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Washington, D.C. is a huge city with several district articles containing sightseeing, restaurant, nightlife and accommodation listings — have a look at each of them.
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 to be exciting, cosmopolitan, and international.
Downtown (The National Mall, East End, West End, Waterfront)
The most-visited areas: 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 Nationals Park.
North Central (Dupont Circle, Shaw, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, Petworth)
D.C.'s trendiest and most diverse neighborhoods and the places to go for live music, nightlife, and loads of restaurants, Howard University, boutique shopping, beautiful embassies, Little Ethiopia, 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, Near Northeast, Washington, D.C./Brookland, Anacostia)
Starting at the Capitol Building and Library of Congress, and fanning out past grandiose unnion Station and the historic Capitol Hill neighborhood, to the less often visited neighborhoods by Gallaudet and Catholic University, historic 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.
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, squirrels, and pigeons.
East End — D.C.'s downtown cultural center, with the main theater district, more great museums, many tourist traps, the Verizon Center, the Convention Center, Chinatown, and fine dining a la successful restaurateur José Andrés.
West End — 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 unnion 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 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, 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 including the excellent National Zoo, the gargantuan National Cathedral, and a luxury shopping strip in Chevy Chase.
D.C.'s trendiest and most diverse neighborhoods, where the locals go for nightlife:
Dupont Circle — Dupont Circle has dozens of trendy restaurants, nightclubs, popular watering holes, shopping, and most of Embassy Row along Massachusetts Ave.
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 and more sophisticated crowd, 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 — Adams Morgan has many bars with live music concentrated on 18th street, several good restaurants and is just a nice neighborhood for a walk.
Columbia Heights — Columbia Heights includes the city's largest shopping mall as well as plenty of budget dining and drinking options. Along with the adjacent neighborhood of Mount Pleasant, it is home to most of the city's Salvadoran population and its signature comfort food, the pupusa.
Petworth — Petworth includes Abraham Lincoln's summer cottage and Carter Barron Amphitheatre as well as an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants.
Even the least visited side of the city still has a lot to see:
Near Northeast — offbeat nightlife in the Atlas District, Gallaudet University, and the huge National Arboretum.
Brookland — 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 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 with a slightly lower sales tax rate are actually just beyond the rather arbitrary city borders—don't miss the Best of the 'Burbs.
The nation's capital provides the essential backdrop to just about every political thriller or alien invasion movie set in the U.S. Some of these films are featured at the free outdoor movies shown in the summer. The following films, in order of release date, stand out either for their creation of national myths or for having actually captured something of the real culture of the city.
Washington, D.C. (WAS for all airports) is served by three major airports. All three airports offer unlimited free WiFi.
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), is the closest and most convenient airport to D.C., located 3 miles south of the city in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River.
To get to D.C. from the airport:
WMATA operates Metrorail service to the airport via the Blue and Yellow lines. The trip to the East End takes approximately 15 minutes.
Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), is located 26 miles west of D.C. in Sterling, Virginia and serves as D.C.'s primary international airport.
Be prepared to walk until your feet hurt! 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!
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, visit air-conditioned museums during the day, and save the monuments, neighborhood tours, and other outdoor attractions for the cooler early morning and evening hours.
By public transportation
It is usually easier to use public transportation as opposed to driving in traffic and paying expensive parking rates. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) operates the city's public transportation system. Information about all modes of local public transportation is available on the tourist-friendly website goDCgo.
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. It's clean, safe, user-friendly, and sports a surprisingly elegant and pleasing brutalist aesthetic.
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, payable either in cash or by using a SmarTrip debit card. It is useful to print the handy route map. The next arrival time for a bus at any stop can be checked online.
What to see
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 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 attractions on the National Mall.
The East End, just north of the National Mall, includes many more museums and attractions, including the Newseum, the International Spy Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the American Art Museum, and the home of an original copy of the Constitution at the National Archives.
The White House, as well as Textile Museum and the Kennedy Center, are located in the West End. The Capitol Building and the Supreme Court are on Capitol Hill. Another attraction here 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 free National Zoo in Upper Northwest is one of the nation's most prestigious zoos, and the National Cathedral is an awe-inspiring mammoth.
The historic neighborhood of Georgetown is the oldest part of the city, full of beautiful old colonial buildings, the 200+ year-old Jesuit campus of Georgetown University that resembles a Harry Potter film set, restaurants along the waterfront, the C&O canal, and the infamous Exorcist steps.
By car or bus, you can get to some of the capital's more far-flung and less-frequented attractions, like the National Arboretum in Near Northeast, or the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in eastern Anacostia.
Views and panoramas
There are several classic spots to get a look out over the city:
Kennedy Center Rooftop Terrace (free), in the West End, provides a nice skyline somewhat removed from the city, with the Lincoln Memorial prominent in the foreground.
Washington Monument, on the National Mall, though as a vista point its small, bunker-like ports covered with scratched plastic make it less inspiring than might be expected.
Newseum is a good place to see a remarkable museum and get a close up view of downtown.
W Hotel, in the West End, just a block from the White House, has a rooftop terrace, bar, and lounge called Point of View.
The Old Post Office Tower at the Trump Hotel Washington DC is closed for renovations until late 2016.
Top of the Gate at the Watergate Hotel in the West End is a rooftop bar with great 360-degree views.
What to do
Outdoor activities and parks
D.C. is 21.9% covered in parkland, one of the highest ratios among U.S. cities. Many of these parks are crowded with soccer, football, rugby, kickball, baseball, and ultimate frisbee players. The National Mall may be the most famous park, but there are several other large beautiful parks in the city.
The 2,000 acre Rock Creek Park, a national park, bisects the city north of the Anacostia River. The park is full of deer, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, birds, and even a few coyotes. The park includes paved biking/running trails that extend from Maryland to the Lincoln Memorial and connecting with the Mount Vernon trail in Northern Virginia.
Roosevelt Island is one of those gems just far enough out of the way that it is missed by most tourists. The Teddy Roosevelt Memorial is at the center of the island, which includes a couple fountains and several stone obelisks inscribed with his quotes.
There are several other parks worth visiting, including the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Anacostia, the National Arboretum in Near Northeast, Meridian Hill Park in Columbia Heights, and the C&O Canal Towpath in Georgetown.
D.C. is awash in free public events all throughout the year, but especially in the summer. A few highlights include:
A Capitol Fourth, 4 July. The nation's capital is the best place to celebrate Independence Day! Fireworks over the Potomac River, the National Independence Day Parade, and a huge orchestral concert on Capitol Hill all make for a big time celebration. Expect enormous crowds.
National Kite Festival, (at the Washington Monument). Late March. The main attraction is of course all the people showing up to fly their kites by the Washington Monument, but there are also a bunch of tent exhibits on topics from things like West Indian kitemaking to U.S. wind power projects. There are several kite flying competitions throughout the day, the most popular being the Rokkaku Kite Battle.
Cultural Tourism DC. First 2 Saturdays of May. You can go into most of the embassy buildings, learn about the countries, view presentations and performances, and usually take home a free souvenir from the country! However, be prepared to wait in potentially long lines, especially at the more popular countries.
Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Late June–around 4 July. This annual festival normally has three topics: a country, a region of the U.S., and another subject, which varies from year to year. Previous festivals have featured the country of Oman, the ancient Silk Road, and music in Latino culture.
DC Blues Festival, Carter Barron Amphitheater - 16th Street & Colorado Avenue NW. Early September. This annual festival features performances by blues legends.