Washington, D.C. is the capital of the United States of America it is the seat of its three branches of government, and it is the federal district of the U.S. The city 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 famous throughout the world as icons of the world's wealthiest and most powerful nation.
D.C. shed its former reputation as a boring and dangerous city and it now has shopping, dining, and nightlife befitting a world-class metropolis. Travellers will find the city new, exciting, and decidedly cosmopolitan and international.
Virtually all of D.C.'s tourists flock to the National 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.
The center of it all:
The National Mall — the national park at the center of the city, surrounded by the white monumental buildings of the U.S. government, and containing an extraordinary collection of monuments, memorials, free museums, cherry blossoms, and pigeons.
East End — D.C.'s downtown cultural center, with the main theater district, more great museums, more than a few tourist traps, the Verizon Center, the Convention Center, Chinatown, and fine dining a la José Andrés.
West End — home to D.C.'s central business district, the White House, George Washington University, and the Kennedy Center.
Capitol Hill — starting at the Capitol Building and Library of Congress, and fanning out past grandiose Union Station into a quiet, historic neighborhood home to most of the Hill's congressional staffers and some nice restaurants on Barracks Row, and then extending out to RFK Stadium.
Waterfront — a booming neighborhood just south of the Mall, with an open-air waterfront seafood market within easy walking distance from the Mall, and the brand new home of the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park.
The prestigious, wealthy side of town:
Georgetown — D.C.'s most historic neighborhood, and one of its most trendy, is home to the fabled "Washington Elite," the city's première upmarket dining scene, colonial architecture and cobblestone streets, tons of sports bars, upscale and boutique shopping, bucolic Dumbarton Oaks, and Georgetown University.
Upper Northwest — the wealthy side of town, with a couple of very big attractions in the form of the excellent National Zoo, the gargantuan National Cathedral, and the city's main luxury shopping strip in Chevy Chase.
D.C.'s trendiest and most diverse neighborhoods, where the locals go for nightlife:
Dupont Circle — probably the number one contender for D.C.'s trendiest neighborhood, Dupont Circle has tons of restaurants, nightclubs, popular watering holes, shopping, most of Embassy Row along Massachusetts Ave, and is the center for the city's large gay community.
Shaw — the more laid back of the three North Central neighborhoods, which historically has been the center of African-American cultural life in the city, has nightlife along U St catering to a slightly older (some would say more sophisticated) crowd, virtually all the city's great live jazz, incredible food in Little Ethiopia, off-beat shopping, the city's main live music venues, and its most exciting art gallery scene at Logan Circle.
Adams Morgan — 18th St is caffeine central in what has been dubbed the "Liquorridor" for its hordes of clubs and bars; in addition to exploding real estate prices and high energy nightlife, Adams Morgan has a lot of good restaurants and is just a nice neighborhood for a walk; just northwest of the main area is Mount Pleasant, home to most of the city's big Salvadoran population and its signature comfort food, the pupusa.
Even the least visited side of the city still has a lot to see:
Near Northeast — offbeat nightlife in the Atlas District near Gallaudet University, and the huge National Arboretum.
Brookland-Petworth-Takoma — a bunch of eccentric neighborhoods to explore and D.C.'s "Little Vatican" around the National Shrine and Catholic University.
Anacostia — the many neighborhoods East of the River falls off even the radar of the locals, but can make a great "day trip" to visit the Frederick Douglass and Smithsonian Anacostia museums and the beautiful Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, or simply to better understand how such a poor and neglected neighborhood with such rich history could exist right in the capital of the world's richest nation.
D.C. is actually at the center of one of the country's largest metropolitan areas, and a lot of the big area attractions, such as the Arlington Cemetery, the Iwo Jima Memorial, the airports, the Pentagon, the National Mormon Temple, the area's best ethnic dining, and hotels without the dreaded D.C. hotel tax are actually just beyond the rather arbitrary city borders—don't miss the Best of the 'Burbs.
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 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 the lawmakers 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.
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 an eccentric and 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 new capital 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, east and west. Compared to other American cities, relatively few residents are native Washingtonians. Most recent census figures report that about 50% of the population of D.C. moved to the city within 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.
According to the 2010 census, D.C.s population is 51% black, 39% white, and 9% Hispanic. As a result of its large black population, D.C. has long been a national center of African-American culture. Known as the "Chocolate City" due to its black heritage, 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 in Shaw was known as Black Broadway, with native Washingtonian Duke Ellington performing in the clubs on this 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. It was the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the first of the formerly-segregated U.S. cities integrate its public schools in 1954. D.C. is also home to Howard University in Shaw, one of the nation's most important historically black colleges. 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.
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, 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 community from Ethiopia (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, residents of D.C. 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 D.C. government. The 600,000+ 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.
D.C.'s climate has a bad reputation; there is a popular myth that the city was 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.
The myth of bad weather in the capital may result from the fact that most people 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 National 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.
However, 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. Most winters are mild, but like the rest of the U.S., Arctic cold fronts can bring a wind chill to Washington. 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.
In addition to the above, a trip to D.C. is a good time to pick up a presidential biography or two. Favorites include:
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.
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (IATA: DCA), is the closest and most convenient airport to D.C., located three miles (5km) 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:
Washington Dulles International Airport (IATA: IAD), is located 26 miles (42 km) west of D.C. in Dulles, Virginia and serves as D.C.'s primary international and intercontinental airport. It is served by all major American carriers (including United Airlines, which has a hub at Dulles), as well as many international airlines. Non-stop service is available on a variety of airlines to North America, the Caribbean, Central and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. It is an architectural masterpiece, but unfortunately some functionality was scrapped in pursuit of aesthetics—you will have to take a train between the main building and the concourses.
If you have extra time to kill at Dulles, consider taking Fairfax Connector Bus #983 to the free Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center, which includes an unrivaled collection of spacecraft and aircraft. The bus departs from the airport every 20 minutes daily, costing $1.75 and taking 12 minutes to reach the museum.
To get to D.C. from the airport:
• Fairfax Connector Routes 981/983 are a slower but cheaper option to travel between the airport and the Wiehle-Reston East Metro Station (Silver Line). Buses depart every 20 minutes from 9AM-7PM and every 40 minutes from 6AM-9AM and 7PM-11PM. The bus journey takes 30 minutes and costs $1.75. From there, the Metro to downtown takes another 40 minutes.
Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (IATA: BWI), is 30 miles (48 km) northeast of D.C. and 10 miles (16 km) 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:
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 and Cleveland while the Cardinal runs to Chicago passing thru Cincinnati and Indianapolis. A few lines also stop in adjacent Alexandria, Virginia, very close to the King Street stop on the Blue/Yellow Metro lines. If you are coming from the south, it might be easier to get off there, depending on your destination.
Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) runs between D.C.'s Union Station to/from Baltimore's Camden Station or Penn Station. However, only the Penn Line stops at BWI Airport and provides weekend service. 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.
Baggage storage (left luggage) is available at Union Station and is provided through a private third-party vendor, Tiburon Lockers.
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 Regulations are complicated in D.C. On weekdays, visitors to the city will have to pay for a garage spot. Metered parking is present throughout commercial areas, and meters are limited to two hours during the daytime. Zone parking is free, but you are limited to parking for two hours in each zone per day, although there is no parking time limit between 10PM and 7AM. So, presumably, you could move your car to a different zone every 2 hours during the day and then find a metered spot to ditch your car overnight, but that would not be practical. Weekends and federal holidays are more accommodating to guests as there are less parking restrictions.
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 2,194-space, $22/day, Union Station parking lot in Capitol Hill 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 (under $5/day) near Metro stops just outside of the city (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 at all, 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, if you are staying for a while, be aware that enforcement is increasing on "abandoned" cars in the outlying counties.
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 buses have power outlets and Wi-Fi access, although the wi-fi tends to be unreliable.
D.C. is a walking and biking town. It's no surprise that D.C. has been cited as the fittest city in the country; 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, biking, or taking a pedicab 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, a wide-brimmed hat, 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 website goDCgo.
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 as the distance from the Capitol building increases. The numerous diagonal avenues, many named after states, that serve as the city's principal arteries. The street numbers and letters increase with distance from the Capitol. The 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. However, you will find that many street names were simply extended where practical and, past the letter "W", east-west streets loosely follow other alphabetical naming patterns.
Curious to note, visitors to Washington will quickly discover that there is no "J" St. 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."
The Metrorail is D.C.'s intra-city train system. It is composed of six color-coded rail lines that run primarily underground within the District and above ground in the nearby suburbs. Washingtonians are proud of their Metro system. It's clean, safe, user-friendly, and sports a surprisingly elegant and pleasing brutalist aesthetic.
However, on nights and weekends, constant track maintenance can cause delays of up to 30 minutes beyond the already reduced schedules, making getting around the city by public transportation significantly more difficult. The Metro also attracts very large crowds during major public events; expect jam-packed stations and trains during any major event in DC such as the July 4th parade.
Metrorail fares are complicated and vary 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.
*Riders using a paper farecard (see below) must add an additional $1 fee to all fares.
Users can enter the Metrorail system by inserting a paper farecard ($1 surcharge) or by tapping a SmarTrip debit card. The same farecard or Smarttrip card is needed to exit the Metrorail system. The SmarTrip debit card ($10 cost with $8 transportation credit) can be used on the Metrorail 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. Sales of paper farecards will be eliminated in 2015. SmarTrip cards can be bought online, at Metro stations, and at all D.C.-area CVS stores.
Posted guides will help you calculate the appropriate fare for your ride, but since the paper farecards and SmarTrip cards are reusable and refillable, it's often easier to not worry about the fare; just put $10 on your card and refill as needed. The SmarTrip 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 on the weekdays in almost all Metro lots. Parking is free on weekends and federal holidays.
Flat-rate Metrorail passes that give riders an unlimited number of trips within the system for a set number of days are available for purchase at Metrorail stations. However, the passes are rarely a good deal for most tourists due to their high cost and restrictions on the time of day that they can be used.
The farecards and Metro passes are needed to both enter and exit the system. Therefore, keep them handy but keep paper farecards away from 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.
D.C.'s bus system is visitor-friendly and reaches destinations that are hard to reach by Metrorail.
By Circulator Bus
The tourist-friendly D.C. Circulator buses operate between main attractions and the city's most popular neighborhoods for visitors. All D.C. Circulator routes run every ten minutes and cost $1 per ride. There are five routes:
Metrobus operates hundreds of routes throughout the D.C. metro area. Metrobus will take you places hard to reach via Metrorail or the Circulator, and can be a really convenient, comfortable way to travel. In addition, some Metrobus lines operate later into the night than Metrorail. WMATA's website publishes maps and timetables for all routes, as well as system maps for its entire network. Most routes cost a flat fare of $1.75 if paying with cash or SmarTrip card. Seniors pay half fare and up to two children ages four and younger ride free per one paying adult.
Every bus stop has a number written on it, which you can enter on the WMATA Next Bus Arrivals website or by phone (+1 202 637-7000) to get a highly accurate estimate of when the next bus will arrive to that stop, including active tracking on Google Maps. Free iPhone and Android apps that provide live Metrobus data are also available.
The following important routes provide reliable and direct service along the city's most well-traveled corridors, running about every ten to twenty minutes:
D.C. seems to be one of the last bastions of a competitive taxi market; there are plenty of small cab companies to choose from. However, the quality of the vehicle and driving is often poor.
Roof lights on all D.C. cabs have LED text that explicitly state whether the cab is available for hire, on call, or off duty.
The D.C. government provides an alphabetical list of all licensed taxi companies. 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 largest companies in suburban Maryland are Barwood, ☎ +1 301 984-1900, in Montgomery County and Silver Cab, ☎ +1 301 277-6000 in Prince George's County. In Virginia, Red Top, ☎ +1 703 522-3333, services both Arlington County and Alexandria City. Mobile-phone based car services such as Uber and Lyft also service the DC area.
Taxicab drivers are required to take passengers anywhere within the Washington Metropolitan Area, although some grumble about going out to Maryland and Virginia. D.C. cab fares for interstate trips are the same as the standard rates. Please note that with the exception of rides to and from the airport, it is illegal for non-D.C. cabs to pick up passengers within the District; the same rule applies for D.C. cabs in Maryland and Virginia.
All D.C. cabs are required to accept credit cards and provide receipts on request.
Taxi rates for DC-based taxicabs are fixed by the DC Taxicab Commission, currently $3.50 for the first eighth of a mile and 27¢ for each additional eighth of a mile. There is a $1.00 surcharge for additional passengers beyond the first, regardless of the number of people. There is no rush hour fee, although meters do charge 42¢ for each minute the car is stopped in traffic or traveling under 10 mph.
District of Columbia speed limits are photo enforced. Speeding will result in a ticket issued to you by mail.
Driving in D.C. is difficult. Even most Washingtonians avoid driving downtown or during the long rush hours. Headaches of driving in D.C. include limited and expensive parking, ruthless enforcement of complicated parking rules, 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. D.C. is routinely ranked as one of the top 10 congested cities in the country. A report from Allstate Insurance reveals that you are statistically more likely to get into an accident in D.C. than any other city in the U.S. 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, 6-10AM and 4-8PM), 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 and 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." Note that some lanes on the Beltway in Virginia require the payment of a toll, with the fee varying based on time and congestion. The Dulles Tollway from I-495 to the airport (VA-267) is also a toll road. Drivers need an E-Z Pass transponder to pay tolls.
Washington boasts several scenic drives:
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.
Tips for Bicycling in Washington, D.C.
Tourists may also take advantage of some of the Washington area's fantastic biking trails:
If you'd rather relax than pedal, there are several pedicab tour/ride companies in DC. Rates are generally affordable and negotiable, but usually more expensive than taxis. Advanced bookings are strongly suggested for tours and reserved rides as these services do get busy and sell out particularly in the late afternoons and evenings.
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 Museum of Natural History, 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 the world's most 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 Wikitravel 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, 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 building 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 and tax revenues and causes rents to soar. This has sparked suburban sprawl which has helped cause terrible traffic congestion. On the upside, the building height limitations mean 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:
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.
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:
D.C. has a professional team in each of the six major U.S. professional sports.
The Washington Redskins are one of professional football's most established and storied clubs, boasting five NFL championships. The team plays at FedEx Field in Largo (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 change a team name that some consider an offensive term for Native Americans. However, recently an add campaign claiming that Native Americans call themselves many things but never the r word put additional pressure on Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington DC professional gridiron football team to change its name.
The Washington Wizards also play at the Verizon Center.
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 have been playing in DC since 2005 and at a new stadium by the Waterfront since 2008. Star pitcher Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper have brought baseball fever back to DC for the first time in 100 years, selling out games and leaving the city abuzz with baseball talk. In 2012, the Nats won their first division title since moving to the city. Previous DC baseball teams include two versions of the Washington Senators. The first played in the District from 1901 to 1960 before moving to Minneapolis as the Minnesota Twins, and the second played from 1961 to 1971 until leaving for Arlington, Texas as the Texas Rangers. Both versions of the Senators 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." Before the Nats' division title in 2012, the city had not seen postseason baseball since the first Senators played in (and lost) the 1933 World Series. The last World Series win for the city came in 1924.
D.C. United is one of the MLS' most successful teams, with 4 MLS cups under its belt, 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 plays at the worn down RFK Stadium in Washington, although a new stadium is in the plans.
In 2012, the Washington Kastles captured their third Mylan World TeamTennis title in four years and completed their second consecutive perfect season. Since the franchise's launch in 2008, the Kastles have featured five current or former World No. 1 players: Serena & Venus Williams, Leander Paes, Rennae Stubbs and Victoria Azarenka. With an exciting team format, music between points, no-ad scoring and dramatic overtimes, the Kastles offer a brand of professional tennis unlike any other.
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 in Near Northeast, 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.
DC offers many free outdoor movie showings and in some weeks during the summer, it is common for there to be a free outdoor movie shown every day. It's good to show up a little early to stake out a good spot, lay down the picnic blanket, and socialize.
Classical performances are common in D.C., largely due 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
Large international acts generally play at the Verizon Center and other large venues in the East End. For a more intimate club scene, head to Shaw for 500-1,000 person venues such as 9:30 Club, Black Cat, DC9, U Street Music Hall, and Velvet Lounge. Other medium-sized music clubs are located in Capitol Hill. The Fillmore Silver Spring, which also features international acts, is located just outside of the city limits in Silver Spring, and is Metro accessible .
Jazz & blues
It's a rather well-kept secret that D.C. holds one of the world's best jazz and blues scenes outside of New York City and New Orleans. Blues Alley in Georgetown remains the flagship club, with atmosphere straight out of a Spike Lee movie. However, the jazz scene is unquestionably centered along the U St Corridor in the historic African-American neighborhood of Shaw, where native son Duke Ellington once played along with the likes of Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald. There is a weekly $5 blues performance called Blue Monday Blues at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Waterfront The city hosts an annual Blues Festival at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre in Upper Northwest's Rock Creek Park every August.
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.
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.
As you would expect, there are endless stands and stores selling cheap and hokey souvenirs (shot glasses, Obama t-shirts, etc...), most near the National Mall and East End. Several large, but pricey, souvenir shops are located at 10th & E St NW. The gift shops of the the Smithsonian museums are excellent and are great places to buy gifts.
The city's big market, Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, is a favorite Saturday or Sunday afternoon shopping destination for food, antiques, secondhand books, local produce, and works by local artists, photographers, and craftspeople. Even if you're not buying, it's a great time.
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 U Street, with Georgetown being the most established and expensive of the three. For upscale shopping, the Georgetown and Friendship Heights have many name brand boutique stores.
The most centrally-located department store is a big Macy's at Metro Center, which is surrounded by several clothing stores. Large indoor shopping malls are located at Pentagon City Metro Station in Arlington and Tysons Corner Metro Station in Tysons Corner. There is a Tanger Outlet Mall at National Harbor, accessible by MetroBus. By far, the best bargains in the D.C. area can be found at Simon's humongous Potomac Mills in Woodbridge and Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets in Leesburg; however, these malls are located much further outside the city and it can take as much as 2 hours to reach them via public transportation.
For cheap groceries and household items, try the Walmart on 2nd & H Street NW, near Union Station, and the Target at the Columbia Heights Metro Station.
D.C. also benefits from a cutting-edge art scene, with many art galleries located just north of Logan Circle and in Georgetown. The latter is the more popular for casual buyers; the Logan Circle boutiques are contemporary and universally expensive. However, both make for great browsing.
Book hounds will find much to enjoy in the over-educated western portions of the city and specialty book shops abound. Favorites include Kramerbooks 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.
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 (ShopHouse is a good bet). 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, Red Velvet Cupcakery, or LA transplant Sprinkles instead.
Or, if your like many other tourists looking for a quick bite after touring Mt.Vernon, our beloved first president's home, Mt.Vernon has a tiny restaurant located near the gift shop. The turkey pot pie is a must, although the sweet potato chips are not to be ignored.
The legal drinking/purchasing age is 21 and it is strictly enforced in D.C.
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, along 14th Streets and U Street in nearby Shaw, and near McPherson Square in the West End. 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. The clubs in Shaw 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. Near Northeast is the closest thing that D.C. has to a bohemian neighborhood and has blocks worth of crazy dining/clubbing options, and even a few upscale joints. There is a Bavarian beer house, some cool rock clubs, a mini golf bar, Belgian mussels and pommes frites at Granville Moore's, and even a couple upscale wine bars. Streetcar service is expected to begin at the end of 2014, with cars running from Union Station.
But that's hardly the end of things. Barracks Row in Capitol Hill and Woodley Park and Chevy Chase in Upper Northwest 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 Penn Quarter is a den of tourist traps. If you're looking for nightlife downtown, research carefully.
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. Chuck Brown, “the Godfather of Go-Go,” lived in D.C. However, many clubs now refuse to host gogo bands, due to the staggering number of stabbings and homicides occurring these events. If you're looking for live gogo today, look for big outdoor events or head out to Takoma Station Tavern in Takoma, 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. 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. Also note that the hotel tax in D.C. is 14.50%, while the tax is 13.00% in Arlington and Bethesda, and 12.00% in Reston.
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 number of reported incidents of certain types of crime, but not all types of crime, within a certain proximity to any street address can be tracked on the DC Crime Map.
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. The area around the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station, unfortunately, has developed a reputation for rowdy behavior and fights among local youths, including some robberies.
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 iPhones and iPods, as they are a very popular snatch-and-grab item around the Metro stations.
The Metro system is generally safe, but disorderly groups of teens and spur-of-the-moment electronics thefts occur from time to time, especially after school lets out and on weekend nights. The same guidelines apply, and with reasonable vigilance no one should shy away from using the system to travel around the city and environs.
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.
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.
Washington D.C. will not be a burden on any one who is LGBT. All forms of LGBT activities are legal, with the exception of prostitution. Washington D.C. has strict anti-discrimination and harassment codes in place.
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. 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.
D.C. is home to more embassies than any other city in the world, 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 for men 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