 18 Aug–4 Sep. The locals' choice for best summer festival might be the free annual performances by the renowned Shakespeare Theatre Company in the new Harman Center for the Arts. No longer held at Carter Barron Theatre, the shows now are ticketed using an online lottery in addition to the same-day tickets available at the door (via queue) in the morning.
- Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Late June–around 4 July. This annual festival normally has three topics: a country, a region of the U.S., and another subject, which varies from year to year. Previous festivals have featured the country of Oman, the ancient Silk Road, and music in Latino culture.
The Washington Redskins are one of professional football's most established and storied clubs, boasting five NFL championships. Valued at $1.6 billion, the team is the second most valuable franchise in the country. The team plays at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland. To get there, take the Blue Line Metro to the Morgan Blvd stop, then walk one mile straight up Morgan Blvd to the stadium. The team has survived movements and lawsuits trying to get rid of what some consider an offensive term for Native Americans. However, polls have found that the vast majority of American Indians do not find the team's name offensive.
The Washington Wizards also play at the Verizon Center. The Wizards were known as the Washington Bullets until 1995, but the name was changed by then-owner Abe Pollin due to the unpleasant irony in the homicide-heavy 1990s.
The Washington Mystics are the WNBA women's basketball team, and are (in)famously the league's regular "attendance champions." That is, they don't actually have winning seasons, but they do have plenty of fans. The team also plays at the Verizon Center.
The Georgetown Hoyas men's basketball team are far and away the most popular college sports team in the city, and they often sport a more exciting season than even the Wizards. The team also plays at the Verizon Center since the crowds for the Hoyas' games are too big for the University to hold.
Three other NCAA Division I teams play in the District, and a fourth plays in the immediate metropolitan area. The District also has the George Washington Colonials in Foggy Bottom, the American Eagles in Tenleytown, and the Howard Bison in Shaw. The George Mason Patriots are in Fairfax County, Virginia, just outside the city of Fairfax.
The Washington Nationals, a.k.a. the Nats, formerly the Montreal Expos, have been playing in DC since 2005 and at a new stadium by the Waterfront since 2008. The new franchise has finally pulled the city out of its ages old slump (they had been dead last in their division all but one season), with the acquisition of enormous new talent in 2010. Star pitcher Stephen Strasburg has brought baseball fever back to DC for the first time in 100 years, selling out games (at least until being sidelined by Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow) and leaving the city abuzz with baseball talk. Previous DC baseball teams include the 1901–1960 Washington Senators, who later moved to Minneapolis as the Minnesota Twins. Both the original Senators and their second incarnation in the 1960s (now playing in Arlington, Texas as the Texas Rangers) suffered from a singular inability to win, though. The first incarnation was quite successful for its first twenty years, but by WWII they earned the city the slogan "first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League."
Americans often forget that the country has a professional soccer league, but that's not the case in D.C. D.C. United is the MLS' most dominant team, with 4 MLS cups under its belt (out of the league's 13 seasons), as well as successful international competition in CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, where the club has both a CONCACAF championship and a Copa Interamericana. D.C. is a big soccer town, owing to the metropolitan area's very international population and its big Latino communities, as well as to a home-grown affection for soccer in this section of the Mid-Atlantic, and the games are high-energy and well attended. United are the last team still playing at over-the-hill RFK Stadium, though they are looking for a new home, possibly across the river at Poplar Point.
For your big-ticket downtown theater, there are basically two options: the enormous, government-run Kennedy Center in the West End and the private Theater District in the East End. The Kennedy Center also houses the Millenium Stage, with free daily performances at 6PM! (Truly, D.C. is spoiled for free activities.) The Theater District houses the Ford's Theatre, the National Theatre, and the Warner Theatre, all of which put on big, well-known Broadway and other dramatic performances, as well as the beloved and internationally acclaimed Shakespeare Theatre Company, which has residency at both the Lansburgh Theatre and brand new Harman Hall. On any given trip to D.C., it would be hard to do better than to see one of their performances. But in this Shakespeare-crazed town, you have your choice of Shakespeare theater companies—you can also see top-notch, smaller performances of the Bard's work at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre on Capitol Hill.
For smaller theaters with more local, less-known, diverse, and avant-garde performances, the options are more spread out. The Woolly Mammoth Theatre in the East End is the best known, but you can also try your luck away from the Theatre District in theaters as diverse as the Atlas Theatre on H St NE, the GALA Hispanic Theatre at the Tivoli in Columbia Heights, or the Studio Theatre in Shaw. If you'd like to soak up some great local flavor, look for one of the intensely physical, dance-heavy performances by the Georgian-owned Synetic Theater Company, which most often performs across the 14th Street Bridges in Crystal City.
Classical performances are a dime a dozen in D.C., largely thanks to the efforts of the Kennedy Center, where you'll find the Washington National Opera and National Symphony Orchestra in residence. The Kennedy Center dominates the local classical arts scene with its fame and money, to the point where there aren't really any other major venues in the city. There are more intimate concerts citywide on a regular basis (try the Dumbarton candlelight concerts in Georgetown!), but you'll have to hunt for them—the Washington Post's online Going out Guide is probably the most comprehensive source for up-to-date listings. The concerts that are the most fun are a bit exclusive—if you are well connected, or simply very good at schmoozing, try to get an invitation to any of the daily social events at the embassies—the Europeans are always having magnificent chamber performances.
Pop & rock
The two big music venues in the city are the 9:30 Club and the Black Cat, both of them in Shaw. Several other smaller local music venues are right in that area — DC9, U Street Music Hall and Velvet Lounge are both right around the corner from the 9:30 Club. A couple of new, edgy venues catering to the local rock crowd have also just opened up in the Atlas District, such as the Red Palace and the Rock and Roll Hotel. Other big-name touring acts often show up at larger downtown venues such as DAR Constitution Hall, the National Theatre, the Warner Theatre, and of course the Verizon Center downtown. Just outside of the city limits, and Metro accessible in the suburb of Silver Spring, the Filmore recently opened, which features mid to large scale acts.
Jazz & blues
It's a rather well-kept secret that D.C. holds one of the world's best jazz scenes outside of New York City. Blues Alley in Georgetown remains the flagship club, with atmosphere straight out of a Spike Lee movie. But the jazz scene is unquestionably centered in the historic African-American neighborhood of Shaw along and around the U St Corridor, where native son Duke Ellington once played along with the likes of Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald.
Blues lovers will have to look harder to find a good show. There is a good regular jam session across the street from the National Zoo, of all places, as well as one off in a Presbyterian church in Southwest. But the biggest event is clearly the annual outdoor summer Blues Festival at Carter Barron in Rock Creek Park.
D.C. has a long list of highly accredited universities. It's a political town, and the best known institutions are undoubtedly those with the political connections. Georgetown University, George Washington University, and the American University program are arguably the best academic programs period for those looking to cozy up to the Washington elite and/or launch a public career. They are also excellent bets for international students looking for a politics-oriented exchange program, as their international politics programs are consistently ranked among the world's best, producing world leaders from kings to African finance ministers (and a Bill Clinton for good measure). Other large and well-respected institutions include Johns Hopkins SAIS, The Catholic University of America, and the University of the District of Columbia, as well as universities with more specialized focuses: Gallaudet University is the world's only university for the deaf; Howard University is one of the nation's most esteemed historically black universities; and the prestigious and highly exclusive National Defense University serves the military elite.
Certain career fields find a natural home in D.C. While everyone knows that this is where politicians go, you can also find a fair share of diplomats, lawyers, lobbyists, journalists, defense contractors, and civil servants. Good fields for international visitors to pursue include the various NGOs, national lobbying groups, and for the select few, embassies and consulates. Many ambitious young people come to Washington for internships, and the huge student-aged population peaks in the summer.
With so many high-powered career types out to change the world, the need for child care is obvious. Nannies and au pairs, mostly placed through agencies, provide child care to many of Washington's elite; the city has the highest proportion of in-home childcare in the country. U.S. citizen nannies are especially sought after as government types carefully follow employment law to avoid problems with security clearances or negative publicity. Wages for legal U.S. residents with experience can top $800 per week, room and board included.
Few think of D.C. as a major shopping destination, but it will surprise you, having shrugged off its time-old, politically-influenced staid and bland culture over the past ten years. Beyond the expected souvenirs, the District's fashion scene has grown by leaps and bounds. The most exciting boutique, eclectic, and vintage shopping is to be had in Georgetown, Adams Morgan, and the U Street strip, with Georgetown being the most traditional, established, and famous of the three. For more traditional upscale shopping, the meccas are in Georgetown and Friendship Heights. Both are also excellent destinations for gift shopping, whether trendy-eclectic or high-end.
The most centrally located department store is the Macy's at Metro Center, which is surrounded by many other smaller clothing stores. The closest and most accessible shopping mall, anchored by Macy's, Nordstrom's, and Nordstrom's The Rack is at Pentagon City metro station in Arlington. For much cheaper bargains, try outlet shopping; however, the DC-area outlets, Tanger Outlets at National Harbor, Potomac Mills, and Leesburg Corner, are not accessible by metrorail and are inconvienient, although possible, to access without a car.
Another recent surprise in the city has been the explosion of a large, cutting-edge art scene. Its heart beats just north of Logan Circle, but Georgetown retains the largest quantity of art galleries. The latter is the more popular for casual buyers, as the Logan Circle boutiques are contemporary and universally expensive. Both make for great browsing, though.
Book Hounds will find much to enjoy in the over-educated western portions of the city. Barnes & Noble has a lock on the bulk of the business, but specialty shops abound. Favorites include Kramerbooks, Lambda Rising, and Second Story Books in Dupont Circle, as well as some great options in Capitol Hill and the East End. If you are willing to make the trek, Politics & Prose in Chevy Chase has a rightful claim to be the city's favorite.
As you would expect, there are endless souvenirs found by the National Mall and nearby East End, many of them sold by street vendors, and even more of them a bit cheap and hokey. Several large, but pricey, souvenir shops are located at 10th & E St NW. A better bet are the Smithsonian museums, all of which have excellent gift shops.
Lastly, the city's one big market, Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, is a favorite Saturday or Sunday afternoon shopping destination for antiques, secondhand books, local produce, and works by local artists, photographers, and craftspeople. Even if you're not buying, it's a great time.
Ethiopian food is a D.C. staple, owing to the city's large Ethiopian community, and indeed, this is one of the best cities in the world in which to try the cuisine. For the uninitiated, Ethiopian food is a wild ride of spicy stewed and sautéed meats and vegetables served atop a plate covered with a spongy bread (injera). You eat the dishes with your hands, using an extra plate of injera as your sole "utensil"—rip off a piece of the injera and use it to pick up your food. It's proper in Ethiopia to use only the tips of your fingers in this exercise, and with good reason: you'll have a messy meal otherwise. It's also perfectly proper to feed your date, making this a fun cuisine if you know your date well.
Washington has a little bit of everything, from really good inexpensive ethnic takeout (no problem getting Ethiopian or Afghan or Jamaican food here) to high-dollar lobbyist-fueled places that will cause your credit card to burst into flames. Most of the high end cuisine is available downtown in the West End and East End, in Georgetown, and especially in Dupont Circle—offering dining experiences ranging from steakhouses packed with powerful suits to a science-powered, six-seat restaurant offering a $120, 30-course meal.
For cheaper dining, there are endless options scattered around the city. The two most notable "ethnic" enclaves include wonderful Ethiopian food in Little Ethiopia and some solid Chinese in what remains of D.C.'s disappearing Chinatown. Salvadoran cuisine is near-ubiquitous throughout the northern reaches of the city, with an unbelievable concentration of pupuserías in Columbia Heights. Pupusas are thick corn tortillas stuffed with cheese, optionally fried pork, refried beans, or all sorts of other things, then topped with a tart cabbage salad and an Italianesque red sauce. But truly, you can find just about any cuisine you want in this city if you look for it—D.C.'s international might draws representatives from all corners of the globe, and they all need ex-pat cafes and restaurants to haunt. A few cuisines seem to be missing (notably Southeast Asian & Korean), but they are just across the D.C. borders in Maryland and Virginia.
But despite featuring cuisines from all over the world, D.C. seems to lack a cuisine of its own. The city, realizing this, went through a brief period of soul-searching, wondering why it lacked any unique regional culinary traditions, and realized that it indeed has one: the D.C. hot dog stand. They're everywhere, especially around the Mall, and they sell the unique-to-D.C. smoked half-beef, half-pork sausages appropriately named half-smokes. They have a firm "snap" when you bite into one, are served on a hot dog bun, and are often topped with chili. Most hot dog vendors are mere shells of the half-smoke greatness served out of WWII-era aluminum shacks. If you want a true, quality half-smoke, you should visit Ben's Chili Bowl on U St, which is universally understood to serve the best.
Cupcake fever has hit the District in recent years, first as a local craze, and now a national one fueled by pilgrims lured by shows like Cupcake Wars and DC Cupcakes. The star of the latter show, Georgetown Cupcakes has lines running around the block, with patrons coming from throughout the city and now the whole country. Other cupcakeries that do not have their own shows, however, easily give Georgetown Cupcakes a run for their money in terms of quality. If you're in Georgetown and not up to the lines, try the delicious Baked & Wired or LA transplant Sprinkles instead. If you're downtown, hit the Red Velvet Cupcakery for some of the best little sweet muffins in the city.
There are currently only two kosher restaurants in D.C., and they are very casual: Eli's Restaurant (meat) near Dupont Circle and Distrikt Bistro (meat) inside the JCC. However, there are several other options for kosher dining in neighboring Montgomery County. Metro accessible kosher restaurants in Montgomery County include: Max's Kosher Cafe (meat) and Nut House Pizza (dairy) in Wheaton; Siena's Restaurant (dairy) near the Whiteflint metro; and Cafe Shawreen (meat) near the Twinbrook metro. There are also a number of other kosher restaurants in Montgomery County accessible by car, mostly in Rockville and Kemp Mill.
Whatever bar or club scene you favor, D.C. has it aplenty. The hottest clubbing spots are in Adams Morgan around 18th St, Dupont Circle and nearby Logan Circle, and increasingly (and improbably) on K St near McPherson Square. Adams Morgan's scene is the edgiest (and likely most exciting) of the three, and draws a really young, diverse crowd. Dupont Circle's scene is probably the biggest and most established, with sometimes frighteningly upscale clubs catering to extremely wealthy foreign clientele, as well as a more happy-go-lucky gay scene. Logan Circle is less established as a nightlife hot spot than Dupont, but the two areas otherwise resemble one another.
If these destinations are all a bit too high-octane, you should definitely explore the clubs around U St and 14th St in Shaw, which cater to an older, diverse, and self-regardingly more sophisticated crowd. Shaw is also a fantastic destination for live jazz, with echoes of Ellington ringing out from nearly every restaurant, bar, and not a few world-class music venues on Saturday nights. Georgetown is another major nightlife destination, although the emphasis here is less on dancing and more on drinking. It has tons of bars, most of which have a "privileged" and sometimes rowdy collegiate atmosphere. Back on the topic of live jazz, Georgetown is home to the city's most prestigious venue, Blues Alley.
But that's hardly the end of things. D.C. at the end of the 90s and into the current decade went from being one of the blandest, shut-down-at-ten-o'-clock American cities to having a thriving nightlife scene pretty much city-wide. Aside from the north central neighborhoods listed above, Barracks Row, Woodley Park, and Chevy Chase each have their own nice "strips," mostly filled with upscale bars, that are worth visiting. The downtown nightlife is lacking, to put it mildly. Foggy Bottom, despite the huge quantity of students, remains pretty quiet, and the Penn Quarter is a den of tourist traps. If you're looking for nightlife downtown, research carefully.
Long lacking anything even resembling a bohemian neighborhood, a successful Adams Morgan club owner decided to manufacture one along H St NE around the newly renovated Atlas Theater in the Near Northeast. The result is strange. It may never be properly "bohemian," but the Atlas District is intriguing. It's a poor but quickly gentrifying neighborhood, and is dead quiet most of the week, but now there are blocks worth of crazy dining/clubbing options, and even a few upscale joints, that fill the street on Friday and Saturday nights. The biggest attraction has to be the Palace of Wonders, a vaudeville/sideshow/burlesque bar with sword swallowing bartenders and a "museum of oddities," but there are also a couple surprisingly cool rock clubs, a mini golf bar, Belgian mussels and pommes frites, and even an upscale wine bar and lounge. Streetcar service is expected to begin in 2014, with cars running from Union Station.
Gogo clubs (the funk/hip-hop genre, not dancing in 60s miniskirts) were once probably D.C.'s most distinctive nightlife scene, concentrated in Anacostia, but today all indoor gogo performances have been banned in D.C., due to a backlash at the staggering number of homicides occurring at clubs and events. If you're looking for live gogo today, look for big outdoor events or head out to the Takoma Station in a homicide-free section of the Northeast, which seems to get away with regular gogo acts by claiming to be a jazz club.
Most tourists in D.C. look for accommodations close to the Smithsonian, and accordingly the East End is where most tourists wind up. There are lots of restaurants and nightlife options in the immediate area, you can walk to the Mall, and you'll feel like you're at the center of town.
But keep in mind that proximity to the Mall is really not so useful as proximity to a Metro stop. For a more authentic Washingtonian experience, visitors might prefer to stay in one of the numerous hotels just a little further north in Dupont Circle or Logan Circle, or just east in the historic Capitol Hill neighborhood. These neighborhoods are real hot spots among locals for their upscale dining and nightlife scenes. Moreover, you can actually find weekend street parking and avoid the $25–55 nightly fee hotels will charge you to keep your car downtown.
The West End also offers upscale hotels close to the Mall, catering especially to the business travelers who bustle along K St during the day. The downside to the West End is that the downtown commercial area is deserted after dark. A bit further west is Georgetown, which is perhaps D.C.'s most charming neighborhood, with a wealth of smaller, expensive hotels in the midst of a great dining and nightlife scene. Take note, though, that Georgetown lacks a Metro stop (to keep out the riffraff), so you'll find yourself taking taxis or buses to get to the Mall and to other neighborhoods.
It's worth noting that Washington is a relatively small city, acreage-wise, and it's very easy and quick to stay in the close-in suburbs and take the Metro into town. You can save meaningful cash this way; suburban hotels are often substantially cheaper and D.C.'s hotel tax is an eye-popping 14.5%. Parts of Arlington and Alexandria, as well as Bethesda and Silver Spring, have easy Metro access into the District, and are worthwhile destinations in their own right.
While Washington rivaled other U.S. cities for the Murder Capital of America title in the early 1980s-1990s, violent crime has since fallen dramatically. Certain neighborhoods in the less traveled parts of the city (especially near public housing projects) are the main contributors to D.C.'s high murder rate, but as a visitor to the city you are extremely unlikely to be victim of a homicide—the vast majority of homicide victims in the U.S. are acquainted with their murderer long before the crime, and there simply are not that many murders to begin with—robbery is a more travel-relevant problem.
The trickiest aspect of staying safe in D.C. lies in the fact that the most dynamic neighborhoods, sporting great nightlife, dining, and diversity, are home to the majority of the city's muggings. Muggings are a problem in the north central neighborhoods of Shaw/U Street and Adams Morgan-Columbia Heights, in stark contrast to the popular belief that "gentrification" has somehow made the area safer. That's not to say that visitors should avoid these areas—on the contrary, it would be a shame to miss out on them—but that visitors should be vigilant. In particular, avoid walking at night on side streets—stick to the well-lit main commercial strips, travel in groups, and maintain a basic level of sobriety, and you won't run into trouble. Be extra vigilant in this area with your expensive electronic devices, as they are a very popular snatch-and-grab item around the Metro stations.
You will often hear people warn away people from visiting the "northeast" and "southeast" sections of the city, but this well meaning advice is far too generalized to be of any real use. While some neighborhoods do indeed have severe problems with violent crime, particularly near city housing projects, most areas in the east of the city (particularly in the northeast) are simply quiet, peaceful residential neighborhoods—with a good deal less violent crime than gentrified neighborhoods in north central D.C. And there are a bunch of great places to visit with NE or SE addresses: Capitol Hill/Barracks Row, the National Shrine, the National Arboretum, H St NE, Takoma, the Nationals Stadium, etc.
Lastly, the Metro is quite safe, and you should not shy away from using it at any time of the day.
Smoking is banned within almost all enclosed public spaces, including shops, restaurants, bars, clubs, and so on. Most, but not all, restaurants allow smoking in patio seating (if there are no ashtrays, ask for one to double check). There is always a bit of talk of sidewalk laws, which would require smokers to wander a certain distance from the bar door, but that remains just talk. Businesses relying principally on tobacco sales are exempt, so there are still tobacco shops, cigar bars, and hookah bars, but with the exception of the hookah, they're rare in this anti-tobacco town.
Talking on your cell phone while driving carries a $100 fine, and unlike in the rest of the country, that law is strictly enforced within the District. Pull over and put your car in park. Hands free devices are permitted, but if you get pulled over for another violation while using one, expect a hard line from the police, who are sick of dealing with accidents caused by distracted drivers.
Note that when visiting federal buildings and museums, you will pass through metal detectors and have your bags inspected. Some buildings (such as courts, etc.) even ban mobile telephones and recording devices. To tour federal buildings, such as the Capitol Building and the White House, you will usually have to go through the hassle of arranging an appointment or tour in advance (at least they're free!). Tours of the Capitol Building and the White House can be arranged by contacting the office of a Congressman or the Capitol Visitor Center.
Security here has no sense of humor. If you so much as utter the word "bomb," you will be in for a bad time. You give implied consent for your property and person to be searched when entering a government building or public event (sports, music). If you are not comfortable with the searches, you can always elect not to enter.
If all this security and procedure is starting to wear you down, get out of the city center and unwind. You'll find a slower pace on the waterfront, especially on Capitol Hill or Georgetown. As far as parks go, the Dumbarton Oaks gardens in Georgetown as well as Roosevelt Island just east of the Key Bridge (in Arlington) are both great getaways. Better yet, leave the city altogether and take a leisurely stroll in Old Town Alexandria, followed by a relaxing meal.
For health emergencies, George Washington University Hospital is on Washington Circle in Foggy Bottom, adjacent to the Foggy Bottom Metro station. This is where former Vice President Dick Cheney went in 2004 for his irregular heartbeat, and where the President would go in event of a medical emergency. Other hospitals in the city include Howard University Hospital, Georgetown University Hospital, Washington Hospital Center, and the Children's National Medical Center. If you are looking for a quick walk-in clinic, try Farragut Medical & Travel Care, 815 Connecticut Ave NW, ☎ +1 202 775-8500. M-F 10AM-5PM.
As in most of the U.S., Internet cafes are a rare phenomenon. However, the D.C. government operates a network of free, public WiFi hotspots across the entire city. WiFi is also available at D.C. public libraries and many local coffee shops (which are also nice places to relax). The libraries have public terminals for non-wireless Internet access as well. Failing that, you can also just hang around outside a hotel (or even inside the lobby) and take advantage of the WiFi provided to guests.
The one telephone area code throughout the District is 202, although you will also see a lot of Maryland (301 and 240) and Virginia (703 and 571) area codes. Pay phones are nearly extinct, with one handy exception—all Metro stations have at least one.
- Washington Post. The Post is both one of the country's preeminent newspapers and a great source of information for what is going on in the city. The Going Out Guide section of its website has listings for virtually every known restaurant, bar, theatrical production, music concert, etc. in the city.
- Washington City Paper. The City Paper, an alternative weekly newspaper distributed on Thursdays, is easy to find around Metro stations and in hotels, and has a listings section in the back that serves as a good, quick reference for what live music, DJ events, theater, gallery openings, etc. will be going on over the weekend (and the following week). The calendar on their website is particularly handy. The cover story can give you a good taste of the sorts of issues actually on the minds of locals—well detached from the culture and priorities of the national politics features in the Post!
- Washingtonian Magazine highlights events in the city as well as dining recommendations.
- Where Magazine. "Where" is a monthly glossy geared towards tourists, and is a fantastic source of information on upcoming happenings, particularly useful for listing the current exhibitions in the city's museums in a convenient fashion (this information is often overlooked by journals tailored to locals, jaded and spoiled from living in a city full of free museums).
D.C. is home to an astonishing amount of embassies, and any country without one will have consular representation one way or another. Most are housed in beautiful old buildings (or impressive modern ones), especially those most prominently located along Embassy Row on Massachusetts Ave through Dupont Circle and Woodley Park. If you just want to visit one for the heck of it, try ringing the buzzer of one from a small, lesser-known country—they may well let you in and give a little tour! Each May, dozens of embassies open their doors to the public for the Passport D.C. festival, which showcases the buildings themselves, as well as exhibits, talks, and performances.
D.C. is, perhaps surprisingly, a fairly fashion conscious city; downtown and in the more fashionable districts (especially Dupont Circle, Georgetown, and U St at night) you will see fewer T-shirts and fewer still shorts. While the stereotypical drab formality trickles down from the politicians and those who must work with them, something approaching actual stylishness has been making rumblings in the past ten years, much to the surprise of longtime residents. Now, if you just want to enjoy being a tourist, don't worry—you'll be in good company! But if you prefer to blend in, a safe bet anytime of day are nice dark jeans and an un-tucked button-up shirt, and perhaps dark sneakers or something a little nicer and more stylish. Women will often blend in better in a nice pair of sandals, boots, or other nice shoes, and maybe skipping the T-shirt and sneaks in the evening.
For fine dining, expect to dress nicely. A good button-up shirt and slacks are a must for any nice restaurant. Ties are never a necessity, but the most formal restaurants (mostly steakhouses and French) will require men to wear jackets (but will usually have courtesy jackets on loan in case you forget). Women will be fine in a dress, skirt, or nice pants.
One inevitable problem with sightseeing in D.C. is that few major attractions will let you bring in bags, (or cameras, in the case of the White House) and baggage storage is rare for security reasons. If you want to avoid going back to your hotel to pick up your belongings, your options for storage are limited. Tiburon Lockers (6AM-10PM, daily) offers baggage storage in Union Station for $3–6 per bag per hour or $13–48 per bag per day, depending on the size of the bag. The National Gallery offers free storage for only small bags such as handbags or briefcases. Otherwise, head over to a hotel in the East End and slip a $20 (minimum) tip to a bellman and ask nicely if he might store your bags.
Northern Virginia destinations
Just across the river
- Arlington is located directly across the Potomac River from D.C. and includes must-see attractions including the Pentagon, Arlington National Cemetery, and the Iwo Jima Memorial, as well as the largest shopping malls in the DC area.
- Alexandria is located south of Arlington, along the Potomac River, and a short metro ride away from DC. Old Town Alexandria features cobblestone streets, nearly 4,000 buildings dating as far back as the 1600s, and shops and good restaurants. The George Washington Masonic Memorial, dedicated to George Washington, is a must-see.
- George Washington Memorial Parkway is a scenic road that runs along the Virginia side of the Potomac River between Mount Vernon and Great Falls. Two trail networks for running/walking/cycling intersect the parkway: the 18-mile Mount Vernon Trail and the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, which runs between Theodore Roosevelt Island and Mount Vernon.
- Great Falls includes Great Falls Park, an 800-acre park along the Potomac River, located 14 miles northwest from Washington, DC. The park includes many beautiful hiking trails and the area's largest waterfall.
- Manassas National Battlefield Park, near the suburb of Manassas, preserves two major Civil War battlefields. The visitor center ($3 fee, Park Pass applies) is open 8:30AM-5PM daily; there are walking and driving tours of First and Second Manassas battlefields, respectively. Manassas is a nice escape from the hubbub of the city, particularly in fall and spring (walking the grounds in the summer heat and humidity can be an ordeal).
- Mount Vernon was the home of George Washington, the first President of the United States. The mansion overlooks the Potomac River and now includes a huge museum dedicated to the life of America's first president.
- National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is located near Dulles International Airport. This companion facility of the National Air and Space Museum houses air and spacecraft including an SR-71 "Blackbird" spy plane, a Concorde supersonic jet, and the space shuttle Discovery. Admission is free. Parking is available for $15/vehicle or take the public bus from the airport.
- Charlottesville, located 114 miles southwest of D.C., is home to the University of Virginia, as well as Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate and vineyard, and Ash Lawn-Highland, the home of President James Monroe.
- Outlet shopping is available at Potomac Mills in Woodbridge and Leesburg Corner in Leesburg. If you don't have a rental car, Potomac Mills is best reached by taking the Metro blue line to the end at Franconia-Springfield and then either taking the OmniBus (weekdays only) or catching a cab for a 20–25 minute ride. Leesburg Corner can be reached by taking the Metro orange line to Dunn Loring station and then taking a 45 minute cab ride or by taking the Reston Limo ($40 roundtrip).
- McLean features Tysons Corner, America's twelfth largest retail and office district, which includes two unconnected malls, Tysons I and Tysons II. Tysons I has a larger selection of stores; Tysons II is more upscale. The Tysons Corner Metro Station is scheduled to open in 2013.
- Annandale is the D.C. area's Koreatown, with some of the best Korean BBQ you'll find anywhere outside Seoul, many of which are open 24 hours per day! There is no Metro stop here, so this is a hard place to get to without a car, but the meals are phenomenal.
- Falls Church is home to the largest Vietnamese community on the East Coast, and the food is magnificent!
- Reston, particularly Reston Town Center, offers some nice restaurants, shops, and bars with nightlife.
Baltimore Day Trips
A day trip to Baltimore is a great idea. It's easiest to get to Baltimore by MARC Train's Penn Line ($7) on weekdays, but there is no service on weekends, and the last train back to D.C. departs at 8:50 PM from Baltimore Penn Station (a short distance north of the Inner Harbor and Camden Yards, but with much more frequent service to/from DC and a light rail connection to downtown Baltimore). When the MARC Train lets you down, you will have to take the Baltimore Light Rail ($1.60) to BWI Airport and then transfer to either the B30 express Metrobus ($6) to the Greenbelt Metro stop or the brand new MTA 201 bus to the Shady Grove Metro stop in Gaithersburg ($5; last bus leaves at 11:00PM, 365 days a year)—or opt for a somewhat more expensive Amtrak train ride from Baltimore Penn Station, which leaves roughly every hour throughout the night. If this sounds like a headache, a one-day car rental is a serviceable option.
Baltimore's Inner Harbor is home to the National Aquarium, the U.S.S. Constellation, and numerous shops and restaurants. During the spring and summer, Camden Yards is a good place to see a baseball game, and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum is near the ballpark. The Fells Point neighborhood also has many popular bars and restaurants. From spring to fall, you can take a water taxi from the Inner Harbor to historic Fort McHenry. Midtown is also a great place to visit for museums, bars, and restaurants; and Little Italy is home to a number of great Italian restaurants.
- Annapolis is located 32 miles east of Washington DC, along Route 50. It is the Maryland state capital and home to the Naval Academy. Its historic district has numerous shops and restaurants along the Chesapeake Bay waterfront. It is a good place to take a boat trip.
- Bethesda is accessible using the Red Line Metro and features almost 200 restaurants with food from all over the world.
- Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park is located minutes from the Beltway and features several hiking trails as well as Great Falls, the most impressive waterfall in the area. The park also offers kayaking and rock climbing. It can be accessed from the Maryland and Virginia sides off of I-495 or via a 13-mile scenic hiker-biker trail from Georgetown.
- Kensington hosts an amazing annual Christmas light display at its massive Mormon Temple visible from the Beltway (which looks a lot like the Emerald Palace of Wizard of Oz fame). It's a must see. Antique Row is also worth a look.
- Silver Spring is accessible using the Red Line Metro and features the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre along with plenty of restaurants and retail, and upscale parks.
- Wheaton is accessible using the Red Line Metro and has some of the best ethnic dining in the entire metro area.
- Takoma Park, a bohemian Victorian suburb, is accessible using the Red Line Metro and has eclectic shops.
- Eastern Shore (Maryland) is an agrarian and maritime peninsula area, comprising hundreds of miles of shoreline on bays, coves and rivers. It is located about an hour east of Washington across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge from Annapolis. Peppered with historic towns and farms, the area has retained much of the charm of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries when a ferry was the principal way to get there. Fisherman (known locally as "watermen") still pursue Blue Crabs, oysters and Rockfish. Restaurants in towns like Rock Hall, St. Michaels and Oxford overlook picturesque harbors while serving up extraordinary local seafood. Wildlife is abundant most of the year at places like Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Best reached by renting a car for a day, the Eastern Shore provides some of the most visually stunning views of water and wildlife on the East Coast.
|Routes through Washington, D.C.|
|Lynchburg/Newport News ← Alexandria ←||SW NE||→ New Carrollton → Baltimore|
|Middletown ← Arlington ←||W E||→ END|
|Ends at ← National Harbor ←||S/W N/E||→ Becomes|
|Springfield ← Arlington ←||S/W N/E||→ END|
|Richmond ← Arlington ←||S/W N/E||→ Brentwood → Baltimore|
|Winchester ← Arlington ←||W E||→ New Carrollton → Annapolis|
|Becomes ←||S/W N/E||→ Becomes → Greenbelt → Baltimore|