Washington, D.C., , the capital of the United States and the seat of its three branches of government, has a collection of free, public museums unparalleled in size and scope throughout the history of mankind, 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.
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.
Washington, D.C., is an artificial, ad hoc city borne of politics, by politics, and for politics. It wasn't the first capital—Philadelphia tried its hand at national government in the years before (although the capital also moved around Baltimore, Lancaster, and York, as it fled British soldiers throughout the Revolutionary War). But Congress soured on the "Cradle of Liberty" after disaffected American soldiers, with the tacit sanction of the Pennsylvania state governor, chased its members out of the city to Princeton.
The vagrant government made brief forays into Annapolis, Trenton, and even New York City, but it had long become clear that the southern states would not tolerate a northern capital, and that the capital would need to be independent from the then powerful state governments. James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton agreed in 1790 to a compromise location on largely uninhabited land in the Mid-Atlantic. The exact location was up to George Washington, and he rather liked a spot just happened to be next to his house at Mount Vernon. Pierre L'Enfant was charged with planning the new city, lying outside the jurisdiction of any state, and following rapid construction under his supervision, the young government arrived in 1800. Aside from a temporary relocation to Leesburg, Va, during the War of 1812 (when the British set the city on fire), the U.S. government had found its home in the District of Columbia.
A diamond carved out of the land at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, the new city united the two existing small cities of Georgetown and Alexandria, with an aim to build on their success as ports. History must judge this a failure. In the early years both the original ports remained active in the trade in the Mid-Atlantic's principal export, tobacco. Seeking to further develop the capital as a port, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal was built alongside Georgetown, but the expensive project was a flop, unable to compete with the new and more efficient Baltimore & Ohio railroad, connected to Baltimore's deep water port. Later increased sedimentation of the Potomac brought the port activity to a virtual standstill.
The Alexandria port suffered disproportionately, since the government's plans favored Georgetown. Combined with fears that the federal government would ban the slave trade within the District (and it did), this led to the retrocession of the lands west of the Potomac back into the state of Virginia in 1846, thus spoiling the city's fine diamond shape, and leaving only the territory given by Maryland under federal control.
The nation's capital from this point on lacked the exciting tumult of its early years, although its compromise location on the border of North and South proved precarious during the Civil War. The Maryland government had Confederate sympathies, so President Lincoln preempted any thoughts of secession (which would have left the capital surrounded) by simply arresting and holding without trial the entire state government. To keep unruly Baltimore in check (Baltimoreans were not so sympathetic to the South—they are just rowdy folks), he sent artillery to sit on the city's Federal Hill, pointing cannon squarely at the central business district. The massive influx of money, administrators, troops, engineers, and forts to protect the capital during the war transformed the formerly sleepy capital into a busy urban center, set to grow for the next 150 years into one of the nation's largest metropolises.
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 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, is a clear majority-black city, and has long been a national center of African-American culture. Until the 1920s (when it was surpassed by New York) it was home to the largest black population of any city, it was the first black-majority city in the country, and is home to Howard University, one of the nation's most important historically black colleges. U St 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 also 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.
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 citywide wave of neighborhood rebuilding and "gentrification," as young professionals, whose tight budgets and distaste for long daily commutes have in recent years driven them to move into poorer neighborhoods in search of low rent and easy access to city amenities. But while there is inevitably some conflict under neighborhood change, these changes have also created D.C.'s most diverse, culturally vibrant, and exciting neighborhoods—just walk up U or 18th St in Shaw and 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 exceptionally big and visible Somali and Ethiopian communities (who have bestowed on the city a love for Ethiopian food!). 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. simply put is 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, city residents have been able to elect a Mayor as well as representatives to the D.C. City Council. However, Congress retains the right to overturn laws passed by the city. The nearly 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 slogan used to denounce British rule before the Revolutionary War.
D.C.'s climate is infamously bad, having been built on a swamp with the express purpose of discouraging a large bureaucracy—if no one wants to live here, there won't be too many bureaucrats. This is all a bunch of 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 are 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 April–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 can put the Beltway to shame. (A truly savvy tourist can escape the crowds, but still enjoy the cherry blossoms at the National Arboretum.)
Fall, while not as gorgeous, 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. Thanksgiving–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 their 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 those 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 films set in D.C., as the national capital provides the essential backdrop to just about every political thriller, and every other alien invasion or other disaster movie set in the U.S. There are a few, though, that stand out in both the creation of national myths and in the proud few that actually capture something of the real culture of the city.
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (IATA: DCA),  in Arlington, Virginia just across the Potomac River, is by far the closest and most convenient, since it has its own Metro stop on the Blue/Yellow Lines. A taxi trip downtown costs only about $15.
Washington Dulles International Airport (IATA: IAD),  is 26 mi (42 km) southwest of downtown in Dulles, Virginia. To get to the city, the Washington Flyer coach , operates every half hour (on :15 and :45) to and from the West Falls Church Metro Station (Orange Line). It takes 20–25 minutes and costs $10 one way, $18 round trip. From there the Metro to downtown takes another 20–25 minutes. The cheapest option is the 5A Metrobus , an express bus which stops at Herndon, Tysons Corner, Rosslyn (Blue and Orange Metro Lines) and downtown's L'Enfant Plaza (Green, Yellow, Blue, and Orange Metro Lines). It generally departs every 40 minutes M-F and hourly (though not on the hour) Sa-Su, and takes 49 minutes to the L'Enfant Plaza Metro Station; $3.10 one way cash fare. The bus stops near Curb 2E outside of the terminal. Ask at the information booth in the lower level of the terminal, near the baggage claim, which bus will be coming sooner. A taxi trip downtown costs about $50, taking about 30 minutes. Supershuttle  operates a popular shared taxi ride service to anywhere in the D.C. area for prices of around $30–40. When leaving from Dulles, note that baggage check-in closes a strict one hour before flights.
Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (IATA: BWI),  is the farthest flung, but also the nicest in-airport experience, 30 mi (48 km) north-east of D.C. and ten miles south of downtown Baltimore. The cheap and simple, but slow way to D.C. is the B30 express Metrobus  to the Greenbelt Metro Station (Green Line). It costs $3.10 one way and takes about 30 minutes. The driver will not provide change. The Metro rail service from Greenbelt to downtown takes about 25 minutes. A taxi trip to downtown Washington costs about $60 and should take over 40 minutes. There are also train services via MARC or Amtrak from BWI Rail Station. From BWI Airport, a free "Amtrak/MARC" shuttle bus runs from the airport terminal to the BWI Rail Station. MARC  local rail operates weekdays to New Carrollton (Orange Line) for $5 each way, or Washington Union Station (Red Line) for $6. Amtrak  provides access to Union Station (from $13; 30-35 minutes) and to nearby Alexandria, Virginia near the King Street Metro station on the Blue and Yellow lines (from $27). As with Dulles, Supershuttle offers shared taxi to anywhere in the D.C. area for about $30–40.
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).
Other interstates of note:
Again, only travel on the Beltway during rush hour if you absolutely, positively must.
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.
The city is split into four quadrants of unequal size, with the center on the Capitol Building: NW, NE, SE, and SW. The NW quadrant is by far the largest and the SW the smallest. Addresses take a quadrant name, e.g., 1000 H St NE, depending on what side of the city they fall.
City roads are laid out in a grid, with east-west streets primarily named with letters, and north-south streets named with numbers. Complicating the grid are the numerous diagonal avenues, mostly named after states, which serve as the city's principal arteries, extending from traffic circles and squares. Numbers increase and letters decrease (A–Z) with distance from the capital, and odd numbers are always on the right side of the street when facing away from the Capitol.
The grid has a few peculiarities which are a legacy from Pierre L'Enfant's eighteenth century plan for the city. There is no J St because I and J were indistinguishable when handwritten in the 18th century, and L'Enfant wanted to spare Washingtonians from confusion. I St is often referred to as Eye St, to distinguish it from the letter L.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)  operates the city's excellent public transportation system of rail 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 underground subway, the Metro, is the central feature of the transit system. Comprised of five intersecting rail lines, it stops in most major neighborhoods and at numerous locations downtown. Washingtonians are proud of their Metro system. It's exceptionally clean, safe, user-friendly, and sports a surprisingly elegant and pleasing brutalist aesthetic. Its one flaw, though, is irregularity of service, especially following heightened safety concerns post-9/11 and following a major derailment in June 2009. The longest delays between trains can potentially reach 30 minutes without clear indications of the next arrival.
The Metro fare system  is complicated and varies based on the day, time, and distance of the trip. During peak times, M-F 5AM-9:30AM and 3PM-7PM and Sa-Su 2AM-closing, fares cost $1.65-4.50. At all other times, fares cost $1.35-2.35. Posted guides will help you calculate the appropriate fare.
Fares are paid by purchasing a farecard at automated machines within stations. Flat-rate Metro passes  are available that give riders an unlimited number of trips within the system for a set number of days. These passes eliminate the need for riders to calculate their own fares and are available in each station at many of the automated machines that sell standard farecards.
If you are staying for a longer time, consider buying a SmarTrip debit card  ($10 cost with $5 transportation credit), which works both on the Metro and on the Metrobuses and some other suburban bus systems (saving you the headache of correct change and often providing a discount on the bus fare). SmarTrip cards are also required for parking in almost all the suburban Metro lots, where you'll encounter a flat cost of about $4.50/day. SmarTrip cards can be bought at most Metro stations or at all CVS stores. Parking is free on weekends and federal holidays.
Once intimidating to visitors, D.C.'s bus system has become more visitor-friendly and reaches destinations that are hard to reach by Metro.
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 10 minutes and cost $1. There are currently five routes:
And then there is the old reliable Metrobus . It's geared towards locals and is a bit confusing since there is no central terminal, and most stops do not show the route map, but nonetheless, 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. For maps, WMATA's website pusblishes 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 $1.35, and since exact change is required, it's much easier to travel with a SmarTrip card (see above).
The following important routes provide reliable and direct service along the city's most well-traveled corridors, running about every ten–twenty minutes:
Metrobus has a very handy feature: NextBus. Every bus stop has a number written on it, which you can enter into NextBus' website  or by phone (+1 202 637-7000), and then get a very accurate estimate of when the next bus will arrive.
Ding dong the zone system is dead! Taxis have switched to a sane time/distance metered system for fares, which means no more ripping off the tourists. Taxis cost $3.00 for the first sixth of a mile and 25¢ for each additional sixth of a mile. The maximum fare within D.C. is $19.00, excluding standard fees ($1.50/additional passenger, and a 25% fee during declared snow emergencies). There is no rush hour fee, although meters do charge 25¢ for each minute stopped in traffic or traveling under 10 mph. Cabs do not typically accept credit cards, so bring cash. All D.C. taxicab meters have the ability to print receipts on request.
D.C. seems to be one of the last bastions of a free taxi market, and there are tons of companies, each one rather small, to choose from. The largest operator in the city is D.C. Yellow Cab , +1 202 554-1212 (+1 202 TAXICAB). The D.C. government also provides an alphabetical list of all licensed taxi companies .
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 for both Arlington and Alexandria counties.
Taxicab drivers are required to take passengers anywhere within the Washington Metropolitan Area, although they hate 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 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 or Virginia.
Private chauffeur and limousine service are more expensive, but comfortable, and provide transport to and from all three major airports serving the area. A number of companies serve the D.C. area including Point to Point Limo , +1 703 711-8100, Titan Limousine , +1 703 430-9333, and many others.
Driving in D.C. is difficult. Even most Washingtonians avoid driving downtown. Limited and expensive parking, ruthless parking enforcement, sadistic traffic circles, fines from automated red light cameras and absurd speed traps, poor physical road condition including large potholes, frequent street direction changes, some of the worst congestion in the country, street closures without warning—take the Metro. And there's nothing simple about the street layout. Washingtonians will proudly tell you that the plan was intended to confuse invading armies. For a fun challenge, try to drive on Massachusetts Ave from Wisconsin Ave to RFK Stadium—it's like riding a bucking bronco! Expert drivers get major bragging rights for taking the Dwight D Eisenhower Fwy (I-395) from 4th St NW to the Jefferson Davis Hwy in Virginia on a Sunday afternoon without setting off the speed cameras or causing a wreck.
Local opposition prevented the construction of interstate highways through Washington, steering resources instead towards building the Washington Metro system. 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."
Cycling is an increasingly popular form of transportation for District residents. A 2009 survey found Washington to be the city with the 5th largest share of bike commuters, and 1st largest share of daily commuters in the country. Recent initiatives by the city government aim to make the District even friendlier to bikes in the coming years.
Beware, however, that to the uninitiated tourist some of DC's streets may seem downright harrowing to ride by bike. Local cyclists all have horror stories of cycling through quiet, residential Ledroit Park, only to find themselves dumped onto a very unfriendly Rhode Island Avenue at rush hour, or of nearly getting hit by a taxi attempting to pick up a tourist in the Bus/Bike lanes in Chinatown. Nevertheless, locals understand that bikes are an important part of the transportation makeup, and are generally very accommodating and polite to the cyclist who strays onto a major thoroughfare.
If you would like to visit DC by bike, Ride The City: DC  can help you plan your routes in a manner that helps you avoid the trouble spots.
Bicycling is a very popular way to tour DC's neighborhoods. The mid-city area (generally bordered by Massachusetts Avenue to the south, Calvert Street to the north, Connecticut Avenue to the west, and Florida Avenue/4th Street to the east) features many quiet streets with bike lanes and cycle tracks. Both Capitol Hill and Georgetown are grand neighborhoods with architecture and amenities that are perfectly enjoyed by bike.
Be sure to check out the immensely popular Capital Crescent Trail , a major bike commuter trail and recreational path which connects Georgetown to Bethesda and Silver Spring, MD.
For a closer look at Northeast DC, The Metropolitan Branch Trail , which connects Union Station to Silver Spring, MD, is a great, safe way to view some of DC's beautiful working class neighborhoods.
To the south, the 18 mile long Mount Vernon Trail  offers a direct bike connection between the National Mall, downtown Washington and the historic city of Alexandria, VA.
The recently opened BikeStation  allows visitors arriving from Union Station to rent a bike, have theirs repaired, or arrange for temporary storage in a controlled environment. It is possible to obtain loads of cycling information here as well.
You may see stations labeled for SmartBike DC , the District's subscription-based bicycle rental program. Unlike Paris's "Vélib" program, SmartBike is not as tourist friendly as users must sign up online and pay $40 annually, as opposed to being able to swipe a credit card. The city aims to expand SmartBike DC to include 1,000 bikes and 100 stations by the end of 2010.
If you'd rather relax than pedal, there are several neighborhood based pedicab companies which will be glad to show you around by bike. DC Pedicabs  has a prominent presence at most tourist facilities, and rates are generally affordable and negotiable (although sometimes more expensive than taxis)
The city has several bike rental companies from which to take advantage of, some offering tours as well. Georgetown is a good place to look, as it serves bikers riding along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Potomac River trails.
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 Jefferson Memorial, the National Gallery of Art, the Air and Space Museum, the National Natural History Museum, the Holocaust Museum, the International Spy Museum, the National Portrait Gallery—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, where they make decisions every day that reverberate in the remotest corners of the world.
There are ample maps along the Mall, especially by metro stops, but the place is so jam-packed with things you'll want to see, 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 for one day. The eastern section, home to the majority of the museums is covered in the National Mall article, as is the western portion of the Mall and the Tidal Basin. The White House is located in the West End, and the Capitol Building 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; the nearby National Cathedral is an awe-inspiring mammoth. Embassy Row is an impressive stretch of some 50 foreign-owned historic and modernist mansions along Massachusetts Ave throughout Dupont Circle and Woodley Park. The historic neighborhood of Georgetown is another great sightseeing destination, full of beautiful old colonial buildings, the 300+ 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 magnificent Catholic National Shrine and the National Arboretum in the Northeast, or the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in eastern Anacostia.
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 district 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 and founder of the National Park Service than an island park memorial!
To reach, 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 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:
With the recent addition of the Nationals, D.C. now has a professional team in each of the five major U.S. professional sports. While the local transient population tends to be too distracted by CNN to pay much attention to the games, the rest of the city and the vast population in the metro area stay plugged in, especially to the Redskins.
The Washington Redskins are one of professional football's most established and storied clubs, currently the second most valuable franchise in the country, which boasts a full five NFL championships. They were long residents at RFK Stadium, but have since 1996 been playing at FedEx Field  in Landover, Maryland. To get there, take the Blue Line to the Morgan Boulevard stop, then walk one mile straight up Morgan Blvd to the stadium.
D.C.'s downtown arena at the Verizon Center plays host to the other two long-established professional franchises, D.C.'s hockey team, the Washington Capitals, as well as its basketball team, the Washington Wizards. The former, under coach Bruce Boudreau, is having its best years yet, and the 2009–2010 season should be a great one for Washington hockey. The Wizards were long known as the Washington Bullets, but that name started to acquire an unpleasant irony in the homicide-heavy 1990s, leading owner Abe Pollin to switch to something more innocuous. The Redskins have grappled with a similar issue, surviving movements and lawsuits trying to get rid of what some consider an offensive term for Native Americans. (Polls have found that the vast majority of American Indians do not find the team's name offensive.)
To great fanfare, in 2005 D.C. gained a baseball team in the form of the Washington Nationals, a.k.a. the Nats, formerly the Montreal Expos. There have been Nats before, notably the 1901–1960 Washington Senators, who later moved to Minnesota as the Twins. Both the original Senators and their second incarnation in the 1960s (now the Texas Rangers) suffered from a singular inability to win, though. The first 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." The new franchise has yet to pull the city out of its ages old slump—they've been dead last in their division all but one season, and their winning percentage has seen a steady drop with each year. But despite the poor record and the fact that some of the D.C. area's long-time residents are still loyal to the Baltimore Orioles, the games are well attended and a good deal of fun—everyone loves a trip to the brand new ballpark by the Waterfront.
Many Americans often forget that the country has a professional soccer league, but not so here. D.C. United is the MLS' most dominant team, with four MLS cups under its belt (out of the leagues thirteen years), 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 on 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.
Aside from the big name professional leagues, there are several other good bets for a league game. 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 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. Both the Mystics and the Hoyas play at the Verizon Center (since the crowds for the Hoyas' games are too big for the University to hold).
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 latter houses the Ford's Theatre, National Theatre, and Warner Theatre, which all 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 Key Bridge at the Rosslyn Spectrum.
Classical performances are a dime a dozen in D.C., largely thanks to the efforts of the Kennedy Center, where you'll find the National Opera, National Symphony Orchestra, and National Ballet Company all 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. As a matter of fact, most of the local music venues are right in that area—there are a bunch of great indie rock/music clubs within a few blocks. A couple new, edgy venues catering to the local rock crowd have also just opened up in the Atlas District. Other big-name touring acts will often show up at the National Theatre and the Warner Theatre downtown.
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. Of all places, there is a good regular jam session across the street from the National Zoo, as well as one off in a Southwest Presbyterian church. 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 Johns Hopkins SAIS program are arguably the best academic programs period for those looking to cozy up to the Washington elite, and to 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 American University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of the District of Columbia, as well as universities with a more specialized focus: Gallaudet University, the world's only university for the deaf; Howard University, one of the nation's most esteemed historically black universities, and the prestigious and highly exclusive National Defense University for the military elite.
Certain career fields find a natural home in D.C. While everyone knows 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 an internship, 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 child care in the country. U.S. citizen nannies are especially sought out 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 St strip, with Georgetown being the more traditional, established, and famous of the three. For more traditional upscale shopping, the meccas are in Georgetown, and Friendship Heights. Both of the latter are also excellent destinations for gift shopping, both the trendy-eclectic and the high-end.
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. Borders and Barnes & Noble have 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 the nearby East End, much 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 Streets NW. A better bet are the Smithsonian museums, which all have excellent gift shops.
Lastly, the city's one big market, Eastern Market on Washington, D.C./Capitol Hill, is a favorite 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 good time.
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, or 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 having 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 it indeed has one: the D.C. hot dog stand. They're everywhere, especially around the Mall, and sell the unique-to-D.C. half-smoke. Local lore lacks convincing explanation of why it's called a half-smoke. Despite vendors' claims to the contrary, it's not possible to smoke meat "halfway," and in any rate, they're not smoked, they're grilled. And yes, they are sometimes split in half, but more often not. No need to worry about this too much though, it's a tasty grilled sausage, with a firm "snap" when you bite into it, on a hot dog bun, and often topped with chili. Most hot dog vendors are a mere shell of the half-smoke greatness served out of WWII-era aluminum shacks. If you want a true, quality half-smoke, you'd best visit Ben's Chili Bowl on U St, which is universally understood to serve the best.
Whichever 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. 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 clientèle, as well as a more happy-go-lucky gay scene. Logan Circle is less established as a nightlife hotspot than Dupont, but they otherwise resemble one another.
If these destinations are all a little too high-octane, you should definitely explore the clubs around U 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 the echoes of Ellington ringing out from nearly every last restaurant, bar, and not a few world-class music venues on a Saturday night. Georgetown is another major nightlife destination, although the emphasis here is less on dancing, more on drinking. It has tons of bars, most of which have a "privileged" and sometimes rowdy collegiate atmosphere. And 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 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.
Gogo clubs (the funk/hip-hop genre, not dancing in 60s miniskirts) were probably D.C.'s most distinctive nightlife scene, concentrated in Anacostia, but today all indoor gogo performances have been banned in D.C. east of the river, 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, check to see whether Chuck Brown is performing (he performs all over the place), or head out to the Takoma Station in a homicide-free section of the Northeast.
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 park on the street 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, which cater 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.
As in most of the United States, internet cafes are a rare phenomenon. All public libraries provide free WiFi and public computer terminals, but D.C. has fewer libraries per resident than your average city. Generally your best bet for internet will be to find a local coffee shop, nearly all of which offer free internet (and a nice place to relax). Failing that, drive down some residential streets and you'll probably pick up an open internet connection. You can also just hang outside a hotel, or even inside the lobby, and take advantage of the WiFi they provide their 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.
While Washington rivaled New Orleans for the Murder Capital of America title in the early 1980s-1990s, violent crime has since fallen dramatically. Even though Washingtonians regularly warn against forays into parts of the Northeast and almost all of the Southeast sections of the city, this advice is a bit ignorant. Certain neighborhoods in these areas (especially 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. Moreover, many if not most of the neighborhoods with an eastern address are simply quiet, residential neighborhoods with very low crime of any sort.
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 serious 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, maintain a basic level of sobriety, and you won't run into trouble.
Smoking is banned within most all enclosed public spaces, including shops, restaurants, bars, club, etc. 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. (The lung crusaders can't bring themselves to hate something so cool and "ethnic.")
Talking on your cell phone while driving carries a $100 fine, and unlike 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.
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 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 to not 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 or Roosevelt Island just east of the Key Bridge (from Georgetown) are both great getaways. Better yet, leave the city altogether and take a leisurely stroll in Old Town Alexandria, followed by a relaxing meal.
The Metro trains and buses have the strictest rules you'll find in the country. Food and drink of any kind are prohibited, and this rule is strictly enforced. Fare evasion is a criminal offense and you can get charged with a C-Class misdemeanor for doing such. Even if the police don't catch you, you'll find yourself at odds with the locals, who support these rules wholeheartedly.
For health emergencies, the George Washington University Hospital  is located on Washington Circle in Foggy Bottom, adjacent to the Foggy Bottom Metro station. This is where Vice President Dick Cheney went in 2004 for his irregular heartbeat, where the President would go in event of a medical emergency. Other hospitals in the city include the Howard University Hospital , the Georgetown University Hospital , the Washington Hospital Center , and the Children's National Medical Center .
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!
Alexandria is located south of Arlington along the Potomac River, yet inside the ten mile square boundary of what used to be the District of Columbia. The main street of Alexandria's Old Town is King St. Old Town's cobblestone steets have nearly 4,000 buildings dating from the 1800s and 1700s, with some dating back to the 1600s, and is filled with shops and good restaurants. Some tourists use Old Town (or other parts of Alexandria) as a "home base" for D.C. trips and it's a popular weekend destination. Tour boats that go north to D.C. and south to Mount Vernon leave from Old Town. Many hotels in the area run free shuttle buses to the King St Metro.
Arlington is located directly across the Potomac River from D.C. and was part of the original area of the District of Columbia. Today it is home to the Pentagon, Arlington National Cemetery, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The Metro system seamlessly integrates Arlington with the city; it can be cost advantageous and more convenient to stay at an Arlington hotel when visiting.
Other Northern Virginia destinations
Baltimore's Inner Harbor is home to the National Aquarium, the U.S.S. Constellation, as well as numerous shops and restaurants. During the spring or 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.