They say that nobody’s really from Washington DC and everyone’s there for a reason. It’s known as the capital of the democratic world to many but has also been called the murder capital of the US as well as the world capital of espionage.
It’s one of the most famous cities on the globe but its local culture is relatively unknown. Washington’s certainly the city to visit if you want to learn about the history and politics of the world’s current superpower, but it’s the hidden depths of the city outside the limelight that make it such a rewarding place to explore – the hip nightlife of Adam’s Morgan with its concentration of Ethiopian restaurants, the unique black music of go-go played in the bars of U-Street, the fifth largest gay community in the States based around Dupont Circle – Washington has far more than just power and money, it is a vibrant city with soul and substance.
Get close to the action with a tour of the White House, then rub shoulders with the movers and shakers at The Monocle Bar where politicos drink
– Explore the city within a city at The Capitol, centre of the federal government’s legislature; then head into neighbouring Anacostia, home to the disenfranchised for a complete contrast
– Explore the cultural side of the capital with a visit to The Mall, home to some of its greatest museums
– Get to the soul of DC with a visit to U Street, the centre of black culture in the city
· Hang out in the Adam’s Morgan, the Latino area of the city and currently its hippest nightlife district
– Cycle along the C&O Canal into Georgetown, the centre of Washington high life
– Pay your respects at the Arlington Memorial Cemetery and take a look at the enormousPentagon building across the Potomac River in Alexandria
The Metrorail is the best way of getting round the city and is a clean, safe and reliable system. There are five lines operating in downtown DC: the Orange, Blue, Red, Yellow and Green Lines. They’re open from 5.30am to midnight on Monday to Fridays and from 8am to 1am on Saturday and Sunday. Pick up a map – it’s one of the most useful pieces of information for navigating the city.
The minimum fare for a trip is $1.10 but it depends on when and where you travel. You pay by Farecard which costs $20 from a specified machine; you then use the card to exit and enter the turnstiles and the cost of the trip is subtracted from the value on the card. When you don’t have enough left to exit from a journey use the machines before the turnstiles to top up and then leave. A good deal is the $5 one-day pass for unlimited trips (after 9.30am Mon-Fri and all day Sat-Sun).
Metrobus is a fast, inexpensive way of getting around with 15,800 stops scattered across a network that spans the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland. The standard, off-peak fare is around $1.00, with a ten per cent charge for a bus transfer. You need exact change and dollar bills are accepted.
Amtrak and Marc run out of DC’s Union Station. Amtrak connects with cities across the US while Marc is a commuter train service running to parts of West Virginia and Maryland. They also serve the BWI Airport station from where you can get a shuttle bus to the terminal.
There are no taxi ranks in the city but you can usually hail a DC-licensed cab in the central parts of town. If you need to get somewhere at a specific time it’s best to arrange a pick-up in advance; contact the DC Taxi Cab Commission for the names of companies. Fares are based on how many zones you pass through rather than a meter system with extra costs incurred for additional passengers, rush-hour travel and calling a cab during designated snow emergencies!
DC Taxi Cab Commission
Tel: (001) 202 645 6005
Main sights in the city
The White House and Foggy Bottom
Foggy Bottom, in addition to Georgetown, forms one of the oldest parts of DC. The White House is probably the most famous private residence in the world and has an iconic status rivalling the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal. It developed in a piecemeal, organic fashion. Throughout the nineteenth century the mansion was added to and improved and it wasn’t until the Roosevelt administration (1901-9) that a serious attempt was made to co-ordinate structural repairs and the expansion needed for family and staff. The executive West Wing was built that included the Oval Office, the president’s personal office. During World War II an air-raid shelter, swimming pool and move theatre were added. All renovation projects were done while the family was in residence which meant that they were often done too quickly. In 1948 the entire building was on the verge of collapse due to the addition of the ‘Truman folly’, a poorly received balcony added to the south side portico. The family had to move into nearby Blair House for four years while the House was stabilised! Since then a bowling alley was added by Nixon, an outdoor pool by Ford and a running track by Clinton!
This area, bordered by the White House to the east and the Capitol to the west, used to be the heart of Washington a century ago. F Street was the city’s first paved road and it was an important residential area. As the call of suburbia got too much for the middle classes in the 1950s its fortunes waned and by the 1980s it was a run-down with many buildings boarded up. The 1990s was a decade of concerted regeneration and nowadays there are lots of attractions to merit a visit including Ford’s Theater, The International Soy Museum, Freedom Plazaand the National Theater.
The Mall, a grassy two mile road running up to the Washington Monument is the city’s principal thoroughfare and a major showpiece destination. It has an overwhelming concentration of museums, historical buildings and monuments, which, if you visited them exhaustively, would probably take you several weeks to explore! Highlights of The Mall include the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of American History, the United States Holocaust Museum, several memorials and the museums run by the Smithsonian Institution.
‘The Hill’, as it is fondly and not so fondly known, is synonymous with US politics. Three years after Washington was designated the federal city of the Republic, construction began on the Capitol, the centre of Congress and probably Washington’s most abiding icon. Make sure you go on a tour of the Capitol – or at least go into the Rotunda and view the inside of the splendid dome – and also wander into the Supreme Court and the world’s largest library, the Library of Congress, that houses around 120 million items. If all that politics has left a bad taste in your mouth, head to the delightful, covered Eastern Market in the heart of the Hill community which was built in 1873 and used to supply most of DC’s food.
Anacostia is Washington’s most notorious neighbourhood and makes its presence felt just a few blocks south of the Capitol. It was originally inhabited by Native Americans who did a brisk trade in tobacco at this confluence of two rivers. Before the Civil War it was home to a small free black community and after the war freed slaves settled here. For the next century it was predominantly middle class and mixed race until the white suburban flight began in the 1950s. The 1968 riots sent Anacostia spiralling downwards and as it declined further it gained the reputation for violent crime.
This area should only be negotiated by cab. Although it is improving slightly, people who don’t know where they’re going might find themselves wandering into somewhere they don’t want to be.
Adams-Morgan is DC’s trendiest district as gentrification undermines the original ethnic character of the neighbourhood. Traditional Hispanic residences have thrived here since the 1950s but are slowly losing out to new designer restaurants, bars and hip stores. Post World War II, the housing shortage led to many buildings being converted into rooming houses and small apartments. Well-off families moved further out into the suburbs and were replaced by a growing black and white blue-collar population and Latin American and Caribbean immigrants.
The Brown vs. Board of Education ruling completely changed the nature of the neighbourhood. In 1955 two segregated school primary schools, white Adams and black Morgan were peacefully integrated and made the city the first to successfully fuse schools. As a beacon of hope, Lanier Heights was renamed Adams Morgan.
Nowadays it’s the most racially mixed neighbourhood in DC and has a good-natured atmosphere. It’s also been the backdrop for scenes from the films In the Line of Fire, A Few Good Men and Enemy of the State. Its restaurant scene is the most eclectic in the city, you can eat Vietnamese to Argentinian but the best-rated are the Ethiopian establishments.
Before the establishment of Washington, Georgetown was a bustling city and centre of trade for tobacco and flour. These days it’s the social, political and cultural centre of Washington highlife. It’s been home to countless establishment figures from the Kennedys to Kitty Kelley and Ben Bradlee.
When the British fur trader Henry Fleet stopped here in 1632 he found an Indian settlement called Tohoga here. A colonial settlement developed here, based on a thriving trade of tobacco and importing foreign materials and luxuries for colonial settlers. In 1751 the Maryland Assembly granted a town charter to merchants who named in after their royal protector George II. In 1791 it was incorporated into the newly decreed federal capital along with Alexandria in Virginia. For years, as Washington floundered, Georgetown prospered; by 1830 it had brick houses, fashionable stores and a university (founded in 1789). When the civil war broke out, Georgetown was still separate enough to be suspect in the eyes of the Union. Many landowners came from the south and there was strong support for the Confederate cause (although not enough to actually become active).
Georgetown’s fortunes went belly up about the same time. The tobacco trade had already faltered because of soil erosion and the opening of the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal in 1850 to revive trade with the interior also failed. The town lost its charter in 1871. Until the end of World War II, Georgetown developed a rather down-at-heel image with a sizeable black population. A mass influx of white-collar workers changed this and began to prize the small-town character that had survived because of its backwater status and natural boundaries. In 1967 it was registered a national historic landmark.
Sights outside of the city:
Imagine being visited in your living room and asked to be the first president of a new nation, the United States. Then imagine being given the task of choosing a site for the nation’s capital. These were just two of the jobs assigned to America’s most famous statesman and soldier and her first president, George Washington. His graceful plantation home is now the country’s most visited historic home.
Located a convenient sixteen miles away from Washington on the scenic Potomac River, Mount Vernon may be reached by car, boat or bicycle. George Washington’s home is set in a 500-acre farm and his large Georgian house still features furniture from his actual bedroom and study. An agricultural innovator as well a war hero and first president, a visit to Mount Vernon is an absorbing introduction to a crucial period in the country’s history. Also moving are Washington and his wife Martha’s tombs as well as the unmarked graves of his 300 slaves.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon
PO Box 110
Mount Vernon, Virginia 22121
Every year in October, the 1864 Battle of Cedar Creek is re-staged in the Cedar Creek National Historical Park, Virginia. Civil war re-enactments are not child’s play in America. Thousands of re-enactors from the United States and Canada re-create major battles of the Civil War throughout the year – to a startlingly realistic effect. Not only are these men and women often paying tribute to ancestors but they are themselves serious actors, taking pride in the exactitude of their representation. Cedar Creek is one of the more famous battles as it nearly pre-empted Lincoln’s re-election as president. The Confederates made an early surprise attack only to be eventually defeated by the Federal army – and the Confederate re-enactors will swiftly remind you that victory might have been theirs! The Cedar Creek battle re-enactment takes place on the actual land where the original battle of 1864 was fought.
Cedar Creek Foundation
8437 Valley Pike
Middletown, VA 22645
Tel: (001) 540 869 2064
For a taste of America’s colonial past visit the Jamestown settlement and the Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia. Jamestown and Yorktown come to life via interpreters, galleries and a whole outdoor set that keeps history very much alive. In Jamestown you’ll learn about the founding of America’s first permanent English settlement in 1607 and in Yorktown you’ll meet soldiers and learn about the American Revolution and the formation of the new nation. It’s what America does best – the perfect combination of learning and entertainment, with some opportunities for participation: you can grind corn, steer with a whipstaff, try on English armour, enlist in the Continental Army or assist with farm chores.
P.O. Box 1607
Tel: (001) 757 253 4838 or toll-free (888) 593 4682
Fax: (001) 757 253 5299
Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia from 1699 to 1780 and was the centre of a state loyal to the British crown. Following 1780 it fell into decline until John Rockefeller embarked on a massive restoration project and now, in the centre of a modern day city, you’ll find a full re-enactment of an eighteenth century city. Williamsburg is almost too perfect to believe, until you glimpse the present-day shoes of the actors. Somewhere between museum, theme park, and colonial shopping mall, this continues to fascinate hordes of visitors year round. Come meet Jefferson in the flesh and discover what it was like before the revolution first hand.
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Hill High Farm, Shenandoah Valley
The Wright family has owned this gorgeous farm in the middle of Shenandoah Valley for a hundred years. Open to the public for hay rides, apple and pumpkin picking, a corn maze and seasonal events, Hill High Farm is also a working farm and a testament to how hard the modern farmer must work to keep afloat. A more gorgeously-situated farm surely doesn’t exist in the area, and it’s hard to imagine a nicer couple than the Wrights. Visit and support the farm, so that they can keep on saying ‘no’ to developers!
Hill High Farm
933 Barley Lane
Winchester, VA 22602-2723
Tel: (001) 540 667 7377
Where to Stay:
Budget Kalorama Guesthouse 1854 Mintwood Place NW Washington, DC 20009 Tel: (001) 202 667 6369 The Kalorama Guesthouse is a diamond in the rough for travellers on a budget. Two converted Victorian houses provide a comfortable bed-and-breakfast environment in the heart of Adam’s Morgan, DC’s hippest district. Rooms lack television and phones but make up for it with their antique charm. Guests can expect a warm welcome, a hearty breakfast and free sherry and cookies in the evening. Mid-Range The Carlyle Suites Hotel 1731 New Hampshire Ave, NW Washington, DC 20009 Tel: (001) 202 234 3200 Washington’s only Art Deco hotel has been refurbished to a squeaky-clean high standard. Popular with the European crowd, its rooms are billed as ‘efficiencies’, meaning they are more like studio apartments complete with kitchenettes. Within easy walking distance of Dupont Circle and U Street, two of DC’s most fashionable places to eat out and party, the Carlyle Suites are unbeatable for their style, convenience and affordability. Top end The Willard Hotel 1401 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20004 Tel: (001) 202 628 9100 The Willard Hotel is probably the most famous hotel in Washington, and it’s certainly got the most famous hotel lobby. During his presidency, Ulysses Grant used to retire here for cigars and brandy to escape the demands of his job -only to be hounded by powerbrokers he derisively nicknamed ‘lobbyists’! This is where the Battle Hymn of the Republic was written and whereLincoln was smuggled for a week to hide him from assassins. Many presidents stay here the night before their inauguration and it essentially functions as a spill-over guesthouse for the White House.
Where to Eat:
1213 U Street N.W.
Washington, DC 20009
Tel: (001) 202 667 0909
Ben’s is an institution, offering cheap eats to a loyal crowd since 1958. Famous for their half-smokes – a hot dog that is half beef and half pork – and their chili sauce, Ben’s has a dedicated following among celebrities, most notably Bill Cosby who orders his dogs by the dozen. Ben’s role in the area has been in equal parts gastronomic and socio-political: during the race riots of 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Ben’s was the only restaurant in the city that stayed open and suffered no damage.
Meskerem Ethiopian Restaurant
2434 Eighteenth Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009
Tel: (001) 202 452 4100
Washington DC’s large Ethiopian community has blessed the city with a significant number of Ethiopian restaurants. One of the oldest and best is Meskerem (the name refers to the first and favoured month in the Ethiopian calendar). You’ll be seated on cushions and served a large tray of dishes, with injera, a spongy lemon bread as your utensil. If you find you’re less than dextrous, then enjoy the traditional custom of being fed by a friend. If you’re lucky, one of the beautiful waitresses will pop the parcels of curry-in-injera directly into your mouth.
2461 18th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009
Tel: (001) 202 667 5370
This bar-restaurant-club was here long before the area called Adam’s Morgan became the hippest destination in town. With five bars on five levels, there’s always a party, always music, always excellent fried chicken and often there’s girls dancing on the bar. Transporting a deep south vibe to the nation’s capital, Madam’s Organ is a place to let loose and go a little crazy, with live jazz, blues and R&B seven nights a week.
2001 11th Street NW
Washington, DC 20001
Tel: (001) 202 299 0800
An institution on U Street since 1926, Bohemian Caverns is one of the main reasons the area earned the nickname Black Broadway. The venue presented all the great jazz performers such as Shirley Horn, Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Taylor, Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Holiday. Today the Bohemian Caverns caters to old-timers as well as a new crowd of pleasure-seekers; be sure to visit the jazz lounge when you come.
The Lincoln Theatre
1215 U Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009
Tel: (001) 202 328 6000
The recently-reopened Lincoln Theatre is one of DC’s most historic theatres and has featured the likes of Duke Ellington and Pearl Bailey. Home to the jazz greats of the dress-up Black Broadway crowd, the Lincoln Theatre has been restored to its original 1920s splendour and now welcomes a huge diversity of modern-day talent, from boxing matches, to step dancing, to film festivals and hip-hop concerts. In a city not known for its theatres, the Lincoln is a jewel.
The Old Post Office Pavilion
1100 Pennsylvania Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20004
Tel: (001) 202 842 BIKE
Washington DC is an ideal town to explore by bicycle, from the Mall and monuments, to the paths of Rock Creek Park, to the historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Bike the Sites are a friendly, fired-up group who’ll tailor a tour to suit your needs. Anything from solo cycling, to group guided tours of downtown and the sites of the Mall and Capitol, to athletic treks along the Potomac canal, this outfit provides a welcome service to the solo or budget traveller. Just don’t forget your helmet.
Cultural Tourism DC
Cultural Tourism DC involves visitors to the District of Columbia in the rich heritage and culture of the entire city of Washington. Founded in 1996, the Coalition became an independent, non-profit corporation in 1999. Today it counts as members nearly every museum and cultural organization found in every ward in the city as well as neighbourhood groups, community development corporations, faith-based organizations, Metro, the National Capital Region of the National Park Service, professional tour guides, and the city’s official marketing entities. They are a terrific resource for culture-vultures and history buffs wanting to go beyond the standard city sites and can’t be highly enough recommended.
These days Washington is secured to the hilt, so there’s a large police presence all over the city. It used to be remarkable for its level of openness compared with other capital cities, but now visitors will be constantly reminded of the administration’s attitude toward homeland security by the big numbers of police present in places where visitors used to be able to wander freely. Everywhere, including the Capitol and the White House is still open to most visitors, although foreign visitors may have more difficulty gaining access. However, visitors should expect long queues, frequent bag checks and evacuations.
Washington isn’t really renowned as a shopping Mecca. Probably the best thing about DC is the kitschy element of its shopping options; you can pick up anything from rubber Nixon masks to FBI clothing to all sorts of Americana.
Guide by Gillian Pachter & Kate Griffiths
Enjoy a self-guided tour thanks to our exclusive Historic Walks app, free on Apple devices.