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.
Downtown (The National Mall, East End, West End, Waterfront)
The center of it all: The National Mall, D.C.'s main theater district, Smithsonian and non-Smithsonian museums galore, fine dining, Chinatown, the Verizon Center, the Convention Center, the central business district, the White House, West Potomac Park, the Kennedy Center, George Washington University, the beautiful Tidal Basin, and the new Nationals Park.
North Central (Dupont Circle, Shaw, Adams Morgan-Columbia Heights)
D.C.'s trendiest and most diverse neighborhoods and destination number one for live music and clubbing, as well as loads of restaurants, Howard University, boutique shopping, beautiful embassies, Little Ethiopia, jazz on U Street, and lots of nice hotels.
West (Georgetown, Upper Northwest)
The prestigious, wealthy side of town, home to the historic village of Georgetown with its energetic nightlife, colonial architecture, and fine dining; the National Zoo; the massive National Cathedral; bucolic Dumbarton Oaks; the bulk of D.C.'s high-end shopping; more Embassy Row; American University; and several nice dining strips.
East (Capitol Hill, Northeast, Anacostia)
Starting at the Capitol Building and Library of Congress, and fanning out past grandiose Union Station and the historic Capitol Hill neighborhood, to the less often visited neighborhoods by Gallaudet and Catholic University, historic African-American Anacostia, D.C.'s "Little Vatican" around the National Shrine, the huge National Arboretum, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, offbeat nightlife in the Atlas District, and a handful of other eccentric neighborhoods to explore.
Washington, D.C., is 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 that 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, Virginia, 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.
That which we call a District by any other...
Washington, D.C., is known to locals as simply D.C. or the District, and it is rare to hear it called anything else. Locals usually use the name Washington to refer to the national government and the political world, rather than the city itself. The full title Washington, D.C., and the official name, District of Columbia, are rarely used by non-bureaucrats unless the speaker is trying to clearly distinguish the city from the state.
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.
The Wilson Building, seat of the Mayor and City CouncilD.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 majority-black city that has long been a national center of African-American culture. It was the first black-majority city in the country, and until the 1920s (when it was surpassed by New York) it was home to the largest black population of any city. 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 a bastion of tolerance and progressivism in race relations, being the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the first city in the country to integrate its public schools. D.C. is also home to Howard University, one of the nation's most important historically black colleges.
The sometimes uncomfortable blend of the semi-transient professional population and permanent residents is often the source of controversy, especially as D.C. has been experiencing a wave of neighborhood rebuilding and "gentrification"—young professionals with tight budgets and distaste for long daily commutes have, in recent years, been driven to move into poorer neighborhoods in search of low rent and easy access to city amenities. But while there is inevitably some conflict around neighborhood change, these changes have also created D.C.'s most diverse, culturally vibrant, and exciting neighborhoods—just walk up U St or 18th St in Shaw or Adams Morgan, and you'll see that it's not a vain hope that the city's various cultures can come together to create something greater.
D.C., and particularly the metro area beyond the city limits, is impressively international—in the immediate metro area a whopping one third of the population is foreign born. The biggest immigrant group is no doubt from Central America, mostly from El Salvador. Latino culture finds its home in the city in Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights—both neighborhoods where you'll find all the various cultures of the city intermingling. D.C. also has a big African immigrant population, with an exceptionally large Ethiopian community (the second largest in the world after Addis Ababa), which has bestowed the city with a love for Ethiopian food, and which finds its urban center in D.C.'s own Little Ethiopia. The international culture extends well beyond the immigrant communities, though, to the big foreign professional population, as well as the brain drain of Americans from all around the country looking for work in the international relations field—D.C. is, simply put, the nation's most international town.
Local politics, and local anger at the relations between the city and the national government, are perhaps the glue that binds all Washingtonians together. The District of Columbia is under the ultimate control of the U.S. Congress. Since 1973, 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 same slogan used to denounce British rule before the Revolutionary War.
D.C.'s climate has a bad reputation, the city having supposedly been built on a swamp with the purpose of discouraging a large bureaucracy—after all, if no one wanted to live in D.C., then there wouldn't be too many bureaucrats.
This is all a huge crock. There was no swamp here, and the weather is actually quite lovely throughout the year. The myth of bad weather in the capital comes from the fact that most visit at the height of the summer, when the pleasure of relatively moderate temperatures is completely drowned out by the miserable, impenetrable humidity. On a hot day on the Mall in July, you'll sweat like a dog, the kids will complain incessantly, and you'll want to spend as much time indoors as possible. It's not the best time to visit.
But the rest of the year is lovely. It's hard to beat spring in D.C. The northerly subtropical climate results in cool breezes, moderate temperatures, lush growth, flowers, budding trees, and, of course, the cherry blossoms. The most beautiful time of spring usually falls from April to mid-May. Domestic tourists know this, though, and you can expect the cherry blossom walk around the Tidal Basin to see (pedestrian) traffic jams that put the Beltway to shame. (A truly savvy tourist can escape the crowds but still enjoy the cherry blossoms at the National Arboretum.)
Fall, 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. 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.
Rowhouses in Dupont CircleWashingtonians are avid readers, and not just of the news—each Metro car at rush hour is a veritable library. Nonetheless, there is little "D.C. literature" to speak of. The city's culture has always been overshadowed by national politics, and those looking for local flavor will find political works: political chronicles, political histories, political hot air, political historical fiction, and of course political thrillers.
Henry Adams' Democracy is President John Henry Adams' grandson's satirical send-up of the moral morass that is politics. (Things haven't changed in the 120 years since he wrote it.) Almost certainly President Rutherford B Hayes' least favorite book, this remains a great read two centuries later.
Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol sold one million copies on the first day it was published, so it's fair to assume that this 2009 book by the author of the Da Vinci Code could become the most famous D.C. work of fiction of all time. It's a mad chase of arcane conspiracies around D.C.'s Masonic Temple, National Cathedral, Smithsonian, Washington Monument, and every darkest nook and narrowest cranny of the Capitol Building.
John Grisham's The Pelican Brief. Intrigue, corruption, and homicide on the Supreme Court, and some good chases around the capital city in one of Grisham's most famous thrillers. Republicans may get an unfair portrayal, but this is a good page turner.
George Pelecanos' Sweet Forever. Pelecanos is one of D.C.'s most rare authors—one who knows the city beyond the politics, in and out, and uses it extensively and effectively as the backdrop for some amazing mysteries. In this one, detective Nick Stefanos investigates a drug-related murder on 1980s U St, leading him into a maze of basketball, dirty cops, the beginnings of the local crack empire, underground music, a thoroughly corrupt mayor's office, and all-around grit in a dangerous city.
Ron Suskin's Hope in the Unseen and The One Percent Doctrine are both political, but about very different sides of Washington. The former chronicles the experiences of Cedric Jennings from his nightmarish Ballou High School in Anacostia to the Ivy League. The One Percent Doctrine, on the other hand, is an inside look at the run up to the Iraq War, predicated on the infamous one-percent doctrine coined in the wake of 9/11 by then-Vice President Dick Cheney.
Gore Vidal's Lincoln. America's legendary master of political historical fiction turns his pen on the Lincoln Oval Office, bringing the administration's central figures to life in a way that no biography could. Vidal is famous for his lack of charity to beloved national figures, but even his sharp pen can't quite tarnish the nation's greatest.
Bob Woodward's All the President's Men is perhaps the nation's single most famous political chronicle: the story of the investigative journalism that unearthed the Watergate Scandal and led to the impeachment and political demise of President Nixon. Woodward remains a huge influence in Washington, particularly due to his eminently readable insider accounts of the workings of the Bush Administration. Bush at War and Plan of Attack stand out. The first is a chronicle of the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent decision to invade Afghanistan, and the second addresses the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
In addition to the above, a trip to D.C. is a good time to pick up a presidential biography or two. Favorites include:
Arthur Schlesinger's A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House is the most famous account of the JFK presidency. Biased, certainly, but it's hard to beat an account by a Harvard historian turned special advisor who was there in the Oval Office to see every decision being made.
Stephen Oates' Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin Luther King isn't closely associated with the city, but this is a great inspirational read to keep in mind on the Mall, thinking of his I Have a Dream speech.
Lou Cannon's Ronald Reagan: the Role of a Lifetime is one of the few mature Reagan biographies that is neither a tribute nor an attack, written about his years in office by the inner-circle chronicler who knew him best.
Frank Friedel's Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny. FDR's presidency was so influential, and just plain long, that it's difficult to find good one-volume biographies—look no further than this definitive work.
Joseph Ellis' His Excellency: George Washington. A Washington biography is an obvious reading choice on a trip to his namesake city, as his story is the story of the founding of both the nation and the capital (and his estate is an easy day trip outside the city). Ellis' account is very travel-friendly—accessible, humanist, and mercifully short.
There is no end to the list of films set in D.C., as the nation's capital provides the essential backdrop to just about every political thriller and practically every alien invasion or other disaster movie set in the U.S. There are a proud few, though, that stand out either for their creation of national myths or for having actually captured something of the real culture of the city.
The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) is a rare film in that it is both unmistakeably Washingtonian and entirely unrelated to politics. It's best remembered for terrifying audiences with a story uncomfortably plausible to those raised in the Catholic Church. Formidable evil forces and equally formidable Jesuits collide in the struggle for the soul of a young girl living in Georgetown, in a tale where the modern humanist world quivers in the face of the ancient and the mystical.
In the Line of Fire (Wolfgang Petersen, 1993): How do you make a D.C. political thriller stand out among all the rest? Simple: Clint Eastwood is the Secret Service agent, and John Malkovich is the psychopathic assassin. If you intend to watch, you should also plan to add the legendary Old Ebbit Grille to your dining itinerary.
The More the Merrier (George Stevens, 1943): A goofy romantic comedy, widely hailed as one of the best of its kind, set in WWII-era D.C., amidst the acute housing shortage faced by soldiers returning from the war.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939) is the defining American myth of the ability of political idealism to stand up for the people against entrenched political interests and corruption, and, just maybe, to win. Nary a cynic remains tearless through Jimmy Stewart's defining performance. The movie is shown outdoors on the National Mall nearly every summer for Screen on the Green .
A Few Good Men (Tom Cruise, 1992): A dynamic Navy JAG attorney blends two D.C. professions often overlooked beneath the glow of the Capitol Dome. As LT Daniel Kaffee, Tom Cruise realizes that his Naval service is more than just a resume bullet as he defends two Marines charged with murder. From the Navy Yard to a seedy New York Avenue motel to the leafy streets of gentrified Adams Morgan, this film gives Washington, D.C. an honest portrayal. More importantly, the story is a window into the idealism of many young D.C. transplants who move to town in search of a chance to change lives for the better.
All the President's Men (Jason Robards, Dustin Hoffman, 1977): An unflattering and historically accurate portrayal of the events surrounding the Watergate scandal and the subsequent investigation by Washington journos Bob Woodward (Hoffman) and Carl Bernstein.
* Note: Room prices change constantly. You should check the latest availability as in many cases the room price can be even lower than the listed price on the LastBeds website.