Overview

Washington, D.C., is a beautiful city of broad avenues, impressive government buildings, inspiring monuments, thought-provoking museums and spacious parks. The names you've heard all your life are there: Lincoln Memorial, the U.S. Capitol, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Washington National Cathedral, Washington Monument, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. No traveler could mistake this city for any other.

And all the everyday details remind you that the local industry is government: cars with diplomatic plates, official guards at entrances, vast regiments of briefcases swinging along the avenues.

Along with the trappings of power and ambition, Washington, D.C., is a cosmopolitan city filled with a population of transient but well-educated residents, a never-ending array of interesting (and mostly free) events, and world-class eats. It's a beautiful city, too, full of stately white buildings, museums and galleries best recognized as national institutions. The many children who visit, either with school groups or with their families, receive a fascinating introduction to the nation's past and an overview of its governing structure. Washington, D.C., shows itself well as the nation's capital.

Geography

When Frenchman Pierre L'Enfant was contracted to design the city, he added diagonal avenues (named for the individual states) to the plan—in addition to a logical grid pattern of streets—forming squares and circles when they met with the grid streets. One theory is that L'Enfant designed the city this way so that encroaching armies would get confused by the pattern and have trouble attacking the capital city. Unfortunately, that idea didn't work, as the British had no problem burning the White House in 1814. The only result of the design was that he caused visitors and locals alike to get lost. Nevertheless, if one is patient and doesn't mind backtracking a bit, the city is not too difficult to traverse. L'Enfant's plan also called for plenty of open spaces and parks, which has greatly added to the beauty of the city.

Washington, D.C., is divided into four geographic districts—northwest, southwest, northeast and southeast—whose center is the Capitol. Addresses in Washington include a quadrant indicator at the end. For instance, because the White House is in the northwest quadrant, its address is 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W. Check that indicator before heading out so you don't end up in the wrong part of town.

The most visible landmark in town is the 555-ft/169-m obelisk known as the Washington Monument, a good way to orient yourself in the city. It's in the middle of the grassy expanse called the National Mall. Stand with your back to the monument, facing the White House: Off to your right are many museums and the major federal buildings; on the hill in the distance are the Capitol and—blocked from view behind it—the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. To your left are the Reflecting Pool, the World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and—in the distance across the Potomac—the hills of Arlington National Cemetery.

The city's major thoroughfares are Constitution and Independence avenues (flanking the Mall), Pennsylvania Avenue (connecting the White House to Capitol Hill) and Massachusetts Avenue (connecting Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle and Embassy Row). Also of interest to visitors are Connecticut Avenue and Wisconsin Avenue, abounding with shops, hotels and restaurants. A great boon to residents and visitors alike is another "thoroughfare," Washington's excellent Metro rail system. Keeping a map of the Metro system on hand is a good idea.

History

A town built on the swamps of the Potomac River, Washington has evolved not only into a center for international politics, but also into a charming, world-class city dedicated to history and culture. Almost all of its wide avenues and gleaming white buildings have a story to tell.

A major factor in the evolution of Washington, D.C., was air-conditioning. Without that modern convenience, government would not have become a full-time, year-round occupation—at least not in this city, which was built on swampland in the center of the original American colonies. George Washington chose the site and talked some landowners into donating it to the new government. He and the other founders thought the capital should exist as a separate entity, distinct from the interests of any individual U.S. state. So it was not made—and has not become—a state.

Not until after the Civil War did Washington come into its own, capable of meeting its promise as a symbol of the country's best hopes. Politicians became more eager to go to Washington, and so did intellectuals, artists and African Americans seeking a tolerant atmosphere (though blacks often found themselves treated as harshly in the District of Columbia as they were in segregationist states).

The fact that Washington, D.C., has never been granted statehood is a bone of contention, especially for the more than 600,000 people who live within its borders. Washingtonians can vote for president and vice president of the U.S., but they have no representation in the Senate and only one nonvoting member in the House of Representatives. Congress must approve the city's budget and has veto power over any laws it passes. Because Washingtonians pay federal taxes, the phrase Taxation Without Representation is sometimes seen on license plates in protest. In the 20th century, Washington residents were given something called "home rule," meaning that they may elect a mayor and city council, but their government is still subject to oversight by the U.S. Congress.

While other cities throughout the U.S. struggled with recession and high unemployment during the financial crisis of 2008, Washington, D.C., was barely impacted. The district's continued economic growth, largely fueled by federal spending, has become a hotly contested topic. In 2012, Washington officially surpassed Silicon Valley to become the wealthiest metropolitan area in the U.S., and nine of the country's richest counties are located in surrounding areas. This economic growth has brought about many social changes in the city, including neighborhood gentrification and a dramatic increase in young professionals and entrepreneurs who service the public sector. With this growth, however, has also come an increase in the region's income disparity—a widening gap between D.C.'s highest and lowest earners.

Most visitors will not see signs of the city's internal tensions: The streets may be potholed, but the taxis are relatively inexpensive, the Metro rail often runs on time, and many of the sights and monuments are administered by the federal government and operate efficiently.

Sightseeing

Washington is, of course, packed with impressive government buildings such as the Capitol and the Supreme Court; inspiring monuments to such leaders as Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln; and world-class museums, several under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution. Many attractions charge no admission fee, and a good number are open daily.

Most key sites are located on or near the National Mall, the great grassy strip stretching from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. It's easy to guide yourself down the Mall, but it would take weeks to do and see everything thoroughly along the way. You can also view the critical spots from the Old Town Trolley or Big Bus Tours, two shuttles that run frequently between key attractions. U.S. citizens can reduce waits by asking their senators and representatives well in advance for VIP tours of the White House, the Capitol, the Library of Congress, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The busiest times for sightseeing are spring and summer, when you can expect long lines at many sites.

In this era of heightened security, you'll find tight security measures in place at many sites. Searches of handbags and other personal items have become common, prolonging the time you spend waiting in lines. Most tours of working government facilities and buildings such as the White House, U.S. Capitol Building and Pentagon require advanced reservations for tours, some of which must be made through your local representative or embassy. We recommend visitors interested in touring such facilities make their reservations well in advance, as space is limited and usually a minimum of a month's notice is required for security vetting purposes.

It's also a good idea to call the attractions you wish to see before your visit to get the latest word on hours and security procedures, as many sites also maintain a list of prohibited items that can change at a moment's notice. One final point of note is that most museums and government facilities also enforce a strict policy prohibiting photos or recording of any kind. Most places will have this fact clearly stated in numerous locations, but if in doubt, it's always wise to ask a guide or other personnel before you start snapping.

Nightlife

Something is always going on in this city. College students flock to bars in Georgetown and Adams Morgan, which also offer artsy coffeehouses and multicultural restaurants. Dupont Circle attracts a more sophisticated and international crowd. U Street and the 14th Street corridor are popular nightlife areas, and quieter Capitol Hill pubs fill up when the halls of Congress empty for the day.

Most places shut down at 2 am on weeknights and 3 am on weekends. The Metro continues running till 3 am on Friday and Saturday nights. Beers average US$6-$9 everywhere, while top-shelf cocktails can run you closer to US$15. Liquor-licensing laws require all clubs and bars to serve food. All establishments in the District are smoke-free by law.

If you go out to eat Thursday-Saturday nights, try to make reservations or be prepared for a wait. It's common to find 30-minute waits (or longer) at restaurants on busy nights. Many establishments have happy hour during the week 4-8 pm, and more and more bars have extended happy hour to Saturday as well.

Although most bars and even many lounges don't charge cover fees, expect to pay around US$20 at most nightclubs. Most clubs will allow you to register online for their guest list and will waive the cover charge if you arrive before 11 pm. Entrance to live music venues can be a little cheaper, depending on the popularity of the acts.

Dining

There is an abundance of quality restaurants in Washington. Many of them are sites of "power lunches" convened by lobbyists and other movers and shakers in business suits. D.C. has always been known as a culinary city, and the arrival of famed chefs such as David Chang, Michel Richard and Jose Andres has only added icing to the cake, so to speak.

Continuous waves of immigration bring an immense diversity of cuisines to the Washington area, particularly with Spanish, Asian and fusion flavors in recent years. Hot spots include U Street, Adams Morgan and the Penn Quarter.

Washington is a town that rises early, with many people at their desks before 8 am. But it also contains plenty of night owls, as well. Most restaurants serve food until at least 9:30 pm.

All of Washington, D.C.'s eating establishments are smoke-free.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, excluding drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$25; $$ = US$25-$40; $$$ = US$41-$55; $$$$ = more than US$55.

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